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Review: MONKEY vs. ROBOT: THE COMPLETE EPIC by James Kochalka

Monkey vs Robot: The Complete Epic

Monkey vs Robot: The Complete Epic. James Kochalka. Top Shelf Productions. 432 pp, $29.99.

There’s a scene in The Big Chill, the landmark 1983 movie about the sighs and regrets of the Baby Boom generation, when the Kevin Kline character says, “They don’t make music like that anymore.” The Boomer group of friends have been reunited and they’re listening to Motown hits. In fact, The Big Chill soundtrack led to a big revival of interest in some great classics from the ’60s. Well, the comics of James Kochalka could be one of the beloved artifacts to Generation X, a generation smart about a lot of things, like nuance and understatement. So, the legend goes, James Kochalka walked into the offices of Top Shelf Productions stark naked and screamed that he was an elf and began scrawling a series of simple but compelling drawings on the walls with his own excrement. After the Top Shelf top guns, Chris Staros and Brett Warnock, had subdued him, they surveyed the damage and concluded they had a wild genius on their hands. Well, maybe I just made that up but, no doubt, Top Shelf and Kochalka did form a very tight bond and you can argue that the very best results were comics dealing with an epic battle between monkeys and robots. It was, to be sure, in sync with a zeitgeist and something that has stood the test of time.

An epic battle between monkey and robot.

Monkeys and robots do not mix. Monkeys are real. Robots are artificial. When robots and monkeys collide, blood will shed. Cartoonist James Kochalka was thinking about monkeys and robots and collisions during a house party some twenty years ago. As he puts it, he was just having fun when he was struck by the idea to take his monkey and robot thoughts over to a drawing board. The first collection of Monkey vs. Robot comics was Published by Top Shelf Productions in 2000. The rest, as they say, is history: indeed, the book had a huge impact on the indie culture of the time. This was well after the game changer boom of The Simpsons; well within the era of the alternative comics boom; and well before the expansion of the twee attitude in youth culture we’ve seen in such places as Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. For a golden span of time, if you were looking for a comic with a cute aesthetic but also packed a nice punch, then the go-to comics were coming from Kochalka.

Simian vs. Mother

Now you can own the Monkey vs. Robot collection which includes the original graphic novel with its sequels. Having just read the whole book, I am pleased to revisit the original and compare it with the whole vision. It strikes me how the whole Monkey vs. Robot saga reads like a true epic! These comics are far too sophisticated to be considered only to be storyboards for some amazing animated feature. Instead, while the comics do make me wonder about an animated version, the quality of movement and pacing keeps me moving along from panel to panel in the unique way that only the comics medium can provide.

Boom! Boom! Boom!

James Kochalka rose from the ranks of the indie crowd to follow through on his specific vision. While there have been many imitators, his comics are the real deal, authentic and resonant, like his sharing something personal with the reader. Kochalka tapped into a way of drawing that reads as something unique to that artist, like his own handwriting. Many aspiring cartoonists put the cart before the horse, feel entitled to be recognized as cartoonists, but forget to create anything compelling. The secret to how Kolchalka makes his deceivingly simple artwork come to life is the fact that he’s invested the time and effort to bring his comics to life. So, you end up with elves you care about as well as monkeys, and even robots, you care about! That said, this 20th anniversary collection is truly epic!

Monkey vs Robot: The Complete Epic is available as of October 27, 2020. For more details, visit Top Shelf Productions right here.

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Review: ‘Mary: The Adventures of Mary Shelley’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter’

Mary: The Adventures of Mary Shelley’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter

Mary: The Adventures of Mary Shelley’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter. Written by Brea Grant. Art by Yishan Li. Six Foot Press. Houston. 2020. 144pp, $18.99.

On my radar right now is a graphic novel about a teenage girl who is a direct descendant of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and has to deal with the pressure of living up to the name. She doesn’t see a career in writing in her future, worries about what her big purpose in life might be, and then she discovers she has special powers that help heal monsters. It turns out to be a really well put together read that is suitable for any age and, of course, a perfect book as we celebrate Halloween. But, beyond that holiday, this is also a wonderful gateway book to a better appreciation of reading, writing and the joy of books so it is totally something to be enjoyed by young readers, ages 12-18.

Good things come to life!

The winning combination of writer Brea Grant and artist Yishan Li makes this book very appealing. I sincerely believe you can create magic by teaming up two powerhouse talents who are genuinely having fun. This is such a book. And why? Well, there’s an endless number of ways to create a graphic novel but the notable ones manage to grab your attention in some unusual and distinctive way. Brea Grant has a very accessible and conversational style of writing. Yishan Li compliments this with her own very warm and personal style of drawing. Both manage to welcome and engage the reader. Even a somewhat jaded middle-aged guy like me will respond positively to this kind of presentation.

A most engaging graphic novel!

The opening page grabs the reader with plenty of fun and intriguing elements. We see what looks like a spooky shrine to all things Frankenstein and Mary Shelley. A couple of more panels and we get a close-up view of an oil painting portrait of Shelley. She, of course, says, “Hello.” It’s going to be that kind of book which we love, right? Just as much as we love the creepy vibe running throughout Netflix’s Bly Manor. A few more pages in and we see that a petite Goth girl is to be our main character. We go through some family history. And then, just as we’re settling in – Zap! – Mary has somehow achieved a cosmic connection with her frog specimen for Biology class. Something very unusual is happening and that’s just the start of it. Before long, Mary is becoming acquainted with a whole universe of monsters who are all relying upon her to cure their ills!

This is, as I say, an exceptional book. I go through quite a lot of books and I really need a wow factor to get my attention. I think the main reason that this is the right stuff is the book’s originality and sense of humor. Sure, we’ve all been down many a Sabrina-like road. The thing is, there’s room for more if done right. There’s a fresh approach here that wins me over much like all the attention to detail you find in a John Hughes film. I dare you to watch the last ten minutes of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and not be blown away by the impeccable timing. There’s a good amount of that to be found in this book. I think, for example, of the banter between Mary and Polly, a very smelly and anti-social harpy. Or, I really enjoyed some of the more subtle touches like the set-up establishing Mary’s mom engrossed in work on her laptop even while supernatural laser beams are darting across. This book is hard to resist, whether or not it’s Halloween.

For more information, go to Six Foot Press right here.

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Interview: François Vigneault and TITAN

François Vigneault

Here is an interview with cartoonist, illustrator and designer François Vigneault. We chat about his graphic novel, TITAN, and related matters. The French edition of TITAN was nominated for multiple awards including the Prix des Libraires and the Joe Shuster Award, and now we finally have the English edition published by Oni Press and available as of November 10, 2020.

TITAN by François Vigneault

TITAN, a graphic novel set during a worker’s revolt has, like any good science fiction, a “torn from the headlines” relevance to it. Politics and protest are clearly on the forefront now. In the U.S., we have one of the most consequential presidential elections in history. It will be a brave new world, on so many levels, that we will all enter into later this year. So, an intriguing sci-fi thriller graphic novel will definitely fit right in. For this interview, I ask François about the book and, specifically about the two lovers caught in the middle. We also discuss the whole process of creating comics, moving up the ranks as an independent cartoonist, and the life of an artist in Montreal, Quebec.

Hope you enjoy the video interview. Here is some additional material exclusive to this post:

What authors did you turn to for guidance or inspiration for TITAN?
There were definitely a big mix of influences and inspirations over the years, but I will mention a few that pop out to me:
Grendel Tales: Devils and Deaths by Darko Macan and the late Edvin Biuković is a comic I first read as a teenager and it had a big influence on me, like TITAN it is a story of love during wartime and I think anyone who enjoys my book will appreciate this somewhat underrated gem… Biuković’s untimely death was a real loss to the world of comics.
Italo Calvino is one of my favorite authors; most of his work is very, very different from what I am doing, but one of my favorite volumes by him is Difficult Loves, which includes a range of tales ranging from “Wartime Stories” to “Stories of Love and Loneliness” which definitely had an influence on TITAN. I know I reread that book at least twice during the creation of TITAN.
Finally, I think probably the biggest influence on me for the last decade or so has been the late, great Ursula K. LeGuin; she somehow manages to surprise me again and again over the years. Every time I think I have her figured out, or know what to expect from her, she throws another curveball (or perhaps a right hook is a more appropriate metaphor) and I’m left pleasantly dazed by the experience. The singular way that LeGuin would mix interpersonal pain with cultural conflict has been and remains a tremendous influence on my work. I had the privilege of meeting her very briefly back when I lived in Portland, and I am so glad that I had that opportunity, even if all I did was gush about her work and get my ratty old copies of Earthsea signed.
What would you like to share about the writing, the subtext, to TITAN?
That question is very open to interpretation! So I’ll just briefly say that despite the many dark elements to the plot, the corruption, violence, and inequality that is present throughout the book, I do think that TITAN is ultimately a hopeful story, a story about the capacity of human beings to connect with each other.
How do you think TITAN mirrors our society today and what is timeless in your work?
I do think so, though I will leave it to others to decide if the mirror that TITAN holds up to our world is interesting, useful, or just plain boring. Definitely the book is very much inspired by our world, and sometimes feels eerily prescient in how very closely it maps to events that are unfolding right now (keep in mind I finished writing TITAN back in 2017), it is disturbing, to tell the truth. ButI suppose that shows that some of TITAN’s themes of injustice, state-sanctioned violence, and the cruel indifference of capitalism to human suffering are certain to be with us for a long, long time. But as I mentioned earlier, there is also a theme of connection, love, and reconciliation that is present in the book as well, and I hope that those ideas are timeless as well.

Be sure to visit François Vigneault at his website right here.

Excerpt panels from TITAN

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Will EISNER art show – ‘A Contract With God’ at Comic Art Factory (Oct 15-31, 2020)

Work from A Contract with God

Will Eisner is such a unique cartoonist with a determined spirit and an unwavering vision. You could say he’s the gold standard when it comes to the tradition of the auteur cartoonist, the artist-writer who creates singular works in comics, specifically graphic novels. In the special case of Mr. Eisner, he arguably created what we now know as the graphic novel, at least in North America. Undoubtedly, his 1978 graphic novel, A Contract with God, caused quite a stir in the creative community and, most significantly, crossed over into the general public. With that in mind, it is notable to have any art show that displays original work from this landmark book. Comic Art Factory will exhibit a selection of pages (tight pencilled prelims and inked pages) that have never been exhibited nor offered for sale.

Excerpt from A Contract with God

The exhibition will take place from the 15th until the 31th of October at the Comic Art Factory gallery, based in Brussels, Belgium. Over 60 pieces will be available for sale at the gallery and through the website.

Excerpt from A Contract with God

Excerpt from A Contract with God

If there is one person who can speak to what is great about Will Eisner, it is Denis Kitchen, who published all of Will Eisner’s graphic novels. You can listen and view my recent interview with Kitchen right here. Kitchen got to know Will Eisner very well and freely admits that it was Eisner who led the way on the future of graphic novels. As far back as the 1940s, Eisner envisioned the future of long form comics collected in book form. Eisner’s long-running comic strip, The Spirit (beginning in 1940), which went on to be collected into books, indicates what lay ahead for Eisner.

Comic Art Factory is a leading gallery in comics art. Frederic Lorge is the manager of the Comic Art Factory gallery. Denis Kitchen is a long-time publisher of Will Eisner and an art agent, handling art sales of such leading artists as Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman through his company Denis Kitchen Art Agency. All images are ©Will Eisner Studios Inc.

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Review: CARTOON ANIMATION with Preston Blair

The wide wonderful world of Walter Foster books!

Maybe like me, you grew up with Walter Foster books. In the ’70s, when I was a boy, these oversized (old Life Magazine format) books were already wonderful relics from a bygone era, most dating back two or three decades. I knew, right away, that they came from another time and place but they were so well put together and the instruction seemed so crisp and clear that I just loved them even if I had no idea how I was supposed to take that information and become a famous cartoonist in New York or a famous animator in Hollywood. No matter. That could always be dealt with sometime in the future. These same Walter Foster books have been reprinted many times over filling the heads of countless people of all ages with fanciful dreams that may or may not ever come true. It didn’t seem to matter. The books themselves were so wonderful! I have been looking at a recent book from Walter Foster, now an imprint at Quarto Publishing Group. It is a classic and brings up a lot of happy memories, Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair.

Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair

Animation with Preston Blair is a fine example of the lineup of Walter Foster books from Quarto in a contemporary trade paperback format. Preston Blair, born in 1908, was trained in fine art and illustration and went on to become a leading animator at Disney. Blair animated such famous work as the Hippos dance in “Dance of Hours” and Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” both in 1940’s Fantasia. Blair is also known for his work at MGM, most notably his animation with Tex Avery. And he is also known for his work at Hanna-Barbera for The Flintstones. Blair offers plenty in the way of lively and inventive examples.

A page from Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair

Upon a closer examination, it’s clear that this book is a treasure trove of samples and guidelines to inspire an artist at any level. A book like this will help get you on track because it makes no pretense and gets to the heart of the matter: page after page of straightforward drawing. And new animators will appreciate plenty of examples of anatomy, perspective, and various movement along with timeless principles.

From Cartoon Animation with Preston Blair

Combining two previous titles, this manual is organized into six chapters covering cartoon construction, character development, movement, animation principles and animated acting. The retro drawings alone are worth the modest price for this 128-page fully illustrated book. Solid instruction never goes out of style and is timeless. This is recommended for all ages.

For more details, visit Quarto Publishing Group right here.

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Election 2020: Houston, We Have a Problem. The infamous Greg Abbott Order to Suppress the Vote!

Texas Governor Greg Abbott knows how to suppress the vote! The infamous Greg Abbott Order. Will it Stand?

Republicans have a long history of voter suppression. It is devious and totally in Trump’s wheelhouse, the sort of horrid activity done in plain view. You remember, during the debate, how Trump encouraged his supporters to intimidate voters at the polls, right? Well, that’s one form of voter suppression. That brings us to today’s editorial cartoon: Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who recently ordered that each county in Texas be limited to only one drop-off box for mail-in ballots. This is an abrupt decision made with only three weeks before the election.

Democratic members of Congress, all chairs of prominent committees, have called Abbott’s order an apparent “last-ditch effort to suppress Texans’ ability to vote.” Consider the fact that mail-in drop-off sites are relied upon just like mail boxes and each county is suppose to have what it needs. Harris County, a county with a population of 4.7 million, which includes Houston, has relied upon a dozen drop-off sites. Harris County is around the size of Rhode Island. Abbott now has Harris County with only ONE drop-off box! This is the opposite of making voting accessible for everyone. At this writing, Abbott’s order is being challenged but it may stand as is.

Houston, and the rest of Battleground America, we have a problem. Where are you experiencing voter suppression? In about three weeks, November 3, 2020, it will be Election Day in the United States of America. What are you doing to help promote a fair and honest election? Well, it has nothing to do with suddenly showing up in MAGA gear as a self-proclaimed poll watcher. For many Americans, it will mean voting like your life depends upon it. In the end, all of us in the USA must find a way to come together. We will continue to do this one step at a time. The Abbott order is now a moment in time right up there with another infamous moment in time, George Wallace standing in front of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963, in order to stop the enrollment of African-American students. Don’t be hesitant, afraid and silent. Speak up. And vote.

The following is from the Texan Tribune, 6 October 2020. Read the entire article here.

The Democratic chairs of three high-profile congressional committees urged Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday to rescind his order limiting counties to one drop-off location each for absentee ballots, saying it “appears to be a last-ditch effort to suppress Texans’ ability to vote.”

In a letter to the Texas governor, U.S. House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., and U.S. Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said they are investigating Abbott’s order because it “may interfere with the administration of free, fair, and safe federal elections in Texas during the coronavirus pandemic.” The chairs also asked Abbott to provide documents regarding his decision.

Clyburn leads the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, Lofgren chairs the Committee on House Administration, and Maloney presides over the Committee on Oversight and Reform.

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Filed under Comics, Democracy, Editorial Cartoons, Election 2020, Vote

Wisconsin Funnies | Underground Comics | Alternative Press

The Bugle alternative weekly, circa 1975.

Interview with Denis Kitchen and James P. Danky

Get your own copy of the Wisconsin Funnies: Fifty Years of Comics exhibition catalogue. This fully illustrated 244-page catalogue features more than 150 comic illustrations by thirty-one renowned comic artists. Available at the MOWA Shop in West Bend, MOWA | DTN inside Saint Kate—The Arts Hotel or online right here.

Excerpt from Lynda Barry

The comics discussion continues. This time around I interview Denis Kitchen and James P. Danky, co-curators of the comics art show, Wisconsin Funnies: 50 Years of Comics, at the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA), on view through January 10, 2021.  Of course, comics is an art form but we’re arguably still moving beyond old prejudice and misunderstanding. A show like Wisconsin Funnies helps to provide context and history in the study of comics. For example, while an underground comics are often associated with San Francisco, popularized by such leading figures as R. Crumb, a rich history of independent comics activity can be found in the midwest, specifically Wisconsin. Today, that hub of comics energy continues to percolate, led by such notable figures as Lynda Barry, winner of the the prestigious MacArthur Genius Foundation fellowship and an an associate professor of interdisciplinary creativity in the art department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Kings in Disguise, a graphic novel published by Kitchen Sink Press, by Dan Burr and James Vance.

During the course of our conversation, we touched on the unique difficulties that may arise in mounting a comics art show in a museum. I specifically suggested that Wisconsin Funnies could become a traveling show. That is actually an idea that has a history behind it. Both Danky and Kitchen, while certainly happy to indulge such an idea for this show, tend to think the focus is too regional. What would stop a curator in another state from favoring their own state over a showcase of Wisconsin comics? That said, Wisconsin natives Danky and Kitchen have led the way in putting together a most compelling show and set the bar high. You also have to factor in that a lot of the power and strength about this show is due to the fact it is made possible in large part by Denis Kitchen, a huge figure in comics. I factor in all the contributions that Denis Kitchen has made: his own comics, writing, journalism, publishing and promotion, his founding Kitchen Sink Press, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; and his work with so many leading figures in the business, including Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Scott McCloud, Stan Lee, and Alan Moore. It all adds up. Right alongside Kitchen is James P. Danky, a respected historian and authority on the alternative press. It was a pleasure to talk with both of these men. I also want to add to the credits for this show: associate curator J. Tyler Friedman and guest curator Paul Buhle.

Group Self-Portrait of the core group of midwestern cartoonists, circa 1971: Denis Kitchen, Don Glassford, Jay Lynch, Jim Mitchell, Wendel Pugh, Bruce Walthers, Skip Williamson.

Any worthwhile endeavor like a major art show is made up of many unique individuals. The story of this art show is the story of numerous high-spirited and hard-working artists. One of the highlights to this interview was getting a chance to explore the inner lives of these cartoonists by using a group self-portrait as a starting point. I am referring to the above work. Here you find the core group of cartoonists who Denis worked with: Don Glassford, Jay Lynch, Jim Mitchell, Wendel Pugh, Bruce Walthers, Skip Williamson. Some went on to professional careers while others moved in other directions. But, in that special moment in time, they were all making a little bit of history. Maybe they were too busy to ever acknowledge it at the time. That’s okay. The art is now on the walls and can speak for itself.

MOWA can be proud to have a show that celebrates Wisconsin’s rich and varied comics tradition. You will find a broad spectrum of content here, including underground comics, editorial cartoons, graphic novels, and even the state’s own superhero comic, Badger, by Jeff Butler!

Denis Kitchen, Henry Chamberlain, James P. Danky in conversation.

Get your own copy of the Wisconsin Funnies: Fifty Years of Comics exhibition catalogue. This fully illustrated 244-page catalogue features more than 150 comic illustrations by thirty-one renowned comic artists. Available at the MOWA Shop in West Bend, MOWA | DTN inside Saint Kate—The Arts Hotel or online right here.

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Filed under Alternative Comics, Comics, Comics Scholarship, Counterculture, Interviews, Museums

Comics Studies: Tad Dorgan and the American Experience

City Life, panel excerpt, by Tad Dorgan, circa 1921.

Look, I will be the first to admit that it might seem a bit morbid to invest too much time on cartoonists from a bygone era. For serious cartoonists, sure, it can be part of learning the craft. But is it really just nerdy excess? Well, no. The case can definitely be made that there are some very interesting stories to tell from the heyday of the comic strip, which reigned for much of the first half of the last century. These cartoonists have long since become ghosts and yet still attract interest. You can rest a lot of that interest on the lanky frame of Tad Dorgan, considered for a time to be a bona fide American celebrity cartoonist a hundred years ago.

Tad Dorgan

Tad Dorgan (April 29, 1877 – May 2, 1929) is not a household name anymore but devoted specialized fans still exist and for good reason. The key is his quirky humor and his unusual use of language. He invented slang that we still use today and take for granted. For example, we might call someone a “dumbbell.” We still know what a “hard-boiled” crime novel is. Even the youngest amongst us might slip into ancient slang and say, “For crying out loud!” And, if you’re feeling stylish, you may observe some guy’s swagger as the posing by a “drugstore cowboy.”

Judge Rummy comic strip, by Tad Dorgan, (November 11, 1920).

Let’s take a closer look at a sample from Tad Dorgan’s comic strip, Judge Rummy (1910-1922), considered his most famous work in comics.

Judge Rummy, panel 1.

In the above first panel, we have two urban animal characters, apparently humanoid dogs in suits and hats. This is outside a courthouse. Of course, right next to sports and the crime beat, court proceedings have always been a reliable source for news and spectacle. One character is a friend to our main character, Judge Rummy. They speak in slang. There is some spare background drawing. Their attention is focused on some trouble up ahead. The judge thinks someone is about to “do the Dutch,” slang for committing suicide

Judge Rummy, panel 2.

Quick transition to the trouble, now in full view. More liberal use of slang or creative use of language. The judge’s one-word reaction: “Insipid!!” This new character seems to be in distress and might be on the verge of killing himself with poison but it’s none too clear if he’s really in danger.

Judge Rummy, panel 3.

In this magical state, anything is possible so the reader quickly accepts the narrative. The man in distress is just one quick step from becoming comic relief. He’s actually worried about having just gotten married.

Judge Rummy, panel 4.

Finally, all bets are off, and whatever absurd and surreal resolution is fair game. The man in distress begins to contemplate how easily he can slip from marriage to divorce. The judge and his friend do the classic sight gag: flip and down to the ground, feet firmly up in the air. Their collective response makes as much sense as anything else and actually has a very modern tone: “That wins the carving set,” referring to some typical media campaign in a newspaper or on the radio. Overall, the drawings are charming if not especially remarkable. This piece is clearly meant to be a quick read and appreciated for satisfying the public’s sense of humor of that era. Basically, a good day at the office for Dorgan. With the passage of time, the whole thing takes on an added eerie layer of beauty not necessarily ever intended by the cartoonist. Based upon my own lifelong experience as a cartoonist, my conclusion is that this piece was seen as a job strategically well done: good composition and pacing; funny and clever exchange between characters; the artwork serves its purpose. Tad Dorgan was most interested in being a humorist with his writing ending up being of prime importance. It’s a common situation for cartoonist-writers and it absolutely happens to this very day. With that in mind, Tad Dorgan’s quirky humor takes on a lot more relevance. While our inclination is to lump Dorgan in with musty old newspapers already on a steady path to extinction, his efficient use of art in the service of his sly humor can be seen as utterly cutting-edge! Just ask Matt Groening or Lynda Barry.

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Filed under Comics, Humor, Newspapers

Interview: Barbara Slate and a Career in Comics and Graphic Novels

Barbara Slate self-portrait

Barbara Slate spent twelve-hour days working on The Mueller Report Graphic Novel in order to get it out in a timely manner. In fact, her book got mentioned by a Republican representative during the Trump impeachment hearings in the House of the U.S. Congress. Trump went on to be impeached by the House. But there’s more to Barbara Slate. Here is an in depth look at a wonderful career in comics and graphic novels. Barbara Slate is known for being a pioneer in feminist comics. Her first big break came with her character, Ms. Liz, which began on greeting cards (selling over two million), then a comic strip, and even an animated short on NBC’s Today Show! What an honor. And, as I suggest, there is much more like writing for DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Harvey Comics and Archie Comics. Among her many accomplishments in the visual storytelling biz, I was intrigued with the fact that she wrote 150 Betty and Veronica stories for Archie Comics! We cover that in this interview! Barbara was always fascinated with the friendship between these two young women who were so different. And, by the way, what the heck did they see in Archie in the first place? Good question.

Barbara Slate lecture poster

So, as always, I share with you about my own journey to better understand and appreciate the comics medium. I do it by sharing of my own work and by reviewing as much material as I can. And, of course, I do it by putting together special interviews such as this. You can say that I do my best to find a different angle to the people and subjects I choose to focus on. And I have no intention of stopping anytime soon. Not when I have creators like Barbara Slate to help guide the way.

The Mueller Report Graphic Novel by Barbara Slate

Now, a few words on the two recent titles that we feature in this interview. First, let’s cover The Mueller Report Graphic Novel. And then we’ll take a look at You Can Do A Graphic Novel. First off, I think Barbara has definitely created one of those books that becomes a keepsake. I am constantly culling through my books but this one is a keeper. And why? Well, within its 107 pages, it masterfully makes sense of one mammoth of a book that deserves close attention. The actual Mueller Report, a text-dense book clocking in at nearly 500 pages along with supplementary material, lays out how Russian interference has wreaked havoc upon our electoral process as well as provides a jaw-drawing look at how the Trump team, with Trump himself very much involved, have obstructed justice. A stream-lined concise graphic novel actually makes sense–and this is it! This book is, no matter what the subject, a perfect example of how to condense a complex subject into a compelling read.

Page from The Mueller Report Graphic Novel by Barbara Slate

Barbara Slate has the magic touch with bringing the essential facts in better focus. The reader gets to know all the players and what they did. The often Byzantine-like world of Russian oligarchs is treated in a straightforward manner. A con game that no one was expected to be interested in or even be able to follow is made accessible. As we’ve heard many times over, it was not Robert Mueller’s place to determine if the President of the United States, no matter who they are, should be impeached. It is up to Congress. As we all know, Congress took a very different path than would have been expected on their way to impeachment. The Democrats had the compelling case all along with the Mueller Report but they chose to focus on Ukraine. That said, the Meuller Report is still with us, many portions of which await removal of redactions and future days in court. This graphic novel remains a handy guide for when the chickens come home to roost.

You Can Do A Graphic Novel by Barbara Slate

If you’re looking for a wonderful instruction manual on comics, then you’re all set with Barbara’s You Can Do A Graphic Novel. This book will guide you through the process of telling your story through comics. You can aim for doing a full-length graphic novel in the long run. But, to begin with, you can follow these easy-to-follow steps and learn all the components to storytelling. This 232-page, fully illustrated, book will delight newcomers and even more experienced cartoonists because you have Barbara Slate sharing techniques and industry insight from a long and successful career.

Pages from You Can Do A Graphic Novel

As I say, even more experienced cartoonists will welcome the easygoing and highly informative format. Yes, you too can learn how to properly plot a comics script. Barbara Slate learned from the best. When she first started at DC Comics, she was taught the color-coded plotting system by none other than Paul Levitz, one of the biggest names at DC Comics. The book is perfect for all ages, and it will specifically appeal to young people just starting out.

Barbara Slate is one of the best. Check out her website to learn more about her work and her online comics courses. Visit Barbara Slate right here.

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Comics Studies: WISCONSIN FUNNIES at Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA)

WISCONSIN FUNNIES at Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA)

Wisconsin Funnies. Catalogue edited by Terry Ann R. Neff. Exhibit co-curated by James P. Danky, J Tyler Friedman, and Denis Kitchen with contributions by Paul Buhle. Museum of Wisconsin Art. 2020, 248pp.

Get your own copy of the Wisconsin Funnies: Fifty Years of Comics exhibition catalogue. This fully illustrated 244-page catalogue features more than 150 comic illustrations by thirty-one renowned comic artists. Available at the MOWA Shop in West Bend, MOWA | DTN inside Saint Kate—The Arts Hotel or online right here.

The Real vs. The Ideal, ink on bristol, by Lynda Barry, 1989.

I have nursed a habit, that became a way of life, that became a saving grace. Specifically, for the purposes of this post, I am referring to my own lifelong work in the comics medium. Being a cartoonist really is something very special. It is something so special that all sorts of interested parties want to be part of the magic and that includes all sorts of academic types, galleries and museums. That is all to the good. Comics is still a relatively young medium in some respects so anything that spreads the word can’t be all that bad, right? Comics is an art form, owing so much to countless American contributions and around as far back as there’s been a United States, only now getting the sort of recognition it deserved all along. We can’t, nor should we, include every single shred of work ever made but we have a great bounty of examples to hold up as bona fide works of significance and value. The art show currently on view at MOWA (extended to January 9, 2021) is another step forward. Let’s take a close look at the museum catalogue.

Frank O. King’s Gasoline Alley, page from 1922.

It takes a historian’s perspective to look at Wisconsin and explain all the comics activity there as having a lot to do with Chicago. Well, it’s true. A hundred years ago, Chicago was a home for newspaper empires with a high demand for cartoonists. This is made abundantly clear in Paul Buhle’s essay to this catalog. If a young cartoonist wanted to make it big, a very good place to hone their talent would be in nearby Wisconsin. Keeping to a historian’s long view, we come to understand that comics got baked into Wisconsin bohemian culture. By the 1960s, it was so much a part of the local art scene’s DNA to make you think you were sipping wine and munching on croissants in Paris, where they embraced comics, the Ninth Art, with great fervor as opposed to your average American, especially a corn-fed citizen right in the heart of farms and honest working folk. All sorts of factors simply added up over time. For one thing, never underestimate a cartoonist’s need for peace and quiet. A more methodical pace can lead to a more cerebral and productive life. Wisconsin native Frank O. King, who made the big move to Chicago, showed the way with his deceptively simple comic strip honoring Americana, a comic strip which was also amazingly innovative, Gasoline Alley, which debuted in the Chicago Tribune in 1918. Take a look at the example above and you might see how this highly stylized format would have influenced another master of comics, Chris Ware. Along with King’s trailblazing work, add Sidney Smith (The Gumps), Claire Briggs (Casper Milquetoast), and Carl Anderson (Henry). For an in depth look, read Paul Buhle’s Comics in Wisconsin.

From Denis Kitchen, Star Reporter, 1972.

When you consider what gives a certain place its character, you must think about its guiding forces. One such consequential force of nature in Wisconsin is Denis Kitchen. This is the story of an enterprising young cartoonist who bought some farmland in Wisconsin and converted the barn into a comics studio. From here emerged Kitchen Sink Press, the legendary comics publisher. In 1973, Kitchen joined the back-to-the-land movement and converted a barn in Princeton, Wisconsin and all sorts of comics emerged, underground and mainstream alike. Kitchen was in a position to continue to grow as an artist himself as well as publish the work of other artists and help them out when he could.

From Buddha Crackers by Michael Newhall, 1977.

Michael Newhall, one of the indie cartoonists in the area, rented a space at the Kitchen barn for $50 a month or, given that he was perpetually cash-poor, would pay Kitchen with a work of art each month. While Kitchen would be the first to joke around about whether there truly existed an underground movement or if it was all just a bunch of hype, there was no doubt that numerous like-minded souls gravitated towards each other. For example, Kitchen includes in the MOWA show a portrait of some of the leading cohorts of that era: Denis Kitchen, Don Glassford, Jay Lynch, Jim Mitchell, Wendel Pugh, Bruce Walthers, and Skip Williamson. Of course, that is just one snapshot of some of the creative folk at the time. Other cartoonists that were part of the scene in one way or another included Peter Loft, Mark Morrison, Peter Poplaski, Trina Robbins, John Porcellino, Lynda Barry, and even R. Crumb. Plus many others. Since Denis Kitchen is also an art dealer and collector, he also includes in his collection the work of some of the all-time greats of past eras like Al Capp, Will Eisner, Will Elder, Ernie Bushmiller and Milton Caniff. All these names are part of this amazing show at MOWA.

A Short History of America, serigraph by R. Crumb, 1993.

The catalog for the show does a great job of presenting the subject of comics in both an insightful and irreverent way. One thing all of us art lovers can’t help but address is what is it that we really want to see. What will it be that compels the viewer to seek out the museum in the first place? While this or that movement will come and go, at the end of the day, the actual human being who is investing time and energy to view an art show will have a significant say in what works advance and, over time, are bestowed with greater legitimacy. It may not always be a work invested in identity. It may not always be a work of raw and simple quality. Or a work of realism.

From Kings in Disguise, script by James Vance, art by Dan Burr, 1988.

From Alice in Watergateland by Bill Sanders, 1974.

From Dreams by Leilani Hickerson, 2011.

From Wildcat Bill From Grizzle Hill by Marty Two Bulls Sr., 2013.

What it will be, one hopes and expects, is work that best represents the comics medium. That, of course, needs to be carefully considered by those in a position to keep the ball rolling. That said, by presenting as wide a variety of thoughtfully selected work, MOWA does a great service to comics. Now, getting back to the catalog, if you want not only a taste of some of the best comics from the last fifty years, but also a fascinating look at the counterculture over the years, then this is the book for you. For an exploration of a particularly notable zeitgeist, running from the late 1960s to early 1970s, turn to a  wonderful profile in the catalong of Denis Kitchen by James P. Danky. If there ever really was an underground comix scene, Denis Kitchen would certainly know.

The Bugle, cover art, ink on bristol by Dan Burr, 1975.

Danky follows the history of American underground newspapers, beginning in 1964, with a parallel narrative to Kitchen’s own career, starting with his leap into publishing in 1969 at the age of 23. Over the years, Kitchen became part of undergound comix history. In 1970, for example, R. Crumb invited Kitchen to publish his next comic, Home Grown Funnies. That title proved to be Kitchen’s all-time best-selling comic book, eventually totaling 160,000 copies. Among the landmark work that Kitchen published was some of the best graphic novel work by Will Eisner, including securing the rights to Eisner’s seminal work, A Contract with God. Kitchen would go on to develop The Bugle, his own contribution to underground newspapers. He would go on to other notable ventures, like his partnering with Stan Lee for Comix Book. The rest, as they say, is history–with much to share. For instance, much of the artwork for this art show comes from the collection of Denis Kitchen.

From Will Elder’s Goodman Beaver Meet S*perm*n, 1962.

So, with all the amazing achievements accomplished by cartoonists, why would any serious cartoonist who, by all rights, has created art, ever question whether they have truly created art? Because there are countless people who get in the way for countless reasons. Maybe their mother didn’t love them enough. For example, you have people from various other disciplines who suddenly lurch their way into the comics bandwagon. You have critics and academics who do it, not from sincere interest, but because it can seem like an easier way to gain attention and prestige. This results in more and more blathering from a pretentious echo chamber. No art form deserves this. Then there’s the more straightforward elitist prejudice against an art form from those in the establishment. The best example of this is the ongoing war between fine art painters and the artists who work in the comics medium, part of the larger highbrow vs. lowbrow war. Of course, hip painters are hip to hip comix, but I digress.

A typical comics blowhard. Excerpt from Chicago Sun-Times Sunday Magazine, by Jay Lynch, 1976.

And, by the way, if you think for a second that my referring to pseudo-intellectual blathering is just something I’m pulling out of thin air, I have news for you. It goes on all the time. Your typical review at The Comics Journal, for example, has perfected this posturing tone, a mix of hyperbole and odd use of language. And I’m really not sure for what purpose. It seems that many who aspire to something great get caught up in their own web of stilted expression. It brings to mind a scene in one of the comics on view at MOWA. It is an illustration by Jay Lynch for the Chicago Sun-Times Sunday Magazine, 1976. In one corner you see a pudgy middle-aged man wearing a cartoon wig. He is trying to impress a sexy woman in a Playboy bunny outfit. He drones on about his doctoral thesis on Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip, Nancy. He states: “the basic tenets of Bushmiller’s cosmology are to 20th century man essentially what Manichaeism must have been to your typical Albigensian.” I can see that a work of profound beauty, like Nancy, can inspire someone to overreach with the most curious of prose. But does it help advance the cause of comics? I only drag The Comics Journal into this because I know these folks can take it. In fact, one might argue that the quirky attitude at The Comics Journal can be traced back to the subversive humor of cartoonist and editor Harvey Kurtzman, who is included in the MOWA show.

From You Had to Be There: George Mosse Finds Himself in History, art and text by Nick Thorkelson, 2014.

Getting back to the hi-lo wars, Photography had to run the gauntlet and prove itself a legitimate art form up against Painting. And, today, a lot of painters are intimidated and in awe of photography as well as video. For comics, it seems like there’s still a bit of a problem about making proper room for it at the great Art table. This is a problem that doesn’t have to exist if common sense were allowed to rear its ugly commoner’s head.

From One Flower Child’s Search for Love by Trina Robbins, 1972.

That brings us to this show currently on view at MOWA. I sincerely believe that the biggest obstacle to understanding comics in the United States (because I don’t believe this dysfunction really exists elsewhere) is a disingenuous notion that comics need to be on some “separate but equal” plane outside of other art forms; or comics require experts to explain how to properly read and appreciate it. No doubt, thoughtful discourse is welcome but a lot of it comes down to common sense too. Some work meets the highest of standards and some doesn’t even come close and has not earned a place of honor. Some comics are so simple it seems like any child could have made them. And some comics are highly sophisticated and unquestionably demonstrate the work of a master.

From King-Cat Comics and Stories #75 by John Porcellino, 2015.

At the end of the day, a comic can tell you a lot if you’re willing to simply share some time with it. The MOWA show is an excellent opportunity to spend some quality time with some exceptional comics.

Get your own copy of the Wisconsin Funnies: Fifty Years of Comics exhibition catalogue. This fully illustrated 244-page catalogue features more than 150 comic illustrations by thirty-one renowned comic artists. Available at the MOWA Shop in West Bend, MOWA | DTN inside Saint Kate—The Arts Hotel or online right here.

Kitchen Sink Press Headquarters, Princeton, Wisconsin, ink on bristol by R. Crumb, 1985.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Comics, Comix, Counterculture, Culture, Museums