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THE BUND graphic novel review

The Bund: A Graphic History of Jewish Labour Resistance. Sharon Rudahl (Author); Paul Buhle (Editor); Michael Kluckner (Artist). Between the Lines. 144 pp. $25.99.

The Bund was a phenomenal uprising of people doing the right thing at a critical time when it was needed most. This graphic novel, or history, (call it whatever you like! It’s comics!) runs with its theme right out of the gate with a sense of urgency that embraces the reader all the way through to the very last page. Think of The Bund as a coalition, a movement, people power at its best. It was there to help people in need, people who happened to be Jewish and living by a thread. Let’s focus on the region, as it could not be more relevant. This is what was known as “The Pale,” what is now Poland and Ukraine. Let’s focus on the era. This is circa 1900 to 1940, covering Tsarist Russia into World War II. The Bund was a Jewish labor resistance movement that pushed back on its oppressors, namely Russia and Nazi Germany; and that cultivated and celebrated a Jewish identity, specifically in nurturing the Yiddish language and tradition. This book provides a history and insights into The Bund. And, if it makes you think of Bundt cake, you are on the right track: a metaphor for a strong and sturdy collective.

What is very exciting to me about this graphic novel is how it is put together as a vehicle to educate while also mindful of keeping the reader engaged. The artwork is pared down to the essentials, for the most part, with the added artistic flourish where needed. I can’t stress enough how important it is to include some personality even in the most straightforward graphic storytelling. If an artist is capable of it, well, go to it. Clearly, Michael Kluckner is in command of a compelling and expressive line.

The individuals behind this book are a creative dream team. The goal here is to provide an entry point, a doorway, into further study or a highly accessible overview. That is what this book does with Sharon Rudahl leading the way as the author. Rudahl is a veteran cartoonist, to say the least, who intimately understands what the comics medium can do. Rudahl is many things, including a passionate activist, along with the book’s esteemed editor, Paul Buhle. In fact, Rudahl and Buhle have a long and productive professional history, highlighted by working together on the Yiddish anthology, Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular and the New Land, published by Abrams in 2011. So, one can see this new book as a continuation of what was achieved with that landmark anthology.

The overriding theme to this book is how The Bund reached out and put itself in the places it needed to be, achieving time and time again the “hereness” that was so desperately called upon. The Bund was HERE! It met the moment, did what it could, and now lives on in spirit. Here we have a book introducing readers to the leaders of The Bund, such as Pati Kremer and Bernard Goldstein. For the first time, we have a concise visual narrative of this highly significant Jewish history. All in all, this visual narrative encapsulates essential history that will inspire new generations.  This graphic history meets the moment in its own way, and helps return The Bund to the here and now.

 

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Filed under Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, Paul Buhle, Sharon Rudahl

GEORGE’S RUN, a graphic novel review by Paul Buhle

This is the book for any fan of comics, pop culture, and great stories!

George’s Run. by Henry Chamberlain. Rutgers University Press. 2023. 226 pp. $27.95.

Guest review by Paul Buhle

I leapt at the chance to write my foreword, what came to be called “A Historical Portal,” in Henry Chamberlain’s graphic novel, George’s Run. Now, with some time to reflect upon it, deeper and more personal observations come to me.

The Twilight Zone offered me proof positive—to this future editor/publisher of a little magazine dedicated to demonstrating the significance of popular culture—that a generation had been more than enriched by it. George Clayton Johnson, a writer for the show, as well as Star Trek, had a lot of insight to deliver, and Henry Chamberlain was the one to winnow it out and to illustrate it.

Astute critics of American cinema have often remarked that the Star Wars series of blockbuster movies, beginning in 1977, marked the return of films but also chunks of television shifting from serious social themes of the later 1950s to later 1970s, back to the Outer Space version of cowboys-and-Indians, with the “Indians” now aliens, some of them friendly (aka “on our side”) and others dangerously hostile. Many critics observed, after the 1999 Star Wars feature, The Phantom Menace, that “African Americanism,” aka Minstrelsy, had been transformed into amusing-looking aliens with humorous talk or behavior. The source of this gloomy transformation might be attributed to the world cinema market for action films or some other external cause, but it is hard to avoid the consequences for Hollywood-produced films as art or cultural/political statements. The social movements of the 1960s shook up Hollywood and created a socially critical audience whose favorite films came and went, in the following decade or so. M*A*S*H, their TV equivalent, was by the end of the century the most “re-run” of all shows and also held the most “peacenik” sentiments. It counted.

In this light, The Twilight Zone looms as a late, major statement of a different era. Rod Serling was a serious and important figure in US culture, a critic and artist who after trying various professions and skills, radio broadcaster to television writer, created the most important television drama in the era when television had a monopoly on media attention.

It was a moment when live television drama, vibrant and often socially critical despite the Blacklist and cultural cold war,  hard shortly before reached its peak with a half-dozen theatrical-style shows, just as it poised to rushed production from New York to Hollywood. The Twilight Zone could not have worked as live drama, but it had the dramatic quality of what had gone before. Even in melodrama and seemingly far-fetched plots, the acting was serious. The show was showing something and saying something, working urgently to open up minds. At the right place and time, George Clayton Johnson found himself and helped make television and pop culture history.

George’s collaboration with Rod Serling occupies a central place in George’s Run. But the meeting of George Clayton Johnson with Ray Bradbury offers us something from the comic that retains all its meaning, six decades later.  Bradbury (a museum bearing his name and artifacts, in my wife’s hometown of blue collar Waukegan, Illinois, opened last year) stands for a starkly different view of science fiction and its role in opening minds. His stories, adapted to EC Comics shortly before the massive wave of repression, offered readers a glimpse of the horrors ahead if the atomic/nuclear arms race were not halted but also a glimpse of aliens and civilizations that had something to teach the self-proud human race. Farenheit 451 along with a large handful of short stories  best realized the social criticism made by a raft of science fiction writers, including some others who knew George well.

Onward and upward.

That George went onto Star Trek is logical, as part of the trajectory of a fantasy writer’s life. But there is much more. The world of fan publications and fan events can be traced back to networks of amateur (unpaid, mostly unpublished) writers who traded their own mimeographed newsletters as early as the 1920s. Sci-Fi fans gathered here, virtually, and then in person by the  middle 1960s, trading publications directly, meeting and partying with authors as well as each other. “Trekkies,” a much-discussed phenomenon, led in time to comics events, later to Comic-Cons and all the regional events of today, sometimes grand but most often with self-publishers in the booths, chatting and selling copies to whoever the passers-by they could convince.

The subject of Star Trek itself remains, for many fans and scholars, important and bears symptoms of the richer mix of American popular culture emerging at the moment of its production. This brings us to the topic of the Other, a theme that endlessly drives discussion. Yes, Leonard Nimoy started in Yiddish theater; Spock is culturally Jewish without a doubt. And Uhuru is a staggeringly beautiful African American woman with all the sexualized implications, even if hardly acted out. And so on. But these, considered seriously, are minor notes. George Clayton Johnson’s scripts quietly urged viewers to ponder the fate of humanity within the cosmos, to get off the pedestal of human-centeredness and come to grips with terrestrial reality.

George’s Run bears all this meaning and so much more.  But there is one more, albeit indirect, connection too delicious for me to leave out. Rod Serling called upon the blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson—before being purged from Hollywood, he had scripted the 1951 Oscar-winning A Place in the Sun—to help develop a crucial subplot that most viewers have taken in subconsciously.  The humans are now allowed to speak. But when the human played by Rod Taylor asks to speak, the Chairman of the Tribunal interjects, “the exhibit is indeed a man, therefore it has no rights under ape law.” Those outside the definition of having the right to speak, cannot be allowed to speak, for fear that they will bring down the system.  It was a plot that could easily have been taken out of Berthold Brecht’s Life of Gallileo, including the responsibility of the scientist to speak up against the threats facing society.

Such weighty considerations would have been thought, only a few decades ago, as being properly far beyond the scope of anything resembling comic art. Now, at last, we know better. Henry Chamberlain has given us a gift in George’s Run. Let us use it well.

Paul Buhle

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Filed under Comics, George Clayton Johnson, Henry Chamberlain, Paul Buhle, The Twilight Zone

Nick Abadzis interview: The Cartoonist Life

Meet Nick Abadzis. He’s a guy who has basically been a cartoonist all of his life, in one form or another, or maintaining that connection one way or another. Making comics, worthwhile stuff, is never a simple cakewalk. Success in comics, on the professional level, involves persistence, passion and a bit of luck.

Excerpt from Laika.

Nick got his name on the map, at least in the United States, with the publication of his graphic novel, Laika (First Second). It is the story of the first Earthling (dog) to be sent into outer space. Laika was launched into Earth Orbit aboard Sputnik II on November 3, 1957. The story of this Soviet dog cosmonaut is poignant to say the least and certainly just waiting to be adapted into a thoughtful and inventive graphic novel. Laika went on to in win a number of awards, including the coveted comics industry Eisner Award in 2008 for Best Publication for Teens.

Nick chats about the early days, circa 1980s-90s, going back to his first major work in comics, Hugo Tate. It’s a story that grows darker and more interesting as it unfolds. You won’t easily find it in the States without a bit of digging but that may change soon enough. Nick thinks it might be due for a revisit and reprint. Remembrance of things past  led us to the glory days of British comics and comics journalism as exemplified by Escape magazine, founded by Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury.

Our conversation also covered a bit of shop talk about the world of graphic recording. It’s not as simple and easy as just drawing pictures of a business meeting. But, if you are a particular kind of cartoonist, one who really knows how to pare down to the essentials and, most important, knows how to listen, you may have a future as a graphic recorder. That said, if you have the stomach for that, then maybe you have the stamina to pursue one graphic novel after another. I always find it a little amusing, perhaps even troubling, that some people think they might someday take up the goal of creating a graphic novel. Honestly, your odds are maybe better that you’ll follow through on writing a prose novel rather than a proper full length graphic novel. But live and learn I always say. Anyway, we have a bit of fun chatting about the curious world of visual storytelling.

A sneak preview of the new book!

Last, but not least, Nick provides us with a sneak preview of his new and forthcoming graphic novel project. It is about race and it has been years in the making. What began as an idea to explore the life of a mixed race couple evolved into a give-and-take discussion of how to expand the narrative. Initially, the book was inspired by the relationship between Nick and his partner, Angela. Nick is of Greek heritage; Angela is of African heritage. The editorial process took over. There were numerous discussions about combining the subject of race with immigration and that led to a number of drafts. Ultimately, the book came back to the original concept. This particular project evolved over the course of 14 years, about as long as Nick has been a graphic recorder. In fact, during the editorial discussions, he would graphic record them. Just goes to show you how important persistence and passion are in this business!

Find Nick Abadzis here.

 

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Filed under Comics, First Second, graphic novels, Graphic Recording, Interviews

Small Press Expo 2023: Another Wonderful Show!

A day in the life of Small Press Expo. Sketch by Henry Chamberlain

There are a number of ways to experience Small Press Expo and the best is to be on the convention floor as much as possible. And, even better is to be an exhibitor and have your own table space. It can really be a lot fun. Sure, there’s a fair amount of waiting to see what will happen next but you just need to pace yourself. I kept telling myself I was on a mission that no one is going to appreciate better than me: “I am here to represent my new graphic novel, George’s Run, published by Rutgers University Press.” I had to convey that energy and determination. Each time I described my book, and gave my pitch, was a new opportunity. Each work of comics is an island unto itself which you are beckoning passersby to consider hopping upon.

In support of my new graphic novel, GEORGE’S RUN!

Proudly representing Rutgers University Press!

I feel that it’s essential to be in the moment, acknowledge your table-mates, get to know them if possible, acknowledge your environment and everyone passing by, and certainly acknowledge yourself and your own comfort and well-being. I like to sneak in some time to draw in my sketchbook and that’s not only therapeutic but people often are curious and it can help strike up a conversation. Either that or people know right away that you’re not just a rep but the cartoonist! So, without further ado, I want to take a moment to acknowledge a few of my fellow creators. There are plenty more that I can share with you. This is a quick moment in time . . .

In this photo, you will see the following creators and contact info:

Sneaker Ghost by Jackie DeVito. Find it here.

Orts by Barrett Stanley. Find it at Radiator Comics.

Bruce Fort: Professional Bully by Bread Tarleton. Find it at So-So Press.

Bubbles #17. Find it here.

What I’ve Loved: Chapter 11 by Pam Wye. Find it here.

Precinct X99, Episode 2: Soft Toys. by Wren McDonald. Find it here.

I Owe It to My Parents to NOT Come Out by Richard Mercado. Find it here.

Empty by Jared Throne. Find it here.

Nickelodeon Guts by Sean Michael Robinson. Find it here.

Moonray by Brandon Graham and Xurxo G. Penalta. Find it here.

My Body Unspooling by Leo Fox. Find it here.

A big highlight for me, as it was for all of us at Small Press Expo, was Deb JJ Lee winning an Ignatz Award for Promising New Talent. Of course, Lee has many fans and she’s been around for more than a minute but the honor is highly significant. In fact, Lee cried when she went up to accept the award. For those new to Lee, this is the time to check out her new graphic novel, In Limbo, published by First Second.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring to your attention one of the hottest graphic novel releases for 2023: Naked: The Confessions of a Normal Woman by Éloïse Marseille (out November 7, 2023). This graphic novel presents a raw, tongue-in-cheek and refreshing look at sexuality in an engaging and entertaining manner that mature readers will appreciate. It is published by Pow Pow Press. The French edition is highly popular and we will soon have the English translation.

There is so much more that I need to share with you and I promise to just keep doing what I’m doing. I do my own thing regarding creating comics and I do my own thing writing about comics. See you again with more very soon!!

“Each work of comics is an island unto itself which you are beckoning passersby to consider hopping upon.”

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Small Press Expo: Henry Chamberlain and GEORGE’S RUN plus Pop Culture Super-Sleuth

Work-in-progress page excerpt from Pop Culture Super-Sleuth.

Hello friends, I will be at Small Press Expo this upcoming weekend, September 9-10, in North Bethesda, Maryland. As my regular readers are aware, I’ll be promoting my new graphic novel, George’s Run, published by Rutgers University Press.

This is the book for any fan of comics, pop culture, and great stories!

Be sure to get both!

I will also be debuting Issue #0 of my new on-going series, Pop Culture Super-Sleuth, which you can also purchase at SPX. For those of you attending, this will be a chance to chat and get to know what I’ve been up to. I’ve been up to quite a lot over the years. I sincerely believe I’m entering into a new phase of creating comics.

I will do my best to give you my all at this event. I can answer any questions and I’m certainly eager to share with you anything I can. I’ll have original samples of my work. And, yes, there’s some very special SPX deals to be had. So, come on over to Table E3.

The annual Small Press Expo comics and graphic arts festival presents the best and brightest established creators in independent comics.

It’s an honor to be among this top tier group of cartoonists. Small Press Expo is the place to be this weekend!

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Paul Buhle on Comics: Three Rocks and a Guy from the Bronx

Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, the Man Who Created Nancy. By Bill Griffith. New York: Abrams, 2023. 265pp, $24.99.

Drawing from the Archives: Comics Memory in the Contemporary Graphic Novel. Cambrige: Cambridge University Press, 2023. 274pp, $110.

The “three rocks” of the title might be metaphorically translated as the three giant artists of Underground Comix still above the ground. More and more of the major players have passed in recent years, including Griffith’s own wife Diane Noomin,  Aline Kominsky Crumb and Justin Green.  Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith: these six words thus conjure up a vanished world, with Crumb the pop culture super nova and the latter two editing ARCADE (1975-80), the  premier anthology of the genre before each went on to fame in separate ways.

Only one artist coming up from the Underground managed what almost every comic artist wanted, at least until the 1970s: a steady gig in the daily newspapers. Griffith’s “Zippy the Pinhead” emerged as the daily press was drifting into a long last hurrah. The comic strip was picked up for worldwide daily distribution by King Features Syndicate in 1986, and many thousands of readers looked eagerly each day for the latest.  These days, Zippy is mostly online.

But Griffith has also produced graphic novels, beginning with Invisible Ink, with a semi-fictional but definitely real biographical story of his mother and the gag artist (but also the savant or Henry Higgins) of her grand adulterous adventure. The next, Nobody’s Fool, offered the reader an adventure through the life of a real-life sideshow mirocephalic actor or non-actor (and a definite non-victim), the source of Zippy. Up ahead, Griffith will produce a comic version of the story of his great-grandfather, the famous photographer of the West, William Henry Jackson.

Not every reader or even lover of comic strips is likely to know that “Nancy” has become the subject of considerable scholarship. The enigmatic nature of the characters (mainly herself and a suspiciously unrelated but also suspiciously erotic Aunt Fritzi, along with Nancy’s street companion, the ruffian Sluggo), how each four panel strip builds a gag toward a climax, has always fascinated would-be cultural commentators and obviously continues to do so.

An entire volume, How To Read Nancy by Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik, pondered the apparent thinness of the narrative, the flatness of the visual presentation, and the incredible popularity of the strip. What was really going on and why did readers, generation after generation, crave the strip so?

Griffith saves the more or less decisive conclusions to the end of his book, and for good reasons. Nancy is, after all, the projection of artist, whose life we find laid out as only another artist, comic artist, could possibly manage properly.

Ernie Bushmiller was an Irish, second-generation immigrant growing up in the blue collar Bronx of the early decades of the twentieth century. Showing talent from an early age, taking a flunky job at the premier New York World, he landed a strip (as a replacement artist) at 19, an incredible feat. One could suggest that Bushmiller, taking in comic-ness at its peak (even the appearance of network radio in the 1920s would lessen the appeal of the comic page, a bit), did not need to think about anything beyond the examples offered by other humorous strips of the day.

That conclusion would probably be wrong, but how wrong? Even  the crucial Aunt Fritzi was borrowed from another daily strip about a would-be film actress. Seen sometimes in her slip or in a two-piece bathing suit, Fritzi could no more avoid being sexy than the rascally Nancy could avoid being a rule-breaking annoyance. By the time we reach p.74 and a comic-character Griffith is lecturing an audience of young people in the non-existent “Bushmiller Museum of Comic Art,”  Nancy is not (unlike Peanuts) about childhood but about comic-hood, comic form, with sight-gags predominant.

This conclusion had already been reached in How to Read Nancy, but Griffith elucidates the implications in a dozen ways, while telling the otherwise mundane story of the artist’s life. Other hugely popular artists like Bushmiller’s friend Milt Gross lived in public from their fame, sometimes appearing on the radio, making themselves visible in nightclubs, and inevitably womanizing. By contrast, Bushmiller had an insular life (and wife), chained to his desk, evidently happy to spend his life thinking up gags.

Griffith invents wildly here, bringing Bushmiler’s characters literally to life, placing himself in the story, teasing out why Nancy might attract a cult-like following in the 1970s, as Bushmiller himself shuffled off life’s stage. Could Dagmar, one of those minor characters introduced well along in the history of the strip, really have had affairs with Sluggo and others including the forgotten Irma? Why not?

In fact, the sexiness of Aunt Fritzi inspired fantasies in the minds of generations of readers, who were also perplexed, if they thought about it at all, by the uncertainty of the setting. Mad Magazine ran several satires suggesting what Griffith points out: Nancy is not some cute little kid at all but just the comic strip character that she inhabits. Nor is Nancy “surrealist” in ways that some critics have suggested, except that the strip frequently bent the borders of the comic panel, the form’s own “fourth wall,” and sometimes offered sight gags that surrealist devotees could call their own. No evidence exists, not even in the personal bookshelf that Griffith discovers in Bushmiller’s home, of anything resembling conscious sophistication.

The Epilogue appropriately features Nancy reading How To Read Nancy, and on the following page, p.239, Nancy reading The Best of Nancy, collected by Brian Walker. What non-conclusion could be more appropriate?

And then again, it could easily be said that the emerging scholars of comic art have provided their own curious non-conclusion. Belgian scholar Benoit Crucifix’s Drawing from the Archives: Comics Memory in the Contemporary Graphic Novel (2023) argues that the top notch of comic art today, perhaps some lower notches as well, has become a history machine at large.

The case for comic masters as simultaneous comic historians aka archivists of the apparently obscure pulp past, is a strong one. Art Spiegelman taught comic history at the School for Visual Arts in Manhattan almost out of instinct, the process of recovery being part of the process of ongoing creation (or re-creation), actually recuperation of a low-rated art form. Thus “classics” like Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo, from the early twentieth century, come to life again, and can even be reworked by later artists tinkering with the pulp past.

Art history proper, the recognition of masters and icons for the sake of the art buyer as well as the art appreciator, makes almost no sense here. Except that Robert Crumb originals on napkins in Southern France may sell for thousands of dollars. But even this, or the current placement of comic strips in museum exhibitions, is not the main issue. Griffith himself signals or seeks to signal that point in Three Rocks. Comics, comic art, exist in a space that “art” has never been, up to now at least. For it to be present demands a fresh look at the mundane, a closer look at daily life.

Perhaps we are too late in the day of a collapsing civilization? It’s a good question. Artists who look beyond their own personal interests have always looked for redemption in one way or another. Comic art and the reuse of comic art, would seem to be the least likely place to find a redemption but who can tell?

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Filed under Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, Comics, Ernie Bushmiller, Robert Crumb

Bill Griffith Interview: Talking About Nancy and THREE ROCKS

Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, The Man Who Created Nancy. Bill Griffith. Abrams. New York. 272 pp. $24.99

❗Bill Griffith Talks About Nancy Comics: THREE ROCKS Help Explain it All❗

It goes without saying that Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy is a highly influential comic strip. It is beyond iconic. That is the starting point. Bill Griffith, known for his own legendary comic strip, Zippy the Pinhead, runs with one of comics scholars favorite subjects and reaches great heights with his new graphic novel, Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, The Man Who Created Nancy (Abrams, available as of 29 August 2023). Mr. Griffith doesn’t have to come out and say he was “influenced” by Nancy. I can see how Nancy makes it way into Zippy in subtle and uncanny ways. One thing to keep in mind about Bill Griffith is that he came into cartooning through the back door of fine art painting and is more ready to speak about artistic influence via painting masters like Reginald Marsh and Edward Hopper. However, at the end of the day, it’s Bill Griffith who is uniquely qualified to talk about the often misunderstood Nancy phenomenon.

The curious case of Aunt Fritzi.

Griffith chatted with me about how his Zippy character is a surreal entity operating in the real world. If Zippy were frolicking in his own surreal world, that would be too much of a good thing. “The two would cancel each other out!” Griffith is quick to point out. But I’ll come back to that. The point is that Bill Griffith knows his stuff and he was compelled to set the record straight on one of the most celebrated, and enigmatic, cartoonists to grace the page.

Bill Griffith and me.

I was in New York and arranged to meet with Bill Griffith to discuss his new book. I took a train to Connecticut, reading an advance copy of Bill’s new book, and then, just as a ferocious summer rain had struck, I was picked up from the station by the master cartoonist himself. Conversation was easy and relaxed. Something led to talk about life in downtown New York. I mentioned the concrete steps to an Airbnb that were more painful to climb that one might expect. Bill readily agreed and it reminded him of concrete steps he had to confront himself. At one point, Bill talked about his wife, the cartoonist Diane Noomin, who passed away about one year ago. Bill created a comic book in her honor, The Buildings Are Barking. I was there to focus on the Bushmiller book. After what seemed like endless winding roads, with torrential rain casting foreboding shadows, we reached the studio which looked to me like a idyllic cottage out of Lord of the Rings.

The paper airplane incident.

From my hotel window back in Manhattan, I had a glorious view of the Empire State Building with the Chrysler Building in the background. I couldn’t help but think of the many vivid scenes in Three Rocks that depict moments in Ernie Bushmiller’s career, like the time he rented office space in the Chrysler Building with some other cartoonists. The guys were throwing paper airplanes out the window and one of them actually managed to hit a police officer, over a thousand feet below, who promptly unfolded the plane to discover the owner of the stationary. What could have been an awkward situation was quickly resolved after the cartoonists created cartoons for the awestruck officer. It is these moments that are the book’s lifeblood: cartoonists as superstars strutting about and giving the public what they want.

“Life is a messy affair. Very little of it is under our control. But not for Ernie Bushmiller. All he needed was a fence, a tree, a sidewalk . . . and three rocks.”

— from the Preface to Three Rocks by Bill Griffith

The origins of THREE ROCKS.

Ernie Bushmiller not only gave the public what they wanted but, like George Herriman and Winsor McCay, elevated the medium, taking it in new directions. Did Bushmiller always know where he was going as he blazed new trails? Maybe and maybe not: at least, it is certain, Bushmiller knew he was onto something. It was during our interview that Bill laid out in one observation much of what is going on in this book. It was during a visit to a Bushmiller comic art show at the Cartoon Art Museum in Rye Brook, New York, in 1990. This was a museum run by Beetle Bailey cartoonist Mort Walker. “It was in Rye Brook that I saw a sculptural display of the Three Rocks, perfectly hemispherical, and made out of fiberglass looking like they just came out of a Nancy strip. They were plopped onto a perfect square of Astro Turf, and all under glass. I lusted after them. The idea that the Three Rocks had this totemic power never left me. Following this visit, I did many Zippy strips in which Zippy encounters and speaks with the Three Rocks. So, I’d say this experience planted the idea of a book devoted to Ernie Bushmiller in my fevered brain, to await further inspiration a few decades later.”

A Zippy the Pinhead comic strip on The Three Rocks.

Griffith goes on to share that, like many kids, he was devoted to comics. “I did read the Sunday newspaper Nancy page as a 5-year-old growing up in Brooklyn, not so much for the characters or the gags, but because the lettering was so easy to read–and didn’t contain any punctuation. You could say Nancy helped me to learn how to read.” And here we go deeper. Nancy was all about “reading.” Once it fully blossomed, it was not just a comic strip. Ultimately, Nancy is a comic strip about comic strips. If that concept seems too contemporary for something dating back to 1922, this graphic novel clears all of that up. The notion that something is “meta” is not exactly new; nor is something being “surreal” a new idea. At the time, what Bushmiller developed with Nancy was revolutionary and, as fans will tell you, at its best, it is timeless and golden. Nancy was, and still is, the gold standard in comics.

Pursuit of perfection, of pure comics.

Griffith takes the reader on a magical mystery tour, beautifully juggling the need to entertain with the need to explain. Essentially, Griffith’s book is a work of comics about another work of comics that is about comics. A seemingly perfect cerebral cul-de-sac worthy of the best rants from Zippy the Pinhead. Ah, but there is plenty of method to this madness–that’s the whole point. This is the story of an exceptionally ambitious cartoonist who kept paring down and refining to the point where he basically reached the essence of comics. In later years, this pursuit of perfection would drive his assistants to the brink. That’s what is going on here. Nancy became the perfect model for what can be done in the comics medium. And all that follows refers back to Nancy.

Nancy collides with the real world.

Nancy comic strip, early 1960s.

Griffith begins with a process to demystify, to reveal the nuts and bolts of the cartoonist’s trade, and the never-ending challenge to connect with the reader. “When someone goes to a museum to see a Picasso and they don’t understand it, they don’t blame the painter. But when they don’t understand a comic strip, they do blame the cartoonist because people feel it’s the job of the cartoonist to make it an easy delivery. Zippy never did that. I always asked my readers to meet me halfway. Bushmiller is a great example of someone whose career follows the whole phenomena of comics in America. When he took over the Fritzi comic strip in 1925, he was 19 years-old. There had been 25 years of comics before that. But the cartoonists that were in the bullpen, acting as Ernie’s mentors at The New York World, they went back to the early 1900s.

Young Ernie learns his trade at the New York World, circa 1919.

There’s a scene in my book with Ernie, circa 1919, who is a copy boy and is eager to learn. One cartoonist befriends him and gives him the task of erasing his pencil marks. It’s a symbolic moment that I depict. He quickly picked up his skills. Very quickly, he began to take on more responsibilities like blacking in areas and even lettering. He learned by doing. Once he got past the gatekeeper at the newspaper, he started to advance. The ideas for the comic strips, that had to come from within him. All I can figure out is that, and I see it in my own students, is that some people speak the language of comics and some don’t. The ones that do speak the language, that’s because they like reading and like looking at comics from an early age. They become fluent in it, even if they can’t quite yet articulate a complex version of it–but they have the vocabulary and the structure because they’ve absorbed it from reading a lot of comics.”

Ernie Bushmiller and Reginald Marsh.

Ultimately, Griffith returns to the process to remystify, such is the power of art and of comics at its best. Imagine three artists lined up for comparison: Reginald Marsh, Edward Hopper, and Ernie Bushmiller. Griffith makes the case for including Bushmiller along with two of America’s greatest painters. The connection is the New York art world, the circles involved with learning how to draw and such things. Bushmiller went to the same art school attended by Hopper and so he absorbed similar sensibilities. In fact, Bushmiller and Marsh shared some time together as they both drew from life at burlesque shows. Griffith points out that the Sunday full pages devoted to Nancy had some extra space at the top, just in case the newspaper needed it, and it was here that Bushmiller would include pure art, little vignettes of Nancy, and it held that same charge of stillness that Griffith enjoyed in Hopper paintings.

The stillness of Hopper.

Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead, as a surrealist entity, is plenty of wacky fun. However, as Art Spiegelman pointed out to Griffith early in the development of Zippy, the idea of being in an elevator with Zippy was disturbing at best let alone for any longer duration. Zippy‘s zany humor needed a foil, which led to Griffith bringing in a new character, Griffy, an alter ego, who could act as a straight man and corral all the chaos. Zippy and Griffy would become a team, like the comedy act of Abbot and Costello. It is these sort of artistic choices that ultimately led to the world of Zippy just as a similar process of artistic choices ultimately led to the world of Nancy. It is all these choices, involving paring down elements and refining text, that leads to the best work. If for no other reason, Three Rocks is a must-read as a fun textbook on the art of comics. Lucky for readers, it is that and more: a rollicking behind-the-scenes journey into the creative spirit; and a way to get some answers to the meaning of life.

My interview with Bill Griffith is now one of my most cherished experiences coming from my comics journalism. It was delightful and magical. We chatted and then I began to record and finally I did some video. So, this video is brief but brings home a lot of what led to this very special book. In the end, any creative work worth its salt comes back to the creator. Griffith found a way, or discovered a process, that invited him to have Nancy refer back to everything.

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THREE ROCKS by Bill Griffith graphic novel review

Nancy, the very definition of a comic strip.

Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, The Man Who Created Nancy. Bill Griffith. Abrams. New York. 272 pp. $24.99

Nancy and Sluggo are such recognizable characters that the two instantly represent the concept of “comics” throughout the world. As the author of this graphic novel has said, “Peanuts tells you what it’s like to be a child. Nancy tells you what it’s like to be a comic strip.” However, as Bill Griffith (creator of Zippy the Pinhead) makes clear, Nancy’s evolution as a comic strip was every bit as bumpy and uncertain as any other comic strip. One of the joys of this graphic novel is following Griffith’s “fly on the wall” method of keeping the reader right on the pulse of the process. You see it all here, from the unlikely start of one aspiring cartoonist to the unlikely start of yet another comic strip; and you see both, Ernie Bushmiller (1905 – 1982) and Nancy, evolve to a transcendent level.

Griffy lectures on comics.

There’s a lot of fun things going on in this book and you definitely don’t need to know a thing about comics or have any strong feelings regarding the subject. That’s because this is as much an American success story as it is a quirky look at how some things work or an exploration of how we humans process information. Take your pick, there’s something for everyone. And that is how it should be when discussing this most iconic of pop culture phenomena. Who hasn’t heard of Nancy and Sluggo, right? Even the youngest and most detached will likely pick up the signal. Nancy has origins going back to 1922 when it began as a whole other comic strip, Fritzi Ritz, the madcap adventures of a flapper young woman, by Larry Whittington. In 1925, 19-year-old Ernie Bushmiller took over the strip and, along the way, introduced mischievous 8-year-old Nancy, who also took over. By 1938, the comic strip was known simply as, Nancy, and it pursued a process of comics perfection up to Bushmiller’s death in 1982. Griffith’s graphic novel goes about chronicling, dissecting, and analyzing Nancy and Bushmiller with glorious results.

Nancy in its prime, early 1960s.

Already a longtime fan of the strip, it didn’t take any more convincing of its greatness for Griffith when, a few years ago, he stumbled upon a home-made scrapbook of Nancy comic strips, circa 1960-63, during an eBay shopping spree. This purchase proved to be a big revelation. As Griffith explains: “Reading through them, I came to a surprising conclusion: These were the strip’s best years. Bushmiller’s diagrammatic drawing style has been honed to perfection, the punchlines work as gags and as a mini-theatre of the absurd, and he allows the world outside of Nancy and Sluggo’s neighborhood to creep in more often. Television, rock ‘n’ roll, and the Cold War are all fodder for satirical gags. But once the outside world enters Nancy’s familiar reality, it becomes Nancy’s. It may be 1962 on the calendar, but–in Bushmillerland, time stands still.” What a gift of insight for Griffith, a master at blending the surreal with everyday reality.

A waterproof ballpoint pen takes the stage.

Time and again, Griffith plucks gem after gem of Nancy insights and Easter eggs. He lets the comic strip speak for itself with numerous examples and, in so many ways, lets his own graphic novel take on a life of its own. Griffith’s numerous re-enactments are so magically loopy that you might remember some later as if you’d daydreamed them yourself. If you enjoy sojourns into now long-gone retro New York, you’ll find plenty of that here. One such example is the depiction of a publicity stunt for a new waterproof ballpoint pen. It takes place at the now defunct Lambs Club on West 44th Street, circa 1950. Bushmiller has been enlisted, along with some of his cartoonist cronies, to take part in an event that showcases a number of swimsuit models posing as the cartoonists draw directly on their bodies to demonstrate the quality of the featured product. The scene is taken in stride by Bushmiller. The photos taken of the event were slotted for a feature in Life magazine but, in the end, the editor pulled the plug on that. It was just another gig for Bushmiller.

Nancy and Sluggo in their later years.

Bushmiller seemed to pay little to no attention to all the accolades to Nancy. Perhaps, in some ways, he was not fully aware of what he had unleashed. It certainly wasn’t because he lacked sophistication. In some respects, Bushmiller simply did it his way. There were some happy accidents along the way that gave Nancy its surreal kick, notably the dynamic of Nancy, an 8-year-old, in the care of Fritzi, a young aspiring actress from a completely different comic strip that the Nancy comic strip had inherited. In interview after interview, Bushmiller downplays any artful qualities to his comic strip. He said he learned long go that most people chewed gum than ate caviar and he sided with the masses. And yet it takes one to know one and it’s easy to imagine that Bushmiller would have approved wholeheartedly of fellow cartoonist Griffith’s tribute to him. He might have shaken his head with an aw-shucks attitude while including a knowing nod. And sure, some things in the book, Bushmiller might have shrugged off as the concerns of a younger generation, like Griffith’s wonderfully loopy epilogue that revisits Nancy and Sluggo in their later years. Nancy, and the study of Nancy, involves the deep recesses of the mind. The ideal guide is someone keenly familiar with the cartoonist’s lot, complete with the repetitive tasks and the never-ending pursuit of perfection. Ernie Bushmiller, the pioneer trailblazer, is an ideal model of the true artist-cartoonist. Bill Griffith, a master himself, proves to be the ideal guide.

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WE BELONG Now Crowdfunding on Zoop!

Cover by Jay Hero

In Comics Grinder news, there’s a lot of buzz and excitement over WE BELONG, a new comics anthology focusing on sci-fi and fantasy from a queer Black perspective. Press release follows:

Stacked Deck Press and Prism Comics are pleased to announce that the crowdfunding campaign for WE BELONG is now live on Zoop!

WE BELONG, is an all-Black, all-LGBTQ+ sci-fi and fantasy comics anthology featuring works from over 2 dozen black queer comics creators:

Aimee Campbell * Ajuan Mance * Asia Bey
C.A.P. Ward * E.B. Hutchins * Erika Hardison * Benny Hollman
Gaia WXYZ * Gerald Brandon Bell * Iggy “Eggs” Morris
Jay Hero * Jazmine Joyner and Sam Wade * Jezza Smiles
Joe Philips * Jordan Green * Mihael B. Peralta Myers
Nick Orr * Paul Kellam * Rupert Kinnard * Trevor Adams
Tulani Kiara * Valerie Complex * Victor Hodge
Viktor T. Kerney * William O. Tyler
Edited by Viktor T. Kerney and William O. Tyler

Sample from WE BELONG.

The lack of Black queer characters and stories inspired writer Viktor Kerney (StrangeLore, Prism Comics) to develop a collection of sci-fi and fantasy stories that center the queer Black perspective, all from queer Black creators. Co-editing this project with him is critic and comics creator William O. Tyler (Theater of Terror: Revenge of the Queers). Together they have assembled an array of incredible creators to share their stories, including Jay Hero, C.A.P. Ward, Ajuan Mance, Rupert Kinnard, and many more!

These stories showcase the fact that, despite what the landscape of popular fiction says, Black queer people have existed and do exist everywhere, in every time and space. Whether we’re fighting monsters or becoming superheroes, we belong. From intergalactic adventures to interdimensional exploration, we belong. As wizards, as mermaids, as witches, fully as ourselves, we belong.

BACK THIS AMAZING PROJECT HERE: https://zoop.gg/c/webelong

Sample from WE BELONG.

WE BELONG is a comics anthology composed of 100+ pages of sci-fi and fantasy stories that center the queer Black perspective, all from queer Black creatives. A campaign on Zoop is running through

The lack of Black queer characters and stories inspired writer Viktor Kerney (StrangeLore) to develop a collection of these phenomenal tales. Co-editing alongside critic and comics creator William O. Tyler (Theater of Terror: Revenge of the Queers), they have assembled an array of incredible creators to share their stories, including Jay Hero, C.A.P. Ward, Ajuan Mance and many more!

These stories showcase the fact that, despite what the landscape of popular fiction says, Black queer people have and do exist everywhere, in every time and space. Whether we’re fighting monsters or becoming superheroes, we belong. From intergalactic adventures to interdimensional exploration, we belong. As wizards, as mermaids, as witches, fully as ourselves, we belong.

This joint venture between award-winning comics publisher Stacked Deck Press and Prism Comics, a nonprofit promoting LGBTQIA+ comics, comics creators, and fandom, is a moment not to be missed.

Go to Zoop for more info and support the campaign!

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ALISON by Lizzy Stewart graphic novel review

Alison. By Lizzy Stewart. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 168pp, $24.99.

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

This quite wonderful comic is a match for Armed with Madness: The Surreal Leonora Carringon (also published this year, by SelfMadeHero). Both books are by British artists/scriptwriters. They belong together for at least one intriguing reason: the young women artists in question find their fate, at least in the first phase of creative effort, by hooking up with famous middle-aged fellows who take them as lovers/mistresses but also urge them to practice their developing craft.  In the end, the women need to make their own way.

Armed With Madness is a real-life story, with rich-girl Leonora Carrington both aided and exploited by the famous surrealist painter Max Ernst, during the 1930s.  Carrington leaves England for Spain, suffers multiple breakdowns as the Spanish Civil War explodes around her, and ends up in Mexico, an elderly lady re-discovered by new generations. Alison offers us a fictional version two or three generations later. A young woman growing up in Devon takes and then abandons a husband, at the invitation of a visiting, also romantic and famous, middle-aged painter. She goes on, with his sponsorship, to her artist’s life in London.

Lizzy Stewart, a professional illustrator of children’s books, would not have been considered a comic artist a few decades ago. Walls have broken down since then, obviously, and the use of sequential panels to convey a story easily makes the grade as comic art. Actually, the result here looks more than a little like the drawings of Jules Feiffer in various recent works by the veteran artist. But I digress.

The story is drawn and told quite wonderfully, with the occasional, stunning color page or pages set off from the grey wash of most of the book. It is easy to be convinced that this young woman is flattered to be asked to sit for a portrait, first clothed, then other portraits unclothed, as a relationship develops. It is equally easy to be convinced that she is one of a considerable line of young women falling into the waiting arms of an academic painter at the peak of his BBC-level respectability. He had promised to guide her development as an artist, and for all his drawbacks, he remains determined to do so. He also pays her rent.

Throughout, and this is certainly the feminist angle, Alison is seeking—fumbling and stumbling along the way—to realize herself in every sense. That she had been a hopelessly bored (and childless) housewife in Devon, became a frustrated if developing artist in Bloomsbury and a woman making her own way step by step, is all wonderfully conveyed. Born in 1959 and gone to London in the early 1980s, she finds herself in the midst of radical politics, anti-war, anti-nuke and anti-racist movements, not long before Margaret Thatcher comes to power, ruthlessly crushing all opposition. Worse, Thatcher so successfully converts the political system that even future, corrupted Labour Party leaders accept “privatization” and the practical eclipse of the caring social state as a finality. What can art mean here?

The brevity of the young artist’s wider, militant political commitment may offer insight into the artist-in-progress. Or perhaps we see Lizzy Stewart’s own observation of changing radical politics at a certain moment of time. Serious commitments to art, including the teaching of art to younger generations, merge into the critical concerns in the era of AIDS. She watches as disease and death march through her new milieu. A desperate politics of caring emerges as a considerable portion of the London art world literally finds community through the  struggle for life.

It should not give away too much about Alison to reveal that she finds her own companion in a same-sex relationship that is also interracial and global in its connections. Perhaps our protagonist was going in that direction all the time, without realizing her own path. All this is conveyed by Lizzy Stewart with such painstaking care that we find ourselves flowing along, discovering and rediscovering the narrative as the artist discovers her talent and herself. Near the end, she is the learner who has become the renowned teacher.

Alison’s return in something like middle age to her own Dorset is wonderfully visualized and narrated here. Temperamentally a million miles from London, she experiences a return to the natural beauty that she now appreciates afresh, within her own sense of art in the world and in her world.

There is a great deal more to be said here about the young artist’s path. We learn at one point that her older lover, for instance, had the upper-class background to have his talent recognized in childhood, to be trained in formal terms all the way along. By contrast, Alison must undertake a crash course and find another path to realize her talents. Perhaps this detail offers us the secret of Lizzy Stewart herself, a children’s book illustrator, using comics for story telling. Like others today, she is struggling to create something fresh through a merger of forms that become recognizable through the work of the new generations of artists and comics.

Paul Buhle’s latest comic is an adaptation of W.E.B. Du Bois’s classic Souls of Black Folk, by artist Paul Peart Smith (Rutgers University Press).

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