Superman: Red Son. Made-for-Video Animation, 84 minutes. Directed by Sam Liu. Written by J.M. DeMatteis. Executive Producers: Bruce Timm and Sam Register. DC Entertainment. Release Date: March 17, 2020
The timing could not be better for one of the great Superman stories. DC Entertainment presents the 2020 animated feature adaptation to Mark Millar’s 2003 Superman: Red Son. This time around, the script is by another DC Comics stalwart creative, J. M. DeMatteis. This is a great time for the alternate-history genre. There’s For All Mankind on Apple TV, a what-if about the Soviets landing on the moon first. And there’s The Plot Against America on HBO, a what-if about a Fascist America. Now, make room for a what-if about a Soviet Superman. This is about what would happen if the future Superman never crash-lands in some corn field in Kansas. But, instead, baby Superman crash-lands in the heart of Cold War-era Russia.
This is arguably the very best of DC Elseworlds adventures. In this very heated and confused time for U.S.-Russian relations, a story like this provides refreshing perspective. What would Superman do if he found himself part of Mother Russia and developed a loyalty to Communism? Apple pie and baseball don’t mean a thing to the Man of Steel. Superman is more loyal to the latest five-year plan for the people. Capitalism is just a funny concept and the U.S.A. is more suspect than respected. And leading the “greed is good” pack is, of course, Lex Luthor.
What will appeal to a lot of viewers is the clever look at how the world works. No sooner does Superman, innocently enough, prove to be the strongest man at the Kremlin than he’s elevated to the post of supreme leader. To Superman’s way of thinking, he is genuinely compelled to do good. That’s just how he’s built. But he has to do it within the confines of the Soviet Union. Conversely, Lex Luthor, not so innocently, proves to be the strongest capitalist, riding an “America First” campaign, that lands him in the White House. Along the way, we have different versions of the Korean War, the Berlin Wall, and even a taste of Dr. Strangelove thrown in for good measure.
If you’ve never read the original comic book or collected graphic novel, then you’re in for even more of a treat as this story unfolds. I think the animated feature hits all the right marks and could not be better. Voice actors like Jason Isaacs, as Superman, and Vanessa Marshall, as Wonder Woman, lead a lively cast. This is something that I could even see as a major live action movie version. It is certainly a compelling example of what can be done within the formidable world of the DC Universe.
Editor’s Note: It is a distinct pleasure to have Paul Buhle do the honors with a review of the new book by R. Sikoryak. As a side note, I had the opportunity to interview Sikoryak in 2019. You can read, and view, it here.
Deep thinking comic artists have been pretending to be non-serious since the early days of daily comic strip glory. Hard-working cartoonists stationed at their drawing boards would be seen as entertainers, and for a long time, they could hardly be anything else. If they had their own deep ruminations, they seemed to keep their seriousness to themselves. Even the fabulous Rube Goldberg, editorializing in 1949 about the fears of atomic warfare (the drawing got him a Pulitzer) made possible or probable catastrophe into a joke, his happy little domestic world, like any other domestic world, in danger of being blown to smithereens.
R. Sikoryak’s homage to Pogo in Constitution Illustrated.
“Pogo,” with a depth that at least a fair number of readers grasped in the work of Walt Kelly, may have marked a new stage, and never mind the earlier exceptions. Kelly was brilliantly droll but the issues were deadly serious. You could buy his books in oversized paperbacks, something that was also true of Li’l Abner, but for most readers, the heavy sexual suggestions of Daisy Mae surely overcame the New Dealish sub-content.
Talk about superheroes!
When comic art became “art” —from the most ponderous of underground comix to Raw Magazine—the old definitions seemed to go out the window. But did they? And so we get, sooner or later, to R. Sikoryak, the master of the droll, none better. If I were pressed to offer one candidate for author and book high definition comics today, it might well be Sikoryak and Masterpiece Comics (2009) and for this reason: the complex relation of text and image is not literal, random or even satirical in the usual sense. His art compels a second look or second thought, definitely not on the same wave length as the first one.
Sikoryak, born in 1964 and educated at Parsons, actually worked on Raw (so did Ben Katchor, among others), co-edited a Jam with Art Spiegelman, and set out on a career that includes books, illustrations for the New Yorker, World War 3 Illustrated and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He has also usefully raised the profile of other artists with his continuing Carousel slide shows.
He has one astounding narrative-artistic innovation, not entirely new but never so well developed before. As a post-modernist of the popular culture world, he recuperates the leading images of cartoonists of the daily and comic books perfectly, at least as well as the original artists drew them, but with entirely different dialogue. This could be a shtick and might be for other artists, but for Sikoryak, it is a serious method. The work of the original artists, be they E.C. Segar or Gary Larson, Chester Gould or Gary Panter, gains a new articulateness. The images are not randomly chosen, in other words.
The Unquotable Trump (2017), a political stroke, references what seems to me his seminal work, once again Masterpiece Comics, which quite literally goes through the Canon from the Bible to Dostoyevsky, with wonderful sidebars (Wuthering Heights re-enacted as an EC Comics horror-tale, for instance) taking apart the originals and re-enacting them.
Scrooge McDuck mashup.
His target in Constitution Illustrated is either more or less elusive. Precisely drawn versions of the most familiar and often the most familiarly banal comics, early classics to standard superheroes to the most miserable of the dailies—all are seen in these pages.
But wait. The text in Masterpiece Comics was taken from the apex of literature. The text in Constitution Illustrated is the…US Constitution itself.
What can you (that is to say the artist) do with THAT?
Americans now face the gravest constitutional threat within their own history, a history brief compared, for instance, to that the Chinese, but long in terms of a modern republic. Especially a republic claiming to be a democracy, even a model democracy.
Krazy Kat mashup.
The choices of “classic” comic art and excerpts from the Constitutional text are very carefully chosen. Popeye and Olive Oyl are seen on an eighteenth century frigate, warning Wimpy about Tax Duties on taxes and revenues. Albert Alligator (with a proper 18th century wig) warns a jury of Okefenokee residents about the rights of the accused at a trial. Nancy and Sluggo explain the apportionment principles in the election of a president. And so on.
One is more than entitled to ask: what does this add to the original? Or: are we only being entertained?
Sikoryak is too subtle to offer an answer. But there is an answer, underlying so much of his work. The inter-working of text and dialogue demands, like Brecht’s plays, the participation of the viewer. Passivity, the idea of this work as a joke, is repudiated. Whatever he was trying to do in The Unquotable Trump, he is also insisting upon here. Wake up, reader. Look at the constitution with new eyes. Or else.
Paul Buhle is the rare leftwing scholar of comics. He is coeditor of the Paul Robeson comic, to be published in October, and drawn by Sharon Rudahl.
PANDEMIX is a new benefit comics anthology featuring timely and personal work from award-winning cartoonists. Curated by Dean Haspiel, contributors include Josh Neufeld, Ellen Lindner, Kristen Radtke, Mike Cavallaro, Marguerite Dabaie, Christa Cassano, George O’Connor, N. Steven Harris, Owen Brozman, Joan Reilly, Peter Rostovsky, Jeffrey Burandt, Jen Ferguson, Morgan Pielli, Whitney Matheson, Dave Proch, Frank Reynoso and J.J. Colagrande.
All proceeds from this 56-page digital release go directly to The Hero Initiative, a not-for-profit organization that helps comic book creators in need of emergency medical aid and/or essential financial support.
In addition to purchasing the anthology, keep an eye on the Pandemix Patreon for previews and news of upcoming PANDEMIX events. Everyone at PANDEMIX thanks you for supporting this project and the comics industry! Donate $5 and the PDF is all yours! Find it HERE.
Art by Dean Haspiel
So many creative people are suffering right now, trying to figure out how to pay their bills in the middle of an economic shutdown. If you, like me, are looking for ways to help alleviate this suffering directly, maybe consider making the very modest investment of five dollars (or choose the $20 donation level if you’re feeling generous) to purchase this collection of comics inspired by the pandemic, edited by Dean Haspiel and Whitney Matheson: PANDEMIX: Quarantine Comics in the Age of ‘Rona
ALL proceeds go to The Hero Initiative, a not-for-profit organization that helps comic book creators with emergency medical aid and/or essential financial support.
Included in the collection are contributions from:
I’m excited to share a new comics piece that’s just been published in a benefit anthology. It’s about New York City and the COVID-19 pandemic, and it features my very own brother, Jake Neufeld.
We’ve all seen a lot of stories about the medical professionals on the front lines of this crisis. But the doctors and nurses aren’t the only ones in the hospital.
Jake, my bro, is the assistant director of emergency management at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK), NYC’s cancer hospital. The story covers the way he and his team responded to one of the worst days of the crisis. The story sheds light on what challenges the “behind-the-scenes” people at hospitals (now in other parts of the country) are facing during the pandemic.
I’m proud of Jake, and I’m proud of how the story came out. And I’m triply proud to have the story featured in the benefit anthology PANDEMIX: Quarantine Comics in the Age of ‘Rona.
Put together by Dean Haspiel and Whitney Matheson, PANDEMIX has 56 pages of comics related to these crazy times, by 18 creators, most of them based in New York. It’s a fabulous collection, with a variety of different takes on what we’re all going through.
PANDEMIX is available for PDF download on Patreon, with all proceeds going to The Hero Initiative, a nonprofit organization that helps comics creators with emergency medical aid and/or essential financial support. All you need to do is donate $5 and it’s all yours!
Much like the winners list for the Angoulême Comics Festival and the Small Press Expo, it is very useful to take a close look at the Eisner Awards at San Diego Comic-Con. A reliable prime source in the study of comics comes from the biggest and most well-established comics festivals/conventions. Because of COVID-19, SDCC was a virtual event for 2020 and that has created added benefit. For starters, it’s a pleasure to have actor Phil LaMarr as host. It’s also an uncanny pleasure to have such a documentation of the winners. I doubt this will become the norm but this special video recap is priceless. One essential fact that ended up getting more attention than it might usually have gotten was a moment to focus on the panel of judges! It is so important to know who your judges are for many reasons including insight and credibility. This years judges: Martha Cornog, Jamie Coville, Michael Dooley, Alex Grecian, Simon Jimenez, and Laura O’Meara. Ah, perhaps one of these years SDCC will choose yours truly as a judge. I was a judge for SPX some years back so it could happen, but I might need a storage locker. Anyway, it’s a very big deal to know who your judges are and it makes industry news.
Laura Dean Is Breaking Up with Me
The top winners of the evening were Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s graphic novel Laura Dean Is Breaking Up with Me (Best Publication for Teens, Best Writer, Best Penciller/Inker; published by First Second/Macmillan) and G. Willow Wilson and Christian Ward’s comic book series Invisible Kingdom (Best New Series, Best Writer, Best Painter; published by Berger Books/Dark Horse).
Multiple Eisners also went to Lynda Barry for Making Comics (Best Comics-Related Book, Best Publication Design; published by Drawn & Quarterly); Raina Telgelemier for Guts (Best Publication for Kids, Best Writer/Artist; published by Scholastic/Graphix); and Stan Sakai for Best Lettering (on Usagi Yojimbo, published by IDW) and Best Archival Collection/Project (Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo: The Complete Grasscutter; IDW).
The Best Graphic Album–New trophy went to Are You Listening by Tillie Walden (published by First Second/Macmillan), while Best Reality-Based Work was awarded to George Takei’s memoir They Called Us Enemy (by Justin, Eisinger, Steve Scott, and Harmony Becker, published by IDW/Top Shelf). In the comics categories, Image’s Bitter Root by David Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene won Best Continuing Series, while Best Limited Series went to Little Bird by Darcy Van Poelgeest and Ian Bertram (also Image).
The publisher that can boast the most winners is Dark Horse, with the three for Invisible Kingdom plus Best Graphic Album–Reprint for LaGuardia by Nnedi Okorafor and Tana Ford, Best Adaptation for Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran, and a share of Dave Stewart’s award for Best Coloring. Other publishers with multiple awards include First Second/Macmillan (for Laura Dean and Are You Listening); Image for Continuing Series, Limited Series, Cover Artist (Emma Rios, Pretty Deadly), and shared Coloring; IDW for Sakai’s works and They Called Us Enemy; and Drawn & Quarterly for Making Comics and for Best Short Story (Ebony Flowers’ “Hot Comb”). Publishers with two trophies each include Fantagraphics, Scholastic Graphix, and VIZ Media.
The event was hosted by voice actor/comedian Phil LaMarr (MadTV, Samurai Jack, Futurama, Justice League), who announced the nominees and winners in 31 categories. Eisner Awards Administrator Jackie Estrada opened and closed the ceremony.
Sergio Aragonés presented the Hall of Fame Awards. The Judges’ Choices were Nell Brinkley and E. Simms Campbell. The elected inductees were Alison Bechdel, Howard Cruse, Louise Simonson, Stan Sakai, Don and Maggie Thompson, and Bill Watterson.Bechdel, Simonson, Sakai, and Thompson all accepted their awards via videos; Cruse’s husband, Ed Sederbaum, accepted on Howard’s behalf.
The Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award, presented by Bob’s daughter Ruth Clampett, had three recipients this year: The Hero Initiative, Creators4Comics, and Comicbook United Fund.
The Eisner Awards are part of, and underwritten by, Comic-Con International: San Diego, a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to creating awareness of and appreciation for comics and related popular art forms, primarily through the presentation of conventions and events that celebrate the historic and ongoing contributions of comics to art and culture.
2020 Eisner Awards Winners
Best Short Story
“Hot Comb,” by Ebony Flowers, in Hot Comb (Drawn & Quarterly)
Best Single Issue/One-Shot
Our Favorite Thing Is My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics)
Best Continuing Series
Bitter Root, by David Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene (Image)
Best Limited Series
Little Bird by Darcy Van Poelgeest andIan Bertram (Image)
Best New Series
Invisible Kingdom, by G. Willow Wilson and Christian Ward (Berger Books/Dark Horse)
Best Publication for Early Readers
Comics: Easy as ABC, by Ivan Brunetti (TOON)
Best Publication for Kids
Guts, by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic Graphix)
Best Publication for Teens
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (First Second/Macmillan)
Best Humor Publication
The Way of the Househusband, vol. 1, by Kousuke Oono, translation by Sheldon Drzka (VIZ Media)
Drawing Power: Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence, Harassment, and Survival, edited by Diane Noomin (Abrams)
Best Reality-Based Work
They Called Us Enemy, by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (Top Shelf)
Best Graphic Album—New
Are You Listening? by Tillie Walden (First Second/Macmillan)
Best Graphic Album—Reprint
LaGuardia, by Nnedi Okorafor and Tana Ford (Berger Books/Dark Horse)
Best Adaptation from Another Medium
Snow, Glass, Apples, by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran (Dark Horse Books)
Best U.S. Edition of International Material
The House, by Paco Roca, translation by Andrea Rosenberg (Fantagraphics)
Best U.S. Edition of International Material—Asia (TIE)
Cats of the Louvre, by Taiyo Matsumoto, translation by Michael Arias (VIZ Media)
Witch Hat Atelier, by Kamome Shirahama, translation by Stephen Kohler (Kodansha)
Best Archival Collection/Project—Strips
Krazy Kat: The Complete Color Sundays, by George Herriman, edited by Alexander Braun (TASCHEN)
Best Archival Collection/Project—Comic Books
Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo: The Complete Grasscutter Artist Select, by Stan Sakai, edited by Scott Dunbier (IDW)
Mariko Tamaki, Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass (DC); Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me (First Second/Macmillan); Archie (Archie)
Raina Telgemeier, Guts (Scholastic Graphix)
Best Penciller/Inker or Penciller/Inker Team
Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me (First Second/Macmillan)
Best Painter/Digital Artist
Christian Ward, Invisible Kingdom (Berger Books/Dark Horse)
Best Cover Artist
Emma Rios, Pretty Deadly (Image)
Dave Stewart, Black Hammer,B.P.R.D.: The Devil You Know, Hellboy and the BPRD (Dark Horse); Gideon Falls (Image); Silver Surfer Black, Spider-Man (Marvel)
A pet peeve of mine, a whole little schtick, was my often complaining about how museums and galleries would refer to some works as “comics-related” but never would go that extra step and simply refer to a work that was, indeed, a work of comics, like a lot of work by Raymond Pettibon, as simply “comics.” Sure, when confronted with an actual comic strip or comic book, then, yes, that was comics. But when it was a work that was clearly utilizing all the elements of comics, was up to its eyeballs in the comics medium, it was politely referred to by the art world establishment as a “comics-related” work. Now, sure, one only needs to look at the Pop Art movement to appreciate that distinctions have to be made. But still, what was happening was that comics, as an art medium in its own right, was being dismissed. It can get complicated, needlessly so, in determining between high and low art and all the myriad interconnections. Comics have had a rough go of it, especially in the United States. So, what do we mean when we refer to comics and are all comics now supposed to be treated as works of art? No, all comics are not works of art. Just as all dime store novels are not works of art! Maybe that helps to clear things up. A new book, with the goal of clearing things up is Comic Art in Museums, edited by Kim A. Munson, a collection of essays, dispatches from the art wars. And make no mistake, when it comes to jockeying for position, on all fronts, there’s a war going on.
Panel excerpt from “High Art Lowdown,” Artforum, December 1990, by Art Spiegelman
Perhaps one of the greatest villains, or scapegoats, in the ongoing war between high and low is Roy Lichtenstein. And that’s a shame because his is a brilliant body of work. In the tradition of comics at its most brash, Art Spiegelman, known for Maus, winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, fired off a salvo aimed right at Roy Lichtenstein in a review he created using the comics medium on a page in Artforum, December 1990. It was a review of the latest attempt to place comics in a fine arts setting: The Museum of Modern Art’s High and Low: Modern Art and Pop Culture. Spiegelman would have been far better off had he taken his time to calmly comment on the show instead of feature Lichtenstein and the supposed wrong he’d done. To be clear, Roy Lichtenstein did nothing wrong. Simply put, he took comics from one context and put them in another. Taking one thing and repurposing it is as old as cave paintings. Seriously, look at an artist like Édouard Manet and you can see what intriguing results you get from recontextualizing. Pop Art was doing this left and right and it wasn’t always simply a comment on consumer trash culture. It could also be contemplating formal issues, right down to playing with the juxtapostion of Ben Day dots. It was a lot of things and one thing you can definitely call it is art.
Program cover, The Comic Strip: Its Ancient and Honorable Lineage (1942). Image courtesy of AIGA Design Archives.
As Kim A. Munson’s research bears out, the earliest comics shows, from the ’30s and ’40s, did not feature pointed issues of legitimacy. In fact, it was more of a display of craftsmanship that was honored. We seem to come full circle in honoring craftsmanship with the landmark Masters of Comic Art show from 2005 but more on that in just a moment. Really, all of this coming to terms with comics comes down to what one group of connoisseurs thinks over another group of connoisseurs! What I appreciate about Munson’s book is how objective she is with the multitude of facts to dig through. Anyway, it was a very different scene when comics began to be shown in anything resembling a formal gallery setting. As Munson reports, back in the ’30s and ’40s, comics were appreciated and everyone was happy, just as long as you tolerated the common view that comics were quaint Americana. What makes things more complicated is that, in so many cases, comics are no better or worse than soap operas. So, your head will explode if you try to justify all comics. That’s where overanalyzing can run you aground. So, when in doubt, consider some common sense. There is agreement that comics can rise to high levels of excellence, such as the work of Milton Caniff, Winsor McCay and George Herriman. It has to do with originality of content and masterful and innovative use of formal elements. Honestly, you know it when you see it. You don’t have to leave it up to so-called experts to explain to you what is art and what is not art. It is a stereotype, really, to say that all diehard fans of comics are only interested in a particular plot. But the connoisseurs and so-called experts too often conclude that’s the case.
Comics have gone through a series of misunderstandings, especially in the United States. While Munson’s book doesn’t explicitly state that it is only covering U.S. comics, it does naturally slip into that focus. This is a collection of written pieces inextricably linked to American taste. It is that taste upon which the perception of comics depends upon in many ways. We Americans want to have it all, be brash and outspoken while being respected on all fronts. Collectively, we are not a shy bunch. And, as a group, we seem to be compelled to push and pull. And so something as egalitarian as well as just plain fun and stimulating as the comics medium is not going to get a free pass. So, where to begin? Well, in the beginning there was ignorance and indifference. As Denis Kitchen, an underground cartoonist and publisher of the prestigious Kitchen Sink Press, notes in his essay in this book, it seemed like comics came to life long before it gained any respectability. You could walk into the offices of United Feature Syndicate in the ’50s and find the original work of Al Capp, their star cartoonist, strewn across the floor of a storage room, complete with footprints. Al Capp, himself, hadn’t figured it out either and likened his world-famous Li’l Abner comic strip to a quick minute’s read on its way to becoming fish wrap. Even when it came to how to display the comic strip in public, it was thought that the finished printed color strip from the newspaper was far superior to the original. Heck, at first, original comic art wasn’t even considered an option as viewing material; and then, once found acceptable, it was simply pinned to the wall with tacks, no need to bother with framing it. That’s a far cry from today, of course, since first-rate work from the all-time best cartoonists is now properly valued. Denis Kitchen certainly knows this as his agency represents the estates of Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Al Capp, and many others.
So, how do you do justice to a work of comics, on a gallery wall, that was intended to ultimately be printed in a relatively small reading format? The fact remains that comics as an art form simply needs to be approached on its own terms. It’s not painting, for example, and doesn’t need to compete with it. When you come down to it, it is a hybrid art form, both visual and literary. Sure, there are comics without text but, essentially, comics is a form of storytelling. And, at the forefront, as I always like to point out, is the cartoonist-auteur, the one person who is engaged in the creation of a work of comics. This person might feel like creating outright paintings and all sorts of drawings and work in other media. What matters here is that comics, as an art form does have a core modus operandi: visual storytelling that uses visuals as a language and tends to be an artful combination of word and image. At its core, it is a sequential art or, at least, a form of storytelling. So, is it mainly visual or literary? It’s both. It’s a hybrid. Among the various art shows that have attempted to show comics, one of the best was 1991’s Misfit Lit and that’s simply because it was put together by Gary Groth, co-founder of Fantagraphics Books, as well as Larry Reid, folks who intimately understand comics. The big secret is to display the work in proper context.
It is work from the cartoonist-auteur that gets to the heart of the matter and best speaks to the issue of comics as art. Misfit Lit: Contemporary Comic Art, which began in Seattle and then went on a brief tour, provided not only a showcase of superstar talent but a serious look at the comics medium through a rich variety of work including Bernie Krigstein, Harvey Kurtzman, Charles Schulz, Basil Wolverton, Howard Cruse, Justin Green, Roberta Gregory, Chester Brown, Charles Burns, Peter Kuper, William Messneer-Loebs, Jim Woodring, and many more.
Maters of American Comics
Often, what people want is to be dazzled and one show that did just that was the 2005 show, Masters of American Comics, which, in no small part, was a reaction to the very same MOMA high low show of 1990 that had so incensed Art Spiegelman. This was a chance to set the record straight. Comics, all by itself, without need of comparison to painting, would dazzle an audience. This is a prime example of comics experts setting the tone. Art Spiegelman acted as a consultant and helped to choose the fifteen featured cartoonists, which included himself. No harm done, really. It was a wonderful show. And it served its purpose. As co-curator John Carlin put it, this was an opportunity to give a certain set of cartoonists an added “glow,” in the same spirit as, in the late ’50s, French critics elevated popular Hollywood directors Hitchcock and John Ford to the level of art-house icons. What was once one thing became another.
The Bible Illustrated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. October 24, 2009-February 7, 2010.
It all comes down to legitimacy. We creative types all hunger for legitimacy, especially if we’re creating work that we know is deserving of more serious acknowledgement. Comics, as a whole, have been howling for such validation. Case in point is the career of R. Crumb, the ringleader of much of the mayhem and glorious creative output of the underground comix movement. Is a lot of that work today under fire? The short answer is yes. In more recent years, what has Crumb done in order to perhaps appeal to a larger audience? Crumb turns the Bible into a comic book! For anyone familiar with its contents, it basically allows Crumb to be Crumb. Crumb recently took on The Book of Genesis with spectacular results. This is a case of a savvy master creating a work with one eye on the printed result and another eye anticipating a presentation of original artwork to the public. Another recent Crumb show was at the prestigious David Zwirner art gallery in New York. For that show, Crumb was presented in historical context. And, since Crumb is still an active artist, one room was dedicated to recent work that was as vibrant and compelling as anything you would expect from one of Chelsea’s blue chip galleries. Sure, a lot of these were more one-shot portraits but that’s really the whole point. Comics is an art medium. And artists are artists. Sometimes artists create comics and sometimes they create other forms of art. And when a work of art is comics, well, there’s no shame in saying that. The point is that Crumb was able to ride the waves of an often provocative and controversial career. Finally, he’s been there to guide the narrative, set the record straight, and firmly establish his position.There are a number of essays in this book that conclude Crumb is Crumb and that’s worth respect.
Whoever gets noticed the most then gets to move forward and, ultimately, gets to be remembered for posterity. Sometimes merit is not the most important factor but sheer persistence in determining who reaches to the top. However, it is only after numerous cycles of shows, reviews, and whatever else, before the true artists become most apparent and remain standing. After a long process, common sense will play a more important role, and out into the world, like a reborn babe, will emerge undisputed names like George Herriman, Milton Caniff and Jack Kirby.
I can’t stress enough the importance of objectivity in a collection such as this. Munson has done such an admirable job of organizing this multitude of dispatches from the front lines, including her own work. And, all the while, she doesn’t step in to clear the air with any speculation of her own. She lets the work speak for itself. And, in doing so, it’s clear to me that she sees there is plenty of work still ahead in understanding comics. The very last piece included in this book is from 2017 by Alexi Worth and explores the work of Jack Kirby. For me, and perhaps to any careful reader, the frustrating conclusion Worth reaches is that there is a strong case to be made for Jack Kirby creating what amounts to art, despite the fact he had to work in such a minor art form as comics! In Worth’s opinion, comics is essentially a mass entertainment machine: “The basic task of that medium is to transform neat rows of boxes into heterogeneous flow.” Poor Jack Kirby, in Worth’s view, was held back by comics “because his pictures were conceived as sequences.” How can you appreciate the artist if you don’t appreciate their art medium? Let me just insert here that I’d welcome further discussion with Worth since, to be fair, I see this as an evolving discussion. I also believe it is settled that comics is as legitimate an art form as any other. We don’t want that to get lost. And, again, I’ll state here that there is a wide spectrum of comics, not all linear and dependent on identical panels, although it doesn’t matter. In fact, comics do well with a set of limitations. Jack Kirby literally pushed the constraints of the picture plane. Other masters of comics, like Steve Ditko, seemed to revel within a certain set of order. And, despite what Worth concludes, comics don’t need to be hemmed in by addressing action only from one panel to the next. Many artists can speak to the interconnection of activity that is possible taking place all over the page as well as the dynamism going on between facing pages. Artist and scholar Frank Santoro is certainly a leading advocate of creating comics that work with the entire space not only between panels but also between pages. Well, the process of understanding comics goes on and this book will absolutely help with the ongoing discussion!
Milton Caniff show at Society of Illustrators, 1946.
Michelle Goldberg, in the NYT podcast, The Argument, said something that put the first five months of this year into stark perspective. She said that 2020 started off like 1974 (an impeachment crisis), quickly became 1918 (a pandemic), turned into 1929 (economic crash), and is now 1968 (massive urban unrest).” What next? Protest will continue. We all can look to John Lewis on how to cause some “good trouble.”
The death of John Lewis reverberates and can’t help but provide guidance. Here is John Lewis in his own words: “I learned from Rosa Parks and from Martin Luther King Jr. I found a way to get in the way. To cause good trouble. Necessary trouble.”
Here is a review I did back on August 28, 2013 of the first installment of MARCH, the graphic novel that John Lewis created with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell:
The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is today, August 28, 2013. It is one of the most inspiring moments in American history and all of history. It will only grow in stature and significance as time continues its own march. The United States of America was desperately lagging behind in full self-awareness as a nation when it received an opportunity for collective clarity. It was a beautiful, gentle, and energetic plea for understanding. There were marches before and after this distinguished one. Progress would still take time. His words would still be dismissed by some. But, on that day, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a nation. He gave a speech. He spoke of a dream.
We continue to remember that moment, and that movement, in new ways. One shining example is “March,” the new graphic novel, published by Top Shelf Productions, written by Rep. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and drawn by Nate Powell. “March: Book One,” the first part of a trilogy, has already gained critical and popular acclaim. It has made it to the number one spot on The New York Times bestsellers list for Graphic Books. The creation of this book is inspiring in itself. Congressman John Lewis is a perfect guide. He was an active participant in the civil rights movement right from the start. He is the last surviving dignitary who gave a speech during the March on Washington. And he’s a wealth of knowledge and goodwill. The “March” trilogy gives us a front row seat to the civil rights movement in America through the eyes of Mr. Lewis. The story is framed all in one day, January 20, 2009, the day of the inauguration of President Barack Obama. It’s an ambitious project that reads quite smoothly, just as if Mr. Lewis was there to tell you the story in person.
The script seems to embrace a cinematic pace. The main character is recalling his life all in a short span of time with each recollection triggering an extended flashback. It is left to Nate Powell’s storytelling ability as a cartoonist to bring out aspects that gel with the comics medium. You see this in the various ways that Powell plays with text and composition like when he has a favorite passage from the Bible run across a silhouette of young John Lewis: “Behold the lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.” And, of course, the distinctive drawing style of Nate Powell takes over. We easily become immersed in the intelligent and caring ways of this boy who is compelled to preach to the chickens on the family farm. In due time, the young man’s compassion becomes refined and focuses on the social gospel, the idea that church principles can guide social justice.
Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, published by F.O.R. in 1956
It is a dangerous world that young Lewis must navigate. There is constant humiliation and intimidation. You could easily be killed, just like 14-year-old Emmett Till. But a violent reaction would not be the answer. The key was passive resistance and keeping faith. There were various techniques to learn in order to outwit one’s attackers with the prevailing goal being to draw out your enemy’s humanity. We find an actual comic book pamphlet of the time laying out the Montgomery Method that worked so well for Dr. King and his followers. It is a satisfying comics reference within a comic. It was an inspiration for the young John Lewis. And it’s a compelling link to the past to this contemporary look back.
It will be great to see the whole trilogy. It’s so important for new generations to have something contemporary in order to help them hook into history. The civil rights movement is really relatively recent history depending on how you look at it! This book and “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” make a big difference. The United States of America has a lot of wounds that are still healing and we still have a lot to learn and relearn. It’s this book and that movie that provide essential hooks for young people, give them proper context, help them appreciate when they hear on the news that our voting rights as a people are, even today, being compromised. You can’t put enough value on a book like “March” and more power to Top Shelf Productions for publishing it.
“March: Book One” is a beautiful book. It is a new way to honor and understand what has come before us and be inspired for what lies ahead. It is a 128-page trade paperback and is available for $14.95 (US) print and $9.95 (US) digital. Visit our friends at Top Shelf Productions here.
Here is a book that would make one hell of a movie. There’s even a moment in the book when one of characters suggests they’re in the middle of movie-worthy activity. That said, you might have heard that this novel is well on its way to a movie adaptation thanks to no less than Duchess Meghan Markle and the new movie production company she is launching with Prince Harry. Well, this news calls for a proper review of the book in question and I’ll do my best to give you just enough of a taste without spoiling anything.
Part of what prompted me to write this review is a bit of serendipity. Lloyd Scott and I are both biracial and we both chose to speak to that within a political thriller. Well, mine is not quite as intense. Look it up, Max in America, and you’ll see what I mean. But still, I think that connection is pretty uncanny, especially how we both share our experiences with identity, being seen as the Other, and playing with being a raceshifter. You can say that our backgrounds provided the fuel for our work. I like that. Election Year is offbeat and eccentric, in the same spirit to what I’m doing too. So, let’s take a closer look.
Meet Maverick Johnson Malone, our main character, a Millennial working to help elect Suni Wainwright as the first woman, and youngest, U.S. president. It is the pivotal year of 2020, and there’s excitement in the air. The only problem is that Maverick hates Suni because she’s so fake! This summation is only based upon casual observation until one day it is based on far more than that. It turns out that Suni is a Russian operative–and so the plot thickens.
Ryan, Maverick, and Jay. illustration by Henry Chamberlain
Given all that we know about a certain occupant in the White House and his Russian connections, the plot to this novel has found a funny indirect way to tackle the issue. Lloyd has attached humor to her Manchurian candidate that provides a light and breezy way into her political thriller. The humor going in features Maverick Malone who, at first, seems rather klutzy and self-absorbed. It could be Rome burning in the background but Maverick will keep obsessing over why her ex is such a jerk. This adds up to a pitch perfect Bridget Jones vibe. Lloyd has also created a believable office culture made up of staff working to get Suni Wainwright in the White House. Often, it is Maverick Malone to the rescue with a new idea to put out the latest fire but that is usually overshadowed by her own disgruntled attitude.
Then things transition to a more serious tone. We do have the fate of American democracy to deal with, don’t we? Gee, that question has so many levels of irony that it leaves my head spinning. In fact, the story truly finds its groove just prior to the political intrigue, as the reader gets to know Maverick better. What emerges is the story of a young biracial woman who feels alienated. Part of the problem is her dysfunctional family. Her White mother and Black father are wealthy and distant. As much as she is frustrated by having to constantly explain her racial background, she finds the even greater divide to be money.
Like a good work of film noir or crime fiction, this novel is meant to please with its fair share of twists and turns. Lloyd has fun tapping into a style with the energy of a young adult novel. Maverick is already into her thirties but still full of Millennial spunk. It is this energy that carries the reader as Maverick goes deeper with her sleuthing. Along the way, Maverick finds love with Ryan, a dashing young biracial much like herself. And, to round things out, Maverick develops a greater sense of responsibility as she finds herself caring more for Jay, a Black girl who lives next door to her. It is this trio who all become caught up in the intrigue and danger that threatens to kill them all. And, even when the tension is high, Lloyd manages to insert a little irony as when Jay has a meta-moment. Jay wryly observes that the three of them seem to resemble yet another comedy adventure but with plenty of diversity.
Overall, this is a unique joy ride of a thriller. Yes, it provides those unexpected twists and turns. But the most unexpected revelations run deeper than any car chase. At the heart of it, this is a story about confronting the status quo and finding the right solutions to ultimately achieve the change that we all want. Lloyd Scott brings up many provocative issues, which pop up as events heat up. It is our main character, our shero, Maverick Malone, who is in a position to truly empathize with the Other in America. It is Maverick who can appreciate, even when passion might overtake wisdom, that life is full of complicated contradictions.
While there is plenty of humor, and action, to be found here, this is also a story about trying to understand some painful truth. For all the rip-snorting good action we find here, there’s also just as robust rounds of political fisticuffs, like this particularly pointed salvo: “You have no idea the extent of your privilege. The geographical luck of your births, freedom is a right from your first breath, and all you do is complain. We on the outside know, we see how endowed with opportunity you are and the means to do great things you have at your disposal, but all you Americans do is spend your time infighting. Refusing to see the truth of things, running down the climate clock for everyone with your pollution and your insolence. It’s time for it to end.” Well, now, if those aren’t some fighting words, I don’t know what is! Yes, if the action doesn’t get you, the heated political talk just might be enough for you to want to see how this political thriller all comes together.
L.A. Zine Fest took place this year as a virtual series of events in May, an exciting alternative to connect zinesters, attendees, and other people who usually go to the fest. Let this serve as a friendly and helpful model for similar events that might still be grappling with what to do in 2020 and beyond. COVID-19 isn’t going to just disappear but we can remain vigilant and creative. From the comfort of my home in Seattle, I got to check out L.A. Zine Fest and I have some items to share with you from my connecting remotely with LAZF.
CDMX by Chynna Monforte
Here is a zine by Chynna Monforte which shares with the reader a recent visit to Mexico City. Chynna put on an excellent workshop as part of the schedule of events during LAZF this year. During her workshop, Chynna shared her techniques for putting together a zine which included a look at her own vast collection as well as some tips on laying out your zine in inDesign. Be sure to visit Chynna for all your design needs, particularly with print and web design.
Pages from CDMX
The robust colors just blow my mind. With her zine, CDMX, Chynna Monoforte demonstrates that there are no limits to what you can do with a zine. You can really put together a zine that is just as vibrant and professional as anything you’d find in a mainstream magazine.
Zines by Stainperfect
And here is a zine from Haruka Tanabe, an artist that goes by the name, Stainperfect, based in Tokyo and Osaka. This is an amazing artist and I am curious to learn more. Her work is very much in the autobio tradition of indie comics and it appears that autobio work comes naturally to her. For a long time, she had misgivings about her art but she finally took the plunge after finally gaining just the right support from a friend. Her earliest effort was the little zine, It’s Okay, which is an affirmation she makes to herself and shares with the reader. This led to deeper exploration, as in Midnight Drumbeat, a poetic look at a trip to Mozambique where she was a volunteer. More recent work includes, Loving More Freely: Exploring Polyamory, which explores relationships within polyamory and provides essential insight.
Page from Loving More Freely: Exploring Polyamory
L.A. Zine Fest curated readings, workshops, and discussion panels via Zoom that connected zinesters, creators, comix artists, and illustrators with each other and the general public. Workshops and panels included everything from how to draw people who are different than you are to an exercise in making comics and “stream-of-consciousness sketching” in quarantine times.
L.A. Zine Fest 2019
LAZF teamed up with some of its 2020 exhibitors to create a select number of digital events and fun stuff for 2020. I look forward to what LAZF does for 2021, whether in person or virtual. Let’s all keep doing great work supporting the arts through the pandemic. Keep in touch with LAZF!
The Phantom Zone and Other Stories: Comics and Prose by José Alaniz
The Phantom Zone and Other Stories: Comics and Prose by José Alaniz. By José Alaniz. San Diego: Amatl Comix, an SDSU Press imprint, 2020. 128 pp. $18.99.
The college newspaper has a long tradition as an incubator of exciting talent. The Daily Texan, at the University of Texas, is a prime example, home to such notable alumni as Berkeley Breathed, Chris Ware, and Shannon Wheeler. Jose Alaniz’s The Phantom Zone first appeared as a comic strip in UT’s Daily Texan in 1992-1993. Now, imagine a book that not only collects some of the best work Alaniz did at UT but also provides a look at later work, including comics and scholarship. That is what you’ll find in The Phantom Zone and Other Stories: Comics and Prose by José Alaniz.
The Phantom Zone, circa 1992
This book is a very special treat on many levels. For those of you interested in the process of creating comics, and storytelling in general, this book is invaluable. As for me, I’m compelled to share this with you for a number of reasons. First, I feel a great connection to Alaniz simply for the fact that we’re both Mexican-American. We’re also of the same vintage but, more than just being part of the Gen X crowd, I had my own comic strip, Danny, running in The Daily Cougar, at the University of Houston in the late-80s. In my case, one of my characters was ripped off by another cartoonist and appeared in The Houston Post for a while. And then life moved on. I’d always been heavy into liberal arts, ever mindful of an uncertain future, but always faithful to my art. I made the big move to Seattle in the early-90s seeking a receptive creative home base. And so did Alaniz! Fast forward all these many years, and Alaniz found himself befriended by many of the same cartoonists in the community I was a part of. Small world! I have to say all this because Alaniz speaks to these similar building blocks. It’s also a big world too because I’ve never met Alaniz. Now, I hope that can be corrected. This book has proven to be such an awesome introduction!
The Phantom Zone, circa 1998
If José Alaniz had never kept up with creating comics, he would still have much to be proud of and satisfied with. Today, Alaniz is a professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. Mr. Alaniz is the author of Komiks: Comic Art in Russia as well as Death, Disability, and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond. Both titles break new ground in comics scholarship from two very distinct approaches. Alaniz spent a good bit of time in Moscow and concluded that the Russian culture did not have much of any connection to comics so he investigated. Alaniz also found it intriguing how mainstream superhero comics explore issues of disability, death and dying and that led to him writing on that. Along the way, Alaniz probably missed creating comics on an ongoing basis. Once you’ve experienced the constant pace of creating a daily comic strip, at a significant level, it never leaves your system entirely. You have this compulsion to express yourself on a regular basis. The act of regularly creating comics gets under your skin. It is very intimate and intense. And it can metamorphosize into all sorts of other forms of self-expression: prose writing, including fiction and journalism, and engaging with other media as well. You are an exhibitionist, liable to walk around naked down the street if given half a chance. But the comics medium is a very specific thing and it has a way of calling back those who have participated at deep level just like a certain mistress may hold sway over a past lover.
Old Edinburg, Dead and Gone!
The Phantom Zone is an intriguing title for a comic strip. It seems to harken back to a good 0ld-fashioned adventure comic strips by such greats as Milton Caniff. Add to it the fact that Alaniz is playing with issues of youth, identity and culture, and it’s easy to try to draw some comparisons to the, by then, well established alternative comics scene of the time. Love and Rockets, the comic book series, and leading alt-comics title, by the Hernandez brothers: Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario, would undoubtedly have been known by Alaniz. It is asking a lot of any young person to try to live up to such giants as Milton Caniff and the Hernandez brothers but many an aspiring cartoonist is compelled to give it a go. Once you’re in the thick of doing a regular comic strip, all bets are off. An overriding worldview kicks in and guides the cartoonist. Comics can be a great equalizer since it cuts deep, ignores any fuzzy boundaries between high and low culture. Suddenly, Archie Comics and Popeye must be given their due, honored and respected. Academics traditionally would thumb their nose at the likes of Jughead and Brutus and dismiss these clowns as “drivel.” And, of course, they’d use such an arcane term to add to the sting. But a true cartoonist, someone actually writing and drawing in pursuit of something artful, they know the true value of such legendary characters. And so Alaniz bravely entered the fray. Soon, he had something brewing, riding upon the shoulders of too many other cartoonists to mention. It is fascinating to read the early college efforts and then compare that to later work revisiting the same characters.
From that experience, it was onward to further exploration in creating comics. Pivotal in this process, as Alaniz shares, is his taking part in monthly informal get-togethers with various cartoonists at a local Seattle cafe. Prior to the pandemic, each gathering was an opportunity for cartoonists to draw up comics that were then collected and printed into an ongoing anthology known as, Dune. I’ve often been invited but I never attended, mostly because it conflicted with my job. But I’ve had countless interactions with most of these cartoonists. As many of them can attest, I’ve been at the forefront of many comics events which they happily participated in. Some of the most notable cartoonists from this scene include: Max Clotfelter, Marc J. Palm, David Lasky, Greg Stump, Seth Goodkind, Jim Woodring, Eroyn Franklin and Megan Kelso. Again, I can’t stress enough how valuable this book can be to anyone interested in the comics medium. It all began for Alaniz with a youthful creative impulse and just look where it took him. Overall, The Phantom Zone comic strip does a decent job with carving out something in the auto-bio tradition. What is truly most compelling is the life that José Alaniz carved out for himself.
The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski. By Noah Van Sciver. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2020. 452 pp. $39.99.
Noah Van Sciver is an interesting cartoonist. He’s long graduated from being one of “those to watch” to an artist with a substanital track record. As a cartoonist myself, I admire and appreciate what he’s doing. He is best known for his lovable loudmouth character, Fante Bukowski, a confused mashup of Charles Bukowski and John Fante. The ongoing joke here is that Fante Bukowski is a perpetually aspiring writer, both artless and clueless. If you haven’t jumped on the Fante Bukowski bandwagon yet, now is the time with the release of The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski, which collects every mishap and stumble all the way on a crazed quest for fame and fortune.
Fante dreams big.
I think that Fante is a very successful character. Van Sciver has developed something that people can easily relate to. Despite the fact that Fante is associated with the literary crowd, there’s nothing highbrow about him. If nothing else, Fante is accessible. You can think of him as the Homer Simpson of lost souls. In a higher sense, Fante is a perfect vehicle for Van Sciver to skewer any lofty notions about art. But even suggesting this may only make Van Sciver laugh. For something really serious and dark, he’d direct you to his graphic novella, Saint Cole. There’s definitely loads of irony and irreverence attached to Fante. On a more basic level, you can replace any literary stuff in here (replace it with general office culture, academia or even indie comics culture) and enjoy this as a story about a guy who is not much more than a professional wedding crasher, a latter day Groucho Marx out to expose hypocrisy and pretentiousness in all its many forms even if he’s not aware of it. The character is funny, gets into silly situations, and will make you laugh. But there’s more.
Fante Bukowski demands to be taken seriously as a writer. Van Sciver presents us with the journey of a misguided young man who really has no great talent, skill or genuine passion. Fante simply feels entitled to be a success. Fante will make some effort, just the bare minimum, towards his dreams, and expect instant results. His bare minimum efforts are garbage but he refuses to take no for an answer. All in all, this is very funny stuff. Imagine Steve Martin, in his prime, in the role of Fante. Or Ricky Gervais. However, given all the work it took to set up the premise of Fante, it would have been interesting if the satirical aim was a bit more precise if that were possible. As it is, Fante does indeed have hilarious moments like when he’s courting favor with a “literary journal” he’d like to have his work in, the Firewarter Journal, with s perfectly pompous name and a circulation of a dozen to match. These are the sort of pleasant jabs that you might expect from the comic strip, Doonesbury, but more generic. Ultimately, Van Sciver succeeds by keeping his humor broad.
A romantic but stupid idea of being a writer.
Van Sciver seems to root for irreverence more than anything as a way to move things along. He doesn’t want anything to be taken too seriously, including his own work. He’s not trying to be Dash Shaw. And he doesn’t seem to aspire to write a true comedy of manners like cartoonist Posy Simmonds although he does a fine job with the social commentary he does end up doing. More importantly, he has definitely invested quite a lot in the idea that Fante Bukowski is a clueless young loudmouth who is completely absorbed with entitlement. That alone is key. A lot of other tidbits up for satire can be lightly played with. The big takeaway is that Fante Bukowski is a young empty suit. He feels he is owed something with apparently nothing to show for his outrageous demands. If, in spite of this fact, Fante did find his fame and fortune, then the joke would truly be on us.
While much care has been taken, Van Sciver has also made sure to leave a certain amount of a raw quality to what he does–and there is a long-standing tradition for that in indie comics and in art in general. You want to avoid getting too polished, too slick. You want to look the opposite of “corporate.” So, you’ll see the artwork is only refined up to a certain point. Some cartoonists, for example, will deliberately misuse digital coloring to subvert the idea of making things look too pretty. Van Sciver, for example, could have easily chosen a way to seamlessly clean up any mistakes in his text but he wants you to be aware of them. He has pasted over by hand every correction to his text and made it so that you clearly notice it. Whatever the reason, it reads as a style choice.
Unlucky in love.
Following this subversive impulse, Van Sciver does the same for the actual story. Nothing is supposed to be taken too seriously–and that does make sense when you’re poking fun at all those “highbrows” who take themselves too seriously, right? That notion is where you might find some subtext. Van Sciver peppers his comics with all sorts of quotes from various famous writers and artists and, within this loopy context, even the best lines from Hemingway or Fitzgerald all sound like sayings from fortune cookies. For a book that seems to be in it just for laughs, taking a blowtorch to the old masters has some bite to it. But no one really wants to topple truly great writers. In the end, we’re supposed to turn our gaze back to Fante Bukowski and maybe pity the poor fool.
Noah Van Sciver is an Ignatz award-winning cartoonist who first came to comic readers’ attention with his critically acclaimed comic book series Blammo. His work has appeared in the Best American Comics and the Fantagraphics anthology series NOW. Van Sciver is a regular contributor to Mad magazine and has created many graphic novels including The Hypo and Saint Cole. His latest, The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski, collects all three volumes of the Fante Bukowski series in an expanded hardcover edition with extra features and special material. His follow up, Please Don’t Step on My JNCO Jeans, will be published in December.