The time has come to start spreading the news. My graphic novel, George’s Run, will be out soon. It is in the March edition of Previews, and you can find it here. The book will become available as of May 12, 2023, published by Rutgers University Press–and I could not be more thrilled. If you’ve ever set foot in a comics shop for any significant amount of time, then you’re aware of the monthly Diamond Comic Distributor Previews catalog. Each catalog provides previews of comics and graphic novels that will be available in the next couple of months. The issue for March, which comes out on February 22, features items scheduled to ship in May 2023 and will have my book in it. This is a big step towards getting the book out into the world! And, for a comics fan, it’s a huge big deal.
This is the book for any fan of comics, pop culture, and great stories!
George’s Run has been years in the making. If you’re one of my loyal followers, then you already know that this book is about the power of storytelling, a special blend of it going back to pulp fiction, especially science fiction. I’ll keep you posted every step of the way. For now, if you happen to visit your local comic shops, ask them to check out my book in the March Previews catalog and seriously consider ordering some copies of George’s Run. Your support means everything to me!
Here I am debuting a mini-comic version of George’s Run at Short Run!
An early color version of a page from the book.
I love the promotional material put together by Rutgers. It sums it all up quite nicely:
George Clayton Johnson was an up-and-coming short story writer who broke into Hollywood in a big way when he co-wrote the screenplay for Ocean’s Eleven. More legendary works followed, including Logan’s Run and classic scripts for shows like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek. In the meantime, he forged friendships with some of the era’s most visionary science fiction writers, including Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Richard Matheson, and Rod Serling.
Later in life, Johnson befriended comics journalist and artist Henry Chamberlain, and the two had long chats about his amazing life and career. Now Chamberlain pays tribute to his late friend in the graphic novel George’s Run, which brings Johnson’s creative milieu to life in vividly illustrated color panels. The result feels less like reading a conventional biography and more like sitting in on an intimate conversation between friends as they recollect key moments in pop culture history, as well as the colorful band of writers described by Chamberlain as the “Rat Pack of Science Fiction.”
Here is more marketing material:
New Graphic Novel Traces the Origins of Pop Culture Through the Life of Eccentric Storyteller George Clayton Johnson
“George Clayton Johnson was one of the most brilliant and important writers of the 20th Century, creating classic episodes of The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, as well as co-authoring Logan’s Run and Ocean’s Eleven. George’s Run spectacularly and charmingly invites you on the amazing journey of his life and legacy, from 1929 through the Fifties and Sixties to 2015 and beyond. It’s a trip down Memory Lane via time machine and rocket ship—and it will definitely blow your mind!”
—Marc Scott Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion
George Clayton Johnson
George’s Run: A Writer’s Journey Through the Twilight Zone (Rutgers University Press; May 12, 2023, 978-1-9788-3420-0; $24.95) is a mashup of gonzo journalism and whimsical storytelling with the overarching theme of how a group of writers influenced each other to create some of the greatest pop culture of all time. This is an exploration of self and creativity.
The reader follows cartoonist-journalist Henry Chamberlain as he seeks to reveal secrets and insights from a unicorn from a golden era. George Clayton Johnson was one of the greatest television writers of the 1960s. George showed up, as if out of nowhere, to command a significant place at the writer’s table for the original Twilight Zone and Star Trek. Co-writing the cult classic novel, Logan’s Run, was to be the cherry on top of a career that began, believe it or not, with George co-writing the story that was to become the original Rat Pack classic, Ocean’s Eleven.
Henry Chamberlain is a cartoonist, artist and writer living in Virginia Beach, originally from Seattle. Henry regularly writes about comics and pop culture on his blog, Comics Grinder. He writes for other venues, including The Comics Journal.
A quick and apt description of the comics created by Sammy Harkham would be “painfully honest.” While this sentence alone may not mean very much to the vast sea of potential readers, it will resonate with many, not only the comics aficionado but the general reader. This particular work is at the masterpiece level when it comes to full-length graphic novels. Fans and critics alike have been patiently waiting for the various parts they’ve read published elsewhere to all come together and so here we go: a story about Hollywood, its underbelly; in fact, the exploitation scene of the 1970s. Our anti-hero, Seymour, working at one of these cheap movie studios and patiently waiting his turn, has been promoted leaving him in charge of his own movie. This level of responsibility, and relative notoriety, easily consumes him threatening an already shaky relationship with his wife, Ida.
Over a decade in the making.
Like any worthwhile graphic novel project, this book has been many years in the making. The bulk of the book was created in installments and appeared in the author’s own self-published comic book, Crickets, as well as his legendary ongoing comics anthology, Kramers Ergot. Anyone who seriously follows the indie comics scene will at least be aware of Sammy Harkham. Diehards will closely follow his every turn. And, for the vast majority of readers, this will be the first time they are exposed to this work.
Oh, Little Piglet!
Harkham’s cartooning style is a classic approach in the great tradition of working from reality and paring away to the essentials. This style fits in with great comics from the last century like MAD Magazine. It’s a very readable style that embraces personal moments between characters. We see Seymour and Ida, over and over again, at their best and worst. We certainly see plenty of Seymour at his worst. The stage is set early on with the big hint that Seymour doesn’t appreciate his wife and maybe the same goes for Ida. We proceed waiting for the other shoe to drop. The whole business with exploitation movies may as well be one big MacGuffin compared to what happens to these two. Harkham makes us care over and over again.
Hollywood, then and now, has always been a tough business.
Hollywood looms large over everything. That can’t be denied. Seymour is in the storytelling business, even if it’s a very small and cheesy slice of it. Maybe he just needs to be a part of it, a way to live forever. It’s more than half way into the book before there’s any mention of why Seymour does what he does. He claims to love horror movies. Even the cast he’s directing admit they love rock bands more than movies. Maybe Seymour loves the movie-making process more than just movies. That remains a question. Seymour himself remains a question.
Kvetching and kibitzing at Canter’s Deli.
Seymour’s story is about a young man who must do something. If it isn’t making movies, then maybe it would be making comics. Throughout the book, we see him following his passion of making something of himself. He doesn’t really know all that much about movies, about women, about the world around him. All he really knows is that he must do something. One epiphany may lead to another but, while you’re busy living your life, it can look like one big mess. And it is a mess. As Ida puts it, “Even at its best, life is just really annoying.” In the end, Ida and Seymour are an immature young married couple who can’t afford yet to fully appreciate each other, themselves, or even their child. Such is life and Sammy Harkham manages to strike the right chord with each and every painfully honest key.
Is it worth turning your life upside down for five minutes of faux wisdom?
It’s funny how a story that spans a few weeks can take fourteen years to complete. Such is the nature of bringing to life a fully-formed comics masterwork. If you are among the select number of comics aficionados who have diligently followed this story as it came out in issues of Crickets, and think you’re done with it, I encourage you to read the whole thing through now in its collected form. It may not be as you remembered it. Maybe it’s not, at its core, a story about storytelling. Well, that’s only part of it. After giving this a read from beginning to end, I stand by my interpretation that it’s a steady and deliberate look at callow youth trying to make sense of it all. It’s certainly not only about Hollywood ambition. If it was, Harkham wouldn’t have devoted an entire issue of Crickets to Ida’s sudden detour, her visit to see her parents in Auckland.
Portrait of a Young Couple.
This story is exploring the existential crisis we all must confront. Is Seymour going to find salvation in the movie business? Unless he’s really serious about seeking out what is most artful in the horror movie genre, then maybe he’s just as likely to move on to other pursuits. But, at this particular point in time, movie-making is his thing. What is it that matters most to Seymour? Even with his movie passion supposedly locked in, he would be hard pressed to articulate what his priorities are. Other readers will have their own opinions. This is one of those special graphic novels that genuinely invites its own book club! Who knows, maybe Blood of the Virgin will ascend to that most coveted of heights: spoken in the same breathe with Maus and Persepolis. It’s that good!
Blood of the Virgin is now available for pre-order. The Pantheon collected edition comes out May 2, 2023.
“A Study in Ink” is a 32-page zine by artist Angela Krieg detailing the first six months of 2021, leading up to her first art show. This zine acts as a showcase for work; provides a window into a young person’s life struggles; and is a idiosyncratic document representing the COVID-19 era.
Perhaps the most appealing thing about a zine is that it is part of a DIY culture which sets no limitations and embraces authenticity over polish. Many a zine embraces typos and a more raw approach. Krieg’s zine has that kind of energy; it is more like a peek into a private sketchbook, warts and all, rather than a crafted finished work. That said, like many a sketchbook, there are certain gems that stand out. Some of the best examples here give the reader a taste of Krieg’s lean and direct style. It all adds up to a fun and interesting look at a small batch of artist notes and drawings.
A young artist’s life.
The very best example pares it all down to a bunch of words and one picture. At the bottom of the page is Krieg, eyes shut and appearing to hold it together. Atop her, various concerns loom overhead: mental health, motivation, COVID-19, taxes, cold, time and work. It’s a powerful image and a glimpse at what lies ahead for a promising new talent. You can find out how to purchase this zine, as well as review a variety of graphic artwork and services, at Krieg’s website.
There is a true art to comics storytelling. Don’t let anyone tell you different. And, if you’ve joined me here, you most likely already know. Heck, you can tell when a story has got that crunchy goodness and when it falls short. Maybe you’ve had the pleasure of reading the comics of Brian Fies. He’s the guy who did that webcomic that went viral and ended up inspiring the creation of a Digital Comics category at the Eisner Awards. It was the webcomic, Mom’s Cancer, which won in that category that first year, back in 2005. Comics scholar Scott McCloud was there to hand Brian Fies his award. Recently, Brian’s book, A Fire Story, was released in an updated and expanded edition. Read my review here.
How do you end up creating a comic about your own mother’s cancer? Well, that’s where the power of storytelling comes in. You can tell any story, of course. And there’s something about the nature of comics, the medium’s built-in tendency to organize thought, that can lead both the creator and the reader down some very unexpected and rewarding paths. And, yes, you can even extract a touch of humor from the most challenging situations. Fies did it with his groundbreaking webcomic and he did it again with his more recent, A Fire Story, which has just been released in an updated and extended edition.
A Fire Story
I hope you enjoy this interview. It was a pleasure to do. I hardly had to refer to my notes as I had a million things I could talk to Brian about. He even knew, right away, about my favorite pop culture hero, George Clayton Johnson. I focused much of our talk on comparing Mom’s Cancer to A Fire Story. Maybe we’ll need to do another talk that compares his book, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? with his upcoming book, The Last Mechanical Monster, due to be released early next year.
Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?
The Last Mechanical Monster
It is safe to say, in my opinion, that all auteur cartoonists share the same trait of being compelled to also be journalists: to act as caretakers of a big story and be obligated to gather all the facts, process all the facts, and present the best, most detailed yet concise, version of these facts. Some do it better than others. There are numerous variations and ways of doing this. But, at the end of the day, a real cartoonist is every bit as capable and driven as a real reporter.
Panel excerpt from A Fire Story
If you are new to Brian Fies and to A Fire Story, and if you’re looking for a perfect textbook example of how to tell a story through comics, then seek out this book! For more details, go to Abrams ComicArts.
BONUS: We avoided a detour during our conversation and had meant to return to it. So, for all you true believers, this is the bonus content. Brian wanted to share some hard-won process insights. Here is what he later related to me via e-mail:
“My Last Mechanical Monster anecdote is that I’d written the whole story and penciled more than 100 pages when I realized I wasn’t having any fun drawing the story. Every day at the board was a slog. I figured that if I didn’t enjoy writing it, nobody would probably enjoy reading it, either. So I paused, rethought the whole thing, turned those 100-plus pages of penciled drawings over, and started drawing a whole new story on their backs. I thought of it in the context of “wasted time”—in one sense, I wasted many months (maybe a year?) writing and drawing a story that I abandoned. But I had to work through that story to get to a better story I liked.
My lessons from that: you have to trust your process; you can’t be afraid to toss something that isn’t working; and sometimes you have to dig through crap to find gold (or at least less stinky crap.)”
Thank you, Brian! You are a modest and gracious person!
In Mongrel, Sayra Begum presents the reader an honest and in-depth look at a Muslim family from Bangladesh. Begum takes a very straightforward, blunt, and fresh approach to issues of race, gender, class, and religion. At the heart of her story is the conflict that the protagonist must navigate as she straddles two worlds coming from her mixed-heritage background: Bengal Muslim on her mother’s side; British-Anglo on her father’s side. In Islam, it is understood that a Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim woman. However, it is forbidden for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man. And yet this is exactly what happens in Begum’s story. Shuna is the daughter of such a forbidden union. When history is set to repeat itself with Shuna determined to marry David, a non-Muslim man, it is Shuna’s mother who is at the center of the conflict, making unfair and impossible demands upon her daughter.
Drawn is a style that evokes a dream-like sketchbook come to life, the reader is swept up into the immersive world of Mongrel. What strikes me about this graphic novel, what makes it remarkable, is its authenticity, commitment, and vision. It is not often that we, as general readers, have an opportunity to become privy to the everyday life of a Muslim family in such an accessible format as a graphic novel–even though there are well over a billion followers of Islam. With all the heated talk about diversity and inclusion on the table, it’s ironic. That said, we can all be grateful for this insightful work.
Now, let’s allow the book to speak for itself with some samples and quotes from the pages of Mongrel…
“The front door of Shuna’s family home acted as a gateway to Bangladesh. Nothing haram passed through this door, this was a devout house. When Shuna walked through this door, she switched her rebellious face to her pious face, which eagerly absorbed the teaching of the Prophet, striving to be a good Muslim girl. The switching between these two faces became increasingly difficult as they grew further and further apart.”
“‘Yes, yes, yes I’ll marry you!’ I said to David. Although, after the celestial shock wore off and dull reality set in, I realised there was a slight problem. I would have to tell my very traditional parents that I was going to marry a non-Muslim and confess my secret life.”
“It’s my wedding day. My parents are absent. I’m not surprised. Why would my parents want to celebrate their daughter being damned to an eternity in hell fire?”
Ultimately, Begum keeps it real. People are not saints. They can be very contradictory and self-destructive. They can also find a way out and to a healthy place for self-reflection. We are embarking upon a new cycle of calling out authority and demanding all sorts of change. What we mustn’t forget is to dig deeper and calmly remove the obstacles that lead to someone being seen as the Other or as the mongrel. Sayra Begum’s graphic novel is a step in the right direction. As I stated earlier, we don’t often have such a window specifically into the Muslim world. But you can also say that these kind of gems only come around every so often. I think of such landmark works as Blankets, by Craig Thompson, which dissects a Christian upbringing; and I think of Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, the last great work to take an idiosyncratic look at any religion in a significant graphic format. These gems take time and they come along it their due time. Now is a perfect time for Mongrel.
A note, especially to readers in the United States: you can find Mongrel at Amazon right here.
Go check out The Revolution of Cassandra for an unusual new work in comics. Here is a quirky story covering some serious subject matter. It reminds you of the fundamental need of making your voice heard. We can take that too much for granted in the United States. Just imagine what it’s like in parts of the world where the government is actively involved in keeping its citizens docile. Filmmaker Eric D. Howell is a fascinating storyteller dude–just the sort of creative person to lead the way with this audacious graphic novel, with Hollywood flair. Howell got into the entertainment business as a stuntman and, through determination, has risen up the ranks to movie director. You may know him from the 2017 Emilia Clarke movie, Voice from the Stone. By any measure, Howell’s career path is an impressive one.
USE MY VOICE by Amy Lee of Evanescence
Enter The Revolution of Cassandra, Howell’s new tale of adventure and idealism about two very different sisters, Moira and Cassie, and how they stumble into a civil war and perhaps lead a revolution. As I say, Howell’s new graphic novel has a very cool Hollywood connection. For starters, Howell is a well-liked and well-connected person. One of his friends is a very cool musician you may know. The Revolution of Cassandra served as an inspiration for Howell’s friend and Grammy Award-winning musician, Amy Lee of Evanescence, as she was writing her band’s new song, “Use My Voice.” The song’s video, directed by Howell, has been viewed more than two million times on YouTube since its premiere in late August.
Cassandra’s toes know the earth.
A few more words about this graphic novel. If you’re looking for an immersive work with a true cinematic look and feel, then The Revolution of Cassandra is for you. It is a mature work in the sense that adults will enjoy it for its more adult and sophisticated sensibility. It’s not for kids, per se. Let’s go with teens and up. This is set, after all, in a very gritty backdrop. There are rough men wandering about who are prone to pushing around women, if they can. That is, unless they’re confronting Moira and Cassie. Overall, there’s an earthy and authentic vibe running through. Moira is more reckless. Cassie is more the Earth Mother with her bare feet, or in Birkenstocks, solemnly gauging the environment.
The Revolution of Cassandra
Now, imagine attempting to stand out at a truly significant comics convention, like Comic Con in San Diego. Well, this is where brand sharing helps. Howell has partnered with Republic Restoratives Distillery and Craft Cocktail Bar in Washington, D.C. to introduce Purpose Rye. Purpose is the first single barrel expression from Republic Restoratives Distillery and is a limited run of only 100 barrels. This 95% rye mash bill has been aged in American oak for nearly five years, imparting rich notes of caramel, spice, hints of smoke and cocoa nibs. Every bottle of Purpose Rye sends a donation directly to Fair Fight Action which protects free and fair elections around the country. Purpose Rye is available for order online via Schneider’s of Capitol Hillin Washington, D.C. Twin Cities bartenders will be mixing Cassandra inspired cocktails this month to inspire customers to “use their voice” to support the social causes that matter to them. For Cassandra cocktail recipes, follow @revolutionofcassandra on Instagram.
Under the right circumstances, and responsibly, alcohol and comics do mix.
It was a lot of fun chatting with Howell and you can check out our conversation by clicking below:
The first chapter of The Revolution of Cassandra is available now for you to view for free.
Barbara Slate spent twelve-hour days working on The Mueller Report Graphic Novel in order to get it out in a timely manner. In fact, her book got mentioned by a Republican representative during the Trump impeachment hearings in the House of the U.S. Congress. Trump went on to be impeached by the House. But there’s more to Barbara Slate. Here is an in depth look at a wonderful career in comics and graphic novels. Barbara Slate is known for being a pioneer in feminist comics. Her first big break came with her character, Ms. Liz, which began on greeting cards (selling over two million), then a comic strip, and even an animated short on NBC’s Today Show! What an honor. And, as I suggest, there is much more like writing for DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Harvey Comics and Archie Comics. Among her many accomplishments in the visual storytelling biz, I was intrigued with the fact that she wrote 150 Betty and Veronica stories for Archie Comics! We cover that in this interview! Barbara was always fascinated with the friendship between these two young women who were so different. And, by the way, what the heck did they see in Archie in the first place? Good question.
Barbara Slate lecture poster
So, as always, I share with you about my own journey to better understand and appreciate the comics medium. I do it by sharing of my own work and by reviewing as much material as I can. And, of course, I do it by putting together special interviews such as this. You can say that I do my best to find a different angle to the people and subjects I choose to focus on. And I have no intention of stopping anytime soon. Not when I have creators like Barbara Slate to help guide the way.
The Mueller Report Graphic Novel by Barbara Slate
Now, a few words on the two recent titles that we feature in this interview. First, let’s cover The Mueller Report Graphic Novel. And then we’ll take a look at You Can Do A Graphic Novel. First off, I think Barbara has definitely created one of those books that becomes a keepsake. I am constantly culling through my books but this one is a keeper. And why? Well, within its 107 pages, it masterfully makes sense of one mammoth of a book that deserves close attention. The actual Mueller Report, a text-dense book clocking in at nearly 500 pages along with supplementary material, lays out how Russian interference has wreaked havoc upon our electoral process as well as provides a jaw-drawing look at how the Trump team, with Trump himself very much involved, have obstructed justice. A stream-lined concise graphic novel actually makes sense–and this is it! This book is, no matter what the subject, a perfect example of how to condense a complex subject into a compelling read.
Page from The Mueller Report Graphic Novel by Barbara Slate
Barbara Slate has the magic touch with bringing the essential facts in better focus. The reader gets to know all the players and what they did. The often Byzantine-like world of Russian oligarchs is treated in a straightforward manner. A con game that no one was expected to be interested in or even be able to follow is made accessible. As we’ve heard many times over, it was not Robert Mueller’s place to determine if the President of the United States, no matter who they are, should be impeached. It is up to Congress. As we all know, Congress took a very different path than would have been expected on their way to impeachment. The Democrats had the compelling case all along with the Mueller Report but they chose to focus on Ukraine. That said, the Meuller Report is still with us, many portions of which await removal of redactions and future days in court. This graphic novel remains a handy guide for when the chickens come home to roost.
You Can Do A Graphic Novel by Barbara Slate
If you’re looking for a wonderful instruction manual on comics, then you’re all set with Barbara’s You Can Do A Graphic Novel. This book will guide you through the process of telling your story through comics. You can aim for doing a full-length graphic novel in the long run. But, to begin with, you can follow these easy-to-follow steps and learn all the components to storytelling. This 232-page, fully illustrated, book will delight newcomers and even more experienced cartoonists because you have Barbara Slate sharing techniques and industry insight from a long and successful career.
Pages from You Can Do A Graphic Novel
As I say, even more experienced cartoonists will welcome the easygoing and highly informative format. Yes, you too can learn how to properly plot a comics script. Barbara Slate learned from the best. When she first started at DC Comics, she was taught the color-coded plotting system by none other than Paul Levitz, one of the biggest names at DC Comics. The book is perfect for all ages, and it will specifically appeal to young people just starting out.
Barbara Slate is one of the best. Check out her website to learn more about her work and her online comics courses. Visit Barbara Slate right here.
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.
Spring is in the air and we’re getting more sunshine. While 2020 gives us plenty for pause, there is a need for optimism and comfort. For me, once I’m wearing a nice pair of sunglasses, it puts me in a good mood. It’s a bit of a ritual as I look for the last pair I wore or go ahead and buy glasses online. I do a similar thing when I buy flip flops online. Someone stylish wearing a cool pair of sunglasses symbolizes good times. Its a state of mind that I enjoy being in and you probably do too. I must say, if I’m healthy and have no business wearing a mask, I’ll find all the contentment and comfort that I need in a really snazzy pair of sunglasses. That beautiful pair of sunglasses will block away the ugliness and my worries, at least for a short while, long enough to take a stroll and know that all will feel a little more right in my world someday soon. Yes, we’ll be on vacation or some adventure before too long. A really snazzy pair of sunglasses can not only symbolize leisure; it can help give us a healthy dose of hope.
I love this video that features comic-drawing rebel professor Lynda Barry doing her own thing. Around the six minute mark, Lynda confides in the audience that she knows that most folks abandon drawing when they try to draw a nose! She proceeds to draw a bunch of fun noses. First, she begins by drawing what her cousin advised to be the proper way to draw a nose, circa 1962. Then, she riffs on the wonderful world of noses. Starting with the shape of a head, Lynda Barry, one of our all-time great cartoonists, guides the viewer into visual anarchy. If there is only one rule to follow, it is this: the drawing still needs to “read” as whatever it is you’re drawing.
Lynda Barry has worked as a painter, cartoonist, writer, illustrator, playwright, editor, commentator, and teacher and found that they are very much alike. She is the inimitable creator behind the seminal comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek as well as numerous comic books and graphic novels, and is the recipient of both the Eisner Award and the R. R. Donnelly Award. She lives in Wisconsin, where she is an associate professor of art and a Discovery Fellow at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her most book is Making Comics, published in 2019 by Drawn & Quarterly.