I have interviewed Steve Lafler and I’m letting that sink in. The man is a walking encyclopedia of experiences and knowledge. I do hope we can chat again sometime. For a first interview, we covered a lot of ground. I was intrigued and delighted and I’m sure you will be too with this most provocative cartoonist.
Steve Lafler is a very cool cat–and, as promised, we’re about to take a deep dive into all things Lafler. Long before Zoom interviews, I’ve been taking notes and chatting with a good many talented folks. I think we cartoonists, at least a certain subgroup, are compelled to express ourselves in numerous ways. You’ll find, for instance, that comics and journalism have been entwined since the American colonies. In Mr. Lafler’s case, he has devoted a lot of energy in two directions, the love of comics and the love of music. In my interview, I try to focus on how Lafler has lovingly included music, especially jazz, into his comics.
1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona is Lafler’s latest title and we enjoy talking about it. The subtext is pretty much in the forefront: our main character, Ramon, seems to be most happy when he gets to be Ramona. Or, if not most happy, then it’s definitely a sweet joy to dress up and be a woman for the night. That said, the comics pretty much speak for themselves. Lafler, himself, has provided a few clues over the years that he enjoys indulging in some gender-bending dressing up. One must follow their muse! I think, with 1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona, Lafler beautifully expresses that most basic and primal human need to be true to one’s self.
1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona. by Steve Lafler. Cat-Head Comics. 2020, 56pp. $9.95
Adorable Ramona is sweet down to her toes. She also happens to be a guy. But, hey, no problem there say the fellas from the Garment District. Ramon, as Ramona, is just so delightful. So, no problem. Nobody’s perfect! That’s the punchline to 1959’s Some Like it Hot, by the way. The artist and writer Steve Lafler doesn’t actually use that line. In fact, his graphic novel is completely different from what goes on in the Billy Wilder classic. That said, there are definitely some similar elements at play. And perhaps the biggest theme is one recurring in just about every Lalfer book, that of music, specifically jazz, hot jazz! Since, after all, some do indeed like it hot!
Now, Steve Lafler turns out to be a very cool cat–and we’re about to take a deep dive into all things Lafler. Well, as much as I see fit to shoe-horn into this review. We’ll save some more for an interview with Steve Lafler next week. That sounds good, no? Lafler’s latest book, 1956, features a whole tableaux of goodfella types, all of them working various middle management jobs in the Garment biz, an industry with just enough of a glimmer of glamour to be suitable for these big city gentlemen. Lafler mixes the whimsical with the gritty. His style is clean lines in the service of a loose and street smart sensibility that brings to mind such greats as the Hernandez brothers and Kim Deitch. It’s quirky, idiosyncratic, and very much alt-comics. But that only makes sense since alternative comics are very much a part of Lafler’s scene. 1956 proves to be an utter delight.
The one thing I have come to understand from reading Lafler comics is that this is one devil-may-care dude who knows how to dish it out a la bohemian. I envy the ease with which he seems to glide through life. Maybe it takes one to know one. I know it’s not all peaches and cream. That’s part of the point. It’s about making the most of what you’ve got, living by your wits, and not taking anything so seriously that it hurts– except for family. You look out for your loved ones, right? Why do I digress so? I think Lafler just puts me in a very irreverent mood.
Now, take some of his other work and you’ll start to see some patterns. You’ll see that jazz motif bebop around. You’ll see some hard luck hound dogs–or bugs. And you’ll definitely see a lot of that joie de vivre thing we all want some of. You find it all wrapped in a bow in Lafler’s BugHouse, albeit tinged with the harsh realities of life in the big city. Yes, these bugs play a lot of jazz but they’re also prone to drug addiction. Sad bittersweet bugs.
Death Plays a Mean Harmonica
A more recent Lafler work is Death Plays a Mean Harmonica. I find this to be quite a masterpiece incorporating a healthy dose of auto-bio mixed in with everything that Lafler has learned about the uncanny world of comics. Lafler takes his own family’s decade living abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico, and turns it into the misadventures of Rex and Gertie and their two young children. Lafler let’s the good times roll with plenty of magical realism which includes a skeleton who regulars meets with Lafler while he’s asleep. They philosophize and, of course, enjoy playing music together. This serves as background for the main event. It turns out that Gertie is a secret superhero by night! Lots of fun! Bravo!
For more information, including comics, illustrations, paintings, and various merchandise, be sure to visit Steve Lafler.
Graphic memoir is my speciality and I completely embrace the new graphic memoir, Spellbound, by Bishakh Som. What a wonderful book. It’s fun, inspiring and insightful in so many ways. This is the kind of work that I enjoy creating and the kind of work that gains my attention the most. This is work by an auteur cartoonist who welcomes the reader into an inner life, ultimately dropping the veil: engaging, revealing, and sharing. This is an intricate act of self-expression which the reader follows usually without any expectations on how it all turns out. What the cartoonist has to say and how the story is told becomes as important as anything else. In this case, Bishakh Som has a theme we’ve all been reading more and more about, issues of gender fluidity; and this story is inextricably linked to a personal journey, a celebration of the self and self-expression.
Anjali became a way of sorting through issues and showing the world one’s true self.
But before one stands before the world naked, a veil of sorts can help with the process. This is part of what I believe led Som to create an alter ego. As Som proceeded upon his transition from male to female, I can see where he found it a source of comfort and insight to have his female alter ego grace the page. Thus, Som created comics that feature the character of Anjali who became a way of sorting through issues but, even more important, a way of showing the world the true self.
“I’ve always been this way.”
Our story begins with Anjali quitting her job and setting off on a new adventure. This is much like Som’s own story of quitting a focused career in architecture in order to make room for a life in the graphic arts, specifically creating graphic novels. Anjali has embarked upon uncharted waters but doesn’t seem too phased. At first, the biggest challenge seems to be just keeping her cat, Ampersand, at bay. The artwork is very crisp and engaging and certainly meets the biggest demands placed upon comics: clarity and entertainment. Anjali is the perfect metaphor for the determined soul who will not be beaten down by challenging circumstances.
Anjali relaxing and having fun.
When Anjali stumbles upon a family photo album, this triggers countless memories which take her back to growing up in Ethiopia. Anjali’s parents were born in India, both of them intellectuals working for the UN. Over the course of Anjali’s first six years, she grew as fond of Ethiopian culture as she did of American pop culture. When revolution broke out, Anjali’s parents resettled in New York. This led to Anjali going to the United Nations International School and destined to a most urban and erudite life.
One generation gives way to the next.
Over the course of this graphic novel, the reader is immersed in Anjali’s journey: a life rich in exploration and searching, one that beautifully mirrors the life of Bishakh Som. It is a life we see from various vantage points, from the banal and quotidian to moments of insight and epiphany. For instance, Anjali must come to terms with her demanding and conservative parents. In the end, she is witness to their decline and, from that, she gains some wisdom. And she continues to grow with the help of some friends. For someone who prefers to avoid people, Anjali seems to find her best moments when she is around someone else. It is a lesson that Bishakh Som learned from well.
Spellbound is published by Street Noise Books. For more details, visit here.
I’ve recently been taking a look at some work by artist/writer Ariel Schrag. I’m becoming more familiar with her comics and I decided to read her prose novel, Adam. While reading it, I also became aware of the controversy surrounding this novel which will debut in 2019 at Sundance. I’d just gotten a quarter of the way into the novel and wondered just where these snarky kids were heading. The book depicted the author’s take on callow youth and gay culture and so I pressed on. I do understand why some people will find the book problematic. Still, it’s useful to stick with it to the end to study one writer’s process.
I’ll cut to the chase and say that Ms. Schrag’s book aims to be in the tradition of provocative novels. The characters do and say a number of nasty and questionable things and then there are also moments when Schrag dials down the snark. Here is an example, a scene that finds the main characters at a predominantly transgender gathering:
“Clarification on gender was indeed necessary. Looking around at the group, it was as if a hatful of pronouns written on scraps of paper had been thrown into the air, each group, sometimes two, landing randomly on a person, regardless of what he or she looked like. Adam had gotten used to boyish girls turning out to be trans, the general rule that masculine = he and feminine = she, but here at Camp Trans it was a free-for-all. You couldn’t be sure of anything, except that you were most likely wrong.”
So, yeah, the book has a cocky snarky vibe, an attempt to channel the great Holden Caulfield tradition of snark. It’s when an ambitious young writer feels compelled to be provocative that things will heat up for sure. The big controversy revolves around the premise of the main character, Adam, a 17-year-old straight man becoming involved with Gillian, a 22-year-old gay woman, by both lying about his age and, far more significantly, lying that he’s a female-to-male trans person. That premise is rubbing a lot of people the wrong way. You have people in the trans community saying the book is exploitive. You have the author saying the book is meant to open up a discussion. Ms. Schrag has gained notoriety over the years for her memoir comics. She is an openly gay woman who has focused on young adult themes. She has written for television, including writing for Showtime’s The L Word.
The big point of contention against this novel comes down to the idea that the main character, Adam, is essentially getting away with rape as he’s in a sexual relationship through deception. For most of the novel, Adam isn’t getting away with much as he’s depicted as being fairly creepy. Towards the end that changes when Schrag drives her novel over a cliff with an abrupt shift. Adam begins his journey as a stand-in for just an average guy, yet another typical banal young person, while Schrag steadily turns up the heat. He easily falls into fantasy. He’s so selfish that, despite all the warning signs, he continues to deceive his lover in the hopes that his fantasy will come true and she will ultimately overlook his gross betrayal.
Looking at this from a creative point of view, it is very interesting to see a cartoonist like Schrag developing into a full-on prose writer. Any number of cartoonists find themselves juggling/struggling with two distinct disciplines (writing and drawing) that are supposed to meld into one (comics). Well, the comics-making process is a whole world onto itself with many potential variations, detours and pitfalls. It’s a delicate balancing act. And, if a creator favors writing a little more than drawing, that can tip the balance. For Ms. Schrag, it seems that more often than not, when she puts pen to paper, it is only words she seeks. Deep into making a novel all out of words, those words can take on a life of their own a little more easily than within the framework of a well planned out graphic novel with storyboards and various anchors. You choose your words that much more carefully when you create a graphic novel in comparison to commanding a ship of words in a novel. You set sail for vast ports unknown. You can lose yourself in your discourse and take your mighty vessel way off course.
You get away with less in comics. You can be instantly held accountable. Stuff can get buried in a prose novel. All those words! Ms. Schrag can engage in some anti-Semitic rhetoric and no one will call her on it since the focus is on her depiction of the trans community. Around the middle of the novel, Schrag builds up to what she deems a joke involving her inept and money-grubbing Jewish landlords. Analyzed as a joke, the mechanics and execution fall flat. It’s inappropriate and serves no purpose other than to underscore the fact that the characters are prone to being intolerant and hurtful and that has already been well established. It’s a joke that would make the legendary cartoonist provocateur Robert Crumb blush mostly because it’s so not funny. You just can’t get away with stuff like that in comics. In contrast to this novel, Ms. Schrag’s recent collection of comics, Part of It, indicates a more restrained, and even polite, approach.
Ms. Schrag has said about all the controversy attached to this novel: “People are really angry specifically about appropriating an oppressed identity. I just think that’s fascinating to think about because what is so terrible about appropriating an oppressed identity?” That’s a gutsy remark with consequences attached to it. Writers can choose to provoke but then it’s fair game to listen carefully to the response. Just because you belong to a group doesn’t mean you need to shake it to its core. But for those writers who can’t resist shaking things up, they will need to be open to criticism. In this case, there’s a movie version coming out and that will undoubtedly provide another opportunity for more discussion and more controversy.
Dylan Edwards has written and drawn a graphic novel, “Transposes,” published by Northwest Press, that helps us all better understand and embrace the transgender community by exploring a specific group within it, “queer-identified female to male transpeople,” or “QFTMS.” If that sounds a little too Otherly, rest assured that this collection of stories is warm and heartfelt. Through his skills as a cartoonist, Edwards brings to life six distinct true stories of transgender men.
What is apparent from the start is the enthusiasm that Edwards has for sharing with you what he’s learned and, inextricably linked to that, his faith in his skills and the comics medium, itself, to tell these stories. Edwards is not afraid to depict himself in a few pages of introduction. He makes clear this book is not going to be about him but his direct presence sets the tone: we’re going to be irreverent and have fun; and we’re also going to get to the point and be honest. The artwork will be a nice, spare, cartoony style but with a human touch. The narrative will be accessible with some inventive use of form to keep it interesting.
Once we’ve got that covered, we’re all set to delve into a variety of stories about love, sex, relationships, and journeys of self-discovery. As we learn in life, sex is fabulous, exciting, mind-blowing, but it’s only a part of one’s life. Love, compassion, and understanding will rule the day, and days, months, and years in the long-term. Each character in this collection is searching for something greater than themselves.
Even if there’s a desire to remain single and play the field, there’s still a need to reflect and contemplate. In the case of these stories of transgender, of course, the emphasis is more sharply upon the body. However, what we appreciate from this book is that issues of the body are as vital and universal as you can get. Instead of these stories being about just one particular group, they truly speak to anyone.
“Adam,” for example, is a heartbreaking love story about the struggles of one couple to come to terms with not being right for each other. It’s Marni who is quick to pick up on the problems that lie ahead: her girlfriend would much prefer to be a man but just doesn’t know it yet. Bit by bit, Marni helps Adam find his way. As they sit on the couch and have the “we need to talk” talk, it’s clear that Marni’s love for Adam is great and she’ll miss him.
“Henry” is a fine example of Edwards tweaking the traditional narrative. We are presented with Henry’s story as if it were a museum exhibit, due to his fastidious need for proper documentation. We walk through the rooms and display cases to find one person’s struggle with identity. But it’s not all struggle. In quiet safe moments, it’s just learning about one’s self. And then it’s refining what one’s learned, editing as you go, all the way through the rest of your life.
“Transposes” is a book that readers can warmly embrace. It presents specific, as well as, universal truths with art and writing that is inviting and accessible.
“Transposes” is a 115-page graphic novel, priced at $19.99. Visit Dylan Edwards here. And visit our friends at Northwest Press here.