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December 31, 2013


CR Holiday Interview #13 -- Ed Piskor

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imageIt's my great pleasure to end posting at CR for the year by running an interview the cartoonist Ed Piskor. Piskor is one of a thriving group of Pittsburgh-area cartoonists that have become a frequent presence at comics shows east of the Mississippi. He's a comics lifer: first a fan, then a maker of comics like those he was reading with ambitions of comics stardom, then briefly a student at the Kubert School, then a mini-comics maker, then an artist that caught the eye of Harvey Pekar, then a working cartoonist writing his own material again and slowly building an audience through works like the phone-phreak driven Wizzywig. Piskor's latest project is Hip Hop Family Tree, a history of the sub-culture that focuses on the small sprawl of neighborhoods and interlocking relationships which changed American pop expression. His publisher is Fantagraphics. I always enjoy talking to Ed and was happy to get a chance to ask him about this latest work, one of the defining releases of 2013. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: A real basic kind of opening question: where are you with the cycle of Hip Hop Family Tree Vol. 1, Ed? I'm guessing you're still doing publicity right now. You've traveled a little bit for it, I think; where are you right now in what you have to do to get word of your book out there?

ED PISKOR: We sold out of the first printing. It sold out before... I guess the way Diamond works is that it takes two weeks for a book to hit every store that Diamond distributes to. Two days after the first batch of stores got their comics, the Friday of that first week, they called Fantagraphics and said we needed to print more. So it's doing good, man. For a couple of months, starting in September with SPX, I did a lot of traveling, every weekend going to different book festivals, arts festivals... I spoke at this symposium in Chicago that had Buzz Aldrin giving speeches.

SPURGEON: That's right. I saw that.

PISKOR: The comic has opened up a lot of cool opportunities outside of the comics microcosm, which has been pretty cool.

Right now -- at this very moment -- I'm inking the last two pages of book two.

SPURGEON: So you're that far ahead. Now, you're devoted to a yearly cycle with this series, am I right?

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PISKOR: Pretty much. The second book should come out for San Diego Comic-Con. I had the first book almost complete by the time I decided on Fantagraphics as the publisher. So I was already pretty done with that. It's going to stabilize into being an annual thing for a while.

SPURGEON: I heard that you're contracted for multiple books, but I also heard that maybe you don't know how many books the series will be. Someone told me that you're sort of feeling your way through the books, and don't know how many books the whole thing may encompass. The idea is that you don't know yet what you'll end up spending a lot of time on, that once you get into something, that pay mean an extra four pages here, and extra six pages there, and that this could add up. Is that a fair assessment? Or do you have a firmer idea now of exactly where you're going.

PISKOR: With each book I don't have a map of where it's going to end, but I know all the key points that need to be covered. Each book is going to be roughly the same page count: about 112 pages apiece. When the first book was winding down, the last 20 pages or so, I started seeing a very clear place of where it should end. That's also been the case with book two. So I think that's how it will end up being.

I'm signed up for six books with Fantagraphics. And if I'm still into it... this project is a part of my five-year plan. After that point we can assess. Hopefully sales will still be strong enough to warrant continuing to do it, but it's really cool -- I'm in a sweet spot right now. I'm doing the exact comic I want to, and it's working out.

SPURGEON: Have they been a good publishing partner for you? Your public reputation is of someone who knows what they want and how you want it done. I assume they've been a good partner in terms of staying hands-off and facilitating your doing what you want to do with the project.

PISKOR: They're hands-on when they need to be. They're super-receptive to other parts of the process more related to business things. Like very early on -- I put the strip up once a week on Boing Boing. That's millions of readers a month. That's not to say millions of people read my comic, but I bet tens of thousands do. The site is not really built for comics to be read in a serial way. That space is almost like a billboard for the actual book. I told the guys at Fanta, "Listen, we have to make this book available for pre-order as soon as possible. Every week I put this strip up without the book being available for pre-order, I feel like we're leaving money on the table. This is a valuable opportunity." People pay money for that kind of advertising space. They listened. Mike Baehr at one point said it was the most pre-ordered book they had on-line ever, by like a multitude. It's cool that they listened to that stuff. They have good suggestions here and there, too. So it's been real great.

SPURGEON: I'm not going to stick to business for the entire interview, I promise. But you're just past the age of 30... I think that's an age when artists in all media start to really pay close attention to what they're going to do in the medium they chose. At 30, you're usually no longer just taking whatever comes to you when it comes to you. There's an active thought process of your own, an idea of what you want to see happen. I wonder if that is true of you, and I wonder if that is true of you and this book. This seems like a very ambitious project, Ed, something in which you're very invested. You see yourself settling into projects like this from now on, or is there still going to be an element of winging it?

PISKOR: This project in particular... this is a comic I want to do. I want to see it through. It's a chunk of good fortune that people are responding well to it. I think I would still do it anyhow.

I have to make this stuff work for me. So I'm very conscious of the business part of it. I can't just do exactly what I want to. By the way, to go with Fanta was a little bit of a gamble. I had some other publishers that were interested, and I could have made more up front money doing that. I had a very specific idea of how I wanted it to look to create the experience I wanted. It had to be this big, over-sized treasury format. That was a no-go for a lot of publishers. I have these yellowed pages to go with the artwork; a lot of the publishers wanted to drop that background layer and leave the pages white. That would destroy -- the color is based on that yellow. There were all these problems that were mitigated just by going with Fanta. I am invested in this project in particular. Whatever I involve myself in I'm going to be invested in it.

SPURGEON: We both know there's a fine line in comics. We both know people that don't have a ton to offer in terms of the comic, but they're extremely business-like. We also know folks with a lot to offer in terms of the comics they make, but are constantly getting in their own way. It seems like it's tough to find that balance in comics: letting your artistic impulses drive the car, but be open to hearing from the business-minded guy in the passenger seat. You've been around long enough to see people fail for all sorts of reasons.

PISKOR: For sure. If there's one thing that I've discovered meeting cartoonists, and even cartoonists I would call my heroes, I learned and realized that a lot of people are their own worst enemy and they create their own glass ceilings and stuff like that. It's all this logic and they have these personal, limited beliefs that create barriers to what they do. So realizing those sticking points, seeing them in other people, I'm just trying to take care of that so as to not inhibit what's possible.

SPURGEON: You're actually younger than hip-hop. So by the time you were aware of it, it must have been ubiquitous. You can't remember a time hip-hop wasn't around.

PISKOR: That's correct.

SPURGEON: I imagine that's true of comics, too, of course. They were around as well. But hip-hop... the book has this unique take on the role of scene. It's very generous and solicitous towards the regional aspects of hip-hop's creation. But since your memory of hip-hop was shaped by it having gone national, I wonder how you started thinking about hip-hop so that it became this expression of something that happened in those specific East Coast communities. Do you remember when you started to have that kind of interest, this specific conception of cultural history? Do you remember your initial curiosity?

PISKOR: Yeah, I do. It started with getting what was popular at the time. You would hear older rap records being sampled -- a line or a beat or something like that. It sort of hit the same compulsive tendencies that I had as a kid reading comic books, before I really cared about creators and stuff. It was about the stories and whatever else in mainstream comics. I would dig around looking for old comic books, like the first appearance of Cable from X-Force. Whatever. To find Dr. Dre's first record digging in record crates and talking to people, asking around in record stores, it hit that same compulsion. Then when you dig very deep and learn about the earliest people, I feel like I'm on some of the same footing as some of those guys. I come from poor circumstances and stuff like that... it's an inspiring story to see someone come from under the radar, to see these people do cool, creative stuff.

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SPURGEON: What's fascinating about the history as you choose to portray it is that it's almost week to week and apartment to apartment and party to party and neighborhood to neighborhood in its specificity. It's very graspable, too. That was something I loved when I learned about comics, that comics history wasn't that old -- you could go to conventions and see the guys that were there at the beginning. So was having that grasp of it, wast that exciting to you, being able to grasp the entirety of it?

PISKOR: Yeah. It is cool. It is cool. If you think about what we know of rap and of hip-hop, it started in a very confined space. Everybody knew everybody. It's the same for comics as well. Distribution. The distributors are the gatekeepers, so you have to know somebody that knows somebody to get something to happen. You read about the history of comics or the history of rap and you see that there are all these relationships that were required to get it to the point where it is right now. There were almost no rap records being put out outside of New York and New Jersey -- the part of the New Jersey that Sugarhill was from was right over a bridge. Everybody in those early days, for the first 15 years, had a relationship to each other. It's fun to explore how these weird circumstances built upon themselves to create this kind of phenomenon.

Reading about that history there are other kinds of music that come into vogue and quickly disappear that people don't talk about anymore. These are things that could have been the next hip-hop if certain situations took place. I'm talking about house music, or Washington D.C.'s Go-go music. Those things are still around but they're not at the scale rap music grew to, and they came around the same time.

SPURGEON: You have talked about trying to double-source the incidents you depict, and you've actually complimented what you feel are pretty solid sources upon which you can draw. Is there any sorting process... did you have to make any decisions as to what you believed was real at any point, or is there pretty much an orthodoxy when it comes to this specific cultural history?

PISKOR: There are situations that come up where there might be an exciting, visually interesting narrative conjured up out of the mouth of one or two of the people that were part of the situation.

SPURGEON: What would be an example of that? Is there something in the book kind of like that?

PISKOR: This is from book two: KRS-One's origin. He talked about being kicked out of the house. His family was poor and he at the last bit of food that was supposed to be for their dinner. He got kicked out and never went back. You can't reference... there's nothing else to reference but his words. There are tools in comics were you can take his words and you can make sure they're not your words. You can take those words and put them in his mouth, make it a story from his point of view and use captions that say things like "As the legend goes..." or something like that. You make sure that if it is some mythological thing you separate yourself from that. I'm very conscious of that kind of thing. As more rappers get in touch and tell me some crazy stuff and I can't find source material, that's how I'm going to approach it. I'm going to put it "In the words of..." There's a running dialogue in captions throughout the book, so when you switch that up you hope the reader picks up on that.

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SPURGEON: People become accustomed to your rigor.

PISKOR: When you use a different storytelling device, I hope that it creates a feeling that it's not me saying this per se. Doing this stuff on Boing Boing -- and I'm sure you know this from your site -- people are happy to let you know when you've done something wrong. [Spurgeon laughs] I've created all of these contingency plans. Ways to prevent damage, if there's something I'm not fully convinced might be 100 percent accurate because I can't find more source material.

SPURGEON: Were there any roads not taken? Did you consider doing one individual's story as a different way of structuring the book? One of the things that's really intriguing about this book is how fiercely scene-oriented and community-focused it is. There's this run of personality after personality after personality. Did you ever think of focusing your history, perhaps doing one person? What was the appeal of making it this broad and comprehensive of a history?

PISKOR: The appeal of doing the broad scope thing was really because of the regional nature of hip-hop's origins; I'm really fascinated by how everyone had a relationship with each other. I considered doing just a biographical comic. Even with Wizzywig, it started out as a biography. But my popularity, and with comics in general... I think people don't respect comics or me as a creator.

To do a biography in comics you have to have access to the person -- at least as far I'm concerned. You have to be able to work with them. There were no takers. In the hacker world I approached people. I had only done a little bit of stuff for Harvey Pekar at this time, so I don't fault them -- in fact, I'm friends with a lot of these people -- but they wouldn't even respond. I had no idea how to even approach a rapper to try and tell us a specific story. In the end, I think this was the way to go. It's like the character in my comic is hip-hop. It's a biography of hip-hop and everybody is a cog in the wheel that helped created this thing.

SPURGEON: Did you think of another fictionalized account?

PISKOR: For a long time, even since high school, I've been wanting to do a comic with this kind of imagery. I love hip-hop fashion, I love graffiti, I love '70s New York films -- Scorsese films, French Connection, [Taking Of] Pelham 1-2-3 -- it just has that grit. I always wanted to do something in that landscape. A fictionalized account. I was thinking I could do a crime story set in this world. Ultimately, I felt like this was the way to go.

By the way, I had no idea, and I still have no idea, if what I'm doing is like, illegal. You know? [Spurgeon laughs] I have no clue. It's literally something I wanted to do. I was surprised that Boing Boing said it was okay to publish. I'm surprised Fantagraphics said it was cool. Does that mean somebody could do a comic about me? That feels invasive.

SPURGEON: Maybe someone will get their revenge by doing a comic about you doing this comic... Ed, I'm also interested in the visual sourcing aspects of your research. Did you spend time in these neighborhoods? Would that even work at this point? Did someone take photos of that time period?

PISKOR: There were a few great photographers that really captured that scene. I'm not even sure they consider themselves... at the time I don't even know if they considered themselves photographers or if they knew what the heck they were doing or how important they were in capturing the birth of this culture. There was a photographer named Joe Conzo -- still, he's not a professional photographer. He's a New York City fireman. He had a camera in those early days, and shot film at these live performances and block parties. I have access to some great photographs from that period. Another photographer named Martha Cooper... when graffiti started to catch on, she saw value in that and started capturing photos of that stuff. She really captured that New York landscape in a beautiful way. There's hyperbole in the work, too, and that comes from my love of the films I mentioned earlier. That's sort of the soup my work was created out of. There a few good hip-hop flicks. There's Style Wars and Wild Style that helped give me visual cues.

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SPURGEON: This is a hunch on my part, but I liked the way you didn't aggressively pursue a comics solution for the music. When people do comics about music, there tends to be a dramatic choice on how to portray the work being done in that medium -- you portray the performances and the art itself in a very matter of fact style. There's not a big shift -- you can't flip through the book and easily pick out the performance pages. There's no trickery in portraying the art involved. Is that on purpose? Did you want to portray the music in this matter-of-fact way rather than making a case for it.

PISKOR: The way that I see this comic is that it's not a music comic. It's about community. It's about these people that had some ingenuity meeting each other, putting together these ideas, building off the existing ideas, and creating this big thing. It has almost nothing to do with rap. Rap is a byproduct. It's all of these people coming together to make this big thing. The music part of it is simply a byproduct of the story, the narrative taking place.

Right now, a strip I just submitted is that Run-DMC went to the West Coast for the first time. They're basically nobodies, so they're playing this club. Two guys who work at the club are DJ Yella and a very young Dr. Dre -- Dre and Yella go on to form NWA and then Dr. Dre goes on to do his own thing. He discovers Eminem. This performance set Dre towards more of a street-level style as opposed to trying to be like Prince or Michael Jackson -- which is what he was doing at the time. He had on scrubs and a surgical mask. So that's what this comic is: how these guys inspired each other and weird business things that happened, just that kind of stuff. Music is almost negligible.

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SPURGEON: Are there scenes in there you were really looking forward to doing? I think in this book one of the scenes you take some time with is a famous one with Kool Moe Dee and -- I always forget the other guy's name because I think of Kool Moe Dee feuding with LL Cool J but that's later than this. It's Kool Moe Dee's beatdown of...

PISKOR: Busy Bee.

SPURGEON: Right. That's a famous enough incident that when it was happening in your book I sort of remembered it as part of the lore of that world, as a famous incident. Were there scenes like that that you looked forward to doing because they were pivotal scenes.

PISKOR: Yeah, for sure. There are still a lot of scenes I'm looking forward to portraying in a big way. I consider that a paradigm shifting moment.

In book two, there's like ten pages or 12 pages devoted to the movie Wild Style. That was a very important movie in terms of propagating a style. Just as a fan, I remember hearing about Wild Style and how important it was for the culture. Then I saw it, and I didn't recognize anybody in the movie except for Fab 5 Freddy and Grandmaster Flash. So I had a million questions in my head. "If this is so important, then who the hell are these people?" [Spurgeon laughs] "What is this. What gives them the right to even be in this important movie?" I want to answer the questions you might have once you see Wild Style. A couple of times this year -- it was Wild Style's 30th anniversary. I opened it up in a local theater and had a 30 minute talk. I introduced the film and who the people are and who helped them make the flick. When situations happen that are paradigm shifting or are on a bigger level for publicizing the culture outside of New York, it really deserves extra attention in the comic. Maybe just a couple of pages, but however long it takes to present the relevance of a situation and its importance.

imageSPURGEON: You mentioned Fab 5 Freddy. Keith Haring is in there. Jean-Michel Basquiat. So you have the wider New York art scenes... the New York arts world more generally, with Debbie Harry in there -- she would of course contributed to the popularity of hip-hop culture. Was it important to you to include these other arts figure because of their importance in how that culture was transferred? You could argue that people like that weren't involved in the core scene.

PISKOR: It makes more sense in Book Two. I'm talking about hip-hop culture as four elements that include graffiti art. Graffiti is the first element of hip-hop that was able to be monetized. So in the earliest '80s, graffiti started to invade downtown art galleries in Manhattan. Keith Haring was a graffiti artist. Basquiat: graffiti artist. It was when they were brought downtown and selling these paintings -- making excellent money by the way -- as a companion piece to these art shows, they would bring the guys from the Bronx, they would bring Afrika Bambaataa to play in these galleries. They would bring the break dancers. The whole thing.

The byproduct is that these scared white people didn't have to go to the Bronx to see this happen. These scared white people are people who might be producers of 20/20, the magazine show. They might write for Rolling Stone. They might write for the New York Times. They didn't have to to into treacherous territory to see this stuff happen. It was right there in their face. More opportunities about once they were on the radar of the bourgeois -- the art crowd, whatever you want to call it. Their inclusion is very important. Basquiat produced a rap record that's the most valuable rap record in history because of its artwork. It's like the cheapest Basquiat print you can get and the most expensive rap record. He deserves to be mentioned in the book.

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SPURGEON: You mention Afrika Bambaataa. Your design on him is very striking. Russell Simmons is portrayed in much the same way -- there are outsized, cartoony elements to them. Was it fun to do that with some of the characters. We talked about photo reference a little bit, and this seems like something totally different. Was that fun to work out the look of each one -- the visual signifiers? Were there things you wanted to do with the look of certain people.

PISKOR: Yeah it's really fun. There's a lot to consider an a lot to juggle. With the iconography of comics, you can really screw things up and confuse people. You have to figure those things out. The different resources I used in comics to make sense of this huge ensemble cast, it would be things like Chris Claremont's X-Men or Larry Hama's GI Joe comics, how you can have a cast of hundreds of people. You have to have some shorthand visuals so that people are like "Oh, who is this person again?" Part of it is you want to capture personality, but I like to lock myself into costumes with these people. Per era.

imageAs another instance, this page I'm looking at right now, Dr. Dre with his surgical mask on. I draw him with the respirator and the doctor's outfit and the fake gloves so you can immediately see it is Dr. Dre. He would wear that costume for real, so it's like let's keep him in it at all times. It's also comedic, because he's out on the street. There's no scene like that in here with him like that -- you can imagine him against the background of other buildings in his doctor's scrubs. It's kind of funny.

SPURGEON: I want to ask you some comics questions to wrap things up. When I think about guys that worked with Harvey Pekar, and when I think of your comics, I think of a baseline clarity; they seem to be very direct. Hip Hop Family Tree seems like it would be a tremendous challenge to that, that it would be difficult to convey all the information you want to convey while keeping things moving. It's a staggering amount of information this narrative. Was that a special concern, just to make sure what needed to be gotten across got across page to page to page? Was there any working over of certain scenes, perhaps reducing what information would be shared for the sake of clarity? What were the challenges there?

PISKOR: There aren't a lot of challenges to it, because I'm giving myself a lot of personal rules and deadlines -- that helps me keep on track. Part of the aesthetic of those old comics was deadline-oriented, so I want to keep that spirit. So you have to make choices; the choices I've been making are more like life choices. I'm definitely hanging out with friends a lot less to make sure I have time to work on the strip. For each two-page strip, I spend an entire day reading material, thinking about it, playing around with ideas, etc., etc. For every two pages I try to pick things out, focus on the most visually appealing stuff -- or at least the most visually appealing way to get the information across -- and then spend the rest of the week executing the stuff.

Working with Harvey, there were certain... I didn't learn so much from him... what I learned from Harvey was basically the disciplinary stuff. "If you're going to work in comics, it takes a lot of work." We did this book about the Beat Generation. One of the things that I took from that experience for this one is that Harvey chose a lot of good moments panel-to-panel wise. It's sort of the same format in the way of the storytelling, where there's not much panel to panel cause and effect, moment to moment interaction.

SPURGEON: They are definitely striking when it happens. You're right, it's not that way.

PISKOR: That's something I took from him. I've really developed a strong habit of comic-book making over the past nine years of doing stuff. I got into the game at 21. When I put pencil on paper with Harvey for the first time, that's when I hooked up with Jim Rugg and Tom Scioli. Jim was doing his first Street Angel comics and Tom was doing stuff for Image. Those guys are older than me; if I was 21, they were 26 or 27. That's a big gap.

SPURGEON: It is.

PISKOR: I was a real jerk-off. Having access to Jim and Tom has pushed my work five years ahead of where it might be not having them as friends. I see what it takes to be a cartoonist. Part of it is me just trying to stack up to them, live up to what they do. Did you ever read the Malcolm Gladwell book bout outliers?

SPURGEON: Sure.

PISKOR: He talks about that there's a shocking percentage of NHL all-stars that were all born in January because of some weird Canadian weird cut-off date to play hockey. They snuck in under the wire. They were younger than everyone else and they were smaller than everyone else. So they had to work ten times harder. I'm not saying I'm an all-star, I'm just saying I'm a young dude that have privileged access to these guys who turn out to be some of my favorite cartoonists working today. I see what it takes. It's been beaten into my head for a long time. The comic-book making part of it, there's a lot to consider, but it's never daunting. It's already a strong habit.

imageSPURGEON: What is the key element you find satisfying about doing comics? You talked in your interview with Marc Sobel about comics at one point having a therapeutic effect for you. When you were a young guy they were a way to get over some feelings of isolation that came after getting over some health issues. Comics was a way you processed your life. I always wonder after pleasure with cartoonists, though. You have talked about the fun of doing work set in this time period, so obviously you've thought about doing comics in terms of fun and enjoyment. But what is it for you: is it the process? Is it getting work done? Is it having work done? Is it getting to see it reflected back towards you when people read it? Do you like the time you spend cartooning? You seem so devoted.

PISKOR: I personally feel like I get a lot of rewards from doing comics. The actual process of making comics is so fun to me. It's probably the most fun I can have. I'm sure that people will look at this and go, "Oh, that's pathetic." [Spurgeon laughs] You can think that. But I do not bind myself to any societal standards at all. You can think I'm a loser; I'm having a freaking ball. I think about the times when I was a little kid really, really frustrated with myself that I couldn't draw something the way I wanted it to look. I still can't! But it's getting better. As a kid I kept drawing because I noticed the next time I drew something it would get a little bit closer... so I have this privileged opportunity of meeting goals. I set goals for myself and I accomplish them. There's a feeling to that I can't even explain to you. That's how it goes with the production stuff.

I'd be lying -- and by the way, I think all cartoonists who have publishers and who put stuff out into wide release, I think they'd all be lying if they said they didn't want people to see the stuff and provide a reaction. That's cool, too. Positive and negative. The negative doesn't cramp my style. It either helps me to work harder, if it's negative feedback from somebody I respect, or if I think they're a douchebag I'm going to ramp things up ten times more to just kind of fuck with them. That's fun. Going to conventions and stuff... I've made some really, really great friends. You know from going to conventions, too, you'll see two people talking who are obviously and clearly strong friends in a really deep conversation and they could look like they're members of different tribes. I've been making friends I know I would otherwise never make because they would think that I'm an asshole or maybe I think they're a douchebag, just from the first visual reaction that you feel inside. Whatever that initial instinct is. So that's been really awesome, making cool friends over the years. I'm a lifer, Tom, and it's no joke. And there's all aspects of it I find enjoyable.

SPURGEON: I heard different cartoonists talk this Fall that basically said they developed style after failing to match the standard provided by a stylistic role model. Their own style was not being able to draw like their hero. Do you have ideals, are there signposts, are there people you wish you could draw like? Are you jealous of anyone's specific skill? Or are you really comfortable with what you do at this point.

PISKOR: I look at people's work a lot and try to see what I can steal from it. For myself. I definitely have cartoonists who are my favorites. I consider myself a good student but sometimes I am a slow learner with certain things. To the point that it embarrasses me. One of the latest things, one of the eureka type moments I've had, is a few years ago I was revisiting a few comics that really inspired me to move forward as a cartoonist. I'm thinking of stuff as varying as Dark Knight Returns and Love & Rockets the magazine issues. These are comics I read very early on. At the time when I read them as a kid, I wanted to grow up to make comics like those guys. I wanted to make my Love & Rockets-type comic. I wanted to do something with the same spirit as The Dark Knight Returns. Revisiting that work after so many years -- I would read them on and off again, but I had this eureka moment this time where I was thinking, "I will never in a million years be able to do this kind of comic." I guess as I've become friends with and talked with other cartoonists, I could see how parts of their psychology crept into their work. I realized that you have to put a certain amount of yourself into the work, right? That's when I had this realization, I think. Not just, "Oh, man, I'm never going to be able to make comics like this."

I have to look within myself and figure out who I am and see what I can bring to the table that no other cartoonist have an interest in or whatever. That's how Wizzywig came about and that's how this hip-hop thing comes about. I don't think there's another cartoonist who can tell this story the way that I'm doing that. I believe that with some confidence. Don't get me wrong: there are other cartoonists who have hip hop flavor and are inspired, but the way that I'm doing this, I'm really trying -- as cliche as it sounds -- to make a comic I want to read. So I'm putting what I want in there. It's cool there are other people down with this and see where it's going. They're along for the ride it seems.

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SPURGEON: Let me wrap this up with a fan that's partly a question for you as a fan. Is there a character in your book that surprised you -- maybe one you liked that you didn't think you'd like, or someone whose scenes you grew to particularly enjoy doing. Is there anyone in there like that?

PISKOR: There's no one in particular, but there has been some interesting stuff that's come up through my own research an interests. I have tremendous respect for Kool Moe Dee. I've had it for years, but it developed over a lot of time. I remember for first grade, for music class, we had to dance -- we did some sort of dance thing to that song he did, "Wild, Wild West." You remember that?

SPURGEON: Sure.

PISKOR: I recognized that as a piece of garbage in the first grade, so I always thought he was cheesy. But then when you discover his root and where he came from and how he listened to record executives to create that kind of style, where kids could listen to his lyrics and learn them -- he slowed his style down a lot. Then you realize he just kind of sold out, but he had a very, very strong foundation. But there's not like one character where I'm like, "Oh, this guy's the man."

imageSPURGEON: I wondered, because the work is so egalitarian. You have such an even-handed approach to your entire cast: no one's a bad guy, no one's a hero. I think that's an interesting way to portray a scene like that.

PISKOR: Some people have criticized the way I do Russell Simmons. Early on, there are even flicks you can watch where he's got this funny eye, and he lisps a lot, and he was this flamboyant, wild character back in the day. They look at Russell Simmons as the way he portrays himself now: this meditative, Zen Buddhist yogi-type guy. A vegan. He absolutely did not start out that way. If I have my druthers with this story, you'll be able to see him develop over time as he becomes this sophisticated guy, a more worldly person and more considerate. But that's going to play out over time. That's not something you're going to fit into a first book. The Beastie Boys are the same way, man. They're pretty wild and crazy; their first album, they were going to call it, "Don't Be A Faggot." These are the same guys that spearheaded the Tibetan Freedom Concert, and became altruistic and philanthropic. These people start off very young, and we're all jerk-offs when we're young. Their stuff is just on record.

*****

* Ed Piskor
* Hip Hop Family Tree Vol. 1
* Hip Hop Family Tree Vol. 2
* Hip Hop Family Tree at Boing Boing

*****

* all images from Hip Hop Family Tree except the photo which is about two years old and was taken by me

*****

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*****
*****
 
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Missed It: Jeff Smith Original Art In Close-Up

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Maybe One Last Thing To Do In 2013 Would Be To Consider A Small Gift To The Sakai Family

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Efforts to raise money for the cartoonist Stan Sakai, caught by a shortcoming in financing necessary home healthcare services for his beloved wife Sharon, remain ongoing. The family announced an additional tragedy this week through a posting by Sakai on his Facebook account. You can go to a campaign page here.

It's really easy to give, and every tiny, modest amount can help in a situation like that one. I'm hoping to give another few dollars at some point today. I wish it could be more, and automatic.

Sakai is in the midst of a wholly admirable career, and to my knowledge has always conducted himself with class and significant kindness. In an arts community that can sometimes define need in terms of the desire to profit at maximum return from a vanity project or the preference to shoulder an everyday burden with the help of those that have less than the person asking for aid, I would hope there's room for an outpouring of direct support for one of comics' best at a time of real difficulty. He just strikes me as a good guy, is all, caught in an unfortunate situation; further, his career output is one of those that could hold a child's attention for hours at a time on the worst weekend of their life. Anyway, I hope you'll consider it.
 
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Go, Look: My First Mate

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Go, Read: Becky Cloonan On Self-Publishing Comics

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I quite liked this Becky Cloonan post on self-publishing comics, as it gets into details with which a lot of similar posts don't bother, like how digital sales might become a component of those sales and the basic "why" of doing it at all. I have to imagine there's something in there if you're thinking about doing this or have done it, as I enjoyed it without having anything close to a shareable, like experience or overlapping curiosity.
 
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Missed It: That Batman 1972 Image Series In One Place

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By Request Special: Year-End Giving And Timely Campaigns

imageBy Tom Spurgeon

There are a few comics-related organizations out there that could stand to benefit from any year-end giving you might be planning today. In fact, I'm sure all the organizations could benefit. Heck, your local comics shop could use a visit and your favorite comics pro wouldn't cry if you bought a page of original art from them. It's not the worst thing in the world on the last day of any calendar year to spend some of your hard-won money in a way you know will do some good.

A few organizations come to mind when I think about my own year-end giving, though. This year, they are:

* the CBLDF. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund counts on its end-of-year contribution campaign and membership campaign as key components in its overall funding activities that make possible the admirable work they do on behalf of free speech. They are a long-standing comics operation, and have always put their money to effective use. They're also really good at offering a bunch of stuff in return, if that's the way you want to go.

* the Cartoon Art Museum. I rarely think of the Cartoon Art Museum early on when I'm making a donations list, even though I've enjoyed their exhibits the last few times I was in the Bay Area. Andrew Farago sent me a note that said in part, "the Cartoon Art Museum's in the midst of its annual fund drive right now, and Jeannie Schulz is matching donations received during our Sparky Challenge" which makes it sound like your money would double its effectiveness if sent over by midnight.

* we are going to be reminded in the next several months what a fine cartoonist Tom Hart can be; his SAW is seeking some operating funds right now and will certainly put any money raised to use on behalf of the students it teaches.

* it's not a charitable organization, but PictureBox was an admirable company and they are ending their run as a frontlist publisher by selling a bunch of their books off at half off for just a little more time. Next year will be poorer for that company's absence.
 
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More People Should Love Mort Meskin's Johnny Quick Stories

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for an expression of a genre built on the physically impossible, there are very few comics that capture the exuberance that must come with having the power to do amazing things; Mort Meskin's Johnny Quick always seemed to have scenes that were just Johnny Quick doing some weird task super-fast, and I loved them very much when I was a kid and saw the occasional reprint
 
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PW: Marvel Has Killed Its Newsstand Periodical Comics Programs

According to this smart piece by the award-winning dean of comics-industry journalists, Calvin Reid, Marvel Comics recently ended its program of trying to sell periodical comics in chain bookstores and ended its convenience store market sale of same months and months ago to the howling wails of absolutely no one.

imageThis makes sense to me. Those are terrible items to sell in bookstores and convenience stores. They cost a lot for the perceived value, particularly for a casual reader. They're confusingly titled and numbered -- the joke of "When I was a kid there was a comic book named 'Thor' and you knew that it starred a guy named 'Thor'" has as its basis a very confusing public face for comic books. Hell, I'm all but baffled when I go to a comics shop, and my job is reading comics. There's no reason to think there's a natural audience for these items in convenience and grocery stores from people buying toothpaste and diet strawberry jelly, and the Marvel folks at least have never invested in classic impulse-buying space near the front of such stores nor, at least never for very long, in any format suited for those spaces. Bookstore readers might seem a natural audience for serial comic books but in a bookstore you have other problems: anyone inclined to notice a rack of awesome-looking funnybooks is probably aware of a nearby business that carries more books more effectively for the hardcore consumer, and they are probably physically near a ton of publications with a better perceived value including a fairly active trade paperbacks section right in that store. It's hard to compete with cheaper, better everything.

Also, digital is clearly at this point a better place for a less risky return in trying to capitalize on any sort of easy-availability impulse that might still exist for these books. If someone sees a movie starring that nice man Captain America and has never considered buying a comic book before and is struck by intense feelings that they must buy modern comics adventures of this patriotic fellow, it's more likely their first impulse will be to hit their computer rather than the 7-11. A similar desire for beer, you hit the convenience store.

I've never thought that superhero comics had a mass appeal that was necessarily best served by this kind of a widespread availability, or at least not in my lifetime, and I've long thought that a mindset that millions of copies of these comics could be sold has frequently helped keep companies from selling 10,000 more of a bunch of different series. I will not miss the occasional throwback calls for old-timey mass distribution, nor the years of beating up on the people that suggest this as if they were ever a sizable, serious group. The astonishing thing five years from now is that it will have only been five to seven years since Marvel's program was dismantled.
 
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Go, Look: Jesse Marsh Could Draw Some Tarzan

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Bundled, Tossed, Untied And Stacked: Publishing News

imageBy Tom Spurgeon

* Brandon Graham discusses his forthcoming Empowered one-shot with creator Adam Warren.

* in that bizarre run of comics-industry news that came December 17-24 was word that we could see up to two entire volumes of Umbrella Academy in the months ahead.

* a George Danby collection!

* the artist and educator Steve Bissette seems to be teasing some sort of publication of Tyrant material, which would be nice.

* finally, wow, read the description to this, miss Kim Thompson for being the kind of guy that routinely brought stuff this odd and cool to North American audiences, and hope that we'll see it in 2014.
 
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If I Were In Tokyo, I'd Go To This

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Go, Look: Joe Quesada Mini-Gallery

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Random Comics News Story Round-Up

image* my brother that reads comics with some devotion is four years older than me, so he got first choice as to "his" comics. This meant that I accrued some significant affection for comics that outpace my appraisal of how good they were. I enjoyed a lot of what Elfquest did. I liked that her characters were good, broad actors; I liked the very tiny world that it offered up just in terms of numbers of civilizations on hand; I enjoyed how much of its initial fantasy story had nothing to do with spiritual evil or war. I started to lose interest right around the issue depicted here, but that's a good pretty run considering it only came out a few times a year. The wait between issues seemed like forever.

* Michael Buntag on Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Vol. 5. Paul O'Brien on Longshot Saves The Marvel Universe. Richard Bruton on Pimo And Rex, Time To Shine, Boo and Megazine #343.

* Happy Jessmas.

* Kelly Thompson picks 25 Favorite Female Characters. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around favorite characters as its own distinct thing, so this was a fun list for me to read. Here's a similar piece focusing on new characters.

* not comics: this Copra t-shirt looks nice.

* not comics: R. Kikuo Johnson draws Stephen Hawking.

* finally, I'm not sure that Johanna Draper Carlson's reason why Mark Waid isn't working for DC is the real reason Mark Waid isn't working for DC, but it's an interesting post as a critic making a strong distinction between the DC and Marvel lines as currently constituted.
 
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Happy 46th Birthday, Joe Gordon!

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Happy 48th Birthday, Julie Doucet!

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Happy 51st Birthday, Fabian Nicieza!

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Happy 57th Birthday, Lela Dowling!

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Happy 57th Birthday, Steve Rude!

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December 30, 2013


CR Holiday Interview #12 -- Nate Powell

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*****

imageAs Comic Arts Brooklyn this year, two different people cornered me to talk about Nate Powell. Powell is the Little Rock-born musician/artist whose art on the John Lewis history of the Civil Rights movement through his personal story March Book One has driven more attention his way than at any point during his career. Both of the people at CAB who wanted to talk all things Powell wanted to make sure I was paying proper attention to what they thought was a potential major indy/alt career in the making. Powell is prolific, and because of his background in DIY music-making seems to take care of the small-b business end of comics-making in a way that may frustrate many similarly talented comics-makers; given the tight margins of being able to make comics of any kind, this is a supremely valuable skill set. I always enjoy running into the Bloomington, Indiana-based Powell at shows, and he was the first person I contacted this year about doing one of these year-ending talks. Our interview involved Powell moving around the house trying to find the best place for cell-phone reception, and I appreciate that extra effort. -- Tom Spurgeon

*****

TOM SPURGEON: This is one of the books of this year. This is something that will be prominent in your career, no matter what direction it takes from here, for however long you continue to make comics.

NATE POWELL: Yep.

SPURGEON: Has it performed ahead of how you thought it might? Was there a moment when you kind of figured out that it might hit with people as hard as it has hit with some people?

POWELL: Oh, yes. For the most part, when I signed on to the project, I was aware of who John Lewis was. But it wasn't until I read his memoir and was moving through the script doing my own reference that I realized exactly what I was dealing with here in terms of the initial level the scope and scale of the project. Really that was just in terms of the book that would wind up being made. It wasn't until I'd been done drawing it... I live in the middle of Indiana, I spend 23 hours a day in my house doing stuff [laughter]... really, I was in a serious vacuum while drawing March. I finished maybe last February for Book One. It wasn't until June rolled around when we started doing some engagements and touring and stuff, doing some events for March about a month before it came out, that I realized that I had not really given any serious thought to the actual scope and scale of the finished product.

Ever since the book was released, there's been several months where maybe twice a week I would have a reality check that was surprising and encouraging?

SPURGEON: What kind of thing are you talking about? Are you talking about a personal encounter?

POWELL: On the immediate and personal levels, number one the enthusiastic presence and support from teachers and librarians that show up. Also from parents that brings their kids -- sometimes prepubescent kids -- to meet Congressman Lewis and to get the book. The gravity that a lot of folks -- the parents, professionals and baby boomers -- would lend to us in terms of the project. That's one thing. Another thing was the part in which March was going places my own comics work could never anticipate going. So whether it was Rachel Maddow having us on TV, or kicking it with Al Gore [Spurgeon laughs], a variety of these things would never have happened.

The major part here is being a person that doesn't really look very much at the marketing side of comics or exactly where book are being sold, I've worked with First Second before and Mark Siegel was always very serious about this trifecta of marketing comics where you're hitting bookstores, the Direct Market and libraries and schools' institutional sales. I'd heard that before, and it was very interesting, but it was something I never really worked through. With March, I saw it fully applied and taking off, so that the bulk of the sales in years to come, a decade down the line, are consistently going to be from this institutional sector, as the book shows more and more potential to integrated into schools and libraries. That's something I had never considered, even for a second.

SPURGEON: What was brought to you? I know Andrew Aydin and the Congressman are considered co-authors are the script, or at least that's my understanding, but I'm interested in what was brought to you.

POWELL: What was actually given to me was a completely finished script, done in a very standard Marvel/DC comics-script type way. It was divided up into pages and panels; everything was clearly delineated. When I cracked it open, though, originally this was a single-volume book somewhere between 150 and 200 pages. I've worked with writers in varying capacities and there are different levels of leeway that the artist is given creatively. For this I was sort of taking a bit of narrative liberty, and taking control of the layout of the pages. Once I started chopping up the script and re-pacing it, that's when I realized in a couple of days that we were dealing with a 500-page book instead of a 180-page book. So then kind of everything was thrown out of the window there. The script kind of remained intact; we did a little reworking. I'd say that on terms of a narrative level, I definitely stepped in and looked for elements that were between the lines of the script that needed to be explored or fleshed out more. A lot of that had to do with intense objective or emotional experiences that John Lewis' character was going through as a young person, or whether it was looking for the emotional weight that might be happening.

For example in book two, one of the things it covers is the Freedom Rides. There might be a five- or ten-second section where the Freedom Riders are entering the Montgomery Greyhound station. It's very quiet and dead there and they know this is a very bad sign, that there's no one there at all. They know they're about to get attacked or brutalized in some way. They don't know when, or where or what direction, or who these people might be. What the extent of the damage will be. They might have occupied a line in the script, a line that was intended to be one panel. I realized that really the dread, the anticipation, the fear, that's something that is more at the core of the storytelling than a lot of the acts of violence. So that one panel might be turned into three pages.

Since we are working this out as three books, by the end of working together on the first book the three of us had worked out a more even creative, collaborative style. Even going into Book Two, they did a lot of rewrites on it. But a lot of that had to do with bearing in mind what I was going to be focused on as a visual storyteller. Even though the script for the story was done before I started work, it continues to sort of evolve and grow as we become sort of one narrative entity for the course of the book.

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SPURGEON: I don't know that you hear from the Congressman in a way that you know what you're getting from the Congressman and what you're getting from Andrew, but I'm interested in the fact that 1) this is the Congressman's story, 2) he may not be as immersed in comics as you and Andrew seem to be. So I wondered after his priorities: what his notes were like, and what his concerns were.

POWELL: That's a very good question. One of the things that I really took for granted until I finished his memoir, Walking With The Wind is that John Lewis is primarily an oral storyteller, and a lot of these tales he's been telling for 45 or 50 years. So I read the script to the book and immediately after that I read the memoir before jumping in to really start work on breaking down the script. There's a little bit of a speed bump where I realized that so much of the script was verbatim from Walking With The Wind. Number one, it's coming from the same place in the same voice because it's the same writer, so I had to check myself on that. But then... I'd never had the experience of working visually with someone who is primarily an oral storyteller. There were a lot of script considerations where I would step in and do some minor edits, or all of us including Chris Staros and Leigh [Walton] would work on some things together. You want to keep a lot of his dialogue and voiceovers, a true to his voice as possible, but almost all of it is stuff that he's been speaking out loud primarily. So some of that simply doesn't translated. I'd never really had a scripting experience quite like it. I'd never thought about the applications of it. I'm not sure that covers exactly what you were asking.

SPURGEON: If if it didn't, I prefer your answer to my question. [Powell laughs] You talked about some of the research that you did. You live in southern Indiana, and there's a line that the South starts about 20 minutes south of Indianapolis. You're from Little Rock, which has a history in terms of the Civil Rights movement and the issues related to that struggle. You're maybe not from the deep south, although I'm not all the way sure about that, come to think of it: you might have spent several years there for all I know. Something about your book I think worth noting is its immediacy, and I think that's something you grapple with through the framing sequence. This is history about that person right over there, interacting with that person next to them. It's the Congressman's life. Dealing with that as history -- was there anything for you in revisiting this as history given you're someone who lives in the world these experiences helped create.

POWELL: That is a constant, daily presence of my mental life and process since most of my brain is March these days. I would say that... for one, until I was in my late 20s it took until then before I was able to really integrate my own thoughts and reflections and questions growing up as a moderate liberal turned radical left generation-X kid whose parents were MIssissippian, white, baby-boomers. Most of my life was spent with a working knowledge of all of this stuff. When I was in elementary school I lived in Montgomery.

SPURGEON: Now that I didn't know. Okay.

POWELL: My parents are from northern Mississippi. I would learn all of this stuff, but it was always peppered with the statement of "That was a different time." This never gave me a lot of answers or clarity. A lot of southern kids go through that same thing. There's a lot of push-back in your twenties against that statement, against baby-boomers and political moderates -- white political moderates that are boomers -- and finally, thank God, you're able to get past that and have a real conversation about the place and time your parents came from. You can appreciate that they arrived at a better place.

With March and with The Silence Of Our Friends, really the work on Silence Of Our Friends worked as a proving ground for the storytelling methods I would employ on March. A lot of that is because it allowed me to acknowledge that there's an historical component to remain as faithful to as possible, and to maintain a certain level of responsibility. It illuminated how much had changed in the 20 or 30 years between my lifetime and John Lewis' lifetime, or in Mark Long's lifetime as a kid in Texas in Silence Of Our Friends. Not only how much had changed, but the instances in which absolutely nothing had changed in 30 years.

It also allowed me to finally get over a degree of southern guilt I guess in terms of being able to acknowledge the wonderful things about the American South. I've lived in Indiana for ten years now. I love the town where I live but I've never felt like Indiana is my home. I don't ever think it will be. It's made me more appreciate of the culture the South has fostered in its wake. I feel like there have been a number of profound eternal changes as a result of building this relationship with John Lewis while working on this book. A lot of that I guess alongside a lot of people in my generation and my parents' generation doing a massive wave of processing of what this means 30, 40, 50 years later.

SPURGEON: I wanted to ask a few formal questions about the book. Your page layouts are fairly fascinating to me because you don't settle into any specific framework, which is a pretty standard way of dealing with material that is intended for a wider, not-necessarily-comics-reading audience. In actuality, though, your solutions on the page are all over the place. Does that indicate perhaps you were going moment to moment, story to story in terms of figuring out how you wanted the structure of the story to work on their page. Or are there general principles there I'm just not seeing, connections I'm not making. It seems like such a wide variance in how you approach structure.

POWELL: I would say that a lot of this... especially because the script was given to me in a highly structured way, that one of my necessities in working on it is to find the cracks in the structure where my weirdo self-published comics storytelling style can creep its way into it. Really stylistically for me, a lot of the moment to moment, aspect to aspect transitions that occur, and a lot of the weird flow changes are still being heavily influenced by '70s and '80s superhero comics and '80s to '90s Japanese comics that I was into when I was a teenager. I feel like... I do try to take each scene on its own. Once I threw out the page count that was given to me on the book, I realized that the door was wide open. I try to keep each scene self-contained unless there's a device or a cross-cut that means it has to end at a certain point. Once I get in there, it's liberating knowing that adding a whole extra page, or two pages, for whatever purpose, is totally okay.

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SPURGEON: There's a significant use of blacks -- something you don't see a ton of in comics for a more general audience I think because of the effect on eye flow. It encourages an abandonment of the story by novices in favor of becoming absorbed in a specific image. There had to be moments where you wanted to nail the power of a certain visual, or the effectiveness and importance of a specific moment. Was it hard to find that specific balance between flow and hitting these specific points you wanted to hit? Was pushing certain moments into black a solution for that, a way to slow the eye down without capsizing the progression of the story?

There's a page with a phone ringing that'd done with a dark background that seems particularly power for that visual choice. A lot of pages like that, really. There's a jail scene that ends with an open cell done in a kind of silhouette.

POWELL: Right. I think that a lot of that comes from Chester Brown. When I read I Never Liked You around 1997 or so, that changed the way I saw the page forever. It wasn't even until a couple of years later that I discovered he drew panels individually and then taped them onto a master page, and that controlled the jogging of his panels. There are some "splash pages" in I Never Liked You that are surrounded by black in early printings of the book. All black. The use of really heavy blacks has become more pronounced in my books really with Silence Of Our Friends and March because I'm also incorporating grays... so instead of having -- Swallow Me Whole is an extremely literally dark book. The art work is so stark because there's no tone in the book. I feel that we as comics readers read that a certain way. It takes on a certain quality once the grays are brought in and the highlights are brought out, where they never existed in the first place.

It does slow down the reader. It's true. There are a lot of moments in the book like that. The original script was brought to me with six panels per page throughout the entire trilogy. Once I was looking for the correct punctuation, if it was left to me I'm more apt to include a sparse splash page as punctuation as opposed to ending on a larger but traditional panel at the end of one page or in the first panel of the next page. I appreciate the breathing room very much. When I read comics... it's a little different now that I have a kid. I like to sit down and read the entire book in one sitting. It helps a lot to have breathing space in the form of hyper-minimal splash pages. I don't have the luxury to read comics in one sitting anymore, but it actually makes me more thankful to have these moments of punctuation.

imageSPURGEON: Another thing that's striking about this work is the cumulative effect of the lettering. You use everything from hidden word balloons to changing size to illegibility. I wonder how instinctive that's become for you. A couple of things you do: one is the way you portray secondary dialogue almost as ambient noise, dialogue that takes place when other dialogue is foregrounded. That's a really interesting effect: you see that up top in the framing sequence in the Congressman's office but maybe more dramatically in some of the counter scenes about 100 pages in. You see the insults, for instance, via a kind of lettering that's smaller, and not as distinct. I wonder if you could talk about that as a strategy.

POWELL: In March, almost all of those secondary lettering additions are my interjections. Where this really started is when I was a kid reading X-Men and I'd maybe just started drawing comics. There'd always be these moments where Jean Grey or Psylocke or whoever is a telepath where they have this cliched moment where the thoughts of the people around them threaten to overtake them. "I can't handled it anymore!" [laughter] I remember in the [writer Chris] Claremont X-men run that I was really into those sequences but that the lettering, the random thoughts, were perfectly legible. They were overlapping, a lot of the time. But everything was at the same visual volume. The lettering was the same size and was readable as everything else.

When I was working on Swallow Me Whole, that was the first time I experimented with this. So much of that book has to do with sensory information and patterns. In the comic book visual language we are very much used to and take for granted information being out of focus. Things drawn further away are drawn more sketchily, or hastily. We have no problems with this. There are very few ways to explore this as written information. Near the beginning of Swallow Me Whole there's a scene right when the two kids get to school, in the cafeteria -- that's when I first stepped into the foray of trying find a visual representation of this kind of auditory information. The crowded cafeteria and hallways are full of chatter. Not only can you not hear most of it clearly, in real life, but most of it doesn't matter at all in real life. A lot of it was understanding that scribbling instead of writing words was perfectly fine. Making it half-audible is fine.

All my books since then I've gotten complaints I'll occasionally see on Amazon comment that are like, "Well, I think they printed the book too small because it gave me a headache trying to read all the tiny, tiny word balloon. They didn't even make sense. One star!" [laughter] I enjoy catching those reviews. Especially with March and Silence Of Our Friends when you're talking about massive public retaliation and riots and anger, I think the auditory confusion makes it... when you just have the necessary dialogue inserted in there, it's like who cares. You become aware you're reading a scene of a mass protest somewhere, or a riot, if you just have one or two word balloons somewhere from the pertinent characters saying what they need to say. To me it seems like a no-brainer that if you have 150 people in a scene, 60-70 of those people are going to be yelling some bullshit and that this should be considered.

SPURGEON: I thought it actually made the cafeteria scene more frightening, in that you couldn't quite understand what these folks were saying.

Let me ask you question just as a representative of Team March. It's a broad question, so my apologies. Do you guys conceive of the book in terms of contributing something to our knowledge of that story. Not just the notion that more people -- or different people -- might read this, but in terms of the content itself, are there specific stories, a point of view, an outlook that the collective you behind this book thinks is a unique contribution to our understanding of this history? How do you look on it as an historical text? Does comics play into that at all? Is the fact that this is comics make it unique in terms of the content and impact of what you're getting across?

POWELL: There are a couple of things. One of them is relevant to this as a story. Strangely, I'd have to evoke the framing device, in that the trilogy is framed with President Obama's first inauguration day in 2009. On a narrative level, one of the things that surprised me is that it's a true story -- so certainly everything you've said applies here -- and it's the author's life. But in a literary/structural way it comments on a fairly recent part of our lives. The framing device of Obama's first inaugural day, there was a part of me that headed into that with a little bit of hesitation. Some of that is still anxiety that hasn't been worked through yet, which is sort of that the right wing controls political discussion of the Obama administration in a way that makes it so that the Left isn't even allowed... they don't even accept that many elements of the Left are disappointed with President Obama and this administration. I'm one of these people. It took me a while to remember and embrace the fact that I cried on election night in 2008 when he won; I cried watching his inauguration on TV that day. There was something that slipped away back into the mediocrity of politics as usual soon thereafter. The narrative requires you respect that there was this window, this thing in the air for a couple of months, in our society. The framing sequence and structure of the 2009 scenes demands you respect that you were a part of that, too. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, this whole symbolism of Congressman Lewis's struggle and where we wound up on January 20, 2009. It's so easy to discard that in 2013. It sort of makes you shut up and listen and respect where you were late in 2008 or early in 2009.

imageIn terms of the book in general... like I said before I was too close to the drawing board and working too furiously to really appreciate a lot of the implications. One of the things that really struck me was being a southerner born in the '70s, there is so much about the historical movement that I took for granted in terms of names, faces and places. When I was doing my own micro-editing breaking down this story from the script, I had to check myself a lot of the time. Even massive figures like Dr. King or Rosa Parks, Emmett Till, at first I thought there was too much entry-level information on these people. I soon realized there's too little. Even when the book was done.

I'm 35 now. The thing that has struck me the hardest not just in the reality of these activists but in the way it's brought forward in this book is the fact that John Lewis was half my age when he jumped into this. It made me think of what I was doing when I was 20. He was getting his skull split open. He was speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when he was 23. I think that that's one of the most shocking things now that book one is done, and I think that's something that may resonate with a lot of readers and people as time goes on. I think that's one of the most essential parts of the narrative: how damn young so many of these people were at the time. Asking the question of I guess the privilege of whether or not to involved yourself with social change or to work hard at anything. For some people it's not a matter of deciding to do these things. That's at the core of the privilege of "Oh, what should I do with my life?" A lot of times that's not a question that needs to be answered.

SPURGEON: We had a conversation back in the Spring about the non-traditional, non-mainstream expressions of comics. "There used to be I think more of a secondary industry that served those kinds of comics. People either caught on or they didn't, and if they didn't for most of those people they would tend to not do comics after a while. Now I think you and I would both agree that we're seeing more people charting careers despite the fact that there might not be an industry of any kind to support them, and that many of them are counting on DIY tools to support them in sustaining their artistic output. I know you come from a music background and a scene that's struggled with a lot of these issues in a different way. I wonder if you could speak from that perspective as comics' ability to sustain the number of voice we see getting into the medium. What might you suggest to people who want to maximize their chances and their return due to actions they might take on their own behalf?

POWELL: I think the most important thing related to that is that I feel in general my peers in the comics world have embraced that all of comics from Marvel and DC down to Sparkplug... that's one industry. That's not completely true, but when you find yourself in your little pocket at San Diego Comic-Con, and it's about a fifth of the whole showroom floor, and you realize that DC and Marvel are about 100 feet from Fantagraphics and Top Shelf. Getting over a lot of the context that brought you to the point where you're a very serious, independent creator -- for a lot of of people in the 30s and their 40 a lot of that has to do with reckoning with or parting ways with mainstream comics, or with corporate comics -- whatever. A lot of those stories are very different. But I've found... and Chris Staros has been adamant, that the success of a Jeff Lemire or Matt Kindt and everybody that's been able to make a living from more than on one end of the spectrum, that success anywhere in the comics spectrum is all good for all points along the spectrum.

imageIn terms of my reality, the only way I'm able to make a living doing comics is by doing work for hire that someone else wrote. I've always been able to work with material I like. I love all of my collaborators. If I'm lucky, I'm able to do something with some awesome DC Comics money attached to it. That grants me enough time to spend two and a half years writing and drawing my own book that maybe sells 5000 copies. Or 10,000 copies.

I feel like once you really dive in there, I don't necessarily say you have to see it from a career standpoint, but in terms of passion and focus, you're already in with both feet -- there's no getting out of it. If I'm not able to make a living drawing comics, I have so much work lined up over the next three years that I literally cannot get a job. [laughter] So many of these books have deadlines. There is no escape. Not that there needs to be an escape. [laughter] There's a certain level of conviction here that has to be addressed. It is a very good period right now for indy publishers that are underwritten by big corporate booksellers that do well in the bookstore and library markets. Major comics companies and very successful indies... all of these things bring up the independent cartoonists that are in it for the long haul. A lot of this has to do with recognizing that you are truly on a speeding train, and that you're mostly just going to be treading water. You can get over it -- constant work, a breakneck pace and planning ahead a year, two years ahead of time. I think that's the new shape of things for cartoonists of my ilk or my way of thinking.

imageSPURGEON: Speaking of speeding trains, you have to be knee deep into March Book Two. I don't usually do this, but I think a snapshot of everything you have on your plate might be fairly fascinating. What's next, Nate?

POWELL: Right now I'm almost done penciling March Book Two. I'm a couple of months behind starting to ink it. Also, like two years ago I signed on to draw a graphic novel adaptation of a Percy Jackson And The Olympians spin-off called The Heroes Of Olympus: The Lost Hero. Hyperion is putting that out and Rob Venditti wrote the adaptation. It's really because of that book project that I'm not homeless. I"m almost done with that. I'll be done with that in two months and then I can focus on the rest of the March trilogy. I'm also finishing up a short-story collection for Top Shelf called You Don't Say. That's everything I've done from from 2004 to now. Hopefully that will be out in 2014. Hopefully in the next two weeks I will be finished and that will be off to them to integrate into their schedules. For years now I've had a solo graphic novel called Cover that I've had written and that I've the first half penciled -- three times now. I've had to put it on the back burner until March is almost done as a trilogy. With being a dad, and all of these other books, a little fire in me has gone out in terms of existence knowing that I'm not writing and drawing my own comics right now. But the longer I've waited the better the story has gotten. I feel like it's become something much more worthwhile reading -- and drawing -- when the time comes around. It's an exercise in patience. So I have four books lined up over the next couple of years.

SPURGEON: We'll talk again, then.

POWELL: Of course!

*****

* Nate Powell
* March Book One

*****

* cover to March's first volume
* photo of Powell by me
* a borderless panel from March that I liked, emphasizing the oral storytelling involved
* a page dominated by the use of black ink
* one of the 18 billion lettering effects employed by Powell
* they were very, very young
* a cover collaboration for DC
* from "Bets Are Off," one of the Powell efforts out there to be collected
* a two-panel progression I liked (below)

*****

image

*****
*****
 
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Go, Look: All Of Kate Beaton's Holiday Comics In One Place

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Go, Read: Something Everyone In Comics Already Knew

The portentous nature of an article a) declaring something as obvious as the attention to physical, art-directed craft on certain books as its own thing in late 2013; b) slapping a year on when this became The Year It Happened, well that really is sort of hilarious, but it's always a point worth making, and the angle here is a pretty good one. While some books have been embracing their physicality as objects, the author notes that many e-book strategies have involved stripping things down to their bare minimum. You've seen something similar in comics with serial comics versus trades versus deluxe editions, and the e-book part of the equation adds to that overall landscape. The implications are obvious in terms of which forms might serve which kinds of consumption.

Put another way: I am in no way a natural consumer of electronic books and magazines and even I have started to prefer getting things like books-about comics, superhero comics and periodical-style industry news concerning comics in electronic form. It's the superhero part of that that may be most surprising but certainly shouldn't be in terms of how such books operate. So much of what superhero comics do these days are less about the experience of reading them and more about their insight into the incremental changes to the overall storyline -- finding the most convenient way to do that seems like it's going to be a thing. After all, some folks eschew the works entirely and "keep track" in reflected form on-line, so an approximation of the actual form is going to have some appeal if cheap enough and easy to access. I have friends that were totally out of buying superhero comics now back in via binge-buying through sales at comiXology and Marvel's "unlimited" approach of getting dozens to hundreds for a flat price. As far as I know, none of them are looking for an enhanced experience.
 
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Go, Look: Wally Wood Wizard King Original Art Flats

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Comics By Request: People, Projects In Need Of Funding

imageBy Tom Spurgeon

* this is one of the odder donation request pages I've ever seen as it's so specific with the options for donation but relatively vague as to exactly what ails the writer Sarah Byam. I have no doubt the need is real, though, and I remember her being very nice. There is a non-subscription option at the bottom of the page.

* I'm going to repeat a bunch of these in the hopes that it will wear down or two people that are tired of seeing whichever cause listed here. My apologies for those that come to CR for new reading.

* first up: please consider including the CBLDF in your year-end giving. They are good people, and freedom of speech is a fine cause.

* the Sparkplug Comic Books recent posting about pre-orders and support included an on-line, art-auction component: here are those art auctions. I don't know exactly what that Dan Clowes is, but color me interested.

* the cartoonist and writer Ted Rall would like your support through a service called Beacon.

* efforts to help Stan Sakai as he attempts to make up a home healthcare insurance gap remain ongoing. Please note the CAPS paypal button is working again. Sakai is one of the best people in comics and I hope you'll considering lending him a hand or seeing your way to one of the things being offered on his behalf from well-meaning peers. It would also be nice if someone at CAPS would cash checks that were sent to the PO Box before the year is out, if any of them are reading this.

* speaking of Mr. Sakai, all thought and prayers to him, and to his family, for this loss.

* the Sequential Artists Workshop is seeking a few thousand dollars in support of its 2014 programs. Tom Hart and his fellow SAW folks are good people and that money will be well-spent.

* finally, don't forget that Dan Nadel continues his 50 percent off sale at PictureBox as that company winds down the front-list part of its admirable life. Get the Frank Santoro stuff.
 
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If I Were In Tokyo, I'd Go To This

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posted 1:20 am PST | Permalink
 

 
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