Jason Grimmer is the manager of Librairie Drawn And Quarterly, the bookstore run under the wider Drawn And Quarterly umbrella. That a few publishers are running retail establishments is an intriguing story of the last several years in comics. There are all sorts of reasons why this might be a good idea for a publisher, not all of them vague buzzwords like "branding," and we get into a few of those below. I'm also generally happy to talk to members of the D+Q team because that's an important comics publisher with only a few, vital cogs.
Grimmer I don't know at all except as a presence in the comments threads of Facebook threads fostered by various other D+Q employees, alt-comics' go-to source for cheap, barely-penetrable, on-line entertainment. Google revealed very little other than he was once a prominent employee at Vancouver's Zulu Records, a model indie music store. I got a bunch more information from fellow Drawn and Quarterly people, but I'm still unclear how much of what they told me is true. I tweaked the following a tiny bit for flow. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Jason, I know very little about your background. I'm told that you went to school for broadcasting, were one of the prominent employees at Zulu in Vancouver and that you even once called stock car races, but I'm not sure how much I'm being messed with. Can you talk about your background, how you ended up in retail? Was comics a part of your background?
JASON GRIMMER: Once I'd graduated from high school I figured I should go to school for something and so I chose radio broadcasting. I realized pretty soon it wasn't for me. I liked the news-gathering, copy-writing, and voice-over aspects of it but not the cultivating of a wacky on-air personality aspect -- which was encouraged. [Spurgeon laughs]
Though I barely remember finishing the two-year course -- indeed, I only discovered I'd actually graduated two years ago -- I did get to do my practicum at a radio station in Calais, Maine and loved it. I was given free-reign to write copy, produce and voice commercials for local businesses, and it was a blast because I could create characters and use their library of sound-effect records anyway I wanted with absolutely no one over my head judging my work. When that ended and they couldn't hire me because of my Canadian citizenship, so did my broadcasting career. I knew it would never be better than that. After that, yes, I accepted a job as stock-car race announcer but I quit after one shift when I realized they weren't joking when they told me the pay was "all the hot dogs you can eat during your shift."
SPURGEON: Yeah, that's... [laughs]
GRIMMER: After a succession of short-lived bad jobs in various blue-collar towns: a bartender and DJ at a scummy biker/ dive bar (which I quit mid-shift one night after one particularly terrifying patron asked me "are you gonna play 'Witchy Woman' or do I have to take you out back and beat the shit out of you?"), at a car wash run by an ex-NHL player, and the overnight shift at a 24-hour video store, I picked up and moved across-country to Vancouver, B.C. where I eventually got a job as a manager at Zulu Records.
As far as comics go, yes, they were a very important part of my youth -- as important as movies and music were, anyway. I spent grades one through through as the sole Anglophone in an Acadian village and the Peyo and Hergé I found in the tiny library at my school taught me how to read French. Also, my mother would bring me to used bookstores on a regular basis and I would stock up on whatever comics were there.
I remember liking Conan the Barbarian, Justice League, Heroes for Hire. Man-Thing, horror comics and MAD magazines. MAD was definitely a huge thing for me and I loved the weirdness of the humour and art -- which I found pretty subversive (Dave Berg creeped me out particularly). I kept thinking "I shouldn't be reading this," but was happy my mom let me. Loved Don Martin. I also read the comics in the Playboy and National Lampoon magazines my dad kept around. Dirty Duck kind of blew my mind and it was also where I first noticed [Harvey] Kurtzman (I was happy to discover of his stuff through MAD reprints, later).
A couple years later I got into the Spider-Man[Steve] Ditko-era reprints but, even though I found The Inhumans fascinating as a concept, I found Kirby's art to be too impenetrable for me, at the time. Later I discovered the difference between DC and Marvel and chose to make mine the latter (except Legion of Super Heroes, which I found fascinatingly bad). I kept up with Marvel until John Byrne's Alpha Flight and then lost interest in super-hero comics completely.
I was always pretty aware of first-generation underground artists -- knew their names and some of their work -- but I didn't pay much attention to owning anything. Mostly read some stuff that my friends' pot-head, older siblings had laying around. Much later, a friend lent me some issues of Eightball and I started to pay more attention to comics again. A couple of years before I started at the bookstore, I started reading all the D&Q books I could find at my local library and the two that stuck with me -- and remain two of my favourites -- were Seth's It's A Good Life and Gabrielle Bell's Cecil and Jordan. Those, along with Chester Brown's Louis Riel (which I read much earlier) were my real entry points into D&Q.
SPURGEON: The Zulu experience seems like it would directly relate. Do you still use anything you learned in those days in the management of the bookstore? How do you look back on those experiences now?
GRIMMER: I worked at Zulu for around seven years. It was there that I discovered that, even though I believed my taste to be discerning, that I also loved researching and immersing myself in stuff that I thought I should at least find some appreciation for, in the hope that it would take. You know indie-records stores (and I would imagine this goes for comic book shops as well) are not always considered places that hire open-minded people, but that's how it really is and should be. The people who work there and the patrons that support them have invested themselves in knowing what's good about everything. These types of shops are, in many ways, the most important places in any city and can help shape the cultural life of the city or town they are in, if handled correctly. You can spend days searching for things on the internet but if there's a place in town that narrows it down just enough so you can get a foothold, it can change your life.
We stock things we love and can get behind but we also bring in things that our clients consider important. Generally, if it's in the store, there's a reason for it and we should be able to explain why it's there. We have a chance to alter the cultural landscape of our city and we should recognize and embrace that responsibility. We need money to stay open, sure, so we need to sell books, but in that regard we are also incredibly fortunate. Our clientele likes and buys the books we bring in so we don't have to worry too much about stocking huge amounts of million-selling books that we don't care about. This is the difference between Amazon and a Zulu, between Amazon and a Librairie D&Q. When I was a kid with hardly any cash, I depended on the clerks at certain record and book stores to steer me in the right direction. Not necessarily tell me, "You have to have this or you're not cool," but if they could explain to me what something was about, where it fit in and why it was crucial for me to at least know about it, I was sold. If you can do that, you can consider what you do is important, in my opinion anyway. A knowledgeable, interested and approachable staff is integral to the success of this kind of business.
SPURGEON: I know the store celebrated its five-year this Fall, and I understand what they were thinking when they started it, but I'm not sure when you became involved. In fact, I'm not even certain how you went from Vancouver to Montreal. How did you end up with the gig?
GRIMMER: My girlfriend, Kathy, and I played in a succession of bands in Vancouver and none of them were really satisfying experiences for us -- besides the obvious camaraderie and drinking. I knew that I liked being creative and liked -- to an extent -- the business of music, but we just didn't find the hard work it took for such small returns to be worth our while -- especially now that we were in our thirties. We figured that if we stayed there, we would be stuck in the same rut forever -- forming a band, gigging, recording, and then suffering through yet another band break-up.
Once our daughter was born, it gave us a reason to look eastward, partially because we kind of disliked Vancouver and partially because all our family was back-east and our parents would have better access to their grand-child. A lot of our friends were talking about buying apartments and flipping them and, since we had no interest in that, we decided to visit our family for vacation and not return. A month later we were living in Montreal. We had neither jobs, nor substantial savings, but I was fortunate enough to, right-away, find a part-time job at a record and used bookstore that barely supported us while Kathy went to school for Early Childhood Education. It was a tough couple of years, I knew some French and Kathy none.
Our daughter, Addie, became friends with Tom and Peggy's daughter, Gigi, at pre-kindergarten (Chris and Marina's son, Charles, also attended) and our resulting friendship with her parents led them to offer me the management job at the bookstore when the position presented itself a year or so later. Tom, Peg, Chris and Marina are amazing people and have been very good to my family. Gigi and Addie still hang out almost every weekend, Tom and I drink together at our monthly comic book club meetings, Peggy and Kathy are in book club together, and we have a lot of shared friends, so we're pretty close. I'm the only person in this city that Tom seems to know who he can have really deep discussions about the Velvet Underground or Pavement with, so I have a huge responsibility in that regard.
SPURGEON: You're in a comic book club with Tom Devlin? I think I need to know as much about this as you're willing to tell me. Is there anyone else in this club? How does it work?
GRIMMER: Yeah, it's me, Tom, Joe Ollmann, Pascal Girard, D&Q managing editor Tracy "Hamcups" Hurren, store staffer, Marie-Jade Menni (who, incidentally, did her thesis on the Hernandez Bros.), and our good friend Howard Mitnick. Matt Forsythe used to be in the club as well, but recently moved to Hollywood, I believe. We meet in the store after it closes. We all get a chance to choose a book for each meeting. We've done Death Ray, Acme Novelty #19, My Friend Dahmer, Dungeon Quests 1 & 2, The Voyeurs and maybe a few more that escape me right now. We don't all always like all the books but there's always someone in the group who does and so we end up reading stuff we never would usually. We try to keep the conversation focused on comics but that can be tough sometimes as there tends to be a lot of beer involved.
SPURGEON: You know, I'm not even sure I know the size and scope of the store. Can you break it down in terms of things like the size of the space, the size of any and all storage you might have, how many people work there, how many hours the store's open and what that means in terms of employee hours, how many events you run, that kind of thing?
GRIMMER: The bookstore is somewhere around 800 square feet. There are two shelves near the back and by our stage where we store overstock and there's some space under the shelves for overstock as well. Honestly, everything we have is pretty much all on display, which is to say a lot. Right now, we have tons of boxes filled with Building Stories all stacked neatly at the back waiting to be opened and shelved as the ones on the floor sell. The store is packed, but organized. It's a lot like my apartment in that way. As I mentioned there is a stage at the back and whenever we have an event we move all the tables to the side and put out chairs. This year we re-shelved the entire store so now we have wooden shelves that reach the ceiling and are better able to showcase some of our more beautiful and interesting books, whereas before they were all mostly spine out on black metal shelves. It's a beautiful space, really.
There are six staff members currently on the payroll. Myself and five others, but I'm the only full-time employee. The staff share most responsibilities but also has distinct duties as well -- French book buying, graphic novels etc. -- and I hire people based on their particular strengths. I'm fortunate because a lot of my hires come from a pool of the best former D&Q interns. If someone worked especially well in the office, Peggy will let me know and I interview them. The final decision is mine but if Peg and Tom and Chris have spent time with someone and suggest them, a lot of my work is done already. During regular season (that is, non-holiday season where we're open everyday from 10 AM until 9 PM) we open at 11 AM and close at 6 PM Sundays to Wednesdays and 11 until 9 the rest of the week. I'm there for two hours before we open so I can get ordering and other work done before we open. I don't have an office and am at the cash all day, so that time is necessary for me. I do a lot of researching books and booking events while having a coffee.
Events-wise, I'd say seven or eight events a month. More during the fall. One of my mandates when I took the job was to open the space up more for the Montreal literary community's use. We are constantly hosting launches by Concordia and McGill professors and students and I think this was the reason we were the only bookstore featured in Time magazine's article on the Montreal Literary scene... Next fall I plan on starting the Librarie Drawn & Quarterly Reading Series where we'll host a few big-name authors off-site and then readings with other, lesser-known or emerging authors throughout two weeks in the store. I have a wish-list of big authors I'm always trying to get and I start really working on it in February so we'll see how it goes.
SPURGEON: How much of the store is D+Q-related material, how much is from other, similar publishers. How much is comics vs. prose?
GRIMMER: One wall and shelf of the store is dedicated to D&Q, so -- and I'm really guessing here -- maybe 15%? People come from all over to see the "D&Q" store so we carry everything, of course. Besides that, the store is -- and please excuse the word, but it actually applies here -- curated, so we really only carry what we consider the best in almost all genres of literature. While we have lots of comics and graphic novels we also have a nicely maintained literature section. We have a small, but growing, poetry section, a theory section, art books, our favourite magazines, and probably the best English childrens' book section in town. We focus a lot on publishing houses that we consider to be D&Q kindred spirits: McSweeney's, Anansi, La Pastèque, Conundrum, Nobrow, Granta, Toon Books, New Directions, Melville House, Semiotext(e), Koyama, Fantagraphics, and more I'm forgetting right now. It all meshes pretty well with the D&Q aesthetic, so it works well.
SPURGEON: The anniversary article I read made a big deal about the exquisite way the store is curated. How much of the store's feel is you, do you think, maybe independently of a broader D+Q aesthetic?
GRIMMER: I inherited the shop so a lot of it was in place beforehand, and Tom and Peg and Chris' aesthetic is close to mine. I mean, I believe that was a big reason why the hired me and entrusted me with their store. What I've done is take what they started and kept moving in the right direction without having them feel like they always have to worry about it. They knew I had the right kind of buying experience and they knew what I liked, personally. We use Book Manager as our POS and that's a massive help. They've been great and I do around 85% of my buying through that. I can track what sells and where and source out things from different suppliers pretty easily.
The office still plays a big part in the stocking of the store. They suggest stuff and the store staff does some buying as wellâ€¦ they all have great taste so if they consider something worthy, someone else is going to appreciate it as well. I don't question a lot of their choices, I learn from them. I could probably stock a whole store myself based on what I like and know about but you could also stock one based on what I don't know, so it's hugely advantageous to have this resource. There's also Peter Birkmoe from The Beguiling whose brain I'll pick on a fairly regular basis. Besides buying, if any really big decisions are being made, we figure it out together and make things work. This is what makes the store as good as it is and the job so satisfying. I get to do what I like and enjoy a huge support system while I do it. I think it's working well.
SPURGEON: I will understand if you want avoid details, or maybe avoid the question entirely, but I hope you'll bear me out. Is the store profitable? You guys were quite up front in the anniversary article about grant money making it possible, and people in North America sometimes think everything in Canada is supported by the government forever.
GRIMMER: Oh yes, the great Canadian myth that everything here is funded by grants! Here's how I understand it: the office was able to secure a grant for the opening five years ago so they could fulfill the mission of providing comics, art and literary workshops and events to the public, which we still do. Tom does a graphic novel course and Pascal Girard does them in French. The amazing Leyla Majeri does screenprinting workshopsâ€¦ I know this much: the store hasn't received any funding ever since, we are even unable to quality for library & institutional sales due to some bureaucratic red-tape. We are pretty much following the trajectory of any small business. I was told we were in the red for the first four years, and now, finally, we're in the black in our 5th year. Are we profitable? Well, it's an independent bookstore, so I think we all know the answer to that one. It's always a break-even affair. When you don't make any money the first four years, it's hard in the 5th when you come out a bit you hesitate to throw the word "profitable" around, as you can well imagine.
SPURGEON: I was wondering if you could talk about a couple of D+Q books, maybe a non-D+Q comics-related book, and a prose book with which you've done well. What are some of the distinguishing factors in terms of something that sells pretty well in the shop. How many would your best-seller for a year sell in a year?
Otherwise, this year Junot Diaz's This is How You Lose Her was big for us, which is a pretty cool for a hardcover fiction title as they can be hard to move in great quantities. It usually has to be a title that both the staff and our clientele embraces that makes a hard cover break out. Of course, we've had great success with local authors as well. Rawi Hage, Jonathan Goldsteinâ€¦ and this past year, mostly due to out very successful launch events with them, both David Byrne's How Music Works and Miranda July's It Chooses You were huge and we sold through hundreds of the books. What are great quantities in a year? I'd say a hundred or two, more in some cases. Quality of the title and the staff's love of the book definitely play a huge part in driving our sales.
SPURGEON: Does geography play a role in your store? I don't know where you are or anything about Montreal, but I know that bookstores can sometimes anchor a neighborhood. Are you a neighborhood store, too? Which neighborhood?
GRIMMER: We're located in the Mile End, which has been a pretty hip area for the last decade. I guess the Arcade Fire hitting it big played a part in that. So did the cheap rent. The rent's gotten steeper now and as the younger students, artists, writers, and musicians all move north to the even-cheaper environs of Parc Ex and Petit Patrie, families are king. These families are mostly made up of McGill and Concordia professors and writers and artists and their children who are very invested in books and art (and mostly Anglophone) and so the store has become a kind of hub for them. The literature and children's section expansion is testament to that.
SPURGEON: Is there anything you wish you hadn't done, a step that maybe wasn't so fruitful, in the years you've been there? How do you feel you're still learning? Do you have room to try things and fail?
GRIMMER: Honestly, I've only been at the store for something like 18 months and I've been busy the entire time so I haven't had a lot of time to look back on anything I've done wrong. I don't think there's anything we've done yet that I would consider a failure. I put a lot of time into the store and I definitely have an amazing support system here so I have faith that any problem that may come up could be figured out. I'm a pretty careful person, generally, and everything I do with the store is worked out and thought through but I'm also aware that great things can't happen if you don't take chances. We would never let a great idea die on the vine.
SPURGEON: With the events, is there something that's key to making sure the events drive business to the store, as opposed to just being awesome events? I worked in a gallery once that threw amazing parties, but did so in a way that never led to people buying stuff off of the walls.
GRIMMER: Obviously, you can't sell 50 books at every event, but we always look at every event we book as potentially successful or we don't book it. There are a lot of considerations to take into account. A few months back, store staffer Julien Cecceldi did an amazing job when he decided he wanted to bring author Chris Kraus to Montreal. Her books sell well enough for us and she's a store favourite, but we needed the resources to bring her here and book sales were not going to cover it so we partnered with Concordia University and did two events with her. One in the store and one at the school and they both did great. It was important to show people that we were willing to bring someone we thought was worthy. Sure it cost us a little but we knew it was culturally important. She had a great time and did two wonderful readings so that was, to me, as great a success as our 600-people sold out Byrne and Miranda July events. Yes, book sales at events are important, but future book sales are just as important and if you work hard and are trustworthy, people will support you.
SPURGEON: You mentioned people making a destination of the "D+Q store" -- do you get tourism attention? I know that was a factor in Subpop doing retail, that it's the kind of thing that gets listed as a city attraction and you get some business that way.
GRIMMER: Sure, especially in the summer. A lot of people think -- and hope -- that the publishing house is in the same building, but it's not. Soon after Paying For It came out I had a young lady from California who told me she was a sex worker and that she just wanted someone at D&Q to know that she and her colleagues thought that Chester's book was tremendously important and that they really appreciated him for it. She knew we were a bookstore but she knew I'd pass it along. When authors are in town they generally always come by, and recently we had a customer get pretty excited when Peggy brought Guy Delisle in. And Tom Devlin's usually by a couple times a week to drop off books or borrow my tape measure, so that can be a bit of a thrill. Kind of like if Eddie Vedder stopped by the Sub Pop shop to visit Mark Arm and maybe borrow his guitar tuner while he was there.
SPURGEON: Is there a customer you think you should have more of you don't yet?
GRIMMER: I think we could probably reach out more to the other Anglophone communities in Montreal as well. We've started to do that a bit and I think its working. I see more people from Westmount and the West Island than I did last year. We need to beef up our French content as well. There's a lot of great stuff out there and it would be nice to be able to showcase it. We've had more requests for French childrens' book recently as well. I think that would be nice. I hate to turn people away when they are looking for beautiful books we could carry.
SPURGEON: How do you fold in children's material into a wider-range bookstore? Is there any key to attracting that kind of business, or at least being able to serve that kind of customer?
GRIMMER: The children's books fit perfectly. It's seamless, really. We do a lot of research with them and I'm confident that we are on top of getting in the best of the best. Aesthetics and content guide us and the quality of the illustrations is as important as with our comics and graphic novels. Matt Forsythe, Lilli Carré, John Stanley, Isabelle Arsenault, Frank Viva, Alain Grée, Julie Morstad, their work adorns our walls and we love it. Like I mentioned before, the Mile End is home to a lot of families and so our kids section is well-perused. My daughter comes to work with me once in awhile if my girlfriend and my schedules don't work out and she just sits in one of the little chairs in amongst all those gorgeous books with a pile of books and reads for hours. Lots of kids from the neighbourhood drop by and just sit and read. I pay attention to what they like or what their parents like and I stock accordingly. Childrens' books are great fun to research and stock.
SPURGEON: Are you settled in, do you think? Do you imagine what the shop might be like in five, ten years? How ambitious are you, and what might happen that we might read about that tells us you're on your way to making those goals?
GRIMMER: I'd say, yes, we're settled in. Our significance is felt, I believe and my job is to make sure that continues. We're more able to get authors to Montreal then we were when we first started because we're not Toronto and I think that will only get easier. I'm working on it anyway and I feel positive about it. As far as the future, yeah that's hard to predict. On one hand I think the need for thirst for great, beautiful books you can hold in your and shelve in your home will never abate but who knows how the E Book biz will affect graphically driven literature? I mean, maybe someone knows, but not me. I worked in record stores for so many years, I saw when MP3s changed everything but yet, there a so many great little record stores still around, and them seem to be doing OK. I mean, they have my business, anyway, for what it's worth. I still buy books and records on a weekly basis and my daughter is growing up in an apartment surrounded by them, but how many of her friends have the same thing? A significant number of them probably won't feel a need to cultivate that kind of environment in their homes when they get older. Maybe my daughter won't either. In cases like that then our store and stores like ours are even more crucial as we represent something that people know in their hearts is important but may not think about all the time. I can tell you this, I deal with people on a daily basis who tell me how relieved they are we exist. It's symbiotic: they exist so we do too. Buy a kid a book, will you?
* photo of Grimmer and the store by Alexi Hobbs; rights secured for CR by Drawn and Quarterly
* Bobby London's Dirty Duck
* from Cecil and Jordan
* photo of anniversary event by David Smith; rights secured for CR by Drawn and Quarterly
* photo of store interior by Alexi Hobbs; rights secured for CR by Drawn and Quarterly
* photo of books racked by Alexi Hobbs; rights secured for CR by Drawn and Quarterly
* photo of David Byrne appearance by Richmond Lam; rights secured for CR by Drawn and Quarterly
* a best-seller when it comes to prose at the store
* photo of window of store by Alexi Hobbs; rights secured for CR by Drawn and Quarterly
* photo of Matt Forsythe's bookstore postcard by David Smith; rights secured for CR by Drawn and Quarterly (below)
* the writer Peter David apparently had a stroke while on vacation. I wish him a full and speedy recovery, and further hope that he and his family have as much comfort and support as is possible during this trying time. Update: Kathleen David has a lengthy update and fuller description of events here.
Tom Kaczynski had a very good 2012, escorting his line of Uncivilized Books to the trade and collections portion of the ongoing micro-publishing cotillion while seeing a fine book of his own out from Fantagraphics. Beta Testing The Apocalypse collects a number of Kaczynski's fine short stories from the late MOME anthology and adds at least one major short story never published. His work reveals an inherent understanding of structures, of both the societal and formal/comics variety, which makes sense given his background in architecture. He is the only new publisher I've ever encountered in the alternative comics realm where people seem enthusiastically in his corner from the get-go, just sort of grateful he's arrived. Despite Kaczynski making comics for several years now, I have never been well-acquainted with him personally and as late as last year's BCGF was openly mistaking his work for someone else's despite very much enjoying the individual comics as I came across them. I'm glad for this opportunity to have a better grasp on his significant presence in the world of comics, seeing as we should all benefit for years to come. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: I want to apologize for the broad nature of some of these questions, but until I sat down and started looking at your work for this interview I'm not sure how familiar I am with your story. Let's talk about the publishing first. The initial impulse to publish: I know it's not unheard-of for a cartoonist that self-publishes and works with minis to go in that direction, but to make such a deliberate move the way you have with Uncivilized indicates there was some significant planning involved. Can you talk about the move into publishing?
TOM KACZYNSKI: Like you've said, I've self-published for a long time. Once I started working with Gabrielle [Bell], working with her in mini-comics, we started getting a lot of good feedback in terms of what I was doing with her in designing her books, the quality of the little mini-comics being published. At some point, Gabrielle just sort of said, "Hey, do you want to do my next book?" [laughs] I wasn't a publisher at that point, really, I was just someone making mini-comics -- deliberately, but on a very small scale. So it took me a while to think about it. But once we sort of agreed I was going to do this, and I agreed to do it, I realized that for someone like Gabrielle, if that book was going to succeed, I needed to do something serious.
SPURGEON: How did the arrangement with Gabrielle come about with the mini-comics? I don't think I know that story, either.
KACZYNSKI: That was pretty simple. I'd known Gabrielle for a while. We were in the same drawing group in New York. We've known each other for years at this point. I started doing Uncivilized Books as a mini-comics imprint. She ended up coming to Minneapolis for a Rain Taxi festival. We had talked about collaborating. Whether that was sort of a writer/artist collaboration, or something, we had talked about collaborating on some level in the past. When she came for this Rain Taxi festival in Minneapolis, I was like, "You ought to do something for the festival," because she was promoting -- I think it was the Cecil and Jordan book. It would have been nice to make something for the festival.
So we talked about it and put together LA Diary. The mini-comic. The collaboration was that she just gave me the comics, essentially, and I came up with the way I thought it should look, and designed it and everything. We got a lot of really good feedback on that, so we just kind of kept doing that. Part of this was also just -- Drawn And Quarterly had at that point canceled most of their pamphlet comics, and she was looking for another outlet in that vein: something small she could put out more frequently. It just kind of worked out. We kept working together, and at some point it seemed like it was a good idea to do the book, too.
SPURGEON: So you have this realization that you're going to do this book and that it's different than this other thing you've been doing. So what do you do then? Do you do research? Do you sit down and make a plan?
KACZYNSKI: All of those things. [laughs] I've always been a fan of publishing. I've admired what Drawn And Quarterly has been doing, what Fantagraphics has been doing, what AdHouse has been doing, Koyama Press... all of those people. You're always going to think -- well, not everyone, but I do -- I think, "Oh, that would make a good book." Or "I wish that book had been done a little bit differently." I have these little, nagging thoughts now and then about certain things.
When the opportunity came up to do this book with Gabrielle, once the decision was made, I was like, "I need to become a publisher, I need to research this thing, I need to find out what I do for distribution, I need to find out how to do this thing." I didn't want to be a publisher that stacks up a lot of books in their house. I wanted to have distribution from the get-go... I just wanted to. One of the things I looked at were a lot of smaller, literary presses, who seem to have a lot less harder time finding distribution than a comics press. It seems like the comics market is really still bound up with, although maybe not so much anymore, the Diamond Direct Market. If you can't get into that, it's hard to get anywhere else. A lot of the larger distributors weren't, at least for a long time, interested in comics to distribute. Drawn And Quarterly and Fantagraphics and Top Shelf and other publishers have sort of opened that door. I think there's a lot more interest in the smaller press.
SPURGEON: So who carries you? IPG or someone like that?
KACZYNSKI: I'm with Consortium: Perseus, I think, owns them. They also do Nobrow. When I showed this stuff to them, they were basically interested in comics publishers, I think. I was also lucky in that they're based in Minneapolis. Maybe I had an easier time having access to them. [laughs]
SPURGEON: I remember one thing that was surprising to me when Fantagraphics and D+Q started teaming up with established distributors is how good a match they were for those companies -- they're oriented towards producing a lot of books, they have an established design aesthetic, they can do a catalog. Has that been a good relationship for you so far?
KACZYNSKI: I think so. They're very much focused on indie, literary presses. Some of the people they distribute are Coffee House Press, people like that. The comics I'm interested in publishing tend to be on the literary spectrum of the comics world, and so I think we definitely fit in. So far, so good. I've only been there for one season so far. I can't speak to a longer relationship at this point. [laughter] But I've been very happy with it so far and I hope it continues that way.
SPURGEON: How has that first season gone, then? What's your learning curve been like in terms of getting a book out there? Where do you feel you've learned the most in terms of Gabrielle's book that you can now apply to this new wave of publications you're doing?
KACZYNSKI: Promotion is hard. Although Gabrielle did a lot of heavy lifting on this. She has a lot of experience promoting her books in the past, and she was able to bring that over to this book. It helped a lot in getting the book out there. Learning about the whole... pre-publication stuff. Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and others, where you have to send them stuff early to get reviewed or even considered. Just sort of seeing the cycle. Where you start and how far ahead you need to be.
Before it was always, "Hey, we've got this thing. Let's put it out there. We'll worry about what happens to it later." Now it's sort of there's this book, and it's going to come out at a certain time, this is what we're going to do for it, this is how many copies we'll print, this is where we're going to print them, and here's the budget. Just making sure all that stuff happens was a pretty big learning curve. At least initially. Now I'm sort of settled into it, but Gabrielle's book was the test case. We did have a lot of extra time on that book, because we were working on it for more than a year before it hit the stores.
SPURGEON: You toured with her on it.
KACZYNSKI: We did a west coast tour. It was supposed to include my book from Fantagraphics, but I was late with the book [laughter] so my book didn't really make it until the very, very end where we did an event at the Fantagraphics store and we had a copy to show -- not even sell. It was pretty fun. Gabrielle did a lot of heavy lifting in terms of organizing the tour, because she's done it before. She had some relationships with some of the stores that we did. Having Consortium back the book up helped a lot. There was a lot less stress about getting books to these places.
SPURGEON: It sounds like it naturally developed, but Gabrielle strikes me as a good choice for a first book, because she's not only talented but she's settled into what she does. Can you talk a bit about Gabrielle as a cartoonist? I think she's still a hard sell for certain comics readers. I know it took me a while to come around to what she does.
KACZYNSKI: Well, why is that? [laughs]
SPURGEON: I don't know. I'm not sure why. I needed to be immersed in her comics before I picked up on a lot of what she did. Her facility and talent is obvious right away, but the entirety of what she expresses took me some time. What do you think makes her a special cartoonist? Can I ask you that broad of a question?
KACZYNSKI: [laughs] Sure. First of all, she's getting better and better, I think. I think she's very much, she has a very literary voice. Part of why there's been some resistance to her work in the comics world is the autobiographical thing. For a while there was a major backlash. I feel like there was a lot of that kind of work coming out in the '90s, and then in the early 2000s there was like, "We have to do something else. No more of this kind of work." I think she approaches it from a very different place than the 1990s autobiographical work. It's a lot more literary, more of a memoir. Her books do a lot better for me in bookstores than in comic book stores. Her voice is a lot broader in a way that may not latch on with comics fans -- that's not to say she isn't popular there, because she is to a certain extent. Just maybe not as much as she is in the general book world.
SPURGEON: The design work that you do... do you have a formal background in design?
KACZYNSKI: It's kind of a formal background. I went to architecture school, which is sort of a design discipline, I guess. Not books, it's not graphic design, but it's a design discipline. I also spent a lot of time working... in college I worked for the college newspaper as a designer/art director. I never went into architecture professionally, but I went into design professionally after school. I've designed countless things. Web sites. Brochures. Anything you can think of. I hadn't done that much book design, because I wasn't in that world. It's something I always admired, and had friends that worked in that.
SPURGEON: Are there comics designers that you admire?
KACZYNSKI:Jonathan Bennett is an amazing designer. He's a great cartoonist and an amazing designer as well. I also like... he's not a cartoonist, but Joel Speasmaker, he used to publish The Drama. I admire his work. He has one eye on the comics world. He designed a bunch of stuff for the Brooklyn Festival this year, the Brooklyn Comics And Graphics Festival. I think Jacob Covey at Fantagraphics really picked up the game for Fantagraphics' design.
SPURGEON: Enormously so.
KACZYNSKI: I feel like over the last decade or so the design of comics, graphic novels, has really taken a step forward.
SPURGEON: I'm pretty unsophisticated when it comes to design, but I like the overall look of your books. I like that you don't seem scared of type, working the titles into the overall visual effect. What do you think your strengths are as a designer?
KACZYNSKI: I don't know how exactly how to answer that. One thing that's frustrated me in the past about seeing certain books, like Gabrielle's work, is I've never really liked the way her books looked, to be honest. This isn't a big slam on anybody. We had a conversation where Gabrielle decided she wasn't a good typographer, essentially, so that was one of things we worked on together for her book. She's an amazing cartoonist, but there are a lot of amazing cartoonists that aren't good designers. There is this ethic in the comics world now that you have to do your own cover, do your own type. That's great if you're really good at that. But it doesn't serve everybody really well. That's something I wanted to address with what I was doing.
SPURGEON: Was bringing Aaron in to do the introduction your idea? I thought that was a great choice. Ed Brubaker wrote something for Jon [Lewis' book], and Charles was in there as well.
KACZYNSKI: Charles Hatfield. For Gabrielle's book, Aaron Cometbus, Gabrielle brought him -- it seemed like a no-brainer once I heard it. For Jon Lewis' book, Ed Brubaker -- I don't know if you read the actual foreword, he was basically the first reader for True Swamp. It was kind of amazing to be able to loop that and have this book be introduced by him. Charles, I loved his book on Jack Kirby, and he was a fan of True Swamp. I feel like True Swamp has been a bit of a lost book of the '90s. I wanted to have someone who was a fan of the book that could position it critically in terms of the recent history of the medium. He seemed like the perfect choice.
SPURGEON: Both Jon and James Romberger are kind of lost talents in a way. I don't mean that in a pejorative sense, but more that they haven't quite connected with a readership to match their talent.
KACZYNSKI: I agree with you. I think James was a little bit... it seems like he was maybe in the wrong place. He's done some amazing work, but he's not very well known to the sort of audience that companies like Drawn And Quarterly or Fantagraphics or myself cultivate. He's been essentially a DC/Vertigo kind of guy. He comes from that background a little bit. He has a pulp sensibility. But again, he's been recently converted to this, getting away from doing work for DC/Vertigo and trying out this stuff. I'm looking forward to the Fantagraphics edition of 7 Miles A Second, which looks amazing. I just started talking to James last year at the Brooklyn Festival. He showed me this Post York thing and it just kind of went from there. I loved 7 Miles A Second when it originally came out, and it's mystifying to me why some of these people aren't better known, or still published.
SPURGEON: Do you see a corrective impulse for your publishing, or is it fair to say that's something you like, that you can go find someone and present their work in a way that should be presented, to show their work to an audience you feel they deserve? Is that something that interests you?
KACZYNSKI: I guess that's part of the impulse. When I think back, I've always had a chip on my shoulder about comics generally. In high school I would write all sorts of essays for my English classes about comics, and trying to convince my teachers that comics are a legitimate literary medium. [laughs] There's always an impulse to redress a wrong, because they tended to dismiss this kind of work. I guess that's part of the impulse here. I'm definitely publishing other people that aren't forgotten or lost. [Spurgeon laughs] It's going to be a mix of things.
SPURGEON: Could you broadly outline your ambitions in terms of the structure of Uncivilized? Is there a certain number of books you want to do a year, a pattern you want to fall into?
KACZYNSKI: I don't want to over-extend, at least initially. There's no ambition to be a huge company. I would like to be a relatively successful small publisher -- maybe 8 to 10 books a year, maximum. Maybe some small things in between, pamphlet comics or minis. I still want to continue doing mini-comics. I feel like if I was going to sound corporate, that they're my R&D, research and development. You get to try out different techniques and different artists. It's a nice way to try out a specific aesthetic or a different artist without spending a lot of money.
SPURGEON: You mentioned talking to James at one of the Brooklyn shows; the 2012 version is where you and I talked to set up this interview. Certainly there's a lot of conventional wisdom out there that the shows and festivals have become increasingly important, that this year may be the best year of shows ever. From a publishing perspective -- or a cartoonist's perspective -- have the shows become more important, are they locking into a circuit?
KACZYNSKI: It feels that way to me. I feel like I have to be at a certain number of shows a year: to launch a book, to have something noticed or whatever. This is my first year as a publisher doing shows -- I think I did most of the shows this year.
SPURGEON: How many would that be?
KACZYNSKI: It's mostly from Fall onwards. From CAKE, the Chicago show. Then SPX, Brooklyn, APE -- that's four shows for that half of the year. The first half of the year I didn't have any books. I was hunkered down, preparing for the rest of the year. I don't know. It's definitely been adding to the bottom line. The Brooklyn show was amazing. I had a really good SPX like a lot of people. Brooklyn basically matched the SPX numbers in one day for me. It was kind of amazing.
SPURGEON: What makes a good show for you, from a publishing perspective? Have you been able to figure out what the difference is now having done a few shows? Is it bottom-line sales, getting the word out, having a certain kind of book there, is there a formula for what works?
KACZYNSKI: It's still going to be a bit of trial and error with these shows. As I have more and more books, I'm going to have to figure out if I need two tables, how to bring people to shows, etc., etc. For the most part, the shows I enjoy the most, they make money at the very minimum. When the artists are around, and they're having a good time, and the show is vibrant in that I can walk around and see a lot of interesting stuff. I've been doing these shows for a very long time as a cartoonist, so all of those things you want in a show as an attendee works also for the publisher. If there's a lot of good work all around, everybody benefits. If there are a lot of new debuts, it brings in more people, and everyone benefits. Shows where it's a little bit thin on that, it's not so good.
SPURGEON: Going into 2012 there was talk that business on the alternative and arts end of comics was slowing down a bit, that we were entering solidly into a down period after a slightly crazy period of book contracts with major publishers and festival hits and the established publishers in that world -- Fantagraphics, D+Q, Top Shelf -- finding their stride in terms of exactly what it is they want to do. And now we're in a down period where it's going to be a bit more of a struggle. There's a real optimism to this wave of micro-publishing we're seeing with Uncivilized and some others. It's like you're collectively voting to stick by comics. Eight to ten books a year for a literary imprint is an ambitious plan. I assume you're optimistic about the way things are going to be three, five, ten years from now, although maybe not -- maybe you're throwing stuff against the wall. Are you optimistic generally?
KACZYNSKI: Yeah, I think so. [laughs] It's a mixed bag. Always. But yeah, I'm optimistic. The boom you talked about, it was a different kind of boom. Maybe Fantagraphics and Drawn And Quarterly locked into what they were doing, but it was also a boom for the big guys to get in on graphic novels. It was a weird time, because that was kind of the first time graphic novels made it into the book market and they seemed to be performing very well and everybody was like, "I need to have one" without knowing what they were doing with it. I think what's happening now is that a lot of those books didn't do well for those publishers. They did good numbers, like if you sell 20,000 of something and you're Random House, that's peanuts, right? That's a book that's probably not making money back for them. But for a publisher like me, that's an amazing number.
So I think that space is being abandoned by the big guys, a little bit. I think there's a mid-level list of material that's good that's being abandoned on the high end of thing. I think that's why there's this surge of smaller publishers that are realizing that there are these artists that are good and are selling but there's no interest from the big guys because they kind of got burned. I think there's a little bit of an opening for the micro-publishers here. And also there is so much more good work out there. There's a lot more new talent that's actively producing work and trying to make it work for them. I don't know. There's something going on. [laughter]
SPURGEON: One of the ways you described what you were doing was in terms of it being sustainable; it seems like there is a built-in modesty to your plans that emphasizes something achievable as opposed to shooting a rocket at the moon and seeing what happens. It sounds like you feel that what you're doing may have a longer life than tossing $140,000 advances at random books, that that probably wasn't a sustainable model.
KACZYNSKI: There is a certain amount of modesty about that. At the same time, I make sure that every project I do at least makes its money back. So there are no losses. I'm not the kind of organization where I can lose money on things. I try to design everything and promote everything that there's enough to do the next project. Maybe do something more ambitious next time. I'm trying to create a sustainable model for this thing. It's still a work in progress.
SPURGEON: I greatly enjoyed your new book. A lot of it was MOME stuff -- did everything appear in Beta-Testing appear in MOME?
KACZYNSKI: Pretty much all MOME stuff except for the last story, which was brand new.
SPURGEON: I haven't talked to a lot of the cartoonists that worked for MOME about that experience. I get the impression from people that for those cartoonists that published there, MOME was really valuable in terms of keeping people productive and making comics and focused on producing work at a time when there wasn't a whole lot of structure out there.
KACZYNSKI: I agree with that. MOME showed up kind of at a moment where both Drawn And Quarterly and Fantagraphics were abandoning the pamphlet model. This was the only place where a shorter piece could be published and seen by an audience, relatively quickly. There was no lag time for two or three years and working in complete obscurity for a long time. For me personally, it was amazingly valuable. I had a kick in the ass every four months to complete something. I didn't always succeed. The first four or five issues I tried to contribute something every time, and then it kind of slowed down for me a little bit.
SPURGEON: How were you drawn into that orbit? Were you recruited? Did Eric [Reynolds] track you down and talk to you? Do you know how you came to their attention?
KACZYNSKI: I'd been going to comics shows for a long time. My comics had been out there. Eric had seen my Trans minis and liked them enough to e-mail me and say, "Hey, I like this. Whatever you do next, show them to me." I showed him a few things I did after that and at some point, he said, "Let's put that in MOME." It kind of went from there. It wasn't like, "Do something for me." It was more like, "I like your stuff, keep sending me stuff and we'll see what happens."
SPURGEON: You said once in an interview that you got to a point where you returned to comics after being away for a while and a big chance is that you spent more time on every page, on the comics themselves, than maybe you had before. Was MOME good for you in that you had some leeway in terms of what you could send in?
KACZYNSKI: Absolutely. You always knew you couldn't do more than 10-15 pages max, because it's an anthology. It was nice to think about comics in smaller chunks. You could focus on telling stories with a beginning and an end in 10 pages, 12 pages, and focus as much as you could on that story. You could spend a little more time with it because it was only 10 pages, or only 12 pages. It was a very valuable thing to have.
It helped me get more serious about everything, too. I was serious, but when you don't have a venue like MOME, for whatever reason you don't think about getting better -- or it's a slower process. When you're offered that venue, you're suddenly like "People are going to see this, I need to do something more serious." I feel like for me at least that was an important motivator. I'd been doing comics for 10 years before that -- publishing mini-comics for 10 years before that, I'd been doing comics since I was eight years old. It was always a little bit like, "Yeah, I'm just self-publishing this." Race to the end so you could have a new mini-comics, cut corners a bit. For whatever reason you're not doing yourself a lot of good -- MOME gave me an opportunity to not do that.
SPURGEON: Was appearing beside certain peers also a motivating factor, that you didn't want to be shown up?
KACZYNSKI: That was part of it. I was also in this drawing group in New York, Jon Bennett was in it and Gabrielle, Jon Lewis was in it. A few other people. That was the first time I'd seen other artists do work. That was very motivating. How much work goes into a page, how much work they did, showed me that maybe I wasn't spending enough time on my pages. You know? It kind of went from there. The first few issues of MOME I tried to do the best pages I can, I wanted to be the most interesting story in this issue. There was a little bit of competitive impulse.
SPURGEON: A lot of the work in here is connected by the fact that they're societal critiques. You mentioned studying architecture, and the architects I know are very sensitive to the shapes of cities, city planning, infrastructure issues and the way things function and relate to one another. That's a lot of what your comics get at in terms of the quandaries they portray, this kind of fraying of societal structures. Is that an explicit interest of yours, this critique of society -- I know that you're well read, but I don't know how much of your reading is in that direction.
KACZYNSKI: It's a big interest. [laughs]
SPURGEON: Can you talk about how that developed? Did it come out of the interest in architecture?
KACZYNSKI: Architecture was something I got into mostly as a pragmatic major for somebody interested in art. I fell in love with the discipline, and as I got more into it I fell in love with all of the issues surrounding urban planning, infrastructure and how these things come about. Whenever you did a project of any kind, you had to do an archeology of a site. How did this site come about? Here's the original grid plan. Here's how it changed. Here's how this highway affected this area. Here's why this weird wedge of land exists. This and that. It kind of sucks you in, digging all of this stuff up about it. How there are very deliberate choices made at some point to create the situation on the ground. You just walk by it, you don't know it's something very deliberately created.
I've taken that to broader, philosophical kinds of things. The political systems that we have, the economic systems we have, someone at some point made decisions about policies that created the world we live. I want people to be aware they didn't happen willy-nilly, that a lot of these choices are deliberate and a lot of these choices can be changed. That gets reflected in the comics. With the Trans books, they're more like philosophical tracts, whereas the MOME stuff it's more fiction steeped in those ideas.
SPURGEON: There's an anxiety present in a lot of your stories. It seems like the kind of deliberate planning you talk about would be a comfort to a lot of people, that these things are planned. So I find the anxiousness curious. The fact that these thoughts are more arbitrary, or might reflect not-friendly impulses, is that maybe the source of the anxiety?
KACZYNSKI: I think the knowledge is comforting, but the anxiety... it's not even my anxiety but a general anxiety that in the US has been palpable since at least 9/11. There was an apocalyptic mindset. Things are falling apart. Things are coming to a head. There's a clash of civilizations going on. With the financial crisis, capitalism is cracking, and what does that all mean? I feel like I'm tapping into a little bit of that general anxiety.
Personally I'm interested in utopias as well. That's something I'm going to be more visible in my other book, the Trans Terra book that's going to be coming out next year. There's all this anxiety, and it's very apocalyptic, and it feels like most people would prefer to see it all crumble as opposed to doing a few small things here and there to make things better. It's more of a frustration for me more than anxiety. It does come out in the comics as an anxiety. I think it's difficult to talk about. In the comics, especially the MOME stuff, they're more literary in that I'm trying to get into the mindset of certain characters and people and how they would react to things where they don't know there's an underlying structure.
SPURGEON: Your comics are more focused on the mindset than the breakaway from the structured norm. There is a false apocalypse -- you're not as interested in seeing things fall down as exploring the mindset that believe that things are about to.
KACZYNSKI: Yeah, that's partly why the book is called Beta-Testing The Apocalypse. [laughter] It's not the actual apocalypse. We're feeling it out. It's hard to say exactly. It's more like the anxiety of the apocalypse than the apocalypse itself. There's a whole post-apocalyptic genre, and that's something I used to be into, but I feel it's more interesting to find out how it came about. What happens before the apocalypse? Right before it. What needs to happen to society for that to happen. I don't know if you've read Jared Diamond's work -- the scientist that wrote Guns, Germs and Steel. He also wrote a book about collapses of civilizations. That's another interest of mine -- ancient civilizations, and trying to imagine ourselves as a civilization that could end. How that could come about, and what mind set we'd need to get into to release and let go and let the whole thing crumble.
SPURGEON: Your work seems very rigidly structured for the most part. You stick to grids pretty strongly, two-across and three-across, and your work is rigorously captioned. What is it about the standard grid that appeals to you?
KACZYNSKI: I've been kind of getting away from it -- especially in the last story. But yes, I do like the grid, I think it's one of the things, one of these sort of grammatical rules of comic that just works. Kirby used the grid religiously, occasionally breaking out into big splash pages. The grid is the sentence. Each page has a certain amount of panels, and that's how you tell a chunk of that story, in those panels. It's this invisible thing. Sometimes you can question it, but for the most part it's just the next sentence. This modular thing that follows the other. I think it's important to break out of it every now and then. The kind of thing I do doesn't question the medium of comics so much; it's more about trying to create certain rhythms in a story, and I think the grid does that well. You can switch from three to two across, sometimes you just have a two-page spread or you break out of it altogether. Sometimes you have complicated grids like in the "Cozy Apocalypse" story. It's almost the default you go back to so that all the weird stuff you do stands out. You can't be that way all the time, otherwise it becomes incoherent. It creates a rhythm and it creates a structure. It creates a flow.
SPURGEON: Are you a confident creator? Are you still feeling your way through your stories, or are you empowered when you see a blank page?
KACZYNSKI: I'm still feeling it out a little bit. There's a lot of convoluted work that goes into these things. Occasionally, like the condo building story, that came together very smoothly. It was scripted, I drew it and and I inked it and it was done. "Wow, I'm getting this." Since then it's been a lot of back and forth. I rewrite whole chunks, and rearrange pages. It gets more difficult. Now that this book is done and I'm almost done with the Trans book, my next project is to work with process more, and come up with a way of working that a little bit more comfortable. It's more like the grid -- a structure that moves me along more efficiently.
SPURGEON: As you said, you do use formal effects, but you employ them very judiciously: a visual element that goes from panel to panel, or a sound effect that crosses a page. Are you consciously judicious in their employment?
KACZYNSKI: Yeah. I think the formal tricks are nice, but they almost work better when there are less of them. That's kind of my take on them. I tend to be deliberate with them. If something crosses a panel border, I want you to notice it and think about it. I've done more comics that explore the medium, that play more with formal tricks, in the past. It's more part of the repertoire now than something I'm deliberately going for.
SPURGEON: You've been making comics for a long time now. You've talked here and some other places about moments that were key in your development, like getting to be around other comics-makers and see how they approach a page. The idea of being more deliberate with individual pages -- eye-opening moments you've had along the way. Are you settled in now, or are you still sensitive to these experiences? Are you the cartoonist you're going to be for a while now? How important is it for you to consider new ways of doing things?
KACZYNSKI: I think I'm still pretty open. I just mentioned I'm looking for a new process. I really like Dash Shaw's work. I've had a chance to peak at his process and it's really different from what I'm doing. We collaborated once on a story, and seeing how he works... it's very different than how Jon Bennett works. He's slower, he takes longer to put a page together, whereas Dash lunges forward and produces work more quickly, and he's able to come back in and rework certain things. There's an editing process that he has that I really admire. It's something that's difficult to do in comics. I'd like to work on that for myself, a process where I can able to produce work at a constant clip and also be able to edit.
When I was doing a lot of the MOME work, what was great about it was being able to do these things, and they were so short I was able to wing it. If I had to redraw something, it was just one page. With more pages, you might not be able to do that. Having a process where you can edit is important, and I feel like that's something I've neglected. With longer pieces you need a process that will leave you alone, and feel like you're not falling backwards several steps.
* cover to the new work from Fantagraphics
* photo by me at some show or another
* the LA Diary mini-comic
* covers to the current works, showing off Kaczynski's praised art direction on those books
* a future book from Uncivilized
* a page from the current collection, showing society fraying if only needlessly
* a page from the more utopian-centered future work, provided by the artist, encompassing some of the themes discussed
* the Trans Terra book, forthcoming
* a page with a rigid grid
* a panel that uses some formal trickery
* a snippet I liked (bottom)
* somehow I totally missed that a Staten Island comics shop closed in the wake of that Sandy storm from late October/early November. I know that a lot of businesses suffer this kind of thing, but I think it's a reminder that small businesses like comics shops are sort of uniquely fragile in terms of taking on too many blows like that storm caused.
* I always appreciate that some comics entities take some time off from the incessant hype and content production at this time of year, like D+Q and TCJ.com. I think that kind of downtime can be important. I know that I launched the holiday interview series against a much more grand backdrop of the comics industry and the culture that surrounds it taking a break from serious discussions of Spider-Man story content or whatever. It's something I'll consider in future years.
* not comics: another one for the "we're old now and will be dead soon" files.
Mark Siegel is the editorial director of First Second Books, the graphic novel imprint of Roaring Brook Press. He is also an author and illustrator whose most ambitious work to date, Sailor Twain, came out in October of this year following an ambitious, two-year, on-line serialization. First Second creators have included Eddie Campbell, Lewis Trondheim, Gene Luen Yang and a significant number of authors oriented towards all-ages graphic novels, many of whom, as we discuss below, confuse me. I always enjoy talking to Siegel at the various funnybook shows we both attend, and this year at San Diego's Comic-Con International he seemed almost blissful about the direction of his company. I also always wanted to talk to someone who works both side of the creator/editor divide in the same calendar year. Mark indulged my curiosity about all of this and more mid-December. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: I have a question for you, a potential first question, that I wanted to put up front because if it sucks I could easily fast-forward past it. [Siegel laughs] You just came off of an author's tour, an extensive one, and I have to imagine that can be a pretty strenuous thing. You also have a ton of professional responsibilities at First Second. One of the things I'm fascinated by in comics right now is how people our age -- we're near the same age -- stay in shape. Comics people aren't always known for taking care of themselves.
MARK SIEGEL: Yeah.
SPURGEON: It seems there's a mini-trend of people reinvesting in that kind of healthy living. And I wondered if that's ever been important to you, the physical fitness thing, or at least finding a way to do everything you do and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
SIEGEL: I had my own health scare about 10-12 years ago. It forced me to really devote some time to setting up a lifestyle as opposed to just wining it on whatever. As you know, that's a tough time in your life, but it's also a blessing. You basically pay some bills on how you've been living. I do try to have some sense of that. A big part of it for me, a big part of the balance of health, is having certain patterns and routines. Including creatively. I think your creative health is kind of inseparable from your physical health. For that, being able to set routines, my early morning studio stuff, and my work time, and then of course when you hit the road and do the author thing that's definitely a source of imbalance and I'm feeling, I'm definitely feeling some burnout from having scrambled some finely-tuned patterns in my life. [laughs] I'm hoping to find my way back to a certain kind of balance.
SPURGEON: Just getting the amount of work done that you get done seems to me it would take a considerable amount of thought. It's not unprecedented in comics, your kind of split responsibilities. A lot of publishing figures have also been creators. A lot of folks have found their own way into that kind of balance. Was it more difficult for you when you first started?
SIEGEL: Not really, because in a way it predated First Second. First Second came along, before that I had jobs in publishing that really were more like day jobs. First Second came along, and it's more... there's a part of it that's really dayjob in terms of the admin work, the managing side of it all. But First Second is also a baby in a creative sense? It's a project. It's a project, so it has a different kind of nourishment than just clocking in for a paycheck.
Before First Second started, I knew... when I was just a designer at Simon & Schuster before that, I knew that I had to safeguard my project time, and fight for it fiercely. There are so many people that put off that novel they dream of writing, and it eventually becomes the regret of their life. I knew I never wanted that. It's true I think that you pay the price of what you want to do. If I wake up... I found for me that carving up some time that wasn't yet claimed by everyone and everything else had to be really early morning. Most of my life I've been a night owl, but I've reprogrammed myself. So early mornings became that time. As I expanded that time, I had to push further earlier and earlier into the morning. The price of that is I'm not going to have much of a social life, because I'm useless after 10. That's a price I was happy to pay.
SPURGEON: Do you find that that has an effect on the way you create, though? I know that when I talk to artists with a demanding day job, maybe even a few of whom are in that early phase of having a family, they find they make stronger and quicker choices out of necessity.
SIEGEL: Yeah, I think it's true. I think it's true. I know it's a total cliche, but they say if you want something done you give it to a busy person. I think there's something about... when I think back on my twenties, and when I look back, I think in a way I had so much time on my hands and I have so little to show for that time. Those years. And of course, there are different things that you're going to be drawn towards in your teens or your twenties or your thirties or your forties... it changes, definitely. But I feel that as I've grown older and busier, that the time being more precious tends to be invested rather than spent. You can't really have a life without downtime, without empty, vacant time. That's also important.
It's basically become a set-up for me of a life that's like many little lives, where I know that 15 minutes can count, half an hour can count, especially if I know it's every day. At the end of a month, there's a lot to show for that. As opposed to always waiting to have that good marathon session in the studio. I know this from working with comics people, some very talented comics people, that some people have more of a struggle with their productivity than others. And oftentimes I hear they're kind of like, "This weekend, I'm going to give it a good, six-hour run and that should be great." And of course those six hours never come. As opposed to those people that never let themselves grow cold and they stay warm on a daily basis and it's maybe less spectacular and in the end it kind of wins the day.
SPURGEON: Let me turn that around. Something that's come through with talking to people on the road this year, people that have a teaching or a publishing gig, a lot of people approach those jobs as their being artistic projects as well. You talked a little bit about First Second being a creative project. Do you think First Second is different for having an artist in your position with the imprint, that you can develop it in terms of its own creative life?
SIEGEL: I hope so. And I know I'm not alone. There are some really talented authors and artists running... Chris Oliveros has his own comics. It's a funny thing. There's this impossible dance between commerce and art. It never quite works. One of the two is getting their toes stepped on. But there's a need for that. There's a need for something to hold that space, where there's some structure that can support careers out of creative projects. I see people like the people I work with, there's some incredibly inspiring people. There are people that have paid their dues, some of them, and can make a living doing what their passion is. Creating a home for that is partly a creative projects. It needs the business to be sound and to be healthy. To sustain. I know I'm less idealistic than when we started First Second, but also there's some idealism I'm fighting to never lose. And I think the part that might be different, other publishing companies in some cases that the business part is a means to that end, as opposed to the sole criterion for success.
SPURGEON: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you isn't just that you have this considerable book out, but also when we spoke this summer, I think of all the publishing people I spoke to, and I think of all the conversations you and I have had in the past at these things, that general, ongoing conversation, you seemed more serene than usual. You seemed happy, like you were in a good place about where things are right now. I wonder if that's a fair assessment, and I also wonder how it feels to get there, to get to a place where you feel locked in, where you feel comfortable with where things are. Are you in a good place with the company?
SIEGEL: Yeah, we are in a good place. I feel happy with our current lot, but there's always a side of me that's striving to get it better. I'm aware of certain milestones that are hard to reach in terms of not just First Second, but First Second's place in the creative community of comics. So broadly speaking, in the sense that anybody's success is a good thing for all. I feel that there are certain things that are... America can be a hard nut to crack, there are still certain prejudices about comics to overcome. You think by now that battle has been won, but a lot of people haven't caught up to that fact. That's an interesting part of my job, traveling around the country and meeting thousands of librarians and educators. That side of things is also where I get some of my optimism from.
I do feel I see a lot of change. I see a lot of support. I see a lot of enthusiasm. There is this incredible renaissance that we're in. With First Second, part of what -- not so much satisfaction, I wouldn't say I'm satisfied, but I'm pleased. I'm pleased to feel we're playing a part in this thing. Right now we're around seven years in existence. We're sticking. We're sticking. We've earned a certain space of our own. And if we can keep sticking, I think we're going to offer the medium itself, and the creators -- some of them not yet born -- are going to have an avenue that can help them sustain, really push the form into some interesting places. Year by year, I would say there was an anxiety. We definitely had -- there's been some ups and downs and some things -- some experiments that went thump. But all in all, the progression is towards greater stability, greater establishment for First Second.
SPURGEON: Your language is very interesting there, Mark, because you talk in terms of roles and parts and space... can you describe what you think that role is? What is that space you're describing, is it advocating for the medium's viability, is it providing stability to a certain kind of artist, is it being a good citizen within the overall community?
SIEGEL: Partly. Partly. I think we do try... I think part of the mission of First Second is to help win a place in both highbrow culture and popular culture for comics that is long overdue in America. We're certainly not the only ones trying to do that. I do think we put special effort in terms of speaking different languages for different audiences and putting books out that are aimed to reach across many different kinds of audiences. I'm always interested in books that are really legit and have real cred for people who love and know comics, but can also speak to people that don't know comics. We're always looking for ways... I love it, like I've heard that Anya's Ghost was one book that somebody told me what was great about it is that it doesn't need a secret handshake. It lets you in right away. It's not necessarily a measure for every book, but for that one I think that's a real success.
SPURGEON: Something I've always wondered: how much are you able to curate a season? You just announced your books for a specific season. How much of that is crafted with a specific, cumulative effect in mind and how much is that beholden to the realities of publishing, what you have ready to go?
SIEGEL: [laughs] There's a bit of both. It's funny, because I do believe anything you set up, collective or solo, at first you govern it and you establish the rules. Later it governs you with whatever you've put into it, for better or for worse. First Second has gotten to a point where there's a kind of an organic life to it, so magic things happen. For example, at one point I was really pushing to see how we get a balance of really talented women cartoonists. Because they're out there. And now there are more and more and more of them. I remember having conversations about this years ago. We started signing people up. I was presenting to some librarians, there were a hundred New York librarians that came here to the Flatiron Building last week. I was presenting -- which list was it? -- I guess it was the coming Fall list, one of the upcoming lists. Five of the six projects were by women. I hadn't even noticed it. Sometimes you set things in motion and the season is that kind of season. We do have a bit of a curatorial look, and then there projects that fall off or that come in early. But each season has its character.
SPURGEON: Is it a change at all now that you're dealing with repeat authors? You kind of have your people now.
SIEGEL: Yeah. Yeah. And I love that. I try. I try. I feel like we have, there is a stable of authors in a sense -- some of them do projects with other houses -- but there's a sense we can build certain bodies of work? And that's also kind of organic. There are sometimes when the timing just does gibe for something with someone. I like that. I think part of the long view mission of an editor is to be seen in the course of an author's first five, six, seven books. I think some agents and some editors and some publishers aren't good at that kind of long-term support. I think some people are signed up. I think their first book may be flawed, but they have a masterpiece in them and I want to be there for that day.
SPURGEON: I've taken a step back as a critic this year, and one thing I've concluded is that I don't have a refined aesthetic when it comes to comics for younger readers.
SIEGEL: Yeah, you've slammed a couple of ours.
SPURGEON: We've had a couple of exchanges.
SIEGEL: That's the one time I feel I disagree with you.
SPURGEON: What usually happens is some friend of mine with kids will talk me down, in that they just seem to have a more natural eye for what might work for that audience or what might not. "My kid really likes that book. It's not that bad." But here's what I'm interested in: how far along are you in developing that kind of taste? Because it seems you publish a lot of that kind of material now.
SIEGEL: I'm working on that. From the beginning there was a third for children, a third for teens and a third for adults -- roughly speaking for First Second.
It's a funny thing. I now have kids. One is seven and one is five. Over the years I've gotten to see and test things on them. The first thing that happened is when we were first reading picture books. I had done some picture books, and I had worked in picture books. The second I started bringing home picture books and started reading with them, my ideas of what made a good picture book completely turned on their head. They just completely were turned inside out and upside down. Then it got me thinking, "Well, what is it?" What is it about some of these books that really works for them and for me, too. But other times there are book where I think, "Oh my God, they're going to love this." And I bring it home and we never read it again.
I've come to respect certain authors. Like Peggy Rathmann, who did Good Night, Gorilla. There must be 12 words in that book. It's a perfect book. I've read it probably a hundred times and on three or four occasions along the way of those 100 readings the bottom dropped out and I had a revelation of like, "Oh my God, I see what she's doing. She's a genius." It's not unlike comics. Picture books are dismissed by people as easy stuff. If you've done a novel, you can bang out a couple of those. It's really hard to do a picture book that is actually for children. One of our experiments is Nursery Rhyme Comics; the next one will be Fairy Tale Comics. We have these amazing cartoonists working the classic nursery rhymes. Part of what we're trying to do is make it not just winking at adults, but really make it for that three or four year old at bed time. It's a different reading, and it's surprising sometimes to us grownups that the world really does look different when you're four.
SPURGEON: Your own work... I avoided reading a bunch of your interviews. A lot of CR readers, I'm guessing, may not have caught up to Sailor Twain yet. When I started reading the online version, your milieu, the place where you put this, is not something we see a lot of, or that we hear a lot of, that part of the country, that part of the world, that very important river and valley. You live north of the city in one of those towns. Is that a fair assessment, that this isn't an area that we see processed a lot through art?
SIEGEL: There's definitely a rich tradition. There's literature and there's art centered around here. Washington Irving and Rip Van Winkle -- he was trying to create a new American myth. There's writing. Pete Hamill I think is a great New York novelist. It's funny. The Hudson is the Mighty Hudson, you hear a lot about the history and the commerce, but the romance you don't hear about. I find it very romantic.
SPURGEON: Is it that element, then, that spurred you on to make art about that place? Or was there a connection to the other works of art?
SIEGEL: There was some of the art stuff, but some of it was that I commute, on a train going down the Hudson every day. Where I live, the Hudson is about three miles wide, and it's in this bed of granite. If you go up you pass West Point Academy and you go up towards Rhinebeck and Poughkeepsie and then towards Albany. And it's like there are so many different landscapes. It's incredibly, incredibly beautiful country. Around New Paltz and Poughkeepsie there's the wine country, the Hudson wine country, which you don't hear about so much. There's definitely a lot of charm and a lot of appeal. There's history. Edith Wharton and the gilded age of New York. A lot of that is Manhattan, but a lot of is up the river. You get the Rockefeller and the Vanderbilts and the great New York 400 families. There's amazing history, amazing stuff there.
SPURGEON: I want to ask you about two formal aspects of it that struck me. Your character design is interesting to me. The figures are very... they're very arch, they have a very cartoony aspect to them.
SIEGEL: Twain in particular.
SPURGEON: For sure. Can you talk about how you settled on designs for the project?
SIEGEL: That was definitely an exploration. The beauty for me with this project was giving it time. I started it before First Second. I've been working on this thing for about nine years. I had done a set of page that were entirely in ink, ink washes, about 30 pages of that, I did 15 pages in another attempt. They had to be scrapped as they weren't quite right. As I worked the story, and the historical research and some of the background of the characters over four and a half years, I ended up coming back to the character designs several times. There was a point where I thought I knew the characters, and I thought, "There's no way he'd look like that." Or, "There's no way she would wear something like that." So I went back.
In terms of the formal properties of the, what I finally figured it out is that it had to be done in charcoal for the mood and the steam and the smoke and the fog. The thing with charcoal is that in ways it's hard, because it's messy. But it's also forgiving in that you can shade everything in a way that's homogenous, but then within that you can have a character like Twain that's very geometric but almost manga kind of iconic, and a character like Lafayette that's more naturalistic. The thing with Twain and Lafayette, they're this American captain and this French ship owner, and they're the two central men in the story. And they're a little bit like the two strands in my genetics, basically. That's how it started, anyway. The French and the American thing. The American was always intended to be in this more geometric, this more black and white stylization. That's a bit like his moral world. That's his anglo-saxon moral world. Whereas Lafayette is all in shades of gray, and he's more loose and more organic. A little bit caricatured, but not geometric. I felt like they were playing against each other, and the way they transform is that Twain ends up more conflicted whereas Lafayette, who starts off amoral, ends up discovering a certain kind of honor in a way.
SPURGEON: That extends to their physicality as well. Twain will often act in this outsized, cartoony way.
SPURGEON: This struck me as an interesting choice, because a standard, create-a-work-in-five-minutes version of this, an easy way to do this is to distinguish between the fantasy elements and those that are decidedly less so in terms of how you draw them. But Twain is as out there as the mermaid... the spirit character.
SIEGEL: She's more realistic than he is, in a way. That's right. That's exactly right. Again, this is something that gets a chance to ripen and layer over time. They grow over time. I don't even feel I can take credit for them personally. It was more like discovering them as I went. With Twain, he's... there's times when he's less cartoony and more anchored in reality, but there's something about... there are certain things about this story I took very seriously and certain things I deliberately did not want to take too seriously. I love it when there are certain books and certain works and movies when I feel you can subvert the seriousness of a moment. You have these five chapters before you meet the mermaid, before you know for sure there's going to be a mermaid in the story. He finally finds this wounded mermaid, and there's a tragic weight to that moment. Suddenly he's thinking about selling her to PT Barnum. [Spurgeon laughs] When that moment happened... there's also a moment, a potentially romantic moment of carrying this naked fish-woman in his arms, and she's all slippery like a fish. She's bonking her head on the deck, and he can't figure out how to hold her. I love being able to switch. I feel in comics there's a way to have a range of feelings for a character that's unique to comics. I was playing with that.
It worked with Lafayette in a different way. He's a cad, and a libertine, and almost a buffoon at first. Then in a way the story of redemption is his story.
SPURGEON: The other formal thing that jumped out at me is that the structure of your pages is all over the place. There's no set grid, no set of standard solutions, except maybe that you tend to do big story moments as full pages. I think that's a consistent structural element. But your page design is very... all over the place.
SIEGEL: I knew where I didn't want it to go. I didn't want it to break... it's still a very conventional window. I tried not to bring the reader out of the story and into the formal design of the page. Exploded shards of panels... I tried to keep it pretty simple. The main thing I kept checking it for was the clarity. I didn't want to have any doubt as to how to follow the story.
SPURGEON: The clarity isn't in question, but the wide variation in terms of page structure does seem to lend a nervous energy to it, in that you're never able to settle into a specific pattern. It's jumpy in a way that I'm not sure a lot of books are. Even pages that face each other than look the same, perhaps the same number of tiers, you end up varying the size of the tiers, so the reading experience shifts again.
SIEGEL: That's definitely stuff I was playing with. There's a bit of the euro influence in that. Each story beat has its own treatment.
SPURGEON: You had a very high profile, very elaborate publicity tour -- we mentioned this up top. You went out and did a lot of events related to the book's launch. That's not typical to someone in your position. You have some things to do. You said it did disrupt some of what you had going on. I wondered about your decision to be fully present for the book in that way.
SIEGEL: The book itself, I feel like it was born from a personal journey. In some way, putting this stuff out there in a project and then fashioning a story to its ripeness, in a sense, it felt like I was shedding something. It's a little bit like letting it go -- giving it that push and getting it out in the world is a way to shed it and be free of it and move on. There's another side of me that's been treating all of this as an experiment and taking a lot of notes along the way. The webcomic and the serializing, some of that we're applying to other serial projects at First Second. Getting a taste of being out there and flogging your book, that's something we've asked our authors to do. I got a taste of that, to see what is that really like and how does that work and where does it work and where does it need improvement. I felt it was part of an experiment.
SPURGEON: I've been dying to ask you this, Mark. How sensitive were you to the fact that you're the boss, the editorial director, and you're getting author time? You're getting a certain kind of tour and certain press opportunities -- considering the fact that you have these other authors, was that a concern at all?
SIEGEL: It's definitely a delicate balance. Definitely. A lot of thought, a lot of conversation went into that here. [Spurgeon laughs] I did do my best to make sure I wasn't giving myself any special deals. Like there was a lot of stuff -- the webcomic was all on my own dime. I was basically doing my best to be as impeccable as possible with it. There was also that I did need to fulfill my duties as a First Second author with a book out. If it holds its own, if it doesn't lose money, it's part of the viability of the whole thing. And to be fair, there's always been some incestuousness to our relationships. Colleen [AF Venable] is our designer but she's also an incredible author. She's doing a new project for us. There's a part of it where I feel that's clear. There was no secret for all of the authors. I was always doing my picturebook projects and things. In this case, doing it in house, it has problems. It's not the easiest thing to do at times.
SPURGEON: You're kind of in a unique position, then. Having just said goodbye to this project, saying goodbye to this part of the journey and now looking at it with a cold eye as a publishing project, something this big -- I'm always curious when an author makes something this big and personal if the work itself has revealed anything to you for your getting a chance to look at it in this different way? Do you look at the book differently now?
SIEGEL: Yeah, I do. When you put something out, you get to discover it through other eyes. There are certain things that people resonate with. Some people mention mid-life crisis, they're reading it through the eyes of a mid-life crisis. Or looking at mermaids in terms of their lives. For some people, mermaids resonate with addictions or with obsessions -- it's in there, but people have fresh insight about that. I do love books where there are mysteries. I like most things to be wrapped up pretty tidy, but I like a few things that are open-ended that might send you back into the work again. I've heard some interesting takes that people have on some things that are not my own take. There are messages in bottles that Lafayette is throwing overboard, I've heard some interesting theories about that. I'm keeping my mouth shut, I don't want to give anything away.
SPURGEON: Those are some pretty potent, broad metaphors you're tossing around there. Mermaids may be somewhat neglected, but people have been foisting significance onto them since olden times. There's a river, just the fact of the river. River travel. Your characters mirror one another, those life and love issues that are explore that way. I have to think that was on purpose -- that you wanted to use these metaphors to specific ends, but you also wanted them to keep their mystery.
SIEGEL: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. That was definitely the meditation running through it. What I tried to do with all of that -- the metaphors, but also the characters, their psychologies, and some of the historical issues -- there are currents about feminism, and black history in the 19th Century. I pushed them down a little bit -- in earlier drafts they're more prominent but now they're mostly undercurrents. I always tried to bring them back to what's real to me today. I didn't want to do an abstract thing. It's more about you govern your characters at first and later they govern you. It was a matter of spending the right amount of time with them. I wanted to play with these things, but not so much a literary conceit but because I was wrestling with stuff as we all do. We're up against ourselves and we're up against life's struggles. There are times you feel that you're really up against it and that your life is in the process of derailing or you're about to break through to a new development for yourself. So I was bringing in these big things, but out of that need as opposed to some kind of a magnum opus.
* image from opening scene of Sailor Twain
* image from Vera's Ghost
* cover to Nursery Rhyme Comics
* Peggy Rathmann's picture books
* that strange Twain character design
* page design -- standard but rarely repeats
* two with Twain and the mermaid (one below)
Carol Tyler is one of our great cartoonists. This year saw the publication of the third and final book in her You'll Never Know series, about her relationship to her father and the lingering effect his time in World War 2 had on his life and that of his family. Tyler has a wonderful eye for color, a penchant for off-beat narrative structures and an underrated way with a tossed-off line. Her books would be compelling solely for the snapshot they provide into the life of a working artist, or for just getting down on paper that specific way that nature presents itself in the American midwest. I love talking to her. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: You've lived with these books for a very long time. How did it feel to get some closure on this work?
CAROL TYLER: It was obviously a relief. But... during the last year of getting the book done, it was impossible circumstances. I had to finish the book by May. I wanted to get it done sooner, but the soonest I could get it done was May. I'm sure you've heard, as I was finishing up the last half of the book in the summer: it started with having to put the dog down, our 16-year-old dog. Then my mom had to go to the doctor. She ended up in a hospital, ended up in a nursing home, ended up in a coma -- this is all over a period of months -- and my sister who was helping me keep it together, we're the ones that are close to our parents physically here, she started to feel sick in October. It turned out she had stage three and a half, four cancer, ovarian cancer. So I literally... and my dad fell, and all of this stuff.
I literally had to take the artwork -- they live four hours from me -- I had to take the artwork with me and there were days when the artwork would appear at the bedside of my Mom, at the nursing home, my sister at her hospital in recovery, the VA where dad was and then back to staying at my parents' house. I brought pencils, ink, everything. I couldn't not work, because I had to get the book done! It was madness.
I was able to show my Mom the pages penciled. Before she passed away she saw the work. It made her cry. She said, "This is very good." And it was just so hard to do. There were times when I had to rush over there and came back, and I didn't take the work with me. It was so intense what happened, and I would come back to my drawing board here and I would sit here and feel so calm and comfortable to be at the drawing table, away from the intensity of running around. I put that intensity into the back part of the book.
SPURGEON: As I recall, you've always been one to carve out time for your work. I think "The Hannah Story" was done when you were between jobs, and had specific time to do that story then. This sounds like a completely different working experience, with the work forced upon you in a way that maybe it wasn't in the past.
TYLER: It's been like, "Gotta do the book." "Back to the book." My world was centered around sitting down, doing some more pages, "I'll be inking tonight," for so many years. I made a sign and put it above the table. You know how the dollar bill has the eyeball icon on the pyramid? I made something goofy like that with ink and it said, "I worship the God of being done." [laughter] My work style is such that I just don't write a script, and then sit down -- "Oh, I'm on page 36 now." Although I did have a system, a systematic approach. I did have a lot of order in doing the book. But yes, it was different than how I had had to do it in the past, with raising a child and kind of doing the household thing.
I set out to do this task. I jumped in. I had to find the story. I knew intuitively what it was I wanted to do. As it became... at first I just threw a bunch of stuff out there to help me find, then it became clear how the story needed to be shaped. I knew what the ending was going to be. Pretty close to the ending, although not exactly. I knew the feeling of the climax, the ending. For example, I knew I wanted to talk about Dad's fortitude in having cancer and how that was something I've admired about him. Even though he was impossible. I did write that story a couple of years ago, but it didn't fit into the took until later. There were little pieces and parts like that. I didn't do it in sequence, but I did it thematically. Then I had to, you know, sit there and try to... before book one came out, I knew the general overview. But from 2004 to 2009, when the first book was published, I did do chunks and bits, chapters -- almost like back in the day, with Weirdo, when I would do like one-pagers, three-pagers, five-pagers, ten-pagers. It was a matter of organizing the clusters, because I had an intuitive sense of the basic theme.
The storyline hit me real strong in 2007. Then I built the pieces and parts and chunks along that. That was surprising because book three... I started book two immediately, I didn't even stop. I went from one on the drawing table to two. I flowed right through. I had difficulty in the illness in my family between books two and three, so I had... a not-complete devotion of attention to three immediately. It was still there. The drawing table was always waiting and I knew the story. I had some devices. I had part of the wall that I gridded out; I used post-it notes to help me manage the pages. Even though in book one I forgot to number the pages. [laughter] But I knew what every page that I scanned was called -- page 36 or something like that. I had a way of organizing all of the pages. I did do them according to, "Okay, I have to work on 37. What does 37 need?" And I kept on the grid a sickbay list -- page 36 needs corrections! Page 53 is awkward; there's no flow to page 54.
It was a lot to juggle.
SPURGEON: Were you getting feedback from people as you were doing it?
TYLER: No. And it's funny, because everyone knows I'm married to Justin. We do not have a buddy system for feedback for the work. So I would have to mull it over. I would go out and do some yard work, come in and just live with it. Crazily walking around the house, talking out dialogue to myself. "'That son of a bitch!' Well, no, he wouldn't say that. He would say, 'That cocksucker!' Yeah! That's what dad would say! [Spurgeon laughs] Not 'That son of a bitch!'"
So I was on my own in my own world, my own thoughts. I'd walk the dog and I'd be, "No, that's not how it goes; it goes like this." It was constantly here, constantly in my consciousness, feeling around for it, feeling around for that right vibe. Towards the end, with my parents and the illness and stuff. In the Olympics, I love this thought, Oksana Baiul was down, didn't know she was going to win the gold, so at the end of her program she throws in a quadruple toe lutz and another triple toe loop! [laughs] There were a couple of pages I did throw in off of my grid, off of the narrative. Things that had to be in there. I needed them because of what happened with my parents. I added about 20 pages to book three.
SPURGEON: Are you willing to identify some of the pages?
TYLER: Yeah. My mom at the beginning. I'm looking for her in the landscape. I'm reintroducing the characters. I had her years ago draw that drawing -- I said, "Mom, make a picture for the book." She kept saying, "I don't know why you have to reveal about us in public." She had the drawing, and I knew I wanted her to say that. I had to draw her leaving the panel, but she had passed away already. So where I have the lady manatee, the metaphor that came up for her, originally I was just going to talk about mothers and daughters, but I have her exit that scene on her wheelie cart. She says, "You should ever know that I love you." That's one of the things she told me before she died. "Ever know." She was riffing off of the book title. I had her in her little scooter leaving that sequence. That's not what I had planned originally.
There's another part where... my dad was not a good guy. I don't want to say that. [pause] He took her illness very hard and awkwardly. He got crankier and more off-putting. I put in that section where we go to the motel because the asbestos is all over the house. That's all true. [laughs] We go to the motel. I added the part where I had to go back and get her meds because she couldn't breathe. He's asking for his pipe. That was the way he was. She was over there in her hospice bed just wheezing away and he was trying to light up his pipe. I said, "Dad, you can't do that in here." "Hell, a man should be able..." I said, "Mom is struggling; can't you see?" So I give a touché on that.
I think the crabbiness at the end... I had him crabby, but I really pointed with those sawblades, I went to the level of his crankiness. I was so upset with his behavior. I kind of turned the dial on that one.
SPURGEON: One of the distinguishing characteristics of this work overall is the sheer number of unique narrative solutions. In this volume alone you have a text-heavy section, and these panoramic scenes, and you have the grid as well and you have these pages with a lot of white space where you drop details. It's an almost dizzying array of choices.
TYLER: Did it feel like too much to you?
SPURGEON: No. No, no. I thought that element was wonderful. There's no criticism implied in my pointing this out. My question, though, is at what point while structuring a work like this one do you land on the way you're going to approach it on the page? The fact that you're doing chunks here and chunks there suggests that maybe you're finding your way through how you're going to tell it. Maybe that's why there are so many different approaches?
TYLER: I did know that it could be jumbled, very jumbled, if I didn't have some order. Order in the court. That's why I do have the grid structure. Six panels on a page. I tried to keep some saneness that reappears except for these episodes. When we go to St. Louis, it's pages from the journal over, basically, strips of paper that I'd taken white paint to to make them try and look like roads. Paper that I tore, and like a collage, stuck it on there. I feel like... that saying in architecture? form follows function? -- there were times that I felt like I had to get the mood. There's conveying the content, the information -- communicating that. And then there's the artistic part of communication. There were times when I just had to get it across in a better way.
My mom used to say in an argument, "I'm not going to draw you a picture!" or something like that. Well, I do. That's my business. I have to convey a mood as well give you some information. So there are the words, there's the pictures, and there's the intangible element within that. That's the play part. That's what I like.
Fantagraphics gives me full range to do whatever I want. They may say, "There needs to be a hyphen or a comma" or something like that. Or this word is spelled wrong. Although very little. I pride myself on my great spelling. I don't get called out on that too much. I try to improve my word skills, try to write better because I feel like writing is my weak point. But then I'm so afraid to draw. I'm really not much of a cartoonist, I guess. [laughs] There are people that can just have at it, but it's very hard for me to draw. And writing, I was a troubled reader growing up. So I work on these things, try to improve constantly. I forgot the question! Where was I going with this?
SPURGEON: The work opens up there, and you tell that part of your story in spreads. You get a sense of the scope of the place. You also use a muted color scheme, less lively than some of the earlier scenes. I was wondering how you made those choices. Maybe that will help focus my impossibly broad question! Why did you go with these vistas? I think that's really effective.
TYLER: When we went there, oh my God, it was so grand and spectacular, the space itself. When you walk into the memorial, you literally kind of walk down into it, and it opens up in its grandeur. It's wide. There's the Atlantic side over here, the Pacific side over there. It has this wide-open feeling.
I kept... here comes "intuitive" again. As I was drawing, I kept having this feeling of a circular motion, swirling air and big sky. It was all there. When I started to draw those pages, I was literally drawing gigantic ovals on the paper. I was looking for it, because I don't trace. I do reference a photo, but at some point I let it go and try to get the feel, get the vibe. I have everything up to it in the world of the comic panel -- panel to panel sequence. And then we're in the hotel room there are close-ups on my anxiety over not being able to sleep. All of that. And then, yes, as we go, get closer to it, I wanted to get the reader to the point how we fell when we were in there. Good God. It was magnificent and open and spectacular. I felt the way to do that was to open the space up. I don't know if you've ever been there, but the sky does not have birds in it with wreaths. That is confined to the towers that say Atlantic and Pacific. In order to reinforce that feeling, I didn't want to show that and then walk over there and look up and show that, I kind of combined sensations of being there and walking around that.
If you turn the page it had the columns. He wanted a picture with every state he lived in over the years. I had to make the columns as a separate thing. I wanted the gravelly effect. It's a technical thing. I made this big circular thing. I needed to have the reader look at the thing and then almost like a spiral come out, look at the four things, and then spin over to dad walking over to his side, the Atlantic. It's another circular motif. Then you turn the page again. It was, again, inspired by the space itself being near the water. They have these water features there.
He literally did have a meltdown. He's a little, bitty guy. He's shrunk with age, and he's frail. Within this gigantic space I needed to show him coming apart. What tipped him off was the sound of the water, and the names they have carved in stone of the places. His story was that he didn't know where he was, and all this kind of stuff. There would be "Ardennes" and all of these names, and he didn't know. It made him feel that confusion again. And that water, and the bigness of it. He got lost in that moment. He fell apart.
I knew that the minute I started the comic. "Comic." [laughs] I doesn't seem like the right word. I knew the minute I started the work, I knew I had to bring the reader to the moment when we were at the memorial and he fell apart. When I first started the work -- Kim [Thompson]'s going to hate me for this -- but I did show it to some people at bigger, New York publisher companies. They said, "We don't think your dad is very interesting." One place said that. I didn't have it in the shape I have it now, I just said, "I want to tell a story about my dad. He was brave and he had cancer and he was in the war." "We don't think your dad is very interesting," was one of the answers. I remember thinking, "They don't know him." Then I thought that's my job as a cartoonist: I need to get people with me in that moment. I need to bring people there. I have to describe and define him. That set up the book.
I took it to another place a couple of years later and they said it was great, but it was too random. I didn't have my real story. They were the ones that said, "We can't work with people who are intuitive. You have to have your script written out." And I said, "I don't work like that! Sorry!" And I thought, "The hell with it. Who do I think I am? I am a weirdo artist from Weirdo magazine. I need to approach it like that, the way that I know best. That's what works." I said, "Goodbye, New York." I can't work with an editor on this big thing. Leave me alone. That was 2007.
I had high hopes. I think it was because of... [sigh] the money, the time, the commitment! I did this on a shoestring. I did this along with... I'm going to say it. Food stamps. I did it with practically no resources. I work as an adjunct. I teach a class. That's what keeps me together. I'm poor folks, baby.
SPURGEON: I wanted to ask about another page, a little bit later than that, the conversation with you and your father in the truck after the memorial. It's almost very plain in a way. I liked the cats and dogs and the buckets, the cartoon jokes, but it's a very unadorned page. If you were flipping through the book, you would not think that this is an important scene. I wanted to know why you did this one in such a straight-forward way. Because the content... I actually gasped, took in air at one moment reading it. It was affecting. But the presentation is... was that on purpose?
TYLER: Oh, yeah. We had gone through the moments of his remembering picking up the dead and being called out as a wuss, which is why he volunteered for that job. And not remembering... the whole confusion element, his being so alone with all of that. There was this grandeur and spectacular element to the memorial, but for the most part, what we know for sure is that soldiers pretty much don't have that experience. It's little things that tip them over. Stuff they can't forget. The accumulation. What Ernie Pyle described as layer upon layer of awfulness encountered. War isn't about Audie Murphys. It's about regular guys like my dad, and the damage. We got to the truck, and this is the truth. It was pouring when we left the thing. Epic rainstorm. It was true, I said these are soldier's tears, stories never told. How many... I just felt how many people carried around stories. I get in the truck and I'm with one of those guys. Whose story I know. It was a flash flood; it was awful. He didn't drive because his truck wasn't available.
We pulled over. He said, "They say love is the answer." He started talking about Anne, my sister. It was shocking, because I thought we had had our moment. It was really sweet... in the little cab of the truck there, it was private and personal, like a whisper. Real plain. That's why I did that. I just wanted that to feel that way. This little... private reveal of that, how war sent him to the gates of hell but Anne pushed him in. I wanted to have that be the focus, not any of the environment. The environment is that we were in the truck, the outside world, everything had pushed us into this little spot. It was not like... it wasn't like, "I was happy and he was happy because we resolved something." It was a very quiet realization. That's what I had. I had to get the reader to that place at the memorial, and I also knew that there was something about our time in the truck -- I couldn't have them compete, but it had to be a great other side of that moment. I just kept us in the cab of the truck. Eventually we got home.
SPURGEON: You disparaged your skill as a writer, earlier, and it made me think of a panel -- not a dramatic one, almost a throwaway one -- from the wedding sequence. Right near the end. That whole scene is snappily presented and the writing seems to me to the point, and would seem to speak against your self-portrayal of a quarter-hour ago. At one point you write, "A wedding is a mash-up between loved ones and strangers who politely spend the hours attempting to sort out complex, familial alignments while slowly getting plastered." [Tyler laughs] That's a great line. How much do you worry over your writing. Do you go after every word, do you pick apart the text when you're creating your comics?
TYLER: I do write over and over trying to find the right... "mash-up." [laughs]
I've always been self-conscious about writing because I was in the bluebirds reading group. You know what that means. Sister put me in with the slow readers, the bad readers. Something like that. I was four years old when I started school, because my birthday was in November. Nowadays they would have kept me until the next year. What I learned from teaching first grade and second grade is the child's brain is ready for language, there's a window that opens up at a certain point, and you're ready to read. I was a working class girl, my mom did not read books to us at night. We had to get to bed, so that we could get up in the morning. So pleasure reading was not something that was around. I did not have any prep.
Then when I was in kindergarten I was too short, too small, and the kids would laugh at me because I would stumble on my words. I didn't know what this stuff was. I got put in the challenged group for reading. I had to play catch up throughout school. I think that's why I developed this kind of thing. I had to read the world based on visual clues and sound.
I did learn one thing about myself throughout this book: sound is everything to me. When I hear somebody say something to me, I remember how it sounds as much as what they said. More. It's the sound that becomes the shaper of the form. I know with the wedding I have to go [Tyler sings a series of musical "doots"]. You know? [Spurgeon laughs] Then I figure out the words on that. I walk and talk around the house. I'll go for a walk. I'll get in the shower. I'll order and frame up the words, in the shower, talking through the words. It's something I need to nail down. You gotta have in comics, I feel, you have to build a great house. That's the architecture. That's the panels and the order of the writing, all that stuff. Then the plumbing, that's the words and the composition of the art. I said it was troublesome to draw. I get the panels drawn, the words written. I often have to go back and re-do it because it has to ring true. Then I start to work on the drawing. That's when I get to nail-biting. I have no confidence in my ability to draw. Every panel I draw I have to struggle with, "Can I do this? Uh-oh. I don't know if I can draw. I don't know if I can do that." Then when it's done it's like, "Oh my God." So I try another one. Every single panel I have to get all my confidence together and move forward. It's not easy. When you go to book signings and people pull out their sketchbooks and say, "Can you draw me a picture?" I can't! I have pencil it and work it over a couple of times... I have no confidence. It's a struggle for me.
I'm glad you brought that up about the words. I'm very concerned with the writing and the language and how it reads. I do obsess more over that. I'm equally obsessed about how the picture looks within the panel and how the panel works within the page, so that the whole thing has a sense of being something that works, that leads to the next page and come from the page before.
SPURGEON: You mentioned in an interview once that you would talk to people to get dialogue closer to what they might actually say. Do you do that with the visuals, too? Do you tweak, or check with people, about the visual aspects of your comics?
TYLER: You have to make sure you got the right lamp in the room. Otherwise it's somewhere else. What somebody is wearing. Mom's wardrobe, her JCPenney's wardrobe is throughout the book. Dad, he was pretty simple because he always wear the same clothes: the blotchy, stained pants. The suspenders.
Through the book I wanted to make sure I captured my own transformation. When Justin leaves at the beginning I'm wearing a 49ers jersey. Could you get any more unsexy or girly attractive than that? Right? At the time, when he left, the 49ers were the team in northern California. I didn't have a jersey but I had... Julie had one or something. That was the mode o' day. I was right in the middle of the raising the kid thing. Women do not feel sexy and all that stuff... you just can't. You have the kid, you have the homework packet. So many things. Another thing: I have to look like a sex object all the time! That takes a low priority. You want to look nice. And aging is starting a hit. So in that panel, I wanted to draw a 49ers jersey because that was as far away from romantic awesomeness as I could get. As I transform through the book, I transform my look. I get back into my being. Everything from my hair to the way I travel around in the panels. It's clothing. It's telephones! At first I'm on a land line. At the end I've got a cordless. There's a cell phone. Cars. Everything. All of these details. I knew I had to show across the time... a phone can really anchor an ear. A well-placed black telephone. We still have a black telephone with a coil. We still use it.
SPURGEON: We talked in 2009 when the first book came out. You expressed some anticipation that the book might garner reactions from other children of veterans. Your generation, and feeling the burnt of this undiagnosed trauma they went through. I wonder how that developed. Did you hear from other people? Do you think your work has been reflected in work that others are doing? Or has that not developed the way you wanted it to?
TYLER: I'm kind of disappointed that it hasn't had that audience. I know that is a great audience. I'll tell you why. This last Fall I was at the Military Writers Society Of America -- there's actually a group like that. I was asked to do a presentation. Twenty very devoted people came. They were blown away by my presentation. Not only because these are people that write, and I showed them: "And now you gotta draw it." I have a powerpoint about what the studio looks like, and the effort. They were amazed by that. There were also people there who had written on the topic. There's a woman, Leila Levinson, she had written about the very same topic. We didn't meet until that conference. We became fast friends. She believes the same thing, that this is the big shaper of our generation. And we have it in our minds to put together a conference. We wish we could roll it back 20 years because the baby boomers are retiring and moving to Costa Rica. What do they care about issues? When people of my generation, and they find it and they read it, it really resonates with them.
I'm sorry about the way the bookstores... you go to the graphic novel sections and there's Hellboy! [Spurgeon laughs] There's Chris Ware's beautiful, giant thing. There are all these other great titles. But someone that is interested in history or World War 2, or the things that this would strike with them, they're not going to go to that section. I've said that before at the library. I've asked, "Why you can't put it with the military writers?" Put it next to Leila's book, Gated Grief -- it's about post-traumatic stress. Put it out there for the veterans to find. Amazon, come on! Categorize it. It's under graphic novels, and then women's graphic novels. Those are the categories. If you like Fantagraphics and you want women cartoonists, you're going to find my book. But if you're a military person, you're not going to get to the book. Why are there these screwed-up categories?
SPURGEON: I think that's coming. Slowly.
TYLER: We were saying that 20 years ago.
SPURGEON: When I told a bunch of people I was going to interview you, announced it on Facebook or via Twitter or something, I heard back from about a half-dozen folks -- about par for the course -- but this time they were all fellow women cartoonists. I remember when you went to San Diego a couple of years ago a lot of the female cartoonists I knew there attended your panel. Do you feel a connection to the younger women cartoonists working right now?
TYLER: Wait a minute. Did you say you heard back from younger women cartoonists about my work?
SPURGEON: It was actually all women cartoonists. That's what I'm saying. Usually I hear back from a range of people. This time it was only women cartoonists that wrote me. I wondered if you felt a connection, because it seems like they may feel a connection to you. I think your work is admired, generally.
TYLER: I find that funny. Not funny ha-ha. I find that interesting because as a cartoonist -- and you know this is true -- you work in your bubble, your isolation unit, and I don't get to go to these conferences. I went to San Diego by the grace of being asked to come. I don't have the resources to travel around and promote my book. I'd love to do that. I haven't had time, and then last year with my family in such a difficult state I didn't have time to go to any of these things. I probably should go and meet people. Get out more. I've got a lot of Facebook friends and I know people through Facebook and maybe having met them at a couple of conferences. I feel so inadequate because I can't meet the need. If someone comes out with a great book and I see it and I love it, I don't know what to do about that other than say, "Oh, your work is great. I really like it." It sounds so fake.
I try to be supportive. I try to like. I hit the "like" button on as many people as possible. But I don't have fast friendships with the women that are working, probably just because of the physical... I remember hanging out with Aline [Crumb], for example. And Diane [Noomin]. Phoebe [Gloeckner]. We physically hung out together. We'd go to Ron Turner's burrito party. There'd be some function at Aline and Robert's. I don't know how close you can be as a friend just by hitting a like button. I'm kind of embarrassed and sad about that. We don't get to show up physically for each other. I can't show up physically. I'm honored and pleased to know that women showed up in terms of this interview. I feel honored.
SPURGEON: You're always honest about the costs of being a cartoonist. Do you worry after younger people that want to make comics or that wanted to try something like you just completed? Is the cost of doing this kind of work something you worry about for others?
TYLER: Do you think people would be surprised to know that I did food stamps to get the book done?
SPURGEON: I don't think surprised as maybe gratified that you would talk about it so openly.
TYLER: About poverty?
SPURGEON: About how tough it can be to make art, or orient yourself towards making art, unless you're very lucky. A lot of the very youngest artists have come up in this age where there really were some book contracts out there at one point [Tyler laughs], and it seemed like that was a thing that might continue. Some of the cartoonists I've talked to this year, those under 35, a lot of them are readjusting their expectations.
TYLER: Because of the economy.
SPURGEON: That, and because suddenly fewer people want a book from them -- maybe not a second book, maybe not a first.
TYLER: How do you get one of those? That would be fun. [laughter]
Fantagraphics and I have a hippie handshake deal. Which is fine because we're from a different generation. I trust Kim and Eric [Reynolds] and Gary [Groth]. They've done okay by me. It's not been New York prices, but it's been what they can do. I'm okay. I'm not in foreclosure.
All right... here's the deal. I'm an art nun. [laughter] You take a vow of poverty when you enter this business. It's not about the lifestyle, it's about how can I get this work done. So the first thing I learned as an artist when I went off to art school back in the '70s was you get a job that won't drain you emotionally and will allow you to have the time to do your work. I've been working under that same paradigm. And if you work hard, you'll get a bigger gig. You have to stay the course. I have had times in my life where I've taken -- this is the absolute, god-awful truth -- go through the pantry, take a couple of cans and return them so I can buy a tube of red, a tube of yellow and a tube of blue. Maybe a tube of white. Get some cardboard, and do a little bit of art. I still have returns I do because I need a bottle of yellow ink. At the same time, I can't put forward poverty as my opening shot. People can't see my hobbling reality. They need to see the triumphant result. My art will outlive me. Not my poverty. That's not going to matter. What matters is on the page.
I gave up a long time ago on a fancy wardrobe. I'm a thrift store girl. I gave up a long time ago on vacations. When I'm asked to come to San Diego, I make sure I do a little sight-seeing and have a little fun when I'm there because that's my vacation. I can't afford to go the Cayman Islands. I just came back from Europe. Someone graciously, the Amadora Festival... Portugal... that was wonderful. Otherwise I would not have been able to go to Europe.
I could not have done this book as a young person. Not just because of the obvious chronology, but because I wasn't ready. I didn't have the emotional connection with some of these broader themes. When you're young you want to draw about young people things: the rent, the landlord, the boyfriend. Which is what I did when I first started out. Cursing them out in print.
I don't know if it's right to air my reality here. "Whoo! This girl's poor!" [laughter] For the younger people, if they're going into it thinking they're going to have contracts, or a certain lifestyle? No, no, no, no, no. You go into this to say something. To communicate.
* cover to the latest book
* self-portrait by the cartoonist, the one used for the Chicago conference earlier this year
* one of the dizzying variety of narrative solutions employed in the book
* an added scene
* the big memorial spread, photographed because I couldn't manage to scan it even though I thought I could
* Carol's dad getting his picture taken in front of those various state columns
* one of the lovely dropped-border panels that Tyler occasionally uses
* the sturdy grid
* compelling, dream-like image from early in the third volume (below)
* not comics: hey, remember that little bookstore with the chairs and the fireplaces and the copies of A Wrinkle In Time out on a little wooden table and your parents let you run around and you stared at the Edward Gorey books? Here's the opposite of that.
This was at Secret Headquarters on December 19. I don't remember the cost, but I paid with a $20 bill and received change. Despite the combination of mini-comics and superhero books, it didn't feel like I overpaid based on that old standard of perceived time invested in the reading, for whatever that's worth. I think there may have been one more comic, too.
I know just about one thing concerning Marc Sobel, but it's an important thing for 2012. He's written about the Hernandez Brothers extensively on-line, work that's now been shaped and fashioned into two forthcoming books from Fantagraphics: The Love And Rockets Companion and The Love And Rockets Reader. That's an interesting story in and of itself, how a writer in today's industry landscape can start by engaging material that interests them on some level on their own and end up with a formal publishing arrangement. So I'm happy to hear Marc talk about that a bit, in the hopes that we'll all benefit from people similarly following their passions in some way. Mostly, though, I thought it would be a fun way to engage the massive achievement of Los Bros Hernandez during the year we celebrated their 30 astonishing years in comics. Thirty years of making work considered near the top of the art form is a rare, remarkable accomplishment for any artist in any medium. That we're talking two men that happen to be brothers and that this has taken place in the ruthless, fickle arena of North American comic books makes what they've done even more special. I was thrilled to get to talk to Sobel about this. Los Bros Forever. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Marc, I'm familiar with your work after years of reading it but I have to admit that I don't have a strong sense of exactly where you publish and what and for how long. Can you walk me through your professional affiliations in terms of your comics writing, where you do it and how long you've been working for your various outlets?
MARC SOBEL: I've published stuff all over the place. When I first started writing about comics, back in 2000, I wrote reviews for a now defunct British pop culture web site called Insomniazine. It was pretty amateurish stuff and thankfully all those reviews are long gone.
Around 2003 or so, I started writing for Comic Book Galaxy after Alan David Doane posted an open call for writers. I've always admired and appreciated Alan's honesty and candor about comics, so I was excited to be a part of that site. For about three years, I was really prolific, writing multiple reviews per week. While I was cranking those columns out, I was also teaching myself the craft of writing reviews by reading a ton of other, better critics.
Over the years I have also posted pieces at The Hooded Utilitarian, The Great Curve, The Graphic Eye, Comics Forum and occasionally on my own blog, Unattended Baggage. These days I mostly post my work at The Comics Journal, although my online presence has been minimal since I am still finalizing the Love & Rockets books and am also busy working and raising two young boys.
SPURGEON: Can you place your comics work in the context of any and all other work that you do -- particularly writing, but not solely -- and in terms of how you've interacted with comics in other ways? I mean, I assume with most writers about comics that you were a reader first, and a very devoted one, but that's not always the case anymore for me to make that leap without asking. But are there comics that were important to you as you developed as a writer, or that were important to you generally?
SOBEL: Comics have been a part of my life since before I was old enough to read. My dad used to own a pharmacy in St. Louis when I was really little and they had a spinner rack there with comics on it, mostly Marvel and DC stuff. Every once in a while, I would go to the store with him on a weekend and if I cleaned off and dusted all the shelves, he would let me take a couple comic books and a candy bar. This was how I first discovered superheroes and Star Wars, and I was instantly hooked. I've been an obsessive collector ever since.
In terms of my career as a writer, I see the work I do as a way to share my love for the medium with others who feel the same way. It's also a way to justify the huge amount of time and money I spend on collecting and reading comics. If I could work as a writer or scholar or editor full-time, I'd be thrilled, but it would be hard to support my family doing that. So I basically do this because it's fun, but at the same time, I also take it very seriously and hold myself to a very high standard.
SPURGEON: Am I also right in that you have some ambition to make comics of your own? Or that maybe you even have? I'm thinking that you took a trip to Sri Lanka and wanted to make a comic from that, but didn't.
SOBEL: Yeah, I self-published a photo-memoir called 14 Days in Sri Lanka about my wife's family. My mother-in-law is from Sri Lanka and her family's story is fascinating. My wife and I travelled there in 2005 and I basically made a travelogue using photos and journals from our trip. At one time I had considered trying to draw it and pitch it as a graphic novel, like Guy Delisle's books, but I realized I didn't have anywhere near the skill to pull that off. So I just assembled it in Photoshop and posted it online. I don't think very many people read it, but it was a great gift for my wife and her family.
I've always wanted to write comics and I still expect that someday that will happen, though I haven't done anything to actively pursue that end in years. But right now, all my energy and enthusiasm for comics is channeled into my critical writing. I do have a half dozen or so graphic novel scripts that are completed and ready to go. They're just in need of a good, reliable artist which has always been the trouble for me. I've worked with a lot of talented artists over the years, but none have ever stuck around long enough to finish a story.
I've also self-published a few mini-comics over the years. Back in 2004, I printed 500 copies of a mini called Starfish which was a 12-page sci-fi story penciled by Leigh Gallagher, who has done some work for DC Vertigo -- The Witching -- and is now doing some amazing work for 2000AD. I actually inked that book myself with a mouse, if you can believe it. A couple years later, in 2006, I also self-published a book of poems and a short story with illustrations by my friend Leontine Greenberg, another amazingly talented artist.
In 2009, I wrote and drew a 32 page mini-comic called The Red Stiletto. Partly, I was inspired by the Hernandez brothers do-it-yourself attitude, but I also just wanted to experience what it was like to create an entire comic by myself. I have no art training and very little natural skill, but I did manage to finish it. It was an adaptation of an old poem I wrote years ago. If nothing else, it was a good learning process and I blogged about the lessons I learned from that whole experience.
SPURGEON: How did you start the writing that's led you to write so very much about the Hernandez Brothers? Where did that idea come from, and what kept you writing along those lines? You mentioned the pitch to Sequart, but I imagine there's a bigger story there.
SOBEL: In 2006, I contributed my first piece to The Comics Journal, which was an interview with Dan Nadel about his new book, Art Out of Time. Dirk Deppey posted it on a very early iteration of the site. I don't think it's even online anymore. Around that same time, I decided that if I was going to write for the Journal, and follow in the tradition of guys I admired like Gary Groth, Kim Thompson, Bob Fiore, Bob Levin, and so many other great writers over the years, I needed to educate myself in the classics of the medium. That's what led me to start reading Love & Rockets. I thought, "If I'm going to express an opinion about other people's works publicly, especially for the Journal, I want to be informed about the medium's history." I'm still working on that, and probably always will be, but I've learned a ton about comics history since then.
So I decided to read Love & Rockets in its original format and blog about each issue as a way to teach myself about one of the medium's classics while still keeping active as a writer. I really had no idea what I was committing to, and I'm sure a lot of people thought I was crazy, but I had no clue. I just wanted to have fun with it.
I decided to publish those early columns on Sequart rather than Comic Book Galaxy because they were offering the opportunity to collect all my columns into a book once I finished. At that time, they were just getting started with their publishing arm and the two main editors -- Mike Phillips and Julian Darius -- were really excited about my little project. In fact, I owe a lot to them for being so encouraging in the early days. I'm not sure I would have gotten out of the starting gate without their support.
About a year later, Sequart crashed and was offline for a long time. Thankfully I had a backup of all the work I'd done; I think I was around halfway through the series at that point. I thought about trying to move it all to another site, but with so many images and columns, it seemed like a lot of work. So instead, I decided to just put the whole project on hold. My wife and I were expecting our first child around then -- in 2007 -- and I was feeling overwhelmed by it at that point anyway because I wasn't sure how to continue working issue by issue as I got deeper into the series.
So, for about a year, I didn't look at Love & Rockets at all, but then in early 2009, I decided to resurrect and finish the book, mostly because I just wanted to keep reading the series, but also because I had put so much work into it. Since I wasn't sure if I would actually finish it or not, I decided not to post any more online and I just began working on it privately. I figured if I did manage to finish it, I could always find a home for it, though I never imagined it would be with Fantagraphics.
SPURGEON: The natural follow-up, then, is how this developed into a book. How different is what's to be published from your original writing?
SOBEL: The Fantagraphics books are very different, and much better, than my old Shelf Life columns.
What happened was at the MoCCA Festival in 2010, Jaime was in town promoting the new Ti-Girls collection from Love & Rockets New Stories #1-2. I had never met him, so I was excited to go and introduce myself. I had just finished a very rough draft of all 50 columns at that point and so I put together these little one-page fold-over brochures describing what Shelf Life was and including some of the nice quotes I had gotten -- including one of yours actually, Tom -- and printed up a few copies. I gave one to Jaime, who I was surprised to learn had read some of my columns when I was posting them on Sequart.
I also gave a copy of that flyer to Eric Reynolds and he asked me if I had finished. I told him I had, and he said to call him when he got back to Seattle and that Fantagraphics might be interested. That was pretty exciting, as you can imagine. It actually took several months before we connected, but when we finally did speak, we discussed the possibility of publishing my work as part of the 30th anniversary of the series.
Once it sank in that Fantagraphics really was interested, I realized I had to completely edit and improve the book, especially the early columns, which had been written without any sense of perspective on the series as a whole or the Hernandez brothers' place in comics' history. As a result, I undertook a massive research effort where I was reading every piece of scholarly writing and hunting down every interview I could possibly find related to Love & Rockets and the Hernandez brothers. In the process, I rewrote almost the entire first half of the book.
I also recognized that I had to restructure the book since it doesn't really make sense to write about Poison River or Wig Wam Bam in an issue-by-issue format. So I reworked all of the sections on the longer stories as well. I also added chapters on Mister X, Brain Capers and Birdland, as well as a "Love & Rockets Pre-History" chapter. 2010 and 2011 were very intensive and that's why I stopped blogging and went completely offline to focus.
In October 2011, my wife and I had our second son. Leading up to that was the most insane period of writing I've ever experienced; I was working on the book every spare minute and even took a bunch of vacation days from my job to work on it because I knew I had to get a complete draft to Fantagraphics before the due date. I think I sent the manuscript off to Eric sometime in early August, and after that, I spent a couple months madly preparing to interview all three brothers, which I did just a few weeks before my son was born.
SPURGEON: Talk to me about the 30th Anniversary. Do you think that went well, that they received at least some of the credit they were due? I mean, I know that's impossible, but it seemed to me there was some genuine goodwill for them at San Diego and at SPX, and comics isn't exactly a place that recognizes people in that way.
SOBEL: I think so. I didn't make it to San Diego, but I was at SPX and I definitely felt like there was a lot of goodwill. It was great to see that the fans and pros there voted the Brothers for three Ignatz Awards: Outstanding Artist to Jaime, Outstanding Story to "Return To Me" and Outstanding Series. I also thought both Jaime's and Gilbert's panels were very well attended.
I also know that the Brothers did a tour of the East Coast and also had a party at the Fantagraphics store in Seattle. There were some neat things on the web as well. I thought Sean Collins' tribute was really nice. I think these are good signs and show the respect people still have for the Bros. How many other cartoonists can you think of that are celebrated like this in the middle of their careers? Though there are many who probably should be.
SPURGEON: Now, were there stories or issues of Love & Rockets that really hit you in a certain way. I know for me that Death of Speedy, "Bullnecks and Bracelets," "For The Love Of Carmen" and the Frida Kahlo story were all comics that hit me like a ton of bricks. Can you talk a bit about the key stories in your own estimation of their accomplishment, what stories might have stuck with you more than others?
SOBEL: That's a tough question. I've read the series so many times, all of the stories are memorable to a degree. Even individual panels or sequences stand out sometimes.
Looking at Jaime's work, I definitely agree with a lot of fans that Flies on the Ceiling is a masterpiece. The way Jaime was able to nail Izzy's back story after so many years of not knowing exactly who the character was, even though she was there from the very first issue, is just amazing. It's such an incredibly satisfying payoff. Even the way he explained the symbolism of the flies was perfect. And there's so much natural beauty in those 12 pages, it's a pleasure to read over and over.
The Death of Speedy is another one that's unforgettable. The ending, despite knowing its coming, was still surprising, beautiful and heartbreaking all at once. Plus, that's the story where Ray really first comes to life, and it was clear immediately that Jaime had a great grasp on his character.
And of course, like everyone, I really loved New Stories #3-4. Having spent so much time studying these characters, those stories really hit me hard. Especially when Ray got attacked. I agree with a lot of people that those new stories may be Jaime's greatest work to date, not because they're necessarily better objectively, but because they bring so much of the past into clearer and deeper perspective, while still remaining perfectly true to the characters. I sometimes think people take for granted how incredibly difficult it must be to write the same characters over and over for 30 years. There aren't very many artists who've even attempted it, at least not in such a realistic human way.
But then, of course, Jaime also has some stories that I think are kind of underrated. "Camp Vicki," for example, is just awesome. The structure of that story, the way it swings from past to present and fleshes out Vicki's background, which informs her long-running feud with Rena is so impressive, and it's also one of the best examples of Jaime's ability to draw characters at different ages.
"Tear It Up, Terry Downe" is an impressive short story for its economy and symmetry. That kind of formalism is pretty rare in Jaime's work.
With Gilbert, I really love his Palomar short stories from the teen issues, just before Human Diastrophism, especially "Holidays in the Sun," the story about Jesus Angel on the prison island. That was such an astounding psychological journey that he put Jesus through in just 12 pages, and yet it worked. I also think Gilbert's compositions in that story are some of his best from the early part of his career; you could really see him developing in the way he staged his scenes. There's one panel in particular where Jesus discovers that his friend Obregon has killed himself that blows me away every time I look at it.
I also love the cinematic narrative style of "Ecce Homo," the way the camera keeps wandering through this crowded party like an anonymous guest, picking up little bits of personality and revealing background about the characters. "The Way Things're Going," that four-page story about Vicente and his friend searching for work, was the first time I really felt like Gilbert blew me away with his prose.
There are also certain character moments from larger stories that really affected me. For example, the rape of Ofelia in Poison River is one of the most moving and unforgettable scenes in the entire medium. The courage and strength she showed by warning off baby Luba while being physically brutalized, it's just so powerful. And all that emotion was conveyed silently; it's such a masterpiece.
Gilbert also has some stories I think are kind of underrated. For example, "Mouth Trap," where we first start to see a human side to Fritz and Petra, after their insane escapades in Birdland. That is such a heartbreaking yet beautiful story and Gilbert is such a master at doing children characters.
Gilbert also produced some real gems in the period following Poison River. "Hernandez Satyricon" in particular is one of his most underrated stories. The mayhem and the mad, crazy energy of that story, all targeted at the ancient history of the series and filtered through a Fellini lens still blows me away.
I could go on and on.
SPURGEON: Do you think there's something about reading those comics as a comic book series that might be lost to readers that get at the stories in a collection? I know that there are many people that read a bit into how the stories play off of one another?
SOBEL: I think ideally the first 30 or so issues are best experienced in their original serialized format, although the material is so strong it can be read in a variety of formats. But the individual issues are how they were originally conceived, and the stories were designed specifically to be read as comic books, as opposed to the longer works which followed.
There are a lot of little things that are lost when the material is collected. For example the covers, both front and back, informed the stories inside each issue. Also, the letters columns were an essential part of the experience of reading Love & Rockets. Those hearken back to the brothers' love of old Silver Age comics where fans could directly engage with creators. Actually, in the Companion, I've excerpted some of the highlights from Love & Rockets' letters columns because they really were an integral part of the journey. Also, the way the brothers played off each other, whether it was influencing each other's storytelling, especially in the early years, or the way the characters would occasionally cross over into each other's universes, were all part of the shared creative space. By pulling each brother's work out and separating it, you lose that sense of balance.
Even the graphic design of the individual issues, and the house ads for all the merchandise, or other Fantagraphics titles, were part of the beauty of the series. You had some really talented people doing in-house page layouts for the inside covers, like Dale Yarger's movie poster-style inside cover of Maggie holding her suitcase in issue #40. All of that stuff may not be important for people to appreciate the brothers, but to me, I'm really glad I experienced the work for the first time in its original format and I'd encourage others if they really want to have the full Hernandez experience, to do the same. That being said, I of course recognize that those old issues are out of print and hard to find, and I would never want people to think that the new collections aren't worth their time. Of course they absolutely are.
The final 20 or so issues, particularly with the longer works -- Wig Wam Bam, Love and Rockets X and Poison River -- those I think actually are better when read in the collected format as opposed to the original issues. For one thing, the brothers, especially Gilbert, added a lot of additional pages to the collected versions which were not in the original issues and these additions really do enhance the stories. So, to me, in those cases, the collected editions represent the brothers' final visions. Also, those stories are so complex, it is better to focus on each one rather than try to follow all three at the same time like they were originally presented.
The one exception to that, I think, is Human Diastrophism, which I still prefer in the original issues better. For one thing, the collected version, at least the latest 2007 reprint, excluded the title pages from that story which is a shame, because Gilbert designed some really wonderful opening splash pages for each chapter that break the story up and are also just beautiful in their own right.
SPURGEON: Who is the audience for your L&R books? For that matter, what was your audience like for the original essays? You said Jaime was reading a few of them, but I assume that he's not a typical reader.
SOBEL: Well, I have no idea who was reading the original essays. I guess just fans of the series, or whoever happened to find my columns while Googling the brothers. I didn't get very much feedback, though from time to time I would get a nice supportive email from someone asking me to keep going and finish the series.
But with the Fantagraphics books, I tried to write them so that they would appeal to anyone with any interest in the series at all, including longtime fans, new readers, scholars and students. It's a fine line, but since I am not affiliated with a university, my work didn't necessarily need to include all of the theory and methodology that a lot of academic writing has which can sometimes make it dry or hard to penetrate. I tried to write very directly so that anybody, no matter what their background with the series, would be able to access it.
At the same time, I recognize that this is a series that means so much a lot to people, and I didn't want to short change anyone. That's why I did such an extensive amount of research. I really tried to give readers, especially fans who've been reading the brothers' work for 30 years, something much more worthwhile than just my impression of Love & Rockets. My goal was, whether you're a longtime fan or new to the series, for these books to deepen your appreciation and understanding of the series. I also hope that a lot of people who maybe haven't read Love & Rockets in years will be tempted to take a fresh look at the series.
I also recognized that some people might just want to read about their favorite stories, rather than a full study of this magnitude. That's another reason why I structured the book to mirror the latest reprints, so it would be easy for someone who just wanted to read about the origins of Errata Stigmata, for example, to flip to that section and read my write-up.
SPURGEON: I know that for all they have accomplished, you could look at this year as significant in light of two perceived snubs: they weren't invited to the conference in Chicago that assembled all of those great cartoonists, and Jaime didn't receive an Eisner or a Harvey nomination for work that was at the top of a lot of best-of-year lists. Do you have a guess as to why they're sometimes not perceived in the first order of cartoonists by various bodies?
SOBEL: Well, I have no idea about the Chicago conference, but regarding the Eisners and Harveys, I just think that there is a whole new generation of comics fans now that didn't grow up with Love & Rockets, and although they know who the Hernandez Brothers are, and have some familiarity with their work, they haven't gotten around to reading the series because there's a huge amount of material and it's kind of overwhelming. I think that's an unfortunate issue that a lot of artists face as they get older, especially when they're as prolific as the bros.
I also think that we've reached a point in the comics industry where there's so much new material being generated, that it's impossible to keep up with even all the high quality stuff. So, at least from my very limited perspective, the industry awards kind of reflect that. I think of the Eisners and the Harveys as more mainstream-leaning awards, which is why you get votes for books like Daredevil; whereas the Ignatzes are pretty much exclusively for the alternatives. Sure, there are some crossovers sometimes, and that's because super-fans like me tend to still have a foot in both camps, but on the whole, people usually gravitate to one side or the other. I could be overstating it, but I don't necessarily think that's a problem, just a reflection of the current state of things.
SPURGEON: Something that Gilbert has talked about a few times is that maybe he and Jaime and Mario are in an odd place vis-a-vis younger cartoonists because they deal in the practical solutions they learned from mainstream comics and are very story-oriented. At the same time, you mention that it's the Ignatzes and not the Eisners or Harveys that honored the Hernandez Brothers this year. Do you think Gilbert's point is correct? Why haven't we seen more cartoonists working that same general area that Jaime and Gilbert work?
SOBEL: That's a tough question. First of all, I'm not sure I 100% agree that alternative cartoonists are moving away from storytelling entirely. What I do see happening, though, is a shift away from the open-ended, mainstream-inspired style of storytelling used in Love & Rockets toward more discrete graphic novels. To me, this is mostly driven by the publishing market and fans who want complete stories in a single package. It's also probably a function of the disappearance of major-publisher-supported serialization of alternative comics. But I see lots of storytelling in the graphic novel side of the industry.
I also think you have to look at what influences cartoonists. The Hernandez brothers grew up with heavy doses of comic books and television/movies. Those influences inform their entire bodies of work. So, when you think about their stories, they obviously go to great lengths not just on the visual aspects, but also the dialogue, characterization and plot. Ultimately their main goal is to tell entertaining stories. But a lot of newer cartoonists have moved beyond that goal. The current generation of alternative cartoonists, at least in some cases, though certainly not everyone, seems to be moving closer to the fine art end of the spectrum.
So I think, in some ways, we're in the next stage in the evolution of alternative comics. When you look back at the history of modern art, you can see each generation trying to define itself in contrast to what has come before. Like with the Pop Artists, or abstract expressionism, it's an attempt to distinguish yourself from the past, so to speak. It's demonstrating that, 'hey, art can be something else than what we have always accepted it to be, and here are some examples.'
To an extent, I see this trend playing out in the current alternative comics scene. You have a movement, though it's kind of unstructured and vague, against narrative storytelling, especially the really detailed, literary kind of storytelling that the Hernandez brothers pioneered. Now you have things like abstract comics, or very surreal stories where the idea seems to be that comics are just sequential images and don't necessarily need to tell a coherent story. Just a couple of weeks ago, Sean Collins interviewed Aidan Koch for The Comics Journal and she said that "to be honest, I don't feel like I'm really trying to tell stories. I don't care if people don't totally 'get' what's going on." In some cases, alternative comics don't even have to look professional anymore, either, because sometimes they are intentionally ugly or crude as a statement against what popular conceptions of beauty are.
I do understand why the brothers may see this move away from story as a problem, and I tend to share their tastes, but I think it's just a natural part of the evolution of the medium. It may also just be part of a larger cultural trend where comic books are taken more seriously now.
Also, it is important to recognize that many of the younger artists working in this new context have produced some truly magnificent work. Al Columbia's Pim and Francie, to name just one example, is an absolute masterpiece, but there is very little narrative there. Same goes for Theo Ellsworth's Capacity, which is a work of genius. And there are many others.
So, I think it's just where the creative energy of this new generation of cartoonists is focused, but to me, it's encouraging that the medium is big enough and diverse enough to accommodate these new types of work, as well as the more traditional ones.
SPURGEON: Talk to me about all of those influences for a second... is there something that you see in their work that you might have to convince me is an influence, something that you think is underplayed as an influence on either cartoonist?
SOBEL: Well, the brothers have talked at great length about their many comics influences, so I'm not sure I have any hidden ones to reveal, but I do have a long section in the Reader where I tried to pull together all of the various discussions they've had over the years regarding their diverse influences. The one area that I think is still an unknown, or lacking in sufficient details, is the extent of the influence of b-movies on their work, especially Gilbert's. I do explore this to a degree in the books, and even moreso in my interview with them, but my familiarity with these old movies is limited so it is hard for me to talk specifics.
SPURGEON: What do you think in general of Gilbert's more recent work? It has its detractors and its champions.
SOBEL: I fall firmly in the "Gilbert is one of our greatest living cartoonists" camp, although I do understand why people have a hard time with his more recent work. The stories that resonated with people back in the '80s and '90s were very focused on realistic human characters living in a world that seemed familiar, even if it wasn't. That allowed readers to relate to the characters and, like Jaime's work, built a bond that for years Gilbert mined to great effect.
Suddenly, starting in the final issues of Love & Rockets Vol. 1 and solidifying with New Love, that all ended. Even though Luba and her family were still featured in many cases, once they left Palomar, it was like the spell was broken. So, people who wanted more of the same were left out in the cold, and the impact of that was magnified because Jaime stayed the course.
But, if you take a step back and look at Gilbert's more recent work objectively, without constantly comparing it to the Palomar stories, there is no question he is a stunning visionary with a unique sensibility. In fact, part of what I find so fascinating about Gilbert is that he's like ten different cartoonists in one, and he can do them all so successfully. For example, a story like Julio's Day, which is going to open a lot of eyes now that it's finally being collected, shows that he can still do the kind of sensitive, character-driven human realism that made his Palomar stories so beloved. Yet, at other times, he can do sweet, little charming children's comics, like the Venus stories in Measles. Then there's another side of Gilbert that can channel the insanity of the old underground comix creators like Crumb or Wilson, with all the wild sex and over the top violence. Girl Crazy and Birdland, or even the new series, Fatima, are all good examples of this. And along similar lines, sometimes he'll just go completely crazy and do these short pieces that are absolutely surreal like Rick Griffin or Robert Williams. Then just when you're not expecting it, he'll turn around and hit you with a fun, little Peter Bagge/Daniel Clowes-style gag strip, like the Roy stories, which are just hilarious. And he can even pull off straight-forward, authentic autobiography, a laChester Brown, like in "My Love Book," his RoadStrips piece, or the forthcoming Marble Season. And then, of course, there are the Fritz b-movie books which, since they're the longest works he's done in recent years, garner the most attention. These allow him to explore his love of old movies and recreate the kind of obscure lost schlock cinema he's become an expert in.
I think this constantly shifting focus gives his overall body of work a manic quality than can drive people who just want more Palomar stories nuts, but to me, it's at the heart of what makes him so fascinating as an artist. I can't think of anyone in the history of the medium that is half as versatile as Gilbert. I'll admit I don't love every single thing he's done since 1996, but on the whole, I always find his new work at the very least interesting to examine and I honestly believe he's produced at least half a dozen masterpieces, all of which are sadly underappreciated, since the end of that first series of Love & Rockets.
SPURGEON: What do you think of Mario's comics? Is there one you'd recommend over the others? Is there a way you think his influence is felt that we might not see at first?
SOBEL: Well, you have to be careful not to judge Mario based on his early "Somewhere in California" stories in Love & Rockets. Those are pretty rough compared to his later work. I think the first thing that Mario did that really blew me away was that back cover from Love & Rockets #9, with the airplane and the car going off the edge of a cliff. I looked at that piece and immediately thought of Jack Kirby. As I was going through the series for the first time, it got me really excited because I thought Mario was going to show up more and blow me away like his brothers, but obviously he faded into the background.
I do think that Mario is a much better writer than people give him credit for. He's definitely inspired by Gilbert more than Jaime, like in Me for the Unknown, which dealt with a lot of the same themes that Gilbert explored in Poison River, like America's cultural imperialism, the impact of globalization, etc. He's also got a pretty sharp sense of humor which I think really came out in Citizen Rex.
As an artist, Mario is obviously nowhere near his brothers, which he freely admits, and yet he does have some very impressive stories. I think his best work is his children's work. Like the stuff he did in Measles, for example, which is really fantastic. The story "The Legend of Celestra" from Measles #2 is one of my favorites.
Also, at the end of Brain Capers, there are two stories for children which I think are the standouts of the book. His linework in those pieces is really open and airy and it's a style that suits him well. Supposedly he's working on a couple of different graphic novels, so I'll be very eager to see what he's got planned next.
SPURGEON: This might not work with everyone's comics, but I wondered if you might talk a little bit about their characters. Is there a character or two that you find particularly affecting? For instance, I always liked Daffy Matsumoto, because I played a similar role in my group of friends: the slightly younger true believer.
SOBEL: Speedy Ortiz, without a doubt, really hits home for me. In the Fall of 2010, my brother-in-law committed suicide and it was such a long, drawn out, painful process (I blogged about it here) that it's still hard to read The Death of Speedy without thinking of that whole painful experience. It's weird, but they even kind of look similar to each other.
As far as personally connecting to the characters, I found the punk attitude of the main characters, especially Hopey and Luba, inspiring. There were a lot of times throughout the project where I started to doubt myself and then I thought, fuck it, I'm just gonna do this and try to enjoy it and screw anyone who doesn't like it. I didn't grow up with punk at all, so that attitude really helped me to finish.
SPURGEON: You've been super-careful to mention that the Hernandez Brothers are in the middle of their career, and I agree with you that we should see years and years of work from them yet. At the same time, it's hard not to see your work as something that speaks to their more general legacy. Do you think they'll have a specific place in comics history? Is there anything about how they'll be viewed 50 years from now, say, that might surprise us?
SOBEL: Well, if the brothers stopped making comics today, I think their legacy would have several components. First, they would be celebrated -- as they already are -- for being among the first creators to have to have broken down the barrier that comics could only be about traditional genres: super-heroes, horror, fantasy, etc. They also were the first artists to seriously explore diversity and multi-cultural issues in a meaningful and intelligent way in comics. They also proved that comics are a medium with limitless potential, and they inspired a generation of creators to make comics the way they wanted to, rather than the way some corporation or audience expects. On top of all that, they created some of alternative comics' most enduring stories and characters.
But, of course, they're not close to the end of their careers and if I could try to speculate into the future another 20 years -- a very risky proposition -- I think Jaime's work will be regarded as one of the very best sustained narratives ever produced. The real-time aging of his cast of characters will be studied and enjoyed forever.
Of course, Jaime has a major challenge ahead of him as well, and that is answering the question of when and how his characters will die -- or if they will at all. I can't imagine how Jaime will address this, as I'm sure the thought of killing off Maggie or Hopey, characters he's worked on for three decades must be incredibly difficult. It will be fascinating to read.
Gilbert's future is harder to predict, partly because he is always going in so many different directions. I think the legacy of his early Palomar work is cemented, even if he goes back to tinker with it from time to time, but I hope that in the future, people will also recognize his more recent comics -- especially books like New Love, Julio's Day, Chance in Hell, and Hypnotwist, to name some of my personal favorites -- for the masterpieces that they are, and avoid comparing everything to Palomar. I also have no doubt that Gilbert will produce many more brilliant stories. So, at this point, if I had to guess, I'd say that Gilbert's legacy will be as one of the most versatile and visionary artists ever to work in the medium.
* black and white art from Love & Rockets Vol. 1 #50
* photo of Sobel provided by Sobel
* from the Sri Lanka work mentioned
* from the Ti-Girls saga
* from the Los Bros 30 panel at Comic-Con
* from the Frida Kahlo story
* panel from Death Of Speedy
* I believe that's from the story Sobel mentions there; only about 98 percent sure, though
* cover from early in the run of volume one
* storytelling in a traditional way
* later Gilbert work
* comics from Mario
* Gilbert and Jaime signing at SPX (below)
... And This Is The Comic I Received For Christmas
In this format. No one ever gets me comics for Christmas, and I imagine it would be fairly daunting to try given how much stuff I get in on a daily basis, so this gift surprised me because I'd always meant to read the series and never did.
I enjoyed running into Alex Cox at several points during 2012: at Emerald City Comicon, at San Diego, at SPX, at Brooklyn and during various, random visits to New York. The Deputy Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund holds a key position at that institution, becoming the Fund's point man on convention fundraising and a variety of other tasks specifically suited to his skill set, with the idea that these tasks both add value and, as Cox mentions, free up Executive Director Charles Brownstein so that he can spend more time on the group's proactive endeavors. It seems to have worked swimmingly so far. Cox is a former art-school student and was until just a couple of years ago in the vanguard of new comics retail. Alex Cox is the kind of foundational figure on which the next 20 years in comics will be built. I'm grateful he took time that he split between finishing up work in New York and returning home to Tennessee for a holiday visit. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Charles Brownstein refers to you as an equal partner at the CBLDF. Can you talk a little bit about how you've carved out what your responsibilities are, where you've been able to be of most use? Is the entirety of what you do kind of ideally based on things you do well, or has there been a learning curve on any part of it?
ALEX COX: Jeepers. In the two plus years I've been here, it's been kind of a non-stop rollercoaster. I've never even stopped to consider this. Most of what I do is just managing/juggling the half-dozen fundraising projects we have rolling on any given day, to hopefully free some time up so that Charles can work on our education and program initiatives, which are a huge priority right now.
I tend to handle our booth presence at shows, which had a huge learning curve, and I'm very glad for it. The amount I've learned about getting in and out of convention centers is epic. I enjoy building our booth displays -- I've been working in comics retail since I was 19, so stacking up rows of books feels natural at this point. I came into this job as a development person, but I've been very lucky to learn so much about every aspect of the industry, beyond fundraising. It's a dream job for the curious type -- which I like to think I am -- because there are new and wildly varied challenges weekly, and you have to educate yourself to stay in motion. So I guess to answer your question, a lot of what I do stems from things I'm comfortable doing, but there is a continuous learning curve, and I like it that way.
SPURGEON: Comics can be odd in that unlike other industries where one might work there's almost always a direct connection to one's youth. Can you talk about your comics reading when you were a kid, what you still carry with you from those days even if it's just a familiarity with a certain kind of comic book or a leftover affection for their makers?
COX: My comic tastes and interests are pretty catholic, as you've probably picked up on from past conversations. I'm pretty sure this is a result of the scarcity of comics in my youth -- because I was in the middle of nowhere, finding comics was a rare treat. So aside from the few grocery store spinner-rack Archies and Transformers and Batman, finding comics meant infrequent trips to a comic shop three towns over, and that comic shop was the best kind of mid-'80s direct market stereotype. The owner was a sci-fi paperback junkie who hated all comics except for Cerebus, so titles like Flaming Carrot were displayed alongside Spider-Man with equal prominence. So in my mind there was no difference between Grimjack and Dreadstar and X-Men. I had a few older friends who handed down comics to me, and their tastes were honed in the same shop, so we were all reading the original Turtles and Groo and Love And Rockets as much as anything else. Lots of reprints of Heavy Metal-type euro comics and low-rent 1970s Kung Fu comics. It was spectacular.
SPURGEON: Alex, my memory is that you were raised in Tennessee. Is there a difference at all in terms of growing up in the South and wanting to make comics, or the comics culture there, or is that pretty much the same wherever?
COX: I grew up in rural Tennessee in the 1980s, and the comics culture, as I remember it, was myself and maybe three other people. [Spurgeon laughs] The comic shop I mentioned, I don't think I ever saw anyone other than my handful of friends there. As far as we knew, we were the only comic fans in the state. The funny end to that story is that two of the three or four other fans I knew ended up in the industry, and I see them pretty regularly at shows. Winchester, Tennessee has produced a per capita ratio of comic industry folks that rivals NYC.
SPURGEON: My memory is also that you also at one point went to art school, but I'm not sure if you were focused on comics-making while there or what your goals were. What were your artistic ambitions when you went to school, and how did you end up going to the place you attended?
COX: I went to the School of Visual Arts, based on two simple reasons. One, it was in New York, and I had figured out by the time I was 12 or so that I was going to end up here. The other reason was that Harvey Kurtzman and Walt Simonson both taught at SVA -- Mr. Simonson may still; I'm not sure -- and I figured if two of my favorite cartoonists vouched for the school by being on the faculty, it had to be a classy joint.
I actually majored in film and TV production, because I wanted to do prop and set design. SVA had an amazing program -- probably still does -- and every single person in my class that wanted to work in the film industry ended up there after graduation. I worked in TV very briefly, and it wasn't for me. So I went back to comics retail, which was my part-time job in college. I really love comics: not just the art form, but the world. I guess I had to step out into a gross industry to realize how great the comics world is.
SPURGEON: Am I right in thinking that you still make art, and that you also have a hand in with certain art direction and design tasks at the Fund? Someone mentioned to me that they admired the diligence with which you pursue your artistic goals.
COX: I have done some freelance illustration off and on since I was in high school, ranging from textbook illustration to storyboards to whatever someone offers me that seems fun. Examples of the bizarre range of work I've done: I once drew the caricatures for an artist playing a sidewalk artist in a commercial for diarrhea medication, and I drew tiny cartoon versions of Michael Kors and Tim Gunn for the Lifetime Network's Project Runway website. In 2013 I'm illustrating a book for Penguin that's being written by a friend. I'm not sure how much I can say, but it's pretty exciting.
COX: I draw comics for fun, and post them on a website strictly to entertain my friends. Sometimes I will staple up a few and hand them out at small press shows, but it's been a while since I've had time for that. They are usually shaggy dog tales about dudes who end up inadvertently naked. I only noticed this recurring theme recently, but I'm okay with it. [Spurgeon laughs] I wish you'd tell me who said they "admired my diligence" so I could shake their hand. My biggest regret in this rotten life is that I haven't drawn more comics, even if they only get Xeroxed and handed to my buddies. I really love drawing those dumb little things.
As far as art direction goes, I guess you could say that, although that gives me more credit than I probably deserve. There are certain projects, like the 2013 year-in-review comic, that I manage, which involve wrangling talented people into producing awesome items, but there's not much "directing" to do when Cliff Chiang lays waste to the world with his first stab at a membership card design. When you have guys like Bob Fingerman or Ben Templesmith or R Sikoryak doing art for you, you don't direct. You just enjoy the results, which are amazing.
I should also add that a lot of our branding and design work was handled by Jared Fletcher, with only meager instruction from my desk. He designed the hugely popular "I READ BANNED COMICS" shirt, and most of our new membership materials. He's a dynamo, and a helluva cartoonist, and anyone interested in logo design should check out his process.
SPURGEON: You mentioned going into retail, and I think Rocketship is the primary association a lot of people have with you, perhaps even more than connecting you to the Fund. How do you look back on that experience now? What are the main memories? Does it help at all in terms of how you approach this job to have had that very specific set of experiences?
COX: It absolutely helps; working retail in a specialty store is a great education in the history of comics, and that is very important to what we do. I like to think I understand the comic fan brain, and I have internalized forever the threats and fears and worries of selling books. I have lived and breathed comics for a long time, and a big chunk of that is time spent in back issue bins, Alpha Flight to Zot!. All told, I spent well over a decade in comics retail, from bagging back issues and grading collections to eventually co-owning my own shop, which is a world unto itself.
As far as my memories of owning the store, it was only two years ago, so it's incredibly fresh. I remember well my favorite regular customers, and still stay in contact with many of them. I made a lot of friends behind that counter, and there's nothing more valuable than that. Sorry, that sounds sappy... I do believe it, though.
SPURGEON: As I recall, when you left retailing you expressed an idea that you just couldn't see yourself doing that job for x-number of years, which I thought was a really honest appraisal of the path ahead of you. Is it just a matter of you finding work that you find interesting or valuable as you go, do you think? Is there an ultimate goal in mind for you vocationally?
COX: Owning a store is an awful lot of stress, which some people handle better than others. I don't deal with it well, and things that my peers could roll with gave me panic attacks. My partner had mustered out, for the most part, somewhere near the middle of our five-year lease, and I realized pretty quickly that I didn't want to go it alone. So it was a matter of finding work that I felt was important, but also just something new; a different challenge.
When we opened the shop, it was less about selling comics to X amount of weekly subscribers -- which is a perfectly fine model -- and more about sharing our enthusiasm and love for comics with everyone in South Brooklyn, which didn't have many neighborhood stores at the time. I wanted to evangelize about nine-panel grids and Ditko hands and Kirby krackle and that amazing and funky way Dan Clowes used to draw arms. We wanted to find the right comic for everyone, and get good comics in the hands of kids. So in a lot of ways, in retrospect, working at the Fund is a natural extension of what I was trying to do. Advocacy work, outreach, keeping comics in libraries -- and available to kids -- when they are challenged.
As far as an ultimate goal, I would say there's probably not a specific endgame. I have been preaching about comics to an unsuspecting public since college, and I hope I can keep doing that. I love Comics; the industry, and art form, and community. I love it a lot, and want to keep promoting and boosting comics as long as I can.
SPURGEON: One more thing about retail; the Fund's relationship to the Direct Market community has sometimes been a bit less than unenthusiastic. Do you have any perspective on what members of that community that haven't been fully invested in the Fund's mission might be thinking? Has your relationship with retailers improved over the last couple of years? It seems like it has, but I'm not certain.
COX: Oh, heck yeah. Retailers come through big-time every year, and our Retailer Membership numbers for 2012 are higher than ever. I would say the relationship between the Fund and the retail community is not only robust, but a big, warm bear hug, financially and in terms of program support. As you know, the Fund was started when a retailer was attacked by local law enforcement, and protecting the rights of the Direct Market is a big chunk of our mission. Retailers know that, and support us as brothers-in-arms. In the past year, we've seen our relationship with ComicsPRO grow substantially, and the members of that organization really are industry leaders, and do important work.
And on a personal level, I love comic shops, and I love comic retailers. I love working with them, and when we need help, especially when we are on the road and out of our element, we can always count on a LCS to come through in a pinch.
SPURGEON: Okay... you know, I wanted to talk to you about cons a little more generally. You've been to a bunch, and 2012 seems like a pretty great year for shows. You're connected, but you also have an outsider's perspective. Why do you think there were so many good shows this year?
COX: Well, most of these shows are run by people who have figured out what they are doing. It sounds flip, but really, when you're talking about HeroesCon or Baltimore or Emerald City Comicon, you have a staff of people putting on those shows that simply know what they're doing. They are creating an experience that is easy, pleasant, and fun for attendees and exhibitors alike. Good shows run like a well-oiled machine because the people running them are prepared and efficient. Comic-Con International amazes me at every show: that is an organization that moves like a swiss clock. Not an insightful answer, but I think it really comes down to talented people working hard. They make a show easy for exhibitors, and artists, they advertise thoughtfully to their local markets, and the next thing you know, you have a hall packed full of happy fans, which is ultimately the gauge for a good show.
SPURGEON: I actually think that's a very insightful answer. Comics doesn't always appreciate the value of execution as much as it should. You mentioned to me once that the show in Denver was one you thought of as a pretty good one and under the radar, and you also mentioned to me how interested people get about the Fund at shows like Emerald City, where the audience members are maybe not particularly informed about the Fund or what it does. What makes a good show generally? What makes a good show for the Fund? Did you see more instances of that kind of positive curiosity this year?
COX: Our show presence is split between fundraising and programming. Raising a lot of dollars is great, but we are happiest when we raise a lot of dollars but also pack a program hall full of people who leave knowing more than they did when they walked in. When we have great volunteers who can speak clearly about our mission, increase our membership, run a few informative panels, and raise money, we've had a good weekend. When we have a room full of people who are not sure who we are, that's great; that's an opportunity to educate and expand our membership base. That means the Con organizers are doing an amazing job bringing in new fans, and it means we are reaching a new audience. It's win-win-win, all around.
I've found that people are, 999 times out of 1000, encouraged and excited by our mission. And the one in a thousand that isn't excited still understands why the work is important. The First Amendment protects the most basic human rights, and people get fired up about it. When we give people the history of the CBLDF, and tell them about artists who were prosecuted just for lines on paper, it's shocking. I know that personally, I find censorship completely disgusting, and I have yet to find a compelling argument for the restraint of artistic content. And I've found that in talking to comics fans, almost everyone feels the same way, when you have the conversation.
SPURGEON: As someone who went to school in New York and has now had two -- or more, I guess, definitely three -- roles in the comics community there, do you think that comics still has a kind of significant New York bent?
COX: If I ever thought that, and I probably did at one point, I wouldn't say that's the case now. It's an obvious thing to say, but you can make comics anywhere, and you certainly don't need to be part of a studio or clubhouse in an urban area to be making great comics. Chris Onstad made -- and is still making -- some of the greatest comics of the decade on the west coast, with no contact with anyone in the community for years. Achewood is a straight-up masterpiece, and he started that by just putting strips up on a website. So artistically, I don't think New York has been the center of the comics world since the advent of FedEx.
In terms of the business of comics, sure, for the past 70 years or so, you mostly needed to be near New York, but that was the case for publishing in general. Comics has some terrific and important publishers on the West Coast, so that has changed as well.
SPURGEON: The last two times I went to the Fund's office I picked up some books from you, and in fact last summer at San Diego I went behind the table just so I could read your copy of the Groo The Wanderer Artist Edition. Can you suggest maybe one or two books or titles you think are underread?
COX: Yikes. My tastes are pretty catholic, as I may have mentioned, so that question depends on who I am talking to. I think All-New X-Men is hilariously awesome, but I'll read anything drawn by Stuart Immonnen. I would recommend that to anyone who doesn't read superhero books, and wants to check out the most over-the-top blend of insane melodrama and sci-fi action on the stands. It's a perfect explosion of beautifully-illustrated pages and old-school superhero silliness. Of course, that's a best seller, hardly "underrated." I am not going to be good at this, Tom. [Spurgeon laughs] But you asked, so here we go!
Speaking of Aragones, his Funnies from Bongo is a master class in storytelling every time it comes out. He is basically the greatest person. I would recommend The Massive from Brian Wood; it feels like nothing else on the stands and has a sustained tension that few serialized books can pull off. His world-building is deliberate and subtle, and you really feel like you're getting something substantial for your buck. I'm excited for Maximum Minimum Wage from Bob Fingerman. That's an amazing piece of work. I think coupled with Hate, you have two Great American Novels of the 1990s. Fingerman is one of the great, natural cartoonists -- when you look at a page he's drawn, it's so effortless and perfect it could make you cry.
We are living in a golden age of reprints as well. Anyone who stopped getting the Peanuts hardcovers after the 1950s needs to remedy that posthaste. That strip has a reputation for falling off in the 1980s, but that is a filthy lie. The MAD archives are getting into some prime-era material, and the second Kamandi hardcover just came out. That is possibly the greatest comic ever published, and the new format is stunning. The colors glow like magic gems on the paper stock they used. Humanoids has also recently reprinted some of the greatest European genre comics I've ever read, between Moebius and Bilal and Jodorowsky. These are in affordable paperbacks and are basically all worth owning. Gah!! I could keep going all day! Wonder Woman by Chiang and [Brian] Azzarello is an epic poem crossed with Terrence Malick, and Chiang's art is probably the most lovely work coming out of DC at the moment.
Those are just things I read recently. You can't ask me to recommend books, Tom. I will keep going into the wee hours.
* photo of Cox at 2012 Emerald City Comicon
* Flaming Carrot
* from a Cox cartoon (I think)
* the Rocketship signage
* the CBLDF at Comic-Con International
* Maximum Minimum Wage
* Cox and Brownstein hard at work at the CBLDF offices (below)
* there will be multiple printings of certain Spider-Man comics in a recent plotline that so enraged certain fans of the character that they wished death upon their writer, which even if one supposes is not exactly passionate death-wishing of the "you destroyed my entire family" variety is really quite different than the reaction one imagines anyone should have regarding any piece of popular entertainment.
* there's a pair of nice Christmas-related posts from Sean Kleefeld here and here.
I was floored by Derf Backderf's My Friend Dahmer, out since Spring from Abrams. I had enjoyed previous book-length efforts from the alt-weekly cartoonist (The City) like Trashed and Punk Rock And Trailer Parks. I was even familiar with previous comics from Derf himself about his high-school relationship with the serial killer that appeared in Zero Zero and then stand-alone form. Still, nothing had prepared me for this new book's ruthless depiction of Jeffrey Dahmer's slow descent away from humanity, facilitated in part by the harrowing isolation and neglect facing so many Midwestern teenagers in the closing decades of the 20th Century. Such was the place where Derf and Dahmer were raised that when the cartoonist was informed by phone that one of his classmates had committed certain heinous acts that were about to become national news the artist's first guess as to that person's identity was someone else entirely.
My Friend Dahmer has been well-reviewed, making several year-end lists, and is currently on a third printing. I greatly enjoyed the following conversation, conducted just about 10 days ago. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: One thing I seem to be asking everyone about this year is the shape and scope of the press attention paid books like yours. It used to be that it seemed an author in your position did everything in a big, promotional burst. Now we have this rolling period where interest bubbles up here and there and fades and returns.
DERF BACKDERF: I was kind of expecting the same thing, to talk when it first came out. But yeah, it pretty much keeps going and going and going. I don't know if it's that some people need interviews to fill up the end of the year stuff, or what it is. At the Miami Book Fest, I did a bunch of interviews. That was just a couple of weeks ago. Maybe it's because they were there? I don't know. I have no explanation for it. The book business is a total mystery to me anymore.
SPURGEON: I would think that with My Friend Dahmer, a lot of people probably discovered it at different points throughout the year. I know that when I read it, I might not have done so when it first came out. I picked it up off the shelf maybe a couple of months later. I found to be powerful and affecting, but I hadn't read it the moment I got it. Other people have told me the same thing, that they've sort of stumbled into your book. People are discovering your book, which I guess is nice.
DERF: Yeah, sure. I always knew it needed good promo at the beginning -- which it got from Abrams, so I was happy about that -- and that word of mouth was going to carry it. And I was right on that. Given my early experiences with the project, that's the way it was going to go. It built momentum, as you said. All of these best-of lists have certainly helped, and the reviews. It's been great.
SPURGEON: I don't know that I've talked to too many people that have worked with Charlie [Kochman] and Abrams -- what was that experience like for you as an author? Were they a supportive house?
DERF: Oh yeah, it was great. Charlie's a treasure. He's a really good guy. He's got that comics background, which is nice because Abrams is really a book publisher. They don't know what to do with comics. Charlie's kind of brought that to them. It's really nice, because you get the best of both worlds. You get the comics mentality, he knows what you're dealing with and what your process is and what good comics are, but you also get the book apparatus.
The editing I got on this book was like nothing I'd ever gotten before. The copy-editing. I'll use this as an example, even though you probably can't use it. There's one scene in the book where Jeff is in his house listening to a football game. I just put in some random stuff, some names I remembered from that era. The copy editor actually went and looked at the schedules and box scores of games from that year and said, "Well, the team you have playing did not play until the following year. On this rough date you have to use this team or that team." I actually had to go back and get like a game summary from a game that would fit in that time frame and use some of the players that scored the touchdown I was talking about and put that in that dialogue box. I was blown away.
SPURGEON: I guess that's a good way to get into the expansion of the book from previous comics you did about your relationship to Dahmer, particularly your digging into that time period and making sure everything was accurate and specific to that time and place. What kind of personal resources did you have available to you there? I'm guessing you may have talked about this some, so I apologize for the redundancy, but I've tried to avoid other interviews since I knew I was going to get a shot at you. [Derf laughs] What was the process like for you to capture that time?
DERF: Well, I started with my own papers, which were really key. I had journals and stuff, pretty large ones from that era, which I hadn't looked at in a number of years when I started working on this project. That's where I started. It was very helpful in creating that time, because of course they were period. That's my thoughts, my take on life when I was living it. It could have ended there and been straight memoir, but of course I didn't want it to be that.
My background is actually in journalism. I have a degree in journalism. So I just started putting that training to use, and threw out a wide net. I started from scratch because I didn't really believe a lot of the stuff that was written about the time frame of this book. I found it to be... the tone was wrong, or they didn't capture it, or there were errors. Even with some pretty news organizations. And that's a given when one comes in from the outside and tries to immerse themselves into a time and a place. That's very difficult. I had the advantage of being from that time and place. So I went in and re-reported everything.
SPURGEON: Do you remember something that threw up a red flag for you? Do you remember something that you read where you were like, "Yeah, that's not right."
DERF: They were talking to the wrong people. They would pick random classmates to get their opinion. And I was like, "That guy never talked to Dahmer. That guy had nothing to do with Dahmer." It was just sort of that thing. Really minute errors, but built up as they were, created the wrong tone. I thought. I really wanted to capture that, because I thought it was important. And I think I did. That was my advantage as an insider.
SPURGEON: How early on did you land on making the book -- you said you weren't going to limit it to a memoir, but you also don't limit it in terms of what gets seen: you show Dahmer's activities in addition to the perspective of the kids that witnessed some of them. Did you get the general approach right away, that you wanted this kind of complete picture, or did that develop as you went along?
DERF: That did develop. In the early short stories I did, they were very much from my perspective. I decided I wasn't happy with that, so I cast a wider net. Also because that material became available: all the interviews Dahmer gave, and the transcripts, the stuff that I got my hands on. That came later, because once he was dead, nobody cared anymore. There was no reason to suppress it. The Milwaukee police stuff is still pretty hard to get. They're still tamping down on that. But all the other stuff, the FBI, the prison stuff, that's real easy to get. [laughs]
So it was available, and I looked at it, and I thought, "Wow, this is really great stuff." From my perspective, because it was unedited transcripts of these interviews, it was like interviewing Dahmer. His words were right there. There was no one interpreting that. I could look at that stuff, and kind of mine it for information. It proved to be really great stuff. And at that point I started expanding the book to include that.
SPURGEON: Are there boxes of research material still lurking around there?
DERF: There's a file drawer, yeah, full of stuff. I've thrown some of it out.
SPURGEON: You talked about your journalism background, but in terms of your cartooning, you told an interviewer in one of the couple that I read early on that you were glad this project came along when it did because you felt that your skill-set matched the ambition of the project. You were ready to go on something like this.
SPURGEON: What is a skill you have now, that you can see in the book, that you might not have been able to utilize earlier in your career?
DERF: Well, the drawing ability, specifically. Early on, when I first started -- it would have been like '94 when I started working on it? -- I was still very cartoony, because that's all I was doing at the time. It was heavily stylized. I used this real expressionist, cartoony style with a lot of jagged lines. Kind of Gen-X weirdo stuff. I liked the way I was drawing then, but it wasn't something that I -- I don't know. It wasn't something as subtle, as complex as the work I can do now. That comes from just sitting down and doing the other books that I did. And working it. I'm not a prodigy. I have to slowly work the craft.
SPURGEON: I found your character designs fascinating in that there's a definite cartoony-ness to them, but they're rendered enough that they're not distracting in any way.
SPURGEON: There's a certain acting-out quality that repeats with a lot of the characters that seems really affecting through those designs.
DERF: I didn't want to get too far away from what is my signature style. Whatever that is. I wanted it to look like I did it. I think it's closer to my last book, Punk Rock And Trailer Parks, than it is to anything else. That's really the book that cemented in my head how I wanted to proceed as far as longer storytelling went. It's more serious than that, and that was by design. I knew I couldn't be goofball with this story; that would be inappropriate. I wanted to ratchet it down and make it very understated. I don't want to say conservative, although the panel layout is very conservative. That was also a decision that I made. I thought that I was being too conservative and too straight-forward, but a lot of reviewers have said, "Well, it's this goofy, cartoony style." So I guess I didn't pull that off. [Spurgeon laughs] But I was trying.
SPURGEON: The page layouts: there are a lot of standard, sturdy page layouts here.
DERF: Four by four, yeah.
SPURGEON: The four-panel structure repeats. You do vary it, but it's rare for you to break away totally from it, except for a few dramatic moments of narrative and for a few establishing shots.
DERF: I did do a lot of full-pagers in there. That was fun for me to really draw my ass off, which I enjoy doing. I tend to feel that there's so much of that in comics anymore, all of these crazy layouts, and stuff that's hard to read. Sometimes it works really well. When it's in the hands of a master like, I don't know, Chris Ware, I mean sure, that's what he does. But there are a lot of people doing it badly. [laughs]
Going into it, my goal was not to get in the way of the story. I felt that I had such a powerful story, that if I just let the story do the work rather than fancy layouts and digital trickery, it would be much more effective. I think that was a good instinct.
SPURGEON: You're very judicious in your use of special flourishes. At one point you incorporate a photo in there, and you put some old drawings in there. I imagine that's because you didn't want to draw attention to those moments, didn't want to drive people from the narrative.
DERF: Sure, once you commit to a certain way of laying stuff out, you don't want to break away from it mid-book. [laughter] That would be jarring. I wanted it to be consistent front to back. There were some reproduction problems, too, with that photo and those drawings. They weren't really made to be reproduced, and they're not very good, so there was some stuff I had to tinker with. There's only so much you can do.
SPURGEON: You mention that you didn't want to get in the way of your story, which indicates you had a strong sense of what that story was. The story isn't just the Dahmer story.
DERF: There are two stories.
SPURGEON: Maybe even three if you separate the people from the place. One of the things I found super-affecting about the book is how convincing your depiction of this place was: the town, and the time, and the isolating aspects of it.
DERF: I thought that was key. We all are a product of our time and place, and I think Dahmer was, too. I think it helps explain maybe not what he did, but how he got away with it. I thought that was important. A lot of people really responded to that, they really are taken with that, so I guess that was a good instinct as well.
SPURGEON: Now is that a longstanding interest of yours in any way, how these structural elements in neighborhoods and streets and houses and where schools are and how many kids go to them shape society, or is that something you got to through Dahmer's story?
DERF: I've always been interested in pop culture and its effects. I do that in my other work, too. So yeah, I'd have to say that was an interest. But most of that came through this story, and talking about it with my friends, those themes just kept popping up. Like the adults never being around. How different it was, and how weird this was and that was. It's not stuff you think about or hear about when a lot of people talk about that era. The '70s. They talk about other things. But in a small town, there were some very specific things. The isolation. The adults not being around. This very specific boredom. I think those things were really key to our lives at that time.
The two stories that I really focused on were Dahmer's, obviously, but also me and my friends. Those stories intertwined. One of the reasons I wanted to really include that... there were two reasons, really. One was to offer contrast to Dahmer. I think it makes it even more striking, how similar our lives were and how they went in different directions. I felt that I had to give the reader some humanity. Because as the story progresses, Dahmer becomes less and less so. There had to be something there, a character or characters there, that readers could hang onto. Someone they could relate to, or find some similarities to. I felt it was important not to be just overall this dark, dark, dark tale.
The other reason is that I spent so long on this book. I can't say it was a lot of fun to spend time in Dahmer's world. So the way I made it fun, what I concentrated on in recreating this world is my friends. It was Jeff's world, yes, but it was also our world. Recreating the shopping mall where we hung out all the time, that was just me making the book more fun to produce. And it worked. That was fun. I was surprised by how many people picked up on that without knowing the details and specifics. I wasn't sure it would relate, that they would relate to that. But they have.
SPURGEON: When you say "it," you mean...?
DERF: The details.
SPURGEON: You're kind of unsparing in your criticism. You're not quick to indict, but you're very confident when you do, like with the parents not stepping in to notice this obvious alcoholism that was going on.
DERF: All the adults really. I have to say... there have been a few that have said, "He doesn't own up to his own role in this." And I don't think that's true.
SPURGEON: I don't either.
DERF: There are no heroes in this book. Everybody fails. Including Jeff, of course. The only reason that these critics know about my failures as a friend, or me not stepping up, is because they read it in my book! [Spurgeon laughs] How is that not owning up to it? I could have portrayed myself heroically; who the hell would have known the difference? A handful of people. I chose to lay it all out there as honestly as I could because I thought it was fascinating that everybody turned away.
SPURGEON: You say that Dahmer himself failed. You're very clear in the book that when Dahmer steps over the line into outright murder that that's different than anything that came before, that he's no longer a creature of any sympathy. I assume it was important to make that point as strongly as possible.
DERF: It was for me, yeah. That also ties in to a larger, sort of outside issue. There's this whole, strange, urban legend that's sprung up around this guy, this death-metal, goth, urban legend where Dahmer has become this strange anti-hero. He's this shunned and bullied kid who was picked on, passed off and ignored and later in life he lashed back at the society that had done these things to him and blah blah blah. It's all total crap. [Spurgeon laughs] There are a lot of people that get really cheesed at me because I counter that urban legend, and I think in some ways point out that it's nonsense. They've responded to that; they're not very accepting. They're pissed off about that.
SPURGEON: What is the basis of their objection? Is it partly the sexual politics involved?
DERF: That I just don't buy it: that Dahmer was picked on, and that he did these things because he was picked on. No. He did these things because he had this hideous, all-consuming sexual urge that just drove him. He was driven by depravity, not by revenge. That didn't enter into it at all. There's nothing sympathetic about this guy; there's no way you can empathize with him. I really went out of my way to pop that balloon. There are some people that have not taken kindly to that.
SPURGEON: You're a journalist and you've done your research. You've also done your due diligence as a memoir writer to be unsparing in terms of all the actors. But was there a worry on your part in terms of how close anyone can get in terms of figuring out certain things about Jeffrey Dahmer? Are there still things you wonder after?
DERF: Oh, yeah. I have no idea what made him do the things he did. Dahmer doesn't know. Dahmer didn't know. He's undiagnosable. Everything I've read, he was interviewed by at least four or five criminal psychologists, some of the best in the business, and they couldn't come up with a diagnosis, either. Sometimes, as sad as it is to say, sometimes monsters just happen. And [laughs] the lesson here is... I don't think there's any great lesson. It's not, "This is what Dahmer did and this is how to prevent someone like Dahmer from being born at all." The lesson there is "Mistakes were made. He could have been flagged but he wasn't." It's more a cautionary tale than anything else.
SPURGEON: You mentioned the urban legend aspect. I have to imagine that anyone buying into an urban legend isn't really closely connected to him.
DERF: And invariably younger, much younger.
SPURGEON: I know from my own hometown's horrible story that happened when I was there, that it's a very difficult subject for my friends and me to talk about. Did you encounter any of that? Was it difficult for anyone else to talk about? Did you encounter any resistance that way?
DERF: Some. There are some that don't want to talk about anything at all. And I get that. There are others, like in the Dahmer Fan Club [a group of Derf's friends at the high school when Dahmer and Derf were in attendance], two of the guys talked to me for hours and hours and hours over months and years. Mike and Neal. They were great. And it was a really incredible benefit to have their input, so much of their memories and all of that stuff. Kent, my other friend, won't talk about it at all. He just doesn't even want to deal with it. And you have to respect that as an interviewer and say, "Well, I'll get it from people that want to talk." A frustrating thing is that since the book came out a lot of people have come up with input and stories that I never thought of getting -- I didn't know where they were, or I didn't know their role. Suddenly they're coming out of the woodwork and you're getting all this material. It's like, "Oh, crap." [laughter] "Where were you two years ago?"
SPURGEON: Can you give me one that you might particularly regret, one that you wish you could have gotten in there of a bunch of different ones?
DERF: Some of it is in the e-book -- I put a couple of extra chapters in there. One was from Neal who was very open. He brought up this story after the book came out. "Did I ever tell you about the time that Dahmer got spanked in school?" I was like, "What?!" It was this whole thing with Dahmer getting caught with booze. I knew that he got caught with booze, but Neal knew the whole story. It had just never come up, or he had forgotten it. He told me this great story of Dahmer getting caught with booze, and the choice the assistant gave was he could call his parents right now or he could take ten licks. It was his quote-unquote first offense. And Dahmer chose the licks. There was this great scene, and I was like, "Oh man, why didn't you tell me this before?" So I drew it up and put it in the e-book. I would have loved to have had that in the book.
There have been a couple of others. The kid who discovered the dog head in the woods, he contacted me later. Offered some details, nothing I didn't already know, but still some interesting stuff. Things like that. You just don't know who the figures were. You don't know who played what role. You didn't have a name attached to it. I sort of knew who was involved with various things, but there's always a gray area in there. Obviously people aren't putting it on their resume or anything.
SPURGEON: You signed a media development with this book, right?
DERF: A film deal, yeah. An option.
SPURGEON: That's not the kind of thing I usually discuss, but I wonder if that's odd for you, considering how personal this project is, letting it go in that way?
DERF: Well... hm. It's something I've never had to deal with before. You do have to pass it off, yeah. It becomes somebody else's work of art. It's that progression. I'm comfortable with the filmmaker. It's good stuff. It's not Hollywood schlock. He's really taken with this story, and is certainly doing a lot of research on it. As I told him, it's not my problem, you're the one that has to live up to the book. I made the book I set out to make. It's been incredibly received and it has all of these great reviews. You have to live up to that. If you fuck that up... the book will still be there, it'll be your bad movie that you're going to have live with. [laughter] You just kind of shrug your shoulders and move on.
SPURGEON: The written material at the book's end, was that something you knew you were going to include when you started out?
DERF: I actually started with that. Those are essentially my story notes. As I was working out the story, working out where things were going, when it came time to put it together I never doubted for a second I would footnote everything. A lot of this stuff in the book, and if you read it, and those footnotes weren't in there, you'd think, "Where did he get this? How did he know this? How does he know what Dahmer was thinking when he walked in the woods? He just made this up!" Well, no, you go to the footnotes, it goes to the interview exactly where Dahmer was talking about that very thing. It's really the factual skeleton of the book -- although I probably shouldn't use the word "skeleton" when talking about Dahmer. [laughter] It's the factual foundation of the whole book.
SPURGEON: You've talked about doing longer form work as a deliberate choice in terms of where you thought your career might go as the alt-weekly thing has started to fade. I wish I had a not-depressing question to ask about that whole thing.
DERF: [laughs] Go ahead and ask.
SPURGEON: A lot of people have just left that avenue for comics, and you've kind of stuck around. You have 10 or 15 papers I'm guessing now.
SPURGEON: This includes one of your hometown papers.
DERF: Right, the daily. The only reason I'm still doing it is because the daily is paying me enough to continue doing it. When that stops, which could come as early as this Spring when the paper goes to three-days-a-week publication, it could well be that I shut it all down. It's hard to walk away. I still think I'm doing good strips. It's hard to write them, especially after you do long form stuff where you have so much space and so much freedom. I kind of like that weekly deadline from a selfish, creative standpoint. It makes me put pen to paper, as opposed to going a couple of weeks without doing anything. So I like that. But I realize it's long past time to move on. There's no question there. The flipside of that is that I've gotten more attention and accolades from my longer work than I ever got for my shorter work [laughs], so I've probably been in the wrong field all along.
SPURGEON: You were kind of a latecomer to that world, weren't you?
DERF: You mean the longform stuff?
SPURGEON: No, the alt-weeklies. I think of you as an early '90s debut.
DERF: I started in 1990. That was at the peak of it, when everyone was coming into it.
SPURGEON: Okay. You were certainly there at the prime moment for that work. The boiling away of that audience, are you aware of how your strips might be received differently now? We have a different media culture now. Do people react at all to the work, do they react more strongly given our constant, ongoing attention to political back-and-forths?
DERF: It depends. On the daily's site, which is this horrible free-for-all with unfettered comments, you can comment anonymously. All of these sites are owned by the same company, which is called Advance. The comments are just appalling. They go back in and try to clean them up, so you get a lot of... it's still general media, so you get all political stripes, everyone has their own agenda. They're all taking potshots at everybody and everything and luh luh luh.
In the weekly press, I don't get that at all. The weekly press was always pretty narrowly targeted. It was mostly urban liberal intellectuals, right from the beginning. It was always a different kind of animal. I don't worry about feedback that much. My stuff, particularly in Cleveland, has always been pretty well received. I can't say I spent a lot of time worrying about it. But there doesn't seem to be a lot of people reading weekly papers, no. That genre is dead.
SPURGEON: Did you have a sense at some point that the writing was on the wall there?
DERF: Oh, yeah. I would say about '99 or 2000. That far back. The thing was, I was still making a decent living at it, so I decided to keep writing it. That's when I started moving into longer form comics, right around that same time. That was a decision I made. It just took a little longer than I thought it would.
SPURGEON: I hadn't know you suffered a longstanding health issue there for a while. Does that change your orientation towards work?
DERF: It doesn't really change it. It slowed me down. I'd probably have two more books out by now if it weren't for that. It doesn't really change my outlook or my process any. I don't have this frantic sense of [laughs] "Oh, I've got to do as much as I can, quickly." I'll take the time that I have left and do as many comics as I can. It's not like I feel a sense of urgency or anything.
SPURGEON: Do you feel a kinship with other journalists that use cartoons, other memoirists? We're talking not soon after Spain Rodriguez passed away.
DERF: Yeah, I was a huge Spain fan. A lot of people say, you know how it is, especially in comics which kind of blows me away, they always want to stick you in a little category and bag you and stick you in a certain box. "The Crumb-type school... Crumb, Crumb, Crumb." It was Spain before Crumb. I got my hand on Spain's stuff long before Crumb. I was sad to hear of his passing. We had exchanged some e-mails over the last year or so. I'd sought him out. I usually don't. I'm kind of funny about that. I was surprised he knew who I was and knew my work. I never met him.
SPURGEON: The transition to longer-form work, we kind of take that for granted.
DERF: It was hard. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be, perhaps out of my own cluelessness.
SPURGEON: Was there an educational process? Did you go look at stuff?
DERF: It was basically me just working it out. I think, particularly with my first book Trashed -- which I really like, it was a lot of fun. It's very cartoony. It's very clipped; the pace is way too fast. It was difficult for me to learn to slow down and learn to tell the story without getting ridiculously indulgent, the way indie comics tend to do. Jaime Hernandez calls it the fluttering leaf syndrome, where you get a leaf going across panels for two pages. You don't want to go that far. But you don't want it to be clipped, like a newspaper strip where you have to cram everything in four panels. It took a book or two to work that out. In My Friend Dahmer, I really put the breaks on. That one moves at a slow, methodical pace, which is by design, but I don't think I would have been able to do that early on.
SPURGEON: The pacing is very confident and assured -- what was important to you about pacing the story that way?
DERF: I felt it fit the book. It's not the story of some guy racing around. The action in the book is mostly people standing around talking or Dahmer walking around. So you have to adjust to the work, adjust to the story, but still make it compelling so that people want to turn the page. Those are decisions that every storyteller faces. You either learn how to do it or you don't. I'm a slow learner, but at least I can learn. [laughter]
SPURGEON: One standard question I ask might be appropriate here. We talked about how long you've been out there with this one. I'm interested in authors having to live with a work for a long period of time after they're done creating it. Has your opinion changed on the work since having it out there, having to talk about it?
DERF: No. No, no. That's probably the benefit of taking so long to put it together. By the time it was out it was exactly the work I wanted to produce. I didn't take any shortcuts. Obviously, taking 20 years or whatever to do it. I was pretty confident. Right from the beginning I knew that word of mouth would be important because it's such a weird book. The first reaction is "Yuck." I knew I'd have to hit the road. As I told some of my friends, going into this I knew I had doomed myself to talking about Jeffrey Dahmer for a solid year. That's why it's nice to talk about process. It's why I like talking to fellow comics geeks like yourself. [Spurgeon laughs] It's a nice break from "This is what Dahmer did. That is what Dahmer did."
SPURGEON: You mentioned that you'd be two books further along -- is that an abstract idea, or do you have two books on a list of books that you know you would have done by now?
DERF: No, that's just judging from the times I lost.
SPURGEON: Given how deliberate your career choices have been, do you now have next books in mind?
DERF: I have books that I'm kicking around. Yeah. The problem is that Dahmer is so unlike anything I've ever done. I'm basically a humorist. My other books are these raucous, rollicking comedies. Now people are expecting me to do this darker work and I'm pretty good at darker work. I have to think of something that's not going to be too far afield. You know? From a purely practical, sales standpoint.
SPURGEON: All of your work has a personal connection, too.
DERF: They do. I don't know if that's going to be the case moving forward. I've always been kind of a restless creator. I've wandered a lot, and I imagine I'll continue to do that. The thing is, my audience is much bigger now thanks to the success of Dahmer, so I'm going to carry some of that with me. I won't carry all of that with me, but this is a breakout book and a lot of people are reading it that don't read comics. I was going to lose those people anyway. I'm not worried about them. I'm glad they bought the book, don't get me wrong. A lot of people will follow me wherever I go, because they like the way I tell stories. I just have to keep plugging away.
* cover to the new work
* self-portrait, from the new work
* the book's primary subject
* the sturdy four-panel grid
* one of many digressions into such things as basic social and community structure
* an indictment
* Dahmer: not driven by having been bullied
* a Dahmer Fan Club member strikes a deal
* a strip and then a stang-alone panel from The City
* isolated Jeffrey Dahmer (below)
J. Caleb Mozzocco is someone I know not at all, but I've been reading his work on comics for years and years. Mozzocco is one of those reviewers that offers up an extremely wide range of material for discussion. This includes mainstream comic books and graphic novel collections of same, the 2012 versions of which will be the primary subject of this interview.
I thought it was an odd year for what most people, myself included, call "mainstream comics." Then again, I think most of the years are odd anymore when it comes to genre comics work. As I'm writing this, we're about 15-16 issues into DC's relaunching of their line and right in the middle of Marvel's curated revamp and staggered roll-out of theirs. We also saw a resurgent Image Comics as people like the writer Robert Kirkman became career models of choice. Throw in a half-dozen factors up and down the charts, and 2012 felt like both the beginning and ending of something important. At least that's my view; let's ask Caleb for his. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: How did you end up carving out the writing-about-comics portion of what you do? I assume you were a comics fan growing up, but I honestly don't know.
At the time, there was still a comic book shop in my hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio, and before I ventured into it comics were just something I would see on creaky spinner racks in drugstores and sketchy magazine stores. Archie seemed to publish half of them. [Spurgeon laughs]
Then I entered the comic shop, and smelled all that fresh ink and paper, saw all those colors on the superhero costumes on shelves, saw my first graphic novels... it was like walking into Narnia.
By the time I graduated college and had a real job with a steady paycheck, I was bringing stacks of comics and a volume of manga or two home on a Wednes-daily basis.
I should probably also note that my hometown, which has a population of about 25,000 and is an hour east of Cleveland, has had four comic shops open and close between 1991 and 2000 or so, and I'm not sure how one gets really in to comics if they don't have that experience of going into a comic shop to see the place where all the comics live.
To answer your original question though, I've been writing as long as I've been reading comics -- actually, longer, but I started semi-professionally writing around the time I was 17, and much of that was reviews. Movie reviews and local theater reviews for my local newspapers, at first.
I spent about six-years of my grown-up life on staff at a pair of newspapers, and the latter one was a rather quickly-dying Columbus alt-weekly, where I could slip in coverage of local comics creators as features and graphic novels as book reviews.
As the paper got even closer to death, the editor-in-chief was pretty much encouraging all of us to write almost anything we wanted, to fill up space and save on the freelance budget, so I had a weekly comics review column there for awhile.
By the time Columbus' big, evil, daily newspaper finally bought us out and laid me off, I had already been doing some freelancing for Wizard -- I was young and needed the money! [Spurgeon laughs] -- and "interning" at Newsarama, that is, providing reviews in return for no money at all. At that point in my life, I suddenly found myself with something like 24 hours a day of free time and I was already in the habit of writing hundreds, occasionally thousands of words a day, so I started Every Day Is Like Wednesday.
I also briefly tried to put together a comics review column I could syndicate to the remaining alt-weeklies at the time -- this would have been around 2006 or so, I guess -- but the only one that actually bit was Las Vegas Weekly, so I had to find a day job, and ended up working in libraries rather than newspapers.
That's the too-long, too-detailed version. Short version? I liked comics and worked as a writer and editor in print in my early 20s, and when I lost that gig and print was seemingly evaporating, I decided to limit the writing I was doing to something I was really interested in and passionate about.
SPURGEON: One thing that interests me about your writing on your own platform is that there are recurring features. Is that kind of structure helpful to you in terms of continuing to produce work?
MOZZOCCO: I think so. I imagine I started doing that because it was what I was used to from the paper I worked at and the various papers and magazine I read at the time, and because a lot of the comics bloggers I was most interested when I first started blogging -- Kevin Church, Chris Sims, Mike Sterling, Bully -- all had recurring features of some kind or other on their blogs.
Some people I know in the real world are kind of shocked that I do a daily -- well, daily-ish -- blog simply because writing a lot every day seems pretty daunting to a lot of folks that don't write regularly themselves. And if I just sat down at the computer every night and told myself "Well, time to write 500-2,000 words about something having something to do with comic books!" it probably would be rather daunting to me too. But I know that on, say, Thursday, Las Vegas Weekly publishes and my contributions to Robot 6 go up, so I can just link to one or both of those, or that on Wednesday nights I can do "Comic Shop Comics," where I babble about whatever I bought at the shop that week, and once a month I can do posts on DC and Marvel's solicitations, and so on.
When I first started EDILW and wasn't quite sure what I was doing, I had a lot more regular features, many of which I've abandoned.
SPURGEON: Tell me about your consumption of comics: how much you read, where you get them, what's more important in terms of your overall relationship to comics? It seems to me that you must read a ton of books.
MOZZOCCO: This sounds like a question a therapist might ask me while trying to gauge the extent of my problem.
Well, when I was in Columbus, Ohio and working as an editor -- that is, when I had a lot of money -- I had access to a great comic shop called The Laughing Ogre, with really friendly, really nice people like Gib Bickel and Jeff Stang working there, and they seemed to stock everything you could possibly want to read. That store I mentioned going into as a youth a few questions ago? The Ogre was like ten of those in one. I used to budget $40 for new comics every Wednesday, and if the publishers didn't publish $40 of stuff I wanted read, I'd spend it on trades.
Right now, I spend somewhere between $3 and $15 a week on floppy, pamphlet, serially-published comic book-comics every Wednesday. I moved back to my hometown of Ashtabula for about a year in 2010, and was suddenly in a city with no comic shop, so I was forced to break the weekly habit. That was about the time $3.99 comics were becoming more ubiquitous, and I just refuse to read those things and it seemed like Big Two comics were getting much, much, much worse than at any time since I'd been reading them. Although maybe it's not them, maybe it's me; I suppose there comes a time in one's life where one has simply read all the Batman or Justice League comics anyone ever needs to read.
So I've transitioned to trades, and read only a handful of comics as they're serially published now, even though I live within a 15-minute drive of two different comics shops -- in Mentor, Ohio, if any of your readers are stalking me. And I've gotta say, some of the publishers make it really hard to read their comics at all -- I tried the "Marvel NOW!" relaunch of Fantastic Four, and between the house ads, the space-wasting splash pages and Marvel's weird new "Altered Reality" smart phone app prompt in certain panels, it was a real unpleasant slog, despite the fact that the creators did an okay job on it.
I get a ton of comics from the library. Since the layoff from the paper I mentioned above, I've been working in libraries, and if the library I work at doesn't own them, some library in Ohio almost invariably does, and I can get just about anything I want to read through inter-library loan... as long as I wait until they're available in trade.
For Marvel and DC comics, that mainly just means I'm one big crossover event comic/branding initiative behind whatever's in the stores at the time. Which is fine with me; a lot of that stuff I read as much to keep up with for writing-about-comics purposes as for pleasure; like, I want to know what Marvel's doing with Captain America now, rather than how Cap's going to get out of his latest scrape, you know?
Beyond the Big Two or Big Five direct market publishers, it seems a lot of comics publishers just go straight to trade now, so a library is a great place to get manga and the sorts of books Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly and the big, book publishers-dabbling-in-graphic novels put out -- pretty much anything published straight to trade you can find at your local library. Or your local library can find for you. And if they can't, maybe you shou
* Fantagraphics put out giant volumes by Walt Kelly, Basil Wolverton and Ernie Bushmiller all on the same day. I know people are tired of hearing other people like me say this, but comics is super-ridiculous right now.
Forney's latest book is Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me: A Graphic Memoir, a lengthy personal memoir from Gotham Books. In it she discusses being diagnosed with Bipolar disorder, the highs and lows that immediately followed, and the extended crisis of confidence she had to endure when it came to her personal and professional identity. I think Marbles is Forney's strongest work to date. I caught Ellen by phone while she was on the road in support of the work. It was nice to talk to her again. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: How has the tour been? I don't know that you've done an author's tour like this before.
ELLEN FORNEY: I've done tours on my own, but that meant sleeping on other people's couches. Fantagraphics was great about helping me set up dates, but it certainly wasn't guided or funded as much as this. Also, the publicity I've been getting -- I have a publicist who's working on this specifically. It's been great.
SPURGEON: Is it weird at all to have to talk about a work like this over and over again? You have to revisit the work and the subject matter, which is interesting in and of itself, but you also have to do it according to someone else's priorities.
FORNEY: I guess the thing that's striking to me is that it's been very, very different than I expected. It hasn't been nearly as difficult. It's been much more, I guess, exciting.
I was bracing myself for criticism. Here I'm putting out this very personal story and I felt I was putting my insides out there on the line. I was really nervous about that. I've gotten overwhelming support andâ€¦ company, I guess. One of the most striking things to me has been to hear how many people have personal connections with mental disorders. It feels like I've been saying this a lot, but I'm still kind of blown away by this. It seems everybody has a story. Everyone has their own experience with this.
I feel like I'm providing a door. Not to say I feel I've disappeared in this. I think a lot of people are identifying with my story. The thing that's been really satisfying is that it's received more recognition than I expected, that everybody has their own interpretation of and take on it, that there are some universal qualities. It wasn't just my story. And it was so important that this wasn't just, "Hey, look at me! Ellen Forney! Look at my story. My nutty story." I wanted it to be broader than that.
SPURGEON: How did you expect a negative reaction to be formed? You said you expected criticism, but on what basis? People were going to be critical of you?
FORNEY: I don't know. Because it's a work of art. Who has done art that somebody hasn't gone, "Well, it lags here"? Or "It's relevant, but it gets confusing in chapter six." I don't know if it's not being criticized... I don't know! I could postulate why I haven't gotten that kind of criticism.
SPURGEON: So you didn't expect special criticism, or criticism of you necessarily, but standard criticism of the work.
FORNEY: Absolutely. I just expected that that would be difficult for me to take because it was such a personal work.
SPURGEON: Gotcha. Okay.
FORNEY: Normal criticism.
SPURGEON: With those fears, then, how hard was it for you to put the work out there? I'm deeply interested in the timing of the work, in how an author feels like they're ready to tell a story like this one -- why you do a work about this kind of thing at a specific moment. In the narrative in Marbles, it seems it took some time for you to reach a place you could talk about these things. And yet enough time passes in the book's narrative where you can even look back on the first part of the book as its own experience and kind of give advice to the Ellen that is going through that. Was it tough to engage the finality that is deciding to write about an open-ended story like this one, and did you second-guess that decision at any point while you were doing it?
FORNEY: Yes. All of those things. I remember... I think it would be a better story if I remembered specifically what I was talking about with my therapist, but I remember years ago being in my psychiatrist's office. And talking about something that was really frustrating. There was plenty that was really frustrating. And realizing, almost more like an assignment that, "Uhh! I'm going to have to deal with this in a comic." I knew that I'd have to process it, and the way I process things is through a comic.
At that point, the idea of putting that out in public was too much. I also couldn't think of how I'd be able to approach that, because I've always considered myself more of a graphic essayist: one- or two-pagers. This wasn't something that was even on my radar. It was pretty clear that I was going to have to be stable, feel like I've been stable a while, before I could come out in such a broad way, a public way. Yeah. It would have been too much for me for a million reasons. I can't imagine being in an emotionally precarious position and talking about my disorder to a roomful of people.
Hugo House in Seattle -- you know Hugo House -- they deemed me a writer-in-residence, and I needed to write an original work and read it. I knew that it was time that I wanted to delve into my story. I kind of realized in some way that it was my biggest personal story... the richest, I guess. I had all of this material in my textbooks and journals. So I did that for Hugo House. It was very emotional. It was a big deal for me to sit in front of a group of people and tell them I was bipolar and here was part of my story -- kind of chapter two, I guess, plus the sketchbook drawings, which most people, even my closest friends, hadn't seen before.
So that was my initial testing of the waters. And it was okay. The earth didn't crumble, people didn't talk about it behind my back or whatever. It was okay. That was when I started putting together Marbles. 2008.
I remember showing the group of cartoonists The Friends Of The Nib my thumbnails. I didn't tell anybody until I mapped out my story. I wasn't even telling anyone it was about my bipolar disorder. That was a coming out, again, that I wasn't ready to do. I remember kind of hyperventilating, showing Jim Woodring and Dave Lasky and this very small group of cartoonists. So I've really come a long way in feeling I can talk about my story without feeling vulnerable or like I'm going to cry.
That was kind of a long-winded answer.
SPURGEON: That's the kind of answer this site lives for.
FORNEY: [laughs] Okay.
SPURGEON: I almost think that... okay, you certainly have this vulnerability regarding your disorder, and I want to respect that. But you also have that thing where everybody has something at this point, or may claim something even if they're not clinically diagnosed. Did you ever get that reaction from people? Did you ever experience one of those kind of glib self-diagnoses that people go through?
FORNEY: You mean do people say, "Hey, I'm bi-polar also!"
SPURGEON: [laughs] Yeah. Did you experience that at all? I mean, it's not 1958; people seem to me more likely to embrace a disorder as their own than to maybe even shun someone. That doesn't mean it's any less scary for you. I respect how real your fears are, but I wonder if you were ever frustrated by reactions coming from the other direction.
FORNEY: Well... I don't know I would consider it frustrating. I got a lot of fast answers: "I'm bi-polar, too! Here are the meds I'm on! Here are the cycles I went through." [Spurgeon laughs] But I haven't really felt that it's glib.
It's hard to say. Mental disorders and medications are really... they're tossed around a lot right now. Just about bipolar disorder, I think in the past it's been under-diagnosed. And right now it might be over-diagnosed. But maybe the combination of those two evens out. It's kind of a funny issue to gauge in so far as how common it is. But it seems to me the people who are telling me that that's their experience, also -- it's very real to them. I think that I'm getting... I'm probably getting a higher proportion of people that are bi-polar or have mental disorders in my audiences... for obvious reasons! [laughter]
There was something else I was going to say about that. Just because it's common doesn't mean it's not something you hold inside of you and keep private and feel vulnerable about. For instance there are zillions of people that are gay that haven't managed to come out even though there's a huge and celebratory gay culture. On a personal level it can be very difficult.
SPURGEON: I want to ask you about some of your visual solutions. You have a nice line, and a lot of your drawings reflect your illustration work: they have a nice look; they pop on the page.
Now, you have a lot of that kind of cartooning in this book. But you also have a lot of... I don't know, maybe call it diagrammatic work in here: stuff that you would put on a chalkboard to explain something. Simplified cartooning. Symbols and a lot of text, and the text arranged... not so much with the figure drawing.
Did you work hard on all of the information you had to convey in terms of finding visual strategies to do that? Are you happy with the way that part of Marbles turned out?
FORNEY: Yes. I really used... I felt in so many ways that I used everything that I know.
The way page design appeals to me is that it's more organic. If you look at most of my work, I rarely use a regular grid. It's just the way it rolls out of me. Of all the visual tools cartoonists have to work with, I think page design is one that's very interesting and expressive.
Are you talking about the pages that have a lot of information, like, "What Is A Mood Disorder?"
SPURGEON: Yeah. There are pages where you back away from the personal story and try to communicate a lot of information. It seems like you boil that down effectively, with simple lines and simple drawings, spatial arrangement of words, too. Not so much a cartoon movie but a cartoon... lecture, maybe.
FORNEY: Those were coming very, very directly from the "How To" comics I do: how to take a bunch of very specific information and make it interesting as a comic -- not just illustrated words, but visually interesting. So exactly as you said, there are icons, there is spacing... I could go on and on about how important hand-lettering is to me and what I like to see in other comics. Hand-lettering. [laughs] I really am saddened that so many cartoonists are turning to making their hand-lettering into fonts. I think it loses a lot of personality and expressiveness.
So that for me is a major part of the storytelling, the visual storytelling and the way that I show mood. The two-page spread of the mania at the beginning of chapter three can't be contained on a page; there's too much. And then there are are more rectangular designs during the depression and back and forth. All of the different... the ebb and flow of the story: just making the page design flow with that. Yeah.
SPURGEON: My favorite page is the first page of chapter four, where you have this simple visual of your starting out in bed and ending up on the couch. I think that's a great page. One of the things that's slightly more sophisticated about the chapter is that you recall that first image a bunch of different times. How did you come up with that particular sequence, deciding to do it in that really basic language? Do you remember that page?
FORNEY: Absolutely. I would say that's the page I've gotten the most comments on. The way I came up with it is that it was in my proposal. I had two chapters in my proposal. One was the first chapter, which remains just about the same. Chapter One. And then I had a chapter that was depression, it was a lot of my sketches, but it didn't have a story. It was much more stylized. I had those figures in the corner and it could function like a flipbook. Everything lined up, so I don't mean just stylistically. I mean it actually fit together like a flipbook. Then when I was rearranging everything, I guess... where it did come from? I think for me that was just such a... that would be kind of an iconic experience for me. I was doing that as a depiction of what that was like over a span of time. So it didn't make sense to have detail in it, which would indicate one time.
What I didn't realize is that so many people would be able to see themselves in it. Its simplicity, as Scott McCloud would say, makes it universal.
SPURGEON: The way you've drawn that page really does seem to suggest it happens over and over again, which makes it more powerful. Now, in the book, you focus very much on the first period of mania that followed your diagnosis and the down period right after that. Was there something about those specific two times that made you want to depict them? Where they exceedingly typical of what you were going through? Were you more observant because the diagnosis was new? Why those two periods as opposed to a later one or a generic one?
FORNEY: That was really the turning point for me. Those were the most acute episodes I ever had and hopefully will ever have: the most acute mania, the most acute depression.
The way my disorder manifested itself was a pretty common pattern: through your 20s having the symptoms coming out more and more, but not really blossom into a full disorder somewhere around late 20s or 30. It's not like I was cycling for year and then was finally diagnosed. It was a crescendo at that point. That was a turning point for me. It didn't make sense to go back to the previous mania not quite so high and depression not quite so low.
SPURGEON: You said you showed some pages to Dave and Jim early on. Did you have an editor for feedback while you were doing the book proper? Did you have a reader?
FORNEY: I had an editor at Gotham. Lucia Watson. She was awesome. She was really, really helpful. She had never edited a comic before, so she didn't edit on that level. She didn't give me any feedback on the visuals. But I had never done such a long narrative arc. I had never done that kind of memoir, so her input about flow and sequences and how I might try different characters were really, really helpful. She has a lot of experience with editing memoir. Her experience of that allowed me to shape the story better than I would have without her.
I also had Megan Kelso... she really combed through it quite carefully. And Jim Woodring. It was important to me to have other cartoonists look at it. More than anything, they gave me a thumbs-up.
SPURGEON: The way I heard about this book even before you and I had talked about it is that someone asked me if I knew that Eric Reynolds had appeared in this book of Ellen Forney's. Now, did you give a lot of people that appear a heads-up? Eric told me that he knew about his appearance and he told you to do your worst [Forney laughs] in his laidback way and was cool with the result. Even your doctor appears... how do you work with these real people?
FORNEY: Dealing with my psychiatrist was different than working with everyone else. I talked to practically everyone that was in the book to at least ask if it was okay that I used their name and likeness. All of my close friends are in there, and with those friends I talked about what I was like during that time, and different things that they remembered.
One of the things about episodes -- I don't have a great memory anyway -- is that lack of memory is one of the symptoms. I would get impressions. I remember when I was talking to Risa [Blythe], she was telling me about how, yeah, for a long period of time, when I would walk into a party, they wouldn't know what I would be like, which Ellen I would be. Then she turned to me when I was talking to her and said, "Is it okay for me to talk about this?" We had never talked about this. Why would we? It was over. So going back, and going through that with other people, that was pretty intense.
That whole scene with being on the phone? That was all my mom's recollection. My dad didn't remember that scene specifically, but he and I had a 45-minute talk, the most intimate talk about our relationship and what we share and how much we love each other and the distance that we've also had in our father-daughter relationship. It was intense! [laughs] So Eric was one of the people I talked with. I remember calling him and saying, "Eric, do you remember that time in San Diego I kind of freaked out about the number of books?" And he said, "Yeah..." [laughter] So we talked about it.
I had also written in my journal, as I don't trust my memory. I had written down some of the very frustrated and angry things in his e-mail, and I ran that by him, too. "This is what I have that you said in your e-mail." And he was like, "Yeah, that sounds like something I would have said then."
Everybody was very supportive of my going through all of this. If it meant telling their story as well, everybody would say yes. Acquiesce isn't the right wordâ€¦ they would give me their blessing.
SPURGEON: You talked about the concept of "company" early on in this interview, and it's something you talk about in the book. When I talked to mutual friends of ours about the word Michelangelo in the title, we suspected you were going to make a connection to artists that have struggled with various mental issues. Something that I can see coming from people that don't know you is a criticism that this is almost an affectation, making this connection to artists and art making and the idea of the troubled artist. But I thought that part of the book was very graceful and affecting, how you find commonality with other makers. I wonder if you could talk about why the idea of "company" is important to you, and how that helped you process this whole thing.
FORNEY: It sounds like there's a couple of questions in that question.
SPURGEON: [laughs] Yeah, sorry.
FORNEY: One was about writers and artists with mood disorders. That's a really tricky one. I wound up feeling like I didn't have particular answers. I hope that it didn't seem in the book like I answered things definitively, the value of unmedicated madness might be. I wanted to have something in there, Munch at least, that he didn't want to lose his suffering because that's where his inspiration came from. That's exactly what I was afraid of. For a lot of people that may be true. Anne Sexton, I don't know her work well, but it was a quote that was really thought-provoking, that it's the artist's role to feel pain and express it in our art so that people that aren't artists can have a way to understand it. But then she committed suicide.
Do we have to be martyrs? You can kind of chase your tail and come up with a lot of questions. Hopefully I let the questions exist and at the same time be able to say, "Regardless of all of these questions I can't answer, they our company. We have this thing in common. We have dealt with it in different ways, and feel about it in different ways. But we're still company.
SPURGEON: You mentioned the Hugo House, and The Stranger recognized you this year. How much do you consider yourself as a Seattle artist? You're one of the cartoonists that comes to mind for me when I think of Seattle cartooning. Do you think that's part of your cartoonist DNA? Do you find common ground with artists like Jim and Megan on that basis?
FORNEY: Yeah! I do! It gets back to company in a way. Seattle plays a large role in Marbles for a reason, because Seattle plays a large role for me. You mention people like Megan and Dave, one of the things we have in common is that we were in this group. Did you know about the young cartoonists group?
SPURGEON: The story ark, and Thor Jensen -- the mid-'90s.
FORNEY:James Sturm and Tom Hart and Megan and Dave and me and Jason Lutes. This group... it almost seems like this roundtable now. We've all stuck with it, and we were all really devoted. Having that kind of energy around in Seattle is important to me. And then also from the town in general, I always felt like it was a comics-reading town. Partly Fantagraphics, I think. Pete Bagge maybe had something to do with the connection that comics and music had in the '90s.
I would definitely say I'm a Seattle cartoonist.
SPURGEON: You talk in the book about the reality of having your mom help you out with your treatment financially. A lot of cartoonists work so close to the bone. You write about losing momentum because of what you were going through. Do you worry about other cartoonists being able to deal with something like you went through? I find myself worried about this for my cartooning friends. Since you went through an experience like this, and had some help, I wondered if you had an opinion on that.
FORNEY: I have a lot of opinions on mental health care, but also health care in general. I could go on about mental health care and how it is that general practitioners are doing diagnoses and handing out meds and it's not as effective and not holistic and needs to be changed.
Then I think there's a broader issue, which is that if you're able to accept this idea I've come to believe is true, that a lot of artists are crazy, that there's a correlation between mood disorders and creativity. That just feels intuitively true working in an art school, for instance.
So we're talking about a whole bunch of people who are inclined to have mental disorders who are also inclined to not have much money and not much in the way of health insurance. From the get-go it's kind of... very problematic. And then broader: anybody who doesn't have health insurance and is getting older and not making a lot of money. Most artists aren't making a lot of money and don't have health insurance. It's a very scary prospect.
I can't tell you how many benefits I've gone to for artists that go into a terrible accident, or have breast cancer, and don't have insurance. And a fundraiser will raise, what? $2000? And their treatment is $50,000 or more. A lot is wrong with the system. A lot of it is that artists don't have a lot of money, and health care for people without a lot of money is a grim situation.
SPURGEON: [pause] Well. That's a cheery place to end it.
* cover to the new book
* a self-portrait from late in the new book
* a really cute panel from early in the book
* the page in question
* the CCI meltdown, complete with Eric Reynolds cameo
* classic Forney short comics essay (below)
I decided to talk to Sean Ford not because I knew a whole lot about him but because I didn't. I read his book Only Skin when it came out, and enjoyed several aspects of it. The book struck me less as one of those bolt-from-the-blue debuts than as an early work of someone likely to stick around for a while, making a lot of quality comics along the way. I'd spoken to Ford at shows, and found him thoughtful and articulate. He also seemed to be one of those young cartoonists maybe on the older end of that general group, by which I mean he's now right around 30 as opposed to still being in his early- or mid-20s. I think there's a lot to be learned about Ford's generation of comics-makers, a great deal of it very intriguing; I look forward to speaking to as many of them as possible. It turns out that Ford is also well-connected in comics more generally.
This was the first interview for this year's series I was able to complete, so I'm thankful to all of Ford's teachers at The Center For Cartoon Studies and his former high-powered internship supervisors for making sure that he became one of those cartoonists that hands things in ahead of time. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON Sean, I know almost nothing about you, except I believe that maybe you're a New York native.
SPURGEON: Gotcha. My bad. Can you talk to me a bit about your general background, where comics fit into your life as you were growing up?
FORD: My earliest exposure to comics was probably my mom giving me some of those old Peanuts and MAD paperbacks she had growing up. And of course Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield, Peanuts, Far Side, Doonesbury, etc in the morning paper -- and I would buy collections of that stuff at Walden Books when I found it. At some point I picked up Uncanny X-Men issue #246 off the newsstand and I instantly became hooked on the X-Men and would buy all the Byrne/Claremont issues I could find at tag sales and in back issue bins and stuff.
Not long after that, I found the trade paperbacks First Classics was making of Eastman and Laird's TMNT and bought them all. I started drawing my own versions of TMNT comics around then. I showed some of them to Mark Texeira at a signing at my local comics store and he told me I shouldn't trace other people's work and I got really upset because I hadn't traced it. [Spurgeon laughs] I became a fan of Marvel right around the time the Image guys started, so I followed all that stuff and like a lot of people, got burned out on it pretty quickly. Around the mid-'90s a lot of the comics shops in my area started closing and I wound up being distracted by the typical high school stuff, so I read fewer comics for a few years.
Like anyone else who grew up in Connecticut, my early goal in life was basically to find a way to get out of Connecticut. I wanted to be some kind of artist and was still drawing comics in high school, but for some reason I don't think I thought comics was the kind of art I could make a living at. [laughs] My family life was sort of a struggle. My dad was sick and couldn't work after a certain point and we didn't have a lot of money. I was working after school all through high school at some really bad jobs like Baskin Robbins, the Sports Authority and a hospital coffee shop, to try and help out with costs at home while hoping to save enough for college.
I got somewhat lucky that my SAT scores were good enough to get me a scholarship to go to NYU's art program. I'm not sure I even knew anything about NYU, but I knew I really wanted to move to New York and find out about a larger world. Growing up in Connecticut there was a sense I was missing out on everything cool, I felt like I needed to go to NY to find something. In school, I focused on drawing and sculpture -- I would try to work comics into assignments whenever possible, but NYU had a pretty conceptual art program so comics were met with confusion or some level of disappointment. So I wound up making a bunch of conceptual art and models of movie sets and small worlds at school. And I liked that stuff, I was actually really interested in the narratives and stories that went along with the models and worlds -- it was essentially set-building or world-building for stories I wasn't getting to tell. I actually tried to do the New York fine art world for a while and even had a few shows before getting kind of sick of it. It took me a while to decide the narratives were what I wanted to focus on.
SPURGEON Am I right in thinking that you discovered alt-/indy- comics independently of comics themselves -- by which I mean you were already a fan of comics and then discovered these other kind of comics? What was discovering those comics like; what comics do you remember having an impact on you?
FORD: Yeah, my first part-time job in New York was working at St. Mark's Comics, because it was right around the corner from the art building at NYU. I started at St Mark's more or less on a whim, thinking I might catch up on X-Men or check out Preacher or Bone. But it was there that I found Eightball and Love & Rockets and Paul Pope's THB comics and the ACME Novelty Library minis buried next to Horny Biker Sluts and Cherry in the back of the store. That changed things for me a lot. I had no idea comics like that were being made and it was really exciting.
I again tried making my own comics at that point, but it felt hard to know where to start or how to enter the community so I didn't feel like I had any kind of outlet for them. I guess I probably didn't even think there was a community available to me. In 2001, though, I got an internship working for Peggy Burns in the publicity department at DC Comics and she opened my eyes to a lot of great comics and introduced me to a lot of great comics people -- both at DC and in the indie comics world in New York. In 2002, after I graduated NYU, Peggy helped get me a job at DC and while there I worked with a bunch of really great people, including Leon Avelino. Through Leon I met Barry Matthews. Leon and Barry told me about a lot of great comics and we had a lot of shared interests in novels and movies and they also told me about MoCCA. One of the first MoCCAs I went to, I think 2003, is when I would say that I felt like I found out about the comics community at large. That was the show where Kramers Ergot 4 and Blankets came out and it was kind of a mind-blowing experience. It made it seem like those indie comics were not only up and coming, but already their own full and very vibrant world. But I still had no real idea of how to access that world.
SPURGEON You've kind of talked about this, but at what point did comics become something you thought you might do?
FORD: I was sort of continually trying to figure out how to make comics and how it could be something I could do. A few years after graduating NYU, having abandoned the fine art thing and still working at DC Comics, I had literally hundreds of pages of thumbnails and notes and character designs for a graphic novel but no confidence to start it. I had always had problems finishing or even starting comics -- I think part of it was not knowing how to start and part of it was knowing I wasn't ready or good enough to do what I wanted to do. Or at least to attempt what I wanted to attempt. Working at DC was really good, but it was one of those instances of being so close to what I wanted to do, but not actually doing it, that is was kind of maddening and disheartening.
I don't know that he even remembers it, but one day Dylan Horrocks was in the office -- he was writing Batgirl at the time, I think -- and someone told him I was a big fan of Hicksville and Atlas, so he stopped by my office and showed me his sketchbooks for Atlas -- I feel like I saw breakdowns and thumbnails for hundreds of pages of Atlas that I keep waiting to come out. I want to say that was in late 2005, maybe even early 2006, so right before I decided to apply to CCS. He was very generous and encouraging and talking to him was really instrumental in my decision to go through with applying to CCS. I don't even know if he knows that.
Going to CCS was totally invaluable in giving me that confidence and giving me that time to get better -- like not great, but good enough that I felt like I could finish a comic and try to get better with the next one. So I would say when I actually made the commitment to go to CCS was when I thought of comics as something I was going to focus on pursuing, rather than something I would kind of struggle with in private. I think I'm a late-bloomer in a lot of ways. I think it might take me longer to have certain self-realizations and get to what for other people would be really obvious points. I had been obsessed with comics since I was eight years old and always hovering around the comics world. I even interned at Harris Comics at one point! But it took me until I was 26 years old and at a sort of breaking point to finally say, "Okay, this is something I need to do."
SPURGEON You were part of one of the first three or four classes at CCS. How did you end up there? What made you decide to make that significant investment in that very specific institution?
FORD: I was in the second class at CCS. I had heard about the school from Peggy, who was at D+Q by that point. Her partner Tom Devlin was teaching some classes at the school. I asked her about it, read the James Sturm interview in The Comics Journal and decided to take the train up to White River Junction to check it out a few months into the school's very first semester. I liked what I saw up there and wound up applying for the second year the school was open.
I had looked into SCAD's graduate comics program a little as my parents had moved to Savannah by then, but CCS seemed to be more a fit for what I wanted to do in comics -- focusing on longer, more involved projects, focusing on writing and drawing and production. And I really just needed a way to escape NY for a little while. At the point I decided to apply I was kind of stalled on making comics or any kind of art and had just gone through a horrible break-up and was disassembling that life and debating getting tested for a genetic disease I was sure I had. So going to the school was partly about trying to finally find some momentum with comics and partly about trying to escape some personal trauma.
SPURGEON I'm not sure I've talked to a whole lot of CCS graduates, but can you speak specifically to what that place meant to your development as a cartoonist, particularly what you might have received during that experience that you wouldn't have if you had, say, just moved to Portland and started making comics at the coffee house? What was the primary value of that experience for you?
FORD: The two years I spent at CCS were hugely important to me in a lot of different ways. For one thing, it was the first time I met a lot of people who thought about comics the same way I did and were struggling with the same issues I was. A big reason, I think, to go to a graduate program, like any MFA writing or design program or whatever, is to meet your peer group. For some people, I think they're maybe more socially well-adjusted or able to just find that peer group on their own somehow -- maybe in that coffee shop in Portland [Spurgeon laughs] or maybe online on twitter or tumblr or deviant art or whatever. I had never been able to find a community in New York, as pathetic as that sounds. And I didn't have the confidence or really even the know-how to put my art online. I lucked into a really good community up in Vermont that, at least for the time I was there, seemed perfect and fit exactly what I needed. It really felt like I had found a golden ticket to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory or Hicksville or something.
And I know that there is some backlash against the very idea of CCS that I've heard over the years and it's a backlash I can kind of understand and have certainly shared on certain occasions. I've heard from a few people, "A school for comics? what do you need to go to school for? just make comics." But I think you could say the same thing about being a writer or a graphic designer or any creative pursuit. Obviously there's this notion that you can't teach someone how to do a creative thing. But I think on the other hand there is a ton of technical knowledge and know-how you need to make comics, stuff about which I was completely clueless before I went there. I had never so much as opened Photoshop or InDesign. I had no idea how to color anything. I had no idea how to use an Ames Lettering Guide. I had no idea how to ink with a nib or a brush. I had no idea how to scan art. I picked up a ton of technical skill and know-how there which fed into my comics process and which I use on a daily basis now. It basically allowed me to get my day job doing book design, too.
Learning about the history of comics, being able to put your work in a context is important, too. There are a ton of things that can go wrong on a comics page that might take years for you to realize on your own, but someone like James Sturm, Jason Lutes or Steve Bissette can point out to you in five minutes. So, I think there were a ton of technical and craft and knowledge-type things that I needed and definitely picked up at CCS. But again, I think finding the community was most important for me. And obviously there is more than one way to find your community, especially with the internet and stuff. I'm just prone to being very shy and withdrawn so I'm not sure I would've been able to find that community any other way.
SPURGEON: Before we get too far away from it, tell me about interning for Peggy Burns -- she's become a vital cog in that world of alternative comics in which you operate. Is there anything about her you think other people may not know, may not appreciate?
FORD: I had to re-read that question several times. At first I was worried you were trying to get me kicked off the D+Q holiday card list.
SPURGEON: [laughs] I like Peggy very much, I'm just not sure how many people know her, or have worked with her directly.
FORD: Peggy is great. I assume everyone is aware of the impact she's had at Drawn and Quarterly. She's made such a tremendous and positive impact in the way comics are covered and received in places that may not have ever sniffed a comic before. Just that eight-page [Yoshihiro] Tatsumi review in the New York Times should be reason enough to stop and pause -- has that ever happened before? Peggy has a tremendous ability to make the things she cares about or puts her time behind seem like really worthwhile and important events in comics. There's not a lot of false advertising or anything, just sincere and legitimate reasons why things should be given attention.
Peggy was also extremely patient with me as an intern -- I was possibly her worst ever -- and has been a constant touchstone whenever I've changed paths since DC. I feel lucky that she has been so kind and generous with me. I probably don't deserve it. But she's great. As is Tom. Anyone who needs to learn about the current world of indie comics could do far far worse than to spend an evening bending Peggy and Tom's ears. They are two of the smartest.
SPURGEON: While we're going backwards a bit, you also mentioned DC Comics, and your time there. I've visited DC a couple of times and I found the office vibe there interesting, at once almost exactly like some of the other comics offices in that it's almost all people with a real passion for comics, but also sort of corporate and distancing. What do you take away from that experience now? Is that a world to which you still have any sort of affinity, to which you could return?
FORD: I feel like my time at DC was incredibly lucky. As a somewhat-aimless college graduate, it helped me focus what I wanted to do -- it helped me figure out the kind of comics I wanted to make and also showed me some of the pitfalls of trying to make that happen in the corporate comics world. And I was also able to meet some truly great people who I still keep in contact with. The people who are willing to sacrifice for DC are what makes it great. Unfortunately, there seems to be a powers-that-be kind of thing that holds back the really innovative ideas. I think Paul Levitz was actually a great leader at DC. He was conservative, but he truly loved and respected the material. He would have never done Watchmen Babies. Never. Even though he was well aware the money was there.
There are plenty of people like that at DC and unfortunately they seem to get overruled by people serving movie studios or bottom lines. I would never go back, I'm sorry to say. In spite of the fact that there are still a good number of people there who do their jobs with complete integrity. Those folks are just outgunned, unfortunately. There's also some really arcane rule on the books at DC that says that people who work for the company are not allowed to make their own comics, a rule they seemingly enforce depending on whether or not they like you enough to look the other way. So, I loved my time there and I'll keep in touch with my friends there and I'll never work for them again.
SPURGEON: Let's get back on point. Talk to me a bit more about some of the insight you received from teachers. Did Steve or Jason or James point something out to you in five minutes you might not have learned otherwise? Steve and Jason at least have very public reputations in the professional community that seems to me to match up with their reputation as teachers... is there anything that was surprising about your work with anyone there? It seems from the quote that Steve provided that he might have been someone with whom you found an aesthetic connection.
FORD: Steve, Jason and James are all obviously incredibly accomplished cartoonists and each has his own insight into so many different parts of the process. There was a time when James just showed us how he ruled out the lettering on a page with his Ames Guide and a few of us just looked at each other like "That's how you use that thing?" I mean, maybe that's stupid or maybe you could find it on Youtube, but I think I just respond better to that sort of in-person moment. I didn't know anything about Jason or Steve past their comics -- which I greatly admired -- when I started taking classes with them and both of them were just completely generous and patient with their time. I'm not sure I can think of specifics, but there are just countless instances where Steve or Jason would look at a panel I'd drawn and point out a major flaw that I knew on some level was there but maybe thought I could get away with. Mainly like perspective issues or story-pacing issues. All sorts of things.
I do feel like I had a certain aesthetic connection with Steve -- or a similar sense of humor or love of certain horror movies or something. He looked over a lot of my thumbnails and made a ton of suggestions for Only Skin, some of which I took and some of which I didn't, but I think being able to spitball with he and a few other folks up there really helped me gain momentum on the project. Whenever I get back up to WRJ I try to catch up with Steve, I think he's a fantastic person and teacher and CCS would not really exist in the same way without him.
SPURGEON: I want to get to you a bit more about the community aspect. How close do you remain to the students and the other people in the White River comics community even now that you're gone? What is the nature of that connection -- is it just that you share this particularly intense experience, is it that you feel a sense of pride in your common schooling...? It's pretty clear to us that are starting to see the bunch of you interact at these shows that there's a connection there, but I'm not sure we understand how it's different, say, than the one I have with the people that were in Seattle in 1994 when I started working in comics.
FORD: Well, I mean, you guys had Cobain. And also Starbucks. So I'm not sure we can touch that. I'm actually really jealous of anyone who gets to live in Seattle.
Hmm, I'm not sure. I think it's different every year with the school. It's weird that I'll meet people now who are at the school and have no idea I went there. I hope that doesn't sound arrogant or anything, but I'm used to the idea of the school feeling so small that it feels like a family. Maybe it's too big for that now. But I definitely feel a certain communion and shared experience with the folks I went to school with. Even a certain amount of pride for their achievements.
I think White River Junction is just so isolated that it breeds a more intense level of attachment and community than something in New York or Portland would. There is really Not. Much. Else. To. Do. So everyone makes comics and hangs out with one another and talks about comics. If you want to see a concert you can drive 100 miles to Northampton or Burlington. If you want a city you can drive three hours or something to Boston. Not much else. So you draw with each other, drink, play ping pong, drink, etc etc. We basically all went through a sort of ringer of comics boot camp mixed with The Shining together and came out the other side. So I think there's a lot of love and mutual respect at the end of the tunnel. I don't know if every class winds up having that level of attachment, but our class certainly did.
I still keep in very close contact with about seven or eight of my classmates -- and again, I think that's just a kind of thing where a lot of us came of age, in terms of comics, at the same time and probably we influenced how that happened for each other. And I think part of the way that communion plays out in terms of the comics world at large is seeing us interact together at shows. And hopefully that's not too gross for everyone else, but I think it's just like how a lot of people in comics only see some of their favorite people in the world three or four times a year for comics shows and those are like reunions.
SPURGEON: To follow up on something, seeing as you're close to a certain segment of mostly same-age cartoonists and comics-people, do you feel like there's a group aesthetic, ways of approaching comics that are favored by younger comics-makers? Do you know work from a young cartoonist when you see it? For that matter, is there a CCS aesthetic, do you think?
FORD: Hmm, I honestly don't know if would say there's an over-reaching aesthetic that's generational in any way. I think there are so many different ways of making comics and being able to get them out that everyone tends to find their own way -- going back to that question about DC -- I mean what young cartoonist in their right mind feels like they need to work in a style suitable to get work at DC at this point? I think what we'll see more of is smaller publishers or micro-publishers curating their own mini house-styles the way Oily Comics, Retrofit or SpaceFace have. And by curating that house-style, they're presenting their vision of what comics is or should be. And I think you're seeing a lot of different visions, especially if you expand up a level or two to include NoBrow, Koyama, Secret Acres, etc.
I think what a lot of the cartoonists in my general age bracket are dealing with is this weird flux between being able to reach a larger audience than ever maybe and also knowing that there is almost no money involved in any such endeavor. Which I think is good and freeing in some ways, if you can get past it being kind of demoralizing. And I think you're seeing a lot of artists being able to blossom within those lower expectations. I always hear that when the economy is bad it's a good time to make art and I kind of think that's what comics is seeing right now. With almost no pressure to make money off what they make and because they feel like there's nothing more worthwhile to do, young cartoonists are blossoming in inspiring directions. I think there's a lot of good and healthy variety in what's out there right now.
SPURGEON: Let's talk about your book. Only Skin started when you were a student, right? It certainly fits the bill as the something longer and more ambitious you say you were looking towards when you enrolled. What started you making it? Was it part of your coursework or were you just getting a jump on a first book? As seeing as it was a first book, how long had you been carrying it around in your head?
FORD: I did start Only Skin at CCS. It actually started as a side project when I was in school. I was working at a convenience store in White River and I would thumbnail the story on my shifts there. It was a sort of version of the book that I intended to do when I went up there, which was originally much more blatantly about my own family, but what came out was of course totally different than the book I originally envisioned. In the sense that it was some version of the book I'd been thinking of, I'd probably been thinking about it since 2003 or so. But in the sense of what came out on the page, it was all pretty much brand new. There was no ghost or gas station or anything in the original idea I had, I think all that came out of being in Vermont.
In the second half of our first year there we were given a little more freedom as to what we turned in for assignments and that's when I started drawing pages of Only Skin and turning some of them in as homework. Once I started to gain some momentum and decided to collect those pages as a sort of serialized comic, I got really excited and began to think that it was the sort of larger project I had been desperately trying to figure out how to start on for a number of years. In some ways I feel like I may have rushed that moment, like maybe it could have marinated a few more years, but I think a big part of the momentum I need for a project comes from building off that initial spark of excitement, so that's what I tried to do.
SPURGEON: Something you told me once makes me think that Only Skin went through some development on paper, as you were doing it. Is that a fair statement? Was the work different when it was done than the work you maybe set out to do? How? I know that playwrights talk about a play making itself known to the writer in the making of it; is that true of comics for you at all?
FORD: There was a moment in Julia Wertz's The Infinite Wait where her brother said something to the effect of "maybe you shouldn't be doing a book about recovering from alcoholism while you're recovering from alcoholism" and I thought that was a really wise line that I wish I had seen like six years earlier. Because I feel like that's what I did with Only Skin. The book was about my mentally processing some family history and my own wrangling with the idea of getting tested for a genetic disease and I was writing and drawing it while still heavily reckoning with those things. So because of that and because of my own shifting perspective on how to deal with it, the book did change as it went along or evolved or adapted, maybe.
I also feel very strongly, as you suggest, that making a book is a sort of journey, and if I knew where it was going when I started it would be boring for me to make and also boring for the reader to come along. I think what attracts me to writing stories is this idea of trying to tackle a question I don't know the answer to. And hopefully the process of writing or telling the story helps me answer it or gets me closer to answering it. And hopefully that process of discovery or failed discovery is valuable to readers or makes some connection with readers. I think that sometimes I find flawed attempts at describing something complicated a lot more interesting than totally successful attempts at describing something boring or safe.
Of course, that struggle of the work changing or evolving as it went along led to me have to go back and spend like six months heavily editing the book and making sure it all fit together when I was done. But I think that editing process was extremely valuable to me and the work. I learned a lot. I'm not sure how much editing goes into everyone's graphic novels, I'm always curious. But like I said, I spent at least six months drawing 40 or so new pages completely and probably editing 100 other pages in the book in some small or major way. Part of that was to clean up art consistency, but a large part of it made the story stronger or hang together better, I think. And I think I'm okay with that process, because it kept the book fresh to me. I don't know if I could comprehend fully scripting and thumb-nailing a book and having everything be locked in and then going back to draw it. It would feel like all the discovery had already happened and I was just a technician making clean versions of the final art. I worry that a book like that would feel dead on arrival.
SPURGEON: What about the family dynamic that you originally wanted to write about made it into the final version of Only Skin?
FORD: I think I purposely took out a lot of specific details from what I was originally thinking and tried to both obscure it and hopefully make it somewhat more universal by making it more fictional. I think that's a strength of fiction -- you can make really specific feelings seem more universal by making them apply to broader situations -- sort of like the way Scott McCloud talks about a cartoonish face being accessible because we can project ourselves onto it more easily. Or at least that's I what think good fiction and comics do. You try to take a really specific horrible thing and make it so other people can relate to it or identify with it. And that's the whole thing: communicating that and maybe communicating an answer or a way out. I'm not claiming to be there, but that's what I aspire to.
But what I was trying to convey was a sense of trying to rebuild a family after a great loss. My family went through a lot of loss from the time I was 10 to 20 yrs old or so and we're still dealing with the specter of more loss. I think the process of writing the book for me was trying to figure out if there was a way back from that or a way forward from that. The title of the book means a lot of things to me, but part of it is this idea of what you inherit from your parents or family. Is it this deep shit that you have to sort out and figure out how to carry through your life or is it just a bunch of chemicals that form the meat of you? Is your inheritance something you can sort of figure out how to reckon with? How do you come to terms with it? I guess those are the major questions that made it into the book, while a lot of specifics got fictionalized to make them more interesting, more universal maybe and also less potentially traumatic for my family to read about.
I've always been haunted by Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly because it's one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen, but also because it's about an author who writes about his daughter's schizophrenia. She finds the novel in his desk and the betrayal causes her final break with reality. So I guess I try to be careful in telling my own story that I don't overly share the stories of other members in my family.
SPURGEON: There are a few things I found really intriguing about Only Skin. One was this portrayal of a bleak, arbitrary nature of life-as-lived on display. You end up in this town for a reason but it may not be about maximizing any possibilities; you are expected to be friends with a kid because his mother met your mother. There's a real undercurrent to some of the more overt horror-story elements you use that I think betray a sort of extremely critical, even disassociated mindset. Am I reading too much into that, or is there anything in that description you recognize? Is it easy for you to feel a strong connection to a place, to other people?
FORD: I think what you're talking about definitely captures my mindset when I was first writing and drawing the book. I've never actually felt associations or connections to places until extremely recently -- I've just realized I really like where I'm living now, which is a first. Every other place I've ever lived has felt like a weird obligation that I've had to put up with. As for disassociation... I'm not sure I know what you mean by that? Maybe that's part of growing up in Connecticut and feeling like a total outsider but also trying to pass as a normal person. I think it's funny how many horror cartoonists have Connecticut roots: Al Columbia, Josh Simmons, Bill Sienkiewicz and I think a few others. So something about Connecticut is horror-inducing, maybe creating the disassociation feeling you're talking about, the kind Tim Burton talked about growing up in Burbank, California where all the houses looked the same. I think the sort of dreary samey-ness of Connecticut can lead to feeling weirdly disconnected from everything. And there's the whole Stepford Wives thing, which was about how these Waspy Connecticut wives all acted so similar and fake they might as well be robots. Connecticut was certainly very alienating. I never felt like I had any real friends until I got to New York for college. I guess the disassociation is maybe a defense mechanism that I developed growing up. I'm trying to figure that out and part of that is trying to work it out through stories/comics. I will say that I feel like now I have lots of strong connections to people, both in the comics world and outside it -- but I guess it'd be accurate to say that it took me a while to get to that point.
SPURGEON: The woods are all by themselves this giant, hovering metaphor within the work -- this place of connection between real/unreal worlds, and a scary place distinct from the everyday life, and so on. Do you have any kind of experience with that kind of place? It shows up in some of your stand-alone drawings, too.
FORD: I grew up near what I felt like was a huge and terrifying forest, that was in reality not scary at all. I had a teacher fond of saying there is no wilderness in Connecticut, which I agree with. But I had dreams that wolves would come out of the forest and tear me and my brother apart while we were playing in the backyard. I've always wanted to explore forests because of that. I don't know, something seems primal and raw about them that I really like. They do scare me, but I try to get over that or understand it by camping on my own in them and hiking in them. I've spent some time as a grown-up by myself in very large forests and it's a really terrifying experience for me, but it's a form of torturing myself that helps me figure things out, maybe?
I started reading a lot of the German Romanticists novels from the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the European Modernists, too. I really identified with the way they talked about nature as this sublime and primal force. For a long time I thought of the environment of Only Skin as sort of a psychic landscape of the problems I was working through, kind of like Jean Grey's astral plane in X-Men or whatever. But reading more and more about German Romanticist painters and novelists, I feel like it's got more in common with that, with maybe a little astral projection mixed in.
I do think of the forest in Only Skin as a place where two worlds collide and the boundaries between them get really blurry. I think it did have a pretty strong metaphorical function in the work as this sort of place of crossing over for Cassie, Clay and Paul.
SPURGEON: One of the more notable things about Only Skin is the way you choose to depict the ghosts, this kind of simplified, almost comedic abstraction of someone wearing a sheet. How did you land on that visual? Did it always work the way you intended?
FORD: The ghost was actually from a series of drawings I did in college. For some reason it always stuck with me as a simple and iconic image. And obviously lots of people have used similar versions -- of course the iconic Peanuts one, etc. I think that sort of visual juxtaposition is something that comics can do really well. You can present a sinister or disturbing character or idea in an almost disarmingly simple way. You can contrast completely different styles of drawing and make an effective point. I like when comics do that. I don't know if it was always the way I intended it to work, but once I started drawing the ghost he had his own voice and everything and it just felt right so I went with it.
SPURGEON: I imagine there's something to be made about the ending in terms of who suffers and who escapes, but one thing I found specifically interesting was how there was a whole dropped series of horrors in the town, apparently, which we only just return to. Is there something that you find compelling about these kinds of jumps in terms of how they play in comics, how not showing something can have its own effectiveness, particularly in horror?
FORD: Yeah, I think not showing the reader everything, not leading them by the nose to every single conclusion is something I really enjoy about comics and fiction and movies and storytelling in general. It's partly that thing where nothing you can show will be worse than something the reader can imagine when left to his or her own devices. And it's partly building up a sort of trust with the reader where you sort of say, "Okay, I trust you to figure this out, I respect you enough that I won't spell this out for you and let's move on to what happens after." It's kind of like McCloud's idea of what happens in the gutter between panels: the reader has to do a little more work to complete the action with comics. You can do that with story components, too. I think it leads to more involvement and investment by the reader. I always love authors or creators who show a level of respect to their readers. I think it's a more engaging experience and I think it's more fun to write that way. I don't know how good I am at it yet, but that's something I'd like to continue to try and get better at.
SPURGEON: The conventional wisdom about comics and horror is that comics are good at showing scenes of betrayed intimacy and grotesqueries, but because of the control the reader is afforded over how they read the works it's hard to scare people. How do you see the strengths and weaknesses of that genre as one suited for comics? Do you have a pantheon of creators or works that work the same general area you just did?
FORD: I think about that a lot, honestly. I mean, I like monsters. I like when people have to overcome tremendous obstacles or impediments. Horror is almost always about facing and overcoming something traumatic. I don't know that the point is to scare people as much as it is to tell a story about overcoming something awful. Maybe? And I don't even know that my interest in horror is trying to scare people. I think my interest in horror is somehow about a way of looking at the world. Maybe expecting the worst and the worst is actually worse than you could imagine and figuring out how to overcome that. I enjoy that about horror.
I don't even know if I would consider myself a horror cartoonist, I really hate the idea of being confined to rules of a certain genre, but there are parts of it I think I like. I like how rich with metaphor a lot of horror is. Like The Shining is one of my favorite movies but I don't think it's really that scary. It's more a great metaphor for a family dealing with an abusive parent. I think sometimes if you try to talk about an issue like that, abusive parents or gun violence or racism, it can come off as incredibly preachy and heavy-handed and that can just make something shut off for a reader. I think when you mix those ideas into a horror story or some other kind of story and kind of sneak in what you're trying to say a little more metaphorically you can get away with a lot more -- again, it's the same sort of trusting your reader to be able to connect the dots a little.
I don't know if there's a straight line that runs through all those cartoonists. And I certainly feel like I have as much aspiration to make work like Jaime Hernandez or Dylan Horrocks as much as any of those guys. Though even Jaime did a really disturbing comic in Ghost of Hoppers: where Maggie is driving on that highway late at night and meets that terrifying dog? And is there a more disturbing or unnerving comic than Flies on the Ceiling? I think genre horror interests me less than horror used like Clowes or Jaime use it: to accentuate an emotional state or moment. I don't love the idea of genre; I like the idea of using aspects of many genres to serve a story.
SPURGEON: What's something about being published by Secret Acres that surprised you?
FORD: Now I'm definitely going to get kicked off a holiday card list. [Spurgeon laughs] I was actually surprised I guess by the editorial input that Barry and Leon gave. They gave my book a really full read and gave me a lot of feedback about the story. We wound up disagreeing pretty vehemently about some of the feedback, but I think overall that was a positive experience and something I really valued. I trust Barry and Leon's editorial taste and instincts, I they're really strong in that regard. I wasn't sure how that would translate to them giving me feedback, but I think it worked pretty well and was very helpful.
I've also just been impressed and happy to see Secret Acres grow from the time I signed with them in late 2009 to now. They have a really ambitious plan and seem to be picking up momentum and doing bigger and bigger things. So that's really cool to see. I think they're exactly the type of publisher that I want to be with at this point: dedicated to getting their artists' visions out there and supporting that. I'm not one of those people who is very good at the internet or self-promotion. I like twitter a lot, but I'm horrible at getting my work out on the internet myself, so having a publisher who is good at doing that has really helped take my mind off that whole annoying question of what do I need to do to get people to find my work and allowed me to just try to focus on making the work better. I'm grateful to have such dedicated and smart guys helping me.
SPURGEON: I don't want to let an earlier answer of yours get too far away. Knowing "there is almost no money involved" is a fine thing for creative expression, and for when one is younger, but how worried are you about an infrastructure being there to serve you and your peers over the next several decades? How concerned in general are you about the future of the medium in which you practice? Does that change how long you might think you can stick around?
FORD: Well, this is the big question, isn't it? You had actually mentioned in your BCGF recap something about talking to a younger cartoonist about figuring out their career in light of the new financial realities of the comics world and maybe the larger publishing world, too. And I was like, "Oh boy, I wish I'd been a fly on the wall for that one." It's a huge question for all of us, I think.
For me personally, I still feel like I'm not really good enough to be making a lot of money in comics. I feel very much like I'm paying my dues and trying to get better. One way I try to keep going is to have this idea in my head that if I get out the work I want to do and keep improving, maybe I get to the point where someone wants to do a book deal with me that actually allows me to take time off from other stuff and focus only on comics. That would be the dream. And it's a huge frustration and a potential staring into the abyss of despair type thing to feel sometimes like I could be doing that work, that work to get where I need to be, much faster if I didn't have a day job taking up the majority of my time and energy. It's a delicate balance of lying to myself enough to keep going and trying to be realistic about where I am in the foodchain, I guess.
To be honest, I spent a great deal of my 20s feeling completely frustrated and unsure where I fit in the world. I feel like I fit in the comics world, or at least I want to fit there, so I feel like my 30s will be more about figuring out how to devote as much time as possible to that pursuit and seeing where I can go with the work. So, while I don't want it to sound like I'm just happy to be here, I do think the more important thing in my mind is being able to push myself with the work and try to tell and draw the types of stories I think I am capable of. I like the challenge. I spent a lot of my early life being very bored and unengaged and comics is one of the few things I don't feel that way about. They're something that constantly humbles you and constantly challenges you. I think I would be okay if in twenty years I look back and I always had to have a day job to support my comics, but I got to the point where I made something that I felt really proud of and that clicked and worked and was a really successful story. I mean, I'd like to have a few of those. And while it'd certainly be easier to make them if I had an ability to work solely on comics... I guess I've come to terms with having to have a day job.
I think other cartoonists around my age might be better at figuring out avenues to create their own revenue streams in comics or something. There are certainly plenty with Kickstarter, the ability to sell your stuff online, all the shows you can make money at if you can get and stay there cheaply, and it seems like some people are able to parlay comics success into illustration jobs and stuff. But honestly I'm pretty dumb with money and I just don't know that I've figured out how to do that yet. I think it will be something I think about over the next few years as I work on my next book. But I think it is more important to me at this stage to feel like the work is really there and good and worthwhile. I think that's my focus more than the money. I think it is an important question for all of us and my ears certainly perk up when hearing about the state of comics and more broadly the state of publishing -- which is where my day job is, doing book design -- and I always feel really engaged in that discussion, without really feeling like I'm there yet.
All that said -- and that was a lot, sorry -- I think the medium itself is stronger than it's ever been. And there's been this sort of healthy-seeming realization by a lot of creators lately that they shouldn't enslave themselves to DC or Marvel and they should make work with Image and hold onto their rights or maybe they do a book with Pantheon. Or maybe do a book with Secret Acres or Koyama and try to help self-promote it and sell it that way. There are so many options now and the work is so generally strong across the board that I think comics is alive and well. I think it's just more an issue of figuring out when you're at the point of your career when you can take a sort of leap and support yourself solely through comics. I don't know that that will be possible for everyone. And that's probably okay. But the entry-level into the field or into the discussion is lower -- because of the internet and all these shows and I think that's what I meant before about there being a lot of really interesting work finding it's way into the comics world.
* stand-alone horror image I think from an art show earlier this Fall
* Ford at this year's SPX
* Ford "covers" Claremont-Byrne era X-Men
* an Only Skin image I liked, swiped from Ford's site
* Ford's class at CCS
* a pair of woods-oriented Only Skin images
* the cover to the Secret Acres edition
* a cover for Sundays
* I'm not exactly sure what this is, but it's a nice summary image for Only Skin (below)
* this is a major story, at least from a digital publishing perspective. Andrews McMeel + comiXology = Giant + Giant. It looks like I'm going to have to go last on that one, but I certainly want you to go look at the story as reported elsewhere now.
* this, on the other hand, is a deplorable story, even for one that operates at the far ends of the fan entitlement and anonymous asshole cultures that are a big part of the 21st Century. I hope instead of a flash of anger including this part of this post that someone finds the sustained fury to deliberately track down and pursue action against as many stupid people as possible here.
* this is as good a post from a creator previewing a new book as I've seen -- clear, to the point, art up front, super-attractive.
* Sam Costello on the departure from Vertigo this March of Karen Berger. It's a thoughtful piece, although I personally think the fact that high-end alt-publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly were publishing graphic novels and other comics for adults is worth more time in contextualizing Vertigo's achievements than a "to be fair"-type aside might offer that discussion. It's a tough call, though, because for a lot of Vertigo readers, those books really did exist in something of a vacuum.
* it's always a good thing when the writer Matt Fraction posts about process, like this one about the throwaway pages at the front of old Master Of Kung Fu and how they helped orient him towards working with 20-page comics stories in Hawkeye.
Scott Snyder is the breakout writing star of DC Comics' Fall 2011 New 52 initiative. His work on Batman won readers over in an old-fashioned way that's almost completely absent from the mainstream comics world of the last quarter-century: given dozens of choices for comics behind which to throw their enthusiasm, DC's fans chose Snyder's work with Greg Capullo on Batman. For all the opportunities now coming his way, including the writing gig on a Superman-related effort with artist Jim Lee sure to be a sales highlight for 2013, Snyder is a relative babe in the woods in terms of the number of comics he's penned and the amount of time between when he started toiling in the monthly comics field and experiencing the surge of attention he's now received. Among his other key titles are the American Vampire series and one of the other New 52 efforts, the Swamp Thing relaunch. He'll soon depart the latter.
I think Snyder's skills are best seen in the well-received Batman work. As we discuss below -- and as critic J. Caleb Mozzocco and I will hopefully mull over in a future installment of this series -- I see Snyder's greatest strength as a skill for extremely deliberate pacing married to an offbeat sense of psychological insight into these characters. I think the former solves the problem of perceived value in that every one of Snyder's comics feels like something important is happening. I think the latter keeps that the material just fresh enough for another walk through these characters' primary stories. I enjoyed our brief discussion, transcribed below, and I hope to continue it in 2013. I have a lot of additional questions. I wish Scott all the best with the opportunities beginning to come his way. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: I'm very excited to talk to you because I don't know that I've ever talked to someone in your exact position: where you're the guy in comics that's kind of coming on gangbusters, and people are really responding to your work. I wonder, do you have the chance to step back and appreciate that people are responding so positively? Is it fun?
SCOTT SNYDER: Yeah. It doesn't get old. It's definitely been a bit overwhelming, though, honestly. The work is on these characters you grew up loving. My kid goes around wearing a Batman t-shirt, and you go to the store and you see guys with Superman stuff on. So for me, you try and block a lot of that out, because it gets intimidating and paralyzing. When I first got the job to write Batman, my wife will tell you I was so terrified that the night before I really got to start writing I was like, "Maybe I should just call in sick all year." [Spurgeon laughs] Because the characters mean so much to you throughout your life that it can be crippling. So I try to block out a lot of the response.
I definitely go on Twitter and stuff like that right around the launch of each issue and try to promote it. And I get a glimpse of what people are saying, but you have to sort of put on horse blinders a bit, or it becomes pretty paralyzing, because you get overwhelmed by how much the fans love the characters themselves outside of the stories. It can be really hard to do your own versions and your own story and take it to a place where you can push the characters when you see how globally important they are to people.
SPURGEON: Is there any concern about people wanting to get to you as well? I have to imagine there are at least some professional opportunities that arise, and that more people want you to do things. How do you manage that sort of professional development side when you have a surge of interest like this?
SNYDER: [laughs] Poorly, I think, right now. My friends tease me -- I talk to guys that are sort of the generation above me that I'm friendly with, which is an honor, like Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka, and guys like that. And they're sort of like, "Who's your agent?" And I say, "I don't have one." I had a literary agent when I was in the book world I'm close with, but in terms of branching out of comics or doing something like that, as sort of naive and silly as it sounds, I'm not really looking for it right now. I really love doing this. I have a good bunch of stories I really want to do, both on Batman and on Superman and with American Vampire. My writing schedule is sort of so full for the next couple of years, I've kept my head down and stayed really involved with this. They're all making fun of me, so maybe in a year I'll talk to you again and I'll be more savvy about it, but right now I'm sort of overjoyed to be doing what I'm doing.
SPURGEON: You're very early on in terms of the years you've been doing this and the number of comics that you've done. I wonder if there's still a significant learning curve, if there are still things you find yourself kind of scrambling to know. Are you confident in your skill set? Or are there still things you feel like, "I'd like to figure that out." Is there still an educational process for you?
SNYDER: Oh, 100 percent. Believe me, my friends tease me that I've become the least well-rounded person in the world. [Spurgeon laughs] I let my subscription to The New Yorker lapse by mistake. I let my subscription to the Times lapse. I read comics all the time. I've always loved comics and always read them religiously, but the reason I've been reading them so religiously lately is because there are so many good writers out there right now at DC and Marvel and I absolutely feel I have a lot to learn.
I read stuff like... well, like Geoff Johns' Aquaman. Geoff and I have become good friends over the last couple of years. Which is something I feel great about, I came up reading him and admiring him tremendously. But the way he approaches story and the way I approach story are really different, even though we meet in the same place and our priorities are the same about character and making sure the story really means something. But in terms of the priorities as we're writing, sometimes we come at it a little differently. There are things he does in a story that I am in awe of all of the time, in terms of the plotting, in terms of the moments he's able to create, in terms of the pacing. I read those issues and think, "I've got to become better at this." I want to be able to achieve the same effect he does at times.
Then there are other writers like Jason Aaron or Jeff Lemire, who have completely different skill sets when it comes to plotting these really big, ambitious arcs with the slow burn, emotionally. I read that, this longform storytelling not in terms of the plot but in terms of these simmering emotions, and I'm like, "I wish I were better at this." So I have certain elements in my skill set I'm very confident about, and proud of, but in terms of thinking I'm there, where I want to be, I think the moment you think that you start to slip, and I genuinely feel I have a lot to learn in my writing. Hopefully things get better.
SPURGEON: Now do you have those conversations with you peers, and with those in the previous generation? Do you access them as kind of coaches and advice-givers?
SNYDER: Definitely. I literally was on the phone with Geoff Johns two nights ago and telling him about the next story we're doing in Batman and asking his advice on certain beats in it. Do you think this is something that's too bombastic? Do you think this is something that will sink the first part of the story because it's too dark? If Batman loses in this part, do you think in some way that will set a bad tone for the second part? Stuff like that. And like certain friends I've come up with, like Jeff Lemire for example, I trade everything with. We go back and forth pretty much every day. Then there are guys coming up beneath me. Like James Tynion, who's writing Talon with me, who is a former student of mine, I do the same thing with him. I help him with his stuff, but he also helps me in terms of being a great idea guy and a story repairman in a lot of ways, too. So you have friends that are incredibly important to you as a writer.
For me, it's not that you can't do it completely alone. If you were alone on an island and you had to write a Batman story, it's not like it wouldn't be something you're proud of. For me the real extra layers, the extra richness that come in anything I do, if there is an extra layer, comes from those conversations with friends, or having another set of eyes looking at it. So I'm a really big advocate of if you have friends, not just going to school for writing or anything like that, but having gone to school for writing clinging to people you trust to read your work. If you have a friend that you think gives you good advice, there's nothing more valuable than keeping that free flow of ideas going back and forth. For me, it's a real lifeline.
SPURGEON: Reading a bunch of your work at once, it seems to me that one thing you do really well in terms of your pacing is boil things down to very specific story beats, and then hit them really hard. It's not the old model, or even the thing you were talking about with a long-simmering element. It seems like your comics stress very strong moments, and that as a result you can kind of mark issue to issue in terms of "This happened then this happened then this happened." I think in a way it flatters the way comics work right now. Is that a storytelling goal of yours, to hit those beats really hard, to hit certain moments very hard. Is that something you try to do?
SNYDER: I think there are two priorities for me in each comic. The way that I design the story is to first figure out -- I'm a big planner. A good friend of mine in the prose writing world, if he knows the end of the story he's writing, he can't write it. It's really boring to him. He has to figure it out as he goes. And I'm 180 degrees from that. I need to know everything about the beginning and the end, and what it means, and a couple of major beats along the way. The rest I enjoy figuring out and that's my time to explore.
I try and figure out what's most exciting to me about the character I'm working on in their trajectory. We just finished the big Court of Owls story; Batman relied on the family heavily for that. It's interesting for me to think of the idea that whether or not he wants to admit it, he's become used to getting help from them. So I try to think, "Why is that interesting to me? What nerve does that hit?" I think to myself, "I have two sons, my second son is over a year old." When I started thinking of the story he was just born. For me the reason I think it hits a nerve, is because once you have family, or people you're responsible for, as a father or a father figure, you're almost never safe from the world. No matter how closed off you are, no matter how emotionally protective you are, there's no way to protect them or protect yourself from hurting when they're hurt. Once I had that I knew that the Joker's the guy to hear you think that, and be the devil's tongue in your ear and say, "I heard you say that you wish that you didn't have to worry about them anymore." And you say, "No, I didn't say that." "Yes you did, you don't want to admit it. You don't want to admit that you just wish they were dead and you could just go back to playing with me." I knew that that was it, that's what the story is about.
You can get some curveballs in comics. Sometimes things pop up that you have to include in your comics. Sometimes things get shortened because of schedules. To me the most important thing is knowing the thing that it's about. You can put characters in they need you to put in, you can change things, as long as you have that north star.
So with each comic -- sorry this is such a rambling answer -- the priority for the comic is to make sure that every issue pushes that emotional arc forward, that thing that it's about. So every issue of Batman with the Joker is about pushing Batman closer and closer to admitting that as long as the family exists he will never be safe. And having to admit that there's a part of himself that has mixed feelings about that. It's the toughest thing to admit. It doesn't mean you want your family dead. It doesn't mean you wish you never had them. They're the greatest joy of your life, when you're a father in real life. It does mean for Batman admitting something he doesn't want to and pushing him closer. So I make sure that every issue has a big moment like that, and that it's the most important thing in every issue. It means something. Each issue has a beat that ratchets that conflict up.
And then the second part, like you're saying, is every issue I really want to have significant plot moments that push the story closer to the kind of final conflict between Bruce and Joker on this particular issue. This particular issue -- not the issue of a comic, but whether or not he wants the family around. Those are the twin priorities with it. For me the plot, the moments, the big moments, as fun as they are, all come out of the emotional stuff. The plot moment's only good if it ratchets that up, but I try to keep my eye on that, too, so it's not just all Bruce being pushed emotionally, but that there are big movement, the wheels turn in the story in a way that pushes the plot forward.
I hope that makes sense.
The last thing I'll say is that I try to go back and make sure that there's at least one fun moment of Batman either technology or badassery. [Spurgeon laughs] One thing I feel you can lose sight of when you're doing stories that are personal, or are dark, is the joy of watching Batman kick ass in some regard. So I try to have something like, "Look at that device he whipped out." Or "Look at how he just kicked that guy through a wall." Just something that is like "It's fun to read Batman." Because it's fun to write Batman.
SPURGEON: You were talking about American Vampire in an interview, and you mentioned how you could place your characters in different time periods where there were things going on with those characters, and that this change provided insight into what your psychological keys might be. People and situations change over time. It struck me that when you're talking about these commercial properties like Batman, they don't really develop over time, not in that same way. Are you worried that there's a limited canvas with these major properties, that they might not take an endless series of psychological insights being they are what they are?
SNYDER: Well, it depends if you mean for me personally as a writer, or if you mean culturally. Because culturally, Batman's already been around for 70-plus years, Superman's been around the same. So I'm not worried --
SPURGEON: But what about you personally? If it has to interest you, can you always come up with new material? Do you wonder if it will always stay as interesting to you as it is right now.
SNYDER: Yeah, I 100 percent do. I had this conversation the other day, literally, with Lemire. I was like right now I have stories in mind for Batman that take me through another almost two years of writing Batman. But the last thing I would ever want to do is stay on the character if I didn't have a story as exciting to me as the Joker story is, or the one coming up afterward. The one coming out afterward I can't talk about openly, but it's another big, nine-issue, epic story. So in that way, if I don't have one of those lined up, or I can't think of one that means as much to me personally as these, I will happily walk away from the character. In a moment. That's one thing I swear to everybody. Batman means too much to me -- and Superman and Swamp Thing, too -- to stay on the character once I don't have a story that's important to me personally. I do worry about it. But luckily right now I have plenty on my plate.
SPURGEON: Here's a place where you and I might not connect. What is the personal significance that something like Batman has for you? You talk about the cultural significance of it, and there's certainly a psychological trigger these characters afford in terms of letting you access things that are important to your life. But the character itself, how is it important to you? Are characters like that just a means to a narrative end?
SNYDER: No. They have personal importance to me in different ways. Because they're such different characters they mean different things to me. Batman himself means a particular set of important things to me. I think in some ways as someone that struggles with dark times, psychologically at different points in my life, the idea that Batman is someone that has this incredibly complicated blend of self-destructive, obsessive mythology and ultimate heroism is endlessly inspiring and interesting. He clearly is someone who is one of the greatest if not the greatest self-sacrificing heroes ever. And yet at the same time there's something really pathological about the way he behaves. That sort of rich, complicated gray area is something that hits a nerve personally with me. That's someone that doesn't have powers and stands next to these god-like figures and through this incredible drive and determination is the one they look to for answers sometimes. But at what cost?
So he's always been someone for me, and this is something that comes up honestly in a big way in the next story we're dealing with, as someone who walks a fine line between obsession and mission, altruistic mission. There's no separating them without destroying the character. That's part of what's so wonderful about him, those things are intertwined, always, and that's why villains like the Joker are so potent and his rogues gallery is so potent is that they're all extensions of something he's psychologically afraid of in himself but won't admit. The crazy duality of his life in Two Face, or the fall into insanity if he fell into his cave and never was Bruce Wayne, the Joker, that fear that he's not good enough because part of him is human and fallible, in the Riddler, that he can't always be smart enough, he can't always know everything. In those ways, those villains have an incredibly resonant element to them, each one separately in an individuated way, because Bruce is flawed in a most heroic and interesting way of all of these characters. When you're growing up you like him for different reasons. He's cool, he has amazing cars and incredible gadgets and if only this girls knew I was a superhero... but I think when I try to explore for myself now writing him why he's interesting to me now, it's that. He's endlessly fascinating for the blend of pathology and heroism that makes him who he is. I think it makes him intimidating as well as a character.
I hope that makes sense.
Superman as a kid you live because of the powers and he's the strongest and he's the best. When I write him as an adult, you have to figure out what you've always loved about him to write the character. Me personally, not everybody, but I have to figure it out. I have to figure out what matters to me about them right now. It's an extension of this core thing. Each Batman story I have done is about this heroism versus pathology core that makes me interested in him. With the Court Of Owls, are you so obsessed with the notion that you know the city that you can't see the forest for the trees? What's going to happen when the city lets you know you don't know it at all?
With Superman for me it's really this notion of restraint. He's a superhero that in some ways can't do what he's capable of doing without becoming the villain. Meaning Superman could reshape the world however he wanted. He could take down countries. He could sculpt the political landscape however he wanted. But he looks to us to do that and serves a different mission. It's tremendously painful for him as well. As proud and as inspired as he is, I think the heroism comes from that restraint and how much he admires the human race. That's kind of at the core of the story we're doing with Superman. So for me I try to figure out what's at the core of the hero that's interesting to me. That doesn't mean that they're interesting to other people. That might not be the core of Batman for Frank Miller or Alan Moore. But you have to figure out where your interests are. Or I feel they're empty stories. That's not to say anyone needs to follow my example as far as how to proceed. That's just how I proceed. If I don't figure those things out and build a story out of that core material I don't feel it resonating for me, and I can't do it.
SPURGEON: I want to ask you about your educational background, which is fascinating to me.
SPURGEON: You have an undergraduate's degree in writing and a master's in same, which isn't really common in comics. A lot of the British writers in particular either didn't continue with school or dropped out at some point. Comics is dealing with the prejudices towards being educated in art right now as comics programs proliferate. More and more people are heading into prose writing programs with the thought of doing comics as well. I assume your education had value to you, and provides the core of your skills. You still teach. I wonder if you could talk about what your education as a writer has meant for you. I think it's something people still have a problem understanding. Why didn't you just start writing, Scott?
SNYDER: For me, there are two sides to it. There's why it was really important to me in the classes as a student, and then why it's really important for me to keep with it as a teacher even though I'm completely an idiot for doing it, time-wise. I just signed up to do it again next semester at Sarah Lawrence, teach a comics-writing class in their graduate program. I don't know why. I mean I know why.
SNYDER: As a student, I think first, the reason it was so important to me is that I wanted to be around other people that were excited about the same things that I was. I wanted to be around people that were inspired by writing and by stories the way I was with Stephen King and all these stories I found as a kid in high school. That wanted to talk about these things, and explore them. I didn't know where to find that until I started taking classes. As soon as I got to college, one of the reasons I picked Brown was that it had a creative writing major, and it was close to the Rhode Island School Of Design. I had this fantasy I would go there and take art classes and do a comic where I was writing it and drawing it. I wasn't bad, honestly, as an artist. I had a portfolio. [Spurgeon laughs] I don't think I was good enough. I was disappointed because the schedule there made it hard to take classes at both at the same time. There was a trimester program and a semester program.
The point is when I got to college and I started taking writing classes, it was so inspiring in that regard. You found people that had grown up feeling the same way, loving comics or loving books or being interested in playwriting. Storytelling. Finding people that were in love with story the same way. Finding writers you could show your stuff to and trust editorially. Having that same camaraderie. To this day two of my closest friends that I show things to are from my college writing workshop.
I felt like I was getting so much better, too. You're in an environment where the other really important part of taking a class if you can -- and not everybody needs to go to school for this at all -- but the benefit of why it was helpful to me is that if you have a deadlline to turn something in every week it trains you not to be so precious about your writing. That's one of the the keys to me of becoming a writer. I tell that to all my students. You can't be afraid of writing something shitty. That's the excuse. You say, "I'm going to wait until I'm inspired." Or "I'm not going to do it today." The talent isn't as uncommon as you might think, in my opinion. I've seen people go from not being that good, honestly, at least what I thought of them in class as a peer, to being phenomenal because of hard work. You can learn how to write as a trade. That doesn't mean everyone has that capacity. But most people have the capacity to write within the skill level necessary to write professionally -- to some degree, if they're willing to put in the time.
The thing I think people don't take seriously with writing a lot of the time is that you have to train -- at least I did -- the way you train for most careers. Where you're writing every day. If you're going to school for medicine, you're in that field every day. That takes sacrifices as you get older. You're not the guy going to your high school reunion with a secure job. You're the guy going there tutoring and waiting tables and working at Starbucks because you're trying to write.
I graduated from college with a degree in it, and I went to grad school for it. It was really for the same thing. It was just that it keeps you on deadline, it trains you to prioritize your day, and it gives you space to do it if you can. For me it was sort of like, "This is your job." You're writing. You're not going to an office. It was about learning to write from 9 to 4. This is my job. I'm not doing that, with this on the side.
As a teacher, the thing that's so important at least for me is the values I learned in that environment as a student and in writing classes is that there are no parameters of what you can write and what you can't. You could go into that class and you can hand in anything you wanted. There was no directive: "You have to write about this." The priority was to write a story you can come in and feel proud of. I had some great teachers that said I could write whatever I wanted as long as I was happy with it. The rule of the class I teach, when I was teaching prose, now that I'm teaching comics, it's the same thing: you can only write the story you want to pick up and read more than any other one right now. It doesn't have to be the smartest, it doesn't have to be the best. It can be anything you want. It has to be something you're passionate about.
When I teach, even at the level where I'm at now in comics, where the stories I'm writing have a lot of pressure on them and they're tied into these iconic characters and you have a lot of people looking at them, when you tell students that and you see how brave they are about coming back with stories that are intensely personal about traumatic events in their lives, and other times incredibly whimsical and experimental, but still brave for being that, you go home and you think, "What an asshole I would be if I didn't follow the same rule, and write the next story for Batman or Superman or my own stuff that's the one I'd like to read even if it's not the smartest or the best." It keeps me young as a writer to be a teacher. And inspired. It keeps you hungry -- at least for me it does. It's also a great place to meet people that maybe one day you'll be able to bring into the industry, if they keep up with it and are serious about it. The guy I"m writing Talon with, James Tynion, he does the back-ups in Batman, he was a student of mine at Sarah Lawrence. He kept sending scripts and kept writing, and when there was an opportunity to bring someone in on the back-up, I thought it'd be a great chance.
For me it's a really important part of my writing background. It keeps me on the straight and narrow to be able to go in and tell the students, "These are the priorities of the class." And to come home and apply those priorities to my own writing.
* Batman image from the initial run with the character in the New 52 initiative
* three different scenes from Snyder's Batman comics, or I hope that's what they are; the third is the Batman "family" he refers to -- characters that have been trained by or inspired by Batman that help him out from time to time and kind of operate in his sphere of influence
* a dialogued scene from American Vampire
* Batman: the character
* a panel from his Swamp Thing run
* Batman doesn't want to hear it (below)
* my thanks to Alex Segura and Pamela Mullin for setting this up
* the retailer Mike Sterling writes about the difficulties of ordering comics with all of these variant and bonus covers. He doesn't sound bitter or angry or anything, but I sure wouldn't want that job.
* Sean Howe's tumblr in support of his Marvel book has been pretty consistently great in terms of digging stuff up that's both familiar yet hasn't been seen in quite that form. Like I know this cover, I bought that comic for $2 at a flea market in northern Indiana, but I haven't seen the process steps that are included here.
* Abhay Khosla suggests that audience expectations maybe don't need to be lectured away.
Alison Bechdel released her second acclaimed memoir this year, Are You My Mother?, a delicate, layered portrayal of mother-daughter dynamics, the voids created when two people don't always connect and the pervasive influence of art as a way to deal with as much of the resulting hurt as humanly possible. It can be read both as a bookend work to Bechdel's phenomenally successful Fun Home and as a stand-alone volume. Bechdel's book is as narratively complex as any comic I've read in a long time, triply so for the fact that Bechdel has a tremendously wide-ranging audience, many of whom are not fully soaked in various comics formalities. I saw the Guggenheim Fellow this summer at Comic-Con International; she was the first cartoonist I asked to participate in this year's holiday series. I'm grateful that she agreed. We spoke just a few days ago. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: These book roll-outs seem endless now. Do you feel like you've been putting Are You My Mother? out there for months and months at this point?
ALISON BECHDEL: Yes. My year was kind of turned over to it, in a way.
SPURGEON: Do you know why that is that the promotional periods are extended now? Is it that there are so many different opportunities to do media now? Is it that everyone wants to see you? Are there more events?
BECHDEL: I guess it's so important to promote a book that you need to do as much as you can. Everybody's competing with so many things, entertainment-wise. [laughs] I think of people like Virginia Woolf, you know, that she would ever go on an author tour. [Spurgeon laughs] People just didn't used to do this. It's not just comics. It's the whole publishing landscape. People just have to flog their stuff intensely.
When I was doing my comic strip, I would work for two years compiling enough episodes to put together a collection, and then I would go out for a month, a brief publicity tour. I got used to that rhythm, and it sort of made sense. Like okay, yeah, I can go out and articulate a little more carefully what it is I'm doing, connect with people personally. That made sense to do. It's just on a different scale now that my work is being read by a bigger audience. It's a trade-off I'm happy to make. [laughs] I'd much rather be selling stuff than not selling stuff. But it is quite draining. And it's keeping me from work. I haven't been able to start a new project all year.
SPURGEON: Are you strong-willed about curating this period?
BECHDEL: I'm starting to get a little more discriminating, but until recently I just have done whatever anyone wanted me to do. That's how it goes. You have to do that to a certain point. But then the things that people want you to do get out of control and unreasonable and you have to start to say no.
SPURGEON: Is there an unreasonable request you can share?
BECHDEL: None of them are unreasonable on their own... it's the collective force of them. I often get asked to come to comics events in Europe. That's really amazing, but I don't have time to do that. You know? They're paying my way, but I would lose a week of work. [laughs] This is the most annoying thing; nobody wants to hear about how you're getting invited to Europe too often! [laughter] I just find it really stressful. I hate to disappoint people. It's great that they want me to come. I don't know how to say yes to everyone. It's impossible.
SPURGEON: That makes me wonder: what is your penetration into non-English language markets? I'm not sure I know how your work has been published overseas.
BECHDEL: Well... a lot. It started with Dykes To Watch Out For, just a few languages: German, French. But Fun Home was pretty widely translated, I lost track of the numbers. But pretty crazy stuff like China, Korea.
SPURGEON: Do you hear back from readers in those markets? Are the reactions different? I'm kind of at a loss to think right off the top of my head how different cultures might process your work, or if there would be a discernible difference. Your work is very observationally specific.
BECHDEL: I'll get letters from readers in Brazil and Sweden, all these places, and they say the same thing I hear from US readers: that it moved them, or they connected with something, somehow.
SPURGEON:Are You My Mother? is constructed in a really, really complex fashion. When I started to think about what interested me about your book, that's what I kept coming back to. I don't know how on earth, just in practical terms, you put this together. Even in the first section, there are five major beginnings any one of which could probably carry an entire book. And you have multiple threads throughout the work, and this kind of ease in moving back and forth between them that's wholly impressive to watch. How did you keep track of all the different through-lines that you employed?
BECHDEL: [laughs] It's a really crazy book. I'll go in there looking for a certain page, for some reason or another, and I can't even find it. There's no chronological order to it. What is the principle? The principle is... [laughs] I can't tell you, Tom. It's been sort of interesting over the course of this year talking about the work with different people with different contexts. At first I thought, "I didn't pull everything together here; this book doesn't make any sense." [laughs] But I'm starting to feel more okay about that. Maybe it is a more experimental, enormously complex book that's not going to have a straight-forward through-line or narrative. And I think that's okay.
SPURGEON: I think it's a strength of the book, but it is this assault of different time periods, different thematic points and developments. I was never lost, but it seems to me the making of it must have been insanely difficult.
BECHDEL: It was insanely difficult. It was really... nauseating at times, steeping myself so deeply and protractedly in the inner workings of my life. Reading old diary entries for hours and hours and hours, trying to correspond different events in my life based on these archives I had, like my diary or my mother's letters or my father's letters. I had all of this material from different points in time.
I realized when I was working that this is what our unconscious is like. There's no chronology in our unconscious. Everything is jumbled in there simultaneously. Every moment that we're living and having experiences, we're bringing to bear all of the other experiences that we've had. This is what is exciting to me about graphic narrative, that you're able to do a layered complexity that I couldn't imagine doing with just writing. Great writers can do it with text alone, but I couldn't. I feel that because I'm able to use visual storytelling, I can push how complex the ideas are that I'm trying to talk about.
SPURGEON: There are visual signifiers that lets us know where you are; we can figure out by the look of different things, and even the formal arrangements. Were you just kind of feeling your way through it, then, or was there a right-brain puzzle aspect to this?
BECHDEL: It was very much a right-brain puzzle. If it had just been me writing down this as stream of consciousness, it would have taken a year instead of seven years. A lot of it was going back and reworking stuff, trying to find the narrative threads that I believed were there. That's what I love about writing memoir, dealing with actual lives and things that really happened as opposed to making stuff up. You have this constraint you're always pushing up against: what really happened. You can't add stuff to make a nicer story. I was working hard to find a narrative that I believed was there. I'm not sure I actually succeeded [laughs] but that's what drove me.
SPURGEON: When you talk about constraints, it reminds me of your strip cartoonist background, in that a strip cartoonist is heavily defined by the formal constraints of that avenue for publishing. I think that makes transitioning into longer works tougher for some strip cartoonists because there's something terrifying about a blank page that can in effect be anything.
BECHDEL: Oh, my God. I totally had that problem when I started Fun Home after having done a strip for 20 years. I loved the constraints. It was only when I learned that there are new, different kinds of constraints [laughter] with a longer form that I was able to really grapple with it. Chapters. Things having to show up on a left-hand page. Page layout. There are all these other things you have to start attending to, which I didn't have to when I was just trying to fill those little boxes.
SPURGEON: If you think about it in those terms, this work is kind of loaded with such constraints. You have rigid chapters, a recurring dream motif, and there are elements of formal play on the page that repeat... it seems like you were kind of finding your way through all of this in terms of comics structures, or that they were at least a help to you.
BECHDEL: Yeah. There's very much an architecture. It's not capricious at all.
SPURGEON: Do you feel like now you want to break out of that? In fact, with the book itself, did you worry about it not being spontaneous?
BECHDEL: Very much, especially because I wasn't actually drawing it for such a long time. I felt my drawing ability atrophying. I'd do a few sketches here and there, but for a couple of years I didn't even do any drawing on this. I know that's terrible, and that I shouldn't admit that. It felt a little overly-cerebral and I very much want to do something where there's more physical drawing from the beginning. I hope that my next project will be like that.
SPURGEON: You thanked your editor at the end of this book. Was that the stage at which your work with the editor becomes the most important, that writing part of it?
BECHDEL: Yeah. I have this great editor that I worked with on Fun Home and on this book. So we've gotten into a routine about it. She's able to read my layouts, with descriptions of what the panels are going to show, but they don't necessarily have any sketches there. She can edit based on that.
SPURGEON: You've mentioned Fun Home a couple of times, and I have to imagine that lends a completely different level of complexity to this project, knowing that it will be released in Fun Home's shadow -- or that it will at least come out after such a well-received work. Fun Home is also a work that's still fresh in people's memories; I think it's stayed pretty front and center in terms of works released in the last half-decade. Was there fear in doing something like Are You My Mother? as a follow-up?
BECHDEL: There was intense fear. It was difficult working in the shadow of that book, which was so strangely successful. I wasn't expecting that. I spent a lot of time in my life adjusting to being a successful cartoonist who was considered part of the mainstream after a career in the shadows. That was kind of traumatic. I didn't want to repeat Fun Home. I felt like I had to push myself, to do something different and more complex. Actually, I don't know if I was conscious of doing something more complex. I wanted to do something different. I was very anxious...
I'm sorry, Tom, I'm sort of blithering.
SPURGEON: No, this is great!
BECHDEL: Even though I was working with this knowledge that I'm in the shadow of this work that people like, it was mostly the weight of expectation that was daunting. When I was working on Fun Home, no one knew I was doing it. There was no pressure, zero pressure. With this book, I knew that people were waiting for it. I had already sold it. [laughs] So there's financial pressure. But knowing that there was an audience waiting for this book was very inhibiting.
SPURGEON: You were pretty honest in the book about certain financial pressures you've felt at different times. Did that shape the book at all, did you feel like you had to do a memoir because that's what's expected of you, or that you had to do one now to take advantage of the timing? Did the commercial interests intrude into the creative in any small way?
BECHDEL: Gosh, that's a good question. In terms of the genre, I don't think it changed anything. I wanted to continue working in memoir. Autobiographical stuff. [pause] The thing is, I sold this project very early. I hardly had anything; I basically wrote a proposal for it. It changed a lot after that point. I didn't really feel a lot of financial pressure to make it into something because I had already sold it. [laughs] No one was going to be "You should steer away from this; this isn't going to sell." They seemed happy to publish whatever I did. That being said, there was a kind of wish I had taken a little more time conceptualizing the book. I did it in a big rush because I did need the money. And maybe part of what was difficult about the project was getting out from under this proposal I had written, which was very different than what I ended up doing.
SPURGEON: How different?
BECHDEL: I don't know. Not that different. The proposal -- god, that's so boring I don't want to talk about it anymore. [laughter] It really wasn't that different.
SPURGEON: The other complexity question I had is that given the book has this multi-layered construction, and given you know that you have a number of readers that probably aren't reading a lot of comics, is there a desire when you're executing it on the page to keep it more rock-solid? It seems like you allow the pages to be very straight-forward, and have some very conventional storytelling beats, even as the story itself grows more complex. You use a lot of words, for example, both as a visual tool and to get at key points of the narrative. Are those things that you depend on in terms of making things clear? How concerned were you generally with clarity?
BECHDEL: That's part of it. I like a clear grid. I admire people who do incredible page layouts, but the other part of it is that I'm not that good at design. [laughs] It's easier for me to stick with the standard page layouts. I did a little pushing out of the boundaries with this book. With Fun Home, there was only one page spread that had a bleed, otherwise it was just standard grids. In this book I did a little more with bleeds and with black areas.
SPURGEON: A couple of the specific solutions you used intrigued me. The highlighting of text?
SPURGEON: How did you stumble across that and what did that do for you?
BECHDEL: I went through a number of different techniques with that. I knew from the outset I wanted to include quotations from books like I had in Fun Home, but also the quotes in context. I love books, and typesetting. I thought it important that if I was conveying these people's ideas through quotation I should show it in the actual font and leading: the page I read it on. Then I had to find a way to highlight specific passages I was quoting. At first I did that [laughs] -- all these complicated things. I used a gray wash over the text. Then the red color highlighting the passage I wanted to read. But they were kind of illegible. Then it was highlighting the passage in the red color and then erasing the highlights, the parts I wanted people to read. I thought it worked pretty well.
SPURGEON: I thought it was effective, and it's not something I've seen people do.
BECHDEL: I felt a little weird about it, because I was doing the deleting of color with a graphic tablet. I use a graphic table for corrections and things, but I don't really draw with it. In this case I felt I was making a lot of lines with the graphic tablet, which was new. It's not a part of my process.
SPURGEON: There are a few flourishes, some very definite employments of a visual motif. There's a page where you're talking to one of your doctors and above it you're describing your theological foundation --
BECHDEL: Oh yeah.
SPURGEON: -- and you use three visualizations of what you're saying. And it's very funny, these visual representations: God, the universe and God in the universe. I like the playfulness of it. I also wonder that given how much dialogue there is in the work, how much hinges on conversation, if you were extra careful to make sure there was some visual interest on the page. I wonder if that was an example of that impulse, perhaps.
BECHDEL: [laughs] That particular passage is so effective and so good I can't help but think I ripped it off from somebody. [Spurgeon laughs] I kept wondering where I had seen it. No one has accused me of this yet, so maybe it's my own idea. When I was writing that scene and that particular therapy passage, I had all of these notes from my time in therapy during my 20s, [when] this really powerful stuff happened. I was trying to map this out into panels. I realized very early on it was deadly. Nothing's really happening. It's the same people on the same chairs. The real action, even if it's in what we're saying to one another, you can't really see it. It's difficult to tell a visual story about something that's completely not visual. I kept compressing things down until this one scene was a one-page spread, even though the sessions went over the course of a year. The whole cosmology discussion became three panels.
SPURGEON: You employ a few silhouettes and some black backgrounds in dramatic moments; is that an important desire of yours, to use the blacks to stop the eye or to isolate an image on the page? Like when the mirror falls on you, the eye just stops on the strong black-and-white panel you did. Were you conscious of the power of the blacks you use that way?
BECHDEL: Uh... yes. [laughter] There were certain emotional beats in the text that I really wanted to make sure people felt. I was trying to do something visually arresting on that page. There's one page of the book where there's no line, it's all done in color. There's no line art. That was an important moment. On another I'm doing this Winnie The Pooh analysis; that page bleeds red. It's a way of accentuating a particular idea or emotional point.
SPURGEON: Are you conscious of how the eye moves, and manipulating that sense of time?
BECHDEL: I'm just trying to get people to read stuff in the order I want them to experience it. I'm not always as effective at that as I'd like to be. I'm not thinking compositionally like Jaime Hernandez in terms of where my blacks take the eye on the page. I don't have that kind of graphic skill. Or with the whites, for that matter. He's a master of whites.
SPURGEON: I do think your use of blacks has a significant impact. The conclusion, for example, there's a black backdrop, followed by dropping the borders altogether followed by an isolated panel. It's very attractive, but it also lends weight to the moment, and frames what we're seeing. Did you struggle with the ending given how much you have going on in the book? Or did the ending come to you earlier, making the struggle more in how to get there?
BECHDEL: The ending came to me... I both worked at it and it came to me. It wasn't at the end of the process. I still had stuff I had to go back and tie up. There was a certain point where I realized where it was all going. That was a great relief. It still took a lot of rejiggering and making it fit. The blacks... each chapter is encased in black. The unconscious surrounds each chapter. I like looking at the book sideways and seeing these little demarcations.
SPURGEON: You've talked about wanting to do memoir, but was there ever any reluctance to work in that form that went along with that desire? You worked in fiction for so long. Was there a process to getting to where these reality-based works had more value to you? Was there any bias to overcome?
BECHDEL: In a way, I don't even think of Dykes To Watch Out For as fiction. It's not that it was autobiographical in any strict sense, but I was always trying to write about people who had lives like me and my friends. Almost like a non-fiction project, like I was reporting even though I was making it up. And over the years of doing Dykes To Watch Out For, I did start doing various little autobio experiments. I did an issue of Gay Comix in 1993 where I wrote a lot of stories about myself. That was really fun. I enjoyed that so much. That was sort of an awakening, that I wanted to do more of this. I realized that to do more of that meant telling this foundational story about my family -- my dad, his suicide and his closeted gayness. That took me a long time to figure out how to do. Once I did it I was like, "This is my medium. I love this."
I was invited to speak at a non-fiction conference at the University of Iowa's non-fiction program -- like a master's degree. And it was so cool. There was this thrill of recognition that I had felt when I was a young lesbian meeting other gay people. These are people that are writing about the actual world. These are my people.
SPURGEON: So you feel common ground with other memoirists.
BECHDEL: Oh, I do. I was very, very influenced by Robert and Aline [Crumb], by Harvey Pekar -- that was the stuff I was reading in my 20s, those formative years. And all the other autobiographical stuff that has spun off of them. Joe Matt, and Joe Sacco's autobiographical stuff. I've read it all. In fact, for a long time I thought that's what comics is -- people writing confessionals about their masturbation or pornography addiction.
SPURGEON: That sounds like the ad campaign we've all been waiting for, Alison. [laughter] "This Is Comics."
There's something that you say in the work, where you're talking about Dykes, and the changing context in which that work was received as more and more depictions of those kinds of lives became more settled into mainstream media. What struck me is that your shift is into another area that may be even more populated -- even cartoon memoirs of a book-length variety are popular now. Does creating a work where there's a lot of that kind of material out there, is that a hindrance? A boon? Is there a fashionable quality to these last two books that maybe benefited you? Do you worry about coming out on the other side of this trend?
BECHDEL: I've very much benefited from the trend of memoirs, and graphic novels, and graphic memoirs. The fact that those things are appealing to people for whatever reason has basically made my career. I don't feel like I was doing them for that reason. This is just the work I want to do. So I haven't thought about this as too many people doing it and -- I haven't thought about that. I will now, though. [laughter]
SPURGEON: There's a sense in the book that you do a little thinking about where you're heading. How it positions you. I wondered if you were the kind of person that might even push away from a certain kind of work because it's something you've done or something that's being done.
BECHDEL: I don't feel like I've made those kinds of calculations in my career. [laughs] I'm not that smart. I've always pretty much worked comfortably inside some existing format. With Dykes To Watch Out For I was doing this alternative weekly format. It was pushing boundaries in the sense of its content, but not in any other way. Even with Fun Home there were precedents for that kind of work.
The one thing I do feel committed to is that over the years I feel like I've become a little more formally adventurous. I do have some desire to push the boundaries of what comics can do. So far for me it's been -- what has it been? -- telling complicated stories, but having them still be situated in the world of comics. And for me that has meant not just telling stories about my life but bringing in this other material. Psychoanalysis. Virginia Woolf. That feels exciting, to push at what you can talk about comics. I haven't become ambitious until quite late in my career.
SPURGEON: The Donald Winnicott material in Are You My Mother?, that would seem to indicate you'd be very effective at biographical work. In fact, there are elements in your work that might indicate a number of potential paths for you. When we talked about Fun Home making an impression on what you might do next, it seems that now there are two books that might lead to a third. It also might free you up, though. Do you feel the freedom to go wherever you want now? Are you freer on this side of Are You My Mother? than you may have felt going into it?
BECHDEL: Yes. I do feel freer. And I'm committed to my next project being easier and lighter than the stuff I've been doing. I need a break. I miss doing humor. I get frightened talking about humor because I feel once I start talking about I'm not going to be able to do that. I have an idea for something that will still be autobiographical but also funny and light. As opposed to these searching family explorations.
SPURGEON: Do you ever feel the pressure to tamp down your humor? Maybe on this work in particular. There are a few funny moments, but I wonder if it's ever an impulse of yours to go heavy in that direction.
BECHDEL: No. I feel like Fun Home there was a lot of humor, but in this book about my mother there's not much humor at all. It goes with the territory of this difficult topic. I feel like I would like to do humorous stuff again.
* a panel featuring one of the many conversations in Are You My Mother?
* photo of Bechdel by me; I think that may be 2009
* one of the complicated page spreads in Are You My Mother?, with different visual references and employments of text
* one of the "flashback" sequences in Are You My Mother?
* a more standard page, but note the shifts in staging
* Bechdel's use of highlighted text
* that page with the funny three-panel description of Bechdel's view of God and the universe
* Winnicott and Woolf
* I just like this panel (below)
Go, Read: Cartoonist Matt Bors On Facebook Detectives, Journalistic Malfeasance And On-Line Culture
There's a fascinating story involving the talented cartoonist Matt Bors that's told by Bors here and through Michael Cavna here that is well worth your time if you spend as much energy invested in on-line social media that checking out this site indicates you might.
I don't have much to add but I of course believe there's a massive responsibility on all of us as journalists to back away from rushing stories out there. I also think there's an equally important task that falls to us as readers to read these stories as intended when there are qualifiers -- we're sophisticated enough to do this in the vast majority of cases, but we have to make that choice.
Billy Ireland moves into a massive new facility at the university in the Fall of 2013. McGurk has spearheaded the Dylan Williams Collection announced earlier this year, and has quickly become a key, public voice for the institution via its blog and by attending comics shows on the museum's behalf.
I'm going to be diving into this on a plane today, God willing, but don't let my inability to comment keep you from looking at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund annual report. I think this was a key year in an even more important 12-36 month swing period for the Fund as it becomes more entrenched into a certain mode and more of a formidable, multi-function institution within comics and the Free Speech advocacy community.
* I'm not sure how I feel about these Milo Manara covers featuring various Marvel heroines. I like the colors, and I think these are basically cheesecake-style characters that are flattered by cheesecake-style depictions -- even those featuring Manara's kind of odd, slightly-subhuman idealizations. I also think I sort of appreciate Marvel making their alternative covers the kind of thing I can conceivably see someone wanting just because they like the art involved. All that said, they're not for me.
Go, Read: Noah Van Sciver’s Sketchbook Comic About Traveling Back In Time To Mid-1990s Seattle
The cartoonist Noah Van Sciver started posting the following comic page by page to his Facebook page about a month ago or so. I thought it was funny and the Seattle setting was close enough to my heart -- I would arrive on the scene about six months after the period depicted here -- that I inquired about putting it up on my site on December 16. Mr. Van Sciver complied. I like the comic quite a bit. Page twelve may be the funniest scene in any comic featuring Gary Groth, and Groth has been depicted by some all-time cartooning talent.
In addition to exploring the site linked-to through his name in the first sentence of this introduction, you should try Noah's very fine comic from Fantagraphics, The Hypo.
thank you, Mr. Van Sciver; photo below of the cartoonist with some old guy by Jen Vaughn; see you all in the next year
1) Olaf G., A Life in Pictures, Fisk & Kverneland (Fantagraphics)
2) Sunny, Taiyo Matsumoto (Viz Media)
3) Genius, Steven T Seagle & Teddy Kristiansen (First Second)
4) Vapor, Max (Fantagraphics)
5) A Users Guide to Neglectful Parenting, Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly)
* So Long Silver Screen, Blutch (Picturebox)
* 3 New Stories, Dash Shaw (Fantagraphics)
* Sunny, Taiyo Matsumoto (Viz)
* Lose 5, Michael Deforge (Koyama)
* Nemo: Heart Of Ice, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (Top Shelf)
The top comics-related news stories from December 8 to December 14, 2012:
1. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund announces an advisory board.
2. Image makes a move to start adjusting its "you can count on us to do additional printings" policy with popular comics far enough along in their run that initial orders should better reflect the final orders.
3. Horrible news regarding the slaying of children in Connecticut sends North America's remaining editorial cartoonists scrambling to come up with some sort of response. This is, of course, a much bigger news story than it is a comics news story, but working with an issue like this one in the 24-hour-news-cycle world is an increasingly difficult task for this beleaguered profession.
Winner Of The Week
James Kochalka, for his lengthy run on American Elf, now nearing its conclusion.
Loser Of The Week This decision. I actually support the idea of finding value in artistic expression that has unpleasant elements to it, but denying those unpleasant elements seem the height of cultural arrogance to me.
Festivals Extra: New MoCCA Steering Committee, ‘13 Show Outline
The Society of Illustrators has announced its initial wave of plans for the 2013 MoCCA Arts Festival. I'm going to run the release in full here and then comment perhaps on Monday. I don't feel like waiting to get this information to you, but it's difficult to process things on a Friday afternoon.
Society of Illustrators Announces Plans For Inaugural MoCCA Arts Festival
NEW YORK, NY (December 14, 2012) - The Society of Illustrators is proud to increase the visibility of comics as a major component of its storied institutional mission by hosting the MoCCA Arts Festival on the weekend of April 6-7, 2013 at the 69th Regiment Armory in Manhattan. Beginning in 2013, the MoCCA Arts Festival will be one of the Society's signature public programs, with the mission of honoring the artists who are advancing the landscape of comics and illustration via a world-class festival emphasizing their achievements.
Anelle Miller, Executive Director of the Society of Illustrators, says, "It is a great privilege to welcome the incredibly dynamic creative community that exhibits at the MoCCA Arts Festival to the Society's rich heritage. For more than a century, our mission has been to promote the art of illustration, and to appreciate its history and evolving nature through exhibitions, lectures and education. We are elated to host the MoCCA Arts Festival as a key component of that mission, and to honor its artists with the high caliber of exhibitions and recognition that are the Society's trademark."
In addition to continuing the Festival's tradition of hosting an exhibit hall spotlighting comics' leading edge creators, the MoCCA Arts Festival will now include a variety of new programs directly benefiting the artist and audience communities attending the shows, including:
* Juried awards recognizing the best work at the Festival with medal winners being honored with an exhibit at the Society's headquarters, and finalists' work archived in Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library;
* A lavishly produced, large format souvenir journal that showcases the work of exhibiting artists;
* Discount entries for exhibiting artists in the Society's Annual competition;
* Curated programming emphasizing the artistic achievements of the Festival's creative community;
* An exhibition gallery of original comic and cartoon art curated by the Society's professional staff;
* An onsite café featuring a full bar and menu as well as a lounge for networking.
The 2013 MoCCA Arts Festival is hosted by the Society of Illustrators, under the guidance of a Steering Committee that includes: Anelle Miller, Kate Feirtag, and Katie Blocher from the Society, as well as Leon Avelino (Secret Acres), Charles Brownstein (Comic Book Legal Defense Fund), Karen Green (Columbia University), William Hatzichristos (CollectorZoo), Paul Levitz (Writer/ Educator), Barry Matthews (Secret Acres), and Tucker Stone (Bergen Street Comics).
In the weeks to come, the Society will release more details about the 2013 Festival, including naming guests of honor, featured guests, the Festival jury, and much more.
About the Museum of American Illustration at the Society of Illustrators:
The Society of Illustrators, founded in 1901, is the oldest nonprofit organization solely dedicated to the art and appreciation of illustration in America. Prominent Society members have been
Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell, among others. The Museum of American Illustration was established by the Society in 1981 and is located in the Society's vintage 1875 carriage house building in mid-town Manhattan. It is open to the public free of charge on Tuesday, 10 am-8 pm; Wednesday-Friday, 10 am-5 pm; and Saturday, 12-4 pm. To learn more about the Museum and the Society, visit www.societyillustrators.org or contact Executive Director Anelle Miller at 212-838-2560 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art
The museum's purpose has been the collection, preservation, study, education, and display of comic and cartoon art. Every genre of the art is represented: animation, anime, cartoons, comic books, comic strips, gag cartoons, humorous illustration, illustration, political illustration, editorial cartoons, caricature, graphic novels, sports cartoons, and computer-generated art. It is the mission of the museum to promote the understanding and appreciation of comic and cartoon art as well as to detail and discuss the artistic, cultural, and historical impact of what is the world's most popular art form.
My initial impression is that this sounds promising after some severe damage done to the show's reputation in recent years, at least as shared with me by the alt-comics community.
Bundled Extra: 2013 Oily Comics Subscriptions Now Available
They are being offered for the year 2013 until January 15. I've enjoyed the vast majority of the Oily offerings I've read, and I'm glad to see someone gain some traction with a different model for putting small-press work into the hands of readers. There are three-month and six-month subscriptions.
The shortlist for this year's Stan Lee Excelsior Awards has been posted. They are:
* Peter Panzerfaust: The Great Escape, Kurtis J. Wiebe and Tyler Jenkins (Image Comics)
* Soul Eater Not! Vol. 1, Atsushi Ohkubo (Yen Press)
* Strontium Dog: The Life and Death of Johnny Apple, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra (Rebellion/2000AD)
* Supergirl: Last Daughter of Krypton, Michael Green, Mike Johnson and Mahmud Asrar (DC Comics)
* Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sean Michael Wilson and Declan Shalvey (Classic Comics)
* Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Change Is Constant, Kevin Eastman, Tom Waltz and Dan Duncan (IDW Publishing)
* Wonder Woman: Blood, Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang and Tony Akins (DC Comics)
* X-O Manowar: By the Sword, Robert Venditti and Cary Nord (Valiant)
I had to go looking to see what the hell these are, and that superior link-blogger Kevin Melrose explains it here. They were established last year by a school librarian and are targeted at kids and teens. There will be a first, second and third place announced in July.
The Brazilian artist Gutemberg Monteiro, who worked across the span of several decades including a stint in the US as "Goott," has passed away. It is unclear whether he passed away on the 9th or the 10th; he had just celebrated his 96th birthday a few days earlier.
Monteiro was born in Faria Lemos. He set out for Rio as a teenager, hoping to make his mark as a soccer player despite his relatively slight build. His failure to gain a roster position led Monteiro to explore his other displayed talent: that for art. He began his comics career in his mid-20s, with his first assignment in 1943 for the publisher Rio Grafica e Editora. He was primarily used a covers artists for their versions of American strip characters: The Phantom, the cast of Li'l Abner, Mandrake the Magician. He would later come an interior artist for a Brazilian version of The Phantom.
Monteiro's major contribution to comics in the 1940s through the 1950s was the development of a style that broke just enough with the American comics "look" that it called attention to the rich tradition now bubbling to the surface. He was also known as a widely versatile artist, whose style could be employed in the service of a variety of genres.
The artist found work in the US during the 1960s, taking on a typically broad array of assignments. He was a contributor to the Warren publications Eerie and Creepy, drew many of the Tom & Jerry Sunday comics pages, and did features like Casper and Hot Stuff. Articles about the cartoonist say he drew Dick Tracy and Superman, although in what venue is unclear. Monteiro did some work as a political caricaturist and as a teacher; for the former, he was invited to the White House by Barbara Bush. He also took on a great deal of work from advertising studios.
He remained a popular figure in Brazil, where his drawings were displayed in 2001 and in 2007.
After 40 years living in the US -- meaning he hadn't moved there until after he was 50 -- Monteiro returned to Brazil to live out his final days in a suburb of Rio. He maintained good health -- a career retrospective exhibit was held in June -- until finally becoming sick on December 7th. The cause of death was cerebral ischemia, and he was buried in the Lakes Region. His son told one sources that a planned trip to the US in May was postponed until November where it was thwarted by Hurricane Sandy, and was never achieved. The family intends to publish the artist's autobiography. He is survived by at least that one son and by a brother living in Brooklyn.
Fantasma cover image and initial heads-up supplied by Fabio Araujo; thanks, Fabio
Image Adjusts Re-Orders Policy On Saga Comic To Allow For Continuation Of Re-Orders On #s 7-8
I wasn't sent the letter that Robot 6 was sent from Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson adjusting a decision made earlier this week to back away from automatically reprinting heavy-selling comics later in the run like Saga, so I'm happy to send you over there to read it. I'm not sure I'd describe it as changing course, or at least that's not how I see it. It reads to me like they're backing away from the immediacy of the move, and apologizing for the frustration that came through the initial announcement -- a brusque tone some thought needlessly antagonistic -- but it also reads to me that they're keeping an eye on making some sort of move to reduce their risks here. What I'm guessing we'll see is some sort of modified version of that initial announcement: it may be left to the creator/creators, it may be restricted to certain titles, it may be a move of diminished severity. Saga really is a key book here, because it seems like orders should have stabilized by now and that's a big enough book people will pay attention.
Having said all that, I should probably point out that this is one of those things that doesn't seem like a big deal to me, and certainly doesn't fit our usual framework of something being "right" and something else being "wrong." It seems like Image is more or less just sorting out different strategies for how they want certain of their big serial books to be presented. I think as long as they're announcing in advance this is how something will work -- and that's something they're more than doing now, with the adjustment -- any kind of non-exploitative business decision is fine.
There's a good supplementary article here, where Rich Johnston rounded up statements from a bunch of Image creators. Milton Griepp's article here focuses on the issue in question being a natural candidate for extensive reprinting + the way Image is going to offer a heightened discount to the way they'll handle a reprint on that one, turning a negative into a potential positive.
Assembled, Zipped, Transferred And Downloaded: News From Digital
By Tom Spurgeon
* I haven't gotten rid of Poppa Bears at Trip City, so I'm guessing that means I haven't included that bit of publishing news on the site. If I have, consider this double-announcement penance for being so scattered I couldn't remember.
* one big publishing news in webcomics item of recent vintage -- which I totally missed until one of the creators sent me a nice e-mail -- is the return after several years of A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible. This is sort of like a seventh season of The Larry Sanders Show popping up on HBO some Thursday. Bigger news is the ending of American Elf, James Kochalka's influential and very good diary comic, a total career highlight. I will write about both a little more elsewhere, but I wanted to make sure I got something up.
* go here to get/find the latest issue of SVA's digital anthology, INK.
* Shaenon Garrity writes about three different kinds of webcomics she can't believe she's not seeing. It is kind of odd that there hasn't been a natural scramble to certain kinds of genres in that realm of comics. I have no idea why that is.
* so I guess this means you can get Classics Illustrated digitally now.
* I also keep forgetting to pass along that WonderCon has its initial special guests list up. I'd go just about anywhere to see Sergio Aragones. And Jeff Smith. I like that Jeff Smith guy. I'm glad he's going to do a couple of shows this year. While we're at it with the guest announcements, CAKE announced its first guest: Michael DeForge. I bet that's going to be a fun show, all up near Wrigley Field and whatnot in a resurgent city for the arts, and I hope to be in attendance.
* for the near-future, as it looks like I can't access either TCJ or Fantagraphics.com, you might want to check those out as a matter of course. I'll link to whatever I see other people link to if it's clear what's being linked to. Or something. I'm too defeated at the end of the work year to fight it.
186. A Prison Pit Toy From Monster Worship
These look terrific, and if you're a fan of what Johnny Ryan's doing in Prison Pit it seems natural that you'd also be interested in owning this kind of item in a way that I can't always say that liking a comic means liking an item.
187. Binding Some Comics
This was a great suggestion from the writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, in that binding some old comics is a wonderful way that many collectors prefer to keep that kind of thing. The only potential hitch might be offering the service rather than going ahead and doing it -- comics fans can be picky! I have a bunch of Nickelodeon magazines that were given to me this way, and they're swell.
188. Old Holiday Issues Of National Lampoon Holy crap, look at this line-up. It kicks off with Stork from Animal House and then keeps crushing it page after page. I'm not even sure if you can find issues like that, but that would be a nice gift.
Yeah, I know. It's enough to make you wish comics never existed.
I've never been convinced that this was ever going to work out for the families, to the point I got screamed at for underreporting the initial decision as the industry-shattering victory I was repeatedly told it was. I don't really look to litigation for justice, and never have. That could be a moral failing on my part, I don't know. I could end up being wrong. There's a long way to go, of course, and there will be appeals -- I think there already is one, and certainly there is according to the Trexler take -- and the story will continue. The whole thing strikes me as regrettable and avoidable mostly because in so many cases it's been avoided.
Go Read: On Michael Leunig’s Recent Niemoller Cartoon
Michael Leunig's use last week of Martin Niemoller's "First They Came..." turn of speech in a cartoon about Israel's policies towards Palestine is the subject of an interesting back-and-forth in The Age. Leunig laments that what he calls cartooning of conscience has led to an inference of anti-Semitism. Nick Dyrenfurth responds that no one is really doing that but instead the cartoonist is being criticized for extreme intellectual laziness.
I'd suggest reading both. I'm not sure there is a way to negotiate the issues involved here that isn't colored by one's political views right out to the edge of the page. It's one of those things where even the lack of clear endorsement for one side or another has probably enraged someone out there who now sees this as a tacit endorsement of the other side. I'm not suggesting there has to be a balanced view, only a full consideration given the weight of issues involved in forming each position.
Missed It: Image Comics Curbs Expectations Of Open-Ended Multiple Printings On Certain Comic Books
There's a full write-up at Robot 6 on an apparent decision announced by Image Comics to curtail the policy of automatically reprinting successful titles deep into the serial runs in order to meet additional demand. There are some interesting issues at play there, and none of them are goofball fans, 90 percent of them sporting wacky sobriquets, ranting about greedy companies out to get retailers. Basically, it's a meeting of tensions in the way that market is set up. Allowing retailers generous access to more comics via additional printings allows them to throw support behind titles in their incipiency as they get an idea of what the demand will be in their stores. A publisher like Image, whose model depends on the creators funding additional print runs, might worry that this is enabling retailers to underorder on certain with the idea they can lean on the notion that more copies will be available, while more aggressively ordering from other companies. The idea is that certain titles have earned the trust of retailers as to their performance in order to be more aggressively ordered the first time around.
The risk, of course, is that you make angry supportive retailers that no matter if it's fair in the little-kid sense of the word or it isn't, really do need the room carved out for them by the Image approach to best manage their entire offerings while still driving traffic to those books. I also have some sympathy for the position that it's the publisher that should bear overprinting from the beginning rather than the retailer making sure their orders reflect perceived potential demand. From my standpoint as an outsider, my vastly under-informed standpoint, it's always seemed like there are several delicate tensions in the market where the policies of one publishers can generate room to maneuver that benefits others -- or at least doesn't come back in full to the publisher offering the support via whatever means they're doing so. My hunch is that this kind of thing is more about finding what policy works best as opposed to the bombast that sometimes comes out in rhetoric about such moves, the betrayal of trust stuff or even the "you're doing it wrong" accusations. It seems to me this is a give and take thing, and we'll see if the move has the desired effect.
The Never-Ending, Four-Color Festival: Cons, Shows, Events
By Tom Spurgeon
* two bits of Comic-Con related news yesterday came right in the middle of my talking to a cartoonist for the Holiday interview series, so my update was to the point. The Eisner Judges are kind of fascinating this time around. Michael Cavna has the journalist role (he's also a cartoonist), Charles Hatfield of that very fine Kirby book (and inaugural category winner) is on board, Frank Santoro is the working cartoonist on hand (he's an educator and writer-about-comics, too, of course), Dr. Katie Monnin brings her formidable publishing resume to the group and Adam Healy of Cosmic Monkey Comics from Portland's ridiculously rich comics retailing scene makes five and John Smith, a longtime Comic-Con officer who if he's really responsible for the way registration has improved over the last few years deserves every honor that can be thrown his way, rounds out the crew. That's a lot of broadly talented people, and I look forward to seeing how they approach the job.
* nice update on Comic Con India concerning their grant program for unpublished work: last year's first recipient, Satya Police, will be ready for this year's Comic Con in early February. That will be coming out from Pop Culture Publishing. It looks like they hope to make part of the their award that the book is published at the next year's show, which makes total sense to me.
* we live in such amazing times for the recognition of comics as a legitimate avenue for personal creative expression that it takes a lot to make me do a double-take, or the Little Rascal jaw-drop. The current name of this forthcoming exhibit did the trick. That... that's like a joke we would have told in English class back in high school, only it's not a joke at all. In fact, that's likely to be a fine, fine show. We live in a future where only the comics dreams came true.
* finally, I hadn't noticed this before, but I guess from their latest e-mail flier that Asbury Park Comic Con is moving to an old convention hall there on the boardwalk. I believe previous iterations were at a bowling alley.
CR Newsmaker Interview: Charles Brownstein Of The CBLDF On The Fund’s New Advisory Board
I was confused by yesterday's announcement of an advisory board for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Luckily, Executive Director Charles Brownstein was willing to unpack things a bit for me. The Fund remains a foundational comics institution, and you should bookmark their site for this week's release of their annual report and digital copies of their latest comic. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Charles, I'm a little unclear as to what distinguishes the advisory board from the actual board, at least in terms of seeing the mission fulfilled. Can you make that distinction for me?
CHARLES BROWNSTEIN: The Board of Directors is responsible for the day-to-day governance of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. They vote on matters pertaining to the work we do, and meet quarterly to oversee our activities in pursuit of our mission. The advisory board will offer perspective, counsel, and guidance on specific project areas pertaining to the Fund's growing mission, but will not be engaged in day to day governance. It's a group that broadens our capacity by deepening our knowledge base. For example, we're more frequently called upon to help by providing expert knowledge in support of a challenged book, like identifying a literary scholar who can testify that Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is connected to the Victorian heroic tradition, or that manga is a cultural form of expression. The advisory board formalizes the relationship with some of the folks on my speed dial to recognize how they help in these situations.
SPURGEON: I'm also a bit hazy as to where you'll be drawing your talent -- if it's people that have provided service in the past, how does this broaden your capacity and outreach?
BROWNSTEIN: It's people who've distinguished themselves with service to the organization, which is a way of saying that it's people who are personally invested in our important work. Some folks will have done board service -- such as Denis and Neil have both done. I think there's a tremendous value to having past board members on the advisory group, because it helps maintain a deep institutional memory, which is a good thing. Others will be experts in the areas where we're broadening our mission, and will offer their perspectives and talent to help us serve those areas better. This is a group that will help us look ahead, without losing sight of where we've been.
SPURGEON: I take it from the press release that this move has more to do with your renewed on proactive aspects of what the fund does, as opposed to reactive. Like I don't see this board getting phone calls the same day that the board of directors does in terms of someone being prosecuted, say. Is that a fair assessment? Can you talk about how they're going to help with your renwed focus on education, for example?
BROWNSTEIN: This will all be easier to discuss once we're able to announce the names of the folks who accept the call to serve on the advisory board after the next board meeting in January. In broad strokes, you're right, this group will receive regular reporting on the activities of the Fund, but they won't be on the emergency hotline when a case comes up that the Board of Directors needs to vote on. They'll be there when we need advice about how to perform a certain program, or to help develop specific strategies on an aspect of our work, or when we're looking for feedback on how to best engage with certain constituent communities, or just to be connectors to folks who can help us do our work better.
Advisory boards tend to be groups that are additive to an organization's strengths, without asking people to make deep time commitments. This one is already adding to our strengths. There is nothing but upside to having the ability to call Denis Kitchen or Neil Gaiman and solicit their perspective on an aspect of our work. That only gets better when we engage the advisory group that comes aboard. There's a lot of smart, talented people in this field willing to serve the Fund, and this is a mechanism to connect them with our mission, our board, our office team and each other in a more meaningful way.
SPURGEON: Do you feel like there's an opportunity right now to lock in some of these aspects of the fund's mission due to the small-p political reality the country faces right now? Someone making a name for themselves by prosecuting a funnybook store feels very 1998 or 2002 as opposed to 2012. I know you have to stay ever-vigilant, but haven't you seen a change in the time you've been on board as Executive Director?
BROWNSTEIN: Yesterday I was at art spiegelman's studio while he personalized the books for the donors to our Spirit of Giving campaign, and we were talking about the Fund's current work. He observed that much of that work seems to have less to do with defending material merely because its comics, and more to do with defending work because it intersects with a particular battle zone in the culture wars. And I think that's a good observation.
In the ten years I've been managing the Fund, we've seen big strides in the public appreciation and acceptance of comics. At the same time we've seen the Fund become a lot more proactive about challenging laws before they become cases, and making tools that are preventative in nature. I think the net result is that the challenges we face have changed from defending challenging work in a stigmatized medium to working towards greater understanding of the contours of a medium that's gained popular acceptance, and wider awareness of the rights its readers and producers are guaranteed. We still get the challenges stemming from a notion that a book with pictures is intrinsically for kids, but it's not the default challenge anymore.
That said, it only takes one official to create a malicious prosecution. If comics are more recognized as valid, we still live in a time of great political divide over many social issues reflected in our medium's content, and there are still many people who would prefer certain subjects be taboo. You read our blog, so you know that we still see frequent challenges to our content in a variety of spaces, and so we continue to be vigilant.
The CBLDF will always invest in maintaining the best legal team possible to counter First Amendment emergencies when they occur. But we'd vastly prefer that folks don't need to go to court at all. That's why we're invested in expanding our education mission -- to create tools that encourage greater understanding of comics in all its forms. So whether we're helping libraries and parents navigate issues that center on kids' right to read, or arming manga fans with the facts they need to protect themselves against unjust prosecutions, or speaking to groups of lawyers about recent case trends, or talking to students and new fans about the historical censorship challenges comics have faced, our goal is to empower the current comics reading world with proactive knowledge that protects their freedom to read.
SPURGEON: Why a one-year term? Why a term at all? Do you see a lot of turnover in the cards?
BROWNSTEIN: One year is a reasonable commitment to ask someone to make. I expect that we'll have some very busy folks working at very high levels in their fields participating in this group, so a one year commitment creates an opportunity for them to jump on or off as their circumstances change. As with any group, I expect we'll see some people who are happy to contribute for years, and others who have a more finite window during which they can serve. The term helps in both situations, and more importantly, helps us engage with the advisory talent in a way that is designed to be accommodating and mutually beneficial.
This Isn’t A Library: Notable Releases To The Comics Direct Market
Here are the books that make an impression on me staring at this week's no-doubt largely accurate list of books shipping from Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. to comic book and hobby shops across North America.
I might not buy all of the works listed here. I might not buy any. You never know. I'd sure look at the following, though.
AUG120053 TARZAN RUSS MANNING YEARS HC VOL 01 $49.99
You had me at Russ. You had me at Russ mostly because I assumed it was Russ Manning. Still, you can't go wrong in comics with anyone named "Russ."
OCT128202 MULTIPLE WARHEADS ALPHABET TO INFINITY #1 2ND PTG (MR) $3.99
I derive a lot of pleasure from Brandon Graham's series, enough that I'd want the second printing of this first issue just to have the second printing. I don't think it's transcendent in the way that it's going to be the kind of series that attracts people not naturally inclined to like its kind of laid-back, science-fantasy vibe, but if that's a kind of comic you like you will probably like this comic.
AUG120045 ADV OF DR MCNINJA TP VOL 02 TIMEFIST $19.99 AUG120082 GRANDVILLE BETE NOIRE HC $19.99
Two fine-looking addition to long-standing Dark Horse publishing initiatives: elaborately drawn European translations and popular webcomics moving into print.
OCT120193 BATGIRL #15 (DOTF) $2.99
Hey, I read this one. It was okay. I really wonder if crossovers work in mainstream comics the way they want them to, because having a character appear in a bunch of comics like the Joker appearing in all of these Batman titles really robs the main storyline of the strength of some of its narrative beats. Of course, they sell really well, which is probably really the way they want the crossovers to work.
JUL120379 ARCHIE BEST OF SAMM SCHWARTZ HC VOL 02 $24.99
I always say that I have no idea what the hell is going on with all of these Archie collection, mostly because I really don't know what the hell is going on with all of these Archie collections. Samm Schwartz made some really effective comics, though, so I'd check this one out like I've checked out all the others.
AUG120257 KAMANDI LAST BOY ON EARTH OMNIBUS HC VOL 02 $49.99
I don't know anything about this particular edition but I love the comic books and I would look at this book were I in a comics shop, for sure. In fact, were I thinking about buying it I'd be extra sure to check out how much of this was Kirby and how much might be from other people. It might be all Kirby, I don't know. I'd still check.
SEP120377 PARKER THE HUNTER SC $17.99
Another comic I bought and enjoyed in an earlier iteration, and a solid addition to most comics fans' libraries.
OCT120510 AGE OF BRONZE #32 (RES) [DIG] $3.50
Shhh. It's a long-running independent comic-book series devoted to having a print, serial version out. Don't frighten it.
OCT128200 IMAGE FIRSTS CHEW CURR PTG #1 (MR) $1.00 OCT128196 IMAGE FIRSTS FATALE CURR PTG #1 (MR) $1.00 OCT128197 IMAGE FIRSTS MANHATTAN PROJECTS CURR PTG #1 $1.00 OCT128211 IMAGE FIRSTS REVIVAL CURR PTG #1 $1.00 OCT128195 IMAGE FIRSTS SAGA CURR PTG #1 (MR) $1.00 OCT128198 IMAGE FIRSTS THIEF OF THIEVES CURR PTG #1 $1.00 OCT128199 IMAGE FIRSTS WALKING DEAD CURR PTG #1 (MR) $1.00
Here are bunch of $1 reprints of popular Image Comics series, which means it's also a list of which series are popular or they think are potentially popular. I enjoy about half of these. I think it's a good idea for building serial sales to have this kind of easy entry point. I bet some comic shop owners will just give these away to subscribers that buy other comics in a similar vein -- Halley's in Chicago used to do this to me, and I ended up buying enough new series that way that it was worth their time to do it.
OCT120547 WALKING DEAD #105 (MR) [DIG] $2.99
This issue made me laugh a lot, and I don't know if it's it or me. Anyway, a super-reliable comic shop performer and should be for quite some time going forward.
OCT120495 WALKING DEAD OMNIBUS HC VOL 04 (MR) $100.00
Some happy teen is getting a giant hardcover full of zombies for Christmas, with the bonus of disapproving glances from her grandparents.
SEP120700 CAPTAIN AMERICA BY ED BRUBAKER TP VOL 02 $16.99 SEP120699 DAREDEVIL BY MARK WAID TP VOL 02 $15.99
I assume they've been naming these trades by writer for a while now and I've either not noticed at all or barely noticed. That seems interesting just in terms of the company's obvious emphasis over the last dozen years. I'm not a Marvel trade buyer, although I'll occasionally snap up long runs of series in comic book form when they've been discounted by a comics shop. If I were, though, I'd certainly buy according to creator like this.
OCT120593 FANTASTIC FOUR #2 NOW $2.99 OCT120606 IRON MAN #4 NOW $3.99 SEP120644 WINTER SOLDIER #13 $2.99
At some point this holiday season I'll probably find myself in close proximity to a comics shop for the first time in a while and will probably be tempted to try one or two of the new Marvel books. The first two here are two I'd look at were that today. The Winter Soldier is Ed Brubaker still, so I'd probably look at it, too.
AUG121196 BIG BOOK OF MISCHIEF GN (KNOCKABOUT) $18.99
I don't know a darn thing about this book, but I'd notice the cover and take a look were I to see it on the shelves today.
OCT121132 KRAMPUS THE DEVIL OF CHRISTMAS HC $18.95
Continuing Monte Beauchamp's fine, fine advocacy on behalf of the holiday season's greatest gremlin.
SEP121407 COMIC CON & BUSINESS OF POP CULTURE HC $27.00
We've thrown the spotlight on this book a few times this year; I thought there was a lot to chew on.
SEP120742 HUMOR CAN BE FUNNY TP (MR) $11.95
Classic Sam henderson, at a fine, fine price. Sam Henderson is a funny human being.
OCT121078 SUMO GN $14.99
If you go to the comics shop to find complete works from cartoonists with which you're not entirely familiar, this First Second effort by Thien Pham is probably the book with which you'll leave the store.
The full list of this week's releases, including some titles with multiple cover variations and a long, impressive list of toys and other stuff that isn't comics, can be found here. Despite this official list there's no guarantee a comic will show up in the stores as promised, or in all of the stores as opposed to just a few. Also, stores choose what they carry and don't carry so your shop may not carry a specific publication. There are a lot of comics out there.
To find your local comic book store, check this list; and for one I can personally recommend because I've shopped there, albeit a while back, try this.
The above titles are listed with their Diamond order code in the first field, which may assist you in finding comics at your shop or having them order something for you they don't have in-stock. Ordering through a direct market shop can be a frustrating experience, so if you have a direct line to something -- you know another shop has it, you know a bookstore has it -- I'd urge you to consider all of your options.
If I failed to list your comic, that's on me. I apologize.
* it's been a while since I looked in on the Bill Day crowd-funder; it looks like they've more than crossed the all-important halfway point. Giving Bill Day a year to breathe and make cartoons seems like a great use of crowd-funding, at least to me.
* Buzz Dixon has gathered up links to three recommendable Christmas stories out on the wider Internet at which you may go stare. I'm not sure they're exactly supposed to be on the Internet, but my fraternity house got its Christmas tree every year under similarly dubious circumstances so I'll just stay quiet.
Totally Missed That There Was Another Tintin Au Congo Decision
The nice folks at CBR picked up on it. I'm one of those that falls on the side of these depictions being totally freaking racist, but not having much of a problem with kids getting access to racist/violent/sexist things in their consumption of art. Then again, I'm the one in my group of my friends whose views on these kinds of things tend to not be solicited more than once, "because it hurts us to roll our eyes that much." [actual quote]
Festivals Extra: TCAF Goes Official; Responds To Applicants
The Toronto Comics Art Festival has posted official word on dates (already released) and hotel (I don't think so, not yet) the same day that it sent out word to applicants whether they were accepted or not. If you poke around the internet, you can find happy folks likethesethree. That this had made any public impression at all is a sign of how much the festivals like TCAF have come to mean to an entire world of comics-making. It also looks like they're going to spread out a bit to additional sites, although they've been doing that for a while. I think that's the jewel of the Spring shows, and I hope to be there.
Go, Read: Jog On Steve Ditko’s Latest Self-Published Comic
The critic Joe "Jog" McCulloch digs into Steve Ditko's latest. That Ditko is still making comics with such passion and verve and using the form to engage his personal interests is truly an awesome thing. He also answers letters.
* Fantagraphics putting a volume back in print probably isn't news worth noting all by itself, but I find it interesting that they Complete Crumb series is worth it for them to reprint this way. Crumb's appeal is popular and enduring, of course, but these are very 1990s-type collections. I like 1990s-type collections, and am glad whenever such a project hangs in there.
* finally, the writer Harlan Ellison and the cartoonist Paul Chadwick are collaborating on a Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven in Space-type project called Harlan Ellison's 7 Against Chaos.
* so I guess Marvel blew up Perth and Regina. I was never sure why they did things like that, but I have a brother who only reads comic books with certain characters in it (Black Bolt, The Badger, Namor) and he was taken with that Sub-Mariner mini-series from a few years back that started off with the destruction of a small town. So maybe if you're not immersed in this stuff that can be an affecting thing.
What follows are a few more comics-related holiday gift ideas, that will by the weekend be added to the CR Holiday Shopping Guide 2012. I wish I could have had all of these things in on my first try, but I'd rather give them the spotlight now than to be prideful about last weekend's effort. Please shop carefully: the Santa whose lap you save could be your own.
185. A Custom Sketch Card From Rob Ullman
Ullman is more of an illustrator who occasionally graces comics as opposed to a working cartoonist that sometimes does illustration, but who cares when you get a nice little drawing like this one?
It's a more lurid read than it is a necessary one, but I used the occasion of this article about a former National Lampoon brand owner (or however that should be phrased) being sentenced for other Ponzi scheme-like stylings to refresh my memory on the status of that oddly resilient brand name in American satire. I always thought that this was a case where a magazine would actually serve what they wanted to do with the name, by creating a context where writers could publish high-profile, high-concept personal essays that could be turned into movie franchises the way that the Animal House and Vacation franchises were developed. I mean, there a bunch of funny young writers with an interest in politics -- I would have to think one of them would have a funny, bawdy campaign-trail story to tell in 14,000 words or so. Then again, I'm sure everything they've done with it has whipped up far more money than my backseat publishing dreams would.
With the graying of the underground generation more than having arrived, we may soon turn our attention to National Lampoon's comics legacy as a way of remembering yet another of our great cartooning traditions, and I think I'll enjoy the renewed attention there quite a bit.
Festivals Extra: Last Day For Comic-Con Pro Badge Applications
That's what it says here. That also means we're due to begin the yearly round of complaining about Comic-Con, our industry's version of fantasy football. They're advertisers at CR, so everything I say about them may be compromised nonsense, but I had a really great time at the show last year. It's one of my three core con experiences in any given year, and I'm a hardcore comics fan with about as much interest in watching TV show panels and movie trailers as I have in standing on that new footbridge and stabbing myself in the arm with a fork until I pass out. At any rate, the size and scope and focused interest in that show makes the registration process a little more labor-intensive than other shows of its type; it's worth paying attention to in a very deliberate, matter-of-fact manner if that one is on your radar.
Cartooning Movement: Egypt Is A Difficult Workplace Right Now
The Cartooning Movement site has a short piece up on the difficulties that Amr Okasha is reporting about working in Egypt after last year's revolution and during this year's ongoing protests against the sitting powers-that-be. It's basically a sort of unrestrained public criticism with undertones of violent against those saying things with which one faction or another doesn't agree. Very worth reading.
* I'm not sure how this illustration ended up in my bookmarks or what it's for, but I like it. I'm also not exactly sure how I ended up with two Occupy-related links, but here is OccupyComics.com and here is something Alan Moore wrote for that group.
* finally, in a bit of not comics, the gaming writer Gus Mastrapa expresses a measure of sympathy the point of view apparently held by Christopher Tolkien and other members of that family about some of the things being done with the works their one-time patriarch created. There's principled disagreement to be had on those issues, for sure, but the aggressive inability/unwillingness by so many to find some place in their heart for the point of view articulated here seems so sad to me.
What follows are a few more comics-related holiday gift ideas, that will by the weekend be added to the CR Holiday Shopping Guide 2012. I wish I could have had all of these things in on my first try, but I'd rather give them the spotlight now than to be prideful about last weekend's effort. Please shop carefully: the Santa whose lap you save could be your own.
181. A Print From Joseph Remnant
I thought Remnant's work in this year's Harvey Pekar's Cleveland was really good, and certainly the above print, "Comics Carrier," is a lot of fun. I'm thinking about this one as a self-gift.
182. The New Albert Dorne Book
Not every cartoonist values the old-time illustrators, but many do and there are any number of books out there to buy featuring the work of one artist or another.
183. A Discounted, Existing Comics Collection
Comics-related works get discounted by booksellers all the time, so keep an eye out. This deal on twoeditions of the Captain Easy series found their way into my Facebook circle.
So I Found Some Photos From The 2011 Version Of BCGF
1. Barack Hussein Obama, Steven Weissman (Fantagraphics)
2. Ticket Stub, Tim Hensley (Yam Books)
3. Love and Rockets: New Stories No. 5, Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics)
4. Snarked, Roger Langridge (Boom Studios)
5. Injury #4 Ted May, Jeff Wilson & Mike Reddy (Alternative Comics)
1. Atomic Robo and the Ghost of Station X, Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener (Red 5 Comics)
2. Snarked! Ships and Sealing Wax, Roger Langridge (Kaboom!)
3. Uncle Scrooge: Only A Poor Old Man, Carl Barks (Fantagraphics Books)
4. The Crogan Adventures: Crogan's Loyalty, Chris Schweizer (Oni Press)
5. Three Thieves: The Captive Prince, Scott Chantler (Kids Can Press)
1. Lose #4, Michael Deforge (Koyama)
2. Difficult Loves, Molly Colleen O'Connell (Domino)
3. Barrel Of Monkeys, Florent Ruppert And Jerome Mulot (Rebus)
4. The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred, David Hine and Shaky Kane (Image)
5. The Making Of, Brecht Evens (Drawn And Quarterly)
1. Copra, Michel Fiffe (self-published)
2. Dominique Laveau, Voodoo Child, Selwyn Seyfu Hinds and Denys Cowan (DC/Vertigo)
3. Prophet, Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple and Giannis Milonogiannis (Image)
4. Courtney Crumrin (ongoing), Ted Naifeh (oni)
5. Hawkeye, Matt Fraction and David Aja (Marvel)
1. Turtie Needs Work, Steve Wolfhard (Koyama Press)
2. The Voyeurs, Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilized)
3. Heads or Tails, Lilli Carré (Fantagraphics)
4. Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller, Joe Lambert (Disney/Hyperion)
5. Dungeon Quest Book Three, Joe Daly (Fantagraphics)
1. Spot of Noir, Lilli Carré (self published)
2. July Diary, Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilized Books)
3. Daddy Lightning, Tom Hart (Retrofit Comics)
4. Moose #9, Max de Radigues (Oily Comics)
5. King-Cat Comics and Stories #73, John Porcellino (self published)
1. The Nao Of Brown, Glyn Dillon (SelfMadeHero)
2. Marbles, Ellen Forney (Gotham)
3. Sailor Twain, Mark Siegel (First Second)
4. Legion Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (Top Shelf)
5. His Dreams of Skyland, Anne Opotowsky and Aya Morton (Gestalt)
1. King City, Brandon Graham (Toyko Pop/Image)
2. Fatale: Death Follows Me, Ed Brubaker And Sean Phillips (Image)
3. Amelia Cole and the Unknown World, Adam P. Knave & D.J. Kirkbride and Nick Brokenshire (MonkeyBrain)
4. Manhattan Projects Book One: Science. Bad., Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra (Image)
5. Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (Image)
1. Love And Rockets: New Stories No. 5, Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics)
2. My Friend Dahmer, Derf (Abram ComicArts)
3. Metro: A Story Of Cairo, Magdy El Shafee (Metropolitan Books)
4. Birchfield Close, Jon McNaught (NoBrow)
5. The Underwater Welder, Jeff Lemire (Top Shelf)
1. LA Silence on Cermak, Edie Fake (printed in Vacuum Horror)
2. Dal Tokyo, Gary Panter (Fantagraphics)
3. The End of the Fucking World, Chuck Forsman (Oily Comics)
4. Jonathan Parts 1 and 2, Leslie Stein (web)
5. Distance Mover, Patrick Kyle (Mother Books)
1. My Friend Dahmer, Derf Backderf (Abrams)
2. Friends with Boys, Faith Erin Hicks (First Second)
3. Wizzywig, Ed Piskor (Top Shelf)
4. Big Bad Ironclad!, Nathan Hale (Abrams)
5. Double Barrel, Kevin and Zander Cannon (Top Shelf)
1. Girl Apocalypse, Angie Wang (self published)
2. The Furry Trap, Josh Simmons (Fantagraphics)
3. Deathzone!, Michel Fiffe (Copra)
4. Dungeon Quest Vol. 3, Joe Daly (Fantagraphics)
5. Study Group Magazine #1 &/or StudyGroupComics.Com , Various Artists (Study Group Comics)
1. Friends With Boys, Faith Erin Hicks (First Second)
2. The Hive, Charles Burns (Pantheon)
3. Hip Hop Family Tree, Ed Piskor (webcomic)
4. Prophet, Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, Giannis Milonogiannis (Image)
5. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 2009, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (Top Shelf)
1. Suspect Device 2, Josh Bayer (Raw Power-Josh Bayer)
2. My Friend Dahmer, Derf Backderf (AbramsBooks)
3. The Voyeurs, Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilzed Books)
4. Eat More Bikes, Nate Bulmer (Koyama Press)
5. By This You Shall Know Him, Jesse Jacobs (Koyama Press)
1. Heads or Tails, Lilli Carré (Fantagraphics)
2. Only Skin, Sean Ford (Secret Acres)
3. Flocks, L. Nichols (Retrofit/Grindtone)
4. The Making Of, Brecht Evens (Drawn & Quarterly)
5. Peepholes, Laurie J. Proud (Blank Slate)
1. Big Questions, Anders Nilsen (D&Q)
2. The Voyeurs, Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilized)
3. Ticket Stub, Tim Hensley (Yam)
4. Marbles, Ellen Forney (Gotham)
5. My Sincerest Apologies, Jessica Campbell (Oily)
1. The Lovely Horrible Stuff, Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf)
2. Marbles, Ellen Forney (Gotham)
3. The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath & Other Stories, H.P. Lovecraft, Art by Jason Bradley Thompson (Mockman/Kickstarter)
4. The Manhattan Projects Volume One â€“ Science Bad, Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra (Image)
5. New York Mon Amour, Jacques Tardi, Benjamin Legrand, Dominique Grange (Fantagraphics)
Sean van der Meulen
1. The Nao of Brown, Glyn Dillon (Selfmade Hero)
2. The Hive, Charles Burns (Pantheon)
3. Love & Rockets New Stories Vol. 5, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics)
4. Portugal, Cyril Pedrosa (Silvester Strips, dutch language edition)
5. Tanzania Travelogue, Lucy Knisley (self-published/digital)
1. Barack Hussein Obama, Steve Weissman (Fantagraphics)
2. The Voyeurs, Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilized Books)
3. Annie Sullivan And The Trials of Helen Keller, Joe Lambert (Hyperion)
4. Lose #4, Michael Deforge (Koyama Press)
5. Heads Or Tails, Lilli Carré (Fantagraphics)
1. Nao Of Brown, Glyn Dillon (SelfMadeHero)
2. Frankenstein Alive, Alive, Steve Niles & Bernie Wrightson (IDW)
3. Multiple Warheads, Brandon Graham (Image)
4. Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred, David Hine & Shaky Kane (Image)
5. !, Tym Godek (Self-Published)
I chose not to include some lists, one from a publishing employee who only listed books they happened to be involved in publishing, one from a journalist who included all works from cartoonists they covered with links to their coverage, two from people that chose not to follow the suggested format. I appreciate the submissions, but I'll pass on including them here and hope you'll forgive me doing so.
Quote Of The Week
"There really was nothing much else to love about it but the idea. I have hundreds of Bazooka Joe strips in a binder in my library. I'm never going to reread those. There is nothing to re-read. They exist as an object. An artifact of an idea. So, I guess I am sorry that this charming old fashioned idea is passing out of the charmless world we live in today. But as I said, they'd already wrung most of the flavour out of this thing 20 years ago (much like well-chewed gum) so I'm not crying about it either. Thank God Jack Chick is still passing out his classic-cartoon-styled hate literature on city benches. There's so little of these ephemeral kind of oddities left in the world. One less now." -- Seth, on the departure of comics from Bazooka Joe bubblegum.
today's cover is from the small-press and independent comics scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s
Tony Ingram writes about the departure of the print iteration of the long-running British kids' comics here. I think that's an incredibly long run for any publication, and I can't imagine being sad in the slightest if it were to end altogether now. I think there's a tendency among comics fans of a certain age to think everything is immortal because their perception of the two primary markets for comics are filled with characters and concepts that seem as if they'll go on until the universe itself collapses. But for the most part, there's a limited life to creations and creative enterprises.
Go, Read: Nice Profiles Of Chuck Forsman And Oily Comics
This profile of the cartoonist and mini-comics publisher/distributor Chuck Forsman is certainly one of the better Local Cartoonist Profiles I've ever seen. It's not the most difficult enterprise to grasp so if you have an idea of what Forsman is up to this may not be required reading, but if you don't it's as straight-forward and clear as any profile to date. One of the overriding themes of comics this year is the pressing need for models and ways of getting work out there that match the innovation and energy of the comics themselves.
Go, Read: Simon Moreton On The BCAs, Privilege And Transparency
There's a significant amount of back and forth out there about a quartet of blog posts by Simon Moreton springboarding from the British Comic Awards. I think the order in which to read them is 1234. Everyone that takes comics seriously should probably have a look. I think Moreton's constructions are sound. Making is an extension of identity, so an awards program that represents a community of making should be extra-sensitive to representation. While the needs of an awards program to recognize certain acts of making over others means that this can't be the sole concern, and that there are likely to be questions along these lines no matter how well a program look after those issues, transparency and the willingness to engage in dialogue are keys because of the many subtle ways that privilege can be exercised.
I think what North American comics people will find astonishing about this isn't so much the construction but that it all emerges from a serious discussion of an awards program. I think there's a much more cynical outlook toward American comics awards, at least generally, although I'd say that it's actually less cynical than it was 10 years ago. At any rate, the whole slew of posts is worth reading and considering.
It's another valuable piece by retailer/advocate Brian Hibbs -- in the midst of a generally strong run this Fall -- about the decision by DC to sell its digital comics a little earlier than print. If I'm reading Hibbs correctly, the problem isn't so much that print comics are directly threatened by digital copies to a significant extent but that this is a sign of DC's more mercenary and potentially self-defeating attitude about the role of Direct Market retail. I would say that's a healthy fear to have, given, well, a lot of things that have been emanating from DC for about two years now and the way that big companies in general now view how their businesses should run in terms of their quarterly bottom-lines. I don't agree with every idea floated here but all of them together makes for a compelling read.
Assembled, Zipped, Transferred And Downloaded: News From Digital
By Tom Spurgeon
* so Richard Thompson's Richard's Poor Almanacis now up and running at the GoComics.com site. If there's anything that will tide us over at Richard recovers enough to start into what will surely be his next grand thing, it's a frequent re-running of some of that great and little-seen material. Please join me in bookmarking or otherwise subscribing.
* two digital comics efforts with a major PR push did some of that pushing this week: the new Dandy; a "tablet magazine" called Symbolia that's featuring comics-related journalism. This was an inauspicious week to launch anything targeted for one device, if that's what "tablet magazine" means, although I suspect that even if it's meant for one device over another it can be used by several. I'm certainly not on a tablet, and I got to look at the first issue made available at the site. As for that first issue, I'm always interested in what Sarah Glidden and Susie Cagle are up to, and I thought Glidden's work in particular was pretty strong. None of the rest of it really jumped out at me on a first read, certainly not to match the hype offered on its behalf. It's difficult to find the time for a more thorough reading during the holiday months -- December is an odd time for a publication launch for that reason -- but I'm going to keep on paying attention to it and I hope you will, too. I'm encouraged that the pay model seems to stress paying the artists for their work right from the start.
* as for the Dandy stuff, not having anything to say in the previous graph means I don't have a lot to say -- again, I'm even just sort of taking it on faith that this is a new launch as opposed to an old one that found critical mass on my twitter feed. I wish them luck, although at this point I might argue the news part of something like this is a successful digital launch, not just a digital launch with the usual lip service paid to how something like this could potentially do if certain trends or whatever continue. That seems to me a 2004 narrative.
* here's a story I've been all but close to punting on, that I want to make sure I get up on the site in some form before year's end: some hassles between how digital material gets released and how the supposed same-day print material is going to be available in comics shops and even bookstores. That's sort of fascinating on a bunch of different levels, not all of them worthy of the reaction I've seen so far from certain corners, which is a sort of clenched-teeth fury at the mainstream publishers that may end up releasing material like this. One thing that interests me is related to that, in that the fact that digital availability didn't lead to a massive closure of comics shops is bound to come with a bit of relief that may manifest itself in playing slightly faster and looser with certain expectation than otherwise might have been the case. In other words, we may be looking at a philosophy of "Well, digital didn't kill the comics shop; digital a bit earlier than the comics shop probably won't kill it either." This is frustrating only in that most of what the mainstream comics companies have done right in the last quarter-century with their Direct Market opportunities comes when they seek to maximize its effects rather than get away with as much as they can in terms of moving business elsewhere.
* not comics: the cartoonist Colleen Doran has learned the art of making blog posts while walking via moving a part of her work day to a desk/treadmill. She also refers to herself as a "web-addicted pudding woman," which is hilarious no matter how much one might protest. Stan Lee wrote while standing up for at least part of his career, and God willing he turns 90 this year. He has more energy at conventions than three 30-year-olds. So there's gotta be something to this.
* finally, I think the question here may be less about a character being boring than any character at all being able to sustain weekly stories for 75 years or whatever Superman has to its credit at this point, all while wrapped up in a specific set of story expectations that needs to be maintained almost exactly as is so that the character can be sold to other media whenever the opportunity arises. That's tough, even when your character is awesome. No one was really meant to read these characters for decades and decades on end.
Proof For All Time That Zapiro Is A Cartooning Superstar
I would imagine that there are a handful of cartoonists whose appearance at a press club could lead to newswire headlines, but Jonathan "Zapiro" Shapiro's appearance at the Cape Town Press Club drives not one but three different articles that pop up on a basic google news search. There's one about his commentary on his recent defamation suits featuring a figure no less powerful than his country's president, there's one about accusations he's anti-Zionist (he fully admits to being against political Zionism) and there's one featuring his general commentary on electoral politics. That's pretty amazing.
A Pair Of Quick Exhibition Notes That Caught My Attention
A pair of news stories on forthcoming exhibitions caught my attention. There is a link or two to a portraiture exhibition by the Bangkok Post's Dinhin Rakpong-Asok that's tossing out onto the green felt a cultural card I haven't seen in a long while, the "cartooning takes actual artistic skill" play. The portraits are really cool-looking, too, and that the artist apparently kind of cobbled together this technique two years ago is pretty amazing, doubly so for it being so far away from the visual choices he makes while cartooning. An article on an exhibition of the Punch cartoons of painter John Butler Yeats is fascinating for what publishing in that context meant to Yeats in terms of the shame of simply being a cartoonist and the dismay many would have felt knowing this given the energetically anti-Irish cartoons that publication favored at the time.
Details On Sarah Laing’s Graphic Novel-Making Residency
There's a semi-lengthy and details-focused article here on the multi-careered Sarah Laing's forthcoming Michael King Writers' Centre University of Auckland Residency. That seems like an event worth noting to me just for the opportunity it provides, and the fact that the end result is a lengthy comic as opposed to some sort of prose work. Institutional support is going to be vital for some key works over the next ten years. I don't know if what results here will be one of them, but certainly at some point we'll be able to point to a major comics work and cite its prize-oriented origins, if we don't have one already kept from my fingertips by an early-morning fog and lack of powerful coffee.
The collection of art fairs in Miami through I think Sunday is the second recent event in that great city to have a tiny comics component, or at least I think this one does. I think PictureBox is down there somewhere, anyway, and some various related-to-comics folk that straddle both worlds. The iconography, too. At any rate, a city being taken over by satellite events is something instructive for comics even if the massive amount of money involved that drives the takeover will never, ever be replicated in North America. (Seriously, there's more money floating around Miami this weekend than there is in three years of comics' gross output.) And besides, Kevin Cannon drew a map. One of his cool maps.
Rob Kirby’s Handmade Comics-Focused List Of The Best From 2012
Veteran mini-comics and emerging on-line comics creator Rob Kirby has a list of best comics up at his site right now, distinguished by its focus on handmade comics. You can get Kirby's listing order, his list of comics from previous years that he discovered in 2012 and short descriptions of each work through that link.
* speaking of shows that will be here almost immediately, the Emerald City Comicon is in the "adding guests like mad" phase of its publicity roll-out. ECCC does an excellent job of providing all of the not-comics aspect of a full-service convention while protecting the comics portion of the show from too much interaction with those aspects.
* am I just not finding anything, or was there literally no writing at all on-line about Genghis Con?
* FIDB announced a partnership with Cultura. Someone correct me if I'm wrong, and I'm likely wrong, but I think Angouleme was looking for a partnership like this one to make up for one that's now expired, right?
* not comics: for some reason I ended up with this Christopher Tolkien Le Monde interview in my bookmarks folder. It's instructive to read something about a family wanting certain rights returned or better rewarded when most people really like what's been done with those rights as opposed to their either not caring or actively hating the result. One of the reasons a lot of our comics-related issue discussions remain unsophisticated is that we frequently choose to fight our battles along fundamental "I like it"/"I hate it" lines and then kind of furiously stare at the other issues involved until we can find a way to make them comply to our initial impression. It's no way to move forward.
Go, Read: Jeppe Mulich’s Choices For Best Comics Of 2012
This is another pretty good list, and it's the first of the solo-critic lists I've seen so I wanted to link to it. I'm not familiar with the writer, but those are intriguing choices and I'll track what gets blogged there.
Not Comics: That Newspaper Advertising Revenue Chart
Go here if you want to see a sobering chart about newspaper advertising revenue that my newspaper-interested friends in and out of comics are passing around. The two keys are that advertising revenues are falling dramatically, and that they're falling ahead of any gains in revenue made by google. The latter is important because google is a frequent scapegoat for what's been going on in the print newspaper industry, and this chart indicates that newspapers have problems of their own. I'm not sure what to add except that I'd like to know where the advertising money is going in a kind of fundamental way. It could be that the money from businesses to advertise simply isn't there because businesses are hurting that much. My suspicion is that more money is being taken out of a lot of companies that used to be kept in them in sort of a basic, bottom-line way, but I totally lack the skill-set to get there in a way that an adult could make that case at a dinner party.
You could continue to see a lot of newspapers altering the way they do business over the next half-decade if revenues stay miserable. If there's no solution apparent or even possible to the advertising revenue quandary -- no matter what that solution might be, even a drastic one -- I think that becomes an issue in and of itself. The impact on syndicated comics from years of industry jenga could be tremendous at some point, even though for now things are still holding together, kind of like a big, strong man weakened by flu but still operational. For now.
This Isn’t A Library: Notable Releases To The Comics Direct Market
Here are the books that make an impression on me staring at this week's no-doubt largely accurate list of books shipping from Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. to comic book and hobby shops across North America.
I might not buy all of the works listed here. I might not buy any. You never know. I'd sure look at the following, though.
AUG120063 BPRD HELL ON EARTH TP VOL 04 DEVIL ENGINE & LONG DEATH $19.99 OCT120009 HELLBOY IN HELL #1 MIGNOLA CVR $2.99
Two from the Mignola-verse, including Mike Mignola's return to the comic-book making himself. That seems like a big deal to me, although again, I have to admit I'm way behind on these comics and am in the "catch up by randomly buying them at $1 a pop whenever I see them." But like I always say, I can imagine a comics-shop shopper whose sole interaction with comics bought at the store is these comics.
OCT121158 STUMPTOWN V2 #4 $3.99 SEP120507 INVINCIBLE #98 [DIG] $2.99 SEP120526 AVENGERS #1 NOW $3.99 OCT120620 HAWKEYE #5 $2.99 OCT120061 HOUSE OF FUN ONE SHOT $3.50
This is a pretty strong week for comic-book comics if you have any sort of inclination towards superhero books. Stumptown and the Evan Dorkin House Of Fun aren't superhero books at all, of course, and either one might be enough to get me into the shop if I knew it was sitting there waiting for me. The Avengers comic book should be super-pretty; I'm not going to pretend I know what the hell is going on in those comics. I know for a fact that the Hawkeye is pretty, if David Aja is involved. That's your superhero comic for people that barely read them of the moment. I liked the latest Invincible, although I have to admit I read it less invested in the plots than as a kind of extended exercise in using the sub-genre.
OCT120479 BUTCHER BAKER RIGHTEOUS MAKER HC (MR) [DIG] $24.99
The latest in writer Joe Casey's attempts to take the superhero genre, cut it into sticky pieces and the reassemble them on an abandoned ping pong table in his garage. Or something. This time with artist Mike Huddleston. I remember this being weird to the point of slightly disturbing in serial form, so I look forward to taking it all in at once.
SEP120240 JACK KIRBYS FOURTH WORLD OMNIBUS TP VOL 04 $29.99
I don't know if this is a re-issue or a reprinting or what, but this is a cadillac in crowded highway of four-color Ford Tauruses, so you want it if you've never bought it.
OCT120447 MICHAEL KALUTA SKETCHBOOK SERIES SC VOL 03 $9.99
I'm a little bit of a Kaluta fiend, although I'm only familiar with IDW's higher-end efforts with artists like this.
SEP121255 SLAM DUNK GN VOL 25 $9.99
This is the best of the currently-running mainstream manga series with a volume out this week. For some reason, I'm optimistic this could find a bigger audience than it has, and I'm not exactly sure why that is.
OCT121367 JAMES BOND ARCHIVES HC $200.00
This I pulled out even though I suspected it was not-comics just because I wondered what the hell it is. Turns out it's a Taschen-published, deluxe-style, prose and pictures treatment of the film series, drawing on a ton of existing background information that sounds like it comes from some sort of Broccoli Family warehouse that I like to imagine resembles the place they stick the Arc of the Covenant at the end of Raiders.
OCT120196 BATWING #15 $2.99
There is a comic called Batwing.
OCT121139 SKY OVER THE LOUVRE HC $19.99
Finally, I enjoy these Louvre-produced graphic novels because of the chance to see BD makers with whom I'm not always familiar. In this case that would be artist Bernard Hislaire.
The full list of this week's releases, including some titles with multiple cover variations and a long, impressive list of toys and other stuff that isn't comics, can be found here. Despite this official list there's no guarantee a comic will show up in the stores as promised, or in all of the stores as opposed to just a few. Also, stores choose what they carry and don't carry so your shop may not carry a specific publication. There are a lot of comics out there.
To find your local comic book store, check this list; and for one I can personally recommend because I've shopped there, albeit a while back, try this.
The above titles are listed with their Diamond order code in the first field, which may assist you in finding comics at your shop or having them order something for you they don't have in-stock. Ordering through a direct market shop can be a frustrating experience, so if you have a direct line to something -- you know another shop has it, you know a bookstore has it -- I'd urge you to consider all of your options.
If I failed to list your comic, that's on me. I apologize.
* Sean T. Collins would like you to look at all of his 2012 comics. Collins withdrew from working on writing-about-comics for one of the major group blogs, but it hasn't stopped him from getting out there with work of his own. He has an interesting set of collaborators, too. The Hottest Chick In The Game was probably the one that was most widely-read, I'm guessing.
What follows are a few more comics-related holiday gift ideas, that will by the weekend be added to the CR Holiday Shopping Guide 2012. I wish I could have had all of these things in on my first try, but I'd rather give them the spotlight now than to be prideful about last weekend's effort. Please shop carefully: the Santa whose lap you save could be your own.
176. Pet Project From Yam Books
A nice, socking-stuffer sized 'zine featuring the best of this generation of mini-comics makers drawing animals. Here as a reminder that mini-comics of all sorts make great extra gifts, including those that get stuffed into a sock hanging over a fireplace.
177. Something From Julia Wertz's Etsy Shop
I liked the stuff I saw Julia Wertz selling at BCGF, and, more importantly, someone with me that might actually wear a pendant liked what they saw and told me so. Also, you can get comics stuff.
178. Patrick Dean Mini-Comics
Well-crafted, and there's a ton of them. Okay, maybe not a ton, but a good number. There are enough. I think I bookmarked this because the store is reasonably new, too.
179. One Of IDW's Artist's Editions Portfolios
I probably should have made a bigger deal of this in the publishing news, but IDW has come up with a variation on their popular Artist's Edition -- oversized portfolio pieces that hold a bunch of pages/images within a hardcover frame. The initial ones feature work by Neal Adams and Bernie Wrightson and seem to me super-gifty.
The FPI site has begun their annual run of daily or near-daily or more-than-daily best-of-2012 lists, most easily accessible here. That's usually a fun bunch of reads, perhaps even more than they provide disciplined, fascinating lists. It's also always intriguing to see which books sift to the surface in that readership and professional community that might not do the same over here.
Bundled Extra: Jeff LeVine Has A New Comic Book Out
Discovering someone has a new comic out just because you went looking for the old one thinking you could maybe recommend it because you miss it is one of the greater pleasures this industry affords. I have no idea what's in here, but it looks to be continuing in the same vein of Watching Days Become Years, which I liked enough to go looking for it early on a random Tuesday morning.
Go, Read: Boing Boing’s Best Damn Comics Of 2012 List
The popular site assembled a group of comics-interested people and put them to the task of making their list. This included Sean Pryor, Jess Smart Smiley, Jeremy Tinder, Douglas Wolk, JT Yost, Nate Powell, Jeff Newelt, Mari Naomi, Jordan Morris, Jeff Lemire, Rob Kirby, Bill Kartalopoulos, Tom Kaczynski, Brian Heater, Karen Green, Shaenon K. Garrity, Joe Keatinge, Will Dinski, Jeffrey Brown, Box Brown, Ryan Alexander-Tanner, Jimmy Aquino and Nick Abadzis. My apologies if I missed someone.
Those works receiving votes from multiple panelists:
There are a ton of reactions/descriptions by individual contributor available through that initial link; the piece also has its own set of order-ready links matched to titles. It looks like the whole thing was put together by Brian Heater.
* Dash Shaw (new work)
* Samuel R. Delany/Mia Wolff (reprint/new edition)
* Peter Bagge (reprint/new edition)
* Carl Barks (ongoing)
* George Carlson (newly-collected)
* Graham Chaffee (new work)
* Johnny Craig (newly-collected)
* Robert Crumb (reprint/new edition)
* Gene Deitch (newly-collected)
* Kim Deitch (new work)
* Steve Ditko (newly-collected)
* Michael Dowers (editing a new anthology of mini-comics)
* Al Feldstein (newly-collected)
* Manuele Fior (new work)
* Lars Fiske/Steffen Kverneland (new work)
* Jim Flora (newly-collected)
* Charles Forsman (new work)
* Hal Foster (ongoing)
* Kipp Freidman (prose memoir)
* Floyd Gottfredson (ongoing)
* Bill Griffith (ongoing)
* Hergé (newly-translated)
* Jason (new work)
* R. Macherot (newly-translated)
* Cathy Malkasian (new work)
* Marti (newly-translated)
* Linda Medley (reprint/new edition)
* Willard Mullin (newly collected)
* Anders Nilsen (reprint/new edition)
* Charles Schulz (ongoing series)
* Leslie Stein (new work)
* Storm P. (newly-translated)
* Virgil Partch (newly-collected)
* Trina Robbins (prose history)
* Charles Rodrigues (newly-collected)
* Shimura Takako (new work)
* Jacques Tardi (reprint/new edition/newly-translated)
* Basil Wolverton (newly-collected)
* Jim Woodring (new work)
Plus there are a few holdovers, like the Moto Hagio. Holy smokes. Off the top of my head, I'm most interested in seeing the Chaffee (!!), the Malkasian, the Stein and the Rodrigues; I'm interested in how the Forsman will be received. Jim Woodring and Kim Deitch are top ten cartoonists for me. Those are the things I'd walk to first at the San Diego table while rudely ignoring the nice people that work there. But I want pretty much all of them.
* as for First Second, JK Parkin has a fine, succinct write-up on their forthcoming book season here. They go Cecil Castellucci/Sara Varon, Jim Ottaviani/Maris Wicks, Matt Kindt, Steven T. Seagle/Teddy Kristiansen, Dave Roman, Jordan Mechner/LeUyen Pham/Alex Puvilland and Prudence Shen/Faith Erin Hicks. More Seagle/Kristiansen is always good news. I'm going to stick the cover to that on the bottom of this post. I also wondered the other day about the Mechner, which is a sequel to a previous series installment.
* did that Fantagraphics list seems excessive to you? Not so fast. Fantagraphics Associate Publisher Eric Reynolds notes that according to an in-house count, the publisher has produced approximately 100 comics and graphic novels in 2012. That's a lot of material. Reynolds himself edited around 20 of those books.
* so I guess Archie will publish double double-digests. Brigid Alverson has her usual strong write-up here, which is good, because I honestly don't know what that first sentence really means.
* I keep on forgetting to link to this sad picture of 1990s comic books strewn on some beach after that Sandy storm from several weeks back.
* this is clever. If you don't have a grasp of the context that informs that site, then consider yourself very, very lucky.
* J. Caleb Mozzocco digs into Fear Itself and into Marvel event comics more generally. That was in the circles of people I talk to about superhero comics a generally not-liked mini-series, mostly -- I think -- for something that Mozzocco brings up, that the story beats for certain characters felt like unearned betrayals of those characters put into the story to ramp-up the drama. If you're like me and I'm guessing like Mozzocco, you kind of see those things as plot points for the series rather than in a wider context, so they're much easier to swallow. I think. I liked that series just fine, and sort of see everything that didn't work about it for people as those places where the series had to kind of make a bid for "event" status in a way Marvel understands that now.
What follows are a few more comics-related holiday gift ideas, that will by the weekend be added to the CR Holiday Shopping Guide 2012. I wish I could have had all of these things in on my first try, but I'd rather give them the spotlight now than to be prideful about last weekend's effort. Please shop carefully: the Santa whose lap you save could be your own.
171. Commissioned Art From Josh Simmons
Simmons is one of our more terrifying cartoonists and image-makers, and has a unique visual sense. I would get this one for myself had I the money; I may just find the damn money. He's also selling original art from his comics here.
172. A T-Shirt From Nick Abadzis
I got one of these shirts this Fall (the Laika one, pictured) and gave another as a gift; they were solid-sellers at this year's SPX.
173. Something From Brian Wood At Shopify
The writer and designer Brian Wood has a new -- well, I think it's new -- store up at Shopify in order to make available some t-shirts, art and books.
175. Infernal Man-Thing Trade Paperback
This was suggested by CR reader John Vest as something for nostalgic fifty-somethings: it's a collection of a posthumous series by the writer Steve Gerber, working with the still very much alive and fervently adored artist Kevin Nowlan.
Karen Berger Steps Down As Vertigo Executive Editor, SVP
Official PR here. It's my impression that Berger is very well-liked in the professional community, so expect a tidal wave of tweeted well-wishes and congratulations in the hours ahead. I join them in those positive thoughts. Vertigo is a formidable professional legacy to leave behind -- a successful, industry-shaping imprint in an industry and at a company that has never managed a significant number of efforts that have operated on that level. I hope whatever it is she has planned next is personally and professionally satisfying, but speculation on the future for Berger and her imprint can wait while we take an initial measure of her impressive career-to-date, if only of the low whistle-inducing variety.
Today’s Holiday Season Mood-Lifter: At Some Point This Month Some Kid Will Discover Usagi Yojimbo
we don't know this for sure, but I think it's a pretty good bet; what it's like to enter into Stan Sakai's lovingly-depicted fictional world with over 25 volumes already completed and waiting for you is an experience I will never have, but it must be something
Franchioni began his career in Buenos Aires but moved to New York City in 1976 to better secure commercial art and cartooning assignments from the North American client list that dominated his career output at that point. He and his wife were longtime residents of Hells Kitchen. They moved back to Argentina in the mid-2000s for a more affordable lifestyle.
Arnoldo Franchioni was a prolific cartoonist in Argentinian and Chilean publications. In Argentina he did the weekly features Album De Familia (1954-1958), Camotito (1954-1959), Historias De Cinco Guitas (1954-1959) and Los Tres Malditos (1957-1962). His prominent daily gig was Candido, which ran from 1947 to 1961. Another feature, Carita Dulce, ran in several markets throughout Latin America. He had two comics in Chile: Cascarita and Huachipito, both of which ran from 1959 to 1962.
Franchioni was also a performer in the early days, working on Argentinian radio and television in the late 1950s and into the 1960s.
The artist's first comics-related gig in New York was packaging material the Stan Lee Studio, an important sideline business for the comics writer and editor in the 1960s. He worked on a number of kids book projects over the course of that decade, for Multimedia Education, Talking Page, Dan Turner Inc. and Shepsel Books. He was also a greeting card designer and created album-cover art. A short-lived daily Professor Take It Easy, ran in a single community newspaper. He began worked for Cracked in 1964, and by 1968 began a lengthy relationship with the publication that ran until the mid-1980s and then was rekindled briefly in the early 1990s. He also worked for Sick during the 1960s.
Franchioni's lengthy, first-class client list by the 1970s included MAD, the New York Times, the New York Daily News and the Washington Post. His MAD work was done mostly in the mid- to late-1970s, and included one well-liked, classic feature, "One Day In The Comics Suburbs." His collaborators at the magazine included Bob Clarke, Jack Rickard and Alexandro Olivera. The cartoonist broadened his client list in the 1980s to include publications in Turkey, Yugoslavia and Japan. He also worked for Crazy and Wacko in the early part of the decade.
In the 1990s, Franchioni worked briefly for Cracked -- as mentioned -- as well as provided at least one cartoon to the New Yorker (in '94). That same decade he would add American Medical Health, McCall's, Family Circle, Better Homes & Gardens, New Woman and Cosmopolitan as clients. Franchioni later became a frequent contributor on the Nickelodeon comics magazine efforts, where he became a favorite of the editor Chris Duffy. Duffy told CR that Franchioni was "the sweetest guy" and that working with the accommodating illustrator afforded Duffy a "lucky view into the cartooning business in the US in the '60s and '70s" through the artist's stories of the time.
He was a member of the executive committee of something his biography called the "Magazines Cartoonists Guide," where he also served as the chair of media relations.
Paste Magazine Adds 2nd Comics List, Focusing On Collections
Paste Magazine and their trio of contributors (Hillary Brown, Sean Edgar, Garrett Martin) is back with a second comics list, this one focusing on work that is collected from previous work. That's pretty much what this site does, so it's difficult for me to find fault with that approach. There are a lot of fine works on here, too. They are:
India Comic Con Puts Out 2013 Awards Call; Announces Intention To Honor The Late Mario Miranda
The India Comic Con shot out a press release this morning dated November 22 -- meaning I think that this information has been out there but they're now trying to get it out there in more effective fashion -- for their 2013 CCI Awards, calling for entries to be made before January 1 in the following categories:
* Best Graphic Novel/Comic Book Of The Year
* Best Penciller/Inker/Penciller-Inker Team
* Best Colorist
* Best Cover
* Best Writer
* Best Continuing Graphic Series
* Best Graphic Anthology
* Best Children's Illustrated Book (13 And Under)
* Best Children's Illustrated Book (13 And Over)
* Best Publication For Children
* Best Web-Only/Digital-Only Comic
* Best Children's Writer (13 And Under)
* The Comic-Con India Grant For Best Unpublished Work
That last award is interesting as it guarantees the winner a publishing contract with the convention and has a $1400 cash prize that can be put towards finishing the project in question.
The convention also announced that its lifetime achievement award would go to the extremely talented late cartoonist Mario Miranda.
The con is held February 8-10 this year; the awards ceremony will be February 7. RK Laxman won the lifetime achivement award in 2012.
The awards program jury for this year is Neelabh Banerjee, Vaibhav Kumaresh and Abhishek Sharma. They will process the entires into a short list.
Here. This is a list dominated by North American mainstream comics, albeit those backed by conventional wisdom as among the best of those efforts right now. There's one surprise, there at #10, though. That's nice.
Your Comics Representatives On The SLJ Best Adult Books 4 Teens List
Here. It's hard for me to figure out exactly what's being targeted here, as most teens I know that read just sort of naturally read all kinds of adult books, but I'll trust those nice folks to make that distinction.
Comics By Request—People, Projects In Need Of Funding
By Tom Spurgeon
* Sean Howe points out that Don McGregor could use the financial boost provided by reaching a royalties plateau with his Detectives, Inc. It would be nice to make that happen. I'll try to put this in the Gift Guide Add-Ins, too.
* it looks like Dave Sim is seeking to crowdfund the completions of his intriguing Alex Raymond serial that was being run in the now-defunct Glamourpuss. I may toss some money in the direction of that project. I personally disliked the way the High Society crowdfunder was set up in terms of number of updates, what was released and how, and the clarity with which this was communicated, so I don't know that I want anything to do with the final product if/until I run across it in a store. Still, I wish that guy well and want him to publish whatever he wants to publish however he wants to publish it.
* I suppose this is the occasion for one of those lengthy, image-filled post about the history of the Bazooka Joe comics, and I might have time to do one of those soon, but for now let's just note his demise. I think that's a good run for an advertising campaign/element like that.
What follows are a few more comics-related holiday gift ideas, that will by the weekend be added to the CR Holiday Shopping Guide 2012. I wish I could have had all of these things in on my first try, but I'd rather give them the spotlight now than to be prideful about last weekend's effort. Please shop carefully: the Santa whose lap you save could be your own.
164. Commissioned Art From Karl Stevens
His stuff is very attractive, and if this was something you were thinking about for the future you might pull the trigger now as his Failure strip has come to a close.
165. Something From The Etsy Store Shared By Michel Fiffe
I like these personally-owned Etsy set-ups where a cartoonist shares the space with a domestic partner or someone else that does something not comics. I like them even more when there's a discount involved for the holiday shopping season. I like them even more than that when the cartoonist in question is talented like Michel Fiffe.
167. A 2012 Sketchbook From Cameron Stewart
This is fine-looking on its own, and I always enjoy looking at Cameron Stewart's art, but it's also a reminder to seek out anniversary-style or year-end publications from your favorite cartoonists.
168. Something From The Great Generation Of Self-Publishers
In addition to Jeff Smith, whom we mentioned above, a number of the 1980s/1990s self-publishers are still in the game -- Dave Sim, Batton Lash (work pictured) and Terry Moore among them. The nice thing about buying from these cartoonists is that in most cases direct sales are a really important part of their business model.
169. A Copy Of Detectives, Inc. Sean Howe explains here. That's a comic from the early days of when everyone thought that the path to comics for adults was the reformation of the mainstream, both at the mainstream publishers and through independent publishers that worked to provide material that might appeal to that audience and other people besides. I remember liking it to death when I was a teen.
170. Something From J. Chris Campbell
Cartoonist and illustrator J. Chris Campbell is only taking orders for this hand-sculpted ornament until tomorrow. He has a free desktop download if you're really cheap -- I like the sweater-pattern design of it, though.
Jeff Millar, the Houston Chronicle film critic who wrote the comic strip Tank McNamara, died on November 30 after a four-year struggle with the effects of bile duct cancer. He was 70 years old.
Millar was born in Pasadena, Texas. He attended high school in League City where he was class valedictorian and then went to the University Of Texas. He began work at the Chronicle in 1964 as an entertainment writer, becoming the paper's primary film critic in 1965. He also wrote a humor column, and for a time covered major music-industry stories for the paper. He retired from the Chronicle in 2000.
Tank McNamara was created in partnership with Houston-area illustrator Bill Hinds in 1974. The two were introduced by a mutual friend that knew Millar was on the lookout for an artist for an idea about a sports-related comic strip. The feature launched in 74 papers.
The namesake lead of Tank McNamara was a former major-college and NFL football player turned sports broadcaster, allowing Millar and Hinds early satirical access to the media and the sports world, two already-massive areas of American concern that have become that much bigger in the years the strip has run. Millar and Hinds have also broadened the character's appeal from a fairly one-note ex-jock barely suited for media work into more of a reliable everyman. The strip itself would often drop its lead for days if not weeks in favor of direct satirical depictions of sports figures and athletes, even using other fictional cast members as the gateway characters.
Tank was a solid performer pretty early on in its syndication run, and today has approximately 300 clients, some of whom run the feature on their sports pages. It is also a reliable performer on-line, including the Chronicle's own site with its aggressive comics section. Tank may be best known in some circles at this point for its attention-getting, reader-generated "Sports Jerk Of The Year" promotion. The future of the strip is unknown.
Millar also launched a second comic strip, Second Chances (1996-2000) based on two supporting characters from Tank McNamara (Tank's neighbors) and his own experience with a second marriage. That was also in partnership with Hinds. Millar wrote a novel in the late '70s, and at least three of his plays were produced. He wrote until the month of his passing.
Millar is survived by a wife, his ex-wife, three sisters, two brothers, a stepdaughter and a step son, and two grandchildren. Services are scheduled for December 8.
On Friday, CR readers were asked: "In This Greatest Year For Comics Conventions And Festivals, Name Five Specific Things You Like About Specific Comics Shows." This is how they responded.
1. I like how French schoolchildren come to Angouleme in buses.
2. I like the strong drawing and art emphasis that HeroesCon has developed over the years.
3. I like the strength of the satellite events at this year's Brooklyn Comics And Graphics Festival.
4. I like the library space as utilized by TCAF.
5. I like the way San Diego consistently brings in or otherwise attracts non-North American comics-makers that I probably wouldn't get to meet otherwise, like Emile Bravo.
1. I like that San Diego's first annual Comic Fest was low-key and Hollywood-free.
2. I like how, no matter how crowded SDCC gets, I never have to wait in line to attend any presentation that I'm interested in.
3. I like how every year SDCC's Comic Arts Conference includes a couple of serious discussions about the visual aspects of comics.
4. I like that I have easy access at SDCC to practically every artist who interests me.
5. I like the convenience of SDCC's shuttle service between my inexpensive hotel in Little Italy and the Convention Center's front door.
1. I like how Minnesota's SpringCon and FallCon give free tables to all creators just because they like creators.
2. I like C2E2's location: in reference both to McCormick Place and its proximity to downtown Chicago.
3. I like knowing that even if I miss my favorite comics people at other shows, I have a really good chance of seeing them at San Diego.
4. I like Fabletown and Beyond's innovation of a convention-exclusive bar that is always attended by at least one of the show's guest creators.
5. I like that Heroes is independent and has resisted spreading its focus beyond comics.
1. I like all the comic book history related panels at San Diego.
2. I like that TCAF is free and open to the public.
3. I like that Ottawa, Ontario had a comic con and a lot of 'never been to a convention before' people showed up.
4. I like that NYCC is close by to Times Square where you can see newsstands and imagine a giant disgusting squid suddenly appearing.
5. I like that Toronto Conventions have what I perceive to be a higher ratio of cosplayers than any other convention I've been to.
1) I like what Bill Kartalopoulos describes as the "Camp Snoopy" gestalt of SPX, where practitioners and those otherwise vocationally tied to comics attend with the intention of being creatively refreshed and energized by comics.
2) I like new fandom, particularly as they are manifesting at Emerald City Comicon and conventions like it -- enthusiastic crowds of largely young people of a nearly equal gender balance who are coming to the show with a sense of excitement and curiosity and none of the stigma or alienation baggage that mine and previous generations of professionals labored under.
3) I like that San Diego now enjoys a cultural status on the order of the Super Bowl, Burning Man, or the Kentucky Derby -- a singular American experience that everybody knows about, and is, for a certain kind of person, a thing they must do at least once in their life.
4) I like the Chewbacchus parade that winds through the halls of Wizard World's New Orleans Comic Con -- the R2 D2 float/beer cooler; the X-Wing dancing ladies; the Sacred Drunken Wookie. I mean, it takes a special kind of dead inside not to.
5) I like the social dynamics of young cosplayers that manifests nicely at a show like New York Comic Con. I like how the elaborate costume making craft is an act of self expression that is remarked upon and shared in that scene; I like that it's an ice breaker for friendships and hook ups; I like that these folks are so entranced by the creativity of our field's creative output that invest their time, energy, creativity, labor and skill, and then save their money to meet their tribe at the convention. At NYCC it was especially noticeable because of that show's easy accessibility for young folks in the tri-state area, and for its intersection of western and eastern comics emphasis.
1. I like how LosCon's low key one-big-coffeeklatch ambiance makes it possible to meet & get caught up with friends I otherwise won't see for a year or more.
2. I like how San Diego Comic Con justifies my career choices.
3. I like how WonderCon recaptures the earlier ambiance of San Diego Comic Con before it before (in the words of my wife) "a zoo".
4. I like the much higher proportion of well-mannered people over jerks at GenCon.
5. I like how surviving Pasadena's Rockin' Comic Con gives me "worst convention ever" bragging rights.
* I like how supportive cartoonists are of one another at SPX
* I like how motivated and inspired cartoonists are to show their best work at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphic Fest.
* I like how the NYCC gives creators a severely discounted three-day badge.
* I like that CAKE has Edie Fake's help in organizing it.
* I like how open and generous with their time Tom Spurgeon and Heidi McDonald are at every con I go to, getting the chance to talk to both of these informed and charming class acts is always one of the highlights of any con I go to.
* I really like the way Emerald City Comic-Con mixes all the comic creators together so that big name draws are seated right next to self-publishers. Very egalitarian!
* I like the way Tr!ckster enhances the San Diego Comic Con experience. After the mayhem of the main con, it is great to rub elbows with creators in a low-key environment.
* I think it is awesome that every year Chris Yambar hosts Lawn-Con.
* I love that Stumptown Comics Fest is still the best place to find hand-made mini-comics!
* I like the fact that regardless of the convention, regardless of the location, every time I step on the con floor I am surrounded by people who share my love and passion of the medium.
1. I like the prominence given to artists at Indie Island at HeroesCon.
2. I like the prime focus on comics and not media tie-ins.
3. I like looking at the beautiful art pieces up for auction.
4. I like getting the opportunity meet, speak on a panel with, and engage in a book club talk with Jaime Hernandez.
5. I like seeing the range of programs from its 30 years.
1) I like that Fluke is a small show at the beginning of the con season where you can actually talk to you pals and catch up before the madness of the bigger shows.
2) I like that HeroesCon has basically become an original comics art and sketch show and that (more importantly) the attendees come to pay for that art and those sketches.
3) The diversity at SPX. Both in the exhibitors and the attendees.
4) Not paying for a ticket to DragonCon and just going to the bar at night and drinking with all the guests and cosplayers.
5) A whole row of tables with ten cent comics at RobCon in Bristol TN. (I've got at least 20 left to read from the last show.)
1. I like that C2E2 continues to grow, and in its third year has already graced the Midwest with a "major" con for the first time in a decade or so.
2. I like the "CBR Bar" at C2E2. A great draft beer list, a fun menu of comics themed cocktails, a huge good-natured crowd full of comics creators willing to hang out with the hoi polloi, and reasonably fast service considering the size of said crowd. Pretty much everything you could ever ask for in after-con entertainment.
3. I like that St. Louis has a viable comic convention in Project Comic Con. Now if only they could find a venue to hold it in that would allow Artist's Alley and the retailers to be in the same room...
4. I like that CAKE exists, and that I'll hopefully be able to go to it next year.
5. I like that Planet Comicon in Kansas City is doing such great business that it outgrew its home and is moving to a bigger, more central location. That is a great "small" con, the kind that attracts mainstream comics/sci-fi fans that are still willing to wander Artist's Alley and meet indie creators. If they play their cards right, it could be the next Heroes Con some day.
1. I like that Comiket draws over 500,000 people twice a year.
2. I like that there are now Comic Con India and Middle East Film & Comic Con, and that -- even though I can't go to either -- we can still get decent news about the two shows here in the U.S.
3. I like that I'll probably be in Chicago to attend both CAKE and C2E2 in 2013.
4. I like that there is almost too much video & online coverage of San Diego to take in real-time, and the sensory overload rivals actually being there.
5. I like that the University of Chicago's "Comics: Philosophy & Practice Conference" was a thing this past year, even if something like it never happens again.
1. I like how at Heroescon Jaime Hernandez drew Maggie brushing her hair in response to a story about how my wife's former roommate tried to get her hair to look like Maggie's.
2. I like how at Heroescon I got to ask Colleen Doran if she thought things had changed in the comics biz Re:sexism since she gave a critical interview about it a decade ago (her answer: things have changed completely!).
3. I like that Brian Bolland was patient with my questions at Heroescon a year or so back.
4. I liked having Tom Spurgeon point out that Don Rosa was in attendance at Heroescon as a fan, not on the guest roster, just buying comics and keepin' it real.
5. I liked having my pubescent mind blown by Trek-A-Thon in Chattanooga during the 80s glut, via a dealer's floor packed with insane fannish memorabilia and third-party small press comics I'd never seen on the drug store spinner rack.
1. I like how Thought Bubble in Leeds has a dancefloor, DJed by UK comics creators and retailers, that runs until 4am.
2. I like how NYCC gives me the perfect excuse to visit New York, as well as being a great time in its own right.
3. I like how Bristol International Comic Con is like a glowing hearth around which comic creators can congregate and enjoy each others' warmth.
4. I like how during Hi-Ex, in Aberdeen, there's always loads of kids running around, having fun.
5. I like how the Canny Comic Con in Newcastle is growing from its small beginnings last year into a convention to rival them all. It's next weekend, as a matter of fact. See you there!
1. I like how Boston Comic Con has grown and evolved since I started going in college.
2. I like that the Festival BD au Féminin ("Women in Comics Festival") is a thing.
3. I like the even though NYCC has gotten huge, it's still mostly comics.
4. I like how SPX invited me to be on a panel in 2011.
5. I like the fantastic reputation GeekGirlCon has gotten after only two shows.
1. I like the relationship between SPX and the Library of Congress, and Warren Bernard as the public face of that relationship and the show in general. I hope to one day go.
2. I like many, many things about TCAF, including their strength in bringing in international guests.
3. I like San Diego's tenacious commitment to comics even as that aspect of the show becomes more and more marginalized.
4. I like the quarter/50-cent/dollar bins at Seattle's Jet City show.
5. I like the ambition and DIY spirit of Seattle's Short Run show.
3. 2013 looms as the traditional first huge comics event, the festival in Angouleme, announces its official selection list. It seems to this eye full of a lot of North American and more genre-focused comics talent than ever before.
Loser Of The Week
Comics in general, for the loss of a great cartoonist like Spain Rodriguez and all the losses of recent days, weeks and months more generally.
Quote Of The Week
"All those pages of chores and worries and marital recriminations, and the despair and terror that preceded them, drawn with such unsparing care, were, at the same time, showing exactly that: an idea of a happy life, and how it came to be." -- Gabriel Winslow-Yost
today's cover is from the small-press and independent comics scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s