Thursday, December 9, 2010

Neil Gaiman on NPR

In case you missed it, Neil Gaiman was on Talk of the Nation on NPR this afternoon. You can listen to it here.

Host Neal Conan, who recently interviewed Robert and Sophie Crumb, gave himself away. When one listener noted she went to the comic book store “every month,” Conan piped up with: “Every month? New comic books come out every Wednesday.”

Conan also confessed he enjoyed Gaiman’s Sandman series so much he couldn’t bear to finish the last couple issues.

Gaiman was on the show to promote The Best American Comics 2010, which he edited.

Battle Angel Alita: Last Order 14

It’s more like “Lost Order.” Volume 13 of this series came out way back in June.

I’ve mentioned this before, but Viz seriously tampers with the patience and, frankly, loyalty of fans of Yukito Kishiro’s epic tale. With seven months between English-language editions, we’ll never see the conclusion … or by then, we won’t have the mental faculties to comprehend what’s going on.


In any case, volume 14 of Alita’s/Gally’s/Yoko’s excellent adventure — it really is one long tale, filled with honor, horror, bravery, humor, fantasy and grit — is set to be published Jan. 11. I love this story and I strongly recommend it.

See some earlier posts on this series here and here, which have links to even earlier posts. (I also suggest reading that first post of mine before starting “Battle Angel,” as it fills in a lot of the back story.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life in Comics

In Michael Schumacher’s lively 2010 biography of Spirit creator Will Eisner, Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life in Comics, he tells of Eisner’s first visit to a comic book convention, in New York in 1971.

Eisner wanted to see what underground comix were all about and to meet some of those cartoonists. Imagine his shock when the 54-year-old child of the Great Depression happened to pick up a copy of Zap that featured an S. Clay Wilson story involving a character whose penis is cut off and eaten.

Kitchen Sink Press publisher Denis Kitchen tried to assure the visibly upset Eisner this wasn’t a typical underground story. But also present was a young cartoonist named Art Spiegelman, who decided to speak up in defense of Wilson’s work.

Eisner left and did not return, Schumacher writes.

Come forward 39 years, to this past month’s Festival of Cartoon Art at Ohio State University — a conference that over the years has brought many established and up-and-coming cartoonists (including Eisner himself in its early years).

Bizarro cartoonist Dan Piraro entertained the audience during his afternoon presentation with what easily could pass for a stand-up comedy routine. At one point, he told about his flight to Columbus from New York City, during which a male passenger some rows ahead got up while the seatbelt sign was still lit.

A flight attendant turned on the public-address system and ordered the passenger to sit down, which he reluctantly did, muttering something to the effect of, “All right, all right already.” The attendant then stormed over to the passenger’s seat and continued to berate him, according to Piraro.

After the attendant left, the indignant passenger, a la Rodney Dangerfield, looked around to the rest of passengers as if to say, “Did you see how she treated me?”

And that’s when Piraro realized, “Holy ****, that’s Art Spiegelman!”

Some things don’t change, apparently.

Spiegelman, who was in one of the front rows at the conference when Piraro told this anecdote, denied none of it.

See my earlier posts on the conference here, here, here and here. And on one of Eisner’s graphic novels, A Contract With God, here.

Monday, November 8, 2010

“R. Crumb’s The Bible Illuminated” Exhibit

You wouldn’t think just pasting up all the pages from R. Crumb’s book, The Book of Genesis Illustrated, would be that great of an art exhibit.

But there is a lot to be said for being able to stand a nose-length from those black-and-white drawings. You can study every stroke — how Crumb drew thinner bands of horizontal striations for his night sky, the “pockets” of hatchings within solid black to depict folds for all-black robes.

The exhibit, officially titled “The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis,” also features a casement brimming with materials Crumb collected for reference — old comic books, children’s bibles and colorful display cards from cheesy Biblical and sword-and-sandals movies.

The show runs through Jan. 16, 2011, at the Columbus Museum of Art. (It probably travels on to some other place after that, I imagine.) I viewed it while back in town during the 10th Festival of Cartoon Art at Ohio State University.

My posts on the OSU cartoon conference can be read here, here and even more here.

Next Monday, Nov. 15, the Columbus Museum will show the documentary, Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, with a discussion with the director, Andrew Cooke, and a chat with “Crumb” curator Lisa Dent.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Festival of Cartoon Art — Snippets, Part 3

I’d be remiss not to mention how … well, nice everyone was at this year’s Festival of Cartoon Art.

Lynn Johnston on the spot did a marvelous sketch for me to give to a friend who’s been cutting my hair for a year now in exchange for only occasional payoffs in home-baked cookies. (I won’t mention his name, as others who’ve been paying in more than cookies don’t feel abused.) He was delighted.

Gene Luen Yang also did a clever sketch of the Monkey King for my wife. Yang’s American Born Chinese is one of the few graphic novels she’s ever read without my coercion. (Maus is another.)

And curator and emcee Lucy Shelton Caswell remained cheerful throughout. I interviewed her way back when the cartoon library started, I think — and before it was officially called the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. That was for Ohio Magazine (several owners ago). I spoke with her again a few years later for another story I assigned when I was editor at Acclaim magazine, also in Columbus, on the Caniff collection and cartoons in general.

On that second occasion, she allowed us to use some Terry and the Pirates art to go with the magazine feature. (We also managed to get Bill Watterson to speak for the story about the reduction of cartoon panel size in daily newspapers.) Then as now, Lucy was generous with her time and knowledge.

See my earlier posts on the conference here and here. One more post to come, on the Columbus Museum of Art’s astonishing R. Crumb exhibit, “The Bible Illuminated” and its Nov. 15 showing of the documentary, Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Festival of Cartoon Art — Snippets, Part 2

Patrick McDonnell, creator of Mutts, wasn’t the only animal lover who spoke at the 10th Festival of Cartoon Art this past week. Bizarro cartoonist Dan Piraro showed a slide of him, cigar in mouth, proudly holding a rather large chicken.

He and his wife, he noted, are board members of an animal sanctuary that, along with the usual dogs and cats (and hopefully rabbits, too), also rescues chickens. Who would have guessed?

Other things I learned at the Ohio State University four-day event:

Robert Harvey, speaking of his 952-page Milton Caniff bio, Meanwhile …, told me, “Believe it or not, what got printed was only 60 percent of what I wrote.”

James Sturm, whose The Golem’s Mighty Swing was Time magazine’s best graphic novel in 2001, said: “Cartooning is a calling first, a career second.”

He talked a bit about the Center for Cartoon Studies, the cartooning school in White River Junction, Vt., for which he is director. Seth did the catalog cover.

Dave Kellett, whose book, How to Make Webcomics, I picked up at the Wexner Center shop during the conference and have been reading (and could have used two years ago before I my own online strip, Slipped), contended newspapers and comics are parting ways. This is because, he said, “In the mind of the average consumer, the newspaper comic strip” — such a small percentage of the daily paper’s content — “has always been free.”

In fact, he continued, the medium of comics is dying, though the art form of comics is not

• Speaking of the topicality of editorial cartoons, Jen Sorensen, of the weekly alternative editorial cartoon Slowpoke, noted many readers are “ahistorical” — meaning they know little about history, not that they don’t exist within history, of course.

One more post on the conference to come, I think, plus a post on the Columbus Museum of Art’s astonishing R. Crumb exhibit, “The Bible Illuminated.”

See my earlier post on this conference here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Festival of Cartoon Art — Snippets, Part 1

This year’s sold-out Ohio State University event was very much as I recall the very first Festivals of Cartoon Art — lots of speakers and panelists covering comic strips, comic books, graphic novels, editorial cartoons and animation (plus, this year, much talk about online comics), as well as professionals who weren’t presenters but came anyway.

So along with the presenters such as Art Spiegelman (Maus), Matt Groening (Life in Hell and The Simpsons), Jen Sorensen (Slowpoke), Dan Piraro (Bizarro) and Bill Griffith (Zippy), also milling around between sessions was Lynn Johnston (For Better or For Worse), Jeff Smith (Bone), editorial cartoonist J.P. Trostle, New Yorker art editor Francoise Mouly and Jeff Keane (The Family Circus). And those are just the ones I happened to spot.

Here are some bits of wisdom I picked up during and between sessions:

• Comics, declared James Sturm (The Golem’s Mighty Swing), are not a combination of writing and drawing, but of poetry and graphic design. Nicely put, right? Read that again.

Jan Eliot (Stone Soup) draws how people “feel, not how they look.” She added it’s hard to come up with kids-outdoors ideas — in the woods, playing in snow — not already done by Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes).

Roz Chast, one of The New Yorker’s 20 staff cartoonists, submits five cartoons a week for consideration.

She noted an idea evolves as she draws it. She confessed to resubmitting rejected ideas, months later and after “some reworking.” “Everybody does it,” she added.

Gene Luen Yang, discussing his American-Born Chinese graphic novel, recalled his mother told him not to draw the Monkey King barefooted. The centuries-old character always wore shoes, she claimed, because he didn’t want “people to know he’s a monkey.” Which, of course, dovetails beautifully with Yang’s primary theme of cultural ambivalence.

Dave Kellett, creator of Sheldon and one of the authors of the book How to Make Webcomics, discussed the benefits of disintermediation — how, for online comics, there is the artist and audience, and all the people in the middle of the traditional food chain are gone.

More to come on this year’s very worthwhile event ….

A link to the Festival’s site is here.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Feiffer on Diane Rehm radio show

On this morning’s broadcast of The Diane Rehm Show on NPR, cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer was asked by a call-in listener whom he would cite as being as inspirational among today’s cartoonists as Will Eisner had been for him.

Feiffer, on air to promote his book from this past spring, Backing Into Forward, immediately claimed G.B. Trudeau was still at the top of his game with Doonesbury.

But newspaper strips, he added, were an endangered species, with graphic novels being where one can see excellent examples of sequential art today.

Feiffer noted the usual suspects — Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware. But he also lauded David Small and his Stitches and Craig Thompson for his Blankets. Which is interesting as the two look somewhat similar, with their soft brush strokes, and both are memoirs of less-than-cheery childhoods.

But both books are well worth reading and admiring.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Doonesbury at 40

Like ice cream flavors, superstar newspaper comics strips have their day. Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Dilbert, Garfield — they all highlighted refrigerator doors and office cubicles. Doonesbury was like that.

At one Cartoon Festival at Ohio State University in the early 1980s, a professional cartoonist in the audience asked a panelist who represented G.B. Trudeau’s syndicate why the Doonesbury artist was allowed to have a shorter lead time. He must, the questioner insisted despite repeated denials — how else could he be so timely?

And while it might be the political jibes many longtime readers recall, the human touches were what made the strip not only better than most, but a story we looked for each day.

You can’t deny what got you wasn’t as much seeing D.B.’s missing limb, lost in the Iraq war, but the character, for the first time, without a helmet.
Or when Lacey died, just fading out of the frame.

Moreover, when he wasn’t telling truth to power, Trudeau was very, very funny. Often, he still is.

Now comes 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective. In the tradition of those enormous Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes anthologies, the very funny Doonesbury has its day again.

Release date will be Oct. 26. The book will weigh in with 1,800 strips and 18 essays by Trudeau.

You can read an excerpt in The Atlantic here.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates

Mark Twain once said — at least I recall it was Mark Twain, rather than Ben Franklin, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker or Groucho Marx — most writers really would prefer you read what they wrote instead of reading biographies about them.

Finding out how artists came by their inspirations and how they developed their crafts sometimes can be as fascinating as their actual work. Certainly Robert C. Harvey’s Meanwhile …., his book on Milton Caniff, is extensive and well worth the effort, with a good many samples of the cartoonist’s drawings. (You can read my posts on the biography here, here and here.)

But keep in mind IDW has been publishing handsome editions of the Ohioan’s masterwork, Terry and the Pirates. In black-and-white and color from 1934 on, you follow the adventures of Terry Lee, Pat Ryan and Connie — the “three modern musketeers,” Caniff called them — and their assorted friends — Burma, Normandie Drake, Big Stoop — and enemies — Judas, the Dragon Lady, bandits, Chinese pirates and, eventually, the whole of the Axis military.

Terry may not have been the original adventure newspaper comic strip, but certainly the most sustained and sophisticated.

Hotsy doodle.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Milton Caniff, Part 3

While I’ve noted Robert C. Harvey’s 952-page tribute to cartoonist Milton Caniff is far too hefty for casual reading — trying holding it upright while lying in bed at night — I don’t want to suggest it’s not worthy.

Meanwhile … is exhaustive, and that’s part of its virtue, too. Points in the text are aptly supported with examples from Caniff’s work, as well as from contemporaries and pals Al Capp, Noel “Bud” Sickles and others. And it boasts a good number of photos, including even a couple shots of the walls of the Palm, the 1930s speakeasy where New York City-based cartoonists hung out and drank, when not scribbling their work on the vertical surfaces.

Yes, Harvey and Fantagraphics could have broken this into two volumes or, gee, maybe left out a few details. (While waxing about Caniff’s first arrival in Manhattan to work for Associated Press, Harvey names all the theaters Caniff could have spied while standing at 42nd Street and Broadway … and the names of what shows were playing there and who was starring in them.)

But if you want to know just about everything about how the oft-called Rembrandt of the Comics rose and rose even more in his chosen profession — from early days in Ohio to chatting with U.S. presidents — this is the golden source. Nary a negative word is said about its subject, but I can’t imagine finding a more thorough and entertaining trove of information.

Read my earlier posts on this book here and here.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

‘9 Chickweed Lane’ saga still going

My second guess was correct. Brooke McEldowney’s nine-month-long newspaper-strip tale of parted WWII lovers didn’t end this past month but took yet another lap as Juliette and her daughter, Edda, discover Peter Kiesl — recently revealed to be Juliette’s biological father — alive in Vienna.

Kiesl follows them back to New Hampshire to show up at Edna’s (Juliette’s mother and his lover in New York City) front yard.

Will he stay? Will he go? The story, it seems, continues ….

Read my earlier post on this here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Milton Caniff, Part 2

In a post way back in April, on In the Studio: Visits With Contemporary Cartoonists, I noted Chris Ware’s comment about how comics could have evolved using single-scene tableaus, rather than imitating motion picture camera techniques.

“This is the course comics should’ve taken before they got sidetracked and transformed by the language of cinema in the 1930s,” Ware said, speaking appreciatively of the work of Japanese cartoonist Suiho Tagawa.

If anyone is to blame — if blame is the right word — for comics’ path of movie-like perspectives, that would be Milton Caniff. His Terry and the Pirates — as with his pal Noel Sickles’s Scorchy Smith — for the first time employed close-ups, overhead angles and other dramatic viewpoints not seen before in the newspaper strips of the 1930s.

In Meanwhile …: A Biography of Milton Caniff, Robert C. Harvey tells how Caniff developed this camera-lens eye. As a child in California, where he spent part of youth when not in Ohio, he hung around the fledgling movie industry, out in the dusty California desert. Often he was picked as an extra in the seat-of-their-pants productions.

That's what first gave him a taste for the cinematic.

You can read my first post on this book here.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Milton Caniff, Part 1

In Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Henry Holt and Co., 2006), Charles J. Shields takes fewer than a handful of paragraphs to discuss rumors Truman Capote wrote part or all of Pultizer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird. (He didn’t, apparently.)

But in Meanwhile …: A Biography of Milton Caniff, Robert C. Harvey consumes an entire 10-page appendix to ruminate on “How (Noel) Sickles Inspired Caniff But Didn’t Draw for Him.” Ten pages.

No question, at 952 pages in total, Meanwhile … is a doorstop of a biography, loaded with illustrations from Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon and other Caniff works, samples from other cartoonists, explanations of those illustrations and more post cards and letters sent to and from Caniff than you can image. Plus insights and recollections from the man himself.

Heavy stuff.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Stan Lee

In a glossary at the back of his It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, Seth defines Marvel Comics this way:

“Back in the 1960s it was a wonderfully fun line of comics books — especially the Kirby and Ditko stuff. Now, it’s a hateful media conglomerate that popularizes bad drawing.”

By “hateful” I’m not sure if Seth specifically means the big-budget movies, the “bad drawing” or how Marvel has treated illustrators and creators — or all of the above. But to get some detail on the years-long battle involving Marvel, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jim Shooter and lots of lawyers over the rights to ideas, characters and art work, take a look at Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book.

Authors Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon try to be even-handed and give all sides equal space to air their recollections of who promised what to whom when. Chapter 19, “Step Right Up!,” details Kirby’s struggle to reclaim the 8,000 pages of art he did for Marvel and what Lee did — or did not do — to help his former colleague.

As a bonus, the rarely heard-from Steve Ditko pops up as a Greek chorus, pretty much to keep everyone else more or less honest. Which isn’t easy as, all things considered, it wasn’t pretty.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman

When last we saw our heroes, Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster of Cleveland, Ohio, were still fuming as they came to realize how much they’d lost by signing away the rights, for a relative pittance, to their creation who could leap tall buildings with a single bound.

Hoping to catch lightning in a bottle a second time — and on this occasion hold onto it — illustrator Shuster, a fan of Danny Kaye, came up with the idea of Funnyman, a character who looked very much like the movie comedian and was, well, funny. Siegel, returning from service in World War II, recast Funnyman as a crime fighter. And the two were off again in hopes of fame and comics glory.

Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon tell the tale of Funnyman’s short life, and include samples of the comic book and the newspaper strips that appeared from 1948 to 1949, in Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero, From the Creators of Superman. The book, published in paperback just this past month, also dwells on the character’s origins — as well as that of Krypton’s most famous son — in Jewish culture and humor, as the book’s subtitle suggests.

As for the character himself and the comics world he inhabited, the humor is dated — oversized clown shoes with springs, baggy polka-dot pants, goofy gadgets, ludicrous villains and countless prat falls.

That said, based on the evidence of this book there’s no denying Funnyman, for all its shtick, was silly and entertaining. “Aw,” its hero would reply if he were still around, “it was nuttin’.”

Saturday, August 14, 2010

New ‘Crumb’ From Criterion

Crumb, the 1995 documentary on the genius that is Robert Crumb and his odd family, has been released on DVD and Blu-ray by the always classy Criterion Collection.

It features a new commentary track by director Terry Zwigoff, a booklet and deleted scenes.

The movie talks about Crumb’s working style and his influences. It also spends time on his siblings, one of whom devoted his days to moving a long string through his digestive system.

Umm …. Yeah, that’s a hard image to clear.

But, still, the documentary as a whole is fascinating, one every aspiring cartoonist and documentary maker should see. (There even was a debate at the time over whether Zwigoff, who later directed Ghost World, based on Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel, should have cut the bit where his camera person stumbled and almost fell off a roof, if she hadn’t been grabbed by the cartoonist himself.)

‘Cathy’ to Cease

I once saw Cathy Guisewite on a panel in Columbus at one of Ohio State University’s early Festivals of Cartoon Art, oh, back in the 1980s. She was on stage with Tom Batiuk, creator of Funky Winkerbean; Irwin Hasen, whose name topped the Dondi newspaper strip; and Fred Lasswell, whose name ran with the Snuffy Smith strip.

One highlight of the discussion came after an audience member asked how much time was required to produce a daily and Sunday strip. Hasen and Lasswell, who confessed to using an unspecified number of assistants, claimed they only spent a couple hours a day, at most.

Guisewite, pop-eyed and open-mouthed, looked at the audience in comic disbelief. She then banged her forehead repeatedly on the table, much to the amusement of all in attendance … except maybe for Hasen and Lasswell.

She and Batiuk, who each produced their strips solo in those days (and maybe still do), both said their work consumed every waking moment.

The distinction between the old and new guard couldn’t have been clearer.

Guisewite, now 60, has announced she’ll stop her strip, Cathy, Oct. 3 — she wants to spend more time with her family, she said. While over time Cathy has become formulaic — panel 1: statement; panel 2: build on statement; panel 3: increase absurdity of statement; panel 4: Cathy makes a wry observation … or “Aack!” — in its late-1970s heyday it broke ground. The strip addressed everyday silliness of office work and the single life for women. Greeting cards followed.

And Cathy — the cartoon character and the cartoonist — could be very funny.

Monday, August 9, 2010

‘9 Chickweed Lane’ Ends WWII Tale?

It appears Brooke McEldowney might be coming to conclusion of his eight-month-long storyline in 9 Chickweed Lane of grandmother Edna’s flashback about her days as a USO singer and spy during World War II.

Or maybe he’s just getting his second wind. After all, the tale ends — if this is the end — with Edna confessing to her daughter, Juliette, that Austrian opera singer Peter Kiesl, whom she met when he was a prisoner of war in England, is Juliette’s father — not Edna’s husband, American war hero (and her handler as a spy) Bill O’Malley.

Surely there’ll need to be long, agonizing talks with granddaughter Edda and just about everyone else in the strip. Not one of these characters seems to be able to keep a secret.

But it was an intriguing story and never flagged. Bravo.

Read my post on the start, more or less, of this storyline here.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

2010 Eisner Awards

Winners of 2010 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards of note — well, to me, at least, and readers of this blog — presented at this year’s Comic-Con in San Diego include:

Best Adaptation from Another Work:
Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter, adapted by Darwyn Cooke (IDW)

Best Comics-Related Book:
The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics, by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle (Abrams ComicArts)

• And Vault of Midnight comic book store — I’ve followed it in its various locations around Ann Arbor, Michigan, over the years, and I stop in every time I’m in town — won the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Hunter

Darwyn Cooke, who revived Will Eisner’s The Spirit a few years back, perfectly captures the tone of early 1960s Camelot, with its cocktails and cigarettes, hour-glass-shaped willing women and Space Age hotel exteriors — at least, that world of fictional tough-guy detectives — in his adaptation of crime writer Donald E. Westlake’s The Hunter.

In smoky, moody blues and deep blacks, the protagonist Parker, eyebrows perpetually cocked, pounds the urban pavement as well as his urbane enemies, leaving gorgeous “dames” panting after him — assuming they’re still breathing at all when he leaves them. Listen and you can hear the Miles Davis soundtrack.

The story certainly isn’t populated with Salvation Army types. But these characters grab us (hopefully not by the throat) and stick with us.

“I just got rid of the woman with the bag. I haven’t killed any of these jokers yet, but the next one I will. And if the money doesn’t show, you’re next.” Krak! Bam! Hunf!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Clyde Fans Book 1

I’ve just finished Seth’s Clyde Fans Book 1 — collected from issues 10-15 of his comic book, Palookaville — and I suppose, all things considered, it’d be too much to hope for a happy ending at the conclustion of Book 2 ….

As with other stories of his, Seth’s pacing is the genius of his work.

Part 1 of this book consists of Abe Marchcard, in 1997, wandering through the offices, the residence above and the basement below of family-owned Clyde Fans, now out of business. He putters, picks things up, puts them down somewhere else, straightens a picture, takes a bath, lights a cigar, prepares supper, goes outside and comes back in, turns on a radio and moves on, for 68 pages — all the while telling us about the company’s history, salesmanship in general and his brother, Simon, in particular.

Part 2 shows Simon attempting to make cold calls in 1957, in the town of Dominion (a regular stopping-off point for Seth characters in others stories). He’s anxious, lacking in self-confidence and sales skill — he’s clearly is not suited to this affable, self-driven line of work. He’s sweating in winter.

Seth punctuates Simon’s movements around town with panels of Abe, testily puffing his cigar — “Are you listening to me, Simon?” “Selling isn’t a game.” “I don’t think you’re up for this.” — to reinforce Simon’s own awareness of his failing. The memories keep intruding.

At one point during his miserable day, Simon stops in a diner and he’s surrounded — in the eatery and on the page — by other patrons talking, talking, talking about their lives, aspirations, opinions and gossip. Simon is desperately trying — belatedly — to create a life. They are living theirs.

Friday, July 23, 2010


I started adding chapter titles in my own adventure comic strip, Slipped, when I arrived at chapter 100 this past April. I was inspired by the titles I saw above the daily strips in an out-of-print copy of Arf: The Life and Hard Times of Little Orphan Annie 1935-1945 that I’d recently tracked down.

Chapter 114 is titled “Recollection or Confabulation?” In one panel the protagonist, Tyler Wilson, aka adventurer and thief the Scarlet Sparrow, says she writes for a football (soccer) newspaper in Paris. (It seemed, to me, like a good occupation for her.)

The problem is I tried to draw her eyes looking up and to her left, as they do when you’re trying to remember something. (She’s been time-traveling, so she needs to think for a moment to separate what’s occurred from what’s to come.)

But I saw in fact I’d drawn them going to her right — which is what happens when you’re lying.

I erased them and redrew, with her eyes now looking to the left. But the picture just didn’t look quite … right. And it occurred to me: For whatever reason, she’s lying.

So I did her eyes yet again, as you see them, up and to her right. She is intentionally misleading her listeners — and you and me. She isn’t a football writer, apparently. Or maybe she doesn’t remember what she did for a living before becoming the Scarlet Sparrow, so she’s improvising. As the psychology term indicates, Tyler’s confabulating.

This was not the first time my characters have dictated what happens in the strip.

Award-winning short-story writer David Means (author of the just-released The Spot, among other collections), in an interview I conducted with him a couple weeks ago for a freelance story I wrote for the Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper, admitted his characters often surprise him.

“They do things you don’t expect,” he agreed. But they don’t take over storylines, as some writers (me included — see this earlier post) have suggested. “It’s not magic. It’s controlled magic.”

Hmmm. Maybe. Let me just check with my Slipped characters to find what they have to say about this ….

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Ultimates

Giant Man to Son of Satan: “Are you really Satan’s son?”

The reply: “Are you on crack?”

I was delighted to find my stack of The Ultimates, series 1 and 2, just last week. While it’s true that after you move three times in 18 months you’re happy to relocate anything recognizable, I discovered these stories still packed their initial power.

Marvel Comics broke ground in its early days by setting its superheroes in the real world. What if people with super powers didn’t really get along? What if Spider-Man had to earn a living? Who covered the rent at the Baxter Building? What writer Mark Millar and illustrator Bryan Hitch did next, first with The Authority, then with The Ultimates, was take that notion and color it post-9/11.

Before, the Fantastic Four fought giant monsters in deserted districts of Manhattan (if there even ever were such areas). In The Ultimates, whole chunks of that heavily populated city — as well as LA, Chicago, Phoenix and the nation’s capitol — could be decimated.

Along with these grim times, and the pages’ black borders, anyone could be betrayed, maimed, tortured or killed in this Avengers updating. Giant Man a wife-beater? The Black Widow a traitor? Thor a deluded paranoid only imagines he’s the god of thunder? Yet Millar and Hitch (who also did the redesign of the TARDIS for the re-launch of Doctor Who, in 2005) pulled it all off with great panache and wit.

A bound Bruce Banner being thrown out of an airborne SHIELD helicopter so he’ll turn into the Hulk. Super-marksman Hawkeye dispatching armed villains with only his bloody, ripped-off fingernails as deadly projectiles. The Scarlet Witch taunting Loki by “increasing the odds of someone showing up to kick your ass” — then a cascade of lightning heralding the appearance of the god of mischief’s half-brother, Thor: “Looking for trouble, Loki?”

And, in the final panel of issue 13, at the end of series 2, a flashback to 1942: Sunny Steve Rogers, before he ships off for the Super Soldier project that turns him into dreary Captain America, gathers his girlfriend, Gail, into his arms and kisses her. A close-enough re-imagining of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous Life Magazine photo taken on V-E Day in Times Square.

Wonderful stuff.

Quicksilver to his sister, the Scarlet Witch: “Wanda, were you just flirting with that machine?”

Friday, July 16, 2010

Low Moon, Part 2

Jason uses pacing, and very little dialog, to convey his stories’, and his characters’, mood. One example: In the “Low Moon” story from which this collection takes its title, bad guy Bill McGill, newly arrived back in town, goes up the hotel stairs. In the next panel, he knocks on a door. In the third panel we see a woman standing in the open doorway. In the fourth, she says, “Well, look what the cat dragged in.”

Another example: In the upper-left panel, the sheriff leaves his office. In panel two, he’s walking along the street. The third panel has him going through a doorway, his back to us. The fourth panel shows him standing still, arms at his side, silently facing a chess set — his inescapable destiny in his upcoming confrontation with Bill McGill.

For a faster-moving narrative, the artist could have used only panels two and four in both these examples. We’d still understand what’s going on, filling in the blanks with our imaginations. But Jason’s tight control of that speed tells us he’s building to something.

Read my earlier post on this book here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Quitter

Graphic novel and comic book writer Harvey Pekar died yesterday at the age of 70. His persona probably wouldn’t have allowed him to admit much of anything good ever happened to him.

The final panel of 2005’s The Quitter, illustrated by Dean Haspiel, shows the worried author, in tight closeup and looking directly at us: “I’ve always dreamed of being able to relax and feel trouble-free for long stretches of time. I’m 65 now. Will it ever happen?”

But good things did happen.

One the most fortuitous events would have to be his becoming friends with Robert Crumb, who encouraged Pekar’s comics writing and who lent his own mastery to illustrate some of the Clevelander’s work.

Pekar’s first collection, American Splendor, won the American Book Award in 1987. A few years later the book was made into a sad, charming and intelligent movie starring Paul Giamatti, as Pekar, and Hope Davis, as his wife Joyce Brabner.

His graphic novel, Our Cancer Year, won the Harvey Award in 1994.

Add to that the large number of readers, fans and would-be comics writers he inspired.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Low Moon, Part 1

While Norwegian cartoonist Jason’s stories are unremittingly downbeat, he certainly manages to evoke sympathy with his blank-eyed (think Little Orphan Annie), stringbean-like dog and duck characters.

In Low Moon, two of his stories come straight from the movies, tales of men with their backs to the wall. “Low Moon” retells High Noon, except with a chess showdown instead of gunfire, and “Proto Film Noir,” though it starts out with cavemen … or cave-dogs, I guess … becomes The Postman Always Rings Twice — except in this case the postman rings seven times.

(Yes, I know. I’ve intentionally misunderstood the meaning of the title of James M. Cain’s novel. I did it for the joke.)

But he leavens his tales with smart asides. In the title story, a deputy and a bartender — coffee drinks only, no alcohol — pass the time by naming the stars of The Magnificent Seven. (They get stuck and the sheriff has to supply the last name, Horst Buchholz.)

More in next post ….

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Shortcomings, Part 2

Adrian Tomine’s black-and-white illustrations in Shortcomings at times seem static … and I think that’s to a purpose.

Look at the protagonist’s girlfriend, Miko Hayaski, on page 19, after she and Ben have had another in what likely has been a series of low-grade disappointments (not quite at the energy level of an argument) throughout their relationship. She leans against the wall, in her underwear, and asks Ben if he wants to go to bed. The space behind her — presumably their bedroom — is in complete darkness.

He replies he’s not tired. She smiles, and says, “Well, we don’t have to go to sleep right away.” She looks soft and vulnerable, but willing. Her meaning is abundantly clear.

Still Ben declines, contending weakly he has some newly arrived DVDs to watch.

The next panel shows Miko, dark hair, white T-shirt, against a blank white wall. She’s frowning, shoulders now slumped, defeated, and we can’t really tell if she’s looking at Ben or at the floor. Not that it matters now.

In the next panel, she’s turned away, walking back into the bedroom, alone. Back into the darkness.

Read my first post on this book here.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Shortcomings, Part 1

I got so caught up in the angst of Ben Tanaka, the cranky protagonist of Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings, a collection of 2004-2007 stories from his comic book, Optic Nerve, I missed the big clue — even though Ben himself didn’t.

He sees a series of artsy photos of his girlfriend, who’s allegedly been on an internship in New York City for the past few months. He doesn’t announce he knows the pictures were taken back in California — that is to say, before Miko arrived in New York, and therefore her relationship with the photographer began then, too — until the book’s climax.

And I thought, wait, how did he figure that …? Then he tells her, and us. So I flipped back a couple chapters. Then another. And I saw it, too.

Then I realized the clue also is all over the book’s cover, front and back.

Very clever.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Neil Gaiman

An amazing confluence: Neil Gaiman announced he’s completed his Doctor Who TV script — an award-winning comic-book, short-story and children’s-book writer (top prizes from both this country and Britain) penning a story for my all-time favorite TV show.

You can see Gaiman talk about The Graveyard Book, his love for the horror in the comic books he read as a child, and how he doesn’t worry about about being taken seriously as a writer here, on the BBC site.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

George Sprott 1894-1975

I'll make certain to keep this blog from turning into a Seth fan page. But his evocative stuff continues to amaze me.

For example, toward the end of his 2009 book, George Sprott 1894-1975, the biography of an Ontario television personality, amateur Arctic explorer, lecturer and overall heel, parts of which ran in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, the narrator speculates on Sprott’s afterlife. Is he now a ghost hovering near the woods where he played as a child? Out on the tundra having more adventures? By the bar, in the now-defunct Melody Grill, where he drank his dinner for years?

In the 25 tight panels containing the text for this one-page chapter, the artist shows us angles of downtown buildings at night — office windows, a large clock, awnings, a streetlamp, a full moon. But as we pull back and view the page as a whole, we realize they’re not separate images. The two dozen-plus squares form one scene, one image, of the city bathed in moonlight and adorned with a clear night’s stars.

We need to see the big picture. Just as the artist is telling us we must view George Sprott’s life, not in snippets, but as a complete story.

This also might be Sprott’s view from his own office, the white lines holding the panels representing his window panes, and where he sits alone in the dark, late at night.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Battle Angel Alita: Last Order Vol. 13, Part 3

Though Viz Media has been releasing the Battle Angel Alita and the Battle Angel Alita: Last Order series in a tiny format, Yukito Kishiro has managed to cram true art into those small boxes.

In fact, his art work can be magnificent. I always think of that drawing of Alita on top a Space Needle-like building, overlooking the Scrapyard below — an image writer-director James Cameron copied for his “Dark Angel” TV program.

In the most recent edition of Last Order, Kishiro lays out one of his most shocking scenes. In the first chapter of volume 13, we are shown the bestial Homme du Feu, as he tries to sort out his feelings for the gorgeous Olympe, his combat instructor and the only creature who’s ever shown him kindness. As the panels progress, and he recounts “a desire that was my torment,” the boxes themselves become angular, the type grows larger.

… Then a two-page tableau of surprising horror. I’ve been reading Kishiro for years, and I did not see this coming:

The giant crushing paw anchoring the right foreground, the small piercing white pupil-less eyes in the upper left, the dagger teeth and the destruction brought down on Olympe.

And then things get even worse.

Kishiro can turn scenes of mad violence into beauty. And does, often. It’s a rare and powerful skill.

See my earlier posts on volume 13 here and here.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Battle Angel Alita: Last Order Vol. 13, Part 2

I noted in part 1 of my posts on Battle Angel Alita: Last Order Vol. 13 that the main character, Alita, doesn’t turn up until near the end of this book, and then merely for a few panels. She’s only an observer here.

But Yukito Kishiro’s years-long series often takes side trips, exploring some incidental character’s at first seemingly minor backstory. As we follow these offshoots, we see how they affect the main plot, or enrich our understanding of why the people in Kishiro’s morality tales act as they do. In all cases, they enhance our appreciation for the cartoonist’s skills as storyteller and artist … and of humanity itself.

In the “Last Order” series, he’s told of an angry teen who became a killer; of a one-time space hero, worshipped by many, who becomes a dictator; of a nursery school and its sponsorship of a team of karate warriors; of a vampire who fought to save the human race and support King Arthur … and later do battle with Alita.

Indeed, the whole “Last Order” storyline is a branch from Kishiro’s original Battle Angel Alita series. He completed that series, moved on to another, light-hearted title, Aqua Knight. But then he returned to Battle Angel Angel. Starting from approximately four-fifths of the way along in that original story, he began a whole new track. (Which means, yes, he’s changed the happy, hopeful ending in the initial Battle Angel Alita storyline. Things have turned darker, for now. I imagine, though, James Cameron will come up with his own Alita story.)

My next post will rave once again about Kishiro’s art. See my earlier post here, which has links to previous columns about these books.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Battle Angel Alita: Last Order Vol. 13, Part 1

I’m just going to say this up front and be done with it: After Viz Media made us wait eight months for this latest installment of Yukito Kishiro’s Gunnm series — a decade after its publication in Japan, according to the copyright page — the main character appears in only a handful of panels. And then only to be seen munching on a fish. (Yes, yes, the title of this edition is “Sans Angel,” so that’s a large clue she’s not going to be making much of an appearance. But still.)

But even without her, there’s still Kishiro’s skill as a storyteller (and of course as an artist). He’s told of other star-crossed lovers — notably Gally, as the series’ protagonist is known in the rest of the world, and Hugo (Yugo). But he pulls it off again, with a fatal, too-passionate-for-life twist. It’s giving little away to mention “Sans Angel’s” key actor, Homme du Feu, a genetically engineered warrior-werewolf monster directed by the military industrial complex of Kishiro’s dense worlds, is unsure if he wants to eat his Farrah Fawcett-like combat instructor or make love to her.

As with so many of the great Battle Angel Alita love stories, this one is heart-breakingly sad, absurdly funny, repulsive, tragic and ultimately noble.

More on this book. See my earlier posts on this series here (the story of volume 12), here (the art of volume 12) and here (on Viz’s agonizing release schedule).
My first post on the Battle Angel Alita: Last Order/Gunnm books can be seen here: Reading this will help explain a lot in Kirshiro’s superb, dense, unparalleled series.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Today’s edition of USA Today gives a full-page plug to the graphic novel Troublemaker, to be released July 20 and written by Janet Evanovich and her daughter, Alex. Some three-quarters of the page is taken up with a reproduction of a page from the book.

The illustrator, Joelle Jones, gets a one-sentence mention, about halfway into the story.

Jones’s is known for her exemplary art work on Spell Checkers, 12 Reasons Why I Love Her and You Have Killed Me, among other graphic novels. To be associated with Evanovich’s big-selling Alex Barnaby series, which include Metro Girl and Motor Mouth, is not a bad thing.

But, geez, one sentence?

Toward the end of the USA Today story, Alex Evanovich says, “I don’t think the medium (graphic novels) gets nearly as much credit as it deserves. It’s not an easy job.”

Yeah. And maybe she praised Jones’s work on Troublemaker until the cats came home, and it just didn’t make the final story. We’d like to think she would encourage the national media to spread credit when the opportunity arises.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, Part 2

The way Seth works his magic is with silence. It’s how he controls pacing. Here’s an example, from pages 123 through 128 of the paperback edition of his first book, It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken:

As Seth and his friend Chet walk along a Toronto street, he bemoans his most recent breakup with a girlfriend, Ruthie. Seth and Chet stop at a tall building, which Seth notes looks “pretty … against the night sky.” In the next panel, we see the building, set against the stars.

“There’s something in the decay of old things that provokes an evocative sadness for the vanished past,” Seth says, and proceeds to ruminate on the value of lost things, on the quality of old things well made. He speculates his continuing search to track down a one-hit-wonder New Yorker cartoonist, Kalo, might be in vain and pointless.

We’re shown the building again. In the next panel, we see stars in an otherwise barren sky. Then a wider panel of other city buildings.

Next, with no fanfare, a flashback, across a two-page spread: Seth breaking up with Ruthie, and not doing it well. “You’ll regret this later,” she promises, unsmiling. “Trust me.”

Then, present day, as Seth sits in his apartment petting his cat. We see his rotary-dial telephone next to an opened phone book. Then he dials, and waits. He asks for the number of real estate office in Strathroy, another step in his quest to find Kalo.

Then a wide panel across the bottom of the page, showing that building again, and with the other buildings around it, at night.

This reminds me of what movie director Michelangelo Antonioni did in his famous trilogy from the early 1960s. Watch Jeanne Moreau walking around near the beginning of La Notte — the scene continues for long minutes, without dialog, as she and the camera look up at buildings, along empty streets, the heels of her shoes echoing. Silence and thought.

Later, on page 134’s final two panels, Seth tells us, “… It was crazy to think I could find Kalo. Only now, after studying tons of old magazines, can I see that there are literally hundreds of obscure cartoonists — any of whom could have sold, through a stroke of luck, a lone gag to The New Yorker.” (He does keep searching.)

Those panels show us a long shot of small, dark houses, few lights on in their tiny windows, peeked at through tree branches and illuminated only by moonlight. Silence and thought.

See my earlier post on this book here.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Battle Angel Alita: Last Order Vol. 13

Viz Media finally — finally — has released the next installment in the Battle Angel Alita: Last Order series (known as Gunnm in the rest of the world). The last English-language edition, volume 12, came out in October 2009; volume 13 won’t be published until January 2011.

The delays on this book are outrageous. There’s such a lengthy gap between editions of this continuing storyline I frankly can’t recall what the heck is going on. And that’s sad as Yukito Kishiro’s years-long tale of cyborgs, sports, class struggle and outer-space mayhem has been pretty great. The art, in addition, is superb. (See my very first post on Gunnm here.)

When I asked a Viz representative at the
American Library Association conference in Chicago last summer about these massive release gaps, he hesitated, then offered that Viz was current with publication of the story’s serialization in Japan.

I really think he was guessing.

See my posts here on volume 12’s story and here on the art. To come: a review of volume 13 — after I go back to reread volumes 11 and 12. Grrr ….

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Part 3

If there’s a drawback to Fantagraphic Books’s remarkable volume one of Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips, containing strips from 1933 through 1935, it would have to be Crane’s attitude toward what his characters invariably deem “savages.”

As with the Tintin books, read today we wince at the many superstitious, easily fooled and easily frightened island and jungle natives depicted in Captain Easy.

What also strikes me as equally as troubling is the wholesale slaughter of animals. Lots of animals. Pigs, cows, small dogs, horses and donkeys, fish, tigers and elephants are speared, shot and mutilated in almost every installment. Particularly pigs, for some reason. I don’t know what Crane had against pigs.

It’s especially problematic, it seems to me, because Crane also populates his strip with an abundance of smiling, cute creatures. More often than not, if we see a cow, donkey or a dog, it’s looking amused by the goings-on or sticking out its tongue in contentment.

But not for long ….

See my earlier, highly laudatory posts on this otherwise valuable book here, here and here. And you can get your hands on a copy by clicking on the cover’s image at the upper left of this post.

Monday, June 7, 2010

It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, Part 1

It’s that comma in the title, don’t you see? It’s grammatically unnecessary, but it’s inclusion seems to hearken to an older, by-gone time. Which is a key theme in Seth’s marvelous It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, a collection of stories from his Palookaville comic books.

Much of this semi-autobiographical tale follows the always-melancholic cartoonist as he visits his mother (to whom the title is attributed, as an often-spoken comment) and brother, rides trains, wonders about past girl friends, borrows money, walks a lot thinking deep thoughts about old cartoons and Canada, and, mostly, tries to track down information about a deceased cartoonist who worked in the 1940s and ’50s under the name of Kalo.

The great conceit about the book is Kalo is fictional — even though Seth has included not only samples of the cartoonist’s work culled from during his supposed rise and fall, from magazines as varied as The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire and Gee-Whiz, as well as an actual 1940s-era photo of the artist leaning against a building somewhere in Manhattan.

All of which gives Seth, as a working cartoonist himself, much to contemplate: How do we know when we’re at our peak? And how to we handle what comes later?

More to come.