A great week to be in comics


Sometimes it’s design, sometimes it’s fate, sometimes you just have a week that makes you realize you are one lucky duck indeed. Despite sometimes yucky weather, and bad train schedules, we managed to hit a dizzying array of high spots last week.

§ Wednesday night it was the “Greatest Films You Never Saw.” Set in The Boiler — an immense former industrial chamber rimmed with a giant, well, boiler — Mark Newgarden projected films from his collection of priceless oddities, while Brian and Leon Dewan, aka DEWANATRON, and their merry men improvised on drums, bass, trombones, Dewanatron, and trash that was found lying around in the street. The films were all amazing — a few are available on YouTube — but seeing them projected as film like they should be is so much more impressive. Several of the movies were from the early days of special effects and the thrill of discovering projection, animation, and other effects to these early filmmakers was infectious. One film involved a man being chased by a giant lobster, presented as both animation and a man in a lobster costume.

Also shown was the famous “The Cameraman’s Revenge” by Ladislaw Starewicz . We’re sad to admit that we were only vaguely aware of the Russian animation pioneer’s work — stop motion animation with bugs, dead animals and other magical things. “The Cameraman’s Revenge” was made in Russia in 1912 and if you like Svankmeyer and the Quay Brothers, Starewicz will definitely float your cricket cage.

At the show we also got to chat with Julia “Fart Party” Wertz and Charles “CBLDF” Brownstein so it was a full evening all around.

§ Thursday, we had a choice of events, but went with R. Sikoryak’s Carousel, slideshows by various folks, most with some kind of cartoon connection. The audience was a cartoon-a-palooza, with Scott McCloud, Alex Robinson, Mike Dawson, Bob Fingerman and Jason Little, along with participants Josh Neufeld, Tim Kreider, and Dean Haspiel. (Surely forgetting someone.) Sikoryak has been doing Carousel since 2001, and we can truthfully say we’ve never been to one that didn’t inform and entertain. Sikoryak’s own Masterpiece Comics — pastiches which seamlessly blend literature and comics characters to create a hilarious new hybrid — will be collected by D&Q later this year. Sikoryak, fine artist Jim Torok and Brian Dewan (again) are the mainstays of Carousel and they all presented new or classic work. (We found out that Dewan’s fiendishly clever and smart filmstrips are now available on DVD, and if you have never seen one, now’s your chance.) Haspiel and Joan Reilly read “Immortal” and it was definitely one of the most demented things we’ve ever witnessed, like David Lynch meets Jack Kirby.

Afterwards, a giant gang of cartooners set off for food, before splitting up into small bands for survival. We ended up at Congee Village — a place which specializes in stuff like braised duck tongue and poached fish bladder — with McCloud, Dewan, John Keane (the trombone player from the previous evening), and a smart young lady named Lisa whose last name we were unable to write down. We also managed to find more normal fare to eat, such as dumplings and Singapore mei fun. McCloud and Dewan were childhood buds and hadn’t seen each other in a decade or so, so just eavesdropping on their catch up conversation was a treat in itself. Scott had to depart early to prep for his SVA seminar the next day, but Brian and John filled us in on some of the background from the night before, and it was an evening of inspiration and revelation.

(Above, an excerpt from Jung Yeon Roh’s Today is Sushi Day. Roh was one of the young stars exhibiting at Fresh Meat.)

§ But we weren’t done YET. Friday night, it was Fresh Meat at SVA, a mini-comics fest from this year’s senior class in cartooning. Briefly catching up with Matt Madden, Tim Leong, Becky Cloonan, Vasilis Lolos, Ada Price, Nina Kester, and so on, we also scarfed up a ton of minis from a variety of fresh faced kids of an incredible variety of ethnicities, esthetics and hair styles.

There was one thing it was impossible to ignore: probably more than 50 percent of the exhibitors were women. We’ve heard that SVA’s cartooning program has been over half female for a few years now but to see it demonstrated so clearly was amazing. And it wasn’t all manga. We haven’t had a chance to go through our haul of mini booty we picked up yet, but we’ll be eager to report back when we do.

Afterwards, it was an evening with, variously, Tom Hart, the Daily Cross Hatch’s Brian Heater, Daryl Ayo, Charles Brownstein and FMB joining in the action. Brian told us how great the previous night’s WORLD WAR 3 party had been, with a slideshow and live improv jazz accompaniment — shades of the Boiler! — while Tom filled us in in the long journey of his new comic strip Ali’s House, done in collaboration with Marguerite Dabaie. Yet more ideas and inspirations. How much more could we take?

§ The answer was found Saturday when we raced past the obstruction of a street fair to get to the Great Hall at Cooper Union for the PEN World Voices Festival’s Graphic Novel afternoon. This rather eccentric space — giant pillars everywhere make “sight lines” an oxymoron — has seen both Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama speak and now it was the setting for Neil Gaiman and a bunch of news-making cartoonists. Gaiman was first up, talking about The Graveyard Book, SANDMAN, and lots more. There’s a reason why crowds line up wherever Gaiman goes — he’s always a riveting speaker and this time was no exception. Perhaps the most interesting anecdote, from our current perspective, was the one about writing an article on comics in 1987 — in the wake of the triple threat of MAUS, THE DARK KNIGHT, and WATCHMEN — for a British paper, interviewing Alan Moore, Dave Sim, Art Spiegelman and so on, only to be told by the editor that “I have a problem with it; it lacks balance. You seem to think comics are a good thing.”

Our own RSS feed is testament enough that the “Comics are cool!” piece is now a standard warhorse for the (dwindling) ranks of newspaper journalists. 20 years is a long time and the world of comics in 2009 has little to do with the world of comics in 1989 — people need to remember that.

Although Gaiman had, of course, packed the house, there was still a good crowd for the next program — Emmanuel Guibert, author of the award-winning The Photographer and Alan’s War; David Polonsky, art director of WALTZ WITH BASHIR; and Shaun Tan, whose The Arrival is both an award winner at Angoulême and a NY Times bestseller. Novelist and graphic novelist Jonathan Ames moderated, and he is a bit overpowering as a moderator, but thoughtful messages from all were delivered, especially on the process of taking someone else’s memories — as both Polonsky and Guibert have done — and filtering them through your own memories.

During this program, we sat next to CB Cebulski, who, in addition to being one of the most helpful, nicest folks in comics, has one of the best jobs — as Marvel’s talent scout, he is tasked to travel the world and find new artists. It’s definitely paid off for Marvel as their credits have swelled with fresh pens from around the globe. CB has a fascinating view of how comics are progressing worldwide, and someone should really do a longform interview with him one of these days!

The next program was Adrian Tomine interviewing Yoshihiro Tatsumi, with Anne Ishii doing the translating. Tatsumi is the pioneer of the gekiga school of manga — slice of life fiction, unvarnished and unapologetic. Even with the veil of translation, it was a riveting talk. Tatsumi-sensei is extremely modest, and the impression he gave is of a long, difficult journey with recognition hard won but greatly welcomed. It would seem that adult, literary manga has a small audience in Japan, despite the ubiquity of the form and huge circulations of the adventure stuff. (Conversations with several manga experts after the talk backed this up.) Asked about what he felt about his recognition in the US, he said “Frankly, I’m baffled that any of this has happened. I feel like it’s a dream. I don’t want to wake up. I kind of don’t care about what happened in Japan any more.” Despite these reflections of the eternal difficulty of the artistic pioneer, Tatsumi-sensei’s great insight and artistry were much on display.

After the program, there was a LONG line for the signing, with the artist doing drawings for each copy of his books. We caught up with Kai-Ming Cha and newly-hired at Vertical Ed Chavez for more talk of the current state of manga in Japan and the US. To our surprise and delight, we got an invite to dinner with the Tatsumis and Adrian, so all thanks to the great Peggy Burns for this once in a lifetime experience. At dinner (Chinese food) Tatsumi-sensei caught up with Adrian while Mrs. Tatsumi was a consummate hostess, making sure everyone had enough tofu and Sapporo. (Here it must be said that the Tatsumis were were the most adorable, hippest couple imaginable, in coordinating caps, Tatsumi-sensei in a working man’s shirt and shoes just like those his characters wear, Mrs. Tatsumi smart in a leather jacket.) They did seem to be having the most wonderful time, and we should all be proud that D&Q and the PEN Festival were able to provide that for this great artist. Tatsumi is off to TCAF now, so everyone going there should avail themselves of the opportunity to meet the master.

(It was also a treat to catch up with Peggy Burns, whom we hadn’t seen in years, with much talk of the good old days and even better new days. Peggy is one of the heroes of the flourishing of comics, and that probably doesn’t get mentioned enough.)

Was this enough for one day? Yes, BUT, we had promised to meet up with the ACT-I-VATE crew at their after party following their presentation/party at Bergen Street Comics for Free Comic Book Day. So off to Brooklyn! We walked to the train with Adrian Tomine and heard about some of his ideas for further American exploration of the gekiga school — let’s hope some of it comes to pass. (Also, must throw this in, Adrian is as nice as he is talented.)

Arriving at an Irish bar on Bergen Street, the whole crew was there — Dino, Simon Fraser, Leland Purvis, Rami Efal, Laura Lee Gullidge, Nathan Schreiber, Jennifer Hayden, the owners of Bergen Street Comics, Jah Furry, Chris Miskiewicz, Charles Brownstein and of course people we’re forgetting. Here the story does get a bit hazy, with talk of Longfellow, the Japanese economy, geriatric sex, Life on Mars, Frank Gehry’s failed Atlantic Yards project, and a ton more ideas ideas ideas.

§ You’d think we’d have had enough by now, but NO. After a good night’s sleep we’d planned to meet up with Scott McCloud for brunch. We were eager to tell Scott of our experiences this week, hoping he could make sense of them, and hear a little about the huge graphic novel he’s working on. Which we did. Halfway through brunch, Scott remembered that Shaun Tan was signing a few blocks away at Books of Wonder, so we raced over in the drizzling rain, arriving just at the tail end, and getting to witness Scott and Shaun meeting for the first time. Future Mr. Beat, who had joined in the bruncheon chatterfest, got a signed copy of THE ARRIVAL, which, we feel, truly is a classic, and such a volume takes a proud place on the shelf next to our own weekend treasure, a signed copy of A DRIFTING LIFE. Before parting ways, the three of us took a brief wander around Madison Square Park, noting such things as a squirrel atop the massive stump of a dead elm, a little-seen Holocaust memorial that includes a marble map of Auschwitz, and a plaque commemorating the spot where Melville wrote Billy Budd, all while telling stories about Philip Pullman and Ayn Rand.

And so…back to the computer.

§ What is the takeaway from all this? Well, first off, I am one lucky, lucky person, and I hope I never take that for granted, ever. You do take it as a given that in a city like New York you will be exposed to many great people and their ideas, but to be exposed to so many artists and voices, all of whom have left their mark in ways great and small, is a privilege of humbling scope. The above can’t help seem chatty and superficial, but my attempt to be worthy of such company and conversation by allowing all these voices and viewpoints to be reflected in my own commentary and reportage is — however daunting — sincere and ongoing. A lot is happening, and I hope I can keep up with just a fraction of it.

In a more macro sense, the conversation I had all week with so many people involved the continuing crumbling of the way things have been done and the clouded — yet somehow thrilling — future. As I said many times, everything we think of as the media — publishing, film, TV, newspapers — is falling apart as we speak and all the people running it — with their $51 million a year salaries — haven’t got a clue what to do. All those bigwigs are standing in terror with their thumbs in their mouths before the words “Free on the internet.” It’s as if the entire entertainment industry was busy making more and bigger milk boxes while everyone who drinks milk is driving to the 7/11 to pick up a carton of one percent dairy.

Which isn’t to say anyone I talked to knew what the heck to do anyway — or maybe they do because they’re just doing what they love, making art, telling stories. My cautious optimism about the American comics industry in the face of worldwide recession still holds. As I’ve written here before, a medium that has been marginalized for most of its existence is a lot more flexible in times of trouble. And while a lot of people — a lot of friends — are struggling like so many on the day-to-day level to make a living, they aren’t letting it get in the way of the important stuff. There is an energy, vision and passion to comics these days that is going to be hard to kill.

Who knows. Maybe we’re the milk carton.

Above: the kids from SVA.

  1. I don’t think it can be killed. A diversity of offerings in a diversity of formats — plus the billions of comics that remain in existence because they have been seen as something worth saving (as opposed to the majority newspapers and magazines) — suggests to me that we’ve got comics content in the world in one way or another, no matter what.

    Solely on the print side of things — it’s worth keeping an eye on our performance relative to the rest of publishing, to see whether the ways in which we’re different are insulating us. We’re the magazines that get saved like books and the books that get created as magazines — a mutant hybrid, perhaps, but it may be lending some immunity now.

  2. To continue the milk analogy… we’re still drinking milk out of bottles and cartons which expire in a week, while the Europeans have been selling milk in Tetrapaks since 1984.

    I wasn’t aware that Fresh Meat was open to the public. I thought it was more of a job fair, allowing SVA students to present their talent to the industry. SVA should promote this better.

    The weekend continues… Guibert has a book signing tonight, and a presentation on Tuesday. http://firstsecondbooks.typepad.com/mainblog/2009/04/the-amazing-remarkable-emmanuel-guibert-and-where-you-can-find-him-in-new-york-city.html

    And on the Ninth, Hawthorne (NJ) High School once again hosts a great “school con”!

    And there’s stuff at MoCCA!

  3. And on the otaku side of things, you had the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Sakura Matsuri this weekend, a celebration of Japanese culture where manga/anime/J-pop fans have increasingly found a home.

    And there was that day about Free Comic Books, too…

    Yes, we who are in & around comics and are in & around New York are lucky folks, indeed. Thanks for reminding me; I, too, strive (tho’ sometimes fail…) to take neither this wonderful artform nor this big apple of ours for granted.

  4. Don’t you know, Heidi, comics will never die! Now the business models may change and a lot of the publishers we know today with their heavy investment in a structure for selling physical may well go the way of horse and buggy manufacturers, but people are always going to want to read comics just like people are always going to want to be able to get from Point A to Point B. It’s just a matter of choosing the most effective mechanism.

    Oh, and I second the fact that Peggy Burns is an unsung heroine of the world of comics. She was my first boss way back in my DC intern days and at that time she brought a much-needed outsider’s view of our industry, but she swiftly became the truest of true believers and became one of those people who helped change EVERYTHING these last few years.

    We can definitely use more like her, though she is one of a kind.

  5. Peggy Burns has a thing for setting up great dinners. I remember one she invited me to where I sat with Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller for hours. She was instrumental in EW’s early comics coverage, back when it was just a black kid and a dream, simply because she made it easy.

  6. Thanks so much for the plug, Heidi!

    One little correction for the historical record: Carousel’s actually been going since 1997. And many of us (including Jim Torok and Brian Dewan) were collaborating on shows, under different names, for years before then.

  7. “Which isn’t to say anyone I talked to knew what the heck to do anyway — or maybe they do because they’re just doing what they love, making art, telling stories.”

    Best news I’ve heard all week! (Even if it is two weeks old by now…)

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