March 18, 2019

Biography As Memoir: Jason Sacks reviews NOBODY'S FOOL by Bill Griffith

It’s funny, the things which never occur to you.

I’ve read Zippy the Pinhead comic strips and stories since the 1980s, amused by creator Bill Griffith’s absurdist humor and off-kilter view of society. Comic strips generally represented a normatively conformant kind of art, reinforcing the societal status quo and not challenging its foundations. Griffith, on the other hand, exposed the shaky roots of modern American conformity by showcasing the absurdity of modern American thought. Griffith’s Zippy presented a worldview that was just plain weird and was imbued with a kind of counterculture anger mixed with old-fashioned preposterous whimsy.

But as I enjoyed the themes Griffith presented, and as I appreciated reading his counterculture leanings on the pages of the daily newspaper and comic book pages, I never really stopped to consider the characters Griffith depicted, not really. Oh, I interpreted the Pinhead at the center of the strip, a victim of Microcephaly, as a proxy for readers. I felt Zippy’s confusion and laughed at his non-sequiturs and odd comments because he represented my own confusion and amazement at the peculiarities of our society. Zippy as a character represented a kind of absurdist societal id. He was a virtual child in a world of complicated sophisticates, lost and contemplating the most quotidian of events. Thus Griffith was able to satirize the fascinating and often bizarre impact of an over-commercialized and strange society, providing a window into the truth behind its own lies. The fact that the central character of the strip was a literal outsider, as different from my happy suburban life as a space alien might be, allowed me the distance necessary to not be troubled by his bizarre appearance.
One of the things I found comforting about Zippy was that I didn’t need to think too much about the character at its center. Zippy, the lead character, was a void, a symbol, a surrogate for the reader to see him or herself embodied within. Zippy was unique in that he sometimes seemed more symbol than living character. He inhabited the comics page but, unlike many of his fellow comic strip colleagues, he never came alive on the page. He was never an eternally depressed Charlie Brown nor a haggard Beetle Bailey nor an imaginative Calvin. Nobody was rushing to create plush toys of Zippy or to present It’s a Zippy Christmas, complete with wildly maudlin, conformity-reinforcing Christmas wishes.

There was simply nothing like Zippy the Pinhead in American newspapers, and, at its peak (in hundreds of newspapers worldwide), Griffith’s vision had the eyes of millions of readers per day. Zippy the Pinhead, a humble American comic strip, approached high art.

But at the center of Zippy was a conceit and odd exploitation. Zippy has little agency of his own. He has friends and minders and people who loved him, but Zippy represents Bill Griffith’s inner life rather than his own. Zippy’s own mind and thoughts are mysteries to readers. That void gives his comic strip a strong dollop of humorous tension, but it leaves some crucial issues unresolved upon reflection.

Griffith’s new graphic novel, Nobody’s Fool, published by Abrams ComicArts, tells the life story of the pinhead upon which Griffith based Zippy. The new book is a straightforward and truthful depiction of the life of Schlitzie the Pinhead, or at least as much of the truth as Griffith was able to piece together over the years. It’s a biography which serves at least two purposes: to tell the story of this very unique human being, as well as explain why Schlitzie became Griffith’s life-long obsession. Along the way, Griffith takes readers on a journey through a fascinating lost America, one in which poor and worried immigrant parents could sell their handicapped children to the circus, one in which small-town rubes would turn out in droves for freakshows, and one in which pre-Internet era communications would allow secrets to remain unstirred.

And although Griffith skirts around this topic, maybe because he felt uncomfortable with it, this book is also an attempt to bring humanity to this basically unknowable human being, to finally provide three-dimensionality to this character that, as he says in his introduction, he had been drawing “ever since 1963, when I was an art student and first saw Tod Browning’s 1932 film about the sideshow, Freaks.” 
The origins of the real Schlitzie the Pinhead are pretty much lost to history. As Griffith discusses in the book, there were several stories about where he was born, from the outlandish freakshow lies that he was born in Borneo to the prosaic tale Griffith depicts of Schlitzie born in a New York City tenement. As Griffith presents the scene, young Bronx-dwelling Simon Metz, a sufferer from the “pinhead’s disease”, was purchased from his desperately poor immigrant family by a sideshow manager. Whether that origin is true or not, it bespeaks of a dark and damaged version of the American experience in which fear of permanent poverty could lead parents to make terrible choices and in which deformity represented a tremendous emotional and financial burden on already burdened families. In an era when children with mental illness were sent to lifelong stays in an asylum, a choice like selling a pinheaded boy to the circus clearly seemed a rational decision. In Nobody’s Fool, Griffith adds to the pathos of the scene of the sale by emphasizing Schatzie's fascination with a plate painted with the image of the Campbell’s soup cherub, a jarring bit of pop culture strangeness which shows his own connection to a mythical America which never really existed. The plate also symbolizes a benign sort of early-20th-century hucksterism which perhaps reached its apotheosis with carnival barkers.

The pinheaded boy is soon installed as a slideshow regular at Coney Island, where his cohorts include a bearded lady, conjoined twins, and a man born without arms and legs. He soon achieves a small measure of fame as “the last of the wild Aztec children”, performing card tricks and spouting non-sequiturs in his piercingly high voice. It is in the carny sideshow that Nobody’s Fool spends much of its time, and it is in those moments that I found myself most enraptured in Griffith's story and his subtly powerful art.
Griffith’s wonderfully crosshatched artwork, itself apparently hand-drawn and reflecting a straightforward approach which reflects its era, brings Coney Island circa 1920 to complex life with seeming ease. In fact, throughout Nobody’s Fool, Griffith is successful at vividly evoking this lost era of tenements and freakshows. He shows readers period-appropriate asylums, carnivals, and graveyards, among many other strange places, but Griffith’s hand-hewn, detailed art never loses its straightforward attention at depicting settings accurately and powerfully. 

The real fascination and challenge with this book, though, is that the character at its center is basically an enigma even to the people who knew him.. Griffith is skilled at showing emotion in the faces of his secondary characters, presenting angst, anger, amusement, and terror as the scene requires. Even in secondary carnival characters like sword swallower Bill Unks, Griffith seems to find the center of the man and evoke his inner life with a few subtle ink lines.
At its center, though, Schlitzie remains tantalizingly out of reach, perhaps in a symbolic recognition of the enigma that the character has always presented in Griffith's art. It’s nearly impossible to read character in Schlitzie’s cryptic facial gestures and body language, let alone his strange verbal tics. In reading these scenes, the reader begins to understand why Griffith treated Zippy as a blank slate. In fact, Schlitzie was basically a tabula rasa and gave Griffith little to build upon aside from his surface attributes and obsessions. Schlitzie walked and talked, loved to wash dishes and perform card tricks, but at his center, he was a cryptic, haunting void which gives this book much of its piercing power.

But there is power in that cryptic void as well. Schlitzie’s inability to communicate in meaningful ways helps readers feel distant from the character and see him as a pathetic creature. In that way, we could imagine the exploitation of America’s sad sideshow tradition, in which viewers were encouraged to see the people on display as the other, as almost otherworldly, rather than individuals with whom to empathize. In this book, we are never complicit with the people who attend the sideshows, but we can understand the motivation behind that fascination.

This power of this void gains tremendous power in the sections in which Griffith dwells on the 1932 film Freaks. As mentioned, this movie fascinated Griffith while he was in art school. In fact, he depicts his art as being directionless until he discovered the film; the scene in which a viewing of Freaks literally opens Griffith’s eyes to a completely different world is perhaps the finest page in this book. For ten hunting pages, Griffith shares the key scenes from Freaks with an almost religious furiousness. Freaks literally changed his life. As he shows readers, the Bill Griffith after viewing this film was different from the Griffith before viewing it. As he also says, “I was especially fascinated by the pinheads in the film. I wondered if I’d ever be able to understand their garbled dialogue...or is it gibberish? Or did it make a sense all its own?

In that scene, this book veers from biography to memoir, or perhaps to nostalgic tangent. This instant of awakening is treated as a near-religious experience and clearly has been dwelled upon and fetishized over Griffith’s life. Of course, this moment never has been objectively documented -- such a moment can’t be chronicled objectively - but it matches many interviews I’ve read with him. As he describes his conversion, Griffith draws himself looking directly at the reader, showing a sincere connection through direct eye contact which few characters show each other throughout Nobody’s Fool. In that brief moment, the history of this book shifts from objective to subjective, from a more-or-less cold recitation of events on a person who can’t change to a more-or-less warm depiction of events which change the book creator. It shifts from history to nostalgia and I found that shift is both compelling and frustrating. 

This scene also sets up a bit of a tonal shift in the book, as the sideshow circuit begins to die by the early 1970s and Schlitzie’s life becomes more difficult and fraught with troubles, including a terrifying trip to an insane asylum which is depicted with great poignancy.
Though Griffith tried to research the subject in those pre-Internet days, he was never able to really crack the mystery of the pinheads in Freaks. In fact, in significant ways, that confusion really didn’t matter. A case can be made that too much information would have taken away from the artistic side of Griffith’s approach; that by understanding the life of Schlitzie and his cohorts rather than the actual pinheads, he was able to distance himself and create his high art.

This is the central tension at the heart of Griffith’s book: What responsibility does a creator have by placing his key characters into some sort of context? How responsible should he be for presenting the humanity of people different from himself? It’s easy to see the boundaries of that responsibility in the realm of gender or racial roles. It’s much more difficult to see those boundaries when the character being depicted has, at its center, a complex and unknowable world. Because Schlitzie gave few clues about his inner life, especially for a creator unable to perform deep research at the time, these boundaries are monumentally difficult to define.

In effect, with Schlitzie, or Zippy, remaining a void, Griffith filled the character with the only depth he could provide: the artist’s own view of the world. Griffith was free to project himself on to Zippy because the protagonist of the strip had no easily discernible inner life, or at least no inner life which most people could comprehend. Zippy, in effect, became Griffith’s alter ego, albeit through a metaphorical (and sometimes literal) funhouse mirror. By the time Griffith had drawn Zippy strips for many years, the character at its center became a representation of Griffith in the same way Charlie Brown represented a side of Charles Schulz and Calvin and Hobbes represented Bill Watterson. 
Perhaps that identification of artist with his subject is precisely the point of this book. While the life of Schlitzie is the intellectual focus of Nobody’s Fool, its emotional heart is the life of Bill Griffith. With his previous book, Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist, and this volume, Griffith is slowly publishing his own autobiography through the two figures who perhaps influenced his life the most. It’s an odd paradox that these two relationships are mirror opposites of each other. Griffith knew his mother intimately, but she kept secrets from his family. Griffith never saw Schlitzie in person, but he became his lifetime companion and revealed secrets from his own life. 

Together, these heartfelt and wonderfully rendered graphic novels are perfect companions for each other. Both revel in grotesquerie, period details, and, ultimately, in deeper human truths.  They reveal Griffith’s life obliquely and illuminate the issues and people who shaped him with a deep thirst for knowledge and information in an attempt to reveal his own inner life to himself. It’s a testament to Bill Griffith’s considerable creative skills that he is able to discover deeper truths about himself by exploring a man so unlike himself. Nobody’s Fool may seem a biography, but it is biography masquerading as a memoir.
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Jason Sacks is the former Publisher of Comics Bulletin. He writes books about comics history, including Jim Shooter: Conversations and The American Comic Book Chronicles: the 1970s, when he’s not hiking, working in the software biz or tracking down lost treasure.

March 6, 2019

Kickstart Your Part: BIRDCAGE BOTTOM BOOKS 2019

Birdcage Bottom Books is running a Kickstarter for its 2019 publications. This small press has now been around for about a  decade now but their mission statement remains the same: help incredible cartoonists who may be flying under the radar get a wider audience. 

They've published some pretty amazing books in the past and this Kickstarter seems to indicate they are continuing in that tradition.

For 2019. they are featuring books by Max Clotfelter, Eva Müller, and Lance Ward. 

MAX CLOTFELTER'S ROOFTOP STEW
Rooftop Stew collects a plethora of Max Clotfelter’s depraved comics, both fictional and autobiographical, blending ‘60s psychedelic underground comic sensibility with Southern style debauchery. Debuting at Small Press Expo (SPX) in September. 

EVA MÜLLER'S FUTURE CORPSE
Future Corpse collects new short works by Eva Müller covering themes of feminism, anxiety, punk rock, immortality, labor, and robotic vacuums. This should serve as a palette cleanser between last year’s “In The Future, We Are Dead” and her current book about working/labor. Debuting at MoCCA in April.

LANCE WARD'S BLOOD AND DRUGS
Blood and Drugs is the story of people on the fringes of society and how a single poor decision changed one man’s life forever. Buster struggles against his heroin addiction, his floundering career in comics and with human relationships in a search for redemption. Debuting at Small Press Expo (SPX) in September.

CHECK OUT THE KICKSTARTER HERE.

March 4, 2019

Top Knot Bun Sporting Yoga Boy: Daniel Elkin reviews DARK PANTS #4 by Matt MacFarland

The routine of normalcy that arises after building a life based on society’s expectations undulates with a monotonous beat. In the quest for stability, often times people lay waste to their drive for excitement, the rush of the unique, the palpitations of exhilaration. Predictability becomes engorged with routine, the hard edges become soft, losing their bite. It’s usually in the midst of the bland realization of success that people make wildly inappropriate decisions and blow up their careers, their families, their lives. The aftermath is shame and the understanding of that which is lost.

This is the endemic malaise cycle of the privileged and the subsequent breeding ground for the blown-out ego-driven spirituality that leads to events like the Fyre Festival and Burning Man or the profusion of sound healers, crystal shops, and yoga studios in gentrified neighborhoods or, say, precious Gold Rush era small towns in Northern California -- it’s also the playground of the Namaste saying, tribal tattooed, top knot bun sporting yoga boy.

You may have seen them around. They are often dramatically sipping herbal teas while telling you that, “Actually, the swastika is an ancient Vedic symbol meaning ‘Good Existence’.” They burn as many calories through their “practice” as they do through cultural appropriation, casual racism, following their “passion”, and shaking their heads at the excess of capitalism. They’re better than you because they understand how the world works without ever really needing to work in the world. They’re as smug as they are fragile; self-aggrandizing bullies who prey on the ignorance and boredom of other discontent people of privilege.
In Matt MacFarland’s DARK PANTS #4, the top knot bun sporting yoga boy is the central focus of the main character’s malaise cycle. Lisa is a successful real estate agent in Eagle Rock, CA who has a beautiful house, a devoted husband, and a couple of rambunctious children. But Lisa’s success leaves her empty -- the life she has built was not the one she had expected when she was younger. All that hard work came at the expense of excitement, the “more” of being a singer, a writer, something other than what she has dedicated so much of herself into creating.

This leads to tensions at home and dissatisfaction at work. It’s led to a quest to fill the void. It’s led to yoga classes. It’s led to Cal, the top knot bun sporting yoga boy who talks about things being “blessed” and asks her about her “passion”. It’s when Lisa puts on the titular Dark Pants in this book that she makes the predictable poor choices -- lying to her husband, belting out karaoke “Born to Run”, being sexually disappointed by Cal (of course), and suffering all the consequences thereof.
Still, MacFarland hints at the end of Dark Pants #4 that all this may have been for the best. By donning the dark pants and wiping out the vestiges of all the disappointments her successful life was built upon, Lisa is free to travel the highway and begin again. Maybe the disappointment of the top knot bun sporting yoga boy helps her get out of the “death trap” and get out while she’s young?

We don’t get answers. We get the ego-driven whine of the spurned top knot bun sporting yoga boy, dark pants in the trashcan, and a Southern California highway lined with wind turbines spinning in the breeze.
In 80 pages of MacFarland’s thick ink lines creating emotive faces, stilted intensity, and the dream-like quality of self-deprecation, Dark Pants #4 plays out not quite as you expect it to, but holds firmly to a sad believability, a condemnation of privilege, and a small celebration of excitement, no matter the cost.
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Daniel Elkin is the EIC of Your Chicken Enemy, the Former Small-Press Comics Editor for Comics Bulletin, and has Bylines at Loser CityPsycho Drive-InWinkFactionalWWAC, and PanelXPanelHe's a High School English Teacher in Northern California. He'll talk to you about Sandwiches.

March 2, 2019

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 2/24/19 to 3/1/19

Highlighting some great small press comics criticism being published, as well as other random things that have caught my eye over the past week.

COMICS CRITICISM

* Dominic Umile reviews A FIRE STORY by Brian Fies, a "book-length graphic account [that] details life during and after the second-most destructive wildfire in California history."

* Andy Oliver looks back at an interview he did with Tillie Walden and uses this as a springboard for a great review of ON A SUNBEAM, "a book of resonant echoes, both in terms of its structure and the journeys the characters embark upon, and a celebration of adopted family, friendship and a love that is as expansive as the near infinite reaches of the universe it is a part of."

* Nathan Chazan reviews WINDOWPANE by Joe Kessler, "a progressive, nuanced story of the art object and our engagement with media." 

* Rob Clough looks at the latest releases of CASH GRAB by Aaron Lange, saying (of Lange) "He has a way of taking even the most unsympathetic or difficult figures and laying their humanity bare for the reader, generating respect if not affection for them. Lange is an excellent writer and gets at the heart of events and achievements while never losing sight of the underlying and often tortured humanity of his subjects."

* Graham Reid has this short take on RUFUS MARIGOLD by Ross Murray, "a quiet graphic novel".

* Chris Gavaler on THIS WOMAN'S WORK by Julie Delporte, writing "The memoir is much more of an attempt to construct something new, even if it is necessarily incomplete and tentative as she wanders between continents and decades of memories."

WHATNOT

* Kim O'Connor is doing a weekly Twitter reading group going through Marc Singer's new book, BREAKING THE FRAMES: POPULISM AND PRESTIGE IN COMICS STUDIES -- this week she has some pretty profound observations about Chapter 1: The Myth of Eco.

* Jameson Hampton interviews CARTA MONIR about her new publishing venture, Diskette Press, Risographing, and her friendships.

* Alex Dueben interviews LIZ SUBURBIA over on Smash Pages.

* Hillary Brown interviews JULIE DELPORTE over on Paste.

* There's a new comic on Spiralbound by Glynnis Fawkes called IMMORTAL WILDWOOD.

* Glynnis Fawkes is doing the CARTOONIST'S DIARY this week on TCJ.

* Alec Berry has this update on the PICKRODT LAWSUIT.

* Alejandra Oliva has this piece over on Electric Lit called WALKING INTO THE RIVER which has to do with "Virginia Woolf, the migrant caravan, and the fluid boundaries between people."

February 28, 2019

Announcing SHORTBOX THE TENTH

After three years of producing some of our most favorite comics out there, Zainab Akhtar and her crew have just announced the release of ShortBox the TENTH featuring a brand new title from James Stokoe about a massive crocodile god; their first dedicated all-ages title from Jessi Zabarsky, and a risograph-printed mech and alien fight-em-up from Wren McDonald. They're also debuting feature-length work from two new cartoonists, Michelle Kwon and Alivia Horsley. 

If you are unfamiliar with ShortBox:

  • ShortBox is an independent, mail-order comics box that releases twice a year. It is not a subscription service. There is no signing up. It's unique in that the comics contained in the box are ones they publish: brand new releases created especially for the box. You buy a box, and that's that - there's no further commitment to anything else. 
  • Pre-orders will run for a 14-day period ending at midnight on March 10th. This is the only way to get the box. They don't remake boxes.
  • The box will ship in April. 



Exclusive A4 static-cling PVC poster

Sobek by James Stokoe, foil embossed cover, 36pp, full-color, oversized. 
Life is pretty good being a gigantic crocodile god: spend your days lazing on the riverbeds of the Nile while your devotees shower praise and juicy offerings upon you. But Sobek's idyll is broken and he must limber into action when a distraught priest relays news of affront and vandalism from the followers of Set.  An all-new, unmissable stunner from James Stokoe. This book comes with an exclusive static-cling A4 PVC poster (colored but transparent, to be stuck on surfaces), which will only be available via the box.


Visiting by Alivia Horsley, dust jacket cover, 42pp, full-colour.
Dylan has been preparing for a visit to her beloved Auntie. Moments together are precious, and lots of time spent reminiscing, eating, gardening. All the while, Dylan's trying to build up the courage to ask Auntie a big question on behalf of her mum, even as she wrestles with the idea of it herself.


Resort on Caelum by Wren McDonald. risograph printed, 32pp.
Tobin is one of a group of fresh new recruits landing on Caelum working for Sinensis to build a new resort on the planet, and he's excited to meet the fighter mech-pilots he idolizes and to become one himself. Until it comes to battle, and it's not clear what exactly they're fighting, and why... 
(This print run of Resort on Caelum will be exclusive to ShortBox #10 only)


Boogsy by Michelle Kwon, spot gloss cover, 58pp, perfect bound.
Does sticky have to be icky? Mac's at one of life's dead-ends: no job, no motivation, no idea about what to do, and living at her twin sister's place while she (sort of) tries to figure it out. Into this picture arrives Boogsy- a boyfriend made up entirely of her apparently sentient boogers. The two instantly embark on a relationship, and, it seems, down a path of further self-destructive behaviors. 


Two of Us by Jessi Zabarsky, 44pp, full-colour. 
Febry has always wanted to be just like their enchantress mother: using magic to help people and do neat things, and going to magic school is a much-anticipated first step towards that. Febry's mum, long fascinated with the mundane world, has enrolled Febry to mundane school, much to their horror. Can the two worlds meet, or more pertinently, can the mundane world handle Febry... ShortBox is proud to present their very first dedicated, all-ages title by the wonderful Jessi Zabarksy!


'Rainy Day' by Jon McNaught. A4 print with silver foiling, exclusive to box only.


Order ShortBox #10 here.

February 25, 2019

Looking At Him Looking: Daniel Elkin reviews THROUGH A LIFE by Tom Haugomat

How'd you know I was looking at you
If you weren't looking at me?
-- Mr. Bungle, “Egg” 

We are all, in some sense, voyeurs. It’s inevitable as we watch the world before us unfold. Yet, never before have we had such access to the lives of others. And as we willingly and carefully curate and document our own lives for the edification of others, privacy becomes a tenuous space. Still, the act of watching others is how we learn: learn to grow, learn to hope, learn to dream. But what is the value of watching others as they watch their world? What do we learn from this?

In Tom Haugomat’s beautiful new book from Nowbrow Press, Through A Life, the answer seems to be that through this act of voyeurism, we learn that growing, hoping, and dreaming ultimately leads us nowhere except to disappointment.
Told through a series of single-page illustrations, Haugomat places his main character, Rodney, in time and space and then, thorough point-of-view, focuses the reader on what this character is seeing. Each page turn marches the perspective through a lifetime, year after year, from earliest memories to final moments, the full range of a life lived. By this, we are given access to the creation of Rodney’s hopes, the development of his dreams, and the brutal realities of eventual disappointment.

Haugomat is, first and foremost, an illustrator whose background in animation is instantly apparent in this book. Paring his visual cues down to their essentials, Haugomat works in forms mostly, eschewing detail in order to broaden the reader’s connection to the work. But what his illustration lacks in specificity, it makes up in his use of color. Suffused with a consistent palette throughout featuring a bold blue, a pale yellow, an inky black, and an amazingly vivid red, Haugomat’s work pops from the page, as if it is a series of propaganda posters advocating for a carefully constructed political platform that is, at its heart, a vision of an idealized world unobtainable, an illusion, a fraud.
Rodney spends his life looking through…” begins the blurb on the back of Through A Life. He’s an observer whose observations gives him a distance, sets up a barrier between himself and his experiences. As such, the emotional beats of the book seem as detached from the truth as Rodney himself is from the reality of his life. As he grows and hopes and dreams, there is an inevitability to the loss he encounters, but, because of the manner Haugomat has framed this work, the visceral impact of these losses on the reader are lessened. We are only observing someone else observing, after all.
There’s an interesting, albeit well-worn exploration of the juxtaposition of the micro with the macro in Through A Life, as Haugomat tries to bring the reader’s attention to (while raising the value of) the small moments in life by placing them in contrast to the vastness of space and the notion of grand exploration. But, once again, through the distance engendered by Haugomat’s narrative and artistic choices, this, too, seems a specious and misleading propaganda. It’s as if nothing ends up mattering in the end -- that in reality, everything is disappointing because we expect too much from it all.

Perhaps this is the parable of our times.

Perhaps, too, the value of Through A Life is not just in its striking beauty as a work of craftsmanship and art, but in the fact that its lies are so blatant while its truths are so revelatory.
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Daniel Elkin is the EIC of Your Chicken Enemy, the Former Small-Press Comics Editor for Comics Bulletin, and has Bylines at Loser CityPsycho Drive-InWinkFactionalWWAC, Shelfdust, and PanelXPanelHe's a High School English Teacher in Northern California. He'll talk to you about Sandwiches and that Tusk is the best Fleetwood Mac album.

February 23, 2019

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 2/18/19 to 2/22/19

Highlighting some great small press comics criticism being published, as well as other random things that have caught my eye over the past week.

COMICS CRITICISM

* Andy Oliver reviews BODY MAGIK by Scott Roberts, "a quietly thoughtful convergence of social relevance and more metaphysical issues of identity, made all the more pertinent for the symbolism of Roberts’ art."

* Kevin Bramer writes this short review of CHLORINE GARDENS by Keiler Roberts, calling it "engrossing, hilarious while being occasionally heartbreaking (sometimes in the same panel) and just a damned entertaining read."

* Robin Enrico reviews DEMENTIA 21 by Shintaro Kago, "a surprising graphic novel in that it takes [Kago's] well-known ability to render characters in grotesque situations and uses it as a way tackle deeply fraught subjects.

* Chris Mautner on BLAME THIS ON THE BOOGIE by Rina Ayuyang, "a warm, loving portrait of American life, nailing the way the small, silly stuff that hipsters (like me) like to mock -- reality television, sporting events -- and showing the simple happiness seeming it can bring to our lives."

* Oliver Sava reviews OFF SEASON by James Strum which reinforces "how partisan allegiances impact personal interactions even when no one is talking about the government."

* Carol Borden on MY FAVORITE THING IS MONSTERS by Emil Ferris, writing "It is easy to try to separate everything into good or bad and choose a side. But things are complicated and people are complex. And the stories that save us sometimes justify doing terrible things."

* Tom Murphy on Simon Moreton's MINOR LEAGUES #7, writing "Moreton weaves the personal, the geographical and the anthropological with skill, while his more poetic flourishes generally pull up short of preciousness or self-indulgence. He uses his research well, unearthing and polishing little nuggets of history or folklore to highlight the sense of place."

* John Seven reviews PTSD by Guillaume Singelin which "ends up being a hopeful work that calls for blind compassion, and a mix of communal healing and self-sufficiency."

* Rob Clough on Hellen Jo's JIN AND JAM, writing "Jo comes at the reader with all kinds of crazy angles and perspectives, pushing motion and energy on the reader instead of making them think about the actual drawings. There’s also a certain propulsiveness to what she’s doing, pushing the reader along the page."

WHATNOT

* The Festival Workers Association has published an OPEN LETTER calling on conventions to have greater financial transparency, give participants a more equal footing, and make formal commitments to diversity and inclusion.

* Robin McConnell interviews KARL STEVENS over on Inkstuds.

* Jamaica Dyer -- MIXTAPE FOUR: ALBUMS I HAVE LOVED -- need I say more? I don't think so.

* Andrea Shockling has a powerful new installment of SUBJECTIVE LINE WEIGHT up on her site written by Mariah McCourt about her ED and BDD.

* M.S. Harkness has a new WEBSITE and uses it to introduce herself and talk about some of her upcoming projects.

* Anya Davidson has a comic in the Chicago Reader called DOOR TO DOOR.

* Rozi Hathaway has a comic up on the Good Comics site called BEAR.

* Margot Ferrick has a comic up on Vice called MILK SKIN.

February 20, 2019

"I Try To Find The Funny In Everything:" -- Rob Clough interviews NOVEMBER GARCIA

November Garcia is one of the freshest and funniest voice in autobiographical comics. While she's skilled at playing up her wacky escapades with her husband Roy, the joke-generating machine that is her mom and her initial insecurity in approaching the indy comics community, the reality is that she is one of the most skilled humorists in comics. After several misfires earlier in her career, she's in a groove right now that's seen her published by Hic & Hoc, PEN America, and Popula. She won the Dash Grant from Short Run Seattle. Her most recent work saw her emerge as a fully-formed voice, yet she's worked hard to improve at aspects of her craft that she's been dissatisfied with. That said, she emerged with a powerful sense of honesty and authenticity in her comedic voice. She's fearless in tackling difficult subjects, using certain deflective and self-deprecatory techniques to prevent her comics from becoming maudlin. She has a way of boiling down anecdotes to their humorous essence in a way that doesn't feel stilted or fake. Her figure drawing is rubbery and expressive. Garcia's mixture of enthusiasm and glee for the things she loves and visceral disgust for the things she doesn't comes across vividly on the page. In this interview, we'll examine Garcia's roots and provide critical context for her work.


Family and Background

Rob Clough: Where were you born and raised? How old are you?

November Garcia: I was born and raised in a little suburb in Manila, Philippines. We call them “villages” here. They’re just suburbs, not like huts or anything like that. My elementary school and high school were in that same village, and all my friends lived in that same village. So I never had a reason to leave the village. 

I’m now 41 and am proud to say that many moons ago I escaped the village to a magical city 6,963 miles away for 13 years. I have since moved back… to a different village.

RC: Did you grow up reading comics? Did you have friends with whom you read comics?

NG: As a child, I grew up reading Archie, Garfield, and Peanuts. The usual hits, because that’s all we could get over here. I found a photo where I was reading Woody Woodpecker and am proud of that. Every kid growing up in the ‘80s here pretty much read the same comics.

In my teens, I would buy comics from Tower Records when my family went on holiday in the US. That’s when I got into Sandman and Tank Girl. Yeah, yeah, I know, quit laughing.

RC: Did you grow up drawing? Did you draw with others, like siblings and friends?

NG: I always drew. I’d make up stories in my head and just draw them out nonsensically. My dad was the president of an ad agency, and his desk always had a stack of newsprint and a cup of sharpened pencils––that was my favorite place in the world to draw. At home, I’d whine: “Mom, I’m booooored! Can I have a pencil and paper?”.

I actually made a lot of teen drama comics with dogs as the characters (maybe an Archie influence). I recently unearthed some “ads” I drew as inserts, like dogs selling toilet paper. I really loved dogs. 

My two sisters were more into ballet, piano, Barbies, and drawing fashion dresses. I’m the son that my dad never had.

RC: What was your childhood like? In what ways does it inform your work now?

NG: Honestly, I was a spoiled brat, being the baby of the family. (I was a... er... surprise/blessing having been born 6 years after my second sister). I rebelled a lot in my teens and beyond—and coming from a decent family, I couldn’t understand what my problem was. Today, after living on my own in a major American city, I realize that it was the repression and the monotony and the “sheep mentality” all around me. I was itching for more but didn’t know what, exactly.

RC: Your mom is one of your go-to characters in Malarkey. She even contacts you with complaints after reading some of your strips. What does she think of you putting her in your strips in general? Has she been supportive of your career as a cartoonist?

NG: She only gets mad when I write about Jesus, drinking, or drugs. Otherwise, she’s fine with it (although sometimes she’ll say the quintessential “Don’t make a comic about this!”). My parents have always supported my creative endeavors. Being a creative person himself, my dad always said, “Thank God none of you girls became boring doctors or lawyers!”. He probably regrets that now, though.

The mom comics actually began as a Christmas gift to my dad. I did a dad book full of strips about him and had it printed professionally. He loved it, so the next year, I made him a mom book. There are a lot of gems in that one which I wished I had put in Malarkey but they all live somewhere in the Tumblr and on my dad’s coffee table.

RC: Do you plan to do strips about your dad in the future? He's conspicuous by his absence in your current work.

NG: I would if he did something funny –– my mom just keeps stealing the show. There are definitely memories worth making strips about. Maybe I’ll look through that dad book I made to see if there’s something there.

RC: Did you study art in high school or college?

NG: Our high school here is like elementary school in the sense that you don’t get to choose subjects. And you’re in the same damn classroom all day. So I just had the generic art classes in high school where you make a dumb collage or something.

I was kind of a burnout, so I didn’t get into the best (and only) art college here. They had a talent test where, if you passed, it would supersede your failure of what is the equivalent of the SATs in the States. I also failed the talent test, so I guess I was a really bad artist. I ended up going to my “back-up” college, which I’d previously vowed that I would never attend — but my mom forced me to take the entrance exam anyway: “In case you end up with no school!”. When I needed to declare a major, I checked the box for “advertising” only because my cousin did.

As I mentioned earlier, I grew up privileged, and, after college, I convinced my dad to send me to art school in San Francisco. I chose the school solely on the location and turned down his offer to send me to London or New York. I dropped out after one year because I eloped with a guy I met at that art school. Poor dad.

But I returned in my late 20s with a vengeance, determined to finish what I started. I switched to a program that had Graphic Design classes, which saved my life and got me out of the pet care industry. 


Early Days

RC: You've written that you started doing comics in your early twenties and even submitted them to various publishers. What were those comics like?

NG: I was going through my psychedelic phase, so they were these awful comics with a character named Bean who had misadventures in an incense and peppermints world. It had no words and was pure “eye candy” with swirls, heavy stippling, wild patterns, and bendy trees. 

I was so delusional that when I bought my first Frank comic by Jim Woodring, I proclaimed “Great! Now the world will think I’m copying this guy!”

I only ever submitted my comics to ONE publisher: Fantagraphics. Haha! And when they sent their rejection letter, I had the gall to email Peter Bagge for his opinion as to why. I asked, “Is it the art or the writing?” and he said “Both”.

Yes, I had huge balls and nothing resembling a clue back then.

RC: You've listed Peter Bagge as one of your earliest influences. What other cartoonists were formative for your work?

NG: Robert Crumb, Jim Woodring, Roberta Gregory. I only discovered them when I got to San Francisco. My ex was into comics too (he got me into Crumb) and tried to get me into Angry Youth Comix and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac but those didn’t stick.

RC: You note Bagge as an influence, yet your recent work is autobiographical. Have you ever considered doing humorous fiction?

NG: I guess I cite him as a huge influence because I’m so invested in his characters, especially the HATE series and The Bradleys. I can’t even count how many times I’ve re-read that series. I know my work looks nothing like his, like I’m horrible at feathering, which he does a lot of. But I love his art and writing.

I wish I could do humorous fiction but I don’t think my writing skills are good enough. I stick with the “write what you know” approach, and even then, it’s a struggle. The material comes easily, but autobio can be so self-serving ... I constantly have to find ways to avoid navel-gazing. The question “Why should anyone give a shit?” always helps.

RC: Did you quit comics for any period of time after that? If so, for how long? What led to your quitting?   

NG: As I entered my late 20s, I didn’t exactly quit — I just did it more sporadically. I got a corporate job and spent most of my spare time feeding my “tattoo artist” phase. Roy was friends with a bunch of tattooers. He bought all this tattoo equipment and we’d practice on pigskin. I thought this would be my new “out”... just waltz into a shop and say “Hey dudes, check out my awesome portfolio.” I call it “Fantagraphics Submission Delusion: Part Two”.

I actually enjoyed making the designs but all that machinery and hullabaloo was just not in the cards for me.

During this time, I did make a comic series called “Catholic Girls” about my high school experiences and it went viral in Manila. There were heated debates in the comments section of my blog. My drawing was horrible and I used computer lettering so just don’t google it. (But I bet you will! Argh)

RC: You know that I had to. It reads like a more labored version of what you do now, with lots more cross-hatching and such, but it's still the same voice. Have you thought about revisiting and revising this material?

NG: Perhaps. I touched a bit on it in my PEN America comic but I’m open to doing some vignettes. It’s just hard for me to remember a lot of things from that time and I rely a lot on my friends’ memories from high school. I probably blocked out a lot of it from trauma.

RC: How old were you when you moved from the Philippines to the US? What was that transition like?

NG: I didn’t graduate with an art degree so I couldn’t apply for a Masters. I got a second degree instead, so at 23, I was the oldest person in my dorm. 

I arrived in San Francisco with too much confidence ... I thought I was so cool because I was one of the “edgiest” people in my village, haha! There was definitely a learning curve, culturally. Simple things like having to walk up and talk to strangers to make friends (people aren’t as forward in Manila). I also did a lot of naive things because I was used to being in a safe bubble where you couldn’t get into any serious trouble. My ignorance literally almost landed me in prison (a possible future comic and also, sorry mom and dad), mugged, sexually harassed, or beat up. I’m a fast learner though, so I assimilated quickly.

RC: That sounds like an entire book's worth of experiences. Any plans to write about that soon?

NG: I always wanted to do a strip about the close call with ending up in jail, but it’s so heavy and loaded with dark events. I have to figure out how to do it in my writing style, keeping it light. The same goes for the sexual harassment ... I just don’t see any way of writing about that without being heavy. I wrote about some of the other stuff in Foggy Notions, like being held at gunpoint, the black eye, etc. so I probably won’t do another book of San Francisco-specific experiences. 

Foggy Notions

Published by Hic and Hoc, Foggy Notions is Garcia's second comic but her official debut. It's a departure from her self-published work in that it's a series of interrelated, longer-form vignettes about her time living in San Francisco. While not gag-oriented, it's still funny because Garcia focuses on the weird, the inappropriate and the extreme--and that's just with regard to her own behavior. "My First Black Eye" is the prototypical Garcia story, as a woman on a bus tries to steal her phone and punches Garcia in the face. A black eye in her case was a serious thing, given that she's almost blind in the eye that wasn't punched. The mix of outrageousness and anxiety gives the piece tense energy and sets the tone for the rest of the book. 

"Everlast" may be about a homeless person she and Roy saw all the time, but it's also a walking tour of San Francisco that sets the stage for documenting a city that was about to be forever altered by gentrification. Here we see Garcia's difficulty with backgrounds inhibiting the story a bit because it doesn't give the reader enough of the unique aspects of the city. However, her cartooning with regard to people is excellent, especially with regard to facial expressions, body language and figures interacting in space. 

RC: Foggy Notions was your first comic released by a publisher, correct? Other than Malarkey, did you self-publish any comics before this?

NG: No, in fact, Malarkey just came into existence because my publisher asked me if I had anything lying around that he could give away at SPX. So I compiled a bunch of comics from my Tumblr into a zine and mailed them to him. That’s the first comic you ever read from me too!

RC: Matt Moses handed it to me and talked you up, but it was remarkably assured work considering it was your first go. How long you had been doing comics on Tumblr at that time?

NG: I was posting comics here and there on my blog for years but was only posting on Tumblr for a few months. They weren’t very good, but after Matt took me under his wing he gave me good advice [about cartoonists to emulate.] That really helped me approach comics in a more mature way going forward and I also made them more frequently. Those are the strips that went into that first Malarkey.  

RC: How did you come to work with Matt Moses of Hic andHoc?

NG: In 2015, my website was down so I started a Tumblr account and posted a bunch of comics on there. I saw Hic and Hoc in my network and they had a submissions button, so I sent two awful strips which were rejected. I had just gotten over the blighted ovum incident and the comics were very dark. Thankfully, this at least got me on Matt’s radar and he must have seen some potential in other stuff I posted after that. Eventually, he contacted me about trying something out.

RC: Foggy Notions is different from most of your self-published work. While it's funny, the stories are longer and are all set during your time living in San Francisco. Was this part of your pitch, or was this something that Matt wanted?

NG: Matt wanted something cohesive so I pitched a couple of themes and we settled on the San Francisco stories. I really enjoy longer narrative writing and Malarkey is more of my “release” from that ... just stuff for laughs and fun in between the serious work. I’ve been meaning to do more narrative stuff like Rookie Moves. My comics on PEN America and Popula that came out recently are reflective of what I want to do next.

RC: How long was it after you left San Francisco that you wrote these comics? Were you aware that you were documenting a city that no longer exists?

NG: I had just moved back to the Philippines when I started writing those, probably 3 years in. I always knew I had some stories to tell and that things were changing, especially after I moved. I just didn’t know the extent and the quickness of how the city was changing during the period that I was writing the comics from here.

RC: "Everlast" is a story whose central gag relies on a homeless man wearing an Everlast jacket. It also serves as a walking tour of San Francisco. Was it important for you to give the reader a strong sense of the city's flavor during the course of the comic?

NG: I didn’t really overthink it. It was just another part of my life living there and a running joke between me and Roy (other people in the neighborhood knew him too, like the guy who does my tattoos and Roy’s friend who owns a vintage clothing store). 

It was the first story I pitched to Matt because it was the most mundane storyline, and I wanted to prove that I could write beyond pure spectacle. Today, I do regret not having shown more of my neighborhood for that comic, but my skills back then were very limited.
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RC: Do you feel that writing about the "pure spectacle" aspects of your life is somehow cheating as a creator, like it's an easy shortcut?

NG: If the story of spectacle is one hell of a story, then I’m all for writing about it. I only think it’s cheating if you rely on spectacle alone to write all your stories. Gabrielle Bell is a master storyteller in my opinion because she could literally be watching paint dry and write an amazing story about that.

RC: As an author, you have an interesting relationship with the excesses of your own behavior. You seem to walk a line between worried about it and playing it up for laughs. Are there past stories that you read and cringe at, or is it all just fodder for good storytelling?

NG: I definitely cringe at past stories, especially from Malarkey #2 when I was going through a tough time. I try to avoid whiney autobio. But that’s where I was at at the time so that’s what I wrote about. In Malarkey #3, there are practically no substance abuse stories (not that I’m saying they didn’t happen, yuk! yuk!).

I’ve always had an impulsive and addictive personality, which is not a good combination, but at the same time I’m reasonable enough to remain a “functioning adult”. So there’s that conundrum of not really having a serious problem — by cutting it off right at the limit. 

Let’s change the subject, haha!

RC: Okay. How did you develop your lettering style? Your letter size is bigger than most cartoonists, and you use interesting loops in places.

NG: I’ve always had horrible handwriting, so I have no idea where that came from. I do remember that in school, my friends would crack up at how neat my handwriting was when I had to write out visual presentations.

As they say, “Lettering is Drawing” so that probably explains that. I do hate that my lettering is so huge and I’ve been trying to adjust it, but it’s really hard for me.