As recently highlighted in Diamond Daily, Oni Press and I worked out a great Oyster War promotion: Order at least three copies of Oyster War and get a free hand-drawn book plate of an Oyster War character. The verbiage in the Diamond describes the plates as “ultra rare,” but note that these are not just “rare”–they’re individually hand drawn by me! As you can see here, these are drawn on book plate templates intended to be run through a printer, but instead I’ve hand drawn characters on them in brush pen. Each one is signed and dated, ready to be peeled off and stuck into a copy of Oyster War.
On Wednesday I drove up to Boone, NC to hear James Sturm talk about the history of The Center for Cartoon Studies and to check out the exhibit of CCS-related original art at the Turchin Center. The exhibit was organized by my friend comics writer/comics professor Craig Fischer, who you may know from our annual “mega-panels” at HeroesCon. James was a professor at SCAD when I was a student there years ago, so it was great to have an opportunity to catch up with him as well. I’ve been up to visit CCS a few times, but the most recent was in maybe 2006, so it’s been a while.
James’s lecture covered a bit of his comics-making process and then went over the “origin story” of CCS. Afterwards there was a reception in the CCS exhibit hall. Two bits of interesting info that came up in my conversation with James earlier in the day: First, he has not one, but two, forthcoming children’s books from TOON Books. I got a look at a physical copy of one and a PDF of the other. They both look great. Second: In a discussion about what original comics art folks owned, James mentioned that either he or the school (I can’t recall which) has never-seen sample pages that Craig Thompson did for the James Sturm written Fantastic Four series, Unstable Molecules. Apparently Thompson was considered for art on the book before Guy Davis was settled on. The pages include the (in)famous “Johnny Storm masturbating” scene.
Here’s a small handful of pictures from the event:
So, just by happenstance my wife’s work was putting her up in NYC for a conference a few blocks from the Javitz Center the same week that the New York Comic-Con would be there. That seemed like too good a coincidence to pass up, so I booked a flight and tagged along. It was a last-minute deal (at least by convention planning standards) so I didn’t wind up getting an artists’ alley table, instead just doing a signing each day I was there (Thursday and Friday) at the booth of Oyster War publisher Oni Press.
I wrote fairly extensive recent reports on CXC and SPX, but for NYCC, I’ll keep it short: The place was a zoo.
I spent some time on the floor on Thursday–presumably a “slow day”–and getting around was already thoroughly unpleasant. Yes, there was some cool stuff to see at the booths, but it took some doing to get around, especially in areas like the passageway to artists’ alley, which was very prone to bottlenecks and was even closed off at one point as a result.
I attended one panel on Thursday, a Dark Horse panel that was billed as a panel on “Crafting the Original Story” and which I assumed would be about, ya know, the process of crafting a story. It was actually just the standard “guys talk about books they’re currently doing” panel. Not that there wasn’t some interesting stuff being discussed–the announced Van Jensen/Nate Powell book in particular looked great. The real takeaway moment from this panel, though, was when one of the panelists themselves, Ethan Young, asked moderator/Dark Horse PR person Steve Sunu whether their upcoming Moebius Library would retain the original coloring and he just straight-up declined to answer. (To be fair, it sounds like he wasn’t prepared to say anything about the Dark Horse Moebius Library other than that the project exists.)
The real high point of of NYCC for me was just getting to talk to people in person that I would really only run into at big mainstream events like this or SDCC. In particular, it was great to finally meet face-to-face a lot of the Oni folks, who I’ve been interacting with throughout the Oyster War publication process, but whom I’d never actually met in person before.
I did also really enjoy seeing the original art that some of the dealers on the floor had for sale. I’m always completely blown away by the stuff that’s just casually available in portfolios to flip through at cons. Seeing stuff like this totally blows my mind and seems like the equivalent of seeing a bunch of Degas paintings at some yard sale:
(That’s–top to bottom–Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Basil Wolverton, Reed Crandall, and Barry Windsor-Smith)
All that said, I decided that one day at NYCC was plenty for me and since my Friday signing wasn’t until the evening I began hatching plans to do some things in the city Friday, rather than hang out at the con.
Al Hirschfeld at the New York Historical Society
The weekend of NYCC was the final weekend of a long-running exhibit of Al Hirschfeld originals at the New York Historical Society and that was stop number one for me. Unfortunately, photography was prohibited, so I’m going to have to make due with pictures I can find online, but here’re some observations about the exhibit:
- If you were at NYCC and didn’t hop on the subway to catch this exhibit, you really missed something. Al Hirschfeld is one of the greats and you’re probably not going to find another collection of Hirschfeld originals all together in one place like this again for a good long while.
- Al Hirschfeld is known for his distinctive linework, but seen up close, you can see that his linework actually changes markedly over the years. Linework in his older pieces–up to maybe the 80s or so–has a lot of flowing uninterrupted lines made with a single stroke. At some point, though, he begins to move toward building up lines with lots of small scratchy strokes that emulate this look. I wonder if this is a change reflective of age, as with Schulz’s linework. Compare, for example, the linework in his Man of La Mancha illustration from 1977 (top) with this Tommy Tune drawing from 2012 (bottom):
- Hirschfeld drew in a barber’s chair and they had a setup at the exhibit where you could sit in a similar barber’s chair and draw stuff on one of those magnetic kid’s drawing tablet things:
- Hirschfeld is known for his distinctive drawing style, which is recognizable mainly because of its unmistakable line quality. The Al Hirschfeld documentary, for example, is called The Line King. That particular drawing style, though, is (not surprisingly) something that he developed over time. Judging by the works on display, he was in his currently recognizable style by the mid 1940s or so, but the works on display from before then were absolutely stunning and very, very different than what most people probably think of when they think of Hirschfeld.
- There were plenty of these early works on display, mostly lithographs from the 1930s. They were quite stunning. Most of them were interiors or crowd scenes, not portraits, and exhibited a real concern with value as much as with line. If this doesn’t sound like the Al Hirschfeld we all know and love, we can hardly be blamed; this era and style Hirschfeld seems to be largely ignored. I could find precious few examples of this era of his work online and the group that I turned up leaned heavily on portraits. Even the official Al Hirschfeld website has only a few posted works from this era and they’ve selected only portraits/caricatures.
- Even once settled into his now-recognizable style, Hirschfeld has a lot more going on than just his stunning linework. He employs an amazing vocabulary of patterns and textures and often uses them in brilliantly unconventional ways. For example, look at the crazy pattern he’s using to indicate stubble in this picture of Elia Kazan. (Sorry about the terrible image.) Or how about the dry brush texture in The Defiant Ones: And check out the hair in this 1970 Jane Fonda portrait:
- He also had an amazing variety in the way he drew facial features. Hirschfeld had no “stock” methods that he fell back on for this stuff, and a lot of what he came up with bordered on the abstract in a wonderful way. Look at how he’s chosen to draw Lucille Ball’s eyelashes in this Mame image:
- Hirschfeld continued to change his style and explore new ways of representing faces and bodies until the end of his life. His final works really pushed minimalism. It seemed like he was trying to see with just how few lines he could possibly get away with. Check out how much of the torso and arms in the Rosemary Clooney illustration from 200 are implied rather than drawn:
- Seeing and thinking about all this linework made me a bit sad about the current vogue for dead or nearly-dead linework that’s prevalent in indie comics these days–and which has now filtered through things like Adventure Time and Over the Garden Wall and become a mainstream aesthetic. I like a lot of that work (and for sure love the sources it springs from influence-wise: Moebius, Katsuhiro Ôtomo, etc.) but I’ll always have an affinity for artists who are masters at expressive variable-width inking tools.
- My only disappointment about the exhibition was purely a personal one. As a lifelong Trekkie I’d really hoped to see an original of one of Hirschfeld’s amazing crew portraits of the various Star Trek crews/shows. Alas, there were none to be found, but here they are:
Lynda Barry at the Adam Baumgold Gallery
After a surprisingly reasonably-priced lunch at a vegetarian joint off Fifth Avenue I hopped on a rental bike, trucked across Central Park, and wound up at the Adam Buamgold Gallery, which was hosting a spectacular exhibition of Lynda Barry originals. The Gallery is tucked away in the bottom floor of a brownstone and I wasn’t sure I was even at the correct location when I rung the bell and was buzzed in. Adam seemed surprised anyone in town for NYCC was coming by to look at the exhibit–but I was frankly surprised no one else in town for NYCC had come by.
I don’t have a big list of observations about Barry’s art as I did with the Hirschfeld stuff, other than just that Lynda Barry is one of my favorite modern cartoonists and it was a real treat to see so many originals of hers in person. In particular, the stuff she’s done in the last seven or eight years or so were especially great to see since they’re multimedia/collage pieces that you can’t fully appreciate in a mechanically reproduced book.
Adam’s gallery is a really nice space in which to look at original comics art and from my minimal chatting with Adam he seemed like a great guy and a real champion of original comics art. Sadly/ironically, as a working cartoonist, I can’t actually afford to purchase a Barry original, but I was delighted to see on the list Adam showed me that the bulk of them had sold. He did, though, graciously allow me to take some pictures. Here’s a gallery of some of the stuff that was on display:
On the way back to the Javitz Center for my Friday signing at the Oni table, I stopped by the French embassy, which has a French-language book store inside it. It’s a great shop and upstairs they have several shelves of French comics. I have to admit, I was surprised I didn’t find more stuff to buy, but I think that’s actually a positive sign. Ten years ago I’d have snapped up every Christophe Blain book I ever encountered, for example, but the bulk of the Blain books they had on the shelf had already been translated into English by various North American publishers so I didn’t buy them. I picked up a beautiful Nicolas De Crécy travelogue and I’m still kicking myself for not buying the new Blutch art book.
My trip to New York City was great and I got just enough time at the enormo-dome NYCC to get my fill. As you can probably tell from my write-up, though, most of my favorite stuff was ancillary to the con itself. But, hey, if I hadn’t been at the actual NYCC, would I have ever seen in-person this portrait of Tyrion Lannister made ENTIRELY OF PERLER BEADS?!?!
I pre-sold a few and have pulled a few for friends and family, but there are still a ton of great pages there. These are big, pretty pages–much larger than most modern original comics art. The pages are 13″ x 18″ artwork on 14.5″ x 23″ Stathmore 2-ply 500 series Bristol board. Here’s a pic of a page next to a ruler, CD, and cassette tape to give you a sense of scale:
If for whatever reason you’d prefer not to use my Storenvy storefront, you can email me (email@example.com) and arrange purchase/payment directly.
I returned this past week from the inaugural year of Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC) in Columbus, Ohio. The event has very deliberately patterned itself after the European festival model—with a bit of Toronto’s well-respected TCAF thrown in for good measure—rather than the traditional U.S. comics event model. Unlike most domestic comics conventions (and unlike even such “indie” comics events as Bethesda, MD’s Small Press Expo), CXC is a multi-venue event that places significant focus on elements other than selling books on a show floor.
I was one of the thirty exhibitors who were accepted to the show. As an exhibitor rather than a guest (guests being folks like Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, Kate Beaton, etc.) I really only needed to be there for Saturday, the day of the show where people set up at the Cultural Arts Center to sell books. Friday was a day exclusively for speaking events and workshops, but these events were a significant enough draw that I left Thursday night after dinner and stayed the night in West Virginia so I could get up early and get into Columbus in time to catch Friday’s events.
For some reason, this person checking into the downtown Sheraton brought breakfast food instead of luggage.
Friday’s events were all at the OSU campus and I rolled into town right in the middle of Lalo Alcaraz’s presentation. It was completely full, but I managed to get into the next two presentations, by Katie Skelly and Dylan Horrocks. Both were great. It’s worth noting that these talks were “Talk and Teach” presentations, specifically geared toward other comics-makers. This is an element of CXC that you’ll find pretty much nowhere else. (More on this later.)
Between the Talk and Teach and the evening “Special Presentations” there was a tour of the Billy Ireland Library facilities. There was some truly mind-blowing stuff to see on this tour and it was easily the highlight of CXC for me. If you’ve been to the Billy Ireland, or even just poked around their website, you know that they’ve got a stunning collection of original art, but you really don’t get a sense of the scale of things like you do walking through all 30,000 square feet of the facility. For copyright reasons, you’re not allowed to publish pictures of the art itself, but here’re a few pics from the tour:
Outside the Billy Ireland.
Hanging in the main office: these are all printers plates of old newspaper comic strips.
Tons of original artwork set up for people on the tour to view.
In the bowels of the facility. These sliding shelves are full of books/graphic novels. The flat files behind are full of original art.
The most valuable art is kept in a combo-locked weapons locker. The Bill Watterson originals are kept in here, among other things.
A shelf full of weekly manga magazines–a rare sight in the West.
OK, what the heck… So here’s one pic of some original art. A Bill Peet-drawn storyboard from Alice in Wonderland (!!).
The only Saturday event I attended was the Bill Griffith presentation. I’ll admit to not knowing Griffith’s work very well, but the presentation was interesting and he received the first of several festival awards that were given out over the course of the weekend.
Bill Griffith receiving his award. As Art Spiegelman mentioned later when he received his, from afar they look a lot like a single silicon breast implant.
On Saturday, the festival changed venues to the Cultural Arts Center downtown (for the exhibition portion of the show) and the Columbus College of Art and Design (for closing Spiegelman/Mouly talk).
People at the exhibition portion of the show.
I’ll be blunt about the expo portion: my sales were not great. If I had to speculate, I’d say this was probably the result of two things. First: Oyster War was pretty much the main thing I was selling and it’s a relatively high-dollar item at $25.00. Second: this being the show’s first year, I think a lot of people were there in “just checking things out” mode—which isn’t totally unexpected.
It’s entirely possible that other people did much better than I sales-wise. The Lumberjanes folks who were at the table beside me, for example, came with stacks of individual issues and sold through a most of them.
After an initial hour without a single book sale, I dug through my old stock and put out some Animal Alphabet post card sets for $5 and those started to sell, further enforcing my thought that Oyster War’s $25 price tag was probably the culprit.
For comparison’s sake (and to put in the most unpleasantly mercenary terms) at CXC, I pulled in around $57 per show hour, whereas at SPX two weeks prior I brought in $140 per show hour. If CXC had been a usual “just show up and sell stuff” show, I’d have been pretty disappointed by these sales, but given the nature of the show, it didn’t really bother me that much (more on that later as well).
I gave a copy of Oyster War to Art Spiegelman.
Art Spiegelman very graciously gave me this copy of Flop to the Top. It’s fantastic, by the way!
Saturday evening’s closing event was a Jeff Smith-moderated talk with Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly about RAW Magazine that took place at CCAD. The event was completely packed and I wound up sitting on the floor. Smith was a solid moderator and they wound up going over some early RAW history that I wasn’t familiar with–and I’ve seen Spiegelman speak several times before.
On both Friday and Saturday nights there were show-organized events after the festival at local bars. I really enjoyed this aspect of the show and wanted to single it out here as a definite CXC strong point. I was discussing the show afterwards with some of the other exhibitors I was palling around with in the evenings and we all agreed that it was great to have a show with built-in socializing time where you could talk with other cartoonists beyond the usual “how did the show go for you” chatter.
A Multi-Venue Festival
As mentioned, CXC is spread over a number of different venues in Columbus. One nice result of this is that you don’t have that “three days trapped in a hotel” feeling that you can sometimes get with events like SPX. Also: in addition to the obvious comics-related appeal, Columbus seems to have a lot of good spots for food and drink, interesting cultural institutions, etc.
On the other hand, getting around can be difficult. Columbus reminds me of a smaller, mid-western version of Atlanta: there are lots of cool spots with great stuff to do, but those spots are all well out of walking range from one another. Columbus is definitely a “car town” and I don’t think you’d really be able to do CXC without a car–or without someone else at the show having a car that you could tag along with. Exacerbating the situation is parking, which can be difficult and ranges from expensive to incredibly expensive. It was actually cheaper for me to pay for valet parking at my downtown hotel than it would have been to park and re-park in public lots as I came and went from venue to venue for the show.
That said, I did have my car and I was able to get around fairly well. Uber was a real god-send for the various after-festival events. Most rides I took were in the four to seven dollar range and even a ride back to the hotel from the bar during peak hours on Saturday night was maybe $12.00.
For an inaugural year event with a fairly complex multi-venue event schedule, I thought things ran quite smoothly. There were no big obvious SNAFUs at any event I observed and the given the large number of participating institutions (CXC itself, Billy Ireland, Sol-Con, CCAD, etc.) everything seemed to be humming right along.
I will say that I had to do a dedicated sit-down the week before the show in order to sort out what was going on where and what events I wanted to attend vs. needed to be at. I’d 100% chalk this mainly up to my being used to the relative simplicity of single venue/single focus events like SPX, not to anything on the festival’s end. That said though, there were definitely a lot of show emails/documents about a ton of different things flying around and it could be hard to sort through, especially on the heels of SPX, which a lot of exhibitors (and a few guests) had likely just returned from. I had a phone conversation with a cartoonist friend a few days before the show just trying to sort out when and where he was supposed to be–and he didn’t realize until our phone conversation that the exhibition portion of the show was only on Saturday and he didn’t need to be there Friday.
Would I Go Back?
“Will you apply to exhibit next year?” is a moot question for me since I don’t table at shows unless I have a new book to sell and I won’t have another new book for a while. More generally, though:
I would definitely like to return to CXC. In a nutshell: everything except actual book sales on Saturday was 100% fabulous. And here’s the thing: book sales is pretty much the one element of the show that the CXC organizers can’t control. All the rest of the stuff–the stuff that they could control–was fantastic and seems poised to get even better as the show expands to four days next year.
Here’s what I’d love to see happen at CXC:
I’ve groused for years that comics doesn’t have an event that’s oriented toward comics industry professionals and aspiring professionals. I’d love to see CXC become that event–a “conference” in the way that other professions have yearly conferences that are professional gatherings geared toward professional development rather than toward retailing to the general public. The Billy Ireland is already a big draw for anyone practicing comics-making and CXC elements like the Talk and Teach sessions and the “Business of Comics” programming are clearly geared toward practicing cartoonists. I’d love to see more of that kind of thing, with maybe even some more nuts and bolts craft workshops about drawing, inking, software, etc.
I also would love to see more opportunities for interaction between the bigger name guests and the exhibitors and attendees. This year it almost seemed like the guests were part of one event and the exhibitors part of a different event and the two just happened to overlap every once in a while. Even the after-festival events seemed to be segregated this way. I’ve seen the positive value of having an established professional cartoonist do hands-on work with students in a classroom; I think you would see those same results with some sort of hands-on mentoring/workshop opportunity in a festival situation. More interaction like this might also put CSX in the amiable position of being a “generational ambassador,” bringing into contact the disparate groups of comics folks who never seem to really interact much, even when they’re all lumped together in the same place, as with SPX.
If turns out to be a direction the show goes, I think it’d be worth having some sort of attendee status specifically for working cartoonists who want to attend workshops, library tours, after-events, etc. but are neither guests nor exhibitors. Whatever the case, I’m fairly certain I’ll return to CXC.
Here’re a few pictures from a recent workshop I conducted at the Watauga Public Library in Boon, NC. For this particular workshop, I had the participants do a one page comic version of the Aesop’s Fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare.” This project is an old standby that’s been used by lots of comics teachers over the years. The best-known example of it is probably Joe Lambert’s “Turtle Keep it Steady,” a musical telling of the Tortoise and the Hare story that came out of a Center for Cartoon Studies assignment. It wound up being included in a Best American Comics volume and was eventually included in I Will Bite You, a collection of the artist’s short comics work.
I take a slightly indirect approach to the Tortoise and Hare assignment, though. I begin with a general talk on comics-making and then go through some nuts-and-bolts basics of character design. Once the character design material has concluded I have them design two characters:
These characters are, of course, setups for the the eventual “Tortoise and Hare” story, which I only reveal once everyone has designed a Tortoise stand-in and Hare stand-in character from the initial exercise.
Anyway, here’re some pictures from the event, including some great Dr. Who and Saga cosplay:
Also: the event was coordinated by Craig Fischer, who’s in the middle of curating an exhibit of original art from CCS students and faculty. He had a few originals with him that he displayed at the event. Here’re pages by Joe Lambert, Stephen Bissette, and Colleen Frakes:
This was the first SPX I’ve tabled at in a good long time and while I certainly can’t complain about sales so steady I couldn’t get away from my table, I’m afraid that situation doesn’t make for a very exciting con report. But here goes…
First and foremost: SPX 2015 was the debut of Oyster War! How did it go? In short: I took a ton of books–far more than I imagined I’d sell–and sold every single one. Huzzah! More on that later, though.
Backing up a bit, I hit the road on Friday morning so I could rendezvous with some fine Richmond VA cartoonists: Rob Ullman and Jared Cullum. We stuffed Rob’s Jeep SUV about as full of comics and luggage as I can imagine. I felt pretty bad about taking up far more than my fair share of the available space with seven giant boxes of Oyster War (that’s 72 books) because I didn’t imagine I’d sell half of them, but at least I volunteered to sit in what was left of the back seat for the drive up to Bethesda.
I managed to behave somewhat responsibly on Friday night, getting to bed at a reasonable hour so I could get up early enough to grab a bit of exercise in the hotel gym then get my table in gear. I figured I wouldn’t table again until whatever book I do next comes out (which at the rate I work could be some time), so I shelled out for a full six foot table. I thought I’d have room for some originals, but my books and minis pretty much filled it up:
Hey, check out that fancy sign! Saturday was steady start-to-finish and by mid-afternoon was kinda cray-cray. I didn’t think I’d be able to get to any panels and indeed I didn’t–not even this nonexistent one that I made up:
Can’t believe I missed #spx2015 panel that was a MMA match b/t Scott McCloud and Dylan Horrocks to decide the correct definition of comics.
— Ben Towle (@ben_towle) September 19, 2015
Andrew Neal was wandering the floor and he gave me one of his new minis: I was right next to the big Cartozia Tales table and the Cartozia folks gave me a copy of the new issue. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but right off the bat I was blown away by the Tom Motley story, which is done in the style of Gustave Verbeek’s Upside-Downs comics–meaning: each panel is read first right side up, then upside down. Like this: As far as I could tell, the only person dressed up at SPX was this lone furry: JP Coovert had a relatively recent mini out, which he was kind enough to give me: I bought the new issue of King Cat, which is all about the death of Maisie the cat. I foolishly started reading it on the floor but had to stop because I was about to burst into tears. I still haven’t read the end of it. I picked up Joey Weiser’s new mini as well: My favorite purchase I just happened upon was Gigant by Rune Ryberg (published by Adhouse). I was reading some comics news sites over Sunday morning coffee and saw an article on the book… and it just so happened that Rune Ryberg was at SPX. This book is really gorgeous: Rune had traveled to SPX all the way from Denmark, but apparently invulnerable to jet lag, he did this killer sketch for me:
My one non-comics purchase was this purse/messenger bag for my daughter. What does the fox say, anyway?
SPX has changed a lot in the years since I first started attending back in the old hotel down the Pike in Bethesda proper. But there’s one thing that’s remained relatively constant: the Saturday night chocolate fountain.
Craig Fisher had come to SPX with students from his graphic novels class and after mentioning the fountain to them, I was made to seek it out Holy Grail-style. (For future reference: it’s now upstairs near the exhibitor floor rather than downstairs.) The chocolate fountain was the subject of much discussion both in person and online Saturday night.
GUYS, THINK OF HOW MUCH HUMAN DANDER AND SKIN FLAKES ARE FLOWING THROUGH THAT SPX CHOCOLATE FOUNTAIN
— Brittney Sabo (@BrittneySabo) September 20, 2015
SPX protip: Don’t ever think about that. Seriously.
Anyway… SPX was a fantastic show for me in the sense of just generally being a blast (it’s always fabulous in this respect) but it was an unprecedented show for me sales-wise. I brought my last fifteen copies of Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean with me and sold the last one Sunday afternoon. I’d sold around forty-five copies of Oyster War by the end of Saturday and I sold through the remaining twenty-seven by late afternoon Sunday. I even sold the pawed-through sample copy for $10 to someone who’d come looking for a book after I’d sold out. Needless to say, big thanks to everyone who bought a copy! I worked hard on that book and I hope you dig it.
I had nothing left to sell by five on Sunday so I packed up and spent the last hour or so of the show in the hotel bar reading comics. Sacred Heart is great, by the way!
What did I do with my new-found comics wealth, you ask? I was in need of some socks this week, but instead of buying a sixer of my usual crappy Walmart socks, I shelled out for some fancy 95% cotton Wigwam King Cotton socks. OUT OF THE WAY, YOU SWINE! A CARTOONIST IS COMING!
You can find all the details in the article, but if you’re near Boone, NC this Saturday (September 12th), come on out and say Hi to me at this year’s “Off the Page” High Country Festival of the Book from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. I’ll be giving a general talk about comics and how comics get made, then I’ll be leading a comics-making workshop. Spots are limited, so be sure to sign up in advance if you want to attend!
There was a lot of talk going around about the “manga boom” of the late 90’s/early 2000’s a week or two back, spurred mainly by this thoughtful essay by Chris Butcher of The Beguiling and TCAF. I don’t have any first-hand experience with the anti-manga attitude he details there1 nor much to say about the larger issue he directly addresses2 but it did tangentially bring to mind a conversation I had with some comics students a while back.
I’ve taught summer comics classes for high school students at our local community art center, The Sawtooth School, on and off for several years. The students who sign on for this program have historically skewed heavily female and (not unrelated) heavily toward manga as far as their comics interests go. That’s been the case pretty much across the board from when I began teaching there (2004, maybe?) through to the present. I personally read a fair amount of manga, but it’s part of a broader range of comics I read including general fiction GNs, collections of old newspaper strips, webcomics, translated European comics, the occasional superhero comic, etc. The examples of comics I use in class are accordingly across-the-board: some manga, but lots of other stuff as well. Partially I do this in order to expose the students to things beyond what they already know, but also it’s because I’ve always felt that “comics is comics.” Meaning: despite variations in drawing style, genre, length, and format, all these things are all a single medium.
I was making exactly this case for “comics is comics” in a class years ago, though, and was taken aback by how vigorously the students rejected the idea. I’m always interested in my students’ take on comics, so I decided to probe a bit further. According to them, comic books, graphic novels, newspaper comics, etc. were one sort of thing, and manga was another, different kind of thing in another category all together. They couldn’t tell me exactly what this category was, but it contained manga, anime, and video games-related stuff. I remember at the time being pretty baffled by this idea and pointing out all the things that manga shares with other types of comics–They all use panels, right? And you read the panels in order to get a story, right?–but the students weren’t buying it.
At the time I chalked the conversation up to a generational disconnect and just moved on. In recent years, though, I’ve found myself thinking about that conversation a lot. It happened in maybe 2005 or so and at that point I wasn’t too long out of art school. I was very much under the influence–as were a lot of folks who were studying comics at the time–of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. McCloud’s very much into categorization and in that book he very famously defines/categorizes comics based on their formal properties–the sorts of things that I cited to my students: “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in a deliberate sequence,” as he says.
The more involved I get with comics, though–and with teaching comics–the more sympathetic I am to Dylan Horrock’s critique of Understanding Comics, which points out that in focusing entirely on the form of comics, McCloud ignores content and aesthetics. As Horrocks says, “In one fell swoop (McCloud) has removed all other considerations – genre, style, publishing formats…” And I think this is precisely what my students were responding to in our discussion: they resisted grouping manga with, say Krazy Kat, because of the obvious aesthetic differences between them. Just based on how they look, Vampire Hunter D sure seems have a lot more in common with the video game Final Fantasy II than to The Katzenjammer Kids… or Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth. (And, further, The Katzenjammer Kids, shares a lot more aesthetically with The Family Circus than the Bayeaux Tapestry, yet McCloud would say the former is not a comic, but the latter is.)
For what it’s worth, I still pretty much think “comics is comics.” Manga, newspaper strips, comic books, graphic novels–they’re all the same medium: comics. And I think that’s a particularly good way to think about things if you’re teaching the basic mechanics of the comics-making craft. But I also recognize that because I teach comics and make comics, I gravitate toward the aspects of the art form that I deal with as a teacher and a comics-maker–their formal properties–and not necessarily the aspects that readers of certain types of comics (like my students, in this case) may be responding to: aesthetic properties.
Anyway, what does any of this have to do with Chris Butcher’s essay? Not much, really, but the article reminded me of this incident and that some of manga’s natural, positive “otherness”3 can be a part of its appeal.
1. I’m sure there was plenty of manga hostility going around at various “Android’s Dungeon”-type places during this period. During that time, though, I was in the Masters program in SCAD’s Sequential Art department and as such was hanging out with people who were heavily immersed in comics–including tons of manga. Manga seemed to me just another really exciting, interesting thing going on in comics in the late 90s.
2. OK, I will add this one thing: if you’re listing successful important types of comics from that era that have been roundly ignored or even derided by the comics industry status quo, you should add so-called “goth” comics to the list. Comics like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Lenore, Gloomcookie, etc. sold like hotcakes and were–and still are–incredibly influential, but you’d never know they existed by the way they’re discussed (or not discussed) at the time they were published or now.
3. As opposed to the jerky “this is a fad,” “these aren’t real comics,” othering that Chris B. addresses in his essay.