The fourth annual MoCCA Art Festival is coming up this weekend in New York City. Last year saw the festival truly mature into a well-organized event that still captured the quirkiness that its eclectic guest list embodied. Being New York City, the crowd was more diverse than at any other comics show I've attended. That was evidenced most plainly in its gender breakdown (close to 50-50), but also in terms of race and even age (lots of kids along with a number of senior citizens). MoCCA very quickly has arguably become the premier small press comics event in North America, and certainly has the broadest range of comics-related events and artists. From mainstream superhero artists like Neal Adams & Frank Miller to New Yorker cartoonists to animators to minicomics specialists to indy stalwarts like Dan Clowes & Adrian Tomine, the event literally has something for everyone.
With over 350 artists in attendance, it may be easy to overlook a few worthwhile creators. Here's a list of ten interesting artists, most of whom are either up-and-coming or overlooked:
1. Tim Kreider (http://www.thepaincomics.com). With his second book, WHY DO THEY KILL ME? (Fantagraphics), nearing publication, this searing humorist will hopefully receive a bit more of well-deserved acclaim. Simply put, he is the most acerbic, nastiest (and most importantly) funniest political cartoonist alive. His earlier strips showed off his strong B.Kliban influence in terms of how unsparing he was in his search for a brilliant gag, but his more recent work is informed as much by Hunter S Thompson and HL Mencken. His attacks on the Bush administration are surgical strikes, and his venom for the culture that supports it iseven more vicious. This is scorched-earth humor at its best, jokes that make the reader laugh out loud while flinching. Make sure to check out his archives, especially the strip from 12/12/01 titled "It May Not Be A Perfect System...". The artist's statements are also well worth reading. Kreider will be at the Fantagraphics table on Saturday from noon til one and Sunday from 11 til noon.
2. Richard Hahn (http://www.lumakick.com). Hahn’s work is not unlike the new wave of neo-formalist comics creators, artists who are aggressively experimental with storytelling techniques. Artists like Chris Ware, Paul Hornschemeier, Anders Nilsen, Kevin Huizenga and others fall into this category, and Hahn experiments in some of the same ways. What sets him apart is the stark sense of isolation found in his stories, of characters walking alone in desolate cities. In some ways, his comics are reminiscient of the painter DeChirico, except that Hahn still sticks to a strong (though sometimes oblique) narrative structure. His panel composition and use of light are both flawless, and both contribute to the haunting feeling left with the reader after grappling with his strips. To lighten the mood, Hahn also includes brief interludes featuring two characters arguing at a bar that are absurd and nasty. To date, he has published two issues of his series LUMAKICK. While the first issue was very good, the second issue was one of the best comics of the year. Some discerning publisher needs to snap him up quickly, because I would be eager to see him work in a longer format, or in color. One senses that this is an artist at the height of his powers, who is capable of some truly lasting works.
3. Vanessa Davis (http://www.buenaventurapress.com). Another artist who got her start in the world of minicomcs, Davis has just had a book released, entitled SPANIEL RAGE. Davis specializes in autobiographical journal comics, but her approach and energy differ from standard autobio. Rather than try to talk about her life as a narrative, Davis instead provides brief snapshots of her life. Some of scenes are quite mundane, as she eats Chinese food in her underwear or goofs off at work, but many of them unflinchingly get at her hopes, dreams and fears. Simply by aligning her seeming disparate series of anecdotes, Davis manages to create a narrative of sorts, each strip an island of meaning in her life. Her observations range from hilariously funny to wistful to bored to longing. Her drawing style ranges from refined to very sketchy, depending on mood and circumstances, but it always has a fresh immediacy. The book also contains some more conventional stories which aren’t quite as successful but are still interesting. Overall, one senses that while this was a strong first effort, her major works are still ahead of her.
4. Eve Englezos & Josh Moutray (http://www.icecreamlandia.com). This duo is behind the delightfully weird minicomic Icecreamlandia. The format is simple: the comic either shows a series of images from TV or a series of one-page monologues from various people talking to the reader. It’s the details that make this such an unusual and entertaining read. The clear-line style art allows the reader to zero in on each speaker, while their monologues (and sometimes dialogues) are either absurd (a T-Rex yelling “Surf’s Up!”) or remarkably true to life. Going from page to page is much like flipping the channels on one’s TV set, with a set of out-of-context images and ideas somehow coalescing into a snapshot of the culture at that time. The creators’ sense of style and overall nerve combine to create an appealing package, one that is unique in the current comics scene.
5. Jack Turnbull (http://www.jackturnbull.com). Turnbull is one of the most exciting young talents in comics. Despite the fact that he’s still in college, he’s been a comics veteran for several years. The ninth issue of his minicomic APOLLO ASTRO will debut at MoCCA, and it will no doubt display his interest in formal experimentation, heartfelt narratives and quirky sense of humor. Turnbull is still clearly working through his influences, with Chris Ware and Dan Clowes being the two most obvious ones, but his own talent and point of view shine through all of his work. John Porcellino’s personal touch is another clear influence, as his comics have a touch of zine in them. As he continues to grow and evolve as an artist, he has the potential to produce some truly memorable work. As it is, his comics are well worth reading.
Five More Artists To Seek Out, One-Liner Department:
1. MK Reed. Though her art style is still developing, her ear for dialogue is uncannily sharp. CATFIGHT is her first truly mature work and a fantastic look at high school relationships.
2. John Kerschbaum. One of the funniest men in comics, every single mini he produces is pure gold. His comics are warped, surreal and often leave a lasting impression as the reader seeks to understand the real punchline.
3. Dasha Shishkin & Robbie Guertin (alias BB and PPINC). This duo produces hand-made, full-color comics that seem like a first cousin to Fort Thunder-style material. Absolutely delightful without being cloying.
4. Roger Langridge. Has some of the most beautiful art in comics today, along with a deadly deadpan sense of humor. Snap up FRED THE CLOWN while you still can.
5. Anders Nilsen. With a book (DOGS & WATER) out from Drawn & Quarterly, Anders is the Next Big Thing. He excels at depicting isolation as well as complex bizarre characater interactions.
The 2005 MoCCA (Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art) Festival in New York was held on June 11th and 12th, and once again the event was a success in the face of a brutal heat wave and broken air-conditioners. Part 1 of my report will focus on how MoCCA was a microcosm of some interesting trends within the comics industry. Part 2 will discuss the event itself, some of the buzz books and panels of interest. Part 3 will go into further detail about some of the more interesting finds at the show, zeroing in on the world of minicomics.
Created four years ago by Kristin Siebecker (who now is working for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund) in association with the fledgling MoCCA, the festival was hatched after she realized that New York was lacking in major comics-related events. Considering that NYC has such a huge and vibrant alternative comics community, this seemed to be an absurd state of affairs. After the impromptu "SPX-iles" event that sprung up after the Small Press Expo was cancelled due to 9/11, she and others realized that a small press event could easily flourish in Manhattan.
Spaced between the Alternative Press Expo (APE) in the spring and SPX in the fall, the timing for MoCCA was perfect. MoCCA the organization still didn't have a permanent headquarters when the festival began in 2002, but the festival and the organization have both flourished as a result of the other's support. Siebecker gave up running the event after a couple of years, but it has gone on to evolve into a unique comics and art showcase. Unlike most comics-cons these days that tend to de-emphasize comics in favor of movies, TV, toys, porn stars and the like, MoCCA instead focuses on comics in all their incarnations: minicomics, big alternative publishers, political cartoonists, animators, illustrators, and even a few superhero comics. MoCCA also became the new home of the Harvey Awards as of 2004, though it's not clear how long that relationship will last.
Comics cons have always been a place where business has been done and deals made. The problem in the late 90's was that there weren't any deals to make because the comics industry in general was at its lowest ebb, at least in terms of sales. At SPX in 1998, Frank Miller noted that there were more good comics being made than ever before but fewer people reading them. This came after the comics speculation boom of the early 90's, dominated by puerile material from Image and a glutted market from Marvel. When the bust came, it arrived because no one cared about content of those comics (least of all the creators), only its artificial "value".
Comics as a form has always had different genres evolving in parallel but otherwise unrelated directions. The humor and horror comics of EC in the 50's had little to do with their superheroic cousins at National. The underground comics of the 60's and early 70's had nothing to do with the rebirth and subsequent decline of interest in superheroes once again. The undergrounds faded for a variety of reasons, but eventually were succeeded by "alternative/independent comics" in the 80's, with publishers like Kitchen Sink, Last Gasp and Fantagraphics becoming prominent with the introduction of specialty comics shops and anthologies like RAW and WEIRDO capturing imaginations. Those specialty shops also revived the superhero industry, until finally the magical year of 1986 arrived. This was the year of MAUS, WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and a barrage of media attention.
The problem was that comics didn't have a very deep bench, and companies like Marvel & DC put out "graphic novels" that were mere repackagings of mediocre monthly super-hero mags. There simply weren't enough good long-form comics to draw in adult readers and establish a lasting foothold in the bookstore market. The rise and then bust of the speculator market in the early 90's, combined with a growing disinterest in superhero movies (which had temporarily also provided a spark), seemed to sound a deathknell for the industry in general. While the alternative and mainstream arms of the comics industry had little to do with each other in terms of content and artistic goals, they still shared a common space in comic book shops. When those shops began to close, both sides sustained tremendous losses. Many artists had to quit altogether and find other jobs.
An interesting development occurred in the early 90's at time same time the mainstream comics industry came crashing down. Peter Laird, who co-created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (yet another mainstream development that proved huge popular and spawned a wave of imitators), took his money and created the Xeric Foundation. Among other things, it twice a year gave up to $5,000 to comics creators so as to facilitate production, shipping and distribution. I've dubbed this group of creators the "Xeric Generation", artists with a pure love for comics who were aided by the Xeric's generosity and who in turn inspired younger artists. While not every Xeric recipient went on to do much in comics, some of the winners include major talents such as Derek Kirk Kim, Lauren Weinstein, Jordan Crane, Kurt Wolfgang, Brian Ralph, Anders Nilsen, John Pham, Nick Bertozzi, Linda Medley, James Sturm, Jessica Abel, Tom Hart, Jason Lutes, Adrian Tomine, Jon Lewis and Megan Kelso, among many others.
With the grant assisting in wider distribution and a greater interest in self-publishing (spurred in part by Dave Sim of Cerebus) in the 90's, shows like APE and SPX sprung up as a critical mass of small press creators created the demand. Without a lot of other distribution methods, these shows were often important methods of making back costs and even generating a bit of profit. The irony of the speculator boom is that it left the smallest publishers relatively untouched. They usually had other day jobs and didn't rely on comics sales as their main source of income; they simply produced comics for the love of it. The minicomic movement owed as much to the zine/punk/DIY culture that had been around for nearly two decades as it did other comics. Minicomics themselves weren't new, but events like SPX that celebrated and encouraged their endeavors were.
This long-winded mini-history of comics sets the stage for the scene at this year's MoCCA, which in many ways was the culmination of several converging trends that have resulted in comics becoming quite popular and a career in same potentially lucrative. Some are more directly relevant to alternative comics than others, but let's take a look at each of them in turn:
** The rebirth of the comics adaptation movie. With CGI breakthroughs, it suddenly became possible to make a superhero movie that didn't look hokey. The success of the Spider-Man, X-Men and Blade franchises, along with the popularity of the comics-inspired Matrix and Incredibles films brought comics tropes firmly back into the pop culture vernacular, and this time not in a campy or kitschy manner. This in part led to Hollywood trying all sorts of comics adaptations, with things like THE ROAD TO PERDITION, GHOST WORLD and AMERICAN SPLENDOR all proving to be big successes. The latter film in particular would prove important to alt-comics in all sorts of ways, especially since it was about the actual creation of comics.
** The rise of manga's popularity in the US. Long ignored by both the mainstream superhero and alternative comics communities, manga has proved to be a goldmine for any store wise enough to stock it. A generation of kids weaned on Pikachu and Sailor Moon has taken to snapping up volume after volume of manga, and they are more likely to pick it up at the local bookstore than the comics store.
** Fantagraphics acquiring the rights to PEANUTS. Fanta is still the flagship alt-comics publisher, though many other worthy imprints have come and gone during their long history. However, Fanta's financial struggles have been well-documented, to the point where a porn imprint was created in the early 90's to support the rest of the line to their more recent public call for financial aid from their readers. Once at the cutting edge of the industry, Fanta in recent years has not taken on very many new artists, until they got the rights to reprint PEANUTS in its entirety, in chronological order. Many of the strips had never been reprinted. The project has earned a great deal of publicity, and as one observer noted, being the publisher of PEANUTS is like being given a license to print money. As a result, Fanta has been much more aggressive recently in acquiring new talent, taking more risks on obscure or difficult comics, and carrying out an ambitious publication schedule. At last year's SPX when publisher Gary Groth was on a panel, I asked him how many of the new projects were made possible by the PEANUTS income. He replied, "Oh, roughly all of them."
** The new convergence between comics and literature. This is a result of a critical mass of quality books being released in the last few years to a large market combined with an increasingly sympathetic critical audience in the media. The relationship is circular: a book like Chris Ware's JIMMY CORRIGAN gets printed by a major "legitimate" publisher (WW Norton), garners critical attention and wins major awards (Britain's Guardian Prize among them). The result is more publishers who try to duplicate the success and prestige of such a project by signing another artist, who also receives a lot of attention. Soon, graphic novels are a regular and welcome part of the book market, regularly reviewed (often by critics who chose to specialize in this area) and there are enough of them to put together a nice section at a mainstream bookstore. The critical attention adds legitimacy and exposure to the discerning public, the novelty of comics spurs interest in the critical world and a slow but rising demand for more material. It doesn't hurt that academic criticism of comics is a growing side-industry, one that doesn't necessarily make them any more popular but certainly adds to the legitimacy of a ghettoized art form. And certainly, everyone is aware that art comics have been made into successful and critically acclaimed films.
The implications of these factors changed the vibe of the show. MoCCA was not just about a pure love of the medium and the ability to display it or the community that has been born out of this mutual love for the form (dubbed by some as "Team Comics"). One could also smell ambition in the air, as artists hustled for gigs that suddenly were very real and potentially capable of generating significant income and exposure. What made this vibe interesting was that, unlike many of their mainstream brethren, the artists here didn't seem to care much about immediately turning their comics into movies. (I recall a certain artist duo at SPX a couple of years ago that garishly advertised one of their comics as being optioned for a film—anyone who's read FORTUNE AND GLORY knows how much much that's worth.) Instead, a number of young artists are hoping to hop on the new gravy train of book publishers who are putting out entire lines of graphic novels.
It should be noted book companies have started graphic novel lines in recent years, only to abort them after poor early returns. Doubleday's imprint a couple of years ago began and ended with Jason Little's SHUTTERBUG FOLLIES and Lance Tooks' NARCISSA. Whether or not the current lines will succeed or fail is unclear, but at least one artist I spoke to was worried about a glut. What is clear is that there have been several recent big successes, including the aforementioned JIMMY CORRIGAN (180,000 copies sold!), and Marjane Satrapi's PERSEPOLIS. The newcomers are hoping that this isn't lightning in a bottle, but the start of a new and long-lasting trend.
The sudden demand has created a system not unlike Major League Baseball, where young talents are discovered out in the bushes (ie, doing mini-comics) and brought up to single-A clubs (small companies like Buenaventura Press or AdHouse Books) or perhaps double-A clubs (more established but essentially one-or-two-man operations like Top Shelf, Alternative, etc.). The triple-A clubs, when they're ready to expand the roster a bit, will sometimes absorb these talents (Fantagraphics, NBM, Drawn & Quarterly), but the prospects really dream of the big-time: a multi-book contract with Norton, Pantheon, Ballantine, Henry Holt, Random House, Scholastic, etc. What's interesting is how many artists are going straight from the bushes to the big leagues almost directly these days, and how little time it's taken some of them. Here are a smattering of deals made in the last year or two:
** Vanessa Davis: went from having printed a couple of minicomics to being the first major release of Buenaventura Press.
** Lauren Weinstein: went from one Xeric-produced comic to GIRL STORIES, which will be published by Henry Holt.
** Kevin Huizenga: went from minicomics to a regular series with Drawn & Quarterly.
** Craig Thompson: proved to be Top Shelf's biggest seller with GOODBYE, CHUNKY RICE and BLANKETS, and will have his next book, HABIBI, distributed by Pantheon. He reportedly received a handsome advance when he signed on.
** Jessica Abel: will have her Fantagraphics series LA PERDIDA collected and published by Pantheon as well. She has a non-graphic novel from Harper Collins and will be putting out a book on how to make comics with Matt Madden for First Second, an imprint of Henry Holt.
** Matt Madden: two of his former publishers went belly-up, but in addition to his A FINE MESS series from Alternative, his online "exercises in style" has been picked up by Chamberlain Brothers, an imprint of Penguin Books.
** Raina Telgemeier: with just a tiny handful of minis and a single well-received story in a Friends of Lulu anthology, she secured a gig for adapting the Babysitter's Club books for Scholastic (also known as the home of Harry Potter and the current publisher of BONE in color installments).
** Ed Piskor: Thanks to the huge success of Harvey Pekar's AMERICAN SPLENDOR film, Ballantine has sold something like 30,000 copies of a reprint collection of his early material. As a result, they gave him a four-book contract that will include a reprint of his Dark Horse material, plus three original graphic novels. One of those was OUR MOVIE YEAR, which detailed the events surrounding his life before, during and after the making of his film. Piskor was an artist who simply sent Harvey a couple of minicomics. Harvey liked them and immediately hired him to do a story in OUR MOVIE YEAR, then brought him on for MACEDONIA. This will be a story about a woman named Heather and her experiences in Macedonia, similar in style to Joe Sacco's reportage comics. The fourth graphic novel will be drawn by Gary Dumm and is about a person introduced in OUR MOVIE YEAR.
This list doesn't include Dan Clowes', Charles Burns' or Kim Deitch's deals with Pantheon, Dean Haspiel's star turn for DC/Vertigo or several other deals. The two deals that intrigue me the most are the last two on my list. While both Piskor and Telgemeier are talented artists, they were obscure even by the standards of the alt-comics community. To see both of them go from the bush leagues to the major leagues is frankly astounding, and reflects both the demands of the expanding graphic novel market and how much more resourceful those heading the lines have become in scouting out new talent. It doesn't take a genius to offer Chris Ware, David B or Dan Clowes a book deal; that's simply a matter of a top-notch triple-A star having waited their turn for a shot at the big time. However, publishing work by more obscure talent takes a keen eye and a certain willingness to gamble. It certainly shows that events like MoCCA have become more important than ever, because publishers are on the lookout for new artists; and that a willingness to hustle and promote oneself is almost as important as one's talent & ability.
Evan Dorkin mocked this trend on his blog, noting how every artist seemed to be worrying about their book deals or lack of same: "You pitching a book? Got a book? What's your next book? Sent your book around? I can't get anyone to take my book. I'm doing a book. The only books they want are memoirs and diseases. Did you hear about so-and-so's book deal? Want to see my book? Want to hear about my book?
Yeesh. A heck of a lot of cartoonists are scrambling to gain a foothold in the Random House Sweepstakes. I haven't seen this much barely concealed desperation and ambition on a comics show floor since the 90's when creators were angling everything for Hollywood deals. A lot of good, established cartoonists are giving off the vibe of mini-comics creators desperate to break into staples. And mini-comics creators are aiming for dustcovers rather than staples nowadays. It's really weird, I mean, getting these books into the hands of actual readers has always been the dream and the goal -- not to mention attaining some amount of social acceptance -- and it seems to be happening to a degree few people ever expected. Hoped for, wished for, but I think most of us never really saw this sort of thing coming -- comic book trades getting picked up by legit publishers, a manga explosion, this many comic book movies. It'll end, of course, as all things do, but who knows when this time around, and how it will shake out and effect the medium and industry. This is a three-pronged assault on the stigma of comics, and if it doesn't bust down the walls of disinterest I don't know what will. Then again, are sales really soearing (sic) for that many people? There's still too many comcis (sic) out there choking the pipeline, but I don't think that will ever lessen."
Dorkin's rant touches on a lot of truths, and I think the fact that so many inexperienced artists have gotten such great deals has spurred older artists into action. It may seem a bit desperate, but who knows when this chance is going to come again? Furthermore, the distribution system is such that many publishers may simply be unaware of many worthwhile artists. While supporting one's career in comics with a day job may provide security, surely every artist dreams of supporting themselves strictly through their works. Beyond simply just trying to make a buck, there is a real sense that the industry as a whole has a chance to make a permanent and lasting beachhead in the mainstream public's consciousness.
While this is all fine and good, this trend has several unfortunate side-effects. First off, it privileges long-form graphic novels over short-form stories, especially actual old-fashioned comic books. Second, it tends to favor certain kinds of storytelling and genres. The big losers here are those who specialize in humor. Highbrow publishing companies aren't beating down Sam Henderson's door with a book contract, simply because humor has always been ghettoized, no matter what the art form. But even Robert Crumb has always preferred to work in short stories, though he's accepted the assignment of adapting the Book of Genesis as a comic. When even Crumb is doing a graphic novel, you know it's a trend. One can only hope that this rising tide of increased interest in comics will lift all boats (including that of humor comics) instead of washing them all away.
MoCCA is held in the gorgeous and historical Puck Building, once the home of a beloved early 20th century periodical devoted to humor. It's in the heart of New York's trendy NoHo district, replete with galleries, hip boutiques and unusual eateries, giving the entire event a different feel than the standard convention center or hotel con. With the panels on another floor and the tables strategically spaced apart, the overall crowd flow of the festival made it relatively easy to get to every table. (On the other hand, the show's organizers might want to consider moving Fantagraphics' table to a slightly less congested location)
With New York one big ball of sweat during the weekend, the one thing the show couldn't afford to have was an air-conditioning problem. So of course, the smallest of the three main exhibition rooms was a sweatbox. The poor exhibitors must have taken a bath (not to mention needing one after being there for 7 hours), considering that the crowd tended to stay in the relatively cool main exhibition hall. Happily, this problem was fixed on the second day, but the conditions made the show more exhausting for all involved.
On the floor, it was clear that the bigger publishers didn't prepare many items to debut at the show. There was no BLANKETS or PROJECT: TELSTAR that everyone simply had to have. Fantagraphics did have a few advance copies of MOME, their exciting new anthology of younger cartoonists. FBI is doing it right: a quarterly anthology with the same lineup of cartoonists in every issue. Some of the artists are choosing to do longer serialized works, while others are doing one-offs. It's got to be murder to keep that many cartoonists on time, so we'll see how closely the book sticks to a quarterly schedule. I am most excited to see the work of Kurt Wolfgang and John Pham exposed to a larger audience. Pham's clear-line work evokes Jordan Crane, while his design sense is somewhere between Chris Ware and video game culture. After working through his influences in the eye-popping minis EPOXY and SUBSTITUTE LIFE, I am eager to see where he'll go from here. Wolfgang is the instigator of the hilarious & cruel LOW-JINX anthology, strips that mercilessly skewer the world of alt-comics. At the same time, he's written remarkably tender stories as WHERE HATS GO and the upcoming PINOKIO. His page composition is always varied and eye-catching, while his thick, exaggerated line provides a nice balance to Pham.
While stalwarts like Top Shelf, Alternative and Drawn & Quarterly didn't really have much in the way of new stuff, the double-A and single-A companies filled that gap rather nicely. First and foremost is Dylan Williams' Sparkplug Comics, an imprint that shows off the publisher's remarkable good taste. In production is a comics version of GK Chesterton's classic novel THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY. A different artist will adapt each chapter of this wild tale of a detective who infiltrates a group of bomb-throwing anarchists. Sparkplug debuted what I considered to be the best book at the show: Austin English's CHRISTINA & CHARLES. English has been producing a minicomic about Thelonius Monk called THE TENTH FRAME for some time, now in addition to being one of the Comics Journal's best critics. In particular, English has a keen eye for identifying new talent, and is currently the writer of TCJ's online minicomics column, Dogsbody.
CHRISTINA AND CHARLES represents a quantum leap in his development as a writer and artist. His art is primitive in the tradition of John Porcellino, but also has the strong visual flair of a Souther Salazar. Considering that the book is told from the perspective of children, the style makes perfect sense. English's design is a perfect match for the themes of his story. Both of the title characters are outsiders and dreamers who face a world that has little use for them. Christina is a teenaged schoolgirl from a poor background who recounts the ways she tries to engage the world. She tries to build friendships and to find love but is frustrated at every turn. The narration has the feel of a girl's journal or sketchbook. Charles is an adult, and his younger brother narrates his tale. English goes to town formally in this section, imagining a conversation between Charles and his mother as a sort of improv jazz session, where color and shape on the page represent particular instruments. Charles is an outsider who is eventually institutionalized, but his younger brother lovingly recounts how his brother indulges his imagination. The greatest strength of the book is that English perfectly realizes the narrative voice of both characters, making this an absorbing read despite it not being plot-driven.
Other interesting books included the new volume of the SYNCOPATED anthlogy, edited by Brendan Burford; DEATH COMES TO MONKEYSUIT, the newest volume from that eclectic group of animators; DON'T TREAD ON MY ROSARIES, a collection from criminally underrecognized British cartoonist John Bagnall; and CHRZ, the collection of the serial from EILAND artist Stefan van Dinther. SYNCOPATED featured various sorts of reportage, often on obscure music or shifting cultural trends. The opposite of navel-gazing autobio, it's filled with quiet and incisive observations. MONKEYSUIT has long been a joy to read thanks to its wide variety of material, high production values and the top-notch chops of its artists. The newest volume was no exception, with standout stories from Pat Giles, Prentiss Rollins, and Amanda Baehr. Bagnall's strips are very British, with a dry wit and simple elegance in his line. This book is a collection of assorted short stories, ranging from the story of the connection between a chemist and a monk, David Bowie in Berlin, and disappearing phrases. CHRZ, found at the fantastic Bries table, is van Dinther's masterpiece, a complex and silent point-of-view narrative that is challenging and engaging. The way the visuals switch between a fly's-eye view, the dream narrative of a sleeper and various other points of view is comics formalism at its most exciting.
With a limited amount of space available, the programming was still quite varied. There were panels on comics as children's literature, political cartoons, and gender in manga. Gary Panter and Adrian Tomine had their own panels, while Frank Miller sat down with Neal Adams to present him with the MoCCA Festival Award. I attended the Gained In Translation panel, featuring artists R.Sikoryak and Paul Karasik describing the ways in which comics have been adapted from literature and other sources.
Sikoryak, known for his uncanny ability to mimic any style for comedic effect, presented a survey of the history of comics adaptation. Old chestnuts such as Classics Illustrated were discussed, and Moby Dick was a favorite point of discussion for Sikoryak because so many comics took liberties with the book's ending (e.g., slapping on a happy fate for the characters). Running short of time, he turned things over to Karasik, who started with a slightly more didactic approach. He read a bit from Huck Finn and asked the audience to describe the character, then showed slides of a comic that essentially excised every interesting trait from the character...a Badaptation. Karasik, currently a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, then showed some hilarious slides from a Partridge Family comic from the 70's that was entirely incomprehensible as any kind of story...a Fadaptation. That led to a discussion of Harvey Kurtzman's version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: a Madaptation, of course.
That particular story showed off Kurtzman's understanding of one of the underlying themes of the original story, that the whole place was more than a little frightening, filled as it was by insane and sometimes violent characters. There's a brilliant page when Alice is increasing and then shrinking her size where the panels on the page start getting smaller on every row and winds up with Alice getting trapped by the panel itself. By providing a steady structure (a standard 9-panel grid on each page), it became easy to jar the reader when the pattern was disturbed.
The lessons from Mad influenced Karasik's adaptation of CITY OF GLASS, the Paul Auster story that he did with David Mazzuchelli. The book would be difficult to translate into comics, but Karasik knew that it would be possible to do something in the spirit of Auster. He stuck with a 9-panel grid (often consciously referencing this formal structure with images like prison bars) that slowly disintegrated as the main character's life falls apart. Interestingly, he approached the adaptation from a practical standpoint in terms of how much room he had to write. Adapting a 203 page book, knowing that he had 120 pages of comics to work with, meant that he had a ratio of 1.7:1. So for about every two pages of novel, he had to write one page of comics, trying to keep the rhythm of the comic similar to that of the book. He did have some advantages in being able to show things that Auster described in detail using imagery, but it was the innovations on the page that matched the intricacies of Auster's existential detective novella.
Karasik went on to talk about THE RIDE TOGETHER, the novel/graphic novel he wrote with his sister Judy. Their older brother David is autistic, and the result of their collaboration was a heartfelt but unflinching family biography. Judy, a poet, wrote her chapters in prose and alternated with Paul, who did his sections as comics. Both use the tools of their trade in an effort to talk about their family, specifically the life of their brother and what it must be like to be him. Paul's stories are especially vivid, with magical realism employed as a way of understanding certain behaviors. Karasik concluded by noting that anyone trying to adapt literature into comics must read Harvey Kurtzman's Mad in order to understand how much formal structure influences storytelling.
The big attraction of perhaps the entire weekend was a panel wherein novelist Jonathan Lethem (MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE) interviewed Dan Clowes (EIGHTBALL, GHOST WORLD, and the recent ICE HAVEN). The duo had been in the same orbit of sorts for some time, living in Chicago, Brooklyn and Berkeley. Clowes noted that living in Chicago, he had a real sense of its "Second City" nature, and thusly grew up liking and rooting for second-rate versions of things: Cracked instead of Mad, the Monkees instead of the Beatles, etc. He grew up in the poverty-ridden south side of Chicago, and noted that when he moved to Brooklyn, it was sort of the "south side" of New York, and when he moved to Oakland, it was the "south side" of San Francisco--he felt he'd never make it into the big leagues.
Lethem then asked him some questions about ICE HAVEN, misidentifying it at first as ICE STORM and then ICE HARVEST. On a formal level, Clowes wanted to make a sort of "perfect" comic book, one that had sort of the feel of a page of newspaper strips. Of course, the central idea that he had was, "what if every strip on the comics page was interrelated somehow?" What if Blondie was somehow connected, thematically or narratively, to Prince Valiant? That led to the way he created the central narrative of the book, where aspects of the narrative are left unspoken and unseen, much like the gutters between panels. In other instances, he left strong visual and verbal clues that are deliberately obscured by his formal storytelling conceit (multiple strips) . Clowes worked very large for the original publication of the Ice Haven story in EIGHTBALL, and was happy to essentially cut each page in half and have a more horizontal reading experience, much like the early Peanuts collections. He noted that he was happy when offered a chance to expand and reformat ICE HAVEN as a book, and considers it to be the definitive version of the story.
In ICE HAVEN, there is not an obvious narrative connection between each strip, but there are always thematic threads and even some seeming non-sequiturs that in reality act as a sort of encapsulation of the themes. Clowes talked about the out-of-nowhere "Rocky, 100,000 BC" strip as being the template for his Ice Haven characters: an outsider in his own environment, incapable of finding the same kind of happiness as everyone else and especially irritated by outside pressures, noises and events. In a sense, Rocky was the original version of Random Wilder, one of the main recurring characters.
Both Lethem and Clowes discussed their fetishization of the unrealized in their work and lives. Clowes noted that his ideas were perfect before he actually has to try to draw something, and that it's all downhill from there. It was always preferable to see this potentially perfect store from afar than to actually enter it and be disappointed. Both men note their simultaneous ambivalence and attraction to "beatnik poseurdom", wanting to find their crowd or scene but winding up being repulsed by the thought of becoming a member.
Once again regarding the unrealized in art, both noted that in their stories, they tend to write loosely, with only certain goals or big scenes acting as guideposts. What interested both men is that many readers never interpreted the Big Scene as such, finding set-up scenes more compelling. That led to both using erasure (in the Derridian sense) of that "big scene": excising it altogether. Not seeing the big scene makes us think about how important or exciting it must have been. Being exposed to set-up scenes that point to this absent big moment leaves the audience longing and interpreting the events surrounding the scene on their own, and that open-endedness results in a more stimulating read.
Talking about his fetishization of objects as an obsessive collector, Clowes revealed that with great effort, he has scaled back a number of his collections. He did note that the advent of downloadable music has played a weird trick on him: he can no longer really "own" such music. The actual object that contains musical recordings is a worthy acquisition, quite apart from the music itself. Clowes even admitted that when he downloads music, he draws and designs packaging for each disc so he can show his friends something they'll never have, recreating the fetish experience that he had lost. Lethem noted a similar feeling of distress, noting that the loss of a music-as-object led to a sort of "existential vortex", and that he admired Clowes' solution.
When asked how they were able to come up with dialogue that was uncannily naturalistic yet didn't have the clipped feeling of real-life speech, Lethem said he used a sort of method acting for his characters, while Clowes phrased it as "dressing up as a character". This allows dialogue to flow naturally, immediately and intuitively.
The interview was enlightening because it was clear that Clowes had a tremendous regard for Lethem, and it showed in the respect and attention he paid to his questions. Clowes is a legendarily snarky smart-ass at times, and he even mentioned that he ordinarily hates attending panels such as this. Happily, both men had the sense to end the event when things had degenerated into a mutual admiration society.