Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sequart #141: Willie and Joe: The World War II Years

This review was originally published at in 2008.

Bill Mauldin was the right man with the right attitude at the right place at the right time. The fact that a cartoonist of his skill was able to craft barbed, pointed cartoons that criticized officers in wartime that were printed in military newspapers is almost impossible to imagine today. While he certainly had his share of detractors (including General George S. Patton), his cartoons were insanely popular among the grunts--the army infantrymen. His ability to understand their lives and frustrations and produce humor from it was tolerated because many members of the top brass thought it was actually a morale booster, helping the dogfaces blow off steam as they faced horrible conditions. Mauldin was an infantryman himself who was part of the army press corps. He didn't see active combat, but he did travel to every front with the infantry and even received a purple heart after being hit by shrapnel. He was obsessed with accuracy and verisimilitude, feeling that he'd be letting down his fellow soldiers if he got any details wrong.

The amazing thing about his strips is how quickly this crucible of a comics laboratory turned him from a raw artist to an absolute master within the span of three years. He was just a kid when he entered the army, just starting to learn his craft; yet by the end he became one of the most accomplished and famous cartoonists in the world. Willie & Joe: The World War II Years, the 600+ page retrospective of cartoons from the beginning of his career through the end of World War II is a remarkable record of not just the development of an artist and his craft, but how a war was fought. It is as thorough and painstaking a document about a cartoonist and their career as I've ever seen. Editor and Mauldin biographer Todd DePastino provides a wealth of historical context without overwhelming the cartoons themselves, and as a bonus presents a trove of variant strips, unpublished cartoons and other Mauldin material. Most of the strips in this book have never been reprinted. The design of the collection is icing on the cake, done in camo-green with a heavy cardboard slipcase. The type for the notes is done in what looks like a Pica font, the sort that would have been used on a manual typewriter in the 1940's to write military documents. It's an added flourish that helps tie the project together, as though it were a military dossier of some kind.

Most of the first volume finds Mauldin developing as an artist. His career began in earnest in 1940 when he was just 19 years old, and much of his pre-war work was visually clever but crude. He relied a lot on certain ethnic stereotypes, especially Native Americans. His earliest military strip, "Star-Spangled Banter", was crafted for a limited audience and hence had the feel of an inside joke at times. Mauldin honed his craft with these strips, concentrating on composing a strip that needed a minimum of text to get across its gag. Mauldin made some missteps along the way, changing the format of his cartoon to landscape and jamming in up to five different "around-the-scene" gags. There was humor in these strips, but little resonance beyond that gag. Still, reading this first volume provides context and informs what was to follow.

When Mauldin shipped out with his company to the Italian front and his strip began to run in army newspaper Stars and Stripes, his strip (now retitled "Up Front") became legendary. Mauldin abandoned his cluttered compositional style and went back to a single panel gag per page. Writing from the front, his normally tart observations on army life crossed over into being acidic. With the government waging a propaganda war at home in its depiction of its apple-cheeked soldiers, Mauldin provided a voice for the real experiences of the soldiers at the front and in the trenches. He centered his strips around the unshaven, disheveled and cynical privates Willie and Joe. Mauldin emphasized that they were good soldiers who did the dirty work and didn't have time for protocol and other niceties that officers like Patton demanded.

With the influence of a Native American soldier in his company, Mauldin also abandoned the crude stereotypes from his early strips (as noted by DePastino). His gags grew more sophisticated and pointed even as they dealt with the quotidian concerns of GIs. The strips told the story of the European theater, from the fighting on the front to the occupation to mustering out. Mauldin had his finger on the pulse of the frustrations of the soldiers, be it over-eager MPs keeping them out of occupied towns, officers demanding comforts he didn't feel that they earned, the difficulty in actually getting home when victory in Europe was declared and the sheer tedium of daily life in a hole in the ground. Mauldin was quite restrained in the use of stereotypical imagery or propaganda regarding the enemy, concentrating instead on the job the soldiers were there to do.

The most remarkable thing about Mauldin is the sheer amount of labor he put into each strip. He knew he had an audience who wouldn't accept a cartoon that didn't look authentic, and so he slaved over those details. Beyond his simple attention to detail and craftsmanship, his composition was superb. The way he drew in the eye to instantly tell a story was a testament to his ability. At the same time, he never oversold his gag, trusting his audience to absorb his visual clues. That sense of craft carried over to his later career as a political cartoonist, as he tried to eschew lazy labeling. This collection of Mauldin's World War II strips is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the history of gag cartooning, political cartooning or World War II in general and provide the luxurious and expansive treatment that his work has always deserved.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

New Review @TCJ: Willie & Joe: Back Home

New to the Comics Journal website is my review of Bill Mauldin's post-World War II strips, Willie & Joe: Back Home.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Whores of Mensa #5, Candy or Medicine 13

Time to look at a couple of minicomics from near and far.

Candy or Medicine #13, edited by Josh Blair. The latest in this all-comers minicomics series is the usual mixed bag of visual & narrative approaches. William Cardini's story, as always, was welcome to see, as he unleashed his usual Mat Brinkman-style exploration of environment with monsters and robots. It's a nice mix visually between heavy use of black in negative space with wavy lines filling up entire panels. There's also a slice-of-life gag from Katie Omberg that was fairly routine up until the punchline, which actually landed with some force. Brad W. Foster shows once again that he's a fine artist, even if his gag was less-than-inspired. As an editor, Blair has shown a tendency to try to print some genre-oriented stories, like this issue's "The Cloud Catcher" by Christopher Tupa. It's a mildly amusing fantasy story that lacks visual appeal thanks to its use of grays; it probably looks more interesting in color. Blair's commitment to a variety of material as well as experience & even talent levels has always been impressive, and some interesting names have floated through this anthology as a result.

Whores of Mensa #5, edited by Ellen Lindner & Jeremy Day. Kickstarter strikes yet again to produce another attractive, lengthy comics anthology. In the past, the Whores of Mensa anthology printed no more than three or four cartoonists. This UK-centered anthology has also traditionally published the work of women, a tradition that continued in this issue with one exception. Each issue has also revolved around a loose theme; this issue's central idea is "parties". This approach spawned a surprising number of variations on the experience of a party. Patrice Aggs, for example, set her comic in a hair salon where everyone there talks about potentially attending a party at a club later that night. Aggs skillfully depicts the inanity of workplace chatter with great affection. Perhaps too much affection, as the comic slightly outstays its welcome at seven pages.

Sarah McIntyre's two-pager about being forced to fold paper napkins for her mother's parties, on the other hand, benefited from its brevity, as it possessed a clever punchline. Co-editrix Jeremy Day's nine-panel comic "Larderella" is typically cheeky, turning the Cinderella story on its head with the prince being interested in the heroine's shoes for a quite unexpected reason. Cloidhna Lyons' story features lovely art with bold black lines, but it was more than a bit predictable and ultimately forgettable as a result. Francesca Cassavetti's childhood anecdote is typical of her in that she goes from the general (attending all sorts of parties) to the specific (a party that her secret crush Serge was supposed to attend) with great fluidity, easing the reader to her eventual punchline. Her scribbly art is a perfect match for the kinds of stories she tells.

Co-editrix Ellen Lindner, long a favorite of mine in the minicomics world, shows off a remarkable amount of polish in her story of a young woman bouncing from London to New York with great misgivings. Her precise misgivings go unrevealed, but her tendency to bounce from affair to affair may well have something to do with it. There's a stark precision to Lindner's line combined with a certain stiffness of figure that almost reminds me of Steve Ditko. It's stagy, an aesthetic that fits due in part to its nature as a period piece. Howard John Arey (formerly of the High-Horse collective) contributes a two-pager about the sort of person who isn't invited to a party, but desperately longs to be. It's a clever story with an agreeably sloppy line. Emily Ryan Lerner's story about two friends negotiating a New Year's Eve party at an unfamiliar apartment has the sort of specific detail that this sort of slice-of-life story demands. The simple line allows the reader to fly across the page.

My favorite story was that of Maartje Schalkx's, a cleverly-designed map comic that follows her progress walking up a street (shown as walking "up" a landscaped page) with a lost little boy. There's a remarkable spareness of line and image in this comic, as she has the street map take up most of each page. Finally, Tanya Meditzky's comic features small drawings and tiny print, which was certainly distracting as a reader. The simplicity of her line allows her to lead the reader across and around the page with surprising fluidity, much like the conga line she depicts. Whores of Mensa #5 is somewhat uneven but overall still a coherent and joyful shout of a comic. It's another example of the way the British comic scene is growing and the variety of approaches that are springing up.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Means of Production: Living Things & Oscar

One advantage to working in the minicomics world is that it's so democratic. Anyone with a pencil or pen and access to a photocopier can make and publish them. As cartoonists grow more ambitious, the main obstacle in front of them tends to be publishing. In particular, how can they make a comic that looks just how they want it and afford to publish it? In the rapidly shrinking world of print publishing, alt-comics have taken on a status not unlike vinyl in the music industry. A small but highly dedicated niche audience keeps vinyl alive as a distribution point for music, as well as a small network of independent record shops that tend to ally with music venues. Networks of networks, connected by the internet, have led to a small but thriving scene. In much the same way, networks of cartoonists, fans and retailers have started to form. The comics shops that will survive are those that have already diversified beyond the standard superhero comics. Regional alt-comics shows are springing up everywhere, allowing cartoonists to sell comics and merchandise to a focused and motivated group of fans. Most interesting to me is the recent trend that's seeing cartoonists finding new ways to control the means of production.

Zak Sally, for example, has his own printing press. Then there's the case of Emily Wismer. A former zinester turned teacher, she moved from Chicago to Asheville, NC to set up her own print shop with an old tabletop Pilot press. She hand-makes cards, invitations, etc. and recently published a new minicomic by Jeffrey Brown called Oscar. It's simply beautiful to hold, with each page just soaking up ink. Running one's fingers over each page allows one to feel the the grooves that the ink creates, which is heaven for anyone who's a print junkie. The comic comes in a brown paper envelope that acts as its cover. The cover itself quickly reveals what this comic is about: little pearls of humor from Brown's young son Oscar, as recorded by "Oscar's dad". While cute in the way that one would expect a comic about a little kid would be, Brown has an ear for some of Oscar's weirder and more outrageous quotes. There's one page where Oscar pretends to dial a phone and says "Hello? Yes, Mommy's crazy." It's the usual string of funny Brown observations done in a format that I suspect many cartoonists will find appealing.

Little Otsu is a publishing concern, like Ladypilot Letterpress, that focuses on printing cards, calendars and other paper-based products as well as comics. As such, their comics all have careful attention paid to them so as to present them as art objects. Their Living Things series fits into their paradigm of comics and other printed matter related to nature. Each of the four issues published to date has the same trade dress and logo, even as each issue has featured a radically different style of art. The first issue, featuring Lizzy Stewart, purports to be "A Guide to Eastern European Wildlife" that begins with naturalistic depictions of bears, wolves and owls but slowly becomes more whimsical, with fur hat-wearing rodents and a moose with a clothesline hanging from its antlers.

The second issue features Jo Dery and is about pheromones. This is an inventive and charming comic, with each page setting up a different visual challenge and solving each one with a variety of color schemes. Dery switches between full-color pages (done in colored pencil, perhaps?) and single-color pages (a forest green) with more detailed line art. Hannah Waldron is featured in the third issue, titled "The City". This one's all about lines, with a young man entering a brownstone and experiencing his environment as a series of horizontal lines (through a shade) and diagonal lines (as the city becomes abstract). Waldron alternates close-ups of small objects and fade-outs of the city itself, creating a number of pages that resemble a study for a Mondrian painting. Like the other comics in this series, there's not much of a narrative to speak of, but it's a beautiful and intriguing thing to look at.

The best of the four issues, not surprisingly, is by Lilli Carre'. The talented artist contributes "Shifting Shadows", which puts her off-kilter sense of humor on full display. The concept is simple: shadows coming to life in unusual ways apart from their original source. In some of the images, the shadows are living images drawn from an unusual arrangement of objects. In others, the shadows reflect the true emotional natures of their source, like the wild, ecstatic flailings of shadows coming from a row of office workers trudging toward their jobs. This is a delightfully witty series of variations on a theme by an artist who takes full advantage of the production values provided to her by a publisher committed to creating beautiful objects.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Humor & Adventure: Jackson, Smith, Michel

This batch of minis is humor oriented, by way of superhero/action, horror and sci-fi tropes.

Monkey Squad One Annual #1, by Doug Michel. This comic is an odd duck. It's equal parts Marvel comics homage and kid's adventure, as though the artist was making up stories for his own children or nephews. Even the "annual" concept is straight out of superhero comics, with a number of shorter stories, behind-the-scenes reveals, schematics, Marvel Universe Handbook-style bios, etc. Michel adds weight to the silliness of a book featuring a bunch of young kids as superspy/assassins with sheer density. While he has a simple and cartoony style, he packs every panel with details, eye-pops, hatching, stippling and greys. The balance works, as every page is a breeze to read but fun to look at. There's also a good balance between the action tropes, the depiction of how kids interact and overt parody and winks at genre conventions (there's a villain named "Seven Bricks of Fury" and then a critique by some characters about that name). This is less a fusion comic than a funny superhero adventure; as such, its main appeal will be to those who grew up reading X-Men and have especially fond memories of the interstitial scenes, where the characters bickered in an affectionate, familial manner.

The Gods Must Be Bastards, by Rob Jackson. The latest bit of lunacy from the U.K.'s Jackson may well be his best comic. At 56 pages, it's one of his most sustained narrative efforts. Jackson has really found his niche working within fantasy-as-farce as his genre of choice, playing ridiculous situations completely straight (as opposed to winking to the reader when making a joke, as Michel does). This story concerns a world where a group of scientists must work in secret lest they draw the wrath of the gods and their human servants. Through a convoluted series of events, the scientists travel to what is reputed to be the gods' home, Atlantis, with a sympathetic navy captain and a group of marines. Jackson creates genuine suspense and mystery as he slowly reveals details about this world and its gods and whether or not they actually exist. When he pulls the big reveal, he pulls the rug out from under the reader several times: when the gods are revealed to be the kind of petty, vindictive yobbos that Greek myth makes us familiar with; when the captain acts in an unexpected fashion; and when the true function of the gods is revealed.

Jackson's line is still crude, but he's found ways to really make this work for him. The way he varies his page composition as well as line thickness led to some genuinely attractive art. As always, his character design is hilarious, especially the images of the gods and the bonus "character sheets" he included at the end of the story. Characters like Bolto, god of lightning, required a special kind of inspired silliness. What makes the comic work so well is the way Jackson flips between total weirdness and the driest of deadpan humor. It's a sort of low-fi fusion comic, given his modest draftsmanship skills, but fusion nonetheless. Jackson's point of view and sense of the absurd always takes center stage no matter what kind of story he writes, but he always makes it a point to stay as true to his genre of choice as possible in all other respects. I hope he continues to grow yet more ambitious in his storytelling choices.

SF #1 and SF Supplement #1 by Ryan Cecil Smith. Smith is firmly in the Fusion camp, though he comes at it from a different angle than most cartoonists. Currently living in Japan, Smith filters all of his comics through a Japanese genre lens. His previous effort, Two Eyes Of The Beautiful, was a hilarious and genuinely creepy take on Japanese horror comics. SF is a manic, sprawling and frequently ludicrous attempt at epic science fiction. Smith's character design is delightfully exaggerated, with the leader of the group SF, Ace, sporting a bouffant as tall as his entire body and assorted aliens looking like a cross between manga characters and Vaughn Bode designs. There's a perfectly modulated stilted seriousness to the dialogue that brings to mind sci-fi stories of the past as well as translated manga & anime (I got a Star Blazers/Space Cruiser Yamato vibe from the story, but I'm sure there are other influences in there as well).

The story follows a young orphan whose parents were killed by terrorists who is then adopted by Ace and the S.F.S.F.S.F.--Space Fleet Scientific Foundation Special Forces. That group features anthropomorphic ducks and cats, Aladdin, a kick-ass aerobics instructor, etc. Smith is equally at ease with small, character-based moments and big (if ridiculous) action setpieces--like a scene where Ace is disguised as an anthropomorphic rhinoceros in an effort to bypass security. This comic has a weird timelessness to it that I think is intentional; extensive use of effects like zip-a-tone give it a retro feel, as though this was some kind of lost artifact that's just surfaced. Smith doesn't make this explicit, but it's clear that he's working his way through all sorts of sci-fi adventure tropes, from the overtly intellectual adventurers of Asimov's Foundation series to bits of Total Recall along with the aforementioned manga/anime influence. There's an impressive level of detail here, as the SF Supplemental File reveals. A character who essentially had one line in the first issue of SF, Smith whipped up an extensive backstory for him and how he came to join the S.F.S.F.S.F. Smith here has whipped up a series that's a perfect match of style and content, from the "secret file" envelopes the comics come in to the gleeful silliness of the character design to the minutely planned story & character details.

Monday, June 13, 2011

CCS: Off-Beat Advisors

This is a companion piece to my article "Cartoonists Leading Cartoonists", which will appear in the epic issue #301 of The Comics Journal. I interviewed nearly three dozen students, alumni, mentors and faculty from the Center For Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT regarding how the mentoring process works for second-year students. These students spend the year working on their thesis, turning to their advisors for guidance, suggestions, and critique. The nature of that relationship differed from student to student and advisor to advisor. I didn't have room to include every interesting response in my article, so I will be publishing some bonus material here at High-Low. This article will focus on some advisor choices that were off the beaten path, given that two of them work on kid-oriented, highly mainstream properties and another is best known as a publisher.

Holly Foltz, '10

The Comics Journal: Who was your thesis advisor?

Holly Foltz: Jim Lawson (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Planet Racers, Paleo)

TCJ: Why did you choose this individual as your advisor?

HF: Jim is both a writer and an artist and has been working on one of my favorite comics since their humble beginnings in the 80s. Looking at his work, he's really a master of his craft. His experience is really well-rounded and he knows how to work the comics medium to its full storytelling potential.

TCJ: Before you started working with your advisor, what was your understanding of what the thesis process would be like?

HF: I thought the thesis process itself would be a lot easier than it turned out to be. I hoped to have very frequent interactions (via Skype and maybe in person) with Jim.

TCJ: What was the process of working with Lawson like? How hands-on was he?

HF: Jim was very encouraging. He always told me what was working and what I was doing well in addition to what needed improvement. One story of mine went through several edits before I got to the thumbnailing stage, and Jim was really helpful in that editing process. He was a great problem solver,too, so if something (for example, too much text in a small panel) wasn't working, he'd have a solution (break up the text in a couple panels or simply fill the whole panel with words, with a small character head on the bottom).

TCJ: How much of an influence do you feel he had on you as an artist and in what ways?

HF: Unfortunately, I didn't send Jim a whole lot of finished art, because I was struggling with one story for long, but what art he did see, he liked. I'm not sure if my style changed at all, but it was validating to hear from Jim that he enjoyed it.

TCJ: How much of that influence was pre-existing, and how much came as a result of how he worked with you on your thesis?

HF: I definitely entered the student-advisor relationship with stars in my eyes, as I've been an admirer of Jim's for awhile. I might have been influenced just from reading and enjoying his work. After having him as an advisor, I pay a lot more attention to detail and the small things that can make a comic stand out.

TCJ: What was the most valuable thing you learned from your advisor?

HF: I learned that my work can hold its own, which was something I doubted for a long time. I really gained a lot of confidence.

TCJ: What was the most frustrating aspect of working with your advisor?

HF: I probably didn't take advantage of Jim as a resource as much as I could have. Our communications weren't too frequent and I think I could have gotten more out of our relationship than I did.

TCJ: Was the experience all that you had hoped it would be?

HF: My experience was different than what I anticipated, and I do regret not taking more initiative when it came to asking advice from my advisor, but I still learned and gained a lot and having him as my advisor made a difference in my work.

TCJ: What advice would you give to future CCS cartoonists on how to navigate the experience?

HF: I would advise other cartoonists to request someone with a lot of experience who has seen success in the business for a long time. If someone's work has held up for years and been consistently well-read and received, they must be doing something right!

Jim Lawson, Foltz' Advisor:

TCJ: What was it about this role that appealed to you enough to take it on, given your busy schedule?

Jim Lawson: I think that I’ve been a frustrated teacher. I even looked into going back to school a few years back, to get my teaching certificate.

However, mostly I probably have to blame it on this girl, Maddi Yale. I met Maddi and her family here at the studio two years ago, easily. Maddi was a sweet kid- in high school at the time and one of the most hardcore Turtle fans that I’ve ever met. The meeting was pretty normal but after Maddi returned to California she contacted me with a request. For her senior project, she asked me if I would mentor her in the creation of a comic book. I agreed, and for that year, we established between us a teacher/student relationship towards the goal of completing that book. That experience was a very positive one for me, so when Holly approached me with basically the same request, it was pretty much a no-brainer.

TCJ: What did you see as your role with regard to the student, or did you leave that up to each individual?

JL: Because I was a working comic artist at the time, I must admit that I was pretty much hands off. I was here for questions or to provide feedback when Holly asked for it. However, the responsibility to make creative decisions or to get the work done on time was up to her. It’s a tricky thing; for instance, when Holly decided which story that she wanted to go with, I had a suggestion that there was just too much content, and that we begin the story at another point and try to fill in some of the backstory through a series of flashbacks. I don’t know if this helped her, as it seemed to cause a new set of problems as to how to do that. I think Holly had a certain vision in her head about how her story would unfold and I messed with that—it caused us to get bogged down.

TCJ: What was your understanding of what the mentor role would entail when you
agreed to participate, and how has that changed over time?

JL: No change really. I’ve only mentored twice though, so my experience here might be somewhat limited. In both instances, the students would email me scripts or art, and I would review it and give feedback. Maddi, my first student, was very much a beginner. She was particularly anxious about her drawing-- everything from her characters to her panel layouts to what to use for her borders. Holly, on the other hand, was more experienced, and seemed to have all her fundamentals down. I think with Holly, my job was basically telling her how good she was, hah.

TCJ: What has been the most satisfying part of being a mentor?

JL: These kids are doing it because they love comics. As tough a business as this is to get work in, they’re in it for the love of it, and that’s what’s going to get them through the tough times.

It helps me to be around people like that. I feel really fortunate that I’ve been able to have a career where I get to draw every day and work with characters that I love- I’ve been blessed. If I can somehow help someone else to realize their dreams then that’s a pretty special thing.

TCJ: What has been the most frustrating part of being a mentor?

JL: It’s got to be getting the work done. I think there’s an underestimation of how much actual work that goes into a comic. That and getting stuck on all the little details. For example, get the entire book laid out. If you have issues with some of the thumbnails, you can always go back later and fix some of the pages that you might not like. I think that it’s easy to lose momentum or to become overwhelmed. There’s nothing an Editor hates more than a late artist.


TCJ: Who was your thesis advisor?

Randall Drew: Tracy Yardley! Penciler/Cover artist for Archie Comics Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic Universe monthly series.

TCJ: Why did you choose this individual as your advisor?

RD: He was actually my third choice. I chose him because I've followed his work with Archie Comics since he came on in 2005 and immediately saw he was bringing a unique experience and style to a comic that was drifting between many artists at the time.

TCJ: Before you started working with your advisor, what was your understanding of what the thesis process would be like?

RD: My understanding was that the thesis was to be an entirely self-developed and driven project, and that the advisor was to work closely with you in critiquing and guiding your work, helping you to keep focused and set goals.

TCJ: What was the process of working with this person like? How hands-on was he?

RD: Tracy and I communicated almost exclusively through email, tho we did speak on the phone a few times. I would send him work I had completed and wait for a response. Unfortunately, Tracy is working on several books a month, raising a newborn and in the proccess of buying a house...he's a very busy guy. It took, at times, a lot of effort on my end to get a timely response out of him, occasionally forging ahead without his input.

TCJ: How much of an influence do you feel he had on you as an artist and in what ways?

RD: I was always intrigued by Tracy's panel layouts. They were different, exciting, full of angles and lines that moved your eye around the page. Each one felt like it matched the needs of the story at that moment in time perfectly. I've tried often to emulate this.

TCJ: How much of that influence was pre-existing, and how much came as a result of how he worked with you on your thesis?

RD: Most of that specific influence was pre-existing. Tracy sort of let me move on with my project in whatever direction I wanted to go, allowing me to feel out what was wrong and right about the development of my pages.

TCJ: What was the most valuable thing you learned from your advisor?

RD: Patience with the early stages. He helped me mostly slow down my process into a few more stages than I would have gone normally.

TCJ: Was the experience all that you had hoped it would be?

RD: Not entirely, but it's hard to judge how exactly these things are supposed to go. Over all I'm pleased with the effort Tracy made to advise me, despite his hectic schedule. I'll probably continue to send him my work long after CCS.

TCJ: What advice would you give to future CCS cartoonists on how to navigate the experience?

RD: Be patient with your advisor, they have lives to live as well. Also, don't be afraid to ask your questions, that's why you're here at CCS in the first place.

JP Coovert ‘09

TCJ: Who was your thesis advisor?

J.P. COOVERT: Chris Staros, co-publisher of Top Shelf Comix

TCJ: Why did you choose this individual as your advisor?

JPC: I entered my second year at CCS with my fiancee moving away to Minneapolis to pursue a career. I thought this would be my chance to work hard and make comics my career (my original thought was to become a teacher of comics.) I chose Chris mainly because he has always been a big supporter of my comics, but also because I thought he would be able to help me craft my book into a better and more saleable piece of literature.

TCJ: Before you started working with your advisor, what was your understanding of
what the thesis process would be like?

JPC: My plan was to work on a graphic novel, getting Chris' input along the way. My idea was to spend a year getting an outline, then thumbnails, and the first chapter (basically a book proposal) finished.

TCJ: What was the process of working with Staros like? How hands-on was he?

JPC: I talked on the phone with Chris 3 or 4 times throughout the year after mailing him thumbnails. I thought it was best to send him large chunks of work and then really dig in. Chris was extremely thoughtful in his criticism. Thinking back, he gave just the right balance of constructive criticism and encouragement to keep me moving forward.

TCJ: How much of an influence do you feel he had on you as an artist and in what ways?

JPC: I think there is a pretty significant influence. I believe Chris and I share a somewhat similar taste in storytelling and I think that especially rubbed off on me working on my thesis project.

TCJ: How much of that influence was pre-existing, and how much came as a result of how he worked with you on your thesis?

JPC: Being able to talk to Chris about my project at length really provided a great insight into what he looks for as a publisher and reader. It's hard work constructing a longer story, be he was able to get me pointed in the right direction.

TCJ: What was the most valuable thing you learned from your advisor?

JPC: As I was working on the project, interesting characters were paramount. Later I realized that trying to work on a book as a stepping stone to a career in comics is the worst possible way to move forward in a positive way on a project. He never spoke to me directly about this, but I think my short time talking to Chris helped me snap out of that mentality.

TCJ: What was the most frustrating aspect of working with your advisor?

JPC: I wish I could have sat down with him face to face at least a couple of times to talk comics. He seems like a rad dude to hang out with!

TCJ: Was the experience all that you had hoped it would be?

JPC: It was! He definitely held up his end of the bargain. If there was one regret I had, it would have to be that I didn't take enough advantage of his willingness to help me write and craft an awesome story!

TCJ: What advice would you give to future CCS cartoonists on how to navigate the experience?

JPC: Take FULL advantage of your advisor. The wonderful thing about CCS is all the amazing talent and knowledge that is attracted to the school. They want to help, so let them! Ask them to!

Friday, June 10, 2011

CCS: The Eddie Campbell Experience

This is a companion piece to my article "Cartoonists Leading Cartoonists", which will appear in the epic issue #301 of The Comics Journal. I interviewed nearly three dozen students, alumni, mentors and faculty from the Center For Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT regarding how the mentoring process works for second-year students. These students spend the year working on their thesis, turning to their advisors for guidance, suggestions, and critique. The nature of that relationship differed from student to student and advisor to advisor. I didn't have room to include every interesting response in my article, so I will be publishing some bonus material here at High-Low to supplement that article. This Q&A will focus on one advisor whom everyone spoke of in glowing terms: Eddie Campbell.

Eddie Campbell

TCJ: Why did you choose Eddie Campbell as your advisor?

Al B Wesolowsky: I’ve long admired his autobiographical work, its introspective nature, his delineation of characters, and his sense of inviting one to experience his life.

Bill Volk: I chose Eddie because he was a thesis advisor for previous classes, and they all had nothing but praise for him. More specifically, I chose him from among the previous positively-reviewed advisors because I wanted someone who was thoughtful and literate.

TCJ: Before you started working with your advisor, what was your understanding of what the thesis process would be like?

ABW: From earlier academic work in the liberal arts, I understood that the thesis was to be a demonstration of one’s ability to produce work that showed one’s assimilation of the curriculum, earlier assignments, to work on an individual project, to plan and budget one’s time and resources, and to end up with a finished comic that one had written, designed, drew, lettered, did digital prepress, printed, and bound. The thesis is not intended to be a masterwork, but simply the best work of which one is capable at this stage of one’s career.

The first year at CCS we produced a lot of shorter comics; the thesis was to be a longer work, although minimum page-counts were not specified. The sense among students that the thesis was expected to be at least 40 to 60 pages long.

TCJ: What was the process of working with Campbell like? How hands-on was he?

ABW: For being in Australia, and me in New England, Eddie was uncannily quick with responses via e-mail. I sent him my earlier work from CCS and he provided quick, helpful observations. As I progressed into writing, thumbnailing, and drawing the thesis, I would ship segments to him and he would respond. In my case, he did not need to be hands-on (I was 62 years old at the time and knew how to plan my work); but had I requested a more hands-on approach, I think that he would have obliged.

Bill Volk

TCJ: How much of an influence do you feel they have had on you as an artist, and in what ways?

ABW: A profound influence, ranking with Alison Bechdel and Joe Sacco among current comickers. As we corresponded, I became aware of Eddie’s lively wit and easy communication skills. Also his intellectual curiosity.

BV: Since I started working with him, I've been more conscious of spatial cues in my art. According to his suggestions, I've been moving my "camera" less to provide more of a frame of reference for subtle character actions. Though he hasn't mentioned it, there's a good rule attributed to him that says that you should show feet somewhere in every page. I've also been making pages with more panels in them.

Art copyright Bill Volk

TCJ: What was the most valuable thing you learned from your advisor?

ABW: To look at what I was doing. Really look at it. And to work at word balloons, their shape and size, with regard to the amount of text within them, and to try to integrate the balloons as part of the page design. I think I improved a bit with balloons, but have a long way to go.

TCJ: What was the most frustrating aspect of working with Campbell?

ABW: That I couldn’t just sit down with him and say “look at these thumbnails/roughs/etc. and tell me what you think.” Distance precluded such, and I’d have to scan work to send to him, a time-consuming process. I would have enjoyed more spontaneity had I been able to meet with him in person.

BV: Sometimes the long distance between us caused a little frustration. I also felt extremely self-conscious about staying on schedule, which often made me avoid contact with him until I'd caught up. That was a mistake.

TCJ: Was the experience all that you had hoped it would be?

ABW: I really had no idea of what working with Eddie would be like, but I was eminently satisfied and was happy when I could send him a printed copy of the thesis via the posts. I learned a lot from him (although it does not show yet) and the experience was most worthwhile. We continue to stay in touch, so he must not be too disgusted with me.

TCJ: What advice would you give to future CCS cartoonists on how to navigate the experience?

ABW: Choose an advisor who does work that you like, to which you respond, who tackles some of the same issues and stories that you want to do, and be prepared for some candid remarks. Judge the rate of communication by the timing and nature of the responses from the advisor, so you don’t overwhelm them or appear to be grudging with output. If they suggest something that you don’t think will help, try it---if it doesn’t help, tell the advisor.

And if the relationship isn’t working out, tell CCS and see if you can be assigned someone else. Advisors and students are not all created equal, and you cannot tell how things will work out. Don’t go running to CCS with minor quibbles, though, just for when the relationship is not working.

Suffice it to say that Eddie was the ideal of an advisor.

My impression is that most students had positive experiences with their advisors. There were a few occasions where, for one reason or another, the match proved not helpful, but CCS was quick to work out arrangements with another advisor for those students.

BV: Your thesis advisor is not a ghostwriter, nor is he a supernatural saviour. He is just another pair of eyes, to help you point out things you may not notice when your nose is buried deep in the work. The work is still all up to you.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

New Review @TCJ: Dungeon Monstres, V 4

Over at The Comics Journal, a review has been posted of Dungeon Monstres, Volume 4, by Lewis Trondheim, Joann Sfar, Jean-Emmanuel Vermot-Desroches, and Yoann.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

New Review @TCJ: The Heavy Hand

Over at The Comics Journal, my review of Chris Cilla's The Heavy Hand has been published.

Gag Comic Round-Up Nowacki, Viola, Reed,, Latta, Aushenker

Time to dip into an array of gag-oriented minicomics.

Moe, by Piotr Nowacki. Nowacki, a Polish artist, uses a delightfully simple and blobby line in depicting his anthropomorphic protagonist and the mysterious blotch who both aids and hinders him. This is a silent comic with an open four panel-per-page layout that emphasizes each character's body language above all else. Nowacki values exaggeration of action as the hero is punched in the face by the blob (after being offered a bone), winds up in jail, gets busted out by the blob, smokes a joint with a Rasta angel blob in a cloud, and finally rescues a beautiful woman underwater. The mischievous blob reminds me a bit of Al Capp's Shmoo character, only it's black with white eyes. Nowacki's work is incredibly self-assured in its simplicity and expressiveness; there are no wasted lines. The gags are reminiscient of the sort of thing Lewis Trondheim does so well in his silent humor comics: set up a character, provide an antagonist, then subvert reader expectations. Nowacki's imagination isn't quite as wild as Trondheim's, but Moe's ambitions are modest and this mini is a rewarding read.

Some Stories #1, by Desmond Reed. Reed is another artist who uses a simple line in order to tell his shaggy dog twist gags. Sort of like the O.Henry of minicomics gag work, Reed uses his exposition to set up an unexpected punchline. I wish Reed would vary the thickness of his line from time to time in order to make his pages more interesting to look at (as well as giving him more storytelling options); his art is merely functional, though it is effective. This latest effort, published in a larger size than his earlier micro-minis, is a mixed bag. "4 O'Clock" is too much of a shaggy dog story, dragging out the fate of a lab guinea pig who is killed by accident and is trying to sort out his afterlife. The eventual resolution of this story felt predictable in a way his prior comics hadn't. On the other hand, "Todd" represented a step up for Reed. As we meet two fish who are madly in love, we continuously flash back in time three seconds at a time, a clever way of detailing their extremely short attention spans and memories. It's a sort of underwater version of Memento, where Reed adds layer on top of layer until he reaches the final payoff. Unlike the first story, every single page is funny on its own, working first as a kind of non sequitur and then finally cohering in the end.

Herman The Manatee Volume 4, by Jason Viola. Viola's meandering strip about a manatee and his "lousy friends" hits a nice groove in this collection. Viola has an appealing line and great character design sense, but the quality of his work has varied as he's tried to figure out just what he wants to do with his strip. He quickly ran out of variations of his initial premise (the titular character getting hit in the head by passing boats), but attempts at piecing together extended storylines fell flat. His characters are simply too silly to support such attempts. In this volume, Viola strikes a balance with the Candide-like Herman, depressed (to the point of absurdity) Lester and vicious narwhal Knuckles playing off each other. Instead of trying to attach these characters to a plot (even a plot that was a parody), Viola instead simply structures gags around each character's quirks and how they interact. The result is a consistently amusing set of strips, drawn in a clean and assured style with a minimum of fuss.

Those Unstoppable Rogues Party Hard!, by Michael Aushenker. Of all the humorists discussed in this article, Aushenker's work is certainly the weirdest. Even in this series of strips about a turtle named Brett and a chicken named Clucky, it's hard to pin down Aushenker's style. There's a kitchen sink quality to it that I admire, as he throws in wordplay, absurdity, puns, double-entendres, purely visual gags, meta-humor, and character-based jokes. It's a loud, sprawling series of strips that features my favorite character designs of Aushenker's; there's an almost geometric appeal to Clucky (all triangles) and Brett (all curves). That balance makes this strip work better than his Greenblatt the Great! strips simply because I like looking at these characters more. There's also no real attempt to bring in other characters as concept gag generators, which sometimes proves to be a distraction in Aushenker's other comics. Brett and Clucky are at the center of every storyline and other characters serve purely to react against them, and then leave. Most of these strips are pretty old (dating from the early 90s) and there are some pages that have a bit of clutter that interfere with the overall storytelling. However, there's mostly a happy lack of fussiness to these strips. Aushenker has such a heavy line that keeping things relatively simple on the page winds up being the best approach. That simplicity allows Aushenker to create a strip that's simultaneously dumb and smart.

Rashy Rabbit Droppin' Anchor, by Josh Latta. Latta returns with another Gilbert Shelton-style adventure of a slacker rabbit done in a rubbery, lively anthropomorphic style. Latta has all but abandoned any sense of verisimilitude in his comics, as Rashy winds up at sea after his girlfriend dumps him and meets a group of sexy mermaids. While the comic is well-paced and balances its chaotic and ridiculous elements with straightforward storytelling, it's far sillier than Latta's earlier comics. Latta is better at mining humor out of awkwardness and sleaze than he is out of pure absurdity, and as a result this story winds up being fairly forgettable. The characters, divorced from prior continuity, all feel fairly stock and paper-thin. The sea captain Rashy ventures off with (and with whom he discovers he has a surprising connection) is ridiculously cartoonish. As a result, this issue isn't silly or absurd enough to be memorable in a Michael Kupperman sort of way nor is it tethered enough to actual character relationships to keep the reader focused on the page. That said, it certainly looks like Latta had a great deal of fun drawing this issue, especially the mermaid sequences. If Latta does decide to commit to more of a fantasy element in his stories, I hope he takes his concepts further.