Bang! Zoom! The Power of Narrative conference 2014

Last week I was a guest of the 16th annual Power of Narrative journalism conference, held in Boston at BU. Having seen that last year’s guests included Symbolia editor Erin Polgreen, I was curious about what went on—next thing I knew, conference organizer (and BU journalism prof) Mark Kramer had invited me to be part of it. I’m so grateful I had the experience.

What immediately appealed to me about the conference was its similarity in spirit to the Knight-Wallace Fellowship: an opportunity for me to rub shoulders with accomplished professional journalists and absorb their accumulated wisdom. (Attendees consisted of a number of Boston Globe staffers, but also a large contingent from the New York Times, not to mention dozens of editors and reporters from the rest of the journalism landscape.) Of course, despite my having been on the KWF fellowship, I was (and am) still insecure about my craft. (More about that later.) But during our initial chat it became clear that Mark was familiar with my work. He noted that the inherent intimacy of the comics form taps into the reader’s whole persona, not just his/her “indignant voice”—thus opening up a larger “emotion set.” And in Mark’s opinion, my work was committed to “non-fancifulness.” Welcome news to me!

A week or so before the conference, I sat down for a quick Q&A with conference assistant coordinator Jenni Whalen, which they posted on the conference Tumblr.

The conference was a packed two days (I had to leave a day early to make it back down to NYC for MoCCA Fest). I arrived Friday just in time to check into my hotel (the very fab Hotel Commonwealth) and register in time for the opening keynote speech, by Jacqui Banaszynski of “AIDS in the Heartland” fame. Her speech, on courage, craft, & compassion, was an inspiring start. That was followed by an engaging and witty conversation between the TimesDavid Carr and The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates. Both speakers are savvy personalities with approachable manners, able to express really smart things while sounding like “regular guys.” (Carr was seminar speaker last year in Michigan while I was on my fellowship.) Both speakers advised the audience to not get too caught up in technology—people will always want to “gather around the campfire”—and Carr reminded us to “not to forget to imitate a human being while you do your job.” I think the most most trenchant thing I took from the conversation was Carr’s quip about Twitter—especially those who live-tweet from a VIP show or (humble)brag about hanging with X, Y, or Z celebrity: “What you think makes you look cool actually makes you look like a douche.” Ka-zing!

Other keynote speakers at the conference included Raney Aronson-Rath, Dan Barry, and Adam Hochschild. I really enjoyed a Saturday panel I attended on the subject of voice. Panelists included Jacqui Banaszynski, the very brilliant Mark Kramer, and writing guru Roy Peter Clark. The room was packed with deeply engaged journalists, with people (like myself) standing in the aisles. There was a strong point made in the beginning that it’s important to differentiate between voice and “style.” Mark talked about the dry voice of newspapers like the Times and the Washington Post, and how as you reduce the formality of your tone you become more human, inviting the reader to explore more parts of the human spirit. (See his earlier comments about comics.) I thought about the choices I’ve made over the years in framing my stories: why did I tell “How to Star in a Singaporean Soap Opera” in the second person? Why did I tell “Josh and I” from the perspective of my mirror self? I think these questions were all about finding the right voice for the story in question. It struck me that much of the discussion could have been in the context of a graduate-level creative writing course.

Later on that afternoon, I sat on a panel with Kramer and the equally smart Boston Globe reporter Farah Stockman on the subject of “How Much (or Little) Can You Make Up.” We talked about some notorious journalistic made-up moments: Rick Bragg, Patricia Smith, Mike Barnicle. (We didn’t even get into over-the-top fabricators like Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass.) Mark made the good point about Rick Bragg’s unattributed use of an intern’s prose that the piece felt like “the poet was present”—thus breaking the bonds of reliability and trustworthiness.

For me, what came out of the discussion most clearly was that forum matters—a newspaper projects a certain standard of veracity, whereas a single author’s book carries other expectations. As Kramer said, it’s all about playing fair with the reader—one Janet Cooke screws it up for everyone.

This led into a discussion of my practice as a so-called comics journalist—which often results in a messy mixture of journalism and art. For instance, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, though based on extensive interviews, research, photographic research, and so on, has a number of scenes with reconstructed (e.g., made up) dialogue. I made those choices for the purposes of the story flow; a much more elegant choice than using caption boxes to summarize scenes or boring panels of talking heads. Comics 101: I always try to show instead of tell. Other examples of this from A.D. include how one of the characters (“Darnell”) is someone I never met, interviewed, or even saw a picture of. (I based his representation on my interviews with “Abbas.”) I showed the audience parts of another section from A.D., where I used the actual incidence of a sign being blown off Abbas’ store to bridge a scene—the sign comes careening down the street into Denise’s neighborhood, setting up an establishing shot of her building. I also talked about how I’ve always tried to be up front and transparent about these practices.

As a counterpoint, however, I showed the group the moment in the story when Denise, scared for her life during the storm, jumps onto her bed, screaming “I’m gonna die in this bitch.” It was such a great line that one of the story’s readers (when it was originally posted online) felt that it was too good to be true, that it took him out of the reality of the story. But then Denise herself jumped onto the comment board to confirm she had indeed said those exact words!

One of the audience members pushed back a bit at my practice, and I didn’t really have a solid rebuttal. I’m still figuring this stuff out—what are the “rules” of comics journalism? In my solo panel the next day, I tried to get into the issue a bit more, showing excerpts of Lukas Plank’s recent comics essay on comics journalism best practices. We agreed that these are issues worth considering, but that pasting an icon on each and every panel to signify whether it’s based on an interview, an audio recording, a scientific paper, first-hand experience, or the “inner experience of the protagonist” would be clumsy, inefficient, and impractical.

The last panel I was on was called “Five Speakers, Five Genres.” My fellow panelists were multimedia producer Val Wang, video journalist Travis Fox, photographer Essdras M. Suarez, and feature writer Meghan Irons, and it was really interesting to me to see how much in all of our practices the demands of “art” converge with the demands of journalism.

I was definitely the “token” journalist at the conference, and a bit of an oddity, which isn’t always a bad thing. BBC’s Newshour found out about me being at the show, and on Saturday afternoon I was interviewed by Julian Marshall about my work and comics journalism in general. (I gave Joe Sacco a major shout-out, of course.) Later on, there was a book signing, and I autographed my share of copies of A.D.—as well as a few issues of The Vagabonds #3!

Late that night, I left on the train back to New York completely exhausted and exhilarated—and still confused about what to call what I do.

THE VAGABONDS #3 in the House!!

The Vagabonds #3

The Vagabonds #3

A loooooong time ago, back before The Influencing Machine, before A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge—before Phoebe was even born—I had a solo comic book series called The Vagabonds (at that time published by Alternative Comics.) It took me three years to produce two issues, but at least it was a real thing—it existed. And now, a mere eight years after the last issue appeared, April will see the release of The Vagabonds #3! In partnership with Hang Dai Editions, I’ll be debuting The Vagabonds #3 next weekend at MoCCA Fest.

To be fair to myself, as I mentioned at the top, there were a few things that have happened since 2006 that slowed the release of this issue. In addition to the “births” of Phoebe, A.D., and The Influencing Machine, there was the Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan, which ended just last year.

But now The Vagabonds is back—and in full color. It’s really nice to have a place to collect assorted pieces of mine from the last few years, as well as have a venue for new work. This issue highlights my journalistic work over the past few years, including reportage on Hurricane Sandy, the Arab Spring, the education wars (with writer Adam Bessie), and the life of a “comics journalist.”

What with A.D. and The Influencing Machine, I’ve spent the last half-decade or so in the trade books arena, with publishers like Pantheon and  W.W. Norton. As wonderful as it has been to work with those major players, I really missed the world of alternative comic books and indy shows. That’s another reason why I’m so excited to be joining forces with Dean Haspiel, Seth Kushner, and Gregory Benton at Hang Dai Editions.

What draws me to Hang Dai is the emphasis on creator-owned publications and personal interactions with readers. There was a great quote from an interview with the HDE guys that went like this: “You’ll get the books made by hand from the hands of their creators, which puts the ‘artist’ back in ‘comic arts’ and puts you, the reader, in a position to engage directly with creators.” I cut my teeth in this business through self-publishing, and it’s refreshing to go back to my DIY days.

As many know, my professional relationship with Dean goes back to Keyhole, the two-man anthology we produced in the mid-1990s. (We’ve actually been friends even longer than that—back to our high school days producing superhero comics!) So it’s awesome to join forces with Dino again; as well as with Gregory and Seth, who I’ve also known in the industry for quite a while. (Bleeding Cool did a nice little piece announcing my joining HDE right here.)

So come get a signed copy of The Vagabonds from me at MoCCA Fest. I’ll be at the Hang Dai table (F15/F16) on Sunday, April 6, all day long. The book is $5, and you get a free sketch in each copy you buy. (I’ll also have copies of The Vagabonds #1 & 2, and my other books, should you be looking for those.)

And I swear you won’t have to wait eight years for the next issue of The Vagabonds. In fact, I don’t think you’ll have to wait eight months—look for The Vagabonds #4 in September 2014 at SPX.


PBcoverMedCartoonist A.K. Summers is someone I went to Oberlin with, though I didn’t know her there. (I didn’t know Sari there, either—which is amazing when you consider the entire college has like 2,000 people. Cliques.) Anyway, I’m glad to know A.K. now! Her first graphic novel is now out, and the title says it all: PREGNANT BUTCH. The project started out on the web, ran on ACT-I-VATE, and is now in print.

Her publisher, Soft Skull, asked me to write a few words about the book, and this is what I came up with:

A.K. Summers’ Pregnant Butch is a Tintin lookalike who embarks down the path to motherhood. If you made it through that sentence without your head spinning, then you’re ready for one of the weirdest, wonderful-est pregnancy memoirs out there. Employing a variety of art styles (think Hergé meets Jaime Hernandez, with a little Jack Kirby thrown in for fun), Summers has crafted a wry, wise tale that guarantees a chuckle on every page. Pregnant Butch is an unsentimental, no-holds-barred book filled with insight and genuine feeling. (And you know you want to see Tintin pregnant!)

Buy it now from your favorite retailer.

Atlantic Center for the Arts “Master Cartoonist”: Take Two

Back in 2012 I was forced to give up my ACA Master Artist gig due to my receiving the Knight-Wallace Fellowship and moving temporarily to Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Well, ACA program director Nick Conroy was nice enough to invite me again, so this fall (October 13–November 2, to be precise) I will be leading a three-week residency focusing on the nonfiction graphic novel.

I still find it a bit intimidating to be called a “Master Artist,” but at least since 2012 I’ve also done a lot more teaching—including two consecutive years conducting week-long courses with the Fine Arts Works Center Summer Program, and more Speaker/Specialist programs (like the one I did last fall in Mexico). So I’m probably more “prepared” for the experience this time around.

The Atlantic Center for the Arts, located in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, is a nonprofit, interdisciplinary artists’ community and arts education facility. Their mission is to “promote artistic excellence by providing talented artists an opportunity to work and collaborate with some of the world’s most distinguished contemporary artists in the fields of music composition, and the visual, literary, and performing arts.”

During the three-week residency I will be working with eight “associate artists” on their long-form nonfiction comics projects. As part of the residency, we will be spending (at least) two hours a day together, conducting workshops, talking about the challenges we face, and working in a studio setting. I look forward to helping my associate cartoonists explore the best ways to make their ideas come to life.

By the way, my buddy Dean Haspiel took over my residency back in 2012—making it very much is own—and his group had a great time. They dubbed themselves Studio Yolo (“You only live once”), engaged in various team-building activities, and even produced an anthology. Read more about the experience here…

If you’re interested in applying to be an associate artist in my residency, or know someone who would, please check out the ACA website for further details. There are descriptions of the residency requirements, a FAQ, and lots more information. The application deadline is May 18, 2014.

Jewish Comix Anthology Kickstarter fail?

Sadly, things aren’t looking too good for the Jewish Comix Anthology. Its Kickstarter goal of $50,000 CAD seems to be falling far short—they need more than $35,000, with only five days to go. The anthology features such luminaries as Will Eisner, Michael Netzer, Joe Kubert, Art Spiegelman, and Robert Crumb (um, not Jewish ;->). And me too. I was looking forward to doing an adaptation of the very funny folk tale “Digging a Pit,” about the Wise Men of Chelm. There are tons of other great contributors too—Trina Robbins, Rachel Pollack, Joe Infurnari, Harvey Pekar… the list goes on. Let’s hope Alternative History Comics (the publisher) can figure out a way to fund the book even if the Kickstarter doesn’t hit its goals. In the meantime, please think about backing the project. Shalom.

Evolution of a book cover: Piracy Crusade

PC-cover-final-150pxI illustrated the cover of Aram’s Sinnrich‘s new book, Piracy Crusade: How the Music Industry’s War on Sharing Destroys Markets and Erodes Civil Liberties (University of Massachusetts Press), and I thought I’d take you through the process.

As the title indicates, Sinnreich’s argument is that so-called “piracy” is really the battle between those who believe information (e.g., music) should be shared and the media cartels who want to control that flow. In the spirit of openness, Aram even made a draft of the book available online under a Creative Commons license.

Before I got to work, Aram and I talked a little bit about the cover. (Unlike with my previous book cover, for Alissa Quart’s Republic of Outsiders, Aram was acting as his own “art director” on the project, so I dealt directly with him.) One thing he was keen to include was traditional pirate ship/pirate flag imagery, as well as the symbols for copyright and “copyleft” (essentially, the same concept as the Creative Commons movement). He even drew up a sketch, which featured two tall-masted ships firing on each other, with the cannon balls, smoke, and water splashes forming a “Jolly Roger” death’s head between the ships. His drawing looked like this:


Using Aram’s sketch as a starting point, I drew up four sketches of my own. As I worked, I tried to incorporate as many of the same motifs as his sketch, but I found that trying to use all three image ideas was too much for one cover to bear. There is only so much visual information you can squeeze into one image, and I wanted the cover to be punchy and quickly graspable.

The first sketch was closest to Aram’s original. An un-dynamic image, I felt that to make it work I’d have to create very simple, almost childlike drawings of the pirate ships…


The next sketch was the same basic idea, but without the lingering death’s head. To me, it was dynamic, straightforward, and showcased the title via the smoke from the cannons… 


The third sketch was probably the most dynamic of the three, but maybe was too basic. It was more about the exciting pirate ship battle than the concept of copyright vs. copyleft… 


Just for the heck of it, I made a fourth sketch that went in a very different direction. A black cover with a death’s head in white, the skull’s eyes were made up of copyright & copyleft symbols (and the nose was music symbol). I got rid of the ships entirely. This cover was very stark and iconic. 


Despite my reservations about the first sketch (the one closest to his original concept), Aram was still leaning toward it, though he agreed it was cluttered. But, in the spirit of openness and crowd wisdom he suggested posting the sketches on his blog and letting the book’s audience weigh in.

I have to admit that at first I wasn’t thrilled about the idea, mostly because when it’s come to these sort of creative decisions in the past I’ve often found the phrase “too many cooks” to be very true. But I couldn’t argue with the point that the whole project was about openness, so I decided to jump into the crowd-sourcing idea and see what resulted.

Well, lo and behold if the consensus on Aram’s blog wasn’t clearly in favor of my last sketch, the “dark horse” death’s head! It so happened that Aram had also shown the first round of sketches to his publisher’s editorial/design team, and they also had liked the last sketch the best. Clearly, just the right number of cooks!

(I have to hand it to Aram that he stayed true to the crowd-sourced results. Even though he personally liked his original concept, he showed no hesitation in signing off on the death’s head cover.)

At that point, I did another round of sketches, all variations on the death’s head cover. Basically, I made the skull a little scarier, simplified the nose/music symbol, and played around with the treatment of the eyes a bit. In the last one (“C”), I zoomed in on the skull, making Aram’s author credit the skull’s “teeth”…
I liked the last sketch (“C)” the best, but the consensus was “A,” which was fine. We also agreed that I would hand-letter the title and other cover lettering. For the title treatment, I went back to Aram’s original sketch, where the “c” in “piracy” was the copyright symbol, and the “C” in “crusade” was transposed to form the copyleft symbol. This was my initial pencil drawing, with the title treatment and other lettering in place (the blue outline shows the bleed and the crop marks of the actual book dimensions):


The client was happy with the pencils. (At this point, the publisher was taking a more active role in giving me feedback.) Their only change had to do with the title: They didn’t love the transposed “C” in “Crusade,” and asked me to just render it normally. They also were slightly concerned that my hand-drawn lettering—particularly in the subtitle and the author credit—wouldn’t be crisp and readable enough. I was sure it would be fine, but we left the option open to typeset those elements if they ended up deciding to do that. While I was finishing the drawing, I also moved the skull’s eyes a little further apart. Here are the inks…


The lettering looked good to them, so at this point the drawing was done!

For the color treatment, I again gave them a few options: the basic black-and-white version (above), one with yellow accents, and a “distressed” look. (I had long ago created a spatter pattern in PhotoShop that I sometimes used to give images that distressed look. I used it for the paperback cover of A.D. and also for the A.D. giclee prints I sell on my website…)

PC-cover-colors-flat-450px PC-cover-colors-spatter-450px

Happily, the consensus was the the “distressed” look gave the image “character and depth.” And, voila, the cover was done!

The book came out last month, and I guess it’s been doing well. Aram recently told me he’s planning on making some Piracy Crusade “swag”—T-shirts and the like. I can’t wait to own some!

Here’s a List of Dean Haspiel-Produced Mix Tapes from the 1990s

I just came across a passel of (mostly) funk music mix tapes (yes, cassette tapes) Dean Haspiel propagated in the 1990s. Some of the cassettes were embellished with photos—Dino shirtless, natch, and also one of his beloved cat.

A partial list of these Dino Dazzlers:

  • Been Getting Busy
  • Bound by Business
  • A Fistful of Funk
  • Full Frontal Funk
  • Global Get-Ill
  • Grooveallegance
  • Must Music for the Masses
  • Since Time
  • Snot Rockets for the Booger Inside
  • This is What I Do
  • Time to Get Busy!
  • and of course, Dean Makes JMRN Cool!

(I’m JMRN—Joshua Michael Rosler Neufeld.)

It’s a Pro Bono Comix World

How’s this for a week of comics-related-but-not-actually-making-comics tasks? Just last week, I…

  • wrote the introduction to a friend’s upcoming graphic novel
  • penned a blurb for an upcoming comics memoir
  • wrote a recommendation letter for someone applying to a comics certificate program
  • served as a thesis advisor for an MFA student

I was super-excited to do all these things. It’s a testament to how far I’ve come in my own career that others might think my opinions are useful. Also, when I was starting out in comics, there were so many people who threw me bones, from tipping me off to freelance gigs, letting me work in their studio, giving me professional and technical advice, writing me letters—not to mention publishing my less-than-stellar stuff.

But, much as I love “paying it forward,” last week was a little intense!


Society of the Spectacle: The Desolation of Smaug

Last night Sari & I went to see the IMAX 3D version of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square on 66th Street and Broadway. We were witness to an incident there that will prevent us from ever patronizing that theatre again.

The film, whatever its merits, was an assault on the senses from the get-go, with the pitch-dark theatre periodically lit up by strobes of light and the volume turned up to “eleven.” It continued unabated for close to three hours. Well into the second hour, we noticed a commotion in the row in front of us: some poor guy was having a seizure. He was convulsing violently and obviously in great distress. The people in the seats around him were understandably agitated, some cringing from him and others seeing what they could do to help. One man in the row in front of him stuck something in the guy’s mouth, presumably to prevent him from biting his tongue. Someone called security. A woman in the audience—apparently a nurse or doctor—came down and began attending to him. Meanwhile the movie continued to play in all its raucous fury.

Finally a couple of theatre employees arrived, checking the guy out and talking on their headsets. By this time, the seizures had stopped, but the victim was slumped all the way over in his seat, barely conscious if at all. We were horrified to see that the movie was continuing; in fact, many people had turned back to the screen to watch the further adventures of Bilbo and the dwarves.

Sari and I approached the people in charge and asked why they couldn’t suspend the movie and put the lights up to properly attend to the victim. They replied that the EMTs were on their way, that “his airway was clear and he was stable.” (I didn’t know one of the criteria of managing a movie theatre was to be a qualified medical professional!) We reiterated our question as to why they couldn’t stop the film to take care of him, and the manager said that once you stop a 3D IMAX film you can’t start it again. (Does anyone know if this is true?) Needless to say, I was stunned by this response—she was implicitly acknowledging that the fear of having to refund 500 tickets was more pressing than the health of a human being in need.

By this time, we had learned that the victim was 24 years old and had a recent history of seizures, but had not yet been diagnosed with epilepsy or any other condition. You could argue that, knowing his history, he probably shouldn’t have gone to the film—particularly an immersive 3D IMAX presentation. But the fact of the matter is that he was there, and this was happening. And I couldn’t help but put myself in his place—confused, depleted, in pain, and being treated so worthlessly that they couldn’t bother to stop a frickin’ movie to attend to him.

A few minutes later the EMTs arrived, along with some cops. We followed them into the screening room as they attended to the victim. Again, the film continued, uninterrupted! The people in the row alongside the patient cleared out to allow the EMTs to examine him. The EMTs were forced to do this with flashlights, screaming into his ear to asses his condition. One EMT clenched a small flashlight in his teeth so he could use his hands to do an examination. Finally, four of them picked up the guy and awkwardly carried him out of the theatre—with the same EMT clenching the flashlight in his teeth as he helped carry the semi-conscious patient. It was a ridiculous and infuriating scene.

Fortunately, the guy essentially seemed to be okay. On their way out, I asked one of the cops what he thought of having to work like that, in the dark, with the film blaring away the whole time. He gave me a disgusted look, and said, “Not my call—ask management. The show must go on.”

There was no way Sari and I could return to watching the film. It’s one thing to suspend disbelief for a few hours. But when harsh reality bursts that bubble, there’s no retrieving it. At least not that night.


On our way out of the theatre, we found the manager again, to lodge a complaint about the company’s apparent lack of humanity. The manager said incidents like that “happen all the time,” and they had a protocol for dealing with it. We asked her if it was company policy to never suspend the film. She said it was her call. Again, she mentioned that once you stop an IMAX film, you can’t start it again—which I still find difficult to believe. In any case, her answer essentially confirmed that AMC is more afraid of having to refund a lot of tickets than the thought of one ticket-buyer dying in his seat. So what are the limits of this policy? Would an active heart-attack make them stop the show? How about a stabbing? Mind-boggling. (By the way, she offered us passes, which we turned down.)

I’ll never forget my last look back at the screening room we had been in: all eyes (wearing their 3D glasses) had turned back to the carnage on-screen, real life dispelled once again. It was exactly the same image as the cover of Guy DeBord‘s famous book Society of the Spectacle.

Heading off to Mexico for FIL, the Guadalajara International Book Fair

The day after Thanksgiving I’ll be leaving for Mexico, to help represent the U.S. at FIL, the Guadalajara International Book Fair. It’s a new trip with the State Dept.’s Speaker and Specialist Program, my first one since I was in the Middle East back in 2010. (I did do a “virtual visit” to Indonesia last year, but that was limited to a Skype interview and presentation.) After my comments regarding my 2010 trip to Bahrain, I was wondering if I was still on my country’s “good side,” but apparently I am. Bueno!

FIL is the world’s second largest international book fair (after Frankfurt), and this year’s “guest” of honor is the country of Israel. Word is that the president of Israel will be at the opening ceremony, so I’ll be sure to keep my distance from any Uzi-toting security folks.

My involvement at the festival will mostly be with FILustra, an illustrators conference held in conjunction with the book fair. In fact, I’ll be delivering FILustra’s closing keynote address on Monday evening! I’m supposed to discuss how I bring social issues into the world of comics, as well as my observations about the state of comics in the U.S. (and Latin America, if I could be so bold). Needless to say, I’m still working on putting my talk together. *Gulp!*

After FIL, I’ll drive from Guadalajara to the neighboring state of Aguascalientes, to present my work to university students there, and conduct a comics-making workshop with high school kids. Finally, on my fifth day away, I’ll fly into Mexico City and do a couple of workshops—one at a university, and one at the famous Benjamin Franklin Library for a mixed group of kids and grownups. Thankfully, I have a good go-to minicomics workshop that has proven popular with groups from all over.

I’m excited for this new travel opportunity and the chance to learn about the comics scene in Mexico. I also hope to see a few familiar faces along the way…


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