TragiComix

Friday, our last day with the Burmese professionals, was taken up with an exercise dreamt up by my French compatriot Émile Bravo (currently the recipient of three Eisner Award nominations for his recent book My Mommy Is In America And She Met Buffalo Bill!). The assignment was to take a “tragic” event from your life and depict it in a humorous way.

I loved the idea of the exercise, and think it’s a wonderful way to get beginning cartoonists to flex their creativity, but for some reason I had a terrible time with it. It’s not that I’ve lived a charmed life and have no sad stories to tell — far from it — but I just found it incredibly difficult to boil one of those stories down — to a one- or two-page comics story no less! As the other artists set to work right away, I sat there sweating, running different ideas through my mind — and rejecting all of them. I even left the room and stalked around the grounds of the American Center, attempting to clear my mind and find the right story. By the time a half hour had passed and I still had nothing, it became a joke, as Émile and Badoux saw me agonizing over the assignment. It got so extreme I was even thinking my story should be my anguish at trying to find the right story!

Finally, however, I settled on an incident from my deep past, when I was but a babe. I had to scramble to plot out the piece, and pencil and ink it, all within the three-hour time allotted. The end result isn’t quite the masterpiece I had hoped, but it’s not awful…

Soccer Mom

For an example of how a master works, here’s Émile’s simple solution — just one of at least three different stories he came up with on the spot for this assignment. Sheesh — what a show-off!

Boby III

Professional Workshops

For the remaining three days of professional workshops — the morning sessions — Émile, Badoux, and I decided to keep it simple and just work collaboratively with our Burmese counterparts. We pooled ideas and came up with three we thought would work.

On Wednesday we introduced an “exquisite corpse” jam where each of the artists — including us — drew one panel of a continuing narrative. As a group, we came up with a character and a situation — a man sitting at an outdoor restaurant — and then let our individual (and collective) imaginations take over. As everyone gathered around, I started things off, drawing a guy sitting at a Chinese barbecue, with no overt clues as to what should happen next. Badoux came next, and he added conflict — and humor — by showing a close-up of the guy’s leg, with a hungry rat approaching it. Then the Burmese artists took over, and it was really fun to see the story take off, as the rat was revealed to be remote-controlled, and the protagonist morphed into a true Burmese, with a longyi and everything. The final results, which we tacked up on the board, weren’t exactly publication material, but the exercise was a great ice-breaker. We had seen each other at work, realized we shared a sense of playfulness and humor, and were looking forward to our next get-together.

Working on the exquisite corpse

Exquisite Corpse display

On Thursday I proposed a new idea, which Émile and Badoux embraced enthusiastically. Taking a pre-ruled sheet of paper, each of us drew the opening panel of a six-panel page. I drew a wooden hut, situated in a rural area at the end of a dirt road. Behind it were some simple mountains, a sign was in the extreme foreground, and a round shape — sun, moon, or… something else — hung in the sky. Badoux drew a jet plane flying overhead in a cloudless sky. And Émile drew a bedraggled, stinky dog, sitting by the side of the road. From each of these jumping-off points, the idea was for the artists to continue the story, bringing it to a satisfying conclusion by panel 6.


Mine, Badoux, and Émile’s opening salvos

Once again, the group embraced the idea and set to work. We three visitors took the challenge too, finishing the stories of our two counterparts (and continuing on to their own page, if they finished the other two in time). It was really fun to share the space as the twelve of us worked, taking occasional breaks to peek over at our neighbor’s progress. For my own part, I used Émile’s panel to reference the then-imminent Thingyan Water Festival, depicted so charmingly in Guy Delisle’s The Burma Chronicles.

Water Festival doggy

Again, I was really impressed with the Burmese artists’ creative and humorous solutions to the “problems” we had posed — particularly in regard to Badoux’s drawing of the plane. For that one, many of them came up with some really rather dark and cynical interpretations, many having to do with terrorism and plane crashes. It was clear that they found the material rich for political commentary, obscured by a veil of humor.

For some reason, during this exercise a number of the Burmese cartoonists worked me into their comics! As you can see from these examples (again, artist’s names redacted), there’s no mistaking who the hapless lovestruck character in these stories is. What’s up with that?! And why didn’t Émile and Badoux suffer the same fate? *Sigh*

Josh's shack misadventure

Josh's airplane misadventure

Tomorrow: Friday’s exercise, courtesy of Émile Bravo…

Graphic Novel Institute @ Northwestern Univ. April 25

A short-notice heads-up that I will be in Evanston, Illinois, this coming weekend to take part in a comics and education conference called the Graphic Novel Institute, being held all day Sunday, April 25, at Northwestern University. Sari will also be there, presenting her thoughts on the topic. The G.N.I. will be taking place from 10am – 4pm, with a catered meet-and-greet from 4-6.
 
The G.N.I. was originally affiliated with the International Reading Association annual conference, but has since broken off on its own as a pre-IRA event. It is being co-sponsored by Northwestern, Diamond Book Distributors, Reading with Pictures, and Baker & Taylor.
 
I will be co-leading a breakout session with Alex Rodrik on the topic of creating graphic novels with a secondary reader focus; Sari will be on a panel with Michael Bitz, William Ayers, and David Rapp called Why and How to Teach with Graphic Novels. In the afternoon, she’ll be co-leading a breakout session with Josh Elder on Developing Graphic Novel Resources for the Classroom.
 

Graphic Novel Institute
"Teaching Reading with Graphic Novels”
Sunday, April 25, 2010 — 10 AM-4 PM
Northwestern University
Evanston Campus
Annenberg Hall
2120 Campus Drive
Evanston, Illinois

Admission is free, but seating is limited.  Please confirm your seat via RSVP to info@readingwithpictures.org

Baseball/Softball Encyclopedia: Josh Neufeld

[Originally posted April 12, 2006 — updated for 2013 with final 2012 stats]

Image hosting by PhotobucketIn honor of the new baseball season, I’ve asked Bill James and the good folks at Baseball-Reference.com to compile my career (so far) statistics. Unfortunately, the records are spotty. Though they date as far back as my 1982–1983 stint as a Little Leaguer playing baseball against such classic teams as 15th Street Iron Works and Aurora Phoenix Construction, there is a disturbing absence of information for almost the next twenty years!

I know! No stats from the glory days of the mid-1980s, when man_size, larrondo, thamesrhodes, pango_lafoote, and I tested the confines of Riverside Park during summer softball?! Or the three years at the helm of the Oberlin College intramural softball teams — The Dascomb Lords of Fresh (1987), Better Than You (1988), and Like a Big Dog (1989)? Or those great seasons in the early 90s as captain of The Nation magazine softball team, as we squared off against the likes of The Village Voice and Money magazine? I know: a travesty.

But, since I joined their “league” in 2003, the nutty nutjobs of Prospect Park Sunday softball have stepped up to the plate. With an obsessiveness for stats I can only stand back and admire with awe, they record every out of every game we play during our April–November season.

So sit back and peruse my (admittedly sparse) stats, which prove beyond doubt that I was a born softballer. As the records clearly show, I couldn’t hit a curve — or a fastball, for that matter. (Though I was a pesky hitter, working out a fair number of walks and wreaking some havoc on the basepaths.) And the results some years later weren’t any better: I was cut from the Oberlin College baseball team, a Division III team with no athletic scholarships!

Anyway, my softball stats are a bit better — at least I’m over the Mendoza Line. However, I believe hitting anything less than .400 in softball is nothing to be proud about, so I’ve got plenty of work to do. (The two stat lines for the 2004 season reflect two leagues I played in, the first being P.P. Sunday Softball, and the second being the weekday Zen League, featuring real umpires. My team, the Plug Uglies, won the championship, but I found it all a little too intense — and time-consuming — and didn’t return the subsequent season.)

So the 2006 season has just begun, and assuming I don’t break any more fingers, I hope to really get my swing in the groove as the summer moves along.

NEW! UPDATED FOR 2013 [with 2012 stats]!

JOSHUA MICHAEL ROSLER NEUFELD
Born: August 9, 1967 Home: Brooklyn, New York
Ht.: 5’9″ Wgt.: 200 Bats: Left Throws: Left

YEAR G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB AVG. OBP. SLG. OPS
1982 9 17 5 3 0 0 0 5 9 6 6 .177 .391 .177 .568
1983 15 17 6 3 0 0 0 3 13 5 4 .177 .533 .177 .711
2003 60 19 25 6 0 5 18 4 0 .417 .453 .767 1.220
2004 104 22 38 5 1 4 29 13 0 .365 .436 .500 .936
2004 50 6 17 3 1 0 14 4 0 .340 .389 .440 .829
2005 24 69 20 26 3 1 3 18 9 0 .377 .449 .580 1.029
2006 43 127 48 67 13 2 3 31 17 0 .528 .568 .732 1.300
2007 40 133 42 71 9 5 3 50 12 2 .534 .565 .744 1.309
2008 23 82 26 41 8 5 5 27 4 2 .500 .667 .902 1.402
2009 25 78 30 41 9 2 2 26 8 1 .526 .570 .769 1.339
2010 26 82 28 43 8 4 4 43 9 1 .524 .542 .866 1.408
2011 23 67 26 37 7 5 2 30 11 2 .552 .578 .866 1.444
2012 11 37 7 17 2 1 0 12 1 1 .459 .474 .568 1.042

Sydney Morning Herald on A.D. and “serious” comics

This weekend’s Spectrum supplement of the Sydney Morning Herald features a long piece on me, A.D., and serious/literary graphic novels. I really enjoyed talking to the writer, Samantha Selinger-Morris, and I think she did a nice job on the story. Written for a general (Australian) audience, it does a good job of introducing the lit-comix concept and providing context for A.D. It also has a recommended reading list at the end, which includes Joe Sacco’s work, Eddie Campbell, Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel, Rutu Modan, Logicomix, and more.

I’ll be visiting Australia for the Sydney Writers Festival in May, so this is a nice way to break the ice a bit for Aussie readers who probably have never heard of me or my book.

Check it out!

Kyat Chat, or, “Is that 100 kyat in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

As I mentioned earlier, the Myanmar unit of currency is the kyat (pronounced “chat”). It exchanges at about 1000 kyats to the dollar, and since the most common bill is the 1000-kyat bill (there are rumors a 5,000-kyat bill exists, but I never saw it), when you change money you inevitably end up with a huge wad of bills.

And, no, that’s not an optical illusion — the 1000-kyat bill actually comes in two sizes! (I think the smaller ones are newer vintage — they were trying to save paper…) So when I got a hundred of the larger ones, that was a super-wad in my pocket. Whenever I had to pull it out and peel off some bills to pay for something, I felt like some kind of clumsy Mafioso showing off for his goomah.

The other amusing thing about Myanmar money is that they’re really particular about only accepting pristine U.S. dollar bills for exchange. If it’s creased, wrinkled, or god forbid a little torn, forget it — they won’t take it! But when it comes to their money, especially the small denomination bills like the 50-kyat (worth about 5 cents U.S.), you’d see some of the dirtiest, bedraggled bills you could imagine changing hands.

Later in my trip, when I was visiting the Bagan historical site (more about that later), a salesgirl outside a temple approached me waving three U.S. $1 bills. She wanted to exchange them for kyats. I was confused: why would I want U.S. money back? But our guide explained that individual U.S. dollars were useless for locals, hard to spend and not worth near their value when exchanged in small quantities. So by changing them for her I would be doing a great favor.

Good Samaritan that I am, I agreed to the exchange and was suddenly swarmed by girls with bills. In the end I changed at least $10 worth. The irony of the Jewish guy — outside a temple, no less — changing money for folks was not lost on me. Blake, however, pointed out that I wasn’t a very good money changer since I didn’t charge a fee or interest. I guess usury just ain’t in my blood, even if it is part of my heritage. (That’s a joke, folks!)

Postscript: a few temples later, a new girl approached me with some American bills to exchange. I can only imagine that word was spreading of the pale guy in the orange ball cap who traded U.S. bills for kyats.

Kyat

Threadheads Raffle

I’ve donated a signed copy of A.D. to "The Threadheads" for their 2010 raffle. The Threadheads are a group of generous folks who met on the Jazz & Heritage Festival chat board, and since Hurricane Katrina they’ve hosted several charitable projects to give something back to New Orleans. The biggest one is the Threadhead Raffle, offering music and New Orleans-related items as prizes.

Last year the Raffle raised $18,000 to be split between two charities: Half the money raised goes to Fest 4 Kids, which provides tickets, food money, and chaperones for local children to attend Jazz Fest. It is affiliated with Silence is Violence, which provides instruments and music clinics to local kids as an inspiration and alternative in their lives. The other half goes to the Threadhead Records Foundation, which helps out unsigned New Orleans musicians and also donates money to the New Orleans Musician’s Clinic.

Should you want to buy an A.D. raffle ticket (only $1.10!), you can find it at the Threadheads raffle site by looking under "Raffle Items" and then "Books": www.threadheadraffle.org

But hurry — the raffle ends May 5!

Workshops Day One, Part Two

For the afternoon “amateur” sessions, to be held over at the Alliance Française, over 35 people had signed up, so Badoux, Émile, and I split them up into three “classes,” with the idea that the students would rotate each day, getting a chance to learn from each one of us.

It turned out that the “amateur” group was actually comprised of about half Burmese comics professionals and half interested amateurs — including two women (one Burmese and the other Australian) and one Buddhist monk.

Now, before we actually arrived in Myanmar, we had received some guidelines from the American and French embassies about the workshops. Remember, at its heart, this was a propaganda mission, to spread Western concepts of democracy and free expression. To quote from the original invitation I received, it was thought that “by utilizing the concept of graphic novels (a popular but rare form of communication in Burma), the target audience will have a chance to better understanding this art form and gain insight into using it as an effective means of telling stories, particularly to the youth. In Burma’s strictly censored and controlled society, people are always seeking ways to circumvent the system, and graphic novels can be another means of doing so.”

That is all well and good, but I couldn’t very well teach a workshop with such an explicit political agenda. From our brief time in the country, Badoux, Émile, and I realized that the Burmese comics culture was starting from such a rudimentary place — especially in terms of the content it addressed — that it would be better to just make comics together. Simple as that. So early ideas of discussing “‘comics and the artistic process,’ ‘the psychology of line styles and color,’ ‘word picture dynamics,’ and ‘visual iconography and its effects” were out the window.

So my approach to the afternoon workshops was to focus on collaboration and creativity. Taking my cues from mini-comics I first discovered back in Chicago — done by Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Terry LaBan, and others — I showed my students how to create eight-page mini-comics from one sheet of paper, and split them up into pairs to work collaboratively. The idea was that each pair come up with a simple concept together — just a launching-pad, really — and then create an eight-page story based on that concept, trading the comic back and forth, each doing a page at a time.

This idea of cooperation and competition — to me, the foundation stones of collaboration — seemed new to them, and there was some initial resistance (probably also partly caused by the language barrier). Eventually, however, the students got the idea — that they shouldn’t try to work the story out in advance or discuss what they planned to do, but just respond viscerally and playfully to what their partner had left them with — and the results were often really wonderful. (Concepts the students came up with included: a broken clock, learning to play football [soccer], going shopping, being trapped on a desert island, Internet dating, and picking fruit from a very high tree.)

I found that the best pairings were often when two people of different skills worked together, finding a happy medium between their talents. And maybe my favorite pair was the male Burmese professional and the female Australian amateur. He spoke no English and she no Burmese, and yet their collaboration — about a child learning to swim — was dynamic, surprising, and best of all, funny!

During the course of making these two-person “jam” comics, I found time to work in discussions of materials (pencils, pens, brushes, and paper), use of the computer (yes, the Burmese use PhotoShop too!), basic storytelling techniques (e.g., creating characters and situations), and sources of ideas and creative inspiration. And I talked about my work, specifically A.D. I figured that just by talking about the book (and its condemnation of the American response to Hurricane Katrina), the message — and the connection to their own tragedy of Cyclone Nargis — would be explicitly clear.


Professor Josh


Hard at work


Passing around the finished minis

Mini exhibit

Workshops Day One, Part One

Jet lag works in mysterious ways. Despite my extreme fatigue from the 30 hours of traveling, I didn’t sleep all that well my first night in Myanmar. I woke up bright and early at about 4:30 am, which gave me plenty of time to prepare for the full day ahead: breakfast with my two cartooning compatriots, then a three-hour session at the American Center with the Burmese professionals, three more hours at the Alliance Francaise with amateurs, and an introduction to an evening film showing back at the A.C.

At breakfast, I tried talking a bit with Émile and Christophe about the workshop, but they seemed unconcerned and confident that it would work out. It turned out that both of them had done gigs like this before — Émile in China, India, and the U.S., and Christophe in India and Algeria. I, on the other hand, had very little hands-on teaching experience. Some years back, I gave private lessons in comics to a rich Upper East Side teenager, and last November I did a mini-comics workshop with Sari at the Miami Book Fair, but that was about the extent of it. So even though I was a bit intimidated by the prospect of “teaching comics” to men many years my senior (e.g., the Burmese professionals), Émile & Christophe were so blasé about the whole thing that I was content to follow their lead.

Wesley picked us up in “Rolling Thunder,” and we arrived at the American Center fifteen minutes later. The Center is in a different part of town from the U.S. Embassy, but similarly fortified and guarded. Directly across the road from the A.C. entrance was a small hut used by the Myanmar military to keep an eye on things. It was really a sad little structure, slapped together out of plywood and “protected” by a couple of sandbags. Most of the time, the hut was manned by two slovenly guards, dutifully noting our comings and goings on little clipboards. A laundry line was attached to one side of the open-air hovel, and some stray dogs loitered around.

We entered the A.C. to find most of the cartoonists from Monday’s lunch, as well as our translator Aung. I started things off by distributing the pens I had brought as gifts. The men accepted them graciously but in a subdued manner, but I had read that it is considered rude in Burmese culture to over-react to gifts (and to my satisfaction, during the balance of the morning I noticed the artists examining and experimenting with them).

Christophe, Émile, and myself spent much of the morning introducing ourselves and our work, assisted by Aung. Then we heard from the participants, who were mostly men in their fifties and sixties, many of them with careers stretching back to the 1970s and even earlier. [Because of the nature of the Myanmar government, I’m going to refrain from naming any of the workshop participants. Even though the authorities certainly knew who attended the workshops, and even though we never directly addressed politics in our meetings, I don’t feel comfortable “outing” them in public.]

The artists specialized in children’s comics, humor, romance, gag panels, and so forth, with a couple having experience in the adventure comics field. It was fascinating to meet practitioners of my same field halfway around the world, and to see how much we had in common. For the most part, their style and approach to comics struck me as much closer to the West than, say, their more nearby neighbor Japan (undoubtedly a result of Burma being a British colony for so many years.) There was one artist who worked more in a manga style, but he was firmly in the minority. All the men were talented and technically proficient, but again I had that sad feeling that these were people whose creative aspirations had been stunted at an early age; that the Burmese perceptions of the artistic possibility of comics was quite limited.

Mutual introductions took up the whole three hours, so I was relieved of stressing out about running a professional workshop until the next day. We ended the session with me handing out signed copies of A.D. to each participant, a gift of the U.S. embassy.

Then it was off to lunch and to prepare for the afternoon amateur workshops.

International Week of Graphic Novels
International Week of Graphic Novels

Introductions
Badoux, Josh, Émile

Class is in session

Sketching, Speaking, and Signing at MoCCA

This Sunday, April 11, at the annual Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) Art Fest, I’ll be a "special guest," sketching, speaking, and signing…

From 1-1:30, I’ll be at the MoCCA Sketch Table, donating my time to create original sketches for festival attendees. The primary purpose of the sketch table is to create a fun way to fund-raise for the museum. Festival-goers pay either $25 dollars for a “headshot” or $35 for a “full body” sketch.

From 2-3, I’ll be taking part in the panel discussion Sequential Activism: Saving the World, One Panel at a Time. Moderator Brian Heater (Daily Crosshatch) will lead us to explore the history of subversive political comics, from political cartoons to World War III Illustrated. Along with Bill Ayers (To Teach: The Journey in Comics), Peter Kuper (WWIII Illustrated, Oaxaca), Tom Hart (Hutch Owen), and Ward Sutton (Sutton Impact). Should be fascinating.

From 3:30-4:30, I’ll be at the Pantheon table, signing copies of the Eisner Award-nominated A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. Come on by and say hi.

See ya Sunday!

MoCCA Fest 2010
April 10–11
69th Regiment Armory at 68 Lexington Avenue (25th Street), New York City
$12 at the door ($20 for both days)
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