Fake News? My comics piece for COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW on the Trump-Russia Dossier

Remember the Donald Trump-Russia “dossier”? Released by BuzzFeed in January (shortly before Trump was sworn in as U.S. President), the 17 short memos (compiled over seven months) featured some pretty wild claims—sex parties, etc. But the main takeaway was that Trump and his cronies were in the pockets of the Russians.

Amidst the furor over the memos’ contents was an equally strong uproar in the journalistic community. Was it ethical of BuzzFeed to publish the so-called dossier, which was unverified and contained some specific errors? The backstory, of course, is that during the previous months, the memos—and their author, former British spy Christopher Steele—had passed like a hot potato through every major news organization before BuzzFeed finally pulled the trigger. So was the outrage honest, or really just a case of sour grapes at being scooped? A new piece I just did for Columbia Journalism Review“The Trump-Russia memos”—tracks that long strange journey.

The events described in the five-page comics story are based on reporting and research, including interviews I did with journalists who sought to verify the memos and wrote about them—or chose not to…

As far as the actual contents of the memos, none of the more outlandish claims have been verified—although the FBI and Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller apparently are using the memos as a “road map” for their ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia…

So check out the piece and see what you think. (Thanks to Vanessa Gezari for commissioning the piece and shepherding me through the whole process.)

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PROJECT:OBJECTS Lost Objects: “Cologne”

CologneThe brilliant creative souls Rob Walker and Josh Glenn have a new ongoing PROJECT:OBJECT. Lost Objects is a 25-part series of nonfiction stories about… lost objects. It’s the fifth P:O series, which started with Significant Objects (featuring, among others, a great piece by our very own Sari Wilson), then Political Objects, followed by Talismanic Objects, and then Illicit Objects. (That last one also features a piece by Sari.) Other contributors include Paul Lukas, Jessamyn West, Douglas Rushkoff, William Gibson, Doug Dorst, Kate Bernheimer, Michael Tisserand, Randy Kennedy, Seth Mnookin, Luc Sante, and many, many more.

For Lost Objects, Josh G. & Rob W. asked 25 writers to tell them about a significant object they’d lost (or thrown away, or destroyed), then assigned these stories to 25 illustrators. Thusly, Dan Piepenbring of the Paris Review wrote a piece, about a bottle of cologne, and yours truly illustrated it. And here it is—as you read, you’ll should soon see why I was compelled to do it.

Enjoy—and then make sure to check out all the other great contributions to the PROJECT:OBJECT series.

Irma, Harvey, Katrina—when it comes to hurricanes, what goes around, comes around

The A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge website on SMITH was down for a while, but recent events with hurricanes Harvey & Irma made it imperative to get it working again—and so it is: smithmag.net/afterthedeluge. This terrible 2017 hurricane season obviously brings back memories of 2005 (and for older folks, previous big hurricanes that hit big cities). As I wrote in the book’s afterword, the stories in A.D. are highly specific yet somehow universal, and over the years I have found in my discussions about A.D. that the experiences of the real-life characters therein resonated strongly with other hurricane survivors in so many ways. People told me this over and over as I traveled around promoting the A.D. book—in New Orleans (of course), in Houston, in Miami, and even in New York City. By connecting to the stories of Denise, Leo, Michelle, Hamid, Mansell, Kwame, and the Doctor, people gained comfort—and context—for their own experiences.

Watching Harvey and Irma, the cycle feels so similar: tracking the storm, deciding whether or not to evacuate, dealing with the wind damage and flooding, confronting loss—of people, possessions, community—and the long rebuilding process. These are the perennial issues brought on by these epic man-vs.-nature events…

The New York Times‘ coverage of the storms has been particularly good, and these stories reminded me so strongly of specific moments from A.D.:

“Irma Shifting Forecasts: It’s All a Matter of Probability”  evokes “Should I Stay…”

A.D. chapter 2

The Daily story, “How Houston Was Built to Flood”  evokes the Prologue, Part II—“The Storm”

A.D. prologue

“Thousands Cried for Help as Houston Flooded” evokes Chapter 6—“Flotsam & Jetsam”

A.D. chapter 6

“After Harvey, a Return Home in High Water” evokes Chapter 8—“The Bowl Effect, Part II”

A.D. chapter 8

The Daily 360 piece “On Submerged Streets: ‘Houston Has Come Together'”  evokes Chapter 10—“Something in the Water”

A.D. chapter 10

The photo essay “What They Saved: Texans Reflect on Treasures Plucked From Harvey”  evokes the epilogue, “Picking Up the Pieces”

A.D. epilogue

… as does “We Lived Through a Flood. Now We Have a Very Long To-Do List.”

A.D. epilogue

Part of the A.D. experience on SMITH was the links embedded within certain panels that extended the story in various ways: to hurricane resources, YouTube videos, audio clips of the various characters. As part of resurrecting the A.D. site, I also updated all those links, which to my mind all remain relevant for these storms 12 years later. My hope—as it always was—is that the stories of the various real-life people from A.D. continue to give solace and understanding to this new generation of hurricane watchers and survivors.

Stay strong, Texas. Stay strong, Florida.

Brooklyn is still Brooklyn

Scene: Interior Washington Gourmet Deli bodega.

Customer: Yo, lemme get a stamp!

Bodega guy: No stamp, no stamp.

Customer: No stamp?! … Okay, lemme get a Tylenol.

This June I’ll be teaching an intensive comics workshop at the Yale Writers Conference

I’m proud to announce that this June 15-18 I’ll be teaching an intensive, immersive comics-making workshop at the Yale Writers Conference (part of the Yale Summer Session), held in New Haven, Connecticut.

This marks the first time I’ll be doing a comics workshop with YWC—it’s the first time they’ve done one—but it’ll be closely modeled on programs I’ve run a number of previous summers with the Fine Arts Work Center. Those workshops have always been a rewarding experience, both for me and my students.

Here’s the course description for my workshop Comics: Stories in Graphic Form:

Comics use words and pictures together to form powerful narratives. In this workshop, you will use fictional material, or material from your own life to create original comics. We’ll examine the basic principles of visual storytelling, and complete writing, brainstorming, and collaborative exercises that are useful in producing strong comics. We’ll generate ideas for solving storytelling problems—and look at how other cartoonists have grappled with them. We’ll use group feedback to hone our stories and find the narrative beats. You’ll emerge from this workshop with a toolset for taking your work to another level. In lieu of a writing sample, submit a 250-word description of your comics project and two character drawings with your application.

So, whether you’re interested in fiction, memoir, journalism, informed essay, or anything in between, this comics workshop is for you! The workshop is part of Session II of the YWC. Over four days, participants will meet in a seminar with eleven fellow cartoonists, led by yours truly. We’ll learn constructive criticism techniques that support productive feedback, followed by intensive group writing workshops, with the chance for each participant to showcase his or her writing and receive feedback/critique. (Participants will receive copies of their peers’ work in advance.) I will provide instruction on writing and drawing techniques, revision, and other “tricks of the trade.” And, during the conference I will hold half-hour, one-to-one meetings with each participant. Sounds great, right?

Click this link to find out more about the program and how to register. Please spread the word about the workshop, and encourage people to sign up soon. The deadline is April 30. Classes fill up quickly…

The Pendulum Swings

Trump-color-nobg

I drew this back in 2015 for a French comics magazine. The concept was to illustrate some of  the “weirdest” news stories of the year—you know, like the idea that Donald Trump was running for U.S. president..

One of the things I’ll never forget about the 2008 election was watching the returns on TV and also tracking it on my Facebook feed. Facebook was a relatively new phenomenon at that point, and the folks who were on it seemed to so epitomize the energy that the Obama team was bringing to the White House. I’ll also never forget that, late that night on November 4, a lone trumpeter paraded down Eastern Parkway (in front of my apartment building), tooting triumphantly on his horn for blocks and blocks and blocks.

On January 20, 2009, I wanted to experience the moment of the inauguration of our first African-American president with other folks in my community, so I headed over to Cafe Shane. I sat at their coffee bar, watching the ceremony on TV with a diverse crowd of celebrants. I remember toasting the moment, with my cup of tea, with the 40-ish black guy, and his cup of coffee, sitting next to me. (I also remember Chief Justice Roberts fumbling the words as he led Obama through the oath. Do you remember that?)

Back then, after eight years of George Bush, it all felt like a fresh start, like our country had taken a giant stride forward. Now, eight years later, our country seems to be making another “fresh start.” But it’s not something I can bear to witness with a crowd of folks. I’ll watch the inauguration here at home on my TV, but it’s hard for me to see this fresh start as anything but a giant stride backward.

Elmo and pals: the costumed characters of Times Square

ElmoAs a native New Yorker, I don’t visit Times Square very often—too noisy, too bright, too many tourists. Of course I was aware how much the area has changed over the years, with the banishment of the porn palaces and prostitution, and the Disneyfication that began during the late 1990s. Back in the day, if you walked around the area, you’d get “asked for a date” ten times per block. Now, improbably, the area had returned to its early 20th-century roots as a tourist Mecca.

But when I did walk through the area a few years back I couldn’t help but notice a whole new group of inhabitants: Elmos, Minnie Mouses, Spider-Mans, and packs of others in Sesame Street and superhero costumes, posing for photos with tourists for tips. It was like they had come out of nowhere and had taken over the Square. (By the way: did you know that the area is actually not a square at all, but really more of a bow-tie shape?)

When I first began noticing the costumed characters it was really freaky and random to me, totally out of left field. And now, a few years later, it’s just another fact of life in NYC. Despite the shiny electronic billboards and chain restaurants, you still can’t walk through Times Square without being accosted. Maybe times hadn’t changed that much after all.

I don’t read the tabloids or watch the local TV news, so I didn’t know anything about all the hysteria surrounding these costumed characters—anti-Semitic “Evil Elmo,” the Spider-Man who punched a cop, the Cookie Monster who pushed a child, the occasional beefs between “performers” that erupted into blows, and so on. And the general complaints about the characters’ aggressiveness and panhandling techniques.

elmo07-pn5All this got a ton of local recent coverage, particularly in 2014. And believe it or not, the City Council held hearings on the matter—including the idea of requiring you to undergo a background check before you can put on a Spongebob costume—and instituted some new restrictions.

I was intrigued, so I spent a little time hanging around the area, and I couldn’t help put notice that most of the people underneath the costume were Latino. I wondered about them. Where do they come from? How much money do they make? What’s it like to do that job all day long? I decided I would find out–and show what I learned in a comics piece.

I spent two months doing research and interviews, and another couple of months writing the script and drawing the piece, which includes more than 50 panels of comics. (Much credit goes to The Nib editor Matt Bors for helping me winnow down the more than 70 panels I originally envisioned!)

The pull of the story, of course, is its sheer wackiness—plus, for those not from New York, this whole scenario is new information. And that’s how I suck you in. But then, halfway through the story, I go “behind the mask” to get the other perspective—that of the people in the costumes. And with all the new regulations spurred by the hyperbolic press coverage and local business associations like the Times Square Alliance, the real story comes into focus.

elmo07-pn3This story in particular is perfect for the comics treatment because of the costumed character aspect. It’s all be very meta, with the reader not being sure if he or she is looking at someone in a costume or just a drawing of the actual character from the cartoons or comics… (In that vein, I had fun with the color concept of the piece—let me know if it works for you.)

So debuting this week on The (new-and-improved) Nib is “Costumed Chaos in Times Square: The infamous street Elmos of NYC fight for their right to take selfies with tourists.” Check it out.

FLASHed & Girl Through Glass at the Brooklyn Book Festival

bkbf-logoSari and I will be ALL OVER the Brooklyn Book Festival this Sunday (Sept. 18), with two panels and a workshop. In addition, we will be promoting and signing FLASHed at our publisher’s booth. Here’s how it will go down:

At noon, Sari will be on the panel, “Remember All That? A Look Back at New York City,” along with Tim Murphy (Christodora) and Pia Padukone (The Faces of Strangers); moderated by Rob Spillman of Tin House. “New York City is host to grueling ballet careers, riots in Tompkins Square, a political campaign interrupted by a cross-cultural dalliance, and rare encounters of unmitigated beauty.” Brooklyn Historical Society Library, 128 Pierrepont Street. [Full details here.]

Flashed-cover400pxAt 3pm, Sari and I will run a multimedia flash fiction workshop, “Comics > Prose.” Flex your storytelling muscles as you write your own piece of flash fiction inspired by an original comic. One story created in the workshop will be published on the official FLASHed website! St. Francis College Workshop Room 4202, 180 Remsen St. [Full details here.]

At 5pm, I’ll be moderating the panel “The Art of War” with comics journalist Sarah Glidden (Rolling Blackouts), ex-Marine Maximilian Uriarte (The White Donkey), and historical graphic novelist Ethan Young (Nanjing). “Compelling comics can be drawn from conflict zones.” Brooklyn Historical Society, 128 Pierrepont Street. [Full details here.]

The rest of the day we should be at the Pressgang booth, with copies of FLASHed on hands (and hopefully with some FLASHed contributors as well!). Pressgang’s booth is #529, located near the corner of Joralemon and Adams, right in the heart of the festival.

BKBF is always a great event; we hope to see you there this Sunday!

Brooklyn Book Festival
Borough Hall and environs
Sunday, September 18 (10am-6pm, rain or shine)

Josh & Sari on Publishers Weekly podcast “More to Come”

Flashed-cover300pxSari and I recently had the honor of being guests on the Publishers Weekly podcast “More to Come,” hosted by PW editor Calvin Reid. We sat down with Calvin at the PW offices and talked about Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose, as well as collaboration in general, and our own work.

Topics we cover in the podcast include my autobiographical travel comics collection A Few Perfect Hours (which includes a couple of collaboration with Sari), and my more recent work in comics journalism, including A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. We talk about the online collective ACT-i-VATE and my long creative association with Dean Haspiel.

Talking about Dean, we discuss what it means to be a native New Yorker, which leads to Sari talking a bit about her debut novel Girl Through Glass. This broaches the very rich topic of New York City in the 1970s, and the contrast between that gritty period of urban blight and the rarified world of classical dance. I appreciated Sari’s point that “a novel works through contrasts,” which are really brought out in her book.

The second half of the podcast covers the concept behind Flashed: what is flash fiction, and how Sari & I, and our joint backgrounds in  the worlds of literary fiction and alternative comics, made this project come into focus. We break down a couple of section from the book to explore the connective tissue of such triptychs as “Night Games”—featuring Lynda Barry, Kellie Wells, and Box Brown—and “Mutable Architecture”—featuring Gabrielle Bell, Jedediah Berry, and Carol Lay. And we discuss the honor and pleasure of editing such a talented group of writers & cartoonists.

The podcast wraps up with a couple of shout-outs to some upcoming projects: the week-long comics memoir workshop Sari & I will be co-teaching at the Fine Arts Work Center this summer, and the still-burgeoning Comics & Graphic Narratives concentration I’m helping to develop at the Solstice Low-Residency MFA Program.

We really enjoyed our wide-ranging conversation with Calvin, and we think you will too. Give a listen here.

1 Year Later: Thinking about Seth Kushner

seth_kushnerSeth Kushner—photographer, comic book writer, pop culture maven, husband, father—passed away one year ago today. This is what I wrote about him at the time:

I wish I had something poetic or original to say about Seth, but what impresses me the most is just how many people whose lives he touched—and how consistent their feelings are: that he was a super-talented photographer, that he was a gracious human being with an abiding interest in other people, and that he truly loved his wife and son.

Seth seemed to epitomize the best things about the comics “community”: He was a fan, he was a creator, and he had an unflagging interest in reaching out and encouraging others the way he had been encouraged along the way.

What he did in this last year, with making his battle against leukemia public and human and inspiring and funny and heart-breaking all at once, is an amazing gift to all those who suffer through these diseases alone.

The wonderful thing about art is that—unlike the artist—it lives forever. Seth’s posthumously published semi-auto-bio graphic novel Schmuck, illustrated by a boatload of talented cartoonists (and myself), came out late last year; and his character The Brooklynite is being brought to life by Shamus Beyale, all part of the Dean Haspiel-led “New Brooklyn” series on WebToons (also starring The Red Hook, and, soon, The Purple Heart).

Seth Kushner, 1973–2015. Rest in peace.