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.

Andrea Tsurumi’s WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?

Andrea Tsurumi's WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?

I’m very excited to plug Why Would You Do That?, by FLASHed contributor Andrea Tsurumi, out now from Hic + Hoc!

The slim volume features a collection of off-kilter, often hilarious, short comics about dogs, baked goods, and feats of derring-do, by one of our most confident and talented young cartoonists. Longer-ish pieces that particularly stand out are “Poodle Smart,” a detailed analysis of the intelligence of poodles, told with utmost seriousness—despite  being completely fabricated; and “Food Photographer,” a set of news clippings from historical events where a confused replacement photographer focused on the food in the room rather than the actual subjects of the stories.

Crafted with the utmost seriousness (and skill), the comics in this book meet at the convergence of Dan Piraro, Gary Larson, and Hieronymus Bosch—and I’m so glad Tsurumi did that!

 

Early Work: comics and illos from my teens and early 20s

day-life-len-neufeld1-scan-1000pxMatthew Baker—or Mx. Baker, as he prefers to be called—is a rather mysterious fellow who writes for a living. He contributed a wonderful “seeder” piece to the “Brothers” triptych of FLASHed (responded to by Jon Lewis and then Julia Fierro), and he curates a blog called Early Work, which (as you might guess) highlights the immature work of established writers and artists. My take on the blog is that the stuff each creator chooses shows hints of the themes and styles of their later, mature work. (Or maybe it’s just amusing to see how far they’ve come!) Folks featured on Early Work include cartoonist Anders Nilsen, writer Kelly Luce, and poet Naomi Shihab Nye, to name a few. And now… me.

As you may know, I’m a bit of a hoarder and I have files full of old artwork, going back to my youngest days. (My mom and dad have their share of my childhood drawings as well.) So there was a lot of material to choose from. On the other hand, I was apprehensive about sharing my immature artwork with the world at large.

But with Matt’s help, I was able to whittle down all that material to some stuff from my teenage years and early twenties that I wasn’t too embarrassed about: a collection of one-page comics I did for my dad for his birthday each year, a series of illustrations of roommates from my freshman-year college dorm, and a series of trompe-l’oeil illustrations I did for loved ones.

One aspect of the Early Work site I really like is its “raw” quality—the drawings are presented on the wrinkled, yellowed paper they were done on. Stories are scrawled in a child’s hand. Nothing is cleaned up in PhotoShop. This is ephemera, often plucked from decades past. So I really tried to get into the spirit of that.

Another fun thing about Early Work is that each contribution features a statement by the creator about the “early work” and a photo of the them from that period. There’s something really poignant and charming about these photos of “anonymous” kids who later became  respected writers and artists. Who knew (besides me) that there was a photo of me posing with the late, beloved musician Prince? (Well, a poster of him, at least…) Read on to see for yourself…

So without further ado (what is “ado,” anyhow?), here are some links to my “early work”:

3135 Calhoun St. and the A.D. cosmic connection

Crescent City Comics has just opened a second location, moving its flagship store to 3135 Calhoun Street, near Tulane University in New Orleans. (There’s a nice little article about the new store here, which features a time-lapse video of their logo being painted in giant scale on their ceiling.) That address, 3135 Calhoun, is the center of an A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge vortex. Let me explain…

One of the main “characters” in A.D. is Leo McGovern, currently the manager of Crescent City Comics. This is what Leo looked like in the book:

Leo-AD-300px

(Leo once told me that his fondest desire was to be “one of those sweaty guys in a comic book.” Wish granted!)

But what’s so remarkable about Crescent City Comics’ new location is that 3135 Calhoun Street is the former location of the Calhoun Superette! For many years, the Calhoun Superette was owned by Hamid Mohammadi, another main “character” in A.D. (His name was Hamid in the original webcomic, then changed to “Abbas”—with a mustache added to his face—for the book. When I talked to him last year for a Hurricane Katrina 10-year anniversary comic, he allowed me to use his real name again.) Here’s how Hamid looked in A.D.:

Hamid-AD-300px

Hamid and his wife opened the Calhoun Superette in 1996 and kept it open for 16 years, through thick and thin. A lot of scenes in A.D. take place at the store. (I wasn’t able to visit the store in person when I was doing my initial research and reporting, so Leo, as a comics fan knowing what kind of reference I would need, kindly offered to drive over to the store, introduce himself to Hamid, and take a ton of photos for me. That was back in 2007, the first time the two long-time New Orleanians met each other—brought together by A.D. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…”)

Here are some scenes from A.D. of the store… from right before the storm:

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To when part of the sign got blown off during the hurricane:

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To the first hint of flooding:

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To when the water had gotten waist-deep:

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To when the water was so deep the only thing to do was “abandon ship”:

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NOT wimpy! And here’s a scene from period of 16 months Hamid spent gutting the store and rebuilding it after Katrina:

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Hamid re-opened the store in 2007 (thank you, Google Street View):

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And this is how it looked in 2009 (the sign was finally fixed!):

0910-3135Calhoun-600px

But sadly Hamid was forced to close the Superette in the summer of 2012. Here’s what he had to say about it:

Hamid-bitter

Forstall Art Supplies moved in to the space soon after (they used be located next door):

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But Forstall closed in the summer of 2015, opening the door for Crescent City Comics—they kept Forstall’s potted plants:

1604-3135Calhoun-600px

Here’s Leo and CCC owner Les Arceneaux posing with other staff members (photo courtesy Bleeding Cool):

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After all the things Hamid went through, I was really bummed to hear that he had to close his deli. But I’m so glad its former location is back in the A.D. “family.”

Did I mention Crescent City Comics hosted a party for the paperback release of A.D. in 2010? That was a good time. They’re a great store. Go visit the next time you’re in NOLA, and pick up a copy of A.D. from one of the characters in the book… in the place where a lot of the book’s action happens!

Crescent City Comics
3135 Calhoun
New Orleans, LA  70125
(504) 891-3796
CrescentCityComics.com

The VAGABONDS #5 debuts at MoCCA Fest 2016

The Vagabonds #5This coming weekend is MoCCA Fest 2016, being held for the first time at Metropolitan West (near the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum). I’ll be there with my Hang Dai Editions colleagues Dean Haspiel and Gregory Benton. And I’ll have a couple of brand new books for sale: FLASHed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose and THE VAGABONDS #5! We’ll be at table A112 on the first floor.

Here’s what’s featured in this issue of THE VAGABONDS: Last August was the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s assault on the Gulf Coast and the subsequent devastation of New Orleans. In this issue, I catch up with four of the main characters from my book A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. Leo, Hamid, Kwame, and the Doctor have a lot to say about the state of the Crescent City and their own lives.

Another longer piece from this issue is “Fare Game,” a follow-up to Terms of Service: Understanding Our Role in the World of Big Data, the 2014 “graphic novella” I did in partnership with Al Jazeera America and reporter Michael Keller. “Fare Game” (again done with Michael Keller and AJAM), takes a look at ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, and the implications of a society where we’re all rating each other based on everyday transactions.

This issue features two collaborations with writer Adam Bessie, who is bravely living with a cancer diagnosis. In these stories, Adam and I explore the ways technology filters the experience of living with an illness. Other pieces in this issue include a rundown of the origins and meanings of emojis, a humorous take on steroids in Major League Baseball, the changing nature of Brooklyn, and a selection of one-page comics. THE VAGABONDS #5 is 24 page, full-color, for the low price of $5.

I’ve really enjoyed teaming up with Hang Dai Editions—putting out THE VAGABONDS again, rejoining the comics festival circuit, and reconnecting with readers. I look forward to seeing you at MoCCA Fest and handing you an autographed copy of THE VAGABONDS #5.

Here are all the details for MoCCA and where to find me:

MoCCA Fest 2016
April 2-3, 2016, 11am – 6pm both days
Metropolitan West, table A112
639 W. 46th St.
New York NY 10036

Don Brown’s DROWNED CITY

There’s an old saying that journalism is the first draft of history. I was thinking of that recently when I presented A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge to students & teachers at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis. Pretty much the entire 10th-grade there had read A.D. in their English classes, so I spent a full day at the school, bringing the story behind A.D. to the more than 1,000 kids from that grade (and a selection of 11th-graders who had read the book last year). It’s crazy to think that those students were around four years old back in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and nearly destroyed New Orleans. So to them my book is not a journalistic perspective on the disaster, but rather (ancient) history.

(One positive about that is in regards to the section of A.D. that deals with Denise’s experiences at the New Orleans convention center—without the burden of the false rumors about gang violence, rapes, dead bodies in freezers, etc. that flew around the media at the time, the kids will have a fresher understanding of at what actually went down at the convention center…)

I write at the end of A.D. that

… there are many, many stories about Katrina and its aftermath. Those of the seven people in A.D. are quite particular and highly personal, but my hope is that they provide a window into a larger world, one that few of us understand and that we’ll be trying to make sense of for a long time.

And I always paraphrase that sentiment when I discuss A.D.—that my book is merely one document of many about the storm and its aftermath. And I make sure to mention some of the other great narratives about Katrina/New Orleans (a few of which are much more expansive in scope). Documentaries like Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke or Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s Trouble the Water. Books like Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge, or Chris Rose’s 1 Dead in Attic, or Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun, or Dan Baum’s Nine Lives. Or more recent works like Roberta Brandes Gratz’s We’re Still Here Ya Bastards, and Please Forward, edited by Cynthia Joyce. And even fictional works like HBO’s solid series Treme.

DrownedCityWell, now there’s another “graphic narrative” to add to that list: Don Brown’s Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Published last summer on the 10th anniversary of the storm, it’s the only other comic book format history of Katrina that I know of. (And I only just found out about it, though apparently it’s been very well received…)

Definitely for a younger audience than A.D., Drowned City takes the reader through the breadth of the Katrina story, from the storm’s formation as “a swirl of unremarkable wind” in Africa to its building in the Gulf of Mexico and finally sweeping into Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. The book shows New Orleans preparing for the storm and the city’s belated & haphazard attempts to evacuate. It shows the breaching of the levees, the people trapped in their attics, and the drowned bodies. The book details how helpless/useless the authorities in New Orleans were to deal with the flooding and the aftermath, and how thousands of people were abandoned at the so-called “shelters of last resort,” the Superdome and the Convention Center. Drowned City shows the chaos that settled over the city, how people were forced to help themselves to much-need supplies—and the instances of looting—and how some brave groups and individuals performed heroic rescues. The book spares no blows in its depiction of the ineptitude and infighting of officials like FEMA head Michael Brown, Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco, and President George W. Bush. The book ends in October 2005 with the city finally dry, but totally devastated. It talks about New Orleans’ subsequent depopulation, particularly the decline of the city’s poorest (mostly African-American) populations. Nevertheless, the book ends on a tentative note of hopefulness.

Drowned City is gorgeously illustrated, mostly in large panels of pen & ink and watercolor. And it is meticulously researched & documented, with a full source list/bibliography at the back.

I often speak of A.D. as a “people’s history” of Hurricane Katrina. Don Brown‘s Drowned City takes more of a holistic perspective, and in that way is a perfect complement to A.D. I highly recommend you check it out.

The Solstice Program and getting your MFA in comics

Solstice-banner-adThe Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College is starting a graphic narratives concentration—and I’ve been hired as the first faculty member/mentor. I officially start this July.

Comics are now being taught at almost every college and university in the country, and there are even a few other MFA programs out there. But Solstice is one of the first low-residency programs to offer an MFA in—pick your favorite term—cartooning/comics/graphic narratives/sequential art.

Here’s how Solstice describes the low-residency component:

Students are in residence on campus for ten days, twice a year, for a total of five residencies over two years. During the 10-day residencies, students and faculty gather on Pine Manor College’s lovely, wooded campus—a mere five miles from downtown Boston—and attend workshops, classes, panel discussions, and readings. At the end of the residency, each student is matched with a faculty mentor with whom he or she will work individually during the six-month semester to follow.

During that six-month semester, students study independently, sending “packets” of work to their mentor every month. The Pine Manor campus really is beautiful, and the program—run by Meg Kearney and Tanya Whiton—is both serious and welcoming. And the other faculty members are an impressive group.

I’m excited to help craft Solstice’s graphic narratives concentration. It’s ironic, because I personally have no degrees in comics or cartooning—only 25+ years of professional experience. When I was becoming a cartoonist there were no programs out there to guide me; my own development was intuitive, and heavily influenced by my favorite comics: Hergé’s Tintin and American superhero comics. Eventually, I came across a copy of Will Eisner’s Comics & Sequential Art, which was the first text I encountered that discussed the form of comics as a subject worthy of study. Later, I was heavily inspired by Scott McCloud’s seminal work, Understanding Comics. But as I evolved, a lot of what I had to do was un-learn a lot of bad habits I had picked up during my youth as an aspiring superhero artist: melodramatic facial expressions, distracting page layouts, and the like.

The most important skill I have developed in my adult years is writing for comics. Growing up, in my mind I artificially segmented the practice of comics into different jobs: writer, penciler, inker, letterer, etc.—because this assembly line system had been institutionalized by the big publishers to meet their monthly deadlines. Discovering the world of “alternative” and literary comics made me appreciate the role of CARTOONIST—a jack-of-all trades in the comics world. This is what I aspired to be as I learned to write—first with memoir and auto-bio comics and now with journalistic stories. (I continue to collaborate with writers on occasion, but that’s because I really enjoy the back-and-forth “mind-meld” that a good comics collaboration produces.) Yes, comics are an amalgam of words & pictures, but I firmly believe a good comic/graphic novel starts with a good story. In the end, the art serves the story.

So as developer of the Solstice graphic narratives concentration, and chief mentor to the students, I will stress writing as the foundation of our practice.

And at this point, my own teaching experience is fairly extensive. I was an Atlantic Center for the Arts Master Artist, where I worked with eight mid-career cartoonists on their nonfiction graphic novel projects. For a number of years I’ve taught week-long comics workshops at the Fine Arts Work Center summer program. And I’ve taught day-long comics workshops at universities, and for students in the U.S. and abroad (including my many foreign trips as a “comics cultural ambassador” for the U.S. State Dept.’s Speaker/Specialist program). I’ve taught comics workshops at the Society of Illustrators, and I’ve served as a thesis advisor for students at the Center for Cartoon Studies and Hunter College.

As part of the first residency, I’ll teach a single two-hour CCT (Craft, Criticism, and Theory) class, as well as lead daily three-hour workshops. As a teacher/mentor, what I most enjoy is helping cartoonists find their voice, identifying their strengths as writer/artists. Over the course of the two-year program, I’ll work closely with my students on their individual projects: a complete comics manuscript—and, of course, an MFA!

These will be the foundational texts of the graphic narratives concentration:

  • Scott McCloud, Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels (William Morrow, 2006)
  • Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (William Morrow, 1994)
  • Jessica Abel & Matt Madden, Drawing Words & Writing Pictures (First Second, 2008)
  • Will Eisner, Comics & Sequential Art (Poorhouse Press, 1985)
  • Ivan Brunetti, Cartooning: Philosophy & Practice (Yale University Press, 2011)

I’m really looking forward to getting this exciting new degree program off the ground. The growth I’ve seen—just over the course of my own career—in the appreciation of the comics form is truly astounding, and I’m excited to support the next great group of cartoonists in reaching their goals. The low-residency format is a great option for motivated, independent creators who can devote a few weeks a year to gathering together in bucolic Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

Check out the Solstice website for further details, including an interview with me about what’s in store. (Here’s an article about my coming on board with Solstice.)

If you’re a cartoonist aspiring to take your work to the next level, or know someone who would be interested, please think about applying. The application deadline for the summer 2016 residency/fall semester is April 15, 2016. I welcome cartoonists working in the realm of fiction or nonfiction—and everything in-between.