Illustrating the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue

Oberlin-ant-slavery-activism-comic-verticalTwo of my biggest heroes when I was a kid were Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. I had posters of them on my wall! I read Douglass’s autobiography a number of times, and I thrilled to the daring exploits of Tubman and the Underground Railroad.

Many of the residents of Oberlin, Ohio, home of my alma mater, Oberlin College, were active in the Underground Railroad in the years before the Civil War. (Ohio borders Kentucky, which, during that period, was a slaveholding state.)

Recently, Oberlin Alumni Magazine commissioned me to illustrate an article about Oberlin’s role in anti-slavery activism. In reading the piece, by J. Brent Morris, and researching the era for my illustrations, I was fascinated to learn that many escaped slaves stayed openly in Oberlin—despite the fugitive slave laws—and became active abolitionists. Here’s a great quote from the article illustrating the fierceness of Oberlinians’ defiance of the “peculiar institution”:

Even though federal marshals and Southern slave catchers seemed a ubiquitous presence in Oberlin, it was nearly impossible to reclaim a free Oberlinite or “fugitive slave” from the town’s protective grasp. . . . Brooklyn abolitionist William Watkins could tell that Oberlin African Americans were “not afraid of the white man.” He noted “a sort of you-touch-me-if-you-dare” attitude about them and would not have been surprised by the security plans of a man like Gus Chambers, who declared that “If any one of those men darkens my door, he is a dead man.” In his blacksmith shop, Chambers always had a hammer and iron bar at the ready for protection, and most often also had a red-hot poker in the fire. Above his door was a loaded double-barrel shotgun, and beside his bed were razor-sharp knives and a pistol. He would never kill a man, he conceded, but clarified that a “man-stealer”
was not fully human. “The man who tries to take my life,” Chambers declared, “loses his own.”

A number of brave former slaves even journeyed back across state lines into Kentucky to recruit slaves to escape back north with them! In a four-panel comic I did for the piece, I show what one hapless U.S. Marshall based in Oberlin was confronted with when he tried to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, from being run off with a shotgun to being beaten with a walking stick, to finally being run out of town by a group of Oberlin citizens. Ha!

I was given my choice of what to draw for a full-page illustration, and there were many amazing anecdotes of Oberlin’s place in abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. But the story I ultimately chose was a key moment in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. In 1858, an escaped slave named John Price was abducted by Southern slave catchers, who intended to bring him back to Kentucky. A large group of Oberlin residents, including many African-Americans, rushed to the nearby town of Wellington, where the slave catchers had holed up in a hotel for the night. In blatant defiance of the “law,” the Oberlin residents forced their way into the hotel and rescued Price.

My illustration shows the aftermath of the rescue, as the joyous crowd of rescuers carry Price out of the hotel on their shoulders. Photos from the era showed many of the Obies who took part, as well as the Wellington hotel itself, all of which I incorporated as best I could into the illustration. I even portray the slave catchers, cowering up in the attic, peeking out the windows as their “prize” is taken away.

It turned out that the Oberlin-Wellingto Rescue was a key moment in the lead-up to the Civil War. Ohio state officials defended the rescuers, despite their flouting federal law (the Fugitive Slave Law), and even tried to repeal the law at the 1859 Republican convention. (Remember, the Republicans were the “good guys” back then!) The resulting attention kept the issue of slavery very much in the public eye right up until secession and the shots fired at Fort Sumter.

Seeing as how it’s Black History Month, I’m proud to share this story, and my visual representation of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, which has rarely been portrayed.

(Thanks to Emily Crawford, the OAM art director, who was so accommodating to work with, and so supportive all along the way. I also want to draw attention to cartoonist Bentley Boyd‘s Oberlin: Origins and Onward!, a comic book history of Oberlin from 1833 to the present.)

Oberlin-Wellington Rescue

Charlie Hebdo

Whenever I debated the pros and cons of being a cartoonist, I never considered that it was inherently a dangerous job. (Unless you’re Joe Sacco, running around in war zones.) But I had to re-evaluate that after the events of January 7, and the massacre of five cartoonists (and seven others) at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

The last week has been a crazy one, trying to process the events, the manhunt for the killers, the related events at the Paris kosher grocery, the outpouring of pain and outrage, Je suis Charlie, Je suis Ahmed, the backlash, and so on and so on.

The day of the shooting, as things were still unfolding, I was asked to come in to the studios of NowThis News and deliver a “rant” on the events. I didn’t know any of the cartoonists killed. I’d never read Charlie Hebdo (though I knew of its reputation, and its previous run-ins with “angry readers.”) But as a fellow cartoonist, I figured I had some kind of perspective on what had happened. I wish I had been more articulate, more forceful, but I think you can see I was still in a state of shock. Anyway, here’s the video.

I’ll be heading to France myself in less than two weeks, to attend my second Angoulême International Comics Festival (and to also do some signings in Paris). I imagine it will be quite a scene there, what with the various tributes to be held, the changed security situation, and so much more I can’t even imagine. I’ll be sure to take plenty of notes.

Finally, most importantly. Matt Bors, cartoon editor of Medium‘s “The Nib” (publisher of some of my work) has put together an amazing special section on the Charlie Hebdo killings. He commissioned work from seven cartoonists with specific ties to the world of satire, Islam, French culture—even one of the original cartoonists from the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy. The result, “Laugh, Cry, Be Offended,” is an incredible collection of heartfelt, thoughtful words and pictures that addresses so many of the issues brought up in the wake of the killings: free speech, racism, Islamophobia… every single piece demands your undivided attention:

  •  “I Still Can’t Believe It,” by James Van Otto—a French cartoonist discusses his relationship to Cabu, one of the assassinated cartoonists.
  • If We Back Down On This, What’s Next?“, by Ann Telnaes—the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post reminds us what free speech actually means.
  • I’m a Muslim Who Fights for Free Speech,” by Albaih—a Sudanese political cartoonist criticizes Charlie Hebdo for what he saw as racist, anti-Islam cartoons, at the same time as he laments the attacks. And he reminds the world—as someone who has never fully enjoyed free speech—not to take it for granted.
  • I Drew a Muhammad Cartoon. It Didn’t Go Well,” by Annette Carlsen—one of the infamous Danish cartoonists thoughtfully dissects the events of 2005, which in some ways led to last week’s shootings.
  • Satire Is Dead. And Cartoonists Killed It,” by J.J. McCullough—a self-proclaimed conservative Canadian cartoonist breaks down Charlie Hebdo‘s satire for ignorant American audiences—and hilariously skewers both American political correctness and Charlie “solidarity” cartoons.
  • It’s Not About Islam,” by Safdar Ahmed—an Australian artist and academic sheds a despairing light on the events; his complex argument includes the cheery thought, “Islamophobes share with Muslim extremists the apocalyptic fantasy of a global war between Islam and the West, making such cartoons a force for mobilization.”
  • They Killed My Idols,” by Emmanuel “Manu” Letouzé—a French cartoonist (and United Nations economist) pays tribute to murdered cartoonists Tignous, Cabu, and Charb. Must-reading.

Two days before the horrific events of Jan. 7, “The Nib” published my own story, “Crossing the Line,” about the unprovoked harassment of American Muslims at the U.S.-Canadian border. It’s really important to remember that we can’t allow events like 9/11, like January 7, to compromise our American values—freedom of religion is part of the same amendment that protects freedom of speech. The same goes for the presumption of innocence. Only by holding fast to these fundamental values can we ensure that the terrrorists don’t “win,” and that Safdar Ahmed’s apocalyptic prophecy will not come to pass.

New comic: “Crossing the Line”

detainment-cropMedium‘s “The Nib” just posted my newest piece of comics journalism, titled “Crossing the Line“—about ethnic/religious profiling at the U.S./Canadian border. In this historical moment of scrutiny of law enforcement’s treatment of people of color (cf. Michael Brown, Eric Garner) the story seems to carry greater resonance.

I was inspired to do the piece by a radio story I heard on the NPR show On the Media. (Yes, the same On the Media co-hosted by my Influencing Machine collaborator, Brooke Gladstone.) OTM producer Sarah Abdurrahman’s piece, “My Detainment Story, Or: How I Learned to Stop Feeling Safe in my Own Country and Hate Border Agents,”  is a riveting, outrage-provoking triumph of radio journalism. If you haven’t heard it already, give it a listen.

As great as Abdurrahman’s piece was, to me it screamed to be told in comics form: the freezing cold rooms, the heartless treatment of families with small children, and most appallingly, the endless, repetitive interrogations. One of the subjects of Abdurrahman’s piece, Khaled A., was especially interesting to me. After speaking with him, I was determined to focus my story on his particular experiences.

Crossing the Line” is one of my most personal—you might say, “subjective”—comics journalism stories. Not only am I a “character” in the piece, but it probably strays the furthest into direct editorializing than any of my previous “cojo” stories. (For “balance,” I did try to get a comment from the Department of Homeland Security and the office of Customs and Border Protection. No one ever got back to me.) Anyway, I hope it works. And I hope you think so too.

P.S. Thanks for Matt Bors for sticking with me and this piece as long as he did, since it was delayed for many months by the demands of my previous comic, Terms of Service.

ACA Narrative Corpse Comix Yearbook!

01-cover-webI’ve been back home from the ACA for about a week now, and am just starting to re-adapt to life away from the perfect temperatures, palmettos, and wooden walkways of the Atlantic Center for the Arts. One of the projects my Associates and I worked on was the ACA Narrative Corpse Comix Yearbook, a fun and unusual comics jam. We wanted to share the results with you, so starting today, I’ll post one page from the comic, to give you the feel of how it was produced. “Which was how?” Let me explain:

We were nine cartoonists fated to spend three weeks together in the beautiful environs of the Atlantic Center for the Arts. Everyone had their individal nonfiction projects to work on, but we were all eager to collaborate as well. And so it was suggested we do a project inspired by the Surrealist game “Exquisite Corpse,” a method by which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled—without prior planning or discussion.

Nine numbers were put in a hat (a San Francisco Giants cap, to be exact—Go Giants!) and everyone drew a number. Joe Luby had drawn first lots and he had the responsibility of starting the narrative. Dave Kiersh was next, and it was his job to continue the story—with nothing to go on but the final panel of Joe’s page. Dave guessed what he could from that clue and continued the narrative in his own unique way. And so it went, over the course of the residency, as each cartoonist’s turn came and went.

And what the heck is the result? We don’t know! Something definitely surreal—and, dare I say, quite beautiful. Just your normal semi-autobio fairytale with dragons and jellyfish and random references to Star Trek and Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain.

So, without further ado, head over to ACT-I-VATE to check out Joe’s page 1, and keep coming back daily until the 9-page comic is concluded. After all, as Team Bogotas member Cliodhna Lyons (and #3 contributor) expressed so perfectly: “We made comics. Comics pretty. Read comics.”

Here’s the URL one more time: http://activatecomix.com/181.comic

In progress: big data/privacy piece for Al Jazeera America…

Penciled pages so far

Penciled pages so far

I’m currently in the middle of a really cool comics project for Al Jazeera America‘s interactive multimedia team. In conjunction with AJAM staff reporter Michael Keller, it’s a process piece on big data and privacy, especially in relation to our roles as consumers. Michael came to me with the project, having already done a ton of research and reporting on the topic. Once I came on board, we did more reporting, wrote the script together (with great help from our editors), and now I’m penciling it.

Not to give away too much in advance, in the story we get into the pros & cons of such “free” services as Gmail, Facebook, and Foursquare, as well as the increasing popularity of devices like Progressive’s Snapshot and activity trackers like the Fitbit. Some of the experts we talk to include former California State Senator Liz Figueroa (one of the first politicians to recognize the privacy implications of Google’s Gmail), cyber-security researcher Dan Geer, privacy law experts Scott Peppet and Paul Ohm, social researcher danah boyd, and Alessandro Acquisti (who studies the economics of privacy)—as well as a bunch of “regular folks.” Also making an appearance: Al Gore! Imploding robots! The Database of Ruin!

As I mentioned, it’s kind of a process piece. Michael and I are both characters in the story, which tracks us as we travel the country, interview people, and wrangle the issues. It has a similar feel to my prior collaboration with Brooke Gladstone, The Influencing Machine, except I’m a character in the story too! (I find it ironic that after starting my career as an autobiographical cartoonist, I segued away from that into journalism, and have now come full-circle to “autobiographical journalism”!)

Being that the piece will live on the web, it’ll also include some multimedia functionality, à la A.D. on Smith and The Stowaway on The Atavist.

It’s been a fascinating piece to work on, and really the perfect thing for me. Michael did the bulk of the research and reporting, but I’ve been integral to shaping the script, and of course drawing the thing. I’m also excited to be working with the new-on-the-scene news organization Al Jazeera America.

One thing we haven’t been able to settle on, however, is a title for the thing. Even though you haven’t read the piece, feel free to weigh in—or suggest your own. These are some of the candidates (personally, I feel they’re all way too long):

  • “The Penumbra of Fear: The Future of Privacy and the Technologies and Temptations that Could Get Us There”
  • “The New Normal: The Future of Privacy and the Technologies that Could Get Us There “
  • “Cloud City: How Much Privacy is Technology Worth to You?”
  • “My Data for Your Love”
  • “TMI: The Dangers of Over-Sharing”

It’s been a labor love project so far: I came on-board in February and we spent at least two months just reporting and writing the script. I’ve been penciling since May. I should begin inking, coloring, and finalizing the piece after next week; we hope to debut it on Al Jazeera America in mid-to-late August. It’s going to be close to 40 pages in length!

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, in which I discussed my storytelling process, the kinds of stories I gravitate towards, and the challenges of “comics journalism.” They posted the interview 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” comics 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.

Meeting up with Mohammed from Bahrain in NYC for a cup of coffee!

If you read “Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the Sand,” then you remember one of the subjects of my piece was the young Bahraini cartoonist Mohammed. He did not fare so well after the abortive “Pearl Revolution,” with his work being censored and him been expelled from university. Over the last few years, Mohammed has had some ups and downs, but things improved for him this year: he was able to return to school, he started a cartooning & illustration business, and he won a competition sponsored by the U.S. State Department which enabled him to come to the U.S. for a few weeks this summer.

While Mohammed was here he spent an all-expenses paid week in White River Junction, Vermont, at the  Center for Cartoon Studies, where he took a graphic novel workshop with Paul Karasik. At CCS, Mohammed participated in lectures, collaborative exercises, book discussion sessions, events, and group critiques. And after that experience—which he loved—he came down to the Tri-State Area, and he and I got to hang out in Brooklyn one recent afternoon.

Over the years I’ve kept up with the “characters” from A.D., following their lives as they continue to rebound and regroup from Hurricane Katrina. And it was nice to be able to do the same with Mohammed, to see that he is well and is continuing to pursue his passions. In an interesting twist, Mohammed wrote and drew this piece —in my voice—commemorating our Brooklyn “reunion.” (He photoshopped in my signature.)

MohammedAlmahdi-josh-sm

Flattering depiction, don’t you think?

I welcome him to my studio and gave him a little tour of Prospect Heights. We never did have that cup of coffee, but we grabbed a cone from Mister Softee, strolled through Grand Army Plaza, and made a quick stop at Bergen Street Comics. Mohammed really enjoyed the visit; here’s a “selfie” we took of the actual visit (with me holding the framed print of his piece)…

mohammed-josh

Adventures in Comics Journalism

Adventures in Comics JournalismA new piece of mine was published today in The Mint, India’s second largest financial paper (and “a content partner of The Wall Street Journal“). I was commissioned to do the 100th edition of their weekly full-page (tabloid-sized!) comic, “The Small Picture” —and the editor and I decided to do it about the field of comics journalism. The result, “Adventures in Comics Journalism,” can be read here.

My comics and sketches in Steve Heller’s COMICS SKETCHBOOKS

Comics SketchbooksLast fall, just when I was learning the ropes of the Knight-Wallace Fellowship, I received a contributor copy of Steve Heller’s Comics Sketchbooks: The Private Worlds of Today’s Most Creative Talents (Thames & Hudson).

When Heller first approached me about being in the book, I immediately felt my stomach clench. Like most cartoonists I’m pretty insecure about my art; most times, it’s bad enough to see my finished work in print—the idea of exposing my half-assed doodles and thumbnails felt really risky. But how could I turn down an invitation from design legend (and former New York Times chief art director) Steve Heller?

My first problem was that I don’t really have a sketchbook per se (e.g. as a thing I sketch in). I’ve kept my sketchbooks since high school—and thanks to my packrat mother, have artwork dating back to when I was four years old. (No matter how brave I am, I wasn’t about to show any of that!) But I really had to dig deep into old work to find anything suitable. For one thing, the purpose of my sketchbooks has radically changed as I’ve gotten older and as my career has progressed. In going through all the old books, I was amazed  how they reflect my evolution as an artist and as a cartoonist.

In high school, I kept a sketchbook to draw character ideas for various superheroes I created, or to do full-color “pin-ups” of some of my favorite Marvel or DC heroes. My friends and I at Music & Art High School would also trade our sketchbooks and draw in each other’s books, so they were ways of having samples of each other’s work for posterity. For awhile after I graduated from college, I kept a sketchbook at my day job at The Nation magazine, just to keep my skills fresh. That was the first time I really used a sketchbook for doodling and sketching, and as a record of the world around me: my girlfriend, co-workers, guest speakers, people on the subway, and the like. (I was also losing interest in superhero comics around that time, and was casting about for another way to express my artistic impulses.)

Then, in the early 1990s, when Sari and I embarked on a round-the-world backpacking trip, I took along the Eric Fischl/Jerry Saltz book Sketchbook with Voices (Van Der Marck Editions, 1986; now re-issued). The book is essentially filled with blank pages, but at the top of each page are instructions from  contemporary artists of that period; ideas which served as jumping-off points for various drawings. Oftentimes I would ignore the directives and just draw or paint whatever I felt like during my travels, but the ideas in the book are sharp and fresh, and often helped me when I needed a little prodding. That was also an important period where I did very little comics work, instead just sketching from life and painting watercolor landscapes and the like. The book helped me unlearn a lot of bad habits I had picked up during my youthful years as a wannabe superhero cartoonist. I kept Sketchbook with Voices all throughout my travels through Southeast Asia and Central Europe, and it’s filled with all sorts of memories—and even a few illustrations I’m not too embarrassed to look back at.

Nowadays, however, my “sketches” tend to be highly directed, either character studies or thumbnail layouts for scripts I’m working on—not so much sketches as preliminary drawing for finished comics.

The trip down memory lane was less painful than I feared, and I found a selection of things to submit for the book. I answered a few of Heller’s questions for the profile section, sent everything off, and then basically forgot about it. As I mentioned, the book arrived at my door just as I was immersing myself in my fellowship. Believe it or not, it wasn’t until the fellowship was over (last month) that I was finally able to check out the book.

One thing I really appreciated was Heller’s acknowledgment (in his introduction) of the inherent vulnerability evoked by the project, whose subtitle, “The Private Worlds,” etc. really rings true for me. (And I was relieved to see that a lot of the contributors admit that they too don’t spend a lot of time sketching for sketching’s sake.)

That said, the book features quite an impressive list of contributors, including masters like Crumb, Burns, Seth, and Mazzucchelli. It’s always instructive to see the sketchbooks of guys like that—like peeking into their brains and feeling a bit of the spark of their creative process. Another one of my long-time favorites, cartoonist Mark Alan Stamaty, gets really metaphysical about his sketchbooks, talking about how they’re attempts to explore what mystifies him in life, to get to deeper meanings, to discover new paths. And he quotes Matisse, who, when asked to explain one of his paintings, said, “If I could explain it, I wouldn’t have painted it.”

I loved looking at Peter Kuper‘s sketchbook work, much of it from his recent sojourn to Oaxaca, Mexico. Peter Kuper’s Comics Trips: A Journal of Travels Through Africa and Southeast Asia (NBM, 1992) was the only comic book I took with me on my round-the-world backpacking trip. Comics Trips is part comic, part sketchbook, and part photo album. It’s punctuated by beautiful watercolor sketches, ticket stubs and collages, and humorous photo essays like “Toilets of the World.” Comics Trips was a huge influence on my own travel work, and the main inspiration behind A Few Perfect Hours. So it was exciting to me to see more recent sketchbook work from Kuper—the images are energetic, filled with personality, and vibrating with color.

I loved reading British cartoonist Posy Simmonds comments, and looking at her sketches from one of my favorite recent graphic novels Gemma BovaryCarol Tyler‘s work was a revelation. With cartoonist/friend Lauren Weinstein it was cool to see the various styles at work in her sketchbooks, from intricate inked landscapes to watercolor figure drawing. That’s another great function of a sketchbook: to play around with styles you don’t normally use in your professional work.

I really identified with what David Heatley says about struggling to retain the energy of his thumbnail sketches. There’s definitely a spontaneity, looseness, and economy to my sketches that I struggle to evoke in my more polished work. For this reason, my buddy & fellow cartoonist Dean Haspiel is always encouraging me to publish my sketches/layouts as completed comics—more on that later.

Upon returning to the States after our backpacking adventure, Sari and I ended up in Chicago, where I soon got hooked into the cartooning scene. I happened to get to know Chris Ware a little bit during that time, and he once gave me a very useful bit of sketchbook advice. His own sketchbooks were filled with hilarious one-pagers and strips which he did for fun—and as far I know, never published. Anyway, Chris recommended that I use my sketchbook to write and draw open-ended comics stories, to just go ahead with Panel One and see where it led me. I normally work in a very controlled way—full script, layouts, pencils, inks—so I followed his advice a little bit, and found it very useful in un-blocking my creative channels. Spontaneous sketchbook comics were a very good way of breaking habits and rethinking the comics-making process.

sketchbook-questions-lorezStill, old habits die hard—the only sketchbook comics I’ve ever published are the humorous travel tip “How to Squat;” and the one-page sketchbook comic that appears in Comics Sketchbooks. Created almost 20 years ago, in the piece I muse upon the very purpose of a sketchbook. So meta! Even though it’s quite an old piece, it still reflects my questions about the whole sketchbook practice, and I still find it an amusing little story.

The other pieces of mine used in the book were some character sketches and floor plan layouts from A.D., two pages of layouts from American Splendor, a pen & ink & watercolor Tintin cover pastiche called The Adventures of Josh & Sari, and a drawing I did of actors and assorted characters from the late lamented HBO show Bored to Death (which I drew when I was on-set).

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P.S. Ironically, this past year I sketched more than I had in years. All during my fellowship I used my Moleskine notebook to sketch speakers who came in for seminars and presentations. I collected over 50 of those sketches in a booklet I printed up and gave to each of my fellow Fellows at the end of the year.

P.P.S. Regarding Steve Heller. He shows up as the art director from hell in Bob Fingerman’s Minimum Wage (originally published in the 1990s by Fantagraphics). I’ll never forget the scene where Fingerman’s sweaty stand-in, Rob Hoffman, an up-and-coming illustrator, visits Heller’s offices at the Times to show his portfolio. The Heller character whips through it like a flip book, never actually looking at the images, and sends Rob on his way. I read that scene right before I myself went in to show Heller my illustration portfolio. Talk about bad timing! However, he was kind enough to actually look at my work and gave me a few specific pointers before he rejected me. Well, I guess he didn’t technically reject me—he did give me the coveted contact list of all the art directors at the Times (the heads of the various sections), and eventually I did get a piece published in the paper’s Travel section. (It’s still up on my illustration website!) That was the last contact I had with Heller—I think he left the Times not oo long afterward—until he contacted me out of the blue to be part of this book. Clearly, in his mind at least I had grown as an artist in the intervening decade. Thanks, Steve!

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