Bang! Zoom! The Power of Narrative conference 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE VAGABONDS #3 in the House!!

The Vagabonds #3

The Vagabonds #3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

# # #

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!

Comics Class Homework: Copying Crumb

Gurl-Crumb2A recent assignment in Phoebe Gloeckner‘s Comics & Graphic Narratives class was to copy a page of another artist’s work, the two choices being Charles Burns or R. Crumb. I chose Crumb, the page in question being the opener of the six-page piece “A Gurl,” featuring his Ruth Schwartz character and first published in Big Ass #2 (August 1971). (Oh, that naughty Crumb and his big-butt fetish!)

Both are great artists to emulate, but I chose to copy Crumb because his cross-hatch inking style is so different than mine. (By the way, the rules of the assignment were no tracing or light-boxing; just to copy the page as best you could.) I ditched my normal tool (the Kuretake Sumi Fountain Brush Pen) and picked up a nib for the first time in… Jeez… thirty years! When I tried using a crowquill pen back in high school, I spattered ink all over the place and threw the thing down after twenty minutes. This time was much better, although it’s still a messy business, especially for left-handed me, who’s constantly smudging ink with the side of my palm. Back in high school I was known as “Captain Wite-Out” because of my dependence on the correction fluid. In recent years I’ve found a system (e.g., my brush pen) that’s much less messy, and as a result all my Wite-Out bottles have dried up. But I needed a new bottle for this project!

I hadn’t tried cross-hatching since my ill-fated Joe Sacco phase back in the mid-90s (still to be seen in a few stories in A Few Perfect Hours), and even there it was to create patterns and textures, not to emulate light and shade. For this assignment, even though I did very minimal penciling, choosing to do most of the drawing directly in ink, it still took me absolutely forever to copy the page—at least eight full hours spread over three days.

What did I glean from the exercise? First of all: What an incredible draftsman Crumb is. Not that I didn’t know that already, but there’s nothing like following someone, step for step, to appreciate their mastery. The nuances of his line work and hatching! I could spend a hundred years perfecting my craft and I would never have his light touch. Crumb’s work is also so tactile, so filled with the mass of real life. As I was working I was transported back to bohemian San Francisco, in that room with Crumb as he created the page. I also appreciated his comprehensive knowledge of anatomy. Even though this piece uses exaggeration for humorous/erotic effect, it’s all still based on the real human form (and real window blinds, furniture, rugs, etc.).

Although I felt the assignment was for me to be as slavish as possible, there were a few tangents in Crumb’s original that threw me off. By tangents I mean places where lines in the picture touch each other in awkward ways that disrupt the illusion of three-dimensionality we crave when looking at figurative art. In panel one, these tangents are the Gurl’s left foot, which seems to rest on the bottom of the panel border; and also the toe of her right foot, which perfectly touches the Gurl’s left heel. Far be it from me to correct the master, but tangents bother me! So in my drawing I lowered her left foot just a tad so that it clearly goes below the panel border. And I added a little space between her left and right feet. Probelm solved!

As you can tell, I really enjoyed this exercise. It’s always good to get out of your comfort zone—especially if, like me, you’ve been doing something for a long time. And who knows how it might affect my future work? Time will tell.

So here’s the big reveal: first Crumb’s original page and then my imitation. Just for fun, I’m also throwing in Crumb’s own original sketches for the piece, preliminary drawings from his sketchbook. Enjoy.

R. Crumb's "A Gurl," 1971

Crumb’s original, 1971

"A Gurl" copied by Josh Neufeld from R. Crumb

Josh’s copy, 2013

R. Crumb, preliminary sketches for "A Gurl"

Crumb’s preliminary sketches


Finally, here’s a detail from the original scan of my page before I started liberally applying Wite-Out. Smudge City!

Smudge City!

Smudge City!

Halftime at the Knight-Wallace program: Course update

Here it is mid-January and I’m already halfway through my fellowship. My study plan is focusing on Bahrain and the Pearl Revolution (as well as the wider Arab Spring), and last semester I tried to take courses which focused on that region:

I also started taking a yearlong fiction writing workshop held once a week at the fellowship headquarters, Wallace House, with a bunch of the other fellows—and which Sari is taking too. That has been a fun and thought-provoking experience, and the skills I’m learning will undoubtedly help my work as a comics writer.

The America and Middle Eastern Wars class was fascinating, and gave me a very strong background on the recent history of the region, and how inextricably tied the U.S. is to everything that happens there (with Bahrain certainly being no exception). The class was taught by the very brilliant Juan Cole (who is also my academic advisor), and at the end of each perfectly crafted lecture I felt like jumping to my feet to applaud. The Quran class was an amazing experience, getting deep into a topic that I really knew nothing about. (I felt very strongly after completing my Cartoon Movement piece on Bahrain that if I was to truly understand the roots of the conflict there I would have to learn more about Islam and the roots of the Sunni-Shia divide.) The fine line the professor walked was treating the Quran as a sacred text (in deference to the many Muslim students in the class) while trying to really unpack it for a Western audience. A lot to chew on. The journalism & ethics class was relevant in the sense that here I am on a journalism fellowship and I had never taken a journalism class before. In the end, I found it incredibly useful—even if it does seem that I often break the “rules” in my own practice as a comics journalist!

But now here it is the Winter semester—which takes us through April and the end of the fellowship—and it’s time to decide what my final few University of Michigan courses will be. Our “head fellow” Charles Eisendrath always encourages us to stretch our horizons, and I’m acutely aware that this may well be the last chance I get to just be a student. I really want to take advantage of the intellectual resources available here at the university. So with that in mind I really pored over the Winter course catalog, looking at classes in Religion, Art & Design, Communications, English, Screen Arts, History, the Humanities, Political Science, Sociology, and even the School of Information. In the end I narrowed it down to three choices, and now after the first full week of classes, I feel pretty good about them:

The Intro to Islam class may sound a bit remedial, but it’s actually the perfect follow-up to the Quran class—and is being taught by the same prof. (In fact, he wrote the book on the topic!) Now that I’ve learned a bit about the Muslim holy book, I can follow its growth as a religion that started in a small portion of modern-day Saudi Arabia and today has spread to be the faith of over 1.6 billion people worldwide. The Apocalyptic Film & TV course, which is cross-listed in both Screen Arts & Cultures and English, is definitely my “fun” course, but I can justify its relevance to my craft by just citing A.D.: a graphic novel about the near-destruction of an entire city. (And aren’t all comics sort of about the end of the world?) Plus, it’s no joke of a class. Major critical theory reading is in store, from Roland Barthes to Jacques Lacan, Susan Sontag to Walter Benjamin. The teacher is younger than me (damn him!) but he’s whip-smart, with a really charismatic classroom presence. The comics class is being taught by the very great Phoebe Gloeckner, and I’m really excited to take part in my first-ever such class! After all, back in the day when I went to high school (and college, natch), academia wouldn’t touch comics with a ten-foot brush. Times have changed in 25+ years…

As I mentioned at the start, time is running out on this gift of a fellowship, and I’m feeling the pressure to squeeze out every ounce. And, what with the classes, twice-weekly fellowship seminars, the fiction writing workshop, and our fellowship’s upcoming trip to Turkey in March, my biggest challenge—as it was last semester—will be just keeping up with the readings.

“Stowaway,” my new comics journalism piece, debuts on The Atavist today

The boutique digital publisher The Atavist releases Stowaway today, a new comics journalism piece by Tori Marlan and myself.

Atavist No. 17, Stowaway, is an “enhanced e-comic” that traces the 12,000-mile journey of an orphan from Ethiopia to America. Stowaway follows Fanuel on his odyssey from the streets of Addis Ababa to the deserts of Mexico, through the Atavist’s immersive storytelling technology, which includes sound, music, video, and interactive graphics. Fifteen-year-old Fanuel dodges authorities while relying on complete strangers as he struggles to find a mysterious woman in Seattle named Sofia,who is his last hope for the future. This is the first Atavist story to be available through the Web as well as The Atavist tablet app. The App version can be downloaded from the iTunes store.

The Atavist’s software team created a custom comics app which includes panel-by-panel navigation and a soundtrack integrated with all of the traditional extras features the Atavist is known for, like interactive maps, timelines, background interviews, and animations—all in the service of bringing the reader into Fanuel’s uncertain world as he tries to hold onto a dream which at times seems to disintegrate before his eyes. Extra features include a five-minute interview with Tori and me which also shows various stages of production of the piece, from script to thumbnails, pencils, inks, and colors. And the compelling soundtrack is by my brother-in-law Evan Wilson!

Tori, who I’ve known since the early 1990s, first met Fanuel in 2006 while doing research at the International Children’s Center in Chicago. She eventually learned the details of his journey to the U.S. Although Tori’s background is investigative print reporting, and she had never worked in nonfiction comics before, she felt strongly that a graphic approach would bring Fanuel’s story to the public in a unique way. Our collaboration developed organically.

Stowaway is $3, either through the app or on the Web. To learn more, visit http://www.atavist.com/stowaway.

Nick Flynn’s BEING FLYNN… the back story

I first met Nick Flynn back in the fall of 1999, in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I had accompanied Sari there for her Fine Arts Work Center fellowship, a residency which would keep us in P-town through the winter and into the following spring. Nick was a second-year fellow, and Sari and I were immediately drawn to his charm, intelligence, and good humor.

Nick was a natural storyteller, and had some amazing stories to tell, about a life filled with drama, heartbreak, debauchery—all that good stuff. By trade, he was a poet—a good one—and over the years he and I did some collaborations, basically me adapting his poems into comics. One of the pieces, “Father Outside,” had to do with the time Nick was working in a homeless shelter and his long-estranged father arrived as a new client. Another piece, “Bag of Mice,” dealt with Nick’s mother’s suicide. In all, we did three collaborations, all of which were published in literary journals (and later published my me in The Vagabonds #2). The original art from our first piece, “Cartoon Physics, Part One,” even traveled as part of a multi-city comics art exhibition.

In 2004, Nick published a memoir, memorably titled Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. (That was a favorite phrase of his father’s.) Nick hoped to collaborate again with me on the cover of the book (which was being published by W.W. Norton, much later to be my publisher for The Influencing Machine.) So we worked together on some sketches. Long story short, Norton declined to use my art for the cover (though it was eventually published as a frontspiece in the British Faber & Faber edition). And I have to admit that the art they used instead, by Hon-Sum Cheng, is far superior.

So, fast forward eight years, and Nick’s book has been made into a feature film. Now called Being Flynn (you can see why they didn’t use the other title), it stars Paul Dano as Nick and the legendary Robert DeNiro as Nick’s father. Julianne Moore makes an appearance as Nick’s mom—not a bad cast! The film opened last week, so to commemorate it, I’m sharing the book’s rejected cover art.

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

Pull Up Those PIIGS!

My mother, Martha Rosler, and I have just collaborated on a public art piece in central Berlin. It’s on the topic of the ongoing European debt crisis, and it’ll be on display on the building (at Auguststraße 10, 10117 Berlin, Germany) until the end of November. (I wasn’t aware of this beforehand, but “PIIGS” is an acronym used by international bond analysts, academics, and the economic press to refer to the economies of Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain in regard to the ongoing sovereign debt crisis.)

My mom came up with the concept and text, and I did the illustration. The project was commissioned by DAAD (in English, the German Academic Exchange Service). My mother is in Berlin for a year on a residency sponsored by DAAD. This is the second large public art collaboration I’ve done with her, the first being part of the MAK Center’s “How Many Billboards?” project from last year.

The piece is quite massive, approximately 35′ x 42.’ Here’s a photo:

Pull Up Those PIIGS

Pull Up Those PIIGS!

This is how the building normally looks (without the palm trees), sorry about the weird cropping:

Auguststraße 10 10117 Berlin, Germany

And here’s a link to a larger version of the original illo, complete with the groovy yellow-green background which they had to cut out for print-compatibility reasons…

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