“A Scanner Constantly,” my new collaboration with Adam Bessie

scanner01-teaserThere’s a new piece out this week that I haven’t had a chance to write about: “A Scanner Constantly,” my new collaboration with writer Adam Bessie. He and I have worked on a couple of prior pieces, but this one is the most involved and the one closest to my heart.

Adam is bravely living with a brain tumor, all the while remaining a devoted husband and dad, and a university professor. And a prolific comics writer—check out all the pieces he’s done over the last few years…

“A Scanner Constantly” explores what it feels like—what it means—to undergo a constant regimen of scanning—MRI’s, X-rays—and the way that forces you to look at yourself. It’s also about the way others look at you. And it gets into some fascinating existential stuff, thanks to “guest stars” like author Philip K. Dick and Italian artist (and crowd-sourcer) Salvatore Iaconesi.

I feel that the piece asks some important questions—not only about one’s sense of self, but also concerns we all have about our increasing techno-security state…

The excellent journal Pacific Standard has published the piece; why don’t you check it out?

I “lettered” Didier Kassaï’s TEMPETE SUR BANGUI

TempeteSurBangui-coverThe French publisher of A.D. used my “JoshComix” font to letter Tempête sur Bangui, by Central African Republic cartoonist Didier Kassaï. The book is an autobiographical account of life in the CAR’s capital Bangui during the ongoing civil war. Published by La Boîte à Bulles with the cooperation of Amnesty International, Tempête sur Bangui is an assured work of cartooning, gorgeously tinted in watercolor.

American readers may well be put off by the… distinctive way Kassaï draws himself and his fellow Africans. It’s more than reminiscent of Sambo caricatures from the bad old days. But I have been repeatedly assured that Kassaï’s renditions of himself and his countrymen is not considered offensive back home. (I have to say it still troubles me…) Nonetheless, Kassaï is a major talent: if he lived in Europe or the U.S. he would be a big star.

This is the first time I’ve “licensed” my font to someone else, and I almost didn’t recognize my own lettering—Tempête sur Bangui  was lettered in all caps, whereas I almost exclusively letter upper-and-lowercase style (in the manner of Tintin, my reference-point for almost everything).

I am a huge proponent of hand-lettering, and the vast majority of my work has been physically lettered by me. (I particularly hate fonts that obviously look typeset or “computer-y,” because most of the time that kind lettering contrasts with the accompanying art and creates a real eyesore.) All the same, over the years I have found myself forced by time constraints to use a font to letter my work. The only thing that made any sense was to create a font based on my own lettering style, which is why I went to Fontifier some years back and did just that. And for only 9 bucks! And when A.D. came out in French, I adapted and made a new font that incorporated French diacritical marks. That’s the font they used to letter Tempête sur Bangui.

Tempête sur Bangui recently debuted at the Angoulême International Comics Festival and has been getting a lot of press in the francophone media. I’m proud to be associated with it, even in this minimal way.

A Syrian refugee odyssey in comics, photos, and prose

road-to-germany-p1Just out this week in Foreign Policy magazine is “The Road to Germany: $2400,” which depicts the odyssey of 11 Syrians from the doorstep of their unrecognizable homeland to a life in exile. The bulk of the piece is 11 pages of comics by yours truly, adapted from the reporting/writing of journalist Alia Malek. And as in The Photographer (by Emmanuel Guibert, paired with Didier Lefèvre’s photographs), “The Road to Germany” incorporates photos by Peter van Agtmael, who accompanied Alia on her immersive reporting journey. (Back in September, Alia and Peter shadowed the subjects of the story all the way from the Greek island of Kos to Frankfurt, Germany, meeting up with them at many points along the way.) In other words, this is a very unusual piece to be running in a mainstream news magazine!

In crafting the comics component, my job was to take Alia’s amazing, heartfelt reporting and create a narrative to fill in the visual gaps between Peter’s incredible photographs. I was handicapped, though. Unlike Alia and Peter, I hadn’t actually accompanied our protagonists—Muhanid & Ihsan; Mohammed & Sawsan, and their children Sedra, Ali, & Brahim; and Naela, Maysam, Suhair, & Yusef—on this odyssey, so I immersed myself as best I could. Sadly, in recent months, this type of journey has become all too common, so there were a lot of visual resources out there. And with the help of Alia’s notes and Peter’s archival shots, I dove into the minutiae of life vests, the UNHCR outpost in Gevgelija, and German border police uniforms.

I was also struck by the chart that Syrians and other refugees use as the main guide through their route. Even though everyone has smart phones and the resources of the Internet at hand, they still hold on to this crude schematic, which is more like a game board than a map:

muhanid's-chart-map-cropped

I wanted to integrate elements from the chart into the story, not only to remind readers of its importance to the refugees, but also as a bridging device for changing scenes and pushing the narrative forward.

For the comic’s opening scene on the overloaded raft, I was struck by Alia’s description:

Women and children . . . lined up, nearly supine, in the raft’s base. . . . Where any space remained on the bottom, another layer of women and children wedged in. Everyone’s bags were thrown in a heap on top of them while the men were pressed in along the edges.

FP Executive Editor Mindy Bricker and I quickly decided this image would be the “splash” panel of the comic, and I intuitively felt that the best way to capture it would be from directly overhead. This is from the pencils:

page01pn1-pencils2-lr

The comic starts with five pages of my hand-drawn art; the last six pages incorporate Peter’s photos into selected panels. Combined with actual quotes from Alia’s reporting, it’s pretty cool to see this marriage of documentary forms. And after a solid month of work back in December, it’s very gratifying to see this story in print.

I would say I’m speaking for Alia & Peter as well when I say I hope this piece succeeds in humanizing a refugee crisis which is all too often thought of in impersonal numbers—or sensationalized hysteria—and gives readers a feeling of “being there” on this harrowing journey. As the opener states, “Showing what happens when strangers are thrown together by adversity—how desperate alliances formed and dissolved—[‘The Road to Germany: $2400’] is a diary of an exodus from a war zone to a hopeful, if uncertain future in the West.”

For now, the piece is only available in print, in the Jan./Feb. issue of Foreign Policy. If it becomes viewable online I’ll be sure to post a link. (UPDATE: Here’s the link)

road-to-germany-spread

FLASHED–linked stories in comics and prose, edited by Josh and Sari

Flashed-cover300px

The cover of FLASHed. Art & design by yours truly.

A couple of years back, Robert Stapleton of the literary journal Booth (published out of Butler University‘s MFA writing program) approached me about editing an anthology of comics. I had never edited a significant project before—and although I was flattered to be asked, I didn’t want to just put another anthology out there. I wanted my first editing project to be “special.”

That’s when we hit on the idea of Sari Wilson and I editing a book together—an anthology of linked stories in comics and prose, the two forms working together, hand-in-hand. Maybe even somehow embodying the nuances of our own creative relationship, the way we have edited, collaborated, and influenced each other’s work over the years.

Why flash fiction? As a cartoonist, I work almost exclusively in nonfiction; Sari’s fiction is in longer forms, with lengthy short stories under her belt, and her novel Girl Through Glass set to debut next year. But we are both fans of flash fiction—stories with the heft of a trinket but the narrative punch of a sledgehammer. And the flash fiction form is perfect for a project that’s all about pushing boundaries and cross-fertilizing creative communities.

So FLASHed is a collection of flash fiction stories in comics and prose, pressed up against one another. In dialogue. In concert. In conversation. As a result, FLASHed is more than an anthology; it’s a conversation—among some of today’s most exciting prose writers and cartoonists—and between the forms of prose and comics. As contributor Myla Goldberg put it: “This is like a Telephone/Exquisite Corpse mash-up, which would make it an Exquisite Telephone Corpse.” Exactly!

Our 45 contributors are an amazing, accomplished lot: they include Junot DíazLynda BarryAimee BenderJohn PorcellinoSteve Almond, and Gabrielle Bell, to name a few. Flashed features original comics from the likes of Nick BertozziBox BrownBrian BiggsAndrea TsurumiJason Little, and Matt Madden; and amazing new flash pieces from writers like Ben GreenmanKellie WellsJedediah BerryTara L. MasihGina Frangello, and Pamela Painter. And some pieces that defy categorization, like Rachel Cantor‘s comics script, complete with panels arranged on the page, or Carol Lay‘s illustrated text story, or dw’s intricate narrative sketchbook.

The experience of co-shepherding FLASHed through its generative, production, and distribution process has been equal parts exciting and exhausting. I’ll never begrudge the suggestion of an editor again! Working closely with Sari (and our publisher Robert Stapleton) was a profound experience, but for me the most rewarding part was getting to work closely with so many cartoonists I admire.

FLASHed is coming out February from Pressgang (Butler U.’s press). In the coming days and weeks  we’ll be releasing much more information, sample pieces, and plans for the release, including bookstore events, readings, and panels. Stay tuned!

And here’s a complete list of our amazing contributors:

CARTOONISTS

WRITERS

AD10K

AD10K-charactersI often get asked by readers of A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (both its web and print incarnations) about its real-life subjects: Denise, Leo & Michelle, Abbas (Hamid) & Darnell (Mansell), Kwame (Kevin), and The Doctor (Brobson). The answer is I’ve been in touch with all of them, to varying degrees, over the years, and for the most part they’re doing well.

So, with Hurricane Katrina’s tenth anniversary coming up (officially tomorrow), I thought folks might be interested in a little update. Over the last month I’ve reconnected with Leo, Hamid, Kwame, and Dr. Lutz, asking them about how they’re doing, the state of New Orleans, Katrina’s legacy, and their feelings about the 10th anniversary. (Denise, sadly, chose not to be interviewed for this update.) I’ve structured the piece as a sort of conversation among the characters. As you might expect, A.D.s characters harbor a multitude of feelings around these issues, some in alignment and some in conflict. I wouldn’t have it any other way!

After a marathon editing and drawing session, the piece is done, and it’s now up on Fusion.net’s “Graphic Culture” section. (I also want to thank the Economic Hardship Reporting Project for their assistance on this piece. EHRP has created a nice process page about creating the story…)

The new comics story is called “Where are they now? Revisiting 4 Katrina survivors 10 years later,” and I hope you find it food for thought.

Defend New Orleans!

A.D. to be Featured at the Pantheon Table this MoCCA Weekend

A couple of days ago I wrote about the two comics I’ll be debuting at the MoCCA Art Festival this weekend. I also wanted to mention a work of mine that, depending on how you look at it, is nearly eight years old—A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. (The web version appeared on SMITH in 2007–2008, the hardcover came out in 2009.) Believe it or not, the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is coming up this August, and it’s an event whose repercussions continue to resonate. Apparently, the book continues to resonate as well: just this month, I’ll be traveling to Amsterdam to speak about it and some of my other comics reportage at a narrative journalism festival. The week after that I’ll discussing A.D. with students at a college in Boston who’ve been studying it during this school year.

To commemorate the upcoming anniversary of the hurricane, my publisher Pantheon put together a special oversize “Remember Katrina” postcard, and I’ll be signing copies of A.D. at the Pantheon table on Saturday at MoCCA. Look for me from 2-3 pm at table 405.

One  more time, here are the MoCCA Fest deets:

MoCCA Arts Festival
April 11–12, 2015, 11am – 6pm
Center548
548 W. 22nd St., NYC

katrina-plus10-postcard

Debuting at MoCCA: The Vagabonds #4 and Terms of Service

I’m debuting not one but two new comics at this year’s MoCCA Art Festival, this coming weekend April 11–12!

vagabonds04-cover-250pxFirst off is THE VAGABONDS #4 (my second issue with Hang Dai Editions). This issue serves up a spicy blend of journalism, social commentary, memoir, and literary fiction. The lead piece is a new work of comics reportage called “Crossing the Line,” about profiling at the U.S./Canadian border. I’m also very proud of three collaborations with my wife, writer Sari Wilson (whose debut novel is coming out next year!). Throw in a couple of light-hearted travel tips, and The Vagabonds #4 is chock-full of goodies! The Vagabonds #4 is 24 full-color pages, and is only available for sale directly from me, or from HDE.

Terms of ServiceThe other book I’m debuting is the print edition of Terms of Service: Understanding Our Role in the World of Big Data. Between social media profiles, browsing histories, discount programs, and new tools controlling our energy use, there’s no escape from Big Data. As we use technology to record (and share) new information about ourselves (such as FitBit health data), what are the questions we should be asking? What is the trade-off between the benefits we gain from sharing data and how that data can be used against us? And what are the technologies that seem invasive today but in five years we’ll unthinkingly accept? How do we keep up with new technology while not letting our data determine who we are? Terms of Service examines the role of technology and the implications of sharing personal information. Our hope is that it is a thought-provoking field guide to help smart people understand how their personal—and often very private—data is collected and used. Co-produced by myself and Al Jazeera America reporter Michael Keller, the 48-page “graphic novel” follows our comics avatars as we learn about such topics as the “Unravelling Theory” and the so-called “Internet of Everything.” Terms of Service debuted online on Al Jazeera America’s website in late October 2014, and is now available for the first time in print. Editor & Publisher calls Terms of Service “funny, informative, and ridiculously readable,” and Panda Daily calls it “smart, breezy, and beautiful.”

So come get signed copies of both new comics from me at MoCCA Fest (at its swanky new location, Center548, just steps from the High Line). And while you’re at it, pick up new books from my HDE partners Dean HaspielGregory Benton, and Seth Kushner (making his triumphant post-leukemia return!). Here’s a lineup of all of HDE’s debut books.

We’ll be at the Hang Dai table (#314, Third Floor, Yellow Zone) both days, April 11 and April 12, from 11am–6pm. (I’ll also have copies of The Vagabonds #1–3, and my other books, should you be looking for those.)

Once again, here at the key details:

MoCCA Arts Festival
April 11–12, 2015, 11am – 6pm
Center548
548 W. 22nd St., NYC

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,527 other followers