Elmo and pals: the costumed characters of Times Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrea Tsurumi’s WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?

Andrea Tsurumi's WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The VAGABONDS #5 debuts at MoCCA Fest 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Solstice Program and getting your MFA in comics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Hart’s ROSALIE LIGHTNING

RosalieLightningI just read Tom Hart‘s new book ROSALIE LIGHTNING (St. Martin’s Press), and I was blown away. What is it about? It’s about My Neighbor Totoro, and Ponyo, and EC Comics, and Metaphrog, and James Bond, and Kurosawa movies, and Thich Nhat Hanh, and “O Superman,” and Jeff Mason. And it’s about real estate, and bike rides, and corn mazes, and getting your car stuck in the snow, and being adrift on a raft, and big moons in the sky, and dreams, and trees, and acorns, and about the “capacious hole in your heart” when your child dies.

I’ve known Tom and his fellow cartoonist wife, Leela Corman, (who’s basically the co-star of this book) for a really long time, as fellow travelers on the road of alternative comics—Sari & I were guests at their wedding—but I hadn’t seen much of them in the last 10 years, particularly after they left Brooklyn and moved to Gainesville, Florida. I only met their daughter Rosalie once, probably around 2010, shortly before they left town. I was in Chicago when I heard the horrible, terrible, tragic news of Rosalie’s death—I even wrote a short post about it back then. And the next time I saw Tom & Leela was the fall of 2014 (when I visited them at their school The Sequential Artists Workshop), when they had the gift of Rosalie’s little sister Molly Rose. This book fills in all that missing time.

Tom is a master storyteller and cartoonist, and if he never did anything else the world would always have his creation Hutch Owen. (Where would Bernie Sanders be without Hutch Owen?!) But for Rosalie Lightning he has created a new art style—malleable, scratchy and impressionistic (when needed), and deliriously vibrant, even though it’s “limited” to half-tones. It’s an incredible, gripping book, which I stayed up late into the night reading all the way through. It’s destined to become a classic.

When was the last time a book made you cry? For me, it had been a long time. As a father myself, unable to even imagine the pain Tom & Leela have been through, it was often tortuous to read, and I dried my eyes a number of times. But I’m so grateful for the experience. (I even forgive the book’s “hate letter” to New York, because I feel like that sometimes too.) Thank you, Tom, for this brave, and ultimately triumphant work. Your daughter couldn’t have a better memorial.

“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