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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To the first hint of flooding:

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To when the water had gotten waist-deep:

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

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

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

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

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

Hamid-bitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

The VAGABONDS #5 debuts at MoCCA Fest 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don Brown’s DROWNED CITY

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

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

I write at the end of A.D. that

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Solstice Program and getting your MFA in comics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

My intro to CREATING COMICS as Journalism, Memoir & Nonfiction

CreatingComicsThere’s a new book out, by three college professors, called CREATING COMICS as Journalism, Memoir & Nonfiction (Routledge), and I wrote the foreword. I’ve known authors  Randy Duncan, Michael Ray Taylor, and David Stoddard for some years now; I’ve even made guest appearances at their annual workshops for the College Media Association; but I was still extremely surprised and flattered when they asked me to write the foreword to their forthcoming book.

The book is chock-full of useful info: the history of the genre, approaches to finding stories, tips on tools & techniques, getting published, and a discussion of legal and ethical considerations. As far as I know, this is the first “instructional manual” on comics journalism, so I am very excited for it to come out, for my own use as well as others. After all, I’m no expert on the field—I’m just a practitioner.

When it came to the intro, I wasn’t sure what I had to offer to the discussion. In the end, I decided maybe the best thing would be to recap how I got here: the signposts along the way that led me to this very moment—not only in my own career, but to this extremely vibrant period of comics journalism. So, without further ado, here’s what I wrote. (And look for the book in all the usual outlets…) Read more of this post

2015 Wacky U.S. News Wrap-up in Spirou’s GROOM

Deflategate-colorsThe folks at the venerable Franco-Belgian comics magazine Le Journal de Spirou approached me about contributing to their new publication, GROOM. Like Spirou, Groom is an all-ages publication, but in this case focusing specifically on current events. The inaugural issue of Groom contains stories about terrorism (including Charlie Hebdo), European politics, sports, and various dispatches from far-flung countries like China, Australia, Latin America, Russia, the Middle East, and the good ol’ U.S.A. (I remain continually amazed and impressed at the topics French-language comics touch on, especially in so-called all-ages publications.)

Groom editor Damien Perez asked me to focus on four or five news stories coming out of the U.S. last year that would be particularly shocking for a Francophone audience. So many to choose from! The stories that made the cut were the decision by the State of Utah to bring back executions by firing squadDeflategate; the Rachel Dolezal/NAACP debacle; the Ahmed Mohammed clock incident; and last but definitely not least, the Donald Trump presidency campaign!

Trump-color-nobgIt was funny: when I was pitching the stories to editor Perez, the one he had the most trouble believing was the details of Trump’s vitriol-fueled campaign. As he said, “In the media we often see him as a ‘larger than life man,’ but not dangerous.” To which I responded that Marion Maréchal-Le Pen seems unobjectionable on the surface—it’s her ideas which are dangerous. Touché!

Anyway, this is silly, fun stuff. I hope you enjoy the illos. (For more information on Groom—in English—check out this website, which has also gone to the trouble of translating the Groom editorial page.)

Dolezal-colors Ahmed-colors Utah-colors

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:

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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:

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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)

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