The Solstice Program and getting your MFA in comics

Comics, Publicity, Work

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.

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

Comics, Work

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

Comics, Plug, Work

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

Plug, Work

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…)

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

Illustration, Work

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

Comics, Work

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

Comics, Work

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

A.D., Comics

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!

Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina

Plug, Work

PleaseForwardTen years ago, Facebook was pretty much only for college students and Twitter was still in the planning stages. So in late August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the main way people communicated publicly on the Internet was via blogs. And those of you who remember my post-hurricane training with the Red Cross, and my eventual deployment to Biloxi, Mississippi, will recall that I wrote about the experience on my blog (at that point hosted on LiveJournal). (I even self-published all my blog entries—and the various online comments—in a slim volume called Katrina Came Calling.)

I was only a volunteer—for those directly affected by the storm, blogs, online forums, and email were the lifeblood that kept these communities connected while they were physically dispersed.

In late 2006, about a year after the storm, when I began working on A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge for SMITH Magazine, I used the blogs of two of my subjects, Leo McGovern and Denise Moore, as primary sources. They spoke with eloquence and urgency about their experiences during the storm and its agonizing aftermath.

It was around that time that I met journalist Cynthia Joyce, who had started a blog of her own, Culture Gulf, which documented the rebuilding of New Orleans. As Cynthia now writes,

. . . it’s already impossible to recall with any precision the depths of uncertainty that was life post-Hurricane Katrina. Much of the collectively kept digital diary of that catastrophe has already been forgotten—in some cases paved over in page redesigns or simply lost to “web erosion,” relegated forever to 404: Page Not Found status. . . . Contrary to what high school guidance counselors everywhere will tell you, the Internet, it turns out, is not forever.

Which is why, a few weeks shy of Katrina’s 10th anniversary, Cynthia has edited a fascinating—and essential—collection of blog entries from those first two years post-Katrina. Titled Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina, the book  (quoting Cynthia again) “is a cross-section of first-person entries that reveals a layer of post-Katrina life that wasn’t typically picked up by traditional news outlets or preserved in any official record. It’s as much a testament to lost memories as it is to memories about what was lost.”

Published by the University of New Orleans Press, Please Forward is a blow-by-blow street-level chronicle of New Orleans and Katrina. Reading through it again is definitely intense: the lead-up to the storm; the flooding; the loss of lives, homes, and possessions; the chaos of the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center; the fear and uncertainty; the hyperbolic media coverage; the racial issues exposed by the storm; the demoralizing debates about the future of New Orleans—it’s all in there. Contributors include Kelly Landrieu, Rob Walker, Joshua Cousin, Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, Clifton Harris, Dedra Johnson, Cree McCree, and at least 50 other bloggers, most of whom are residents of the Crescent City. I have a couple of posts in there too, one from my stint as a volunteer and one from back in New York City. There’s a wonderful excerpt from the book on Salon; Rob Walker’s contribution is particularly affecting.

If you’re in New Orleans, the Please Forward book launch is on August 18 at Press St. HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.) It should be quite an event—sad and joyous in equal measure. For now, you can pre-order the book on Amazon.