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”:

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.

This Summer in P-town: Josh & Sari Week-long Memoir Comics Workshop

SariFAWX Summer Workshops 2016 and I are proud to announce that this summer we’ll be co-teaching a week-long comics-making memoir workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA.

This marks the third time we’ll be doing a comics workshop with FAWC and it’s always been a really rewarding experience—for us and for our students. We learned that nothing makes a better combination than writing and art… or summer and beautiful P-town… or Sari and Josh! (*wink*) So that’s why we’ll be teaching the class again this summer, during the week of July 31–August 5.

Here’s the course description for our Memoir Comics Workshop:

Comics use words and pictures together to form powerful narratives. In this workshop, you will use material from your own life to create an original minicomic. It can be about last night’s dinner, or a moment that changed you forever—as long as it fits into a booklet of 8-12 pages. At the end of the week, we’ll reproduce and swap our minis, and set up an open studio to share our work.

We’ll examine some basic principles of visual storytelling. We’ll also do writing, brainstorming, and collaborative exercises we’ve found useful in producing strong comics work. There will be group feedback to hone our stories, find the narrative “beats,” and help each other discover our “true” story. We’ll generate ideas for solving storytelling problems—and look at how other cartoonists have grappled with them.

You’ll have time to work on your projects in class each day, but you will also probably do some drawing on your own. One of the key features of comics is that they are printed and reproduced. You’ll also design and produce a small edition of your minicomic to share with the other workshop members and for open studio. You’ll come out of this workshop with a tool set for taking your work to another level.

Please email a short description of the autobiographical story you’re going to work on and two character sketches (yourself and another character) to workshops@fawc.org by July 10. This prior work will help you—and us—jump into this intensive project.

Click this link to find out more about the program and how to register. And please spread the word about the week-long workshop, and encourage people to sign up soon. Classes fill up quickly.

Knee operation 1-year anniversary

knee

In the hospital room the day after the surgery, Feb. 18, 2012

Just about this time a year ago I “blew out” my knee playing basketball. More precisely, I ruptured my patella tendon—on both ends. I had surgery the next day—the doctor sutured the tendon back onto the kneecap and my lower leg—and wore an immobilizer cast for six weeks. (The “best” part of those six weeks was navigating up and down the five flights of stairs to my apartment every day because our elevator was being repaired the entire time…) A few months of physical therapy followed, for the purpose of regaining strength and full range of motion.

I’m happy to report that now, one year later, my knee works completely normally. Other than the huge scar running up and down over my kneecap, I don’t even notice a difference. And I’ve even played basketball a handful of times since the injury. But now I wear a protective knee sleeve—I don’t want to go through that ever again.

Factual Fictions FaceOff — next week!

Next Tuesday I’ll be taking part in CEC ArtsLink’s “Factual Fictions FaceOff,” along with authors Ted Conover, Leonora Flis, and Elizabeth Stone.

Telling true stories takes many forms: novels, literary journalism, graphic novels, memoirs, travelogues, blogs… How do we define nonfiction narrative? Where are the lines between fiction and fact, between public and private in these tales? As the event blurb says, “The authors’ investigations took them to either such high-octane destinations as Sing Sing prison or New Orleans after Katrina, or inspired them to delve deeper into their family stories discuss the place of nonfiction in our lives.”

I really look forward to the other participants’ insights on these questions. Needless to say, I’ll have a lot to contribute to the discussion as well! And I’ll be showing images from my various works.

CEC ArtsLink, in existence for 50 years, is all about “engaging communities through international arts partnerships.” Here are the details…

Factual Fictions FaceOff
Tuesday, May 15, 6:30 pm
Deluxe New York
435 Hudson Street, 9th Fl.
RSVP to zstadnik@cecartslink.org or 212.643.1985 x26

Please join us. The event is free, but space is limited, and an RSPV is required.

Nick Flynn’s BEING FLYNN… the back story

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

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

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

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

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

Belle Yang’s FORGET SORROW

Chinese-American writer/illustrator Belle Yang has just released her first graphic novel, Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale, a memoir of her own life and that of her father and his family during and after the Chinese Communist revolution. I was asked to read and comment on an advance copy of the book. The book has been released to warm reviews, and is available for sale right now. Here’s what I wrote about it:


Forget Sorrow is intimate and yet grand in scope. Through Belle Yang’s expert weaving of personal memoir and family history, we emerge with new understanding of pre-Communist China, ancestral lore — and father-daughter reconciliation. Yang’s drawings — and her heartfelt dialogue — make these long-ago stories feel both present and personal. A compelling addition to the comics memoir form.
The book’s been getting some really nice reviews, and there’s an interview with Yang on the SMITH website. Recommended!

Oberlin Then and Now: 1989–2009

My visit to Oberlin earlier this month was the first time I had been back to the campus since late 2000, and the first extended stay since my ten-year reunion back in 1998. As with all things, much had changed in the school and surrounding town, though at heart the Oberlin experience remains the same: happily, it’s still a tiny, politically progressive, hippie-oriented enclave in a bucolic northern Ohio setting.

The most striking difference between then and now is how much the town of Oberlin has evolved to cater to the college. When I was a student there in the late 1980s, the only places to eat in town were the Campus Diner, Lorenzo’s (a divey pizza & beer joint), the Tap House (which specialized in greasy bar food and cheap pitchers), the Oberlin Inn (which was too pricey for most students’ budgets), and Rax (a local roast beef chain). Right near the end of my time, a Subway franchise opened on Main Street, but that hardly counts.

Other places in town were Gibson’s Food Market & Grocery, a thrift store, a record store, the Co-op Bookstore, the Apollo Theatre, the Ben Franklin five-and-dime, a pharmacy, a couple of banks, a hardware store, a bike store, a copy shop, and an Army-Navy store. Of all those, only Gibson’s, the thrift store, and the record store could’ve been said to focus on student business; for the most part the “city” of Oberlin (pop. c. 10,000) seemed very resolutely an entity of its own, geared toward the local, non-student populace. Nonetheless, I never felt a lack: I was happy to scarf down a Mr. Fred or an Obie-burger at the Campus Diner; a thick-crusted, cheesy pizza at Lorenzo’s; or a chicken sandwich at Rax. And most of my life revolved around the campus itself.

Now there are all sorts of cafes and restaurants whose sole purpose is to cater to students: hippie diners, Asian fusion restaurants, upscale yuppie cuisine, a burrito joint, an ice cream shop, a Chinese eaterie, the list goes on. And Gibson’s has gotten truly baroque in its accommodation to the student munchies crowd: their main features seem to be chocolate-covered bacon and orange peels, and racks and racks of booze .(Up until the early 1990s, Oberlin was a dry town, with only beer allowed to be sold — except at the Oberlin Inn, which had some sort of special dispensation to sell hard liquor.)

And then there are the other places so foreign to my Oberlin experience: New Age trinket stores, yoga studios, hair salons, and even a comics store (albeit sparsely stocked and darkly lit). The strangest thing, though, is the absence of the Campus Diner. I always thought of that place as the center of Oberlin, the one place in town where college and town really mixed. It’s just weird to me that that place is gone. The absence of Campus, along with the Tap House and Rax being gone really makes me wonder how welcome Oberlin’s “townies” now feel in their own community. My guess, however, is that economic realities set the tone for these changes, and that the old establishments just couldn’t afford to stay in business. And it’s nice to know that a number of the new establishments are owned and operated by ex-Obies (who apparently just couldn’t bear to leave town after graduation). But I had been really looking forward a Mr. Fred! Grrr…

The Co-op Bookstore is gone too, a victim of over-building, replaced by a Barnes & Noble franchise. There’s also a used bookstore which shares space with the Ben Franklin. And the aforementioned comics store, which seems to be wasting its potential (though they were kind enough to supply books for my signing Saturday afternoon). I liked the selection of comics they had on hand — mostly alternative fare and Vertigo books — but it seemed like there was only one copy of each title on hand, and most of them were sealed in plastic (I guess to prevent browsing). The effect was less than welcoming. In addition, the store’s window displays were entirely bare, except for some faded posters of long-completed Marvel and DC “event” comics. Not even a couple of current alt-comix enticements, like, say, the recently published nonfiction graphic novel of a returning alum (hint, hint).

I was so happy to see the Apollo Theatre functioning, still showing its weekly quota of scratched first-run movies. Erik Inglis told me the college had recently bought the floundering theatre, and had plans to keep it going while also integrating the school’s film program into the upstairs offices. (The newest Oberlin Alumni Magazine has a feature about the whole affair.) Some of my best movie-going experiences took place at the Apollo: whether the movies were enduring classics or 80s drek, I’ll never forget seeing films like Aliens, Die Hard, Back to the Future Part II, Rocky IV, The Color Purple, The Wall, Eddie Murphy: Raw, Wildcats, or The Accused at the Apollo.

Changes on the Oberlin campus itself seemed mostly for the good. I really dug the way they’ve re-imagined the first floor of Mudd Library, with an array of free computers, a new books area, and a café. I enjoyed a quick visit to the old computer center, which now features a computer supply store, and an entrance decorated with a display of vintage 1980s and ‘90s computers — the very ones I used to spend so much time on during my student days. Otherwise, it was comforting to sit in one of Mudd’s enduring “womb chairs” and just to stroll through the library’s stacks, remembering that books are still integral to the college experience, and that to really learn and understand a topic you still need to immerse yourself in a book. Wikipedia is not the answer to all of life’s questions!

It was also fun to wander through Wilder, past the mailroom, the Rath, and the ‘Sco. I even picked up a copy of the Oberlin Review, still publishing — on paper, no less. It was both comforting and a little disappointing to see how little the Review had changed, however: still dry as dust and self-serious. (Though I did enjoy reading the “Review Security Notebook,” always one of my favorite features back during my student days.)

The new buildings on campus were all fine — I like the way the new science center wraps around the old one — but one of the best moments of our visit was the gorgeous fall afternoon when Sari, Phoebe, and I strolled around the whole campus, admiring some of the classic buildings: Peters Hall, Talcott, Keep, the art museum, and even dorms like Burton. On the other hand, Dascomb is still a pit. I took Phoebe on a tour down my old hallway (I lived in the same room in Dascomb my first two years at Oberlin) and passed my old room. It still smells the same — like feet! Phoebe seemed trepidatious. I was too. Maybe it’s time to demolish the place? (I think South’s time is over as well.)

The whole experience, combined with my “official” visit as a returning alum, was a pulsating mix of old and new, where I often felt myself caught between two temporal realities, past and present. But as long as the painted rocks remain in Tappan Square, Oberlin will always be home to me.

My 6-Word Memoir In Print

This seems to be the week for Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, the new book from SMITH Magazine (yes, the same SMITH which publishes A.D.). The book’s been getting tons of press, including an excellent interview with co-editors Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser on NPR’s “Talk of The Nation.”

Not Quite What I Was Planning originated from a contest SMITH held with Twitter last year, inspired by a possibly heretical tale that Ernest Hemingway wrote a complete short story in six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Although Not Quite What I Was Planning‘s premise seems light, the pieces ultimately chosen for the book are a compelling, fascinating mix of personal stories: sad, funny, outrageous, wacky, and thought-provoking. Contributors include Sebastian Junger, Po Bronson, Deepak Chopra, Aimee Mann, Dave Eggers, Harold Ramis, Douglas Rushkoff, Nick Flynn, Paul Pope, Stephen Colbert, Arianna Huffington, Lemony Snicket, Neal Pollack, Jonathan Lethem, Richard Ford, Amy Sedaris, and hundreds of other more “obscure” memoirists. Oh, and yours truly: “When she proposed, I said yes” (p. 71). (Plus, I drew the pic of Harvey Pekar that graces his memoir, “Fight, work, persevere — gain slight notoriety,” p. 38.)

Sari (who’s also a contributor: “Suburban girl tries to make bad,” p. 152) and I (and little Phoebe) dropped by Housing Works this past Saturday night for the Not Quite What I Was Planningrelease party, where we saw fellow 6-word-ists man_size, bobfingerman, sazzabee, dangoldman, and jahfurry, as well as about a million other people. (I also had the pleasure of meeting, in person for the first time, SMITH co-editor Tim Barkow, who designed the amazing comics interface that makes A.D. real so well.) It was quite a scene! Phoebe, as usual, stole the show, and she even appears (twice) in a video shot at the party by Jason Boog from The Publishing Spot. Sari & Phoebe come off great in the video, but for some reason, my voice sounds exactly like Kermit the Frog’s. Ugh.

There’s also a funny riff on the book’s premise on PublishersWeekly.com today, imagining 6-word-memoirs by classic writers of the past & present. Some of them are quite amusing, even though some of the writers who are spoofed — like Joyce Carol Oates — actually have 6-word-memoirs in the book! And contributor Frank Gilroy is putting together a registry of Not Quite What I Was Planning memoirists and their websites.

So forgive my bias when I say the book isn’t just a quick novelty piece, but something real and trenchant and worth reading. After all, Vanity Fair says the little book “will thrill minimalists and inspire maximalists,” while Publisher’s Weekly finds that it makes for “compulsive reading and prove arguably as insightful as any 300+ page biography.” Go ahead and buy a copy or two. It’ll be the best $12 you ever spent to support a great online journal, and provide yourself with some fantastic bathroom reading.

Oh, and go ahead and submit your pithy memoir to sixwordmemoir.com — rumor is that a sequel is already in the works.

Don Seiden’s ARTOBIOGRAPHY

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingI wanted to alert all you fans of autobio comics about a new, unorthodox member of the genre. Don Seiden is an artist, art educator, and pioneer of art therapy in the Midwest. His artwork has appeared in over thirty-five solo and group shows. In addition to founding the art therapy department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he has also served as a former chair for the sculpture, art education, and art therapy departments at SAIC.

Seiden, who is in his 70s, has just published a graphic autobiography and I highly recommend you check it out. Artobiography is fascinating: it’s illustrated in panels, with Seiden’s own handwritten captions accompanying the art. Though not technically a comic, it uses the conventions of the form to tell his story. Both social history and personal history, Artobiography takes the reader on a decades-spanning rollercoaster ride. Exploring issues of identity, family, career, sex, alcohol, and the search for meaning — all fueled by the artistic impulse — Artobiography is a fascinating no-holds-barred account of an eclectic artist who embodies the bohemian ideal.

Right now, the book is available in the Chicago area, at

You can also order the book by sending $18 (payable to Fisheye Graphic Services) to Fishey Graphic Services, Inc., 5443 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL 60640. Seiden’s website is in its infancy; hopefully, as the book gains wider distribution, updates will be posted.