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.

“SuperStorm Stories” on Medium

RHF01-pn2In commemoration of Hurricane Sandy’s one-year anniversary, Medium is debuting “SuperStorm Stories: A Red Hook Family” (part one), a piece I reported and drew about a Brooklyn family’s experiences during the storm and its aftermath. This segment specifically deals with the family’s love of books (and music), and the horror of seeing some of their most treasured memories destroyed by the “gasoline- and poop-filled water from the Hudson River.” Jim, the dad, speaks memorably about “black-bagging a favorite book” and its resemblance to “a mangled body.”

For some reason in recent years it has been my lot to be connected to hurricanes; first with Katrina and A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, and now with my home city of New York and Sandy. (I wrote in this space about the frustrations of being “stranded” away from New York during the actual storm last year, while on my journalism fellowship in Ann Arbor.) As an artist, I can’t stop thinking about floods and rising waters—nature’s inexorable, nightmarish consumption of all things fragile and man-made. I think I was first awakened to this fixation by the horrific events of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. And my contributions to the 2010 ABC Primetime special, Earth 2100, about catastrophic climate change, only contributed to that obsession. Well, if Al Gore is correct, I’ll have plenty of fodder for this in the coming decades. ;->

So check out “SuperStorm Stories: A Red Hook Family,” and look for part two (which promises a happier conclusion) in the coming days…

A.D.: NYC

It’s been a week since Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast and I’m just now coming to understand how devastating the impact was. A good part of the reason for this disconnect is that I am currently living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship. (One of the conditions of the fellowship is that you must live in Ann Arbor for the academic year, and you are forbidden from publishing anything professionally during the duration of the program.)

Weirdly enough, the first person I heard from after Sandy passed was Leo, one of the heroes of A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. Obviously, a guy who lost everything in Katrina would be supremely attuned to the effects of the “superstorm” which hit the East Coast. He wasn’t sure whether I was back home in Brooklyn or still away, and was relieved to hear me and my stuff were okay. (Our apartment is on the fifth floor of a building in Prospect Heights—e.g., not near sea level.) In fact, thankfully, my family and pretty much everyone I know well in New York was relatively unaffected by the storm.

But as the days have gone by, we’ve been hearing more about others in our wider circle who weren’t so lucky. There’s the staff member at Wallace House whose family lives in Breezy Point (they lost everything), and one of my fellow Fellows, Amy Haimerl, who hails from Red Hook. Her husband Karl drove back to NYC the day after the storm to help with clean-up; Amy is coordinating efforts from afar via social media.

I think, understandably, my main focus has been on what’s going on in my hometown. This morning I was streaming WNYC radio, which was performing their civic duty of spreading the word about the storm, and cleanup and relief efforts. They were crowdsourcing listeners: people calling in from Staten Island, the Rockaways, and other devastated areas. As with Katrina, certain mantras were repeated over and over: the police didn’t know where to go or to contact to donate stuff or labor; FEMA was hardly in evidence; rumors swirled. (Although the New York City Department of Sanitation was getting high marks for their round-the-clock cleanup efforts. Let’s hear it for New York’s Strongest!) Again like with Katrina and New Orleans, there are so many communication gaps: people in one part of the city have no idea what’s going on in another.

And there are still so many regions without power; even now, a week later! The areas most badly hit—no surprise—host large numbers of public housing high-rises, and residents there, especially in the upper floors, are trapped with no elevator access, no lights, no heat, and often no way to get food & water. And the cold is setting in. (Word is that the Occupy Wall Street folks have been down in affected areas like the Rockaways doing great work.)

Sari pointed out this morning that, as New Yorkers we’re used to manmade challenges—political red tape and corruption, socio-economic barriers, over-crowding, etc. We’re not used to dealing with natural disasters like this. It’s almost like we grew up believing things like this only happened to other people, far away—sort of like that famous Saul Steinberg New Yorker magazine cover, “A View of the World from 9th Avenue.”

So now we’re facing the reality of up to 40,000 people permanently displaced, maybe up to 40 public schools that won’t be able to re-open until next summer. Again, these are the images from post-Katrina New Orleans.

I had been thinking a lot about A.D. this week, regardless of the storm. Last Thursday I presented my work to my Knight-Wallace compatriots; on Friday I was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, site of a series of devastating tornadoes in April 2011, to present A.D. to freshmen students there.

Back in 2005, when I volunteered with the Red Cross, and in 2007–2008, when I was working on A.D., I was an outsider come to document the post-Katrina Gulf Coast experience. Now, with Sandy, now I am an “expatriate” New Yorker forcibly removed from the event. I desperately wish I was in New York right now: to help, to bear witness, to be where I belong.

This Wednesday at the Rubin Museum: Karma-Con: Unveiling

The final component of the Rubin Museum‘s “Karma-Con” approaches. This Wednesday, April 18, the Rubin will unveil the finished illustrations of the “Cartoonists’ Wheel of Life.” After interacting with the art that inspires us, discussing the significance and merit of the Wheel of Life as an artistic image, working collaboratively in an open studio setting and individually in our own studios, artists Molly Crabapple, Sanya Glisic, Ben Granoff, Rodney Greenblat, Steven Guarnaccia, Michael Kupperman, Katie Skelly, and myself unveil our completed works as a unified Wheel of Life.

As I’ve mentioned before, my section is the world of humans. The human world is typically portrayed as one of suffering. These deprivations include:

  • hunger
  • thirst
  • heat
  • cold
  • separation from friends
  • being attacked by enemies
  • not getting what they want
  • getting what they don’t want

Humans also suffer from the general maladies of:

  • pain of childbirth
  • old age
  • sickness
  • death

A careful viewer will see examples of all these sufferings in my image, as well as allusions to the Occupy Wall Street movement (and a sneaky self-portrait of the artist).

The evening includes a Himalayan happy hour & spiral music, a pre-program tour of the Wheel of Life and second floor galleries, the unveiling of the new Wheel of Life and a discussion with the artists moderated by comics historian Christopher Irving, and a post-program tour of the accompanying exhibit Hero, Villain, Yeti: Tibet in Comics. And did I mention the whole evening is free?!

Karma-Con: Unveiling
Rubin Museum
Wednesday April 18, 2012 @ 7:00 PM

See below for a sneak-peek at my section from when it was in progress. And check out the Rubin’s page on the event for the full details.

Wheel of Life: Humans

Katrina, Year 6. Irene, Year 1?

In late August 2005 I was at Sari's parents' house in the Berkshires as Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the U.S. Gulf Coast. It was a frustrating, heart-wrenching time, made worse by our being so far "off the grid." As I wrote at the time, "We've got spotty radio reception, no TV, only the occasional New York Times, and a slow dial-up connection, so my ability to comprehend the enormity of the Katrina disaster is severely curtailed."

Last Sunday, Sari, Phoebe, and I came up to Sari's parents' place in Austerlitz, NY, or a two-week working vacation. Summer camp is out, Phoebe starts pre-K after Labor Day, and we've been enjoying the end of summer here in the "country." And now, with a new hurricane forming — ironically heading to my neck of the woods — it all comes around again.

The house still has no TV, but they've upgraded to DSL, which helps us stay abreast of things. Like the residents of the Gulf Coast back in '05, we're tuning into the latest developments, doing our own storm-tracking, and preparing for things like power outtages, flooding, and the like. But here in the Berkshires, Irene shouldn't be too bad, nothing how it could impact coastal areas from the Carolinas all the way to New York City. Our whole lives — our home, our friends, most of our family — are back there, and once again I'm absent — not there to experience the event for myself, to prepare, to help do what I can. And if the storm is bad enough here to knock out our electricity, I'll be just as in the dark (literally) as I was six years ago. Actually, more so!

As you know, the events of Katrina prompted me to volunteer with the Red Cross; which led me to getting trained in disaster relief; which led to me being deployed to Biloxi, MS; which led to Katrina Came Calling; which led (iindirectly) to A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. I'm glad New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, as they continue to rebuild from Katrina (and Hurricane Rita), have mostly escaped nature's fury since 2005; the fact is we on the East Coast are far less prepared than they were. And all we can do here is watch, wait, and hope for the best.

By the way, the upcoming anniversary has instigated a few journals to cite A.D. Here are a few recent mentions:

“Perfect Professional Cut!”

When I first started a blog, I swore the one thing I would never do would be to write about getting a haircut. I mean, what could be more boring? But I guess rules are meant to be broken. Prepare to be bored!

For decades, anyone who grew up in New York City knew about Astor Place Hair — or as we knew it, simply “Astor Place.” It’s a downstairs, no-frills downtown barbershop with over fifty haircutters (I hesitate to call them “stylists”). For $15 you can walk right in and get a cut, all done in about twenty minutes. No need for a reservation, and the place is open until as late as 10:30 at night — perfect for getting a trim right before heading out on a Saturday night. Totally Old School, Astor Place has the requisite collection of Polaroids taped on their front windows of freshly-shorn hip-hop artists, singers, movie stars, and professional athletes — most of them sadly dating back twenty years or more. (When I first discovered Astor Place in the 1980s, they were known for their trendy cuts like boxes and fades. Later on, they offered karaoke as part of the hair-cutting experience, but I don’t think they do that anymore.) With its loud ambiance, peeling linoleum, bad lighting, and brusque employees, Astor Place always a late-night, seedy quality to it. It’s a real New York institution.

For years I went to Astor Place, and eventually found a barber who I thought did a good job with my unruly blonde locks. That’s part of the Astor Place tradition as well, finding your “special” barber. My barber’s name was Jay and he was from one of the Soviet republics. He had a brother named “Dr. Mike” who also cut hair at Astor Place. I always felt a little stupid, though, waiting behind two other customers for Jay when three barbers around him were sitting at their chairs with no clients. Was he really that superior?

Jay was known for whipping off the apron at the end of each cut and yelling out, in his thick accent, “Perfect professional cut!” He also not-so-subtly pressured over-tipping from his customers by waving the bills in the air — it seemed like some of his customers paid him a bigger tip than the cost of the actual cut. (Despite the pressure, I always stuck with $5.) By the early 1990s,when I had graduated from college and was living back in New York, I even had my roommate Jake and my girlfriend Sari going to Jay. Later, I heard that my dad and my half-brother became Astor Place customers as well.

Then Sari and I went off on our big round-the-world backpacking trip, and eventually moved away from New York. We stayed away for almost ten years.

When I did return to the Big Apple, I didn’t go back to Astor Place. I got the idea that the place was no longer “cool,” that it had become a pastiche of its former self. (Viz. the karaoke.) Also, I didn’t need the drama — all the yelling and the bad lighting. I started going to a small, family-run barbershop on 23rd Street. The guys there were also Eastern European, and the atmosphere reminded me of the first barbershop I went to on a regular basis, Lou’s, a place on Eighteenth and McDonald Aves. in Brooklyn.

After awhile, though, I became dissatisfied with my 23rd Street barbers. Like many factory-style places, they insisted on cutting my hair with electric clippers, not the traditional scissors, and I wasn’t happy with how the cuts were coming out. My wavy hair just doesn’t respond well to that method, and I was looking for a cut with a little more “character” to it. However, given that I’m way too cheap to shell out $50 or more for a high-end stylist, my options seemed limited.

Eventually, my brother-in-law Evan tipped me off to the Aveda Institute on Spring Street. Aveda couldn’t be more different than Astor Place: a view into the high-class world of the hair salon. The stylists are all students training in the patented Aveda method, with the cuts overseen by their teachers. The clientele are almost all women, a total one-eighty from the testosterone-heavy atmosphere of Astor Place. Best of all, a haircut, free herbal tea, a head & neck massage, and a shampoo only costs $18!

The downside of Aveda, beyond the obvious risk of a student cutting your hair (and the attendant mistakes which may result), is the difficulty in getting a reservation — a two-week wait is standard — and the duration of the actual cut. It’s not unusual for a haircut to take upwards of two-and-a-half hours. As a freelancer, however, I didn’t mind the long time in the chair, and enjoyed bantering with the students, most of whom were just getting started on “grown-up” life.

I ended up going to Aveda regularly for about eight years, but this year it’s been increasingly difficult to find time for an apppoinment. I’ve been so busy traveling, continuing to do A.D.-related appearances, and most of all, working on my current project, The Influencing Machine, that I just haven’t been able to block out the four-plus hours — minimum — required. Throw in the fact that with Phoebe in preschool, I need to be around home more, and the fact is that life is getting more busy and complicated.

The first time I “slipped” was back in May when I was in Sydney, Australia for a week-long writer’s festival. I really needed a haircut, and I found a barber who offered a scissor cut for a slight premium. The cut turned out fine, and since then I’m ashamed to admit I’ve only made it back to Aveda once. And guess where I usually find myself instead? Yep, Astor Place. The fact is that it’s convenient, cheap, and open late — plus a scissor-cut doesn’t cost extra! Sure, I miss the homey, spa-like Aveda atmosphere, but Astor Place just fits into my current situation.

The amazing thing is that my old barber Jay is still working at Astor Place! (He “found” religion while I was gone, and now sports a yarmulke. Otherwise, he seems the same. And Dr. Mike has retired.) It feels too weird to go back to Jay, though — too many years to reel in — and I’ve since found a new “personal” barber. Sarra does a good job with my hair, and even throws in an eyebrow-hair-trim when the situation requires. (The indignities of getting older…) And best of all, I’m in and out in a half hour, tops.

Sari says she doesn’t like my Astor Place haircuts as much as the Aveda ones, but to be honest I don’t see much a difference. I admit to missing the neck message and the shampoo treatment, but the fact is that the time-saving just can’t be beat.

So, Thomas Wolfe, you may not be able to go back home, but you can always go back to your barbershop.

Indie Bookstore Week

In honor of Indie Bookstore Week, I was asked to say a few words about the importance of indie bookstores at last night’s kick-off party, held at powerHouse Arena in DUMBO, Brooklyn.

My experience with independent retailers started in the comics world. As a young self-publisher, I took my photocopied mini-comics and zines to stores like See Hear, St. Mark’s Comics, and Jim Hanley’s Universe. They would often buy the books outright at a 50% split or do it on a consignment basis. Those stores were totally welcoming to an upstart like myself, and even had special places on their racks for the kind of stuff I was doing. It meant so much to know that these stores cared enough to support young creative types with stories to tell. And of course the fact that those stores supported my work made me that much more curious about what other comics they carried. As a reader, I was turned on to many new artists and books by such independent-minded stores.

Later, when I self-published A Few Perfect Hours, I was welcomed by stores like JigSaw (now sadly closed) and Book Court, which not only agreed to sell the books but even arranged an event, where I showed a PowerPoint presentation of some stories from the book, read the stories aloud, and had a signing.

And now with my new graphic novel, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, even though I’m being published by a “major” publisher, Pantheon is completely dedicated to supporting independent retailers. On my book tour, I had great events at Book People in Austin, Octavia Books in New Orleans, the Book Cellar in Chicago, and Brookline Booksmith in Boston.

And I’ve had a number of events in New York — all taking place in independent bookshops: Idlewild Books, McNally Jackson, Book Court, and right here at Powerhouse Arena. Not to mention the new comics retailer Bergen Street Comics, which is modeled very much on the mold of a bookstore rather than that of the traditional dark and stinky comic book store.

One thing I’ve really come to appreciate on this tour through the country’s top independent retailers is how responsive they are to their local community. And how real communities actually form around the stores. The fact that so many stores nowadays feature cafes and hold really interesting readings and events really helps. For the most part, you don’t get that sense in Barnes & Noble’s, Borders, and — obviously — Amazon. (For instance, because of some corporate decision, A.D. is only available in the “History of Louisiana” section in Barnes & Noble’s — who even knew there was a “History of Louisiana” section?! — and not with the other graphic novels. And the Border’s in midtown doesn’t have my book at all, because they only seem to stock superhero trades.

And it seems to me at least that the economic model of the indie bookstore is working, with new local stores opening up all over the place, like Unnameable Books and Greenlight Books, both in my neighborhood — while the big chain stores seem to be slipping fast.

Most of all, I feel like each of the independent stores I’ve been to are reflections of the quirkiness of the owner and the store employees. From the minute you step inside, you get the sense how much the people who run these places just love books.

A.D. lands @ Idlewild

[Wherein I continue my rundown of the A.D. book tour, picking up back home in NYC on August 25, 2009. Will I ever catch up?]

A.D.‘s New York book launch and benefit was held at Idlewild Books on August 25. I had just gotten back from New Orleans the day before and barely had time to catch my breath before diving back into the fray. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way, given this chance to celebrate the book’s release with so many local friends and family. And so many of them did attend, including both sets of my parents, Sari’s folks, most of our brothers and their significant others, a cousin, and many, many friends, both new and old — far too many to list — including a generous helping of my compatriots from the cartooning community. I was truly touched by the outpouring of love and support for the book (and me!).

The party was also a benefit for Common Ground Relief, and was augmented by beer, wine, snacks, pralines flown in from NOLA, and best of all, the live music of Mary McBride! By all accounts, it was a smashing success, as the place was packed for the whole three hours. My only complaint — and it’s not a real one — is I didn’t get a chance to say more than the most cursory hello to anyone, as I was kept occupied pretty much the whole time signing people’s books. In that way, someone likened the event to a wedding, and it was like my wedding day in the sense that it is all now a happy blur.

I do know it actually happened, thanks to my wonderful ex-assistant Rachel, who videotaped my rambling incoherent (and ultimately teary) speech of thanks at the event, which if you insist on viewing can be seen here. Also, just as things were heating up, Jason Boog of GalleyCat did a video interview with me, which can be seen here. And my good pal (a.k.a. Heidi MacDonald) covered the event for Publishers Weekly’s "The Beat," which you can read here (even though, weirdly, I am not pictured!).

In the end, Idlewild sold out of all 75 copies of A.D. — and the benefit raised $1,200 for Common Ground! Big ups to the Big Apple!

Masstransiscope

One of my weekly rituals is my Tuesday night basketball game in Manhattan. I live in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, so to get to the game in the Lower East Side, I switch at Atlantic Avenue to either the B or the Q. The B takes me to Grand Street, where I walk to the game; or the Q takes me to Canal, where I switch to the M to Essex. But that’s neither here nor there. (Sorry, bad pun.)

Usually, during the B/Q leg, my head’s buried in a book or my iPod, but the other day, in the section of tunnel right before the train emerged from the Dekalb station into the open air of the Manhattan Bridge, I was idly glancing out the window… and I saw the coolest thing! Flickering by against a background of bright white was what I took to be a complex graffiti mural, something like you used to see in abandoned stations but rarely see in the subways any more. But as I watched the images unfold I realized this was much more than a long string of graffiti. The images moved, morphed, danced, and, at the end, took off in a rocketship! Here’s what it looked like:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3IwVD5efXz0
(Don’t you love the running commentary?) I did a little Googling and quickly discovered this is a newly restored piece of urban art by Bill Brand called "Masstransiscope". It’s actually a zoetrope — individual paintings (in this case, 228 of them) separated by slits and "animated" by the moving train. Really ingenious — and a technique only over 100 years old, ya big dunce! (It also turns out the art was painted in an abandoned station, "Myrtle Avenue," no longer serviced by the MTA…)

So next time you’re on the Manhattan-bound B or Q, leaving the Dekalb station, keep looking out the right side of the train: you’re in a free Big Apple cartoon treat.

Stampede of the Elephants

Our upstairs neighbors moved out last week. The owner, a Nigerian gentleman named Obi, sublet the place for the first 4-5 years, to a procession of folks who woke us up with really loud music, or overflowed their kitchen sink and caused water damage to our kitchen, or did the same thing to our bathroom from their shower. Each time Obi was fairly swift about responding to our complaints and paying for necessary touch-ups and repairs.

Then, about 5 years ago, he brought back a Nigerian bride. She was sweet, but their adorable newborn eventually turned into a not-so-adorable toddler who enjoyed nothing better than running up and down their hallway about 50 times a day — when he wasn’t riding a Big Wheel (or whatever modern equivalent little boys have nowadays). I’m pretty sure the kid had the strength of Spider-Man as it also seemed he rearranged the furniture on a regular basis. Then, a couple of years later, his little brother was born, and that kid seemed to be able to run right out the womb. The amount of noise those pipsqueaks could produce was truly awe-inspiring — it was like two baby elephants lived upstairs. When friends would visit, their eyes would shoot up to the ceiling in alarm. We shrugged — we live on a fairly noisy boulevard, and after a while you can get used to anything. (And now we have a kid ourselves, who’s not exactly light on her feet.) When we would run into the kids’ mom on the elevator, she would look at us in chagrin. We asked her only two simple favors: to not let the kids begin their Olympic trials until after 7 each morning (which is when Phoebe generally wakes up), and if the mom could make sure to do her house-music-accompanied-personal-trainer-morning exercises in the living room — as opposed to the bedroom above ours.

Anyway, Sari ran into Obi on the elevator last week, as his family was loading their last things into the moving van. (They’re moving back to Nigeria, to Lagos.) She wished him luck and he took her hand in his. "I just have to thank you," he said in his courtly way. "You have been the best downstairs neighbors anyone could every have. So patient, so gracious, I can’t imagine how bad it must have been for you." Sari shrugged demurely. "Hey, you know, that’s big city apartment living."

In any case, the folks who bought Obi’s place? A family with FOUR kids.