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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Syrian refugee odyssey in comics, photos, and prose

road-to-germany-p1Just out this week in Foreign Policy magazine is “The Road to Germany: $2400,” which depicts the odyssey of 11 Syrians from the doorstep of their unrecognizable homeland to a life in exile. The bulk of the piece is 11 pages of comics by yours truly, adapted from the reporting/writing of journalist Alia Malek. And as in The Photographer (by Emmanuel Guibert, paired with Didier Lefèvre’s photographs), “The Road to Germany” incorporates photos by Peter van Agtmael, who accompanied Alia on her immersive reporting journey. (Back in September, Alia and Peter shadowed the subjects of the story all the way from the Greek island of Kos to Frankfurt, Germany, meeting up with them at many points along the way.) In other words, this is a very unusual piece to be running in a mainstream news magazine!

In crafting the comics component, my job was to take Alia’s amazing, heartfelt reporting and create a narrative to fill in the visual gaps between Peter’s incredible photographs. I was handicapped, though. Unlike Alia and Peter, I hadn’t actually accompanied our protagonists—Muhanid & Ihsan; Mohammed & Sawsan, and their children Sedra, Ali, & Brahim; and Naela, Maysam, Suhair, & Yusef—on this odyssey, so I immersed myself as best I could. Sadly, in recent months, this type of journey has become all too common, so there were a lot of visual resources out there. And with the help of Alia’s notes and Peter’s archival shots, I dove into the minutiae of life vests, the UNHCR outpost in Gevgelija, and German border police uniforms.

I was also struck by the chart that Syrians and other refugees use as the main guide through their route. Even though everyone has smart phones and the resources of the Internet at hand, they still hold on to this crude schematic, which is more like a game board than a map:

muhanid's-chart-map-cropped

I wanted to integrate elements from the chart into the story, not only to remind readers of its importance to the refugees, but also as a bridging device for changing scenes and pushing the narrative forward.

For the comic’s opening scene on the overloaded raft, I was struck by Alia’s description:

Women and children . . . lined up, nearly supine, in the raft’s base. . . . Where any space remained on the bottom, another layer of women and children wedged in. Everyone’s bags were thrown in a heap on top of them while the men were pressed in along the edges.

FP Executive Editor Mindy Bricker and I quickly decided this image would be the “splash” panel of the comic, and I intuitively felt that the best way to capture it would be from directly overhead. This is from the pencils:

page01pn1-pencils2-lr

The comic starts with five pages of my hand-drawn art; the last six pages incorporate Peter’s photos into selected panels. Combined with actual quotes from Alia’s reporting, it’s pretty cool to see this marriage of documentary forms. And after a solid month of work back in December, it’s very gratifying to see this story in print.

I would say I’m speaking for Alia & Peter as well when I say I hope this piece succeeds in humanizing a refugee crisis which is all too often thought of in impersonal numbers—or sensationalized hysteria—and gives readers a feeling of “being there” on this harrowing journey. As the opener states, “Showing what happens when strangers are thrown together by adversity—how desperate alliances formed and dissolved—[‘The Road to Germany: $2400’] is a diary of an exodus from a war zone to a hopeful, if uncertain future in the West.”

For now, the piece is only available in print, in the Jan./Feb. issue of Foreign Policy. If it becomes viewable online I’ll be sure to post a link. (UPDATE: Here’s the link)

road-to-germany-spread

New comic: “Crossing the Line”

detainment-cropMedium‘s “The Nib” just posted my newest piece of comics journalism, titled “Crossing the Line“—about ethnic/religious profiling at the U.S./Canadian border. In this historical moment of scrutiny of law enforcement’s treatment of people of color (cf. Michael Brown, Eric Garner) the story seems to carry greater resonance.

I was inspired to do the piece by a radio story I heard on the NPR show On the Media. (Yes, the same On the Media co-hosted by my Influencing Machine collaborator, Brooke Gladstone.) OTM producer Sarah Abdurrahman’s piece, “My Detainment Story, Or: How I Learned to Stop Feeling Safe in my Own Country and Hate Border Agents,”  is a riveting, outrage-provoking triumph of radio journalism. If you haven’t heard it already, give it a listen.

As great as Abdurrahman’s piece was, to me it screamed to be told in comics form: the freezing cold rooms, the heartless treatment of families with small children, and most appallingly, the endless, repetitive interrogations. One of the subjects of Abdurrahman’s piece, Khaled A., was especially interesting to me. After speaking with him, I was determined to focus my story on his particular experiences.

Crossing the Line” is one of my most personal—you might say, “subjective”—comics journalism stories. Not only am I a “character” in the piece, but it probably strays the furthest into direct editorializing than any of my previous “cojo” stories. (For “balance,” I did try to get a comment from the Department of Homeland Security and the office of Customs and Border Protection. No one ever got back to me.) Anyway, I hope it works. And I hope you think so too.

P.S. Thanks for Matt Bors for sticking with me and this piece as long as he did, since it was delayed for many months by the demands of my previous comic, Terms of Service.

How I “Write”

Booth, which is the literary journal of the Butler University graduate writing program (more of them in a future post), asked me to write about my comics-creating process for a recent issue. Since this was a frequent topic with my Associates during my just-completed ACA residency, I thought this might be relevant…

vagabonds02_coverHow I Write

I create comic books, so I write in pictures—and draw with words. I’ve learned over the years that the uniqueness of the comics form is the dual experience of reading and seeing.

But even thought the experience of reading a comic is unified, when I create a comic I break my creative tasks down into two distinct parts: writer and artist. Both stages uses different parts of my brain, and both allow me to edit and revise the work as it moves forward. So even though my routine is regimented I always make room for serendipity and artistic surprise.

I begin by writing out the story in prose form, always with the goal of showing as much as possible through action and dialogue. I then break down the text into the key moments of narration that will become the individual comics panels. The final script includes short descriptive sentences of what’s going on in each panel—clues and directions to my artist self—and all character dialogue, narration or “voiceover” captions, and sound effects. It reads much like a screenplay.

Once the script is done, I step away from the computer and move to the drawing table. (Although much of my work has first appeared on the Internet, I’m old-fashioned in the sense that I draw entirely by hand.) I lay out the script, breaking it down into thumbnail sketches, using minimal detail, just enough to block out word balloon and character placement. Through thumbnailing, I assess the story’s pace, check its momentum, and see how it flows from panel to panel and page to page. During this stage, I often find ways to condense elements, or, conversely, to flesh out certain scenes.

Next comes penciling, the most time-intensive part of the comics-making process. That’s when I scale up my thumbnails to full-size, drawing in the panel borders, characters, backgrounds, and lettering elements on tabloid-size paper. Again, when translating the layouts to this larger size, I often find better artistic or storytelling solutions. On a good day, I can pencil an entire detailed page from start to finish.

Inking is the most fun of the part of process for me. It’s when the story finally comes into complete focus, as I shape the pencils into finished art, often taking away lines more than anything else. I love the physical act of inking: the gentle pressure of the brush on the page, and the endless tiny aesthetic choices that go into each stroke. In the end, the art looks pretty much the way it will appear on the printed page.

Not every cartoonist works the way I do; many have a much looser system, and some create their work completely organically, literally writing and drawing the story at the same time. And sometimes I too find ways to skip steps along the way. But this “two-headed monster” approach works for me, and helps me break down into manageable steps what can often seem a daunting task—translating the ineffable images in my head into distinct visual form.

Evolution of a book cover: The Influencing Machine en français

IM-french-excerptToday marks the debut of the French translation of The Influencing Machine, my collaboration with Brooke Gladstone. The publisher is Ça et Là, run by one of my favorite people in comics, Serge Ewenczyk. This is the third translation of the book, which had already benefitted from two great cover designs in hardcover (Mark Melnick) and then paperback (Albert Tang):

im-cover-150px IF-paperback-cover-sm

And here are the previous translated editions, in Korean and Italian, also both very cool:

IF-Korean-cover-sm IF-Italian-cover-sm

Serge asked me to draw the cover for the French edition, saying that neither of the American editions would work for French audiences. so here’s a blow-by-blow of the process involved. IM-french-cover-mockup1-450pxHis first suggestion was to create something similar to a panel on page 37 of the book, with Brooke in front of a wall of screens/panels showing TV scenes but also illustrations connected to other media, like press and radio. (I have to also say here that the composition and some of the images on p. 37 itself pay homage to Alan Moore and Dave GibbonsWatchmen—think back to the scenes in Ozymandias‘ Antarctic lair.) As always, my first step was to rough up a couple of sketches. Both went for the idea of “the media” as a sinister, controlling force—even though, utlimately, the book disputes that thesis. The first sketch was pretty straightforward—a spooked-looking Brooke in front of a row of screens… Read more of this post

Bang! Zoom! The Power of Narrative conference 2014

Last week I was a guest of the 16th annual Power of Narrative journalism conference, held in Boston at BU. Having seen that last year’s guests included Symbolia editor Erin Polgreen, I was curious about what went on—next thing I knew, conference organizer (and BU journalism prof) Mark Kramer had invited me to be part of it. I’m so grateful I had the experience.

What immediately appealed to me about the conference was its similarity in spirit to the Knight-Wallace Fellowship: an opportunity for me to rub shoulders with accomplished professional journalists and absorb their accumulated wisdom. (Attendees consisted of a number of Boston Globe staffers, but also a large contingent from the New York Times, not to mention dozens of editors and reporters from the rest of the journalism landscape.) Of course, despite my having been on the KWF fellowship, I was (and am) still insecure about my craft. (More about that later.) But during our initial chat it became clear that Mark was familiar with my work. He noted that the inherent intimacy of the comics form taps into the reader’s whole persona, not just his/her “indignant voice”—thus opening up a larger “emotion set.” And in Mark’s opinion, my work was committed to “non-fancifulness.” Welcome news to me!

A week or so before the conference, I sat down for a quick Q&A with conference assistant coordinator Jenni Whalen, in which I discussed my storytelling process, the kinds of stories I gravitate towards, and the challenges of “comics journalism.” They posted the interview on the conference Tumblr.

The conference was a packed two days (I had to leave a day early to make it back down to NYC for MoCCA Fest). I arrived Friday just in time to check into my hotel (the very fab Hotel Commonwealth) and register in time for the opening keynote speech, by Jacqui Banaszynski of “AIDS in the Heartland” fame. Her speech, on courage, craft, & compassion, was an inspiring start. That was followed by an engaging and witty conversation between the TimesDavid Carr and The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates. Both speakers are savvy personalities with approachable manners, able to express really smart things while sounding like “regular guys.” (Carr was seminar speaker last year in Michigan while I was on my fellowship.) Both speakers advised the audience to not get too caught up in technology—people will always want to “gather around the campfire”—and Carr reminded us to “not to forget to imitate a human being while you do your job.” I think the most most trenchant thing I took from the conversation was Carr’s quip about Twitter—especially those who live-tweet from a VIP show or (humble)brag about hanging with X, Y, or Z celebrity: “What you think makes you look cool actually makes you look like a douche.” Ka-zing!

Other keynote speakers at the conference included Raney Aronson-Rath, Dan Barry, and Adam Hochschild. I really enjoyed a Saturday panel I attended on the subject of voice. Panelists included Jacqui Banaszynski, the very brilliant Mark Kramer, and writing guru Roy Peter Clark. The room was packed with deeply engaged journalists, with people (like myself) standing in the aisles. There was a strong point made in the beginning that it’s important to differentiate between voice and “style.” Mark talked about the dry voice of newspapers like the Times and the Washington Post, and how as you reduce the formality of your tone you become more human, inviting the reader to explore more parts of the human spirit. (See his earlier comments about comics.) I thought about the choices I’ve made over the years in framing my stories: why did I tell “How to Star in a Singaporean Soap Opera” in the second person? Why did I tell “Josh and I” from the perspective of my mirror self? I think these questions were all about finding the right voice for the story in question. It struck me that much of the discussion could have been in the context of a graduate-level creative writing course.

Later on that afternoon, I sat on a panel with Kramer and the equally smart Boston Globe reporter Farah Stockman on the subject of “How Much (or Little) Can You Make Up.” We talked about some notorious journalistic made-up moments: Rick Bragg, Patricia Smith, Mike Barnicle. (We didn’t even get into over-the-top fabricators like Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass.) Mark made the good point about Rick Bragg’s unattributed use of an intern’s prose that the piece felt like “the poet was present”—thus breaking the bonds of reliability and trustworthiness.

For me, what came out of the discussion most clearly was that forum matters—a newspaper projects a certain standard of veracity, whereas a single author’s book carries other expectations. As Kramer said, it’s all about playing fair with the reader—one Janet Cooke screws it up for everyone.

This led into a discussion of my practice as a so-called comics journalist—which often results in a messy mixture of journalism and art. For instance, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, though based on extensive interviews, research, photographic research, and so on, has a number of scenes with reconstructed (e.g., made up) dialogue. I made those choices for the purposes of the story flow; a much more elegant choice than using caption boxes to summarize scenes or boring panels of talking heads. Comics 101: I always try to show instead of tell. Other examples of this from A.D. include how one of the characters (“Darnell”) is someone I never met, interviewed, or even saw a picture of. (I based his representation on my interviews with “Abbas.”) I showed the audience parts of another section from A.D., where I used the actual incidence of a sign being blown off Abbas’ store to bridge a scene—the sign comes careening down the street into Denise’s neighborhood, setting up an establishing shot of her building. I also talked about how I’ve always tried to be up front and transparent about these practices.

As a counterpoint, however, I showed the group the moment in the story when Denise, scared for her life during the storm, jumps onto her bed, screaming “I’m gonna die in this bitch.” It was such a great line that one of the story’s readers (when it was originally posted online) felt that it was too good to be true, that it took him out of the reality of the story. But then Denise herself jumped onto the comment board to confirm she had indeed said those exact words!

One of the audience members pushed back a bit at my practice, and I didn’t really have a solid rebuttal. I’m still figuring this stuff out—what are the “rules” of comics journalism? In my solo panel the next day, I tried to get into the issue a bit more, showing excerpts of Lukas Plank’s recent comics essay on comics journalism best practices. We agreed that these are issues worth considering, but that pasting an icon on each and every panel to signify whether it’s based on an interview, an audio recording, a scientific paper, first-hand experience, or the “inner experience of the protagonist” would be clumsy, inefficient, and impractical.

The last panel I was on was called “Five Speakers, Five Genres.” My fellow panelists were multimedia producer Val Wang, video journalist Travis Fox, photographer Essdras M. Suarez, and feature writer Meghan Irons, and it was really interesting to me to see how much in all of our practices the demands of “art” converge with the demands of journalism.

I was definitely the “token” comics journalist at the conference, and a bit of an oddity, which isn’t always a bad thing. BBC’s Newshour found out about me being at the show, and on Saturday afternoon I was interviewed by Julian Marshall about my work and comics journalism in general. (I gave Joe Sacco a major shout-out, of course.) Later on, there was a book signing, and I autographed my share of copies of A.D.—as well as a few issues of The Vagabonds #3!

Late that night, I left on the train back to New York completely exhausted and exhilarated—and still confused about what to call what I do.

Evolution of a book cover: Piracy Crusade

PC-cover-final-150pxI illustrated the cover of Aram’s Sinnrich‘s new book, Piracy Crusade: How the Music Industry’s War on Sharing Destroys Markets and Erodes Civil Liberties (University of Massachusetts Press), and I thought I’d take you through the process.

As the title indicates, Sinnreich’s argument is that so-called “piracy” is really the battle between those who believe information (e.g., music) should be shared and the media cartels who want to control that flow. In the spirit of openness, Aram even made a draft of the book available online under a Creative Commons license.

Before I got to work, Aram and I talked a little bit about the cover. (Unlike with my previous book cover, for Alissa Quart’s Republic of Outsiders, Aram was acting as his own “art director” on the project, so I dealt directly with him.) One thing he was keen to include was traditional pirate ship/pirate flag imagery, as well as the symbols for copyright and “copyleft” (essentially, the same concept as the Creative Commons movement). He even drew up a sketch, which featured two tall-masted ships firing on each other, with the cannon balls, smoke, and water splashes forming a “Jolly Roger” death’s head between the ships. His drawing looked like this: Read more of this post