Monday, March 31, 2008

Next Week at Long Island University

I spent a few minutes this afternoon cooking up a flyer for the comics event that I'm organizing as a sort of farewell gift for my graphic novel students. The flyer's not my best ever piece of graphic design work, by any stretch of the imagination, but it gets the point across...

...the point being that Jessica Abel and Matt Madden will be giving a talk on campus next Wednesday.

One thing I am happy about: the way that the two panels I quote seem to be speaking to each other, or carrying a single thread of narrative between them. And, of course, if you know that Matt's fridge is actually in Mexico City, it's all the more amusing.

I'll try to make a brief post about their visit after it happens.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

I'm Not Dead Yet

I apologize for the silence this last couple of weeks. I've been swamped, with one thing and another. This weekend it seems to be grading. Last weekend it was something else entirely. And a third thing before that.

But I was tidying up my desktop on my work computer the other day and I found this funny doodle, captured by cameraphone. I feel certain that it was drawn at Thai Taste, a restaurant downtown in New Haven where they have paper on the tables.

This seems to have been at a moment when I was exuberant with the discovery of Tom Gauld, who is now one of my favorite cartoonists. I heartily recommend that you check out his website, and that you purchase some of his stuff, perhaps from Buenaventura Press, the good people who distribute his things here in North America.

There you go: a doodle and a recommendation. I think I know how to label this post.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Girls Comics in Old Blighty (ca. 1984)

In my six weeks in England, I have purchased but a single comic book: a used hardcover annual that I bought as a surprise for a friend back in the States and have already surrendered to the Royal Mail. When I took it to the Post Office for shipping, the two women behind the counter recognized it with surprise: “Oh, it’s Mandy! I used to read that!” “It must be an antique!” Sure enough, it’s a pretty old comic (cover-dated 1984), and it was apparently meant for such as those women in their youth, for Mandy is subtitled For Girls.

Its target audience is clear enough not just from the subhead (duh) but also from the table of contents, illustrated with about twenty figures of girls engaged in various solo leisure pursuits—mostly of the sports and arts varieties, though the girl at the top and center is shown reading. Oh, and there’s one other tip-off that it’s for girls: the recurring feature “About Horses,” offering factoids about galloping, show horses, horses in mythology, etc. Mandy makes an interesting point of comparison with those crappy Marvel & DC comics from the 70s and 80s that Isaac has been blogging about. The Mandy anthology, produced by uncredited artists and writers for Britain’s D.C. Thompson comics company, offers a curious mix of short comic pieces, stern moral warnings, contrived coincidences, and grim wholesomeness.

Now admittedly, I am far from Mandy’s target audience, being an adult American male who read other comics entirely when I was a lad, but I found the proceedings rather cheerless, even when it sought to be funny. The stories are at times alarming in the merciless judgments meted out to wrongdoers, whose crimes might be fairly minor (one self-centered girl is cursed with permanent physical disfigurement just for refusing to help an old woman—a gypsy, of course—negotiate some stepping-stones across a stream). The overriding narrative formula owes much to the “gotcha” style of storytelling found in EC horror comics or O. Henry stories (not that I’ve read much of either, but you probably know the type of cheap ironic reversal and heavy-handed coincidence commonly associated with such works).

The heroines of the pieces include the following specimens:

• a penniless orphan, whose nearest relative tries to defraud her of her inheritance (he fails, but when in the final panel she smiles about being in “a cosy room of [her] own, with true friends at last,” the only other person visible in her spacious surroundings is the maid, who isn’t looking at her);

• another penniless orphan, who feigns infirmity to win the love of her foster parents (with ironic consequences befitting its EC-style presentation);

• a chronic invalid in a hospital, the optimistic Smiley, whose scheme to help another invalid backfires (causing Smiley to have a bit of a relapse herself);

• a fourteen-year old with a terminal disease, who ministers to other homeless children (her “dear waifs”) in Victorian London (and whose own impending doom is forecast in her nickname: “Angel”);

• a girl with the “Gift” of dream-clairvoyance, who is terrified of what truthful portent she might see when she next falls asleep (with reason, given that the last panel shows her dreaming the dates on her own gravestone);

• and a friendless new student at a girls’ school, who finally makes friends by delivering a piece of misdirected mail to a classmate who’s home sick with the flu (thereby deciding that the best way to make new friends is deliberately to drop a piece of mail addressed to herself, rather than, say, joining the circle of friends of her new flu-ridden pal).

Having seen the women at the Post Office, I’m reasonably confident that reading Mandy wouldn’t necessarily prevent a girl from growing into a well-adjusted adult. Still, the proportion of indigent invalid orphans, socially awkward schoolgirls, and luckless victims of slavery and witchcraft in Mandy makes the prospect of reading a contemporaneous Flash comic by Cary Bates seem positively life-affirming.

But there’s more to Mandy than enslaved ambassador’s daughters who look as if they’ve been drawn by Adrian Tomine:

There are also unexpected glimpses of British tastes in television program[me]s and home decorating:

(Not a bad likeness of Hoss Cartwright, that. Fun fact: Britain’s SkyTV satellite network currently has a dedicated Bonanza channel!)

And what American eater of pancakes à l’américaine would have pictured Aunt Jemima thus?

Great-aunt Jemima there provides one of the few happy endings in Mandy, in a tale of Charmette, the trendy fairy who loves to grant wishes. How trendy is she? Check out these “awesome” mid-80s fashions!

That’s just how I remember the 80s, all right. (Fun fact #2: When I first lived in England in the mid-90s, there was a season when the shopwindows in London featured fashions in orange and lime green; compare the shirt stripes and the hair colo[u]r on the second woman in the “Trendies” magazine spread, above)

But alas, all too often Mandy traffics in heartbreak. Here’s Becky Brown, formerly resident at an orphanage, but now in the loving care of Mr and Mrs Lyons, who believe her to be a cripple:

Becky in fact has legs in good working order, but she pathetically believes that the Lyonses only sympathize with her because of her supposed infirmity. So Becky resolves to keep up her pretense of cripplehood—after all, that way she can keep “nice things” like her new cat, Snowy.

But alas, cruel fate! When fire attacks the Lyons home, Becky uses her legs to rescue her foster parents, temporarily knocked out from smoke inhalation; but when she races back to rescue Snowy, horrors!

Becky survives (though Snowy is seen no more), but the doctors tell her that now she’s a cripple for real. Just to twist the knife a little more, the story has Becky ask her foster parents if they would still have loved her if she’d had the use of her legs. “Of course,” answers Mrs Lyons, “it would only have increased our joy.” And the penultimate panel offers a closeup of the tearstricken Becky. Cheerful, no? (Actually, the final panel offers a rare bit of relief as the creepy narrator, an EC-style emcee known as “the Storyteller,” returns to reveal that Becky’s doctors hadn’t counted on medical advances, for five years later she would learn to walk again. Great!)

Amongst all these tales of woe and mistreated girls, there is a remarkable exception in the opening tale of “Valda, Girl of Mystery.” Valda lives in the Canadian Rockies, where she looks after the wildlife and assists Canadian police and military figures in their patrols against poachers and other malefactors. Valda possesses a “Crystal of Life” that maintains her youthful vigor, keeps her warm in all weathers despite her skimpy garb, and restores life to a mortally wounded wolf cub. It also gives her powers of command and strength in the service of her sternly administered justice, of a kind with that of Fantomah, the fierce enforcer of jungle justice by the now-famous Fletcher Hanks. Mind you, the unnamed artist of “Valda” lacks Hanks’s distinctive drawing style and sense of design…

… but her character is surprisingly like Fantomah in her independence, her absolute moral certainty, and her chilly imperiousness.

All in all, Mandy presents a weirdly threatening moral universe for its young readers. And while the endpapers offer a quiz on superstition designed to shame those who overdo it with the lucky charms, the tales trade often on magic, mystery, and the occult. No wonder one of the waifs in the story of “Angel” has such a downbeat take on Christian theology:

If you want to learn Angel’s answer to the waif, you’ll have to get your own copy of Mandy for Girls (1984). Mine is out of the house, and I’m not looking for another!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

New Haven Postcard Sketch from Dupuy & Berberian

Shortly after Isaac posted about his "Twenty Minutes from Home" postcard series, I received one of his cards--number 17,676 in his years-long routine of postcard sending. It's always a pleasure to get to read a card in Isaac's handwriting (as opposed to his lettering, similar though it be), and occasionally he'll throw in a little doodle. This time, though, he asked a couple of ringers to provide a doozy of a doodle indeed:

My thanks to Isaac for procuring this memento of his recent encounter with Philippe Dupuy & Charles Berberian, two of our heroes in the pantheon of collaborative cartoonists--and thanks to the artists themselves for their friendly cartoon greetings!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

My Odd Postcards of New Haven

For a while last summer and fall I occupied myself with a project I called "Twenty Minutes from Home," which was partly an art project and partly just an excuse or exhortation to get me out of the house. I'm planning to start it up again soon, now that the weather is softening a little bit, to get my last long look at New Haven before I move north to Vermont.

The rules of the project were as follows: I would walk away from home for twenty minutes, exploring and wandering, and at the end of twenty minutes I would stop, look around, find something interesting, and take a picture. Sometimes I'd take another picture or two on the way back home. The best of these pictures got turned into postcards and sent around to my friends and correspondents.

It was a good project. I got to know New Haven better (even after living here for more than a dozen years), and I got to know my camera a little better, too. And, as I said, I got out of the house.

Now I've got a bunch of extra postcards of New Haven, enough to write to nearly everyone I know and still have leftovers. So I've decided to offer some of the extras to anyone who's willing to pay me a little for them (mostly to cover the cost of shipping). Let's say I'll send you a dozen for $3.00, or all twenty-four different cards for $5.00.

Here's a look at what you'll get:

A lot of the cards are what you might call "urban archaeology" shots, like this image of the underside of a small railroad trestle, out east of State Street:

And here's a shot of some of the crumbling masonry on the side of the Winchester Repeating Arms plant, which has been derelict for years.

Those are pretty images, I think, but not the sort of thing you'd see on a typical picture postcard.

Some of the images are more specifically New Haven, like some of my shots of Yale buildings, or this image of the annual New Haven Road Race in progress down Whitney Avenue:

I like to try to juxtapose different sorts of things, like the old headstones of the Grove Street Cemetery up against a background of a Yale building. (I think they learn Engineering in there.)

I also like little architectural details, which New Haven has in abundance, since it's an old town. Here, for example, is a satyr leering from the base of a flagpole on Beinecke Plaza:

... And here's a second-floor wrought-iron dragon's-head finial from a building on Orange Street.

The building displays the name Emerson in the same ironwork, but I don't know whether that's still the name of the building.

,,, And sometimes, just to remind myself that it's not all urban archaeology, I go for a walk in East Rock Park.

Here's a nice shot of nature and architectural detail overlapping. I saw pictures on the front page of the Register recently that looked a lot like this, but I was there first. It's the nest of a red-tailed hawk, I think, in the frieze up near the roof of the courthouse building, facing the Green.

So: the images are things like that. I haven't posted all of the best ones.

Now, wouldn't you like a dozen of those? Here's a button that'll let you buy 12 for $3.00, postpaid.
If you want more of a particular KIND of card, let me know, and I'll skew the random sample over in that direction.

And, in case you want the full set of 24, here's a button to get you those for a discount ($5.00, postpaid):

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Dupuy & Berberian at Housing Works Bookstore, Soho

You can't really tell from this blurry photo, but the sunset light on Manhattan was very pretty on Wednesday afternoon. (As always, I was surprised at how easy it was to drive right into Soho. I grew up thinking of New York as some impregnable fortress of ultradense population, but if anything it's easier to drive into Manhattan than the centers of more automotive cities.)

Anyway, I was in New York for a reading, at the Housing Works Bookstore Café, being given by this year's Angoulême Grand Prix awardees, Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian. If you're familiar with their work, you'll know right away that it's of special interest to Mike and me, because Dupuy & Berberian collaborate in the same way that we do:

Each cartoonist holds one part of a big pencil, and they steer it as a pair of people steers a canoe. Inking is done by the same method.

Actually, as Berberian noted during the presentation, their (and our) method of collaboration is "easy to explain, but difficult to understand: we just draw together." He said he knows that it's difficult to understand the process, because they still don't understand it completely after doing it for decades.

The discussion was moderated ably by Matt Madden. He's on the left below, and Berberian is on the right.

If this looks a little like any pictures that Matt posts, it's because I was also shooting pictures for him from the same seat.

Dupuy & Berberian were funny, and articulate, and really very charming. They read aloud from the English translation of Maybe Later, and talked through several of the Monsieur Jean stories that appear in Get a Life, too. The audience was packed -- there's a lot of room in Housing Works, and people were crowded almost all the way back to the cash register, or at least that's the way it looked from where I was sitting. A substantial chunk of New York's alternative / literary comics scene turned out for the event, but I'm not going to list the people I saw.

One thing you may not realize about Dupuy and Berberian is that Berberian's hands are superhumanly fast.

This accounts for their clean, graceful linework, obviously.

The highlights of the talk, for me, were pages from Dupuy's soon-to-be-released autobiographical meditation Haunted and from the pair's joint travel sketchbooks, which don't seem to be forthcoming in English. Here's an image of Berberian discussing a page from Dupuy's sketchbook that depicts a salon in a hotel in Tangiers.

I've only glanced at Haunted, but it seems like a fascinating departure from the Monsieur Jean books: dark, introspective, and surrealistic. Maybe I'll let you know when I get a chance to read it.

After the reading, I did ask Dupuy & Berberian to draw a couple of monkeys for me. I felt like a dork asking, as I always do, but I know that the result will put a smile on my face years from now.

And yes, Mike, I did give each of them a copy of the Treatise.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

In Memoriam, E. Gary Gygax

You may already know this, because the news broke a couple of days ago, but Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, has died. I've been thinking a little bit lately about what D&D meant to me as I was growing up. Mostly it was a reading experience, for me: living out in the country, I was able to buy D&D modules and read them, but I didn't have a crew of nerds handy to play with when I was in junior high. I didn't actually play much at all until high school, and then most of my RPG time was actually in play-by-mail games, many of which owed a setting or a game mechanic or both to Gygax's creations. But I remained interested in D&D.

Reading the modules without ever playing them -- an experience that I suspect is more common for certain sorts of readers than it was meant to be -- was quite interesting. There's a way in which a D&D module is narrative, as it projects a particular sequence of events; there's also a way in which a module is more like cartography than story-telling. This dynamic is described very well by Dylan Horrocks in an essay called "The Perfect Planet", and if you've never read it, I strongly recommend it. I think there's some really interesting literary-critical work yet to be done on the subject of world-building, and Horrocks's essay seems like a very good place for this criticism to start.

A few of my favorite folks on the internet ("bloggers," I think we could call them) have posted nice reminiscences or notes inspired by Gygax's passing. Here's our cartoonist pal Ben Towle, pouring out a forty or perhaps a potion of giant strength, and here's our Yale Medievalist pal Carl Pyrdum invoking Gygax as an inspiration of a different sort. And here's Mike Sterling of reminiscing about playing the game, selling the game, and an ad drawn by Bill Willingham. Joel of Boing Boing Gadgets features one of Gygax's many splendrous random-encounter tables. (And perennial favorite Chris Sims also gets into the act, sort of.)

Anyway, I thought I'd say a little about my own experience. My debt to Gygax and D&D must be clear enough by now, from our Elfworld story and that recent alphabet of fantasy types, several of which (Paladin, Ranger) come directly out of the Players' Handbook or the Monster Manual. But I also know my interest in D&D runs deeper than the trappings of the Tolkien-Gygax fantasy genre. I think I learned from reading D&D manuals and from playing the game with my friends that there's a natural interaction between narrative and games. Outlandish though the setting is, the rules of D&D are supposed to create guidelines for what is plausible within the world of the ongoing story: what can the characters do? What if they get lucky? What might lurk in that dark forest or behind that secret door? Every narrative setting requires a set of guidelines for its own plausibility.

Also, playing D&D and imagining these rich alternate worlds -- which was especially true about some of the play-by-mail D&D derivatives that I played -- created for me a strong sense of what it's like to live in imagination separately but simultaneously with living in the real world. That's related to pure escapism (which gets a bad rap), and the feeling of getting "lost in a book" that will be familiar to anyone who is a serious reader, but it's also related to the way that an artist has to spend a lot of time living in his or her imagination, creating the world that doesn't exist yet.

Well, I've drawn a story that's about some of these things and none of these things -- a two-page piece that appears in the seventh issue of Satisfactory Comics. In honor of Gary Gygax, I have excerpted the entire story below. You can click on the images, of course, to enlarge them into legiblity. But I hope that if you enjoy them you'll also consider getting a paper copy of the comic. (You can, as you know, follow that link to buy a copy.)

Here's "Catacombs & Cul-de-Sacs."

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Elfworld Alphabet: A to Z(ed)

Last night saw a trans-Atlantic flurry of Elfworld-related activity as Isaac and I took care of the final tasks for our story prior to submitting it, at long last, to the editor of the Elfworld anthology. (Cross your fingers for us, folks.) True to form, we were both up most of the night in racing to meet our comics deadline, but this is the first time we've engaged in such behavior while on different continents. Verily, this story would never have happened in this form without scanners and email.

But what kept us up, you might wonder? Didn't the last page of our story get posted back in December? Indeed so. But I still had to letter the title and Isaac had to wrangle a lot of computer files to get the story ready to submit. And alas, we both had some final drawings to do, so as to complete our series of alphabetical fantasy-world portraits designed to fill out the bottom margins of our pages in book format (as opposed to postcard format).

Well, we got those drawings done, by gum, and then Isaac, bless his heart, chopped up fifty itty-bitty files [Edit: see comments] and laid them out in order and labelled them. BEHOLD:

If ever there was an image on this blog for you to click and enlarge, this is it.

And now, our story is really and truly finished--in its black and white form, at least...

Elfworld Title: And the Winner Is...

Way back on December 9, 2007, I announced a contest to name our work-in-progress, this story about a magician's apprentice who runs into trouble over a cartographic commission. We didn't exactly receive a flood of submissions, but we did get several great suggestions from two of our faithful readers, Shira and Adam, and I pledged a couple of prizes for whoever provided the winning suggestion.

Unfortunately for Shira and Adam, I also warned them that we might end up using one of our own titles after all, and that's what we've opted for in the end. Ladies and gentlemen, a little over six months after we started this story (!), I present its title:

By now Isaac will have dropped that graphic into the appropriate space he left blank on the top left of page 1, thereby completing the line art and lettering for our postcard-format publication of this story. (The postcards still need to be colored, but that's another task for another day.)

Now: even though we have turned down the title suggestions of Shira and Adam, I'm so grateful to them for their active participation in this collaborative comic that I'm going to honor those pledges for prizes after all. So if you're still reading after all this time, let me know if you'd rather have an ultra-rare copy of Tales from the Classroom or your own commissioned artwork from the world of "Stepan Crick and the Chart of the Possible."

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Of Droog and Doggerel

It seems only appropriate, after yesterday's post, that I speak to you about the sensational character find of 1975, Droog. According to this encyclopedia page Droog did appear one other time, but thanks to Joe Stinson and Wilkey Wong...

...I've read pretty much his entire history in Marvel Comics.

Apparently, Droog is a mutated dog belonging to the Gremlin, that Soviet son-of-a-supervillain descended from the Gargoyle, who was Hulk's first foe. He looks a lot like a Triceratops, and he talks a lot like Len Wein writing doggerel couplets. Everything that Droog says is in rhyme, and actually it's kind of endearing.

Like most poets, Droog is strong enough to smack the Hulk around.

I love this panel. It hits at least three of my childhood nostalgia centers: dinosaurs, superheroes, and Dr. Seuss.

Seriously, isn't that beautiful? Who needs Stegron?

Writing dialogue for the Hulk around this time was a piece of cake, I'd bet. As long as he got in one "Hulk is the strongest one there is!" per issue -- and maybe "Smashing is what Hulk does best!" -- you'd be all set.

But I imagine it'd get a little dull, which might explain the completely ridiculous Yiddishisms of Sidney E. "Gaffer" Levine elsewhere in the issue (I'll post those later), or the ridiculous smugness of a SHIELD agent named Clay Quartermain. Writing a monster that speaks only in rhyme seems like a nice counterpoint. That's probably what Alan Moore was thinking when he made Etrigan and Alexander Pope speak only in rhyme.

Anyone who has a passing familiarity with the Hulk knows that he's stronger than a sturdy wall, Droog. Are you throwing him at it just to complete your couplet?

No, wait, I'm sorry. I call shenanigans. I don't care whether it fills out the meter of your line nicely, Droog. If there's one thing the Hulk isn't, it's fragile.

And, as it turns out, it's the walls that give way, crumbling around Hulk and Droog. Wein takes the opportunity to turn out a couple of narrative captions filled with quatrains. This leads to a panel that shows three things: smoking rubble, a footnote from the previous panel, and a footnote on the footnote, attributed to none other than Smilin' Stan himself.

Probably Whitman is rotating because he was never much for rhyme himself.

As near as I can gather, after they rise from this rubble, Hulk and Droog get hit with some kind of bomb, and Hulk gets knocked under the surface of the earth. Droog is almost never seen again. I'm not sure what brought him into a single issue of Daughters of the Dragon, or who "Megacephalo," his new master, was.

But I got to thinking: brightly colored dinosaur, talks in rhyme ... Did Droog get some cosmetic surgery in the '90s and resurface with a new and even more friendly identity?

The only way to determine the truth, of course, is to have Barney fight the Hulk. Then we'll see who is the strongest one of all.

Special lettercol bonus: Just for Mike, from this issue's "Green Skin's Grab-Bag":

...And people wonder why we include a letters column in our comics.