Sunday, September 28, 2008

SatCom at SPX: Collaboration & Katchor

The first weekend in October brings this year's installment of the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland. It's also bringing Isaac down to DC from Vermont, and we'll be teaming up again for some comics-related activity, though I doubt we'll have time to collaborate on any comics ourselves. Instead, we'll be co-moderators of a panel on "Cartooning in Collaboration/Collaboration in Cartooning," with featured artists Becky Cloonan, Mike Dawson, Jim Ottaviani, Frank Santoro, and Dash Shaw. Their works include material in a variety of styles and genres in venues from self-published minicomics to wide releases from such publishers as Vertigo, Fantagraphics, and Picturebox, and among them these artists and writers have explored a number of different approaches to comics-making, both in collaboration and in solo efforts.

I'll also be moderating questions at an artist's spotlight on one of the cartoonists I admire most, the inimitable Ben Katchor.

If you're in the area, please do consider these events and other programming at SPX (a full list of panels and presentations may be found here).

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Something I Hadn't Noticed in Jimmy Corrigan (Until This Week)

This has to be another light post. I still haven't read everything from my last Swansea find (which was back in July!), so I can only present another trivium that has surfaced from my comics-reading this week.

I have been retooling that paper on Chris Ware's diagrams from last year's MLA, for a collection of essays that should be forthcoming from University Press of Mississippi. As I was writing about the last diagram in Jimmy Corrigan—the one that reveals Amy's ancestry, and shows that she's actually a close blood relation to all of the Corrigan men in the book—I noticed something about the diagram that I hadn't seen before. (This surprises me, because I've taught the book several times, and I'd already written about this diagram once.)

You'll remember, probably, the diagram I'm talking about. Toward the end of it it, it looks like this:

That little girl is the half-sister of James Corrigan, the little boy in the nineteenth-century parts of the book and the shriveled old "Granpa" in the twentieth-century parts of the book.

Those panels are all set against a background that shows the William Corrigan house in the foreground.

What I had never noticed is the tiny figure in the background of that background, under this last diagram panel with the little girl. Here's the last image in the diagram's "chain" again.

... and if you look really closely...

Not only is Amy related by blood to her adopted father and grandfather, but her great-grandmother grew up just a few hundred yards away from young James, or so it seems. I've always argued that this diagram is in the book to heighten our sense of the sadness of the failed connection between Jimmy and Amy; I hadn't really taken into account the way that it also adds sadness to the story of little James. (As if that story needed more sadness.)

That's it for now. Stay tuned for an announcement about this year's SPX.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Little Lulu and the Arbitrary Signifier

Another minimal post for me, because I'm still swamped. Weeks go by pretty quickly when the semester's in full force. I'm still learning to tame the constant flow of work.

Discerning bloggers have already picked this up—the original post went up a couple of weeks ago—but I keep being amused by a little story from a 1956 issue of Little Lulu.

In it, Lulu and Alvin discover the arbitrary nature of linguistic signification.

I excerpt just three panels from the story here, but you can read it in full—and with brilliant comic timing—at the link above.

The kids are charmed by the slippage between signifier and signified, you see.

In one of the most joyful panels ever, language is revealed to be a mere construct. Chaos ensues.

By the time the adults get hold of the game, "foot" and "feet" have become so destabilized that they can only be construed in terms of natural (as opposed to arbitrary) signifiers: as a kind of onomatopoeia.

Ever notice how you never see pictures of John Stanley and Ferdinand de Saussure in the same room?

For extra credit: read this and watch:

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Highbrow Kirby Character Collage

Not much time today. Maybe my last "Swansea Find" post will come next weekend.

But this floated (electronically) across my desk today, and I thought it was worth taking out of context:

There are two Simon & Kirby heroes, The Fighting American and The Guardian, both of them variations on Captain America. (To me that looks like fanzine art, maybe even traced from a couple of different comics, but not Kirby.) In the background, the Smithsonian Castle, in an old postcard image (printed badly, with seriously off-register color).

The creator of this little collage? This man:

Here's the New York Times article, to provide some context.


Sunday, September 7, 2008

Mike Dawson's Freddie & Me

In a way, this should also be a "Swansea Find" post, like the ones I have been making for the last couple of weeks. (I still have one left to make, but I'm not done with everything I want to read before I write it.) I went into a big chain bookstore in Swansea, hoping they would have a copy of Posy Simmonds's Tamara Drewe, which hasn't been released yet in the States. Alas, their "graphic novel" section looked pretty much the same as an American one: lots of Marvel Comics, lots of Justice League, a smattering of Dan Clowes and the Hernandez Brothers, mostly jumbled in with the superhero stuff so it'd be hard to find. And Tamara Drewe was nowhere to be found. Posy Simmonds is supposed to be Britain's best-loved cartoonist, but her reputation did not extend to the clerks in this Welsh shopping mall.

What was there, though, much to my surprise, was a copy of Mike Dawson's Freddie & Me: a Teenage (Bohemian) Rhapsody. I don't know why it surprised me. Mike's got a serious publisher in Bloomsbury, and the book would certainly have plenty of appeal in the U.K.. It's just that, because I first saw (and bought) the book at MoCCA, where Mike and his wife were selling copies personally, it seemed impossible that one would wash up so far from home.

I finally read it this week. Freddie & Me is a really personal book, a memoir of the author's lifelong attachment to the band Queen. (Well, it's not literally lifelong: he shows us the moment when he first hears a Queen song. But there's not much of his life before that in the book, and Dawson is a "superfan" almost from day one.)

My reaction to the book also turns out to be personal: as I was reading, I was thinking about my own childhood, the way I would listen to Beatles records over and over in my room, the first Talking Heads album I ever owned, my total devotion to Talking Heads when I was in high school, and other assorted memories. There probably aren't very many people who share Dawson's level of devotion to Queen—though every one of those people surely should buy this book—but most of us had some sort of intense teenage devotion, the sort of thing so intense that it shaped your sense of who you were. That's really what this book is about.

Freddie & Me manages to deliver both the manifest awesomeness of Queen and the patent absurdity of an elementary-school boy who has given his soul to them, or a high-school boy whose emotional life is wrapped around the band he loves. In fact, sometimes it gives us both of these things (the sublime and the ridiculous) at the same time, in a way that seems totally appropriate to Queen. Here, for example, is the young Mike Dawson, partway through a routine at a talent show in which he proposed to sing "Bohemian Rhapsody" a cappella.

(As with all the images from Freddie & Me, this one needs to be click-and-enlarged.)

Dawson never says this, but I get the feeling that the mustachioed emcee is ushering him offstage to protect the young boy's dignity. It's precisely the sort of performance an un-self-conscious kid can take seriously, but which for a teenager or an adult feels more like a memory we'd like to repress. Reading this sequence both made me want to download "Bohemian Rhapsody" and made me mildly queasy thinking about some talent shows in my distant past.

When Mike comes to America (to New Jersey, from a childhood in Leighton Buzzard), he makes Queen fans of most of his friends, but he's still (of course) the original high priest. When someone praises Queen, he feels it as a compliment; when someone knocks the new album, he flinches. At one point, overwhelmed by adolescent loneliness, he imagines himself leaping onto a cafeteria table and bursting into song, which opens onto a two-page splash so awesome and grotesque that I couldn't fit it all on my scanner:

Again, I want to listen to this song; again, I'm totally squeamish thinking about my own adolescence. (Thanks, Dawson.)

When Freddie Mercury dies, Dawson has to excuse himself from class. He can't keep himself together. This sequence rings really true, too, and when the book ends with him mourning one of his relatives, it's natural to look back on this extremity of emotion and make comparisons. Losing Freddie Mercury, for the teenaged Dawson, was at least as big a blow as losing kin. Thankfully he finds a safe place at school to do his grieving. (I've cut out one page from this sequence, but please click and read.)

I love the way that he's overwhelmed with emotion but also knows that it's "so stupid" to be feeling so much for a stranger. That says a lot about the awakening of adulthood in the teenage mind, and about the way that when we are figuring out who we are, our devotions are just as personal as anything "real."

It might be surprising that a straight guy would write a book about his early identification with Freddie Mercury, since Mercury became such an icon of the gay community, especially after his death and during the peak of the AIDS epidemic. Dawson is careful, I think, to put his wife in the very first panel of the book, and to point out that when he first heard that Freddie Mercury had AIDS, he "was actually surprised to hear in the radio broadcast that he was gay." He doesn't avoid the fact of Mercury's homosexuality, and he doesn't flinch from it, but it's obviously not important to his own sense of connection with Mercury and Queen.

(When young Michael sees his first Queen video, with Mercury in drag singing "I Want to Break Free," his mother says, "Yes, he's a funny man, isn't he, Michael," not obviously worried about her son's response, but obviously understanding more of the implications of word and image there than he does.)

In the end, though Freddie & Me is much less about Queen in particular, or even teenaged super-fandom, than it is about the way that music in particular can nestle into our memories and attach to them, building complicated associations of emotion and meaning that are both deeply personal and always available on compact disc. The book's final rumination on this sort of "soundtrack" memory is really moving and really smart.

I'm glad that the book goes there. There are moments in Freddie & Me when you can tell that it's a first graphic novel—places where the characters get a little off-model, or where the writing is a little too overt, or where the cartooning invites a comparison (to, for example, Joe Sacco) that it can't quite sustain—but I think this book is a hell of a lot smarter, and a good deal more moving, than most first graphic novels. I didn't know Mike Dawson had it in him. Now I'm really looking forward to whatever comes next.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Izzy Challenge #5

I got something neat in the mail this afternoon, and since it's a bit closer to the alleged subject of this blog than my last post, I thought I'd do some show and tell.

This is the new issue of J.B. Winter's Izzy Challenge, a jam / constraint-based minicomic in which Winter tries out new and experimental ideas for collaborative comics.

I'm in it. You see, back when I still lived in Connecticut and Tom Motley (who has a new blog, by the way) still lived in Colorado, we became neighbors in a list of cartoonists from all fifty states...

... Or, wait -- maybe that's not the best way to explain it.

The latest issue of Izzy is a fifty-state, fifty-cartoonist jam, in which each cartoonist drew a vacation snapshot for Izzy the Mouse as he made his way (impossibly, alphabetically) through the entire union. (Sorry, Mike, Izzy skipped DC.) Each drawing started with a cartoon of Izzy in a weird pose (drawn by Winter), and the cartoonist for that state chose a background and filled it in.

It's a fun little book, and well worth a read, if only to see what sorts of trouble Izzy gets into in Rhode Island or West Virginia. It's also cool to see Motley and me in close proximity to the likes of Matt Feazell and the J. Chris Campbell. (Shouts out, too, to my new neighbors in the Trees and Hills cartooning group, Colin Tedford of New Hampshire and Morgan Pielli of Vermont!)

Anyway, if you're interested in getting a copy for yourself, it's only a buck over at Winter's Etsy store. Pick up a copy of Noodle #2 (my favorite of his minis) while you're there!