I’m excited to share a new comics piece that’s just been published in a benefit anthology. It’s about New York City and the COVID-19 pandemic, and it features my very own brother, Jake Neufeld.
We’ve all seen a lot of stories about the medical professionals on the front lines of this crisis. But the doctors and nurses aren’t the only ones in the hospital. Jake, my bro, is the assistant director of emergency management at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK), NYC’s cancer hospital. The story covers the way he and his team responded to one of the worst days of the crisis. The story sheds light on what challenges the “behind-the-scenes” people at hospitals (now in other parts of the country) are facing during the pandemic.
Put together by Dean Haspiel and Whitney Matheson, PANDEMIX has 56 pages of comics related to these crazy times, by 18 creators, most of them based in New York. It’s a fabulous collection, with a variety of different takes on what we’re all going through.
The piece is an adapted excerpt from my mom’s mid-1970s manuscript, The Art of Cooking, which features a mock dialogue primarily between Julia Child and Craig Claiborne (with various interlopers.) We took the excerpt and adapted it into comics form—and I am confident in saying that this is a very different representation of Child and Claiborne than you’ve ever seen before!
Why now? Good question! Here’s an excerpt from my mom’s intro to the piece:
The [story] centers on access to food. Specifically, it takes on the people’s right to affordable high-quality food—and the repeated effort to either get fair prices, with government support, from producers and middlemen or otherwise obtain and distribute food by other means, such as by seizing and allocating it via actions often called food riots, which are a recurring form of people’s justice.
Josh Neufeld and I have worked on this comic off and on for about a year, and its topicality and resonance have varied as we did so. In the run-up to publication, when hoarding and price gouging scarred the coronavirus pandemic response, the comic, as already written, seemed to pitch itself in one direction. But as we are about to go to press, with the comic still unchanged, a different question of justice is at stake: people’s right to demand justice and equal treatment as well as equal access to social goods under the law in every aspect of life. No justice, no peace.
My mother and I have done some collaborative comics before, including one on gardening and Guantanamo Bay, and one on Jonas Salk. This is the longest one yet. E-flux journal (to quote their own description) “is a monthly art publication featuring essays and contributions by some of the most engaged artists and thinkers working today. ” They also happen to be the sponsor of the Martha Rosler Library traveling exhibition, which was (to quote Wikipedia) “a reading room in which over 7,500 volumes from her private collection were made available as a public resource in venues in and around art institutions, schools, and libraries.”
Apparently, the woman I captured on video the other night (from the George Floyd murder protest), throwing what I thought was a glass bottle at a stationary police van, actually threw a Molotov cocktail. (If you watch the video you can see that the bottle as it flies through the air is faintly glowing.) At the time, I had no idea that’s what happened, even though I was standing very close nearby! (Although you can see from the reaction of those even closer than me, that many people did see what the object was.)
As you can see in the video — which I shot at approximately 10:40 pm on the corner of Eastern Parkway and Washington Avenue — the bottle shatters harmlessly on the side of the van. Immediately afterward, the van then reverses on the street and four officers jump out and pursue the woman. They eventually corral her on the steps of the nearby Brooklyn Museum. Subsequent reports have listed her name as Samantha Shader, of Catskill, New York.
Shader was initially charged with four counts of attempted murder of a police officer, attempted arson, assault on an officer, criminal possession of a weapon, and reckless endangerment.
From my perspective, it appears the case against her has been exaggerated by the police. And much of the news reporting on the incident has been shoddy — because much of the information in the reports came from police rather than reporters or eyewitnesses. For instance, multiple outlets initially blamed Shader for a totally separate incident of an unoccupied police van being set on fire in Fort Green, a different neighborhood in Brooklyn. (I live in Prospect Heights.) The oh-so-reliable Washington Times, for instance, writes, “The officers were able to quickly exit the vehicle before it became engulfed in flames.”
From my video, you can clearly see the bottle did not break any of the van’s windows, and the van certainly never caught on fire. (My wife Sari also filmed the incident, from our apartment window, and you can also see from her video that the van is unharmed.)
Other reports on the story I found last night on the web made similar claims, and errors. For instance, The Mount Pleasant Daily Voice wrote that “the four officers inside the van were able to escape as the fire broke out.”
It looks like much the misinformation can be attributed to an NYPD spokesman, Det. Brian Magoolaghan, who told Hudson Valley 360 that “the bottle shattered a window but did not explode on impact, Magoolaghan said. The four officers, who were not injured, were able to get out of the van before the firebomb exploded and van burst into flames, Magoolaghan said.”
In another example of poor reporting, the New York Daily News wrote that “An upstate woman admitted using a Molotov cocktail to set ablaze an NYPD vehicle with four officers inside. . . . At about 1:12 a.m. Saturday, Shader approached a police vehicle near the corner of Eastern Parkway and Washington Ave. and lit up a bottle containing ‘an incendiary chemical.”
So the Daily News apparently got their facts from the police affidavit, which has the time wrong by almost two-and-a-half hours. More importantly, they state that the vehicle was “set ablaze,” which it definitely was not.
To its credit, the Daily News reports that “Two other protesters are suspected of setting fire to a second police vehicle at about 12:57 a.m. Saturday near the 88th Precinct in Clinton Hill.” (Clinton Hill is adjacent to Fort Green, so sometimes the two neighborhoods are confused for each other.)
The New York Post initially wrote that Shader had set the van set ablaze and the four cops had barely escaped with their lives — but they have now changed the story to get closer to the facts (though with no record of their correction).
The N.Y. Post and Gothamist both write that the NYPD announced they were charging Shader with four counts of attempted murder, but apparently now the federal government is taking over the case, charging her with the much less serious crime of “Causing Damage by Fire and Explosives to a Police Vehicle.” I’m not sure if both cases will still proceed, (The Gothamistpiece also gets the time wrong, saying it was at 1:12 AM — I’m assuming they got that from the police affidavit.)
The New York Times reported that “A Molotov cocktail was thrown at an occupied police van at around 1 a.m., Mr. Shea said. . . . While the firebomb Ms. Shader threw shattered a rear window of the van, the officers inside managed to jump out.” The time is wrong, and I still contend that the van’s window was not broken.
I’m not in any way trying to excuse what Shader did, but it appears — big surprise — that the case against her has been exaggerated by the police, and has been amplified by some weak reporting.
When I saw this week’s cover of The New Yorker, “Still Life,” by cartoonist Chris Ware, I was immediately reminded of a comics piece I had drawn nearly 30 years ago. Chris’ cover is a multi-panel non-narrative portrait of New York City under coronavirus lockdown. My piece, from the fall of 1991, is a multi-panel non-narrative portrait of the U.S. in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm (the first Gulf War).
The origins of my piece stem from a period when I was first starting to think about different ways I could use the comics form. Up to that point, pretty much all I had ever drawn were superhero-style comics, but I was losing interest in the genre and I was confused about what other possibilities there were for the form. So this piece, which is untitled, came out of that search.
The page mostly features familiar motifs of the first Gulf War era — camouflage, American flags, military helicopters — and some signs of the season — bare tree branches, fallen leaves. But it also has other more fanciful features. It’s like an impression of a certain time — in the life of the city, and in the psychology of a young man of that era.
One of the most striking similarities between the two pieces are images of New York City’s iconic skyscrapers in the page’s lower-left areas: Chris’s portrait of the illuminated Empire State Building at night, and my portrait of the towers of the World Trade Center, shrouded in fog. (If you are darkly sentimental, it’s easy to imagine those are the towers surrounded by the smoke of their own destruction on 9/11 — still some 10 years in the future.)
It just so happens that I know Chris Ware. We met in Chicago a few after I drew this piece, through a mutual friend, and our occasional get-togethers were very meaningful for me as an aspiring “alternative cartoonist.” Chris was always encouraging to me, and he taught me a lot about the practice of comics; and it was fun getting together with him and his wife Marnie.
Before you ask, he definitely never saw my non-narrative comic, and it has never been published — or until now, even publicly exhibited. I was just struck by the two piece’s superficial similarities.
(By the way, I colored the piece directly on the page with Design markers — probably the last time I ever used markers of any kind on my comics. Pre-PhotoShop!)
P.S. My very astute wife points out that Chris’s piece is very clearly NOT non-narrative (now that’s a confusing sentence). If you “read” it left-to-right, top-to-bottom, you realize that the story progresses through a day from morning to evening, and much of it is from the perspective of one person stuck in their apartment. There’s so much more to his piece than just an aspect-to-aspect series of images. Proof once again that Chris Ware is a genius!!
I really enjoyed the exercise, and ever since I have incorporated it into my own teaching, especially when I’m working with comics students who lack confidence in their drawing. The rules of the assignment are no tracing or light-boxing; just to copy the page as best you can. As I always tell my students, there’s nothing like “getting into another artist’s hand”—following their process, step for step, and appreciating they way they solve pictorial problems…
Recently, I had the occasion to assign the copying drill for a comics class I was teaching, and I took the opportunity to again do the exercise myself. The page I chose to copy was from Jules Feiffer‘s 2014 graphic novel Kill My Mother.
I’ve always admired Feiffer “from afar”—his style is so different from mine! —the devil-may-care look of his figures, and his comfort with white space and borderless panels. So copying a page of his was a real exercise for me in getting out of my normal head space as an artist.
As with the previous Crumb copy, I tried to do as little penciling as possible and work directly in ink. The original page was two colors and utilized a faint ink wash, but I chose to do my copy in simple black—although I left in the faint blue pencil marks I made as I was sketching in the figures and lettering. It also appears that Feiffer did his art using a nib (and a brush for the wash?), while I chose to retain my trusty Kuretake Sumi Fountain Brush Pen.
One challenge I faced was that the paper I used to make my copy had a slightly different size ratio than Feiffer’s—mine was a bit “fatter.” So in the end I had a bit more horizontal space to work with than he did.
I really enjoyed this exercise! For the first time I saw what a solid understanding Feiffer has of the human figure—that despite the looseness of the art, how grounded it is in real human anatomy. It was also fun for me to draw “heroic” figures again, a practice I basically abandoned 25 years ago when I stopped drawing superhero comics. I tried my best—not always successfully—to capture the fluidity of his forms, to not let my figures get stiff. I especially enjoyed copying Feiffer’s lettering—the distinctive way he forms his T’s, K’s, Y’s, and G’s is so different than mine.
And as with the Crumb assignment, this process really helped me appreciate what a masterful cartoonist Feiffer was and is—especially when you consider that he produced this book when he was 85 years old!
It’s fun to compare the two pages and see where they differ (mostly in unintentional ways). So without further ado, here are the results: first Feiffer’s page and then my copy…
Bonus question: can you spot the typo in the Feiffer page? I fixed it in the copy.
This season we will be breaking down the 2003 film American Splendor, scene by scene (thus the title!), talking about Harvey Pekar, our collaborations with him, and the joys & challenges of being professional cartoonists.
I was inspired by the burgeoning movement of “minute-by-minute” podcasts to launch this show, and am so thrilled to have Dino as my co-host. We’ve been friends and comics colleagues since high school, and Dean is one of the most talented and entertaining human beings I know. The fact that he also worked for Harvey for a long time — AND was integral to the American Splendor movie happening — made it a no-brainer.
Harvey Pekar has been deceased now for almost ten years, and it’s time people started talking about him again. (After all, it’s impossible to imagine iconic TV shows “about nothing” like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm without the example of the original “ordinary life is pretty complex stuff” American Splendor.)
In the podcast Dean and I will analyze each scene of the movie in order, episode by episode, with analysis, humor, and inside information. We promise to reveal previously unexplored connections between the original American Splendor comics and the film’s construction, and Harvey’s life & career,
Just as importantly, each episode will also serve as a jumping-off point for talking about Dean’s and my own careers. Topics will include the nature of identity, truth in art, and the realm of memoir/autobiography.
We’re having a lot of fun doing the podcast, and I think it shows — the tone is very much in the spirit of our friendship, irreverent and playful.
Guests on the podcast will include other former Pekar collaborators, as well as actors, filmmakers, and producers.
And it all starts today! All you need to do to prepare is watch the movie again (or watch it with us, scene by scene!)…
Scene by Scene can be found on all major podcast platforms and distributors. To listen, visit SceneByScenePodcast.com or your favorite pod-catcher. The Scene by Scene website also features examples of our illustrations, comics samples from American Splendor and other places, process drawings, and a store.
I’ve been thinking about Harvey Pekar a lot recently; more details to follow. But in the meantime, I revived and updated a “coping mechanism” project I first created years ago: a comprehensive listing of all the artists Harvey worked with over the years, from his first published piece in 1974 up through his death (and beyond). You can find it here.