Meeting up with Mohammed from Bahrain in NYC for a cup of coffee!

Comics, Tribute

If you read “Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the Sand,” then you remember one of the subjects of my piece was the young Bahraini cartoonist Mohammed. He did not fare so well after the abortive “Pearl Revolution,” with his work being censored and him been expelled from university. Over the last few years, Mohammed has had some ups and downs, but things improved for him this year: he was able to return to school, he started a cartooning & illustration business, and he won a competition sponsored by the U.S. State Department which enabled him to come to the U.S. for a few weeks this summer.

While Mohammed was here he spent an all-expenses paid week in White River Junction, Vermont, at the  Center for Cartoon Studies, where he took a graphic novel workshop with Paul Karasik. At CCS, Mohammed participated in lectures, collaborative exercises, book discussion sessions, events, and group critiques. And after that experience—which he loved—he came down to the Tri-State Area, and he and I got to hang out in Brooklyn one recent afternoon.

Over the years I’ve kept up with the “characters” from A.D., following their lives as they continue to rebound and regroup from Hurricane Katrina. And it was nice to be able to do the same with Mohammed, to see that he is well and is continuing to pursue his passions. In an interesting twist, Mohammed wrote and drew this piece —in my voice—commemorating our Brooklyn “reunion.” (He photoshopped in my signature.)

MohammedAlmahdi-josh-sm

Flattering depiction, don’t you think?

I welcome him to my studio and gave him a little tour of Prospect Heights. We never did have that cup of coffee, but we grabbed a cone from Mister Softee, strolled through Grand Army Plaza, and made a quick stop at Bergen Street Comics. Mohammed really enjoyed the visit; here’s a “selfie” we took of the actual visit (with me holding the framed print of his piece)…

mohammed-josh

The Three Rogers

Tribute

For some reason, there have been three writers named Roger who have been inspirations in my life: the science fiction/fantasy writer Roger Zelazny, the baseball writer Roger Angell, and the film critic Roger Ebert—who died yesterday at age 70.

I try to make a point of letting people who’ve inspired me know it. When I was in college I wrote Zelazny (who passed away in 1995) a gushing fan letter (Nine Princes in Amber and Lord of Light are still two of my favorite books)—which he was kind enough to respond to. Some years back I also wrote Angell (who is now 92 years old) to tell him how much I relished his whimsical and lyrical baseball season recaps in The New Yorker. And in 2003 I wrote Ebert the following letter:

… I’m writing you … to thank you for all the wonderful advice you’ve given me over the years. I really value your opinions on movies and often find my tastes to coincide with your own. Most of all, though, I’m amazed at how generous a critic you are, how you always give each film the benefit of the doubt. You seem the opposite of most film reviewers, who seem to take a “guilty until proven innocent” approach! You are also obviously a person with a wide range of references, someone who has a life outside of the movie theater. And this breadth of knowledge, an appreciation of real life, shows in your criticism. Honestly, given the amount of movies you must see each week, I don’t know how you maintain such a fresh approach.

(Despite my praising his generosity, Ebert could also be quite cutting in his criticism. This is a list of some of his most memorable pans.)

In 2010, I wrote a blog post about Ebert’s illness. In it, I wrote that I looked forward to many more of his reviews in the future. Well, I got three more years. My Fridays will be forever diminished by not having a new one to read. Rest in peace, Roger.

Comics Class Homework: Copying Crumb

Comics, Tribute, Work
Gurl-Crumb2

A recent assignment in Phoebe Gloeckner‘s Comics & Graphic Narratives class was to copy a page of another artist’s work, the two choices being Charles Burns or R. Crumb. I chose Crumb, the page in question being the opener of the six-page piece “A Gurl,” featuring his Ruth Schwartz character and first published in Big Ass #2 (August 1971). (Oh, that naughty Crumb and his big-butt fetish!)

Both are great artists to emulate, but I chose to copy Crumb because his cross-hatch inking style is so different than mine. (By the way, the rules of the assignment were no tracing or light-boxing; just to copy the page as best you could.) I ditched my normal tool (the Kuretake Sumi Fountain Brush Pen) and picked up a nib for the first time in… Jeez… thirty years! When I tried using a crowquill pen back in high school, I spattered ink all over the place and threw the thing down after twenty minutes. This time was much better, although it’s still a messy business, especially for left-handed me, who’s constantly smudging ink with the side of my palm. Back in high school I was known as “Captain Wite-Out” because of my dependence on the correction fluid. In recent years I’ve found a system (e.g., my brush pen) that’s much less messy, and as a result all my Wite-Out bottles have dried up. But I needed a new bottle for this project!

I hadn’t tried cross-hatching since my ill-fated Joe Sacco phase back in the mid-90s (still to be seen in a few stories in A Few Perfect Hours), and even there it was to create patterns and textures, not to emulate light and shade. For this assignment, even though I did very minimal penciling, choosing to do most of the drawing directly in ink, it still took me absolutely forever to copy the page—at least eight full hours spread over three days.

What did I glean from the exercise? First of all: What an incredible draftsman Crumb is. Not that I didn’t know that already, but there’s nothing like following someone, step for step, to appreciate their mastery. The nuances of his line work and hatching! I could spend a hundred years perfecting my craft and I would never have his light touch. Crumb’s work is also so tactile, so filled with the mass of real life. As I was working I was transported back to bohemian San Francisco, in that room with Crumb as he created the page. I also appreciated his comprehensive knowledge of anatomy. Even though this piece uses exaggeration for humorous/erotic effect, it’s all still based on the real human form (and real window blinds, furniture, rugs, etc.).

Although I felt the assignment was for me to be as slavish as possible, there were a few tangents in Crumb’s original that threw me off. By tangents I mean places where lines in the picture touch each other in awkward ways that disrupt the illusion of three-dimensionality we crave when looking at figurative art. In panel one, these tangents are the Gurl’s left foot, which seems to rest on the bottom of the panel border; and also the toe of her right foot, which perfectly touches the Gurl’s left heel. Far be it from me to correct the master, but tangents bother me! So in my drawing I lowered her left foot just a tad so that it clearly goes below the panel border. And I added a little space between her left and right feet. Probelm solved!

As you can tell, I really enjoyed this exercise. It’s always good to get out of your comfort zone—especially if, like me, you’ve been doing something for a long time. And who knows how it might affect my future work? Time will tell.

So here’s the big reveal: first Crumb’s original page and then my imitation. Just for fun, I’m also throwing in Crumb’s own original sketches for the piece, preliminary drawings from his sketchbook. Enjoy.

R. Crumb's "A Gurl," 1971
Crumb’s original, 1971
"A Gurl" copied by Josh Neufeld from R. Crumb
Josh’s copy, 2013
R. Crumb, preliminary sketches for "A Gurl"
Crumb’s preliminary sketches


Finally, here’s a detail from the original scan of my page before I started liberally applying Wite-Out. Smudge City!

Smudge City!
Smudge City!

Harvey Pekar & JT Waldman's NOT THE ISRAEL MY PARENTS PROMISED ME

Plug, Tribute

The late great Harvey Pekar left behind an amazing legacy of work. He had so many books in the pipeline when he passed away in July 2010 that there are still new books coming out today (including the wonderful Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, illustrated by Joseph Remnant). Another new book of Harvey’s, illustrated by JT Waldman, was sent to me in galley form by his publisher, who asked for a blurb. I was happy to oblige, and here it is:

Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me is a fascinating history of the so-called Promised Land—as seen through the eyes of an estranged Jew from Cleveland. Brimming with classic Pekar asides and details, the book sheds light on a subject usually obscured by heat. JT Waldman’s evocative artwork combines down-to-earth American Splendor-style illustrations with motifs inspired by everything from mythology to Islamic Art to illuminated manuscripts to Chagall. In cleverly reminding us of its collaborative nature, the book evokes the uneasy conversations Jews often have amongst themselves about Israel. Personally, I never got to say goodbye to Harvey, a man I had known and worked with for over fifteen years. Reading this book was like having a final, wide-ranging conversation with him.

Rosalie Lightning, 2009–2011

Tribute

How horrible to write that “headline”…

Our friends Tom Hart and Leela Corman lost their two-year-old daughter, Rosalie, on Friday night. Sari and I can’t even begin to imagine the grief they must be going through. Ironically, tonight we just came back from a weekend trip to Chicago, where we left Phoebe behind with her grandparents. On Friday, right before the flight, Sari and I talked a bit about what we hoped would happen to Phoebe — and how she would be cared for — should we both die in a plane crash. Little did we know what was transpiring that very same time, but in reverse, with Tom and Leela.

Their dear friends and fellow cartoonists, Lauren Weinstein and Jon Lewis, have more to say about the situation. I found this line of Jon’s particularly touching: “My friends are in a horror world I don’t even know if I can understand, past some mountains and behind a veil; I want to touch them and protect them but there’s no way to do that.”

Now would be a good time to read Tom’s ongoing strip, “Daddy Lightning,” inspired by his journey as a father. He says he plans on continuing the strip.

Please consider donating to the Rosalie Lightning Memorial fund (administered through PayPal), to help the family with funeral and related expenses.

Now I must go hug my daughter… for a very long time.

Victor, R.I.P.

Tribute

Victor, the long-time superintendent of my apartment building, passed away on Friday, 11/11/11. He was 71 years old.

It may seem strange to write a tribute to your super, but Victor was an amazing man. He took care of the building for more than 30 years, before ill health forced him into retirement in 2010. He knew all the residents, all 78 units in the building inside and out, and the boiler was like his own child. We moved here 11 years ago, and from the beginning, Victor looked out for us and our apartment. He had a scratchy voice, barely speaking above a whisper, the result of a throat operation, but his condition never deterred him. He was constantly animated, with a wicked sense of humor and a love of gossip — I learned more about the building’s history and the other residents from him than I ever have from personal experience.

From my prior bouts in New York City apartments, superintendent were usually gruff, unmotivated, and difficult to get ahold of. Victor was the opposite in every way. He was literally always around, available at a moment’s notice from his basement apartment. In all the years we lived here, I don’t remember Victor ever taking a vacation. He took it as a point of pride that he was a constant presence. We always used to say that the building was his life. We used to joke that he would die in the building.

And in the end it proved to be true. In his last years, diabetes had made him practically immobile, and he was sub-contracting his superintendent work to underlings. He basically couldn’t do his job anymore, and the co-op board was put in the unfortunate position of forcing him to retire and hiring a new super. They allowed Victor to stay in his basement apartment ’til the end of the year, and even arranged for a large, low-rent apartment for him and his family to move into in another neighborhood. But it became increasingly clear that Victor would never leave; the building and its residents were too important to him.

* * *

Sari and I went to his viewing on Monday night, at a local funeral home. It was the first time I’d seen an open casket (if you don’t count the Balinese cremation ceremony I witnessed back in 1992), and the first time I saw someone I had known after they were dead. It was quite weird, though not quite as unsettling as I anticipated. And in fact, I would have barely recognized Victor if I hadn’t known it was him. In his heyday, Victor’s hair was tousled, he was wearing grease-stained overalls, and there would have been oil or grease on his face and hands. Now his hair was combed and he was wearing a suit. A slight smile was on his face. His skin was powdered — he looked a little out of focus, or like a wax effigy of himself. His family had put a set of rosary beads in his hands, and his casket was decorated with a giant New York Yankees logo. The logo was actually larger than his name.

Many other building residents came to the viewing as well, to greet the family and extend their condolences. Also there was Van, the building porter and Victor’s long-time right-hand man. He sat uncharacteristically somber, contemplating Victor’s body. But then he nudged Juan, Victor’s replacement, and said, “You better watch out — this building kills supers.”

Victor's plaque

The plaque our building made for Victor, now hanging in the lobby

Seth Kushner's HARVEY PEKAR Tribute

Comics, Publicity, Tribute

Today is the one-year anniversary of Harvey Pekar‘s death. One of the more extraordinary homages appearing today is Seth Kushner’s photo comic, "Harvey Pekar: Tribute to ‘Our Man.’" (It’s #25 of Seth’s CulturePop series on ACT-I-VATE.) Weaving wonderful photos of Harvey with Pekar’s own words, it takes the reader through his remarkable life and career. People like Harvey’s wife Joyce Brabner, the filmmakers behind the American Splendor movie, and collaborators like Dean ( ) Haspiel, Jeff () Newelt, and Joseph Remnant make appearances as well. (Oh, and I’m in there too.) It’s memoir, it’s photography, it’s comics — it’s Seth’s unique form of creative expression. Please check it out: http://act-i-vate.com/104-25-1.comic.

P.S. Another nice tribute is KCRW’s re-broadcast of a 2003 conversation between Harvey and Elvis Mitchell: http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/tt/tt030813harvey_pekar

Harvey Pekar, 1939–2010

Tribute

I was stunned today to hear that Harvey Pekar died. Though I hadn’t worked with Harvey in a couple of years, my history with him goes back to 1994. That was when I wrote him out of the blue, sending him samples of my work and "demanding" he give me a chance to illustrate one of his stories in American Splendor. I was shocked a couple of weeks later when he called me up — and agreed to give me a story to draw! That first one-pager started a 15+-year relationship that gave me much more than just some publication credits.

Besides the many stories of his I worked on, I got the opportunity to really know Harvey and his wife Joyce and foster daughter Danielle. I guess I can’t say he was a friend, per se, but he was much, much more than just a collaborator. That was the thing about Harvey: there was no distinction between his comics and his life. So just as I got to contribute to his incredible, unprecedented undertaking of documenting a life in comics, I got to be part of that actual life. Whether it was random phone calls to ask me what I thought of a new artist he was working with, or the many times I saw him when he came to New York, or the time he wrote me as a character into one of the stories we worked on, I felt honored to be folded into the world of Harvey Pekar and American Splendor.

Most of all, Harvey was a model for me as a comics creator. Through reading his work and working with him, I learned to appreciate the strangeness of real life and the little details of daily existence. As a writer, his unflinching honesty and refusal to engage in sentimentality are qualities which I continue to try to emulate. Obviously, my own attempts at autobiography (which pale next to his best work) were directly influenced by my association with Harvey. And just as Harvey branched out from autobiography to biography and to history, my path in nonfiction comics has led me to "comics journalism."

Above all, I will miss Harvey the man. His intensity and insight made every conversation with him an adventure. Beneath his curmudgeonly exterior was a loyal, supportive, and approachable human being — the same guy who started self-publishing his stories back in 1976 because he had something to say, and found a unique way to say it.

I can’t believe that this distinctive spirit no longer inhabits the planet.

Roger Ebert: The Essential Man

Tribute

I just read a heartbreaking/uplifting profile of film critic Roger Ebert in this month’s Esquire. I knew he had been seriously ill a few years back, but had no idea that because of his 2006 illness, he lost his lower jaw and the ability to speak, eat, and drink. Just stop for a minute and try to imagine that…

I know Ebert is considered by many highbrows to be a "reviewer" and not really a "critic," but I’ve always valued his opinions and advice — and often find his tastes to echo my own. (And I’ve been reading his reviews and/or watching his TV show for going on 25 years.) Most of all, though, I’ve always been amazed at how generous a critic he is, how he always gives each film the benefit of the doubt. To me, he’s the opposite of most film reviewers, who seem to take a "guilty-until-proven-innocent" approach.

As evidenced by the Esquire piece, Ebert is a person with a wide range of references, someone who has a life outside of the movie theater. This breadth of knowledge, this appreciation of real life, has always shown in his criticism, even before the tragedy which befell him. Given the amount of movies he must see each week, I always wondered how he maintained such a fresh approach. Now I have a little more insight into that question.

So, thank you, Mr. Ebert, for all your fine work. As an avid filmgoer, I look forward to many more of your reviews in the future.

2010 Ford C. Frick award winner Jon Miller

Tribute

San Francisco Giants radio play-by-play announcer Jon Miller yesterday was declared the winner of this year’s Ford C. Frick award. That means he’s going to the Hall of Fame! As a long-time baseball fan, I couldn’t be happier with his recognition. I’ve come to appreciate quite a few radio play-by-play announcers over the years, from Hank Greenwald & Lindsay Nelson, to Vin Scully, to Phil Rizzuto & Bill White, to Ed Coleman & Bob Murphy — but I like Jon Miller the best.

Miller has an uncanny ability to illustrate the action, to bring the game to life. It’s a true art, and through him I’ve really come to appreciate it. Miller’s terrific sense of humor is his chief tool (I love his banter with the other Giants announcers, especially the end of the game wrap-ups), but I also enjoy his easy, colloquial style, his appreciation of the weather, the stadium, and the fans. Not to mention his home run and double play calls.

I especially admire Miller’s sense of perspective. No matter how serious the situation, how dire things look for the Giants, he always reminds us baseball is after all a game: entertainment, a diversion. Baseball games are long (and occasionally tedious), and Miller’s anecdotes and stories of other gigs and other games enliven what could otherwise be dull radio. (Miller also does hilarious impersonations of other announcers, including a dead-on "Vin Scully".)

I think the moment I most enjoyed was the leisurely afternoon game he was calling where he spotted a guy with a radio headset sitting in the stands next to some friends of Miller’s. I’ll never forget the hilarity as Miller described the scene and got the attention of the guy, who was, of course, listening to him on the Giants flagship station KNBR! I imagine Miller might have gotten in a bit of trouble that day for "breaking the rules," but it was a treat to listen to, and really brightened my day.

Overall, Miller conveys a strong attachment to the Giants and their players, but combines that with an uncompromising honesty. He’s no "homer," unwilling to criticize the team or point out a bad play. That’s probably the highest compliment an announcer can receive, and I think Miller has struck the perfect balance. His Hall of Fame induction is well deserved.

P.S. After becoming a Giants fan as an 11-year-old kid in 1978, I left San Francisco for New York in 1980. Despite living out here in Yankees-Mets country, I stuck with my San Francisco team through thick and thin. (And most of those were pretty thin years.) As luck would have it, I moved back to San Francisco in the summer of 1997, which is where I discovered Miller and his unique announcing style. Knowing what little I do of Miller’s career, it seems our paths were somewhat similar in that we both had spent at least parts of our childhoods in the Bay Area and then returned later in life — in 1997! Though I moved back to the East Coast in 1999, it was a great pleasure sharing those three seasons of ’97–’99 with Miller and rest of the Giants’ announcing crew. Now, in New York, I am able to listen to many Giants games online, through mlb.com. I don’t get to tune it to quite as many games as I’d like, but thanks to a DSL connection and the fact that I’m self-employed and work at home, it’s turned out surprisingly well.