This is a week for giving thanks, so I’m penning a little shout-out to my Atlantic Center for the Art associates. They were a great group: so talented, dedicated, and inspiring! And after 20+ years of working solo in my home/studio, I have to say the experience of sharing a studio with them has made me rethink my aversion to studio environments. We shall see…
In the meantime, I wanted to show off the beautiful hand-made card my associates presented me at the end of our residency. Cliodhna Lyons fabricated the card (which measures 4″ x 5-1/2″) as an accordian-style pamphlet. It is now one of my most prized possessions. Check it out:
First, the cover, with a very snazzy French flap! “Team Bogota[s]” refers to a slight miscommunication between Neil O’Driscoll and Sara Woolley and the subject of her project:
I just came across a passel of (mostly) funk music mix tapes (yes, cassette tapes) Dean Haspiel propagated in the 1990s. Some of the cassettes were embellished with photos—Dino shirtless, natch, and also one of his beloved cat.
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.)
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)…
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.
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.
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.
Finally, here’s a detail from the original scan of my page before I started liberally applying Wite-Out. Smudge City!
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.
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.
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.”
The plaque our building made for Victor, now hanging in the lobby
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.
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.