Pull Up Those PIIGS!

Comics, Illustration

My mother, Martha Rosler, and I have just collaborated on a public art piece in central Berlin. It’s on the topic of the ongoing European debt crisis, and it’ll be on display on the building (at Auguststraße 10, 10117 Berlin, Germany) until the end of November. (I wasn’t aware of this beforehand, but “PIIGS” is an acronym used by international bond analysts, academics, and the economic press to refer to the economies of Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain in regard to the ongoing sovereign debt crisis.)

My mom came up with the concept and text, and I did the illustration. The project was commissioned by DAAD (in English, the German Academic Exchange Service). My mother is in Berlin for a year on a residency sponsored by DAAD. This is the second large public art collaboration I’ve done with her, the first being part of the MAK Center’s “How Many Billboards?” project from last year.

The piece is quite massive, approximately 35′ x 42.’ Here’s a photo:

Pull Up Those PIIGS

Pull Up Those PIIGS!

This is how the building normally looks (without the palm trees), sorry about the weird cropping:

Auguststraße 10 10117 Berlin, Germany

And here’s a link to a larger version of the original illo, complete with the groovy yellow-green background which they had to cut out for print-compatibility reasons…

Kyat Chat, or, "Is that 100 kyat in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”


As I mentioned earlier, the Myanmar unit of currency is the kyat (pronounced “chat”). It exchanges at about 1000 kyats to the dollar, and since the most common bill is the 1000-kyat bill (there are rumors a 5,000-kyat bill exists, but I never saw it), when you change money you inevitably end up with a huge wad of bills.

And, no, that’s not an optical illusion — the 1000-kyat bill actually comes in two sizes! (I think the smaller ones are newer vintage — they were trying to save paper…) So when I got a hundred of the larger ones, that was a super-wad in my pocket. Whenever I had to pull it out and peel off some bills to pay for something, I felt like some kind of clumsy Mafioso showing off for his goomah.

The other amusing thing about Myanmar money is that they’re really particular about only accepting pristine U.S. dollar bills for exchange. If it’s creased, wrinkled, or god forbid a little torn, forget it — they won’t take it! But when it comes to their money, especially the small denomination bills like the 50-kyat (worth about 5 cents U.S.), you’d see some of the dirtiest, bedraggled bills you could imagine changing hands.

Later in my trip, when I was visiting the Bagan historical site (more about that later), a salesgirl outside a temple approached me waving three U.S. $1 bills. She wanted to exchange them for kyats. I was confused: why would I want U.S. money back? But our guide explained that individual U.S. dollars were useless for locals, hard to spend and not worth near their value when exchanged in small quantities. So by changing them for her I would be doing a great favor.

Good Samaritan that I am, I agreed to the exchange and was suddenly swarmed by girls with bills. In the end I changed at least $10 worth. The irony of the Jewish guy — outside a temple, no less — changing money for folks was not lost on me. Blake, however, pointed out that I wasn’t a very good money changer since I didn’t charge a fee or interest. I guess usury just ain’t in my blood, even if it is part of my heritage. (That’s a joke, folks!)

Postscript: a few temples later, a new girl approached me with some American bills to exchange. I can only imagine that word was spreading of the pale guy in the orange ball cap who traded U.S. bills for kyats.


Pre-Flight Checklist: Cash and Bagels


After all my fears, my Myanmar tourist visa came through with no complications. I had shown up at their East 77th Street consulate prepared for a face-to-face grilling about my plans, but it was all very by-the-book: all I had to provide was my passport, two photos, my itinerary, where I would be staying in-country, and a short statement about what I planned to do in Myanmar. (That last part I fudged a bit, mentioning a couple of landmarks like the Shwedagon Pagoda and Bagan, both of which I did intend on visiting anyway…) And because I was running short on time before my planned departure, the official there even pushed through the application, so I got the approval faster than the usual five-business-day waiting time!

Up until the moment I had the visa in my hands I hadn’t truly believed that this whole adventure was really going to happen. And now I only had two days before I was leaving.

Fortunately, I didn’t need any shots, so it was really a matter of just packing whatever I’d need for the trip. I remembered from Guy Delisle’s book that art supplies were often in short supply, so one thing I did was drop by an office supply store to buy a bunch of pens. They weren’t for me but for the Burmese cartoonists I would be working with. I use Sharpie Fine Points, Sharpie Extra Fine Points, and Uni-ball Deluxe Fine Point pens for backgrounds, filling in blacks, and fine linework, so I bought a bunch of each variety to give them as gifts. And I made sure to bring enough blue pencils and extra pens for myself as well.

From Burma Chronicles I also remembered that the Internet was heavily censored there, and power outages were common, but I determined to bring my laptop. I knew I would want to get some work done on the thirty-hour trips I was looking at getting there and coming back, and if I had any spare moments I would want to keep notes on my experiences. I also was supposed to deliver a PowerPoint presentation on my work during my visit, so that was another reason to tote the portable computer. And I figured the best chance I would have “phoning” back home would be to talk with Sari via Skype.

I also packed the requisite Tums, Tylenol, bug spray, and sunscreen.

The final thing I had to plan for was money. Even though I was going under the auspices of the U.S.A., I still had to pay for my expenses when I was actually in Burma. So that meant hotels, meals, etc. And this is where things were… different. For one thing, traveler’s checks are useless there — not accepted anywhere. Credit cards were essentially useless as well — only the occasional high-end hotel accepted them. And there are no such things as ATMs in Burma. So, even though the country is ridiculously cheap compared to the West, that still meant I was going to have to bring a fair amount of money. Once I had done the math, I realized I might need to bring something on the order of $2,000. In cash.

Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly used to carrying around money like that. I wrote to trusty Blake to see what he advised. “It’s all cash here. $2,000 will be plenty, and it’s always good to be on the safe side. I know it’s strange to carry so much cash around, but we all do it. You’ll need clean, crisp bills — you might ask your bank for their newest bills. Bring most of it in $100s.”

Yoiks! Going to my bank that afternoon was quite an experience. I rarely see a fifty dollar bill in my normal life. So withdrawing 15 $100s and a bunch of $50s was definitely a new one. I was actually struck, however, by how blasé my bank was about the whole thing. They didn’t even blink when I specifically requested new, pristine bills.

The last thing I packed before I left the house Saturday morning was a dozen fresh bagels. Blake’s boss, a native New Yorker, had mentioned them in an offhand way during my initial phone call, and I thought it would be nice thing to bring, a unique taste of home in a country far, far away.


Dream Come True

Comics, Geek

For years I had this recurring dream where I would be walking down the street and come across a huge stash of comics sitting in boxes on the sidewalk. In my dream, I never got to open the boxes and see what was inside, but I envisioned them filled with great old books to complete my collection or at least sell for a tidy sum.

So imagine my disbelief when Victor, my building superintendent, pulled me aside the other day. He took me into his storage space in the basement and showed me box after box overflowing with comics! Turns out they had been left to him by a couple of vacating tenants over the years, and he had just gotten the bright idea of trying to sell them. Even though I’ve lived in the building for over seven years, he never knew I was a cartoonist until fairly recently, so when he found out, he figured I was the guy to show them to. Now I love Victor; he’s a great super and he always goes out of his way to help out Sari and I. So I agreed to go through the boxes and see what was what.

It took me a week or so of hour-long visits, but eventually I went through the thousands of books, culling what I thought had some re-sale value. (I’m sort of touch with that market from selling books from my collection over the years.) Sadly, the vast majority of the comics were crappy ’90s Marvel and Image books, published during the speculator rage when supply way outpaced demand. But I did find a mother lode of vintage 1970s Marvels, going back to the era of 25-cent books. Most of the comics were in awful condition, having been read multiple times and never bagged or boarded. Even so, there were a couple of gems, including the first appearance of The Punisher in Amazing Spider-Man #129, the first appearance of Gambit in X-Men #266, and a nearly complete run of Claremont/Byrne/Austin X-Men.

I took the books with “potential” up to my apartment, and spent some hours here or there over the last few weeks putting them up on eBay. I also invested in some comics boxes and bags and boards. When all was said and done, I netted Victor over $300 (the Punisher Spider-Man alone sold for over $100!). Victor was thrilled when I brought him the cash the other day, and I’ve been getting to enjoy reading old comics, and filling some gaps in my old collection (mostly Byrne and George Pérez books). And I still have a bunch of books left to sell, when I get around to it. Who says dreams don’t come true?


Ringing the closing bell on Katrina


As a Hurricane Katrina Red Cross volunteer, I was invited to commemorate Katrina’s one-year anniversary by taking part in tomorrow’s NASDAQ closing bell ceremony. And it will all be viewable on web-cam! So look for me in a gaggle of NY-area Red Crossers as we mark the hurricane by celebrating the unstoppable storm of hyper-capitalism.

Tuesday, Aug. 29, 4 pm
– Windows Media Player required
– scroll to the bottom of the page under the heading MarketSite Live Web cam and click on Windows Media Player
– any time before 3:50 pm the webcam will show the tower, at 3:50 the router is switched and you can see inside the studio

Mint Julip at the Mandarin Oriental


The view from the 35th floor “lobby” of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel really is stunning. It looks out from the TimeWarner Center onto Columbus Circle and the south side of Central Park, and you feel like you’re in one of those movies about New York being the center of the universe.

I was at the Mandarin Oriental this morning for a meeting with a hedge fund manager from L.A. Let’s call him Mint Julip. About two months ago, Mint’s personal assistant called me out of the blue. The assistant (let’s call her Kathy T.) told me Mint was head of this boutique Hollywood capital advisor firm with lots of celebrity clients. She mentioned his two personal assistants (she being one of them) and seven fund managers. Well, la-de-da!

Seems Mint was working on a textbook about “value” investing (a la Warren Buffett), and he wanted to talk to me about adapting his book into a graphic novel. He hoped to tell me about his idea, find out what my upcoming schedule was, how I work, etc. Because of Titans of Finance, I get half-baked calls this like every so often; most times, they lead to nothing. But I said sure, and Kathy said she’d be back in touch. I figured that was the last I’d hear from Mint Julip.

But a couple of weeks later, I heard from Kathy again. Mint had ordered all my recent books — A Few Perfect Hours, The Vagabonds, Titans — and was still very interested in meeting with me. Could she call me after the holidays to set something up? Lo and behold, shortly after the new year, Kathy called me a third time. Mint was going to be in New York sometime between January 17th – January 19th, and what was my availability? They were serious! I’m always game for a new experience, so I said I would be around. (They tried to rope Titans’ writer R. Walker into the meeting as well, but he doesn’t respond well to being “summoned.” I don’t blame him. Also, he’s got other fish to fry.)

We eventually settled on a meet-up this morning at Mint’s hotel, the super-snazzy Mandarin Oriental, where rooms start at about $500 a night. (They actually have giant kimonos on the wall and Asian hostesses, but that’s another story.) After a short while, Mint came down from his suite and joined me at my lounge table, and all alone too — no personal assistants! A wiry 50-year-old with intense eyes, Mint was armed with a green apple and a Blackberry, which he was constantly reading or typing into during our conversation. He had the confident air of someone with a lot of money.

Turns out Mint really was just interested in meeting me, getting a sense of who I was. He reminded me of the Jewish version of a Mafia don, checking me out to make sure I’m “good people.” He insisted he’d really enjoyed Titans and A Few Perfect Hours, and thought I’d be a good fit for his book concept. It was fun talking to someone who actually knew many of the characters from Titans, and hearing his take on how they across in the comic. I’m not sure if he appreciated the book’s ironic component, but he enjoyed it nonetheless. (Rich and powerful people don’t need irony to get by in the world.) It was also interesting getting his reading of A Few Perfect Hours. I can’t say he read the book very carefully — he made some mention of Cambodia, which I have never visited — but he got the gist of it. (Rich and powerful people are too busy to read things carefully.)

Anyway, without going into the details of Mint’s project, in a weird way it would be a marriage of A Few Perfect Hours with Titans: a personal, even spiritual, journey with a finance angle. Whatever works, I guess. I’ve heard of nuttier books that have become best-sellers…

The upshot of the thing was that I kinda dug Mint. And who knows? He might just be wacky — and wealthy — enough to maybe make this book happen. As he said, if his publisher won’t go for him taking his book and making it into a graphic novel, then he’d be willing to foot the bill himself. It’s such a kooky idea, that I may just go along for the ride. For now, we’re going to wait to see what develops over the next 2-4 months. I’ll let you know as things progress.

Expense Account


Image hosted by Photobucket.comI haven’t kept a journal or a diary since about 1981 (and that one only lasted about four months), but my obsessive record-keeping sometimes fulfills the same function. I recently came across some “expense accounts” I kept in the 80s when I first went away to college. What they are is item-by-item lists of everything I bought while at school that I was hoping my dad would reimburse me for.

The painting is in the mail


I got an illo assignment Monday morning for a piece due yesterday evening. The article was about a painter (in Washington, DC) who pays his rent with his art. He makes pop-art pictures of George Washington. So immediately I made the connection between G-Wash and the one dollar bill. I did a couple of different concept sketches but this one made the most sense:

With George popping out of the dollar bill to sign a rent check, I thought it captured most of the elements of the story. The art director liked it, but suggested adding a frame to the outline of the dollar bill, to drive home the point that the bill itself is art and not an actual dollar bill. I also liked his idea because it takes the illo further away from the possibility of it being a commentary on, say, the national debt.

So here are the pencils for the piece:

I scanned in an actual dollar bill and squeezed and stretched it to fit the layout of the piece. Then I lightboxed it to get the details of the bill and lettering, and integrate it with the image of George leaning out of the bill. (I was especially proud of how I sneaked my signature in there.)

Then I went to final with inks and toning:

And, voila! – a finished piece. All by 6 pm last night.