I can’t believe how good is Andor, the Star Wars TV show that debuted in September on Disney+. It’s a Star Wars show with no lightsabers, no Jedis, no Force-users of any kind—and it’s all the better for it.
The show, which stars Diego Luna, reprising his role as Cassian Andor from Rogue One, is a Star Wars show for grownups. In tone, Andor is closer to excellent adult science fiction shows like The Expanse and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica than any of the other Star Wars offshoots. (To prove it’s “for grownups,” the show even has a sex scene—well, as close as you get to a sex scene in a Star Wars story…)
Andor is created by Tony Gilroy, who took the James Bond genre and gave it a more grown-up sensibility with the Jason Bourne film franchise. (Gilroy was the co-writer of Rogue One.) I feel like Gilroy did a lot of research about oppressive regimes and revolutionary movements before launching this show, and that he has a lot to say! Ostensibly, Andor is about the growth of the Rebellion, which eventually leads to the events of Rogue One and the original Star Wars (“A New Hope“), but it’s really about how revolutions happen in the real world. The show is about the Empire and its oppression, but it could just as easily be about England and the American colonists, or Batista’s Cuba before Castro, or any historical resistance movement.
In previous Star Wars stories, we’ve been told that life under the Empire is “bad” (and in Star Wars, of course,we do see the Empire blow up an entire planet), but Andor digs into what everyday life is like for ordinary citizens: the Empire’s partnership with exploitative mega-corporations who rape the land and abuse their workers, a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, and an ultra-punitive judicial system—and ruling above them all the far-off Emperor (who is never seen in the show).
Do you know Reds, that epic Warren Beatty movie about American radicals—including John Reed, Louise Bryant, Eugene O’Neill, and Emma Goldman—of the early 20th century? I remember watching it back when it came out in the early 1980s when I was too young to follow most of the story. I remember thinking, “This is an adult movie.” (And I was able to understand it a lot better once I was a college graduate.) Well, believe it or not, I feel the same way about Andor.
The show is set in the period after Star Wars Episode III — Revenge of the Sith, when the Empire has established itself and totally wiped out any legitimate opposition. Former Separatists—the “enemy” in the infamous Star Wars prequels—make up some members of the resistance, but other figures are involved too: factionalists like Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker), and current politicians like Mon Mothma (an excellent Genevieve O’Reilly)—future leader of the Rebel Alliance—who masquerades as an ineffectual socialite Senator but is deeply engaged with funding the resistance. Stellan Skarsgård is stellar (sorry, couldn’t resist) as an undercover rebel mastermind, the one who sees the potential in Cassian.
Andor does a really good job of portraying how fraught is life when you’re part of a revolutionary movement—how hard it is to trust your comrades because all it takes is one counter-agent to bring down the whole movement and send everyone to an awful fate.
The show’s characters—even the “baddies”—are complex. There are no heroes, just people trying their best to follow their beliefs. And then there is the main character, really well portrayed by Diego Luna, who’s trying to figure out what his beliefs are. Cassian Andor’s back story is fascinating, touching on issues of genocide—a continual theme in the show—but also explaining his “Spanish” accent.
The show is also surprising in that it chooses to portray a selection of true believers from the “other side”—members of the Empire like Syril Karn and Dedra Meero (played respectively by Kyle Soller and Denise Gough, both excellent in their roles). Their stories in the show—intimately tied to the plot—provide an inside look at the Imperial bureaucracy and the hurdles faced by those who, through their own independent thought, struggle to be heard and respected.
Obviously, I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I’ve seen the original trilogy scores of times, and continue to rewatch the Disney sequels, and, yes, even the benighted George Lucas prequel movies. To me, Rogue One, despite some flaws, was an excellent film (despite my shock, when seeing it the first time with my then-nine-year-old daughter, to discover that it was an unexpectedly violent war movie). And for the most part, I really enjoyed Solo-–of all the later movies, it best embodies the goofy energy of the first Star Wars film, and I thought Donald Glover was spot-on as Lando Calrissian. I’m a Mandalorian fan and have seen the other Disney+ live actions shows (though Obi-Wan was very mixed and The Book of Boba Fett felt like a total waste of time). I loved the Clone Wars animated show, and also enjoyed Star Wars Rebels. I still rank The Empire Strikes Back as one of my top ten movies of all time.
However, I’ve never read any of the “expanded universe” novels or dug deep into the Star Wars mythos beyond the movies and the various live-action/animated shows, so I don’t know if other writers had ever brought such dimension to the franchise. But Andor seems like the best kind of science fiction: filled with new worlds, new civilizations, and impressive visuals, but at its heart tied to struggles and issues we identify with here on Mother Earth.
Anyway, my point is if you tend to dismiss the Star Wars franchise as essentially childish fantasy tales (which is not wrong!), but you’re a fan of adult sci-fi, then consider checking out Andor.
Note: I’m writing this without having read any of the show’s reviews or comparing notes with any fellow Star Wars/sci-fi fans. So I have no idea how the rest of the world has received Andor. Do you like it? I’m also writing this before watching the season finale (which came out today), so no spoilers, please! There’s a lot of plot to resolve, and lots of characters whose fate lies in the balance, and I can’t wait to see how it all plays out…!
I recently unearthed an old art project of mine from 30+ years in storage, and it’s a fascinating time capsule, both of the late 1980s and of myself from that period.
The object in question is a large 36″ x 48″ collage I painstakingly crafted out of images cut from magazines, postcards, and my own art and photographs. Made during my senior year of college at Oberlin — on the cusp of charting my own path as a so-called adult — I see now that the collage reflects my desires, and fears, about the future.
Why did I make this thing? I believe I got the idea from a birthday present I had received a few years before: a wall calendar that encouraged the owner to decorate the page above each month of the year. For some of the months, I drew something, and for some of them, I made little collages.
It must also be acknowledged that my mother, the artist Martha Rosler, had created a series of feminist collages when I was a child for which she became quite well known. (One of those series, Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain, featured images of nude women paired with kitchen appliances!) I actually got to study my own mother’s work in college — I was an art history major with a focus on contemporary art — and while I was there she was invited to visit the school in an official capacity. So, I’m sure my mom’s work was hovering in the back of my mind as well.
Either way, I got in my head to make my own giant-size “Josh Collage.”
At first glance, the collage appears to be a straightforward catalog of my interests/obsessions from that period. My tastes back then were pretty mainstream — they still are — but what I was into, I was REALLY into. (And it’s funny: only in going through this collage in such detail do I truly appreciate how many of my interests and tastes — in music, in art, in politics — were informed by my mother. Thanks, mom — for bringing me into the world and shaping who I am in it.)
So WHY did I make this collage? I believe it was a form of “art therapy” for my insecure 21-year-old self, a way of proclaiming, “Hey, I exist!” And if so, it was a fun coping mechanism, like solving a puzzle, fitting all the images together in various pleasing (and occasionally clever) ways.
That said, it’s interesting to see what I chose to reveal about myself. Surprisingly there are virtually no images from popular movies or TV — no stills from Vietnam films (my obsession at that time), or Taxi Driver or The Godfather, or Woody Allen movies (probably for the best, that last one). No Star Wars. By the same token, there’s virtually nothing from the world of comics — other than my own artwork of the time. Clearly, I was trying to project an idea of myself, and even though I was still an avid reader of mainstream superhero comics at that point, I must have felt self-conscious about advertising it to whoever walked into my room. (This was all before I “discovered” the world of alternative comics — Harvey Pekar, Joe Sacco, et al.)
And, in poring over the collage again, I see that there was actually a larger concept behind it. The collage is roughly divided into sections — about me and my friends, about pop culture, about sports, about art, about city life, and about politics (with a fair amount of overlap). Looking at it now, though, from the vantage point of 30+ years, it seems to actually be a reflection of my anxieties and desires about the next stage of life in the “real world”: the big city, career, relationships… family?
So, here’s the full collage and my thoughts on its various elements. Prepare yourself for a trip back to 1988 — and the contents of my unformed brain…
Just in case you don’t instantly recognize these icons of the late 1980s (and in the spirit of the cover of Superman vs. Muhammad Ali), I’ve created a legend that identifies the various images that make up the collage. Let’s go through it, section by section, shall we?
This first section focuses on 21-year-old me: self-portraits, my own art, my friends, and my sense of humor. In retrospect, it also reveals some preliminary anxiety I might have had about one day becoming a father…
Self-portrait in pen-and-ink — It’s only appropriate that this self-portrait collage should start with a literal self-portrait. Like most teenagers, I spent countless hours staring (unhappily) at my face in a mirror. I drew this “soulful” chiaroscuro self-portrait in 1985, at the start of my freshman year at Oberlin. Is there any significance to the fact that I cut off the left (dark) side of my face from the original portrait? You tell me!
2. Slash vs. Blade — a panel from “Battle,” a jam comic I did with Dean Haspiel also during my freshman year, in the period 1985–1986. (Back then, pre-Internet, we would draw a page of the strip, fold it up and mail it via the post office to the other guy so he could continue the story. I was in Ohio; Dino was back in NYC.) Dean and I have known each other since freshman year of high school; this may have been our first true collaboration, predating our two-man anthology Keyhole, the jam comic Lionel’s Lament, and of course our podcast Scene by Scene with Josh and Dean. Slash was Dean’s character (inspired by Star Wars‘ Boba Fett) and Blade was mine (inspired by the Teen Titans villain Deathstroke the Terminator). In this panel, my character Blade is torturing Dino’s character Slash by stretching his mask to its fullest extent so it will snap back on his face in an extremely painful manner. (Later on in “Battle,” the two characters wind up naked and then have sex with each other.)
3. Blade as drawn by Dean Haspiel — I always loved/envied this drawing of Blade, which I felt looked cooler than any image of my own character that I had ever drawn. (Did I imagine that Dean was a better version of myself? No, that can’t be…)
4. Self-portrait reflected in a car window — my mom (also a renowned photographer) had given me a Minolta X-7A 35 millimeter camera, and I loved it. And it presented new opportunities to make “interesting” and “dramatic” self-portraits. Deep!
5. Josh & Jake — a candid shot of me and my college BFF Jake Elsas up to our usual hijinks. I’m not sure where this photo was taken, but I don’t think it was at Oberlin. Possibly one of our family homes on a spring break visit? A few years later, after Jake spent a year in the Soviet Union, he and I were roommates in a couple of too-small NYC apartments. Then, my girlfriend (and future wife) Sari moved in and Jake moved to Portland, Oregon.
6. Nikon 35mm camera — As mentioned before, I was really in love with my Minolta camera (remember, this was before everyone had a high-quality camera in their pocket). I guess I couldn’t find an image of my exact camera, but this Nikon looked pretty similar.
7. Earl the Dead Cat — “Earl the Dead Cat(TM) means farewell to smelly cat food and messy litter boxes. Earl is a cuddly, under-stuffed and very dead toy cat complete with his own death certificate. The brand new L’IL EARL also has suction cups on his paws to stick on car windows. Earl the Dead Cat(TM). The last cat you’ll ever need.” Apparently, this toy was introduced in 1985, and was featured on The Tonight Show and Weekly World News. A typical example of the “ironic” humor from that period. True, I was never much of a cat fancier, but this seems to clearly reveal anxieties I may have had about taking care of a real living thing…
8. Residents of Dascomb second-floor men’s wing — my first two years at Oberlin, I had the weird fortune of living in the same dorm room (with a different roommate each year) on the second floor of Dascomb Hall. Freshman year I drew a series of pen-and-ink portraits of roommates on that hall; sophomore year I saved time by just drawing a whole group of guys at once. (It was a fun bunch — we all had a lot of good times together despite them being so much younger than me LOL.) This is that illustration, which was probably originally drawn in 1987.
9. Sammy Safesex sez… “Slip It On Before You Slip It In!” Another example of what I found HILARIOUS back then. Anyway, note how Sammy Safesex is strategically placed over my self-portrait’s crotch from no. 8. Safe!
10. Life in Hell cartoon by Matt Groening — two panels from “Childhood is Hell: Chapter 2: How to be a Wily 1-Year-Old,” probably from 1988. I loved the Life in Hell strip, which ran weekly in alternative papers (and at that point was the closest thing I got to so-called “alternative comics”). Matt Groening, right around this time, was creating The Simpsons, an animated show that changed American humor forever. But I can’t help but find it significant that I chose and placed this strip, focused on childhood, in the vicinity of the above condom cartoon…
11. The Ocelot — When I was still in high school, I hooked up with an APA (amateur press association) called The Chain that was set up to help wannabes like myself get work in the comics industry. I met writer Gene Phillips through The Chain. He and I collaborated on a number of stories in the late 1980s — none of which ever saw print. This image, drawn in the late summer 1988, was of our superhero The Ocelot, whose powers derived from her allegiance to the Aztec god Itztlacoliuhqui. Following every sexist superhero comics trope of the time, I designed her as a scary/sexy cat-woman. Tsk. Hiss!
12. Frisbee — my dad is the one who first taught me to throw a frisbee, and I’ve loved tossing one around ever since. (There’s nothing more “Oberlin” than a frisbee.) While I was still at Oberlin, a pal from another school commissioned me to draw a T-shirt for his Ultimate team, Dasein.
This next section — the biggest part of the collage — focuses on what were my pop culture interests: music, TV, and sports. (I still find it odd that I left movies out of the collage. Maybe there was just too much for me to condense down to a few images?) Again, many of my musical interests back then reveal what was foremost on my mind (hint: it’s spelled S-E-X)…
14. Prince — I was a HUGE Prince fan during this period (I still am), buying every single, every 12-inch, every bootleg, and of course every album he released. (To this day, my favorite Prince song is the album version of “Purple Rain.“) I also tracked down every article I could find about Prince in every magazine. Prince’s whole image and much of his music were centered around sexuality and its taboos. This photo looks like it’s from the Controversy period (circa 1981).
16. The Beatles — my first musical obsession, dating back to when my mom introduced me to their music when I was about ten years old. I still have my vinyl LPs of all their American albums and a few imports. According to Discogs, this image is from the Swedish edition of the “Hey Jude” single, released in 1968 with “Revolution” on the B side. (Since you didn’t ask, I would say my favorite Beatles songs are “A Day In the Life,” “I Am the Walrus,” “I Want You [She’s So Heavy],” and “Ticket to Ride.”)
17. David Letterman — from the get-go I loved Late Night with David Lettermanand Dave’s send-up of the traditional stodgy talk-show format. Late Night‘s combination of absurdist humor, wacky segments, and awkward celebrity interviews — sprinkled with huge heaps of irony — really spoke to me and my ilk. Back then, it seemed like a big deal that a late-night host wore sneakers with his suit!
18. Michael Jackson — It wasn’t exactly cool to like Michael Jackson during this period (which is probably why I chose this image), but I really did love his music, beginning with Thriller and continuing on with Bad. (I retroactively came to love Off the Wall as well.) But one couldn’t help but be fascinated with how odd Michael was — little knowing how much more bizarre he would become (tragically). This was from a British tabloid image of him walking the streets in “disguise,” coming off a bit like a skinny Reggie Jackson — no relation — from the 1970s. It looks like Michael put in fake teeth too? Oh, Jacko!
19. Terence Trent D’Arby? — It’s small and blurry, but I’m 85% sure that this photo is of Terence Trent D’Arby, because the cap and leather jacket are extremely similar to what the singer wore in the video to “Sign Your Name Across My Heart.” I’ve also seen a live rendition of “Wishing Well” where he wore a coat even more like the one in this photo. See no. 16 for more on the singer now known as Sananda Maitreya.)
20. Madonna — Is it a shock that I was really into Madonna (oh, and her music too)? This photo was taken in New York City on September 11 (!), 1988, when Madonna ran the 5k event Sport Aid 88: The Race Against Time, which was held simultaneously in cities all over the world. Madonna is shown here holding up her running bib number 1,000,001 (fellow pop stars like Sting, Steve Winwood, and Eurythmics took part in Sport Aid 88 as well). Sponsored by CARE, the race was part of a slew of charity events all inspired by Bob Geldof and Live Aid.
21. Prince — yep, him again, looking quite fetching. This iconic androgynous photo is from the cover of Lovesexy (1988).
22. Terence Trent D’Arby — As soon as I heard the music from his 1987 debut album, Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby (this image is from the cover), I was in love. And how could I not have been, given how evocative of Prince he was in both his music, his stage presence, and his general vibe? Though D’Arby’s follow-up albums had some good stuff, I wasn’t as into Neither Fish Nor Flesh (1989) or Symphony or Damn (1993), and I lost touch with him after that. I wasn’t even aware that he had changed his name to Sananda Maitreya until I looked him up again recently.
23. The cast of M*A*S*H— My favorite TV show for many, many years, a show that artfully combined humor and pathos (“dramedy”). I identified with the character of Hawkeye Pierce to an extreme degree, and I think my personality was greatly formed by that admiration. (I became equally obsessed with Alan Alda for similar reasons.) A shared love of M*A*S*H in high school and college lead me to a number of lasting friendships. Even though the show had gone off the air some years earlier, while at college I watched daily reruns on a tiny black-and-white TV in my dorm room. This postcard shows the latter group of cast members, including B.J. Hunnicutt, Colonel Potter, and Charles Winchester; but no Radar, Trapper John, Frank Burns, or Colonel Blake.
24. The Death of Rhythm & Blues — I never read this book by Nelson George, but I loved the cover art, which to me evoked cubism and art deco. I periodically read George’s column, “Native Son,” which ran in the Village Voice around this time, and I remember his work as being passionate and challenging. I’ve read that in this book, George partially blames Michael Jackson and Prince for bringing R&B to the white mainstream, which helped “kill” it as an art form. And now they’re both dead too — RIP.
25. Sam Cooke(“Shake”) — After she got me into The Beatles, my mom introduced me to the music of Sam Cooke, and I still get a thrill when I hear his distinctive, heartfelt voice, especially on songs like “A Change is Gonna Come” and “Frankie and Johnny“. My mom has good taste in music! This album, Shake, was released in 1965, one year after Cooke’s untimely death (murder?).
26. Sheila E. and Cat — Two of Prince’s sexy protegés from the Lovesexy era. Sheila E. is an awesome percussionist who was associated with Prince for much of the second half of the 1980s — as well as heading her own band — and Cat Glover (“Woman”) is a dancer, singer, and choreographer who performed with Prince in the late ’80s.
27. Prince — Mr. Rogers Nelson looking cool as can be; this image is from the cover of the “When Doves Cry” single (1984). When I first heard the song, I hated it — I think it scared me. After I saw the Purple Rain film, and came to appreciate Prince for the genius he was, I came to accept “When Doves Cry”… and now I rank it as one of my favorite Prince songs.
28. Porky Pig — he’s a funny little cartoon pig with a stutter. (He also looks like a baby, which is probably why I glued this pic down next to nos. 8, 9, and 10 of the previous section.) It’s crazy to think that many people today are unfamiliar with Porky, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and their Looney Tunes friends.
29. Jack Clark — My dad taught me to play baseball when I was about 11 or 12, and I soon became obsessed with the game. Right around that time, I moved to San Francisco, becoming a Giants fan, a team I have stayed loyal to ever since. Jack Clark was the team’s indisputable star, and I was obsessed with him — even after he left the Giants I followed his career with great interest. (I still have pretty much all his baseball cards from every stop along the way.) I took this photo when I went to see him play in person in mid-September 1988, when the Yankees visited Cleveland Municipal Stadium to play the then-Indians. (Clark only played one year for the Yanks.)
As I’ve mentioned, I was an art history major at Oberlin, and this section features reproductions of European fine art, mostly of paintings I had seen in person when I spent a month traveling around France, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands on a Eurail Pass in the winter of 1987–1988. That trip followed a fall semester I had spent at University College, London. Oberlin’s study abroad program was extremely expensive, so to get to London, I temporarily transferred to Beaver College, which ran a much more affordable study abroad program in the U.K. (I never actually set foot in Beaver College, which was located in Glenside, Pennsylvania.) And, yes, before you make any dumb jokes, Beaver College changed its name in 2001 to Arcadia University (in large part because its name was being filtered out of Internet searches due to the “other” meaning of “beaver” LOL).
31. Le Déjeuner sur l’herbeby Édouard Manet (1862–1863) — I was an art history major at Oberlin, and really came to love French 19th Century painting; this originally infamous image of a luncheon on the grass is one of my favorite works from the period. (I’m sure the fact that it features a nude woman sitting with two fully dressed men has nothing to do with that.) It hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
32. Nude with Coral Necklace by Amedeo Modigliani (1917) — My dad had a pair of Modigliani reproductions — of a clothed man and a nude woman (there’s that theme again) — hanging in our apartment for many years, and I studied them intently. This particular Modigliani painting hangs in Oberlin’s very own Allen Memorial Art Museum, which is where I got the postcard for my collage.
33. Still Life with Red Onions by Paul Cézanne (1896–1898) — Cézanne was an artist I had to be taught to appreciate; when I first saw his work I was put off by the angularity of his work. When I later studied him in art history class (thank you, Pat Mathews!), I came to love Cézanne: the vibratory tension, the geometry of forms, his beautiful understanding of color — and that brushstroke! This painting also hangs in the Musée d’Orsay.
34. The Charging Chasseur by Théodore Géricault (1812) — Géricault is another favorite artist of mine. When I first visited England and France, as a high school teenager, my mother was dragging me through the Louvre Museum when I caught sight of Géricault’s epic history paintingThe Raft of the Medusa (1818–1819). According to my mom, I audibly gasped, and stood there for ten minutes just taking it all in. That may have been the moment that led to me eventually majoring in art history. The Charging Chasseur also hangs in the Louvre, which is where I got the postcard.
35. The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (1503–1506) — as beautiful and mysterious as everyone says. Also hangs in the Louvre.
36. Peter Slips Under the Fence by Beatrix Potter (c. 1902) — my mom was a huge fan of Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit, and she read me the stories when I was kid, pointing out how beautiful Potter’s illustrations were. I grew to love them as well; I picked up this postcard when I was studying in England.
37. Bedroom in Arles (3rd version) by Vincent Van Gogh (1889) — What’s there to say about Van Gogh‘s work that hasn’t already been said by people way more articulate than me? This painting also hangs in the Musée d’Orsay.
38. Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo (1508–1512) — I got to visit the Vatican during my 1987-1988 Eurail adventure, an experience I will never forget. Being in the actual Sistine Chapel, staring up at the ceiling Michelangelo painted was as close to a religious experience as I’ve ever had. I bought this postcard in the Vatican gift shop.
This section focuses on city life — featuring monuments, crowds, deserted streets, and images of implied violence. Living through the 1980s in New York felt like an achievement, and though I wore that experience like a badge of honor, I was clearly a bit apprehensive about my imminent return to the Big Apple! But I think that after spending the better part of four years in the quiet corn fields of Ohio, I felt the need to reclaim my urban origins.
39. Big Ben in London — The “city section” is bookended by two towers; this famous clock being one of them. My semester in London was foundational for me. I made some good friends, I had a lot of adventures, and I learned a lot — about history, art, and myself. I also spent a lot of time involved in an ill-advised long-distance love triangle, which entailed various periods of panicked phone calls and letters back to the U.S. Oy!
40. Empire State Building — I’ve long had an appreciation for the Empire State Building, which to me always represented the essence of New York City. Looking back, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t have the same affinity for the Twin Towers. *Sigh*
41. Penciled Panel from The Ocelot — this panel from The Ocelot #2 ostensibly takes place in Houston, Texas, but I didn’t have much photo reference for Houston, so I drew my version of a neglected NYC street instead. This page was penciled in August 1988; I finally finished the 8-page story in February of 1989 (probably working on the bulk of it during Oberlin’s Winter Term).
42. Batmanby George Pérez — this is the only example of professional comics in this whole collage, and I couldn’t resist adding an image by one of my original artistic heroes, George Pérez. (Batman stands here atop a Gotham building; Gotham was a comics analog for New York City.) My early attempts at superhero comics were greatly influenced by Pérez and John Byrne. Pérez recently announced that he has inoperable cancer; his last wish is to share his final months with his family, friends, and fans. What a brave and generous spirit.
43. Cleveland, Ohio (Michael Dukakisrally) — In September of 1988, I went with a busload of Oberlin students to nearby Cleveland for a Dukakis presidential rally, which is where I took this photo. See nos. 52–55.
44. V13 Gang Members — Despite being a typical Oberlin peacenik, I was (not so) secretly obsessed with images of guns and portrayals of gun violence. The photo, by Merrick Morton, of a baby-faced Venice 13 gang member pointing his gun right at the camera, was irresistible. It accompanied Mike Sager‘s Rolling Stone article, “Death in Venice: The Effect of Crack on Gangs in Venice, California,” (September 22, 1988), which helped open my eyes to the “hardness” of life in American cities other than New York.
45. Surgeon General’s Warning: “Quitting smoking now greatly reduces serious risks to your health” — I was really anti-smoking! I didn’t even like my friends to smoke around me (which is probably why I didn’t have any friends who were poets or intellectuals). Smoking is certainly not confined to urbanites, but back then the image of cigarettes and tough city streets really went together.
46. Sidewalk? — Hard to tell, but this looks like one of my own photographs, maybe a bird’s eye view of city sidewalks, shot out of a window from the second or third floor.
47. Blade from Slash vs. Blade — “Yo, man!” Blade is very upset with Slash because in the previous episode of “Battle,” Slash cut him in half. From what I recall, this scene took place in the city where Slash and Blade were having their battle. (It also probably just fit really well in that particular spot of the collage.)
The final section of the collage features politics and the world around me in 1988. A big focus is the 1988 election for U.S. President (already alluded to in no. 43), which pitted Democrat Michael Dukakis against George H. W. Bush. Spoiler: Bush won. By a lot. It was a depressing time.
48. Unknown Civil Rights Pioneer — The best I can tell, this is a photo from the Civil Rights era, of a lone Black woman escorted by FBI agents and flanked by National Guard soldiers — possibly bravely desegregating a Southern school? Like many college students during this time, I felt very engaged with the anti-Apartheid movement during this period, so the connections between what was then going on in South Africa and the American South during the 1950s were very clear. My guess is that this photo was from a Rolling Stone article about the Civil Rights era. If anyone can identify the woman in the image, I would be most grateful.
49. Sean Tucker — Sean was on my hall in Dascomb during my freshman year, and this image is from the drawings I did of various sets of roommates. He had this inherent gravitas, and this great deep voice, and it always seemed to us that he was destined to become a politician, which is why I drew him speechifying at a podium! Sean was from Cleveland and I went to visit his family once. I also once flew with him and another Oberlin couple in a tiny 4-seater prop plane; they flew the plane to an island on Lake Erie, we ate dinner at a restaurant and then flew back to a local airfield outside of Oberlin. Sean and I went back to our respective cities after college, and we fell out of touch. I don’t know if he ended up pursuing public service.
50. Anthony Lewis — My mom got me a subscription to the New York Timeswhile I was at college, and I actually read it — well, at least the sports pages and the op-ed page. Lewis was one of my favorite columnists — his At Home Abroad column always helped me see the alternative point of view during that period of conservative Reaganism.
51. William Greider — I was an avid reader of Rolling Stonemagazine during this period, and I loved Greider‘s columns. He wrote powerfully about finance and income inequality in ways I could actually understand. (I had never taken an economics class.)
52. Jesse Jackson — Jackson’s name artfully placed over the eyes of the eventual Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis (see 53). It’s hard to overstate now how exciting was Jackson’s run for the Democratic nomination in the spring of 1988. A civil rights leader who had worked with Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson was leader of the National Rainbow Coalition, and an inspiring public speaker. At that time, 20 years before Obama’s election, it was so thrilling to imagine the possibility of a Black president. By the time Obama won in 2008, it felt like most people had forgotten how far Jackson got in ’88 — winning 13 state primaries and caucuses, and accumulating over 1,000 delegates to the convention. I voted for him in the primaries and always thought he would’ve been a far better candidate than was Dukakis. After college, I applied for a job with the Rainbow Coalition, though I never heard back from them 🙁
53. Michael Dukakis — I always think of that video of him riding around in a tank. Meant to make him look tough and “presidential,” it instead made him look like a silly little kid.
54. BU ll SH itin 88— get it? Summarized my thoughts on the guy who beat Dukakis — in large part due to Lee Atwater’s infamous “Willie Horton” strategy.
55. Oberlin students at the Dukakis rally, Cleveland, Ohio — I clambered up a lamppost or a stanchion to take this shot of a bunch of Obies in the crowd.
56. Spuds MacKenzie — the cute bull terrier from those Bud Light commercials. Spuds was attacked by politicians because he (actually she) supposedly made beer seem attractive to kids. Big industries like beer and tobacco would never stoop so low as to target underage consumers, right, Joe Camel?
Phew! So there you have it: thanks for taking that trip back in time with me.
The collage itself, once I finished it, was obviously very important to me, because I ended up framing it for wall display. I think I actually did hang it on the wall of my first New York City apartment, but by the time I moved in with Sari, barely a year and a half after graduation, it had been put away, never to be displayed again. Like I said, a time capsule.
And you know — I shouldn’t have been so anxious about the future… Life since college has been pretty good: I’ve discovered my calling as a nonfiction cartoonist, had the opportunity to travel widely (pre-pandemic), and have gotten to share my knowledge with later generations. And best of all, I’ve been able to spend 30+ years married to my best friend, and together we have a wonderful daughter.
Makes me wonder what a contemporary version of this collage would look like. Well, that’s a project for another day. (And then I can revisit that collage when I’m in my 80s and analyze it to death as well!)
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.”
My homage to Captain America Comics #1 (with apologies to Jack Kirby and Joe Simon)
I’ll be tabling at MoCCAFest this weekend (table I 270 A) with the latest issue of THE VAGABONDS. 24 thrilling pages of COMICS JOURNALISM and other great features!
A lot has changed in this country—and the world—since the last issue of The Vagabonds, so it’s only fitting that this issue features a Donald Trump story. My explainer on the former British spy Christopher Steel’s “dossier,” originally published by Columbia Journalism Review in the fall of 2017, remains surprisingly relevant, as the special counsel seems to be using the memos as a “road map” for his investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. This issue’s longest story—originally published by The Nib in the fall of 2016—looks into the influx of costumed characters into New York’s Times Square. In the piece I explore the phenomenon — who are these unlicensed Elmos, Spider-Men, and Minnie Mice, and why are they there? This issue also features a fun story I did for Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge. Do you often find yourself losing or breaking your old phone just when a new model reaches stores? Well, you’re not alone… The story shows how researchers — using the game of Jenga and a precious coffee mug—were able to get test subjects to replicate this risky, self-destructive behavior. THE VAGABONDS #6 closes out with a couple of shorter pieces, including a collaboration with my mother, the artist Martha Rosler.
I look forward to seeing you at MoCCA Fest this weekend and handing you an autographed copy of THE VAGABONDS #6. (And of course I’ll have copies of previous issues of The Vagabonds, as well as A.D., The Influencing Machine, Terms of Service, Flashed, and much more!)
MoCCA Fest 2018—April 7-8, 2018
11:00AM – 7:00PM on Saturday; 11:00AM – 6:00PM on Sunday
West 46th Street between 11th and 12th Avenues, NYC
Remember the Donald Trump-Russia “dossier”? Released by BuzzFeed in January (shortly before Trump was sworn in as U.S. President), the 17 short memos (compiled over seven months) featured some pretty wild claims—sex parties, etc. But the main takeaway was that Trump and his cronies were in the pockets of the Russians.
Amidst the furor over the memos’ contents was an equally strong uproar in the journalistic community. Was it ethical of BuzzFeed to publish the so-called dossier, which was unverified and contained some specific errors? The backstory, of course, is that during the previous months, the memos—and their author, former British spy Christopher Steele—had passed like a hot potato through every major news organization before BuzzFeed finally pulled the trigger. So was the outrage honest, or really just a case of sour grapes at being scooped? A new piece I just did for Columbia Journalism Review—“The Trump-Russia memos”—tracks that long strange journey.
The events described in the five-page comics story are based on reporting and research, including interviews I did with journalists who sought to verify the memos and wrote about them—or chose not to…
As far as the actual contents of the memos, none of the more outlandish claims have been verified—although the FBI and Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller apparently are using the memos as a “road map” for their ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia…
One of the things I’ll never forget about the 2008 election was watching the returns on TV and also tracking it on my Facebook feed. Facebook was a relatively new phenomenon at that point, and the folks who were on it seemed to so epitomize the energy that the Obama team was bringing to the White House. I’ll also never forget that, late that night on November 4, a lone trumpeter paraded down Eastern Parkway (in front of my apartment building), tooting triumphantly on his horn for blocks and blocks and blocks.
On January 20, 2009, I wanted to experience the moment of the inauguration of our first African-American president with other folks in my community, so I headed over to Cafe Shane. I sat at their coffee bar, watching the ceremony on TV with a diverse crowd of celebrants. I remember toasting the moment, with my cup of tea, with the 40-ish black guy, and his cup of coffee, sitting next to me. (I also remember Chief Justice Roberts fumbling the words as he led Obama through the oath. Do you remember that?)
Back then, after eight years of George Bush, it all felt like a fresh start, like our country had taken a giant stride forward. Now, eight years later, our country seems to be making another “fresh start.” But it’s not something I can bear to witness with a crowd of folks. I’ll watch the inauguration here at home on my TV, but it’s hard for me to see this fresh start as anything but a giant stride backward.
The folks at the venerable Franco-Belgian comics magazine Le Journal de Spirou approached me about contributing to their new publication, GROOM. Like Spirou, Groom is an all-ages publication, but in this case focusing specifically on current events. The inaugural issue of Groom contains stories about terrorism (including Charlie Hebdo), European politics, sports, and various dispatches from far-flung countries like China, Australia, Latin America, Russia, the Middle East, and the good ol’ U.S.A. (I remain continually amazed and impressed at the topics French-language comics touch on, especially in so-called all-ages publications.)
It was funny: when I was pitching the stories to editor Perez, the one he had the most trouble believing was the details of Trump’s vitriol-fueled campaign. As he said, “In the media we often see him as a ‘larger than life man,’ but not dangerous.” To which I responded that Marion Maréchal-Le Pen seems unobjectionable on the surface—it’s her ideas which are dangerous. Touché!
Anyway, this is silly, fun stuff. I hope you enjoy the illos. (For more information on Groom—in English—check out this website, which has also gone to the trouble of translating the Groom editorial page.)
Just out this week in Foreign Policymagazine is “The Road to Germany: $2400,” which depicts the odyssey of 11 Syrians from the doorstep of their unrecognizable homeland to a life in exile. The bulk of the piece is 11 pages of comics by yours truly, adapted from the reporting/writing of journalist Alia Malek. And as in The Photographer (by Emmanuel Guibert, paired with Didier Lefèvre’s photographs), “The Road to Germany” incorporates photos by Peter van Agtmael, who accompanied Alia on her immersive reporting journey. (Back in September, Alia and Peter shadowed the subjects of the story all the way from the Greek island of Kos to Frankfurt, Germany, meeting up with them at many points along the way.) In other words, this is a very unusual piece to be running in a mainstream news magazine!
In crafting the comics component, my job was to take Alia’s amazing, heartfelt reporting and create a narrative to fill in the visual gaps between Peter’s incredible photographs. I was handicapped, though. Unlike Alia and Peter, I hadn’t actually accompanied our protagonists—Muhanid & Ihsan; Mohammed & Sawsan, and their children Sedra, Ali, & Brahim; and Naela, Maysam, Suhair, & Yusef—on this odyssey, so I immersed myself as best I could. Sadly, in recent months, this type of journey has become all too common, so there were a lot of visual resources out there. And with the help of Alia’s notes and Peter’s archival shots, I dove into the minutiae of life vests, the UNHCR outpost in Gevgelija, and German border police uniforms.
I was also struck by the chart that Syrians and other refugees use as the main guide through their route. Even though everyone has smart phones and the resources of the Internet at hand, they still hold on to this crude schematic, which is more like a game board than a map:
I wanted to integrate elements from the chart into the story, not only to remind readers of its importance to the refugees, but also as a bridging device for changing scenes and pushing the narrative forward.
For the comic’s opening scene on the overloaded raft, I was struck by Alia’s description:
Women and children . . . lined up, nearly supine, in the raft’s base. . . . Where any space remained on the bottom, another layer of women and children wedged in. Everyone’s bags were thrown in a heap on top of them while the men were pressed in along the edges.
FP Executive Editor Mindy Bricker and I quickly decided this image would be the “splash” panel of the comic, and I intuitively felt that the best way to capture it would be from directly overhead. This is from the pencils:
The comic starts with five pages of my hand-drawn art; the last six pages incorporate Peter’s photos into selected panels. Combined with actual quotes from Alia’s reporting, it’s pretty cool to see this marriage of documentary forms. And after a solid month of work back in December, it’s very gratifying to see this story in print.
I would say I’m speaking for Alia & Peter as well when I say I hope this piece succeeds in humanizing a refugee crisis which is all too often thought of in impersonal numbers—or sensationalized hysteria—and gives readers a feeling of “being there” on this harrowing journey. As the opener states, “Showing what happens when strangers are thrown together by adversity—how desperate alliances formed and dissolved—[‘The Road to Germany: $2400’] is a diary of an exodus from a war zone to a hopeful, if uncertain future in the West.”
For now, the piece is only available in print, in the Jan./Feb. issue of Foreign Policy. If it becomes viewable online I’ll be sure to post a link. (UPDATE: Here’s the link)
Whenever I debated the pros and cons of being a cartoonist, I never considered that it was inherently a dangerous job. (Unless you’re Joe Sacco, running around in war zones.) But I had to re-evaluate that after the events of January 7, and the massacre of five cartoonists (and seven others) at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
The last week has been a crazy one, trying to process the events, the manhunt for the killers, the related events at the Paris kosher grocery, the outpouring of pain and outrage, Je suis Charlie, Je suis Ahmed, the backlash, and so on and so on.
The day of the shooting, as things were still unfolding, I was asked to come in to the studios of NowThis News and deliver a “rant” on the events. I didn’t know any of the cartoonists killed. I’d never read Charlie Hebdo (though I knew of its reputation, and its previous run-ins with “angry readers.”) But as a fellow cartoonist, I figured I had some kind of perspective on what had happened. I wish I had been more articulate, more forceful, but I think you can see I was still in a state of shock. Anyway, here’s the video.
I’ll be heading to France myself in less than two weeks, to attend my second Angoulême International Comics Festival (and to also do some signings in Paris). I imagine it will be quite a scene there, what with the various tributes to be held, the changed security situation, and so much more I can’t even imagine. I’ll be sure to take plenty of notes.
Finally, most importantly. Matt Bors, cartoon editor of Medium‘s “The Nib” (publisher of some of my work) has put together an amazing special section on the Charlie Hebdo killings. He commissioned work from seven cartoonists with specific ties to the world of satire, Islam, French culture—even one of the original cartoonists from the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy. The result, “Laugh, Cry, Be Offended,” is an incredible collection of heartfelt, thoughtful words and pictures that addresses so many of the issues brought up in the wake of the killings: free speech, racism, Islamophobia… every single piece demands your undivided attention:
“I Still Can’t Believe It,” by James Van Otto—a French cartoonist discusses his relationship to Cabu, one of the assassinated cartoonists.
“I’m a Muslim Who Fights for Free Speech,” by Albaih—a Sudanese political cartoonist criticizes Charlie Hebdo for what he saw as racist, anti-Islam cartoons, at the same time as he laments the attacks. And he reminds the world—as someone who has never fully enjoyed free speech—not to take it for granted.
“Satire Is Dead. And Cartoonists Killed It,” by J.J. McCullough—a self-proclaimed conservative Canadian cartoonist breaks down Charlie Hebdo‘s satire for ignorant American audiences—and hilariously skewers both American political correctness and Charlie “solidarity” cartoons.
“It’s Not About Islam,” by Safdar Ahmed—an Australian artist and academic sheds a despairing light on the events; his complex argument includes the cheery thought, “Islamophobes share with Muslim extremists the apocalyptic fantasy of a global war between Islam and the West, making such cartoons a force for mobilization.”
“They Killed My Idols,” by Emmanuel “Manu” Letouzé—a French cartoonist (and United Nations economist) pays tribute to murdered cartoonists Tignous, Cabu, and Charb. Must-reading.
Two days before the horrific events of Jan. 7, “The Nib” published my own story, “Crossing the Line,” about the unprovoked harassment of American Muslims at the U.S.-Canadian border. It’s really important to remember that we can’t allow events like 9/11, like January 7, to compromise our American values—freedom of religion is part of the same amendment that protects freedom of speech. The same goes for the presumption of innocence. Only by holding fast to these fundamental values can we ensure that the terrrorists don’t “win,” and that Safdar Ahmed’s apocalyptic prophecy will not come to pass.
Back in December I encouraged you to support the KickStarter campaign for the new comics anthology The Big Feminist BUT (I love that title!), and now, a few scant months later, it exists in printed form, ready for your purchase!
This beautiful 200-page softcover—whose full title is The Big Feminist BUT: Comics about Women, Men and the IFs, ANDs & BUTs ofFeminism-–is edited by Joan Reilly and Shannon O’Leary, and features contributors like Hope Larson, Jeffrey Brown, Vanessa Davis, Emily Flake, Shaenon Garrity, Gabrielle Bell, Justin Hall, Ron Rege, Lauren Weinstein, Liz Baillie, Abby Denson, Jesse Reklaw, Kat Roberts, and Dylan Williams. It also includes a brand-new collaboration of mine and Sari’s (she wrote it and I drew it) loosely based on her experiences as a fact-checker for Playboy Magazine.
The book asks:
“What do we really mean when we start a sentence with the disclaimers, ‘I’m not a feminist, BUT…’ or ‘I am 100% a feminist, BUT…’ What do our great big ‘BUTs’ say about where things stand between the sexes in the 21st Century? We asked some of the most talented ladies (and gentlemen) working in comics and animation today, along with some of the smartest writers we know, to ‘but’ into the heated discussion about the much more level but still contradictory playing field both sexes are struggling to find their footing on today. Fans of Bitch Magazine, Jezebel, Love and Rockets, Wonder Woman, Girls and Mad Men will all find something to enjoy here, as will anyone who likes to read thoughtful, compelling, top-notch comics!”