Hamid Mohammadi (1959–2021)

A.D., Tribute

I am very sad to report that Hamid Mohammadi, one of the real-life stars of A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, has passed away. He was 62 years old.

Hamid was a colorful character and a great resource to A.D. As I was working on structuring the book, I “found” him through a good friend whose cousin happened to be Hamid’s wife. I first contacted Hamid in December of 2006. Although he was a busy man—with a wife and family, his store to run, and managing other properties in the area—he was always friendly and found time to tell me his story in detail as I was working on the project.

This is the super-truncated version:

Finally, in part due to Mansell’s ill health, Hamid was convinced to “abandon ship;” he was evacuated from NOLA on a truck to Atlanta.

After many long months, Hamid and his family eventually returned to salvage their lives and business. This excerpt is from August of 2015, 10 years after Hurricane Katrina. I caught up with A.D.‘s characters—including Hamid—and to get their thoughts on the city a decade after the disaster.

By the way, Hamid’s real name was used in the original webcomic, but when it came to the printed book, he asked me to change it to “Abbas” (his son’s name)—with a mustache added to his face. He never explained why he wanted this change—I always assumed it came from him essentially being a private person and not comfortable with being a “celebrity.” In any case I learned that in the period after A.D.’s book publication, a number of readers came into his store and identified him as the real Hamid! Which, thankfully, he found amusing.

When I talked to Hamid for the ten-year anniversary comic, he allowed me to use his real name again. By that point, he no longer owned the Calhoun Superette—and was understandably a bit bitter…

Weirdly, as I documented in detail in 2016, in a visual post called “3135 Calhoun St. and the A.D. Cosmic Connection,” Hamid’s store location was eventually taken over by Crescent City Comics, the employer of another real-life A.D. character, Leo McGovern! It’s worth checking out the post, as it goes into more detail than I can spend here about Hamid’s experiences at the store during and after Katrina.

Even though the former superette ended up in good hands, I hear that Hamid never really recovered from losing his store. After 16 years, through thick and thin, I can certainly imagine why!

As different as we were in our backgrounds, I felt a real kinship with Hamid—with his sense of adventure and his matter-of-fact way or recounting his experiences. There were so many little things he did during the disaster, from giving away food after the storm, bringing bottles of water to stranded neighbors, and ensuring Mansell’s health, that I consider heroic. (Not to mention all the years of hard work he spent restoring the Superette to operation again.) Despite everything that happened, and all the danger he had been in, he confided to me that he regretted leaving his flooded store, and felt that he has “wussed out”—which of course he hadn’t.

Hamid was born in Iran and came to the U.S. as a young man. He made a good life, with a wife of 36 years and two beloved children. In addition to the Superette, he owned other property in the NOLA region. During our conversations, he talked fondly of fishing trips with friends and watching Saints football games on TV. He was also a blackbelt in aikido. I felt very honored to have known him, even tangentially, and I am so grateful that he was willing to share his experiences with the readers of A.D.

You can read extended excerpts of Hamid’s experiences in the original webcomic version of A.D, particularly in Chapter 7, “The Bowl Effect, Part I,” and “The Bowl Effect, Part II.”

Hamid’s family has created a Life Tribute page for Hamid for people to share their memories of him. If you knew him, I encourage you to contribute something. “Unsung” people like Hamid deserve to be remembered and their lives commemorated; they’re the reason I chose the life of a nonfiction cartoonist. https://www.muhleisen.com/obituaries/Hamid-Mohammadi/

Hamid Mohammadi, rest in peace.

Contemporary Literature interview

Publicity
Contemporary Literature vol. 61, no. 2
Contemporary Literature Summer 2021 (vol. 61, no. 2)

Jonathan Najarian interviewed me about my work for Contemporary Literature, a journal published out of the University of Wisconsin.

In his introduction to the interview, Jon discusses various projects of mine, including A.D.; “The Trump-Russia memos“; “Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the Sand“; “Supply-Chain Superhero“; “A Tale of Two Pandemics,” and others. I was really struck by Jon’s close reading of my work, and his appreciation for the visual details I spend so much time putting in.

The interview is fun to look back on and read—it’s a real conversation, with some good back & forth, and I felt Jon’s questions really pushed me to go deep in my answers. Topics we discussed include whether comics journalism is “real” journalism, what subjects call out to be treated in comics form, collaborating with Brooke Gladstone, how comics are treated in the U.S. as compared to France, the media and Donald Trump, and the insertion of myself into my stories. Shout-outs to Joe Sacco, Scott McCloud, Harvey Pekar, Dean Haspiel, Martha Rosler, and Sari Wilson.

I can say for a fact that Jon’s intro and the interview itself is the most serious treatment of my stuff that I’ve yet seen. I’m blushing here!

Anyway, there’s a short excerpt from the piece here, but I think you have to have an academic journal subscription, or pay a one-time fee, to read the whole thing online.

Process: A.D.-"Dining with Strangers" crossover

A.D., Illustration

Last year Anthony Lacey of the fabulous blog Dining with Strangers approached me for an original illustration of himself and Brobson Lutz, the esteemed “Doctor” character from A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. (Anthony had met the Doctor in New Orleans—sharing a meal with him at Dr. Lutz’s favorite restaurant, Galatoire’s—and profiled him for his blog; and they have stayed friends every since.) Anthony’s plan was to present the finished illo to Dr. Lutz as a gift when Anthony was down in NOLA for this year’s Mardi Gras. Always happy to do commissions—and revisit one of my favorite A.D. characters—I of course said “yes.”

To get started, we agreed on a size and format, and Anthony sent me a couple of photos from their meal, as well some recent interior shots of Galatoire’s—which of course hasn’t changed at all in recent memory. Taking those reference photos as a basis, I first worked up a sketch for Anthony’s approval, which I executed on my Cintiq tablet:

Anthony having approved the sketch, I moved on to full pencils—which zoomed in on my two subjects a bit more (and moved the Doctor’s left arm up on to the table)…

For the inking stage, I realized I wasn’t happy with the placement of the Doctor’s hands, which were being blocked by the Galatoire’s serving dish in the foreground. So I “moved” the dish a bit to the right. In addition, because the background of the picture is so busy, I made sure to ink Anthony and the Doctor with thick brushstrokes, while inking the background in much thinner lines. This helped “pop” the main subjects. I also fine-tuned details throughout the drawing…

Finally, for the color stage, I wanted to be a little more “adventurous” than the limited palette which defines A.D. But again wishing to bring forward the Doctor and Anthony, I colored them with “hotter” and more saturated tones, while keeping the background elements more limited in palette. I then applied my “patented” texture pattern on top, and… voila! 

I printed the final illo on a nice ragstock paper at 11″ x 14″, and sent it off to Anthony, who had it professionally framed. From what I heard, the unveiling was a big success, and the print is now hanging in the Doctor’s house amidst his eclectic art collection.

Elmo and pals: the costumed characters of Times Square

Comics

ElmoAs a native New Yorker, I don’t visit Times Square very often—too noisy, too bright, too many tourists. Of course I was aware how much the area has changed over the years, with the banishment of the porn palaces and prostitution, and the Disneyfication that began during the late 1990s. Back in the day, if you walked around the area, you’d get “asked for a date” ten times per block. Now, improbably, the area had returned to its early 20th-century roots as a tourist Mecca.

But when I did walk through the area a few years back I couldn’t help but notice a whole new group of inhabitants: Elmos, Minnie Mouses, Spider-Mans, and packs of others in Sesame Street and superhero costumes, posing for photos with tourists for tips. It was like they had come out of nowhere and had taken over the Square. (By the way: did you know that the area is actually not a square at all, but really more of a bow-tie shape?)

When I first began noticing the costumed characters it was really freaky and random to me, totally out of left field. And now, a few years later, it’s just another fact of life in NYC. Despite the shiny electronic billboards and chain restaurants, you still can’t walk through Times Square without being accosted. Maybe times hadn’t changed that much after all.

I don’t read the tabloids or watch the local TV news, so I didn’t know anything about all the hysteria surrounding these costumed characters—anti-Semitic “Evil Elmo,” the Spider-Man who punched a cop, the Cookie Monster who pushed a child, the occasional beefs between “performers” that erupted into blows, and so on. And the general complaints about the characters’ aggressiveness and panhandling techniques.

elmo07-pn5All this got a ton of local recent coverage, particularly in 2014. And believe it or not, the City Council held hearings on the matter—including the idea of requiring you to undergo a background check before you can put on a Spongebob costume—and instituted some new restrictions.

I was intrigued, so I spent a little time hanging around the area, and I couldn’t help put notice that most of the people underneath the costume were Latino. I wondered about them. Where do they come from? How much money do they make? What’s it like to do that job all day long? I decided I would find out–and show what I learned in a comics piece.

I spent two months doing research and interviews, and another couple of months writing the script and drawing the piece, which includes more than 50 panels of comics. (Much credit goes to The Nib editor Matt Bors for helping me winnow down the more than 70 panels I originally envisioned!)

The pull of the story, of course, is its sheer wackiness—plus, for those not from New York, this whole scenario is new information. And that’s how I suck you in. But then, halfway through the story, I go “behind the mask” to get the other perspective—that of the people in the costumes. And with all the new regulations spurred by the hyperbolic press coverage and local business associations like the Times Square Alliance, the real story comes into focus.

elmo07-pn3This story in particular is perfect for the comics treatment because of the costumed character aspect. It’s all be very meta, with the reader not being sure if he or she is looking at someone in a costume or just a drawing of the actual character from the cartoons or comics… (In that vein, I had fun with the color concept of the piece—let me know if it works for you.)

So debuting this week on The (new-and-improved) Nib is “Costumed Chaos in Times Square: The infamous street Elmos of NYC fight for their right to take selfies with tourists.” Check it out.

Josh & Sari on Publishers Weekly podcast “More to Come”

Comics, Publicity

Sari and I recently had the honor of being guests on the Publishers Weekly podcast “More to Come,” hosted by PW editor Calvin Reid. We sat down with Calvin at the PW offices and talked about Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose, as well as collaboration in general, and our own work.

Topics we cover in the podcast include my autobiographical travel comics collection A Few Perfect Hours (which includes a couple of collaboration with Sari), and my more recent work in comics journalism, including A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. We talk about the online collective ACT-i-VATE and my long creative association with Dean Haspiel.

Talking about Dean, we discuss what it means to be a native New Yorker, which leads to Sari talking a bit about her debut novel Girl Through Glass. This broaches the very rich topic of New York City in the 1970s, and the contrast between that gritty period of urban blight and the rarified world of classical dance. I appreciated Sari’s point that “a novel works through contrasts,” which are really brought out in her book.

The second half of the podcast covers the concept behind Flashed: what is flash fiction, and how Sari & I, and our joint backgrounds in  the worlds of literary fiction and alternative comics, made this project come into focus. We break down a couple of section from the book to explore the connective tissue of such triptychs as “Night Games”—featuring Lynda Barry, Kellie Wells, and Box Brown—and “Mutable Architecture”—featuring Gabrielle Bell, Jedediah Berry, and Carol Lay. And we discuss the honor and pleasure of editing such a talented group of writers & cartoonists.

The podcast wraps up with a couple of shout-outs to some upcoming projects: the week-long comics memoir workshop Sari & I will be co-teaching at the Fine Arts Work Center this summer, and the still-burgeoning Comics & Graphic Narratives concentration I’m helping to develop at the Solstice Low-Residency MFA Program.

We really enjoyed our wide-ranging conversation with Calvin, and we think you will too. Give a listen here.

I "lettered" Didier Kassaï's TEMPETE SUR BANGUI

Comics, Plug, Work

TempeteSurBangui-coverThe French publisher of A.D. used my “JoshComix” font to letter Tempête sur Bangui, by Central African Republic cartoonist Didier Kassaï. The book is an autobiographical account of life in the CAR’s capital Bangui during the ongoing civil war. Published by La Boîte à Bulles with the cooperation of Amnesty International, Tempête sur Bangui is an assured work of cartooning, gorgeously tinted in watercolor.

American readers may well be put off by the… distinctive way Kassaï draws himself and his fellow Africans. It’s more than reminiscent of Sambo caricatures from the bad old days. But I have been repeatedly assured that Kassaï’s renditions of himself and his countrymen is not considered offensive back home. (I have to say it still troubles me…) Nonetheless, Kassaï is a major talent: if he lived in Europe or the U.S. he would be a big star.

This is the first time I’ve “licensed” my font to someone else, and I almost didn’t recognize my own lettering—Tempête sur Bangui  was lettered in all caps, whereas I almost exclusively letter upper-and-lowercase style (in the manner of Tintin, my reference-point for almost everything).

I am a huge proponent of hand-lettering, and the vast majority of my work has been physically lettered by me. (I particularly hate fonts that obviously look typeset or “computer-y,” because most of the time that kind lettering contrasts with the accompanying art and creates a real eyesore.) All the same, over the years I have found myself forced by time constraints to use a font to letter my work. The only thing that made any sense was to create a font based on my own lettering style, which is why I went to Fontifier some years back and did just that. And for only 9 bucks! And when A.D. came out in French, I adapted and made a new font that incorporated French diacritical marks. That’s the font they used to letter Tempête sur Bangui.

Tempête sur Bangui recently debuted at the Angoulême International Comics Festival and has been getting a lot of press in the francophone media. I’m proud to be associated with it, even in this minimal way.

My intro to CREATING COMICS as Journalism, Memoir & Nonfiction

Plug, Work

CreatingComicsThere’s a new book out, by three college professors, called CREATING COMICS as Journalism, Memoir & Nonfiction (Routledge), and I wrote the foreword. I’ve known authors  Randy Duncan, Michael Ray Taylor, and David Stoddard for some years now; I’ve even made guest appearances at their annual workshops for the College Media Association; but I was still extremely surprised and flattered when they asked me to write the foreword to their forthcoming book.

The book is chock-full of useful info: the history of the genre, approaches to finding stories, tips on tools & techniques, getting published, and a discussion of legal and ethical considerations. As far as I know, this is the first “instructional manual” on comics journalism, so I am very excited for it to come out, for my own use as well as others. After all, I’m no expert on the field—I’m just a practitioner.

When it came to the intro, I wasn’t sure what I had to offer to the discussion. In the end, I decided maybe the best thing would be to recap how I got here: the signposts along the way that led me to this very moment—not only in my own career, but to this extremely vibrant period of comics journalism. So, without further ado, here’s what I wrote. (And look for the book in all the usual outlets…)

A Syrian refugee odyssey in comics, photos, and prose

Comics, Work

road-to-germany-p1Just out this week in Foreign Policy magazine 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:

muhanid's-chart-map-cropped

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:

page01pn1-pencils2-lr

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)

road-to-germany-spread

New comic: "Crossing the Line"

Comics, Work

detainment-cropMedium‘s “The Nib” just posted my newest piece of comics journalism, titled “Crossing the Line“—about ethnic/religious profiling at the U.S./Canadian border. In this historical moment of scrutiny of law enforcement’s treatment of people of color (cf. Michael Brown, Eric Garner) the story seems to carry greater resonance.

I was inspired to do the piece by a radio story I heard on the NPR show On the Media. (Yes, the same On the Media co-hosted by my Influencing Machine collaborator, Brooke Gladstone.) OTM producer Sarah Abdurrahman’s piece, “My Detainment Story, Or: How I Learned to Stop Feeling Safe in my Own Country and Hate Border Agents,”  is a riveting, outrage-provoking triumph of radio journalism. If you haven’t heard it already, give it a listen.

As great as Abdurrahman’s piece was, to me it screamed to be told in comics form: the freezing cold rooms, the heartless treatment of families with small children, and most appallingly, the endless, repetitive interrogations. One of the subjects of Abdurrahman’s piece, Khaled A., was especially interesting to me. After speaking with him, I was determined to focus my story on his particular experiences.

Crossing the Line” is one of my most personal—you might say, “subjective”—comics journalism stories. Not only am I a “character” in the piece, but it probably strays the furthest into direct editorializing than any of my previous “cojo” stories. (For “balance,” I did try to get a comment from the Department of Homeland Security and the office of Customs and Border Protection. No one ever got back to me.) Anyway, I hope it works. And I hope you think so too.

P.S. Thanks for Matt Bors for sticking with me and this piece as long as he did, since it was delayed for many months by the demands of my previous comic, Terms of Service.

How I "Write"

Work

Booth, which is the literary journal of the Butler University graduate writing program (more of them in a future post), asked me to write about my comics-creating process for a recent issue. Since this was a frequent topic with my Associates during my just-completed ACA residency, I thought this might be relevant…

vagabonds02_coverHow I Write

I create comic books, so I write in pictures—and draw with words. I’ve learned over the years that the uniqueness of the comics form is the dual experience of reading and seeing.

But even though the experience of reading a comic is unified, when I create a comic I break my creative tasks down into two distinct parts: writer and artist. Both stages use different parts of my brain, and both allow me to edit and revise the work as it moves forward. So even though my routine is regimented I always make room for serendipity and artistic surprise.

I begin by writing out the story in prose form, always with the goal of showing as much as possible through action and dialogue. I then break down the text into the key moments of narration that will become the individual comics panels. The final script includes short descriptive sentences of what’s going on in each panel—clues and directions to my “artist self”—and all character dialogue, narration or “voiceover” captions, and sound effects. It reads much like a screenplay.

Once the script is done, I step away from the computer and move to the drawing table. (Although much of my work has first been “published” on the Internet, I’m old-fashioned in the sense that I draw entirely by hand.) I lay out the script, breaking it down into thumbnail sketches, using minimal detail, just enough to block out word balloon and character placement. Through thumbnailing, I assess the story’s pace, check its momentum, and see how it flows from panel to panel and page to page. During this stage, I often find ways to condense elements, or, conversely, to flesh out certain scenes.

Next comes penciling, the most time-intensive part of the comics-making process. That’s when I scale up my thumbnails to full-size, drawing in the panel borders, characters, backgrounds, and lettering elements on tabloid-size paper. Again, when translating the layouts to this larger size, I often find better artistic or storytelling solutions. On a good day, I can pencil an entire detailed page from start to finish.

Inking is the most fun of the part of process for me. It’s when the story finally comes into complete focus, as I shape the pencils into finished art, often taking away lines more than anything else. I love the physical act of inking: the gentle pressure of the brush on the page, and the endless tiny aesthetic choices that go into each stroke. In the end, the art looks pretty much the way it will appear on the printed page.

Not every cartoonist works the way I do; many have a much looser system, and some create their work completely organically, literally writing and drawing the story at the same time. And sometimes I too find ways to skip steps along the way. But this “two-headed monster” approach works for me, and helps me break down into manageable steps what can often seem a daunting task—translating the ineffable images in my head into distinct visual form.

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