Back on Nervous Street by Jonathan Lethem and Dean Haspiel: A New Breed of Storytelling

When I first encountered Back on Nervous Street, I noticed a peculiar reaction in myself: a series of half-formed visual associations and a general sense of mild disorientation. I knew that I wasn’t looking at a comic, but I was definitely looking at a composition that combined words and images and was the product of a collaboration between Jonathan Lethem and Dean Haspiel. I put my pixilation aside and “read” the composition before I went back to wonder what those initial, insistent associations had been. The leading impression that was still stuck in my mind consisted of one word with two syllables as if playing on repeat: Dada. Unfortunately, I wasn’t entirely sure why I felt that Nervous Street reminded me of Dada art, so I dug around a little and tried to deconstruct my own reactions to this highly unusual work.

In the same way that Dada was characterized as a “revolt of art”, Back on Nervous Street defies categorization in a particular format and so has an air of challenge and excitement.  While this composition is not a comic, it could well express some of the tools of comics rising to a different type of challenge.

 

Back on Nervous Street is not only short form in terms of comics panel numbers, but appears in larger poster format with a heavier use of prose than most comics. Dean Haspiel, in the commentary which he provides on the literary arts salon Trip City’s website, describes the struggle for format which he encountered, and the elegant solution he found in a dual panel poster format. This solution enabled him to avoid a watering down of visual punch that might occur through fragmentation into more panels, nevertheless he was posed with the necessity of distributing text without overloading the artwork. It was virtually the question of the sphinx to answer both needs in one composition. The result is a work without “type” or categorization, partaking of many traditions and raising many questions.

Early Dada artwork is know for its posters, often a form of self-propaganda, and its use of combined text and image to promote the movement that officially emerged in Zurich in 1915 out of an artistically charged environment in which abstract painting and avant-garde poetry were flourishing. While World War I was raging beyond Switzerland, artists reacted with “individual response” to war itself. Early Dada mover and shaker Jean Arp explains: “We were looking for an elementary type of art that we thought would save mankind from the raging madness of those times” (qtd. in Dachy 12).

 

Dada was not a movement geared toward critical praise, but intentionally undermined the expectation of critics, generating their own individualistic critiques of cultural production. The “feeling” or tone of the Dada movement may well have been what I felt when I looked at Nervous Street for the first time, but there were other details that I think triggered my memory.

For instance, in Dada art, which was by definition mixed media in the extreme, we see sharp angles, abstraction, city imagery, and the use of cut and paste styles borrowing language from visual media such as books, newspapers, and pamphlets. Combine those features with the poster format and you begin to see where I am going with this comparison. Maybe you can “see” it too.

 

But let’s take this one step further in terms of comparing not only the content and large scale format of Nervous Street to Dada art, but also the arrangement of material within the two panels. One of the most remarkable products of Dada art came from Kurt Schwitters’s “Merz” movement in the form of his “Merzhaus” construction, the accumulation of a design technique within his house defying laws of gravity and utilitarian need. The “grottoes” he constructed within his house, with alarmingly fluid city-scapes and organic qualities formed a kind of “storytelling” for those who explored its passageways. The entirely unique construction can be explored in photographs only since Schwitters was forced to flee during WWII and never saw his Merzhaus again. The photos are striking and effective, and most distinctly disorienting. Within the boundaries of a house’s walls, another kind of world has been constructed suggesting all the lines and movements of a mental city or landscape. It’s tilts and angles, and the way in which Schwitters’s Merzhaus relates to the established walls of his home, reminded me distinctly of the way that the city-scape of Nervous Street interacted with the “walls” of its dual poster panels. To me, both were an experiment in world-building within fairly strict confines.

 

I looked back at the first panel of Nervous Street to try to clarify to myself how the text and the images in the composition interacted. Lethem’s narrative brings out the concept of areas blending together without clear demarcation, nevertheless suggesting boundaries that can be sensed, almost subliminally, by a native familiar with the terrain. Lethem also suggests a paradox the reader must accept in that the places he mentions are the “same” but are never exactly so “twice”. The ambiguous phrase declared by his hoodie-wearing character “Good luck to the people on the planet” also leaves room for speculation. Which planet? Why do we need “luck” and where will it take us? What kind of journey are we, in fact, on? The haunting ambiguity in the narrative demanded a psychological landscape grounded in a real landscape, something both recognizable and altered.

When you look at Nervous Street, the use of color has immediate impact.  In the upper title bar, the left half of a man’s face appears in stark silhouette and the use of red is striking, perhaps menacing. The lower panels below the title bar is in vivid green of a color not often seen in comics, and perhaps a little more common in surrealist art like the later paintings of Max Ernst.  The art style has a hint of 60’s advertizing about it, conveying a simpler shorthand for the city and its elements. Small details, like the potted “pot” plant on a window ledge, and the graffiti placed “near” the viewer at the edge of the panel form a dialogue with the text boxes that draw the eye both into the boxes and out to the art panels in a zig-zag motion. The white, somewhat “hollow” walking figure, representing the narrator presumably, resonates a little with the psychologically charged faceless figures favored by the surrealist Salvador Dali. The focus upon mental states in surrealist art (a movement heavily influenced by Dada and in many cases pursued by early Dada members) accords with the psychological aspects of Lethem’s narrative and Haspiel’s visual narrative. “Coming” and “going” are also embedded in the position of the narrative focus’s figure in the labyrinthine streets where the first panel shows the figure moving along and “into” the street, and the second shows the figure moving along and “out” of the street.

In the storytelling of the second panel, terms like “Frankenstein trucks” evoke the unnatural in the man-made, the tension between life and death as something in stasis, about to happen but as of yet undefined.  The fish who spend the night in tanks on trucks on Nervous Street are also “sushi”. The same tension is found in the relief of swimming on hot days and the warning of broken glass the narrator talks about, the precautions that must be taken and the necessity of insider knowledge to survival and navigation of invasive threats on Nervous Street. Memory creates points of continuity, including the fact that you can still get “yoked” here by panhandlers. The lurking threats of Nervous Street are known to the native, but take the form of something more pernicious, a need for its tense attitude and atmosphere. Like an addiction or a conditioning that never disappears, the narrator wants the “panic” in his “gut” and the certainty that he can “handle” violence under known conditions, predicated upon adrenaline. This naturalness confirms the continuity of the past. In the present tense, the viewer/reader becomes aware of the “daily odyssey” the narrator undertakes. A final verbal clue confirms the role of memory, that he possesses a “reanimation library” in his brain. Time passes strangely on Nervous Street and so reenacting and traversing this territory “reanimates” the past to such a degree that it creates a new narrative of reanimated memories every time from the rich associations it holds for the narrator.

Reading the artwork of the second panel inevitably becomes part of a comparison with the first. The second half of the composition begins with the dual face, this time hyper-illuminated in an uncanny bold red color. It creates direct tension, perhaps a sense of nerves, but also a clear indication of being particularly awake or aware in comparison to the “dark” half of the face in panel 1. Does one represent memory, the other immediate experience? Which is which? The visual design of the word “Nervous” on the street sign is highly suggestive, with its backward-forward lettering disjunction and the missing word “street”. When viewing the second half of the composition, the viewer may also get a visual sense of the whole and it is then that the step-design of the white text boxes becomes apparent.  The boxes zig in toward each other in opposite numbers, then zag out again, forming opposite Vs or narrowly avoiding a crossing X between the two halves of the composition. This brings new meaning to the arriving/leaving sense of the two parts which seem like a continuum because of the physical position of the white figure on Nervous Street, but the text boxes suggest a separate coming and going within each panel, as if one may be past, one present.  The chalky-blue background of the title panel also stands apart from the continuing green/yellow theme below.  We can also note that solid blue backgrounds are also a feature of surrealist art like Dali’s, particularly Dali’s unblinking desert skies, a hyper-real psychological space. As the text boxes “step” toward the center of each panel and out again, the position of the white figure becomes that much more pronounced. His movements actually stand in tension to the movements of the panel. He does not follow them; in fact, they seem to contradict his single pathway movement.

When we compare and contrast the two panels of the composition, we might also notice that the pale yellow source of “light” in each panel is particularly strong as a position behind the figure in the first panel, but weaker as a source of destination in the second. Other fairly direct comparisons between the two panels may not be obvious at first: a fully leafed tree in panel 1 contrasts with a bare tree not far from the center panel dividing line in panel 2. Strong similar themes include the fact that all other figures depicted in both panels are turned and “watching” the white figure’s movements, increasing an atmosphere both of curiosity, and perhaps of paranoia. We might also recognize that the distance and angle of perspective for the viewer is similar between the two panels, forming a visual symmetry that’s pleasing in this poster format, an angle far above the streetscape from which you, too, “watch” the walking figure.

While the composition is clearly “comic inspired”, the poster-sized format for Cousin Corinne’s Reminder, a literary arts journal published by BookCourt in Brooklyn, in Haspiel’s words, had to address the “visual poetry” of Lethem’s trek, forming a “graphic backdrop” for his words in which neither image nor language would be overwhelmed by the other. Haspiel’s description, that he sought to “illuminate” Lethem’s narrative, may be particularly helpful here. Like manuscript “illuminators” of the past, he adapts the narrative to visual storytelling emphasizing key passages and thereby guiding the reader’s interpretation. Manuscript illuminations are never neutral; they carry with them all the hallmarks of collaboration we might now apply to the creation of comic books, a kind of combined use of active imagination that creates the same conceptual world in different mediums and brings them into alignment for a dual experience.

 

Interestingly, for a story that’s about tension, the visual narrative presented conveys its own tension, affecting the reader. The question remains unanswered even as the reader deciphers the “message” of the composition. The question is similar to that posed intentionally by Dada art, which is what might have triggered my memory in the first place. When we look at Nervous Street, we ask not only “What does it mean?” but stepping back, we formulate the bigger question of “What exactly are we looking at?”, and resist answering the first question in order the answer the more pressing second question. It’s the same as Dada’s own duality prompted by a similar combination of image and text. Haspiel’s “illumination” is a study that forms a second but cohesive dialogue with the possibilities within the text. It is nearly impossible to imagine a format that would have been more suited to a narrative so rife with possible interpretations. Plenty of other formats would have conveyed some of the qualities of the text, but no others would have conveyed the full strangeness of the text, and its own internal questions, blind alleys, reanimations, and conclusions. The combinations of Lethem’s unusual narrative with a strikingly unusual visual solution conveys perhaps more fully an “experience” through visual narrative than the use of smaller panels in a more traditional comic format might have allowed. If you’re up to the challenge of Nervous Street, you will find that you don’t just “read” it, you encounter a new breed of storytelling with plenty of avant-garde artistic parallels.

-by Hannah Means-Shannon. I am @HannahMenzies on twitter and Gwydion_writes on Live Journal.

Works Cited

Dachy, Mark. Dada: The Revolt of Art. New York: Abrams, 2006.

To view full poster, text and commentary of Back on Nervous Street on the Trip City salon website curated by Dean Haspiel and Seth Kushner, click here:

 http://welcometotripcity.com/2012/01/back-on-nervous-street/

Welcome to the Trip City Visitor’s Guide 2012

 

In Italo Calvino’s celebrated novel, he takes us on a tour of Imaginary Cities through the eyes of Marco Polo and Marco’s dialogues with Kublai Khan not only describe fabulous cities, all peculiar in their natures, but also delve deeply into human nature. Within Kublai’s city, the reader is led through cities within cities, stories within stories, until, perhaps, the nature of reality itself breaks down. You might say that Calvino is giving us a number of vistas viewed Through the Looking Glass into worlds not simply opposite but other, and intriguingly, unpredictably different in their principles.

The Trip City Visitor’s Guide 2012 acts as a passkey to a place both real and imagined, unapologetic in its own paradoxes. Only by accepting them can you swipe the fare at the turnstile, choose your stop, and feel those doors slam shut behind you. Choose carefully, because once you do, you are hermetically sealed in the virtual reality that is Trip City. Trip City is a place of see-through doors and vanishing avenues where solid things melt, hidden things surface, thoughts become concrete, and looks can kill. None of those things, in fact, are very reassuring but they become astonishingly “real” in psychological and thematic terms, rendering the “invisible city” visible for us.

If you had a look at the cover, you’ll know that Trip City has a transit line, a neural network of lines that seem to converge in territorial designations such as “sounds”, “pictures”, “words”, “comix”. It is their interrelationship, and the functions that they cooperatively produce that you need to know about and that’s what riding the strange rails is all about. It’s a guided tour, more or less, but if you’re ready to strike out on your own, there’s the jump into virtual portal TripCity.net.

The stations on the tour are manned by a cast of experienced conductors: Dean Haspiel (who legend has it created Trip City out of a handful of unwanted pencil shavings, but that may be an old wives’ tale), Seth Kushner (who has occasionally managed to take a snapshot he argues is proof that Trip City exists), Chris Miskiewicz, Jeffrey Burandt, Jen Ferguson, Nick Abadzis, Sandra Beasley, Eric Skillman, Jorge Coelho, Jonathan Ames, and Jennifer Hayden, with the help of Bobby Timony and Anthony Picone.

 

Dean Haspiel’s prose piece “I’d Rather be Happy than Right”, from his “Room Tone” station opens the guide, introducing a number of features that recur at various locations in the Guide. Depth of detail in describing the seemingly everyday breaks through into challenged memory, perception, and truth. Perfunctory, unexpected violence also serves as a reminder that Trip City is not always a “safe” place, in fact, it might best be described as “hyper-real” in the same way that a “hyper-text” has many levels of possibility, none mutually exclusive.

Haspiel’s other contributions, the prose “Icebox” and the comic “Montero Bar and Grill” expand upon “I’d Rather be Happy than Right’s” uncertainty principle without a sense of repetition. The climate of psychological and physical isolation possible in Trip City comes to the fore in “Icebox” where the narrator chooses to break out of his infinite break-up loop by seeking out a friend only to find that conflict is ubiquitous. The Montero Bar and Grill, like Trip City, is the source of “so many stories”, nevertheless, is across the street from a trauma center and has a peculiar way of redirecting clear identity. Watch out for that unexpected refraction in the “looking glass” that might redefine who you think you are.

Veteran poet Sandra Beasley takes her prose station as a “Modern Alice”(who is no stranger to the “looking glass”) in “Knock Knock” with a first-person, present-tense dive into the tensions of the moment, exploring the physicality and immediacy of time often eclipsed by routine, even in Trip City. There is a thematic link between suspension of time and “seeing” that reinforces a mirror-gazing aspect to this unorthodox tour of reality.

At writer and photographer Seth Kushner’s “CulturePOP” station, we find Jonathan Ames featured in a “Brooklyn Phallacy”. Photographs and text are combined to form a visual reflection on an unforgettable “embarrassing” Brooklyn landmark, set in a kid of enduring “real time” of Trip City” time where, like at the Montero Bar and Grill, things may be unpredictable and varied, but “nothing changes.” Seth also conducts a “Schmuck” prose tour of the City in “Meinn Roomates” (note the plural), echoing the break-up themes of Haspiel’s opening prose in widely varying terms. Taking action to confront his ex, however, doesn’t get the narrator any closer to a solution, but leads him further into recursive confusion as he ignores the advice of not one but two friends, one of whom just happens to be imaginary. Even obsession, it seems, disapproves of hanging on to lost hope.

Nick Abadzis takes you off the beaten path into his “Subterranean Stories” with his comics creation “Carla & the Fear Machines or: the Joy of Horror” where he insightfully lays out several of the principles of Trip City, for instance, that surviving there is a matter of learning to “think different” and even, perhaps, to accept a “wider world” than the one you may currently inhabit. For Carla, horror films are not a way of “escaping” but of tapping into a greater instinctual reality which cannot be reached without embarking into the “subterranean”.

Chris Miskiewicz operates as signal master as you pick your way between stations in both “Cobain” and “Which You?”, veering widely between a seemingly autobiographical narrative and a psychological thriller very much a paradoxical locus in Trip City. “Cobain” takes you into a specific moment in time that suggests the importance of attitude to true survival, whereas “Which You?” takes you on a series of stunningly unpredictable turns into the double nature of reality.

Jen Ferguson’s mini “ad” from “Metrollpolis”: “Missed Connections” may seem like a grace-note, but its combination of image and text contains a subtle reminder of the true “strangeness” of Trip City, where appearances go masked as well as assumptions, insisting on the importance of perspective. After all, only one troll may spot another, and if you can “think different” then you might find you have, in fact, been different all along.

Eric Skillman and Jorge Coelho team up to brake the train at “Suckers”, a comix combination offering here expressed in “What We Do”. If visitors haven’t noticed recurring patterns in Trip City by this point in transit, they are here even more apparent as tautly-drawn and cool-headed career criminals engage the curious with disposable incomes to experience “insider” status. The scam, known as the inversion, reversal, or “flip” is characteristic of the shell-game you’ll play with Trip City as a whole, waiting for the unpredictable reveal that made the trip worthwhile.

Jeffrey Burandt pulls no punches when you disembark at “Clash Fiction” to the tune of “Portrait of a Zombie as a Young Scientist”, revealing the darker possibilities of this voyage in mind as well as location. Tracking the survival logs of scientists during a zombie apocalypse draws a fine line between necessity and depravity in refreshingly clipped style, and from beginning to end introduces some of the same “inversion” characteristic of this ambiguous but authentic “looking-glass” world.  The real trick, it seems, is for each of the characters we follow through Trip City to recognize themselves, and their own world the mirror. Through the process of reflection and refraction, they have the chance to gain dizzying revelations.

Jennifer Hayden’s comix “S’Crapbook” episode “Love is The” is no exception. It cobbles together the sensory material of experience to create a jostling queue of definitions and communally produce an impression of love. How can such an “invisible city” otherwise take on known form? Refraction may capture the essence of what direct scrutiny may not contain.

A perusal of the Trip City Visitor’s Guide 2012 wouldn’t be complete without bothering to puzzle over the mini-mag’s spare but intricate design courtesy of Eric Skillman and the back cover, a haunting Haspiel Billy Dogma image. The yellow seems to have resonance with Haspiel’s Trip City posted comic “The Last Romantic Antihero”, which may be confirmed by the apocalyptic suggestion of Billy and Jane stumbling from the rubble of a catastrophic event. It has a peculiar thematic harmonic with the idea of “aid” and “guide”, and acts as a reminder of the unpredictable and intense aspects of Trip City, as well as the mysteries it still contains.

 

The combination of all of these “stations” into a single print volume has significant implications: Trip City can invade our world, and you can never be quite sure when it might do so. It has jumped from an online portal into a communiqué from “beyond” the web, print, and digital mediums. Better tuck it in your back pocket. You never know when you might fall asleep on that late night train and wake up in Trip City. From what I’ve heard, you will need that guide if you happen to set foot in an Invisible City.

                                                                                                                      –by Hannah Means-Shannon

*I am Hannah Menzies on FB and @HannahMenzies on Twitter

“Comics or Illustration? Talking the Future of Comics at MoCCA Fest’s Children’s Literature Panel”

Sarah Couri (NYPL), Jorge Aguirre (Giants Beware!), P. Craig Russell(launching more Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde), Colleen AF Venable (Guinea Pig: Petshop Private Eye), and Matt Forsythe(Jinchalo) got together for the first panel of MoCCA Fest on April 28th to shine a light on the current state of children’s literature in relationship to comics and broke some new ground on what can be a well-worn subject riddled with misconceptions and clichés.

 

Starting from the assumption that comics are a valid medium for children’s literacy, but one traditionally (perhaps even grossly) underrated, despite their heavy circulation in public libraries, the panel discussed their own struggles with a lack of respect for , as Aguirre called it, “something we love”. Colleen AF Venable admitted to extreme measures in her frustration, going so far as to “trick people” by refusing to divulge the designated genre or age-group when gifting books to friends or family and thereby generating a less biased enthusiasm for the work as it stands, since after all “great literature is great literature” and in this experiment, it can speak for itself.

The panels ranged into more rugged theoretical territory discussing the loaded terminology applied to graphic narratives. Why call a children’s book a graphic novel rather than a picture book? For P. Craig Russell there are many reasons to make a designation of this kind. A sequential artist, he insisted, is not an illustrator. For Russell, a comics artist who also succeeds as an illustrator is a person who “straddles both worlds”, such as Charles Vess.

Russell related his own youthful experiences, supposing he was “not good enough” to “break in” to the highly competitive world of illustration, one which he considers a “different craft” than comics. You can’t necessarily tell a story with an illustration, he pointed out. Other panelists agreed that formal qualities such as the use of panels and word balloons continue to separate comics from illustration, however difficult their other differences may be to define.

Each of the panelist was also asked if they found themselves changing or adapting styles in the knowledge of a child-based audience and the remarkable consensus was largely a “no”. However, many agreed that an editor might prompt them to do so if necessary; the editorial role became the subject of conversation, a role particularly significant in children’s books, according to Russell, in which the editor might function as a “hub” with varying tasks extending from them like “spokes”.

The panel authors suggested quite strongly that language and vocabulary should not be extensively “simplified” for a younger audience since, in their own experience, reading on a higher level helped to expand their own vocabulary and literacy. This has a particular bearing upon graphic narrative adaptation of literary classics which Russell, in particular, felt should stay as close to the original text as possible in vocabulary, perhaps providing glossaries if necessary.

Matt Forsythe felt that choosing “what’s best for kids” was actually the “wrong way to look at it”, since reflecting on his own childhood reading, he recalled several works that seemed “scary” and “definitely challenging” that nevertheless, helped prepare him for the more serious aspects of life. Russell supplied the example of the Disney film Pinocchio, which he found quite scary but worthwhile as a child, a scariness that stands up well in the face of so much adult-conceived “saccharine” entertainment for children these days. The implication was that adult created concepts of what children like might convey an artificial “niceness” that children may not even be comfortable with, particularly if it seems to belie the realities of life they see around them.

Panelists continued to return to the concept of the “scary” in children’s works, and the mysterious impact of works that stay with you decades later. For P. Craig Russell, recently re-discovering the Golden Book of Hansel and Gretel thirty years later has had a strong emotional impact, both in recognizing the virtuosity of good illustration and a recurrence of “light-headedness” from childhood in the face of its more frightening aspects.

The authors were, penultimately, asked to list their favorite reads as kids. For Russell, this included Dr. Seuss, Golden Books, and a taste for early Disney animation including Snow White, which had a particular impact on his own visual style. Jorge Aguirre preferred C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books and the works of P. D. Eastman while Matt Forsythe loved “surreal monster books”, and comics such as X-men.

Panelists lastly tackled the thorny question of introducing and encouraging visual literacy in young children who might otherwise feel excluded from graphic narrative formats that have a more “comic” style including panels and speech bubbles. While Russell lamented a possible diminution in visual literacy in recent years, he suggested that “overdoing” and “holding a reader’s hand” visually is something he takes quite seriously in order to leave no reader out of the conversation. He feels that graphic narratives should be “easy to follow” and authors should be as “obvious” as they can be with younger readers to encourage future enthusiasm for the medium. Sarah Couri added that we should assume that it’s a particular “skill” to “decode pictures” that children can develop over time, not necessarily a “natural” skill depending on cultural practice.

Russell brought the conversation to a close with some basic points concerning identifying age group when crafting a children’s work, that the age of the hero in a narrative will help determine the age of the readership intended, as well as a work’s length. He gave the example, however, of his work on Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, to illustrate the need to let children choose their preferred visual narratives in terms of themes and style. The “scariness” of Coraline, in Russell’s experience has always been more of a subject of concern to adults than to the child readers who rocketed the story to widespread popularity and led to its adaptation as a graphic narrative and film.

Not only did the energy that panelist brought to the table launch MoCCA Fest on a strong footing, but their own seriousness and passion for necessary conversations like this reminded readers that comics are not yet as “established” as an acceptable form of literacy as we might begin to imagine. Their answers also highlighted the seminal role of picture books and illustration to launch young creators on the road toward children’s comics, even while arguing the need for separate mediums with their own particular strengths. As the writers considered their own childhood reading experiences, the audience was left with the radical sense that our comics readers of the future begin right here with children’s literature. The survival of the medium,“something we love” may depend on it.

MoCCA Fest for the Newbie, or: Surviving Comix

*(this recounts Saturday the 28th of April at MoCCA Fest)

I heard about MoCCA Fest, a fundraiser for the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York, well ahead of time this year and so it developed its own peculiar brand of hype. The bizarre organic networks of common knowledge continued to overlap with my life. Over the next couple of months, at least once a week it seemed to come up out of nowhere in unrelated conversations. Facebook started pinging. People from all over would be there. There was a general sense of preparing for pilgrimage, even for those in the area. I was determined to see what it was all about.

Arriving at the Armory on Lexington just before opening time on Saturday April 28th, I was abruptly invited to enter the hall first because I already had tickets. As I walked down the wide avenue of white tables flanked by pink-shirted volunteers putting on their welcoming faces for the day, I got to glimpse, just for a moment, the thing before it started. The central great hall was the focus- it was a sudden shock of light and color of alarming density. You may have been to full-scale comic cons and know how overwhelming they can be, not only in the sheer crush of bodies but in the delirious colors, lights, and displays. Imagine that and compact it into a smaller space with much better lighting and a greater focus on printed products. The initial impression of being slapped in the face with multi-color wall of intense and gutsy media stayed with me like an imprint on my retinas.

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In the hive of activity there was a constant thread of moving pink blurs, the volunteers and their shirts, resonating with the impressively emblematic poster design by P. Craig Russell that seemed to hover over all giving the impression of festival in its Rococo flow, floating figures and winged suggestion. Standing nose to paper with his poster reminded me suddenly that I was about to miss his panel, so I ran downstairs to take a seat.

Panels for MoCCA Fest appropriately opened with a discussion of Children’s Literature, it’s place and future in relationship to comics and illustration. Sandra Couri of the New York Public Library headed the panel, joined by Jorge Aguirre, P. Craig Russell, Colleen Af Venable, and Matt Forsyth, each bringing their own harmonic variants to the conversation. They started off with the elephant in the room: how to raise the prestige of comics as a medium appropriate for children in the face of the bare facts, that comics remain the most circulated of library materials among kids. Russell weighed in with twenty-years of perspective on the “long road” that comics have taken from simple illustration of fairy tales to usurping a place in the hallowed children’s book sections of megastores. Overall, the passionate commitment of each of the panelists to their medium, as well as their candor, launched the festival on a strong note of individualism among authors and illustrators and an individual commitment to readership which might as well have been elegantly traced over Russell’s floating cherubim as a motto baring the heart of indie comics.

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(*For more detail on P. Craig Russell’s panel, see forthcoming mini-article “Comics or Illustration?”)

I looked at my handy, scrawled checklist of people I meant to touch base with that day, and that list became my touchstone amid the constant feast of distractions on the main floor. If I could check them all off then I felt I might survive my first MoCCA Fest. Top of the list was trying to get a signed copy of the newly launched Cleveland by the late Harvey Pekar and Joseph Remnant.  I was doubly rewarded by finding both Joseph and Joyce Brabner, Harvey’s widow and fellow writer, ready and waiting to sign Cleveland. They encouraged me to come to their panel about Harvey later that afternoon but I assured them not to worry, that it was on my list in large letters with a box around it. Check.

I decided to shake things up a little and hit the list in random order while walking around. That was not a good idea. Every table arrested my attention. It was like gliding through a multiversal imagination where every shape and concept morphed and changed, but tended to recur in little common themes: zombies in wedding gowns, smiling monsters, expressive robots and well-meaning anti-heroes, all charged with tremendous energy and verve through the conviction of personal vision. To be brief: it was like looking into a collective unconsciousness brought to life through the extremes of dedication. And it was a card-carrying day for creators, declaring “this is what I really do with my life”.

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Referring back to the list with some desperation (it was rapidly becoming a holy grail of concentration), I loped over to Power House Books to see if there were any familiar faces present yet. Among other things, Power House was proudly re-launching its newest action-packed photo and history book on comic book creators: Leaping Tall Buildings. The book’s photographer Seth Kushner greeted and directed what seemed like a constant swirl of people around Power House, bringing an air of orderliness to the mini-event and author Chris Irving discussed the project, its origins and development over time. It was a uniquely personal thing peculiar to MoCCA Fest, to directly hear the thoughts of the creators of these works, to see their strange, edgy passion and congratulate them first-hand on their work.

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(Dean Haspiel, Becky Cloonan and Chris Irving sign copies of Leaping Tall Buildings and posters at the Powerhouse Books Table)

This reminded me of something I had managed to leave off my list. Seth kindly directed me visually across the entire space to a blue-checked shirt bobbing on the far end. Trip City, the Brooklyn-based and “filtered” electronic literary arts salon had produced its first print document in honor of the Fest in glossy black and iconic pulp fiction yellow: A Visitor’s Guide to the salon with contributions from a wide range of members. I navigated the garden maze of tables, trying to keep the shirt in sight. I lost it a couple of times, perambulated, caught it again to lay my hands on the thing. Jeff UK nodded sagely, agreeing that it was worth the effort, I mean, how could anything get more yellow than that? And for fans of Dean Haspiel’s artwork, Billy Dogma and Jane Legit stumble out of the wreckage of the back cover.

(*for more on this, see my upcoming separate review of the Trip City Visitor’s Guide)

 

After a large cappuccino and some deep breaths across the street, I went for some morale support to check in with longtime comics writer, editor, and scholar Danny Fingeroth, who was signing his picaresque archival book The Stan Lee Universe and chatting with friend Gary Hallgren of Air Pirates Fame. He was a seasoned veteran after all, and surely MoCCA Fest couldn’t shake his cool. Instead he agreed that the Fest could be completely overwhelming, but assured me that was part of the fun.  Undeterred, I dropped some lurking Marvel Darkhawk memorabilia on him and neatly checked his name off before leaving him to waiting queues of conversationalists.

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                         (Danny Fingeroth and Gary Hallgren sign works for fans)

I was late, of course, for something, I assumed, and I was right. The award ceremony for Klein Award winner and guest of honor Gary Panter was underway. Being a newbie to things comics, I wasn’t all that familiar with his work, but Bill Kartalopoulos guided us through Gary’s career from a rural childhood in Texas, to the punk scene of the 1970’s, to Gary’s glorious notebooks unbound into collected volumes. Gary plunged pretty deeply into the mindset of the artist for us, emphasizing what an “obsessive thing” it is to pursue a life-long vocation, and how one learns to “work with that they have” in terms of skills and materials to produce the “ideas” of their own particular art. The accessibility of the talk was remarkable; I came away feeling I’d been educated and challenged to see the seriousness in all artistic pursuits.

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                                     (Gary Panter receives the Klein Award for 2012)

I was flagging, but still holding out for that Pekar panel. Joseph and Joyce were counting on me and my list, after all. On the flood-tide of the even more crowded but jubilant floor, I saw a flash of close-cropped white hair. P. Craig Russell had appeared. I made a beeline before signature-hungry fans noticed his entrance and I managed to arrive second in line. The guy in front of me had about fifteen items he wanted P. Craig Russell to sign. They emerged from the seemingly bottomless rucksack like a tour of Craig’s work but I took the opportunity to look over the long history of his remarkable contributions, from more “mainstream” superhero comic work in the early days, to the ins and outs of adapting Neil Gaiman’s works (and he was currently working on the Grave Yard Book while in NYC); the most constant and megalithic achievements have been his opera and fairy-tale adaptations paired with his breathtaking world-creating mythological style.

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                               (P. Craig Russell  signing the Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde)

He signed his newly released  The Happy Prince, one of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, and humored me with some anecdotes about his gorgeous Siegfried: Ring of the Nibelungen, which itself had a twenty-year hell-bent history. I checked off that much-honored item reluctantly, but left him to indulge his fans.

I was on my last legs but still had a little way to go, down to Cleveland for an hour to take a whirlwind hike through Harvey Pekar’s weighty and enduring legacy, always appreciated by the faithful, but more profoundly felt since his recent departure. But it was, as everyone insisted, a time to celebrate as much as remember. Rick Parker, Dean Haspiel, J.T. Waldman, Joyce Brabner, Joseph Remnant, Sean Pryor, and Jeff Newelt all piled in to represent. For those who might have missed their book-launching events for Cleveland that week (like me), this was a reprise eagerly anticipated.

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                                               (Pekar panelists in discussion)

Jeff Newelt started off by pointing out that this was a “tribute panel” of people coming together to talk about Harvey with love, humor, and respect. Joyce was particularly giving in sharing her first impressions of Harvey, her admiration for his “honesty”, focusing on the “painfully true”. For those who were newer to Harvey’s work, we heard and saw a recap of many of his major works. Joyce discussed Our Cancer Year and the struggles she faced constructing that work, and Dean Haspiel recounted not only his long fannish pursuit of working with one of his personal comics heroes, but the strange origins of the American Splendor film from offhand wish-fulfillment comments to poignant reality.

The panel discussion returned, in the end, to Harvey’s posthumous works, to the fate of the Pekar “Comics as Art and Literature” Memorial in  Cleveland, and to the possible completion of yet more remaining manuscripts. Firstly, the upcoming Not the Israel my Parents Promised Me, illustrated by J.T. Waldman, was offered in “sneak preview”, then the panel turned to Joseph Remnant’s work on Cleveland and the quixotic complications he faced as a researcher of a particular landscape and history inextricable from Harvey’s work. It was a relief not to have a sense of closure, as we listened to the prospects for quite a few as of yet unpublished Pekar stories.  The gratefulness in the room was palpable and buoyant and it had nothing to do with saying “goodbye” to a comics legend.

I was broken down and done. If I could get up the stone staircase, crawl down the cavernous steps, and heft my tote full of signed books and ephemera I might be able to live to tell the tale until MoCCA Fest 11. I drew a line through the last item on my list and then looked at the palm of my hand where I had written “afterparty”.

Yeah, right. Or maybe. But if I didn’t survive that, it would be my own fault.

Something about that Pekar panel made me feel pretty sure that I wasn’t a newbie anymore, that I was now officially a fellow pilgrim. The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art started something here with this fundraiser that became far more than a fundraiser. They ended up solidifying the indie comics community by bringing them together in one place for an intense period of time and an intense exchange of common goals and ideas. Ten years later I think everyone knows that and recognizes how it’s changed things in a fundamental way.  Long may the pilgrimage continue.

 -By Hannah Means-Shannon, aka Hannah Menzies on Facebook and @Hannah Menzies on Twitter
-Photos by Russ Shannon