Heroes and Indies on TRIP CITY

It’s been a really busy autumn already in terms of cons, shows, expos, launches and the like. Since I haven’t been as acutely aware of it in previous years, I don’t know how this compares with other stats, but hearing things like “record sales”, “record numbers” etc suggests to me that 2012 has been a very big year for comics. I bit the bullet and tried to hit all the major events within driving range. It was a gaunlet that shuttled me between superhero cosplay and indie night-before stapling fests. I didn’t really have too much time to process what I was seeing, but I was trying to write about it on the fly. I just tried to stick to the facts and hold on for the ride.

But when my journalistic articles started coming out, I was making gaffs. Pretty embarassing ones. Sometimes I’d manage to get through one article without some mistake that showed how new I was to comics, and particularly to comics culture. Sometimes reading several collected volumes of your favorite author doesn’t exactly make you well rounded when it comes to mainstream issues and indie angst. I got a little despondent about it, even though these days you can fix mistakes with the stroke of a key and problem solved. I wondered if I just wasn’t ready to be writing about comics on a scale that really demands a degree of expertise. Maybe enthusiasm wasn’t enough.

I ended up talking to friends about it, of course, and pretty much assuming they’d agree with me, that I ought to back off for awhile. They knew a hell of a lot more than me and more often than not were providing the corrections when I needed them. But their answers were more or less even worse than telling me to call it a day. They suggested I tell everyone that I was new to comics and didn’t always know what I was looking at. In especially ungracious fashion, I got angry with them and told them off. Didn’t they know that would ruin my chances of ever being taken seriously by readers, much less by sites that might let me write for them? Suicide. A couple of days went by. It was one of those awful, good ideas that sticks in the back of your mind. It was like a dare, or maybe looking over a cliff and feeling that vertigo. I told myself I’d do it, but not publish these confessional articles. Well, you get how it turned out. I did it. I thanked them. They were right.

So, here for your perusal, check out the first article I did in this autobio vein pondering the superhero and cosplay aspects of Baltimore Comic Con that I took for granted until I looked more closely at a world I thought I knew:

“Looking for Heroes at Baltimore Comic Con”

[title image by Seth Kushner]

That one was scary enough to write, but honestly, the indie article was harder. That was the real plunge, because I hadn’t even seen an indie comic before spring of 2012 and here I was trying to write about MoCCA Fest and SPX as if I could process the wild world I was being introduced to. But it was maybe the most satisfying writing experience I’ve had yet because it was such an honest wrangling with my impressions. Here you can find:

“The Many Worlds of Indie Comics”

[title image by Seth Kushner]

A big thanks to Dean Haspiel and Seth Kushner at TRIP CITY who allowed me to air my laundry on these issues, proofread and gave suggestions about them, and particularly to Seth who arranged the images beautifully, as always. I also learned something about TRIP CITY doing this, by the way: they value earnestness. Add to that a serious respect for the hard work that goes into comics and all the arts. Just a few more reasons why I’m glad to be a part of a fantastic collective like this.

Asbury Park Comic Con: Groovy and Independent

Asbury Comic Con is the brain-child of independent comics guy Cliff Galbraith, who has been a long-time creator of RAT BASTARD, UNBEARABLE, and other comics, and has recently launched RAT BASTARD as an app for reading at NYCC 2012. He got tired of the big companies shouldering out smaller ones and indie creators at comic cons and had another plan in mind. He took over the Asbury Lanes bowling alley and music venue in Asbury Park, NJ, for the first time last spring with plenty of help from enthusiastic friends. The event was small, but had a remarkable vibe and attracted like-minded comics people. This second con, held September 29th built on that success and then some. With more tables, more comics artists and writers, and great food, it kicked ass.

Everyone involved had a great time, including TRIP CITY’s Dean Haspiel and Seth Kushner, who were there selling minis and books, and friends of TC George O’Connor of InkdTV and artist Reilly Brown. Add to that plenty of other comics stalwarts with a strong indie streak like Larry Hama and Evan Dorkin.

I was there for The Beat with several other Beat writers, and we had a blast. Part of the fun was digging around in long boxes and finding the most unlikely stuff. I ended up with some BEOWULF and Batman Annuals. Torsten Adair hit a goldmine of the bizarre and wrote it all up for The Beat as “Fool’s Gold” installments 1 and 2.

Attendees were into it and there were kids in costume this time, too. You never know what’s missing from an environment until you add kids having a good time with their parents, then you know a con has arrived. I also found some great old 8 Ball comics by Daniel Clowes, something I’d been hunting for, and Marvel graphic novels from the 1990′s. I have an obsessive collection of those- beautiful artwork! This time I got Daredevil by Bill Sienkiewicz and Frank Miller.

Some other indie friends enjoying the day and keeping tables busy were Dre Grigoropol and Sean Pryor. Sean’s a local and was looking forward the opening of an art show featuring his work. He also teaches art classes in the area.

After the con was just as much fun as the con itself. We headed down to the boardwalk after finding a restaurant too loud and uncongenial, led by Cliff Galbraith. We decided on hanging out in the warm weather under a dramatic moon/cloudscape and eating some really to die for Korean tacos. Here George O’Connor checks out the Batmobile.

Everyone broke out their cameras after nightfall to see if we could get any pictures of the moon, sea, and sand, and to our surprise, the pictures were excellent. It really set the tone for the whole con that lots of comics people got a chance to hang out and talk together about the history of comics and current work. Asbury Con was about similar goals and a desire to impact the community through comics. Big thanks to Cliff Galbraith for having this vision, and putting in all the energy to make it happen. Here’s to more years of Asbury Con. It’ll be moving to the convention hall next time due to its impressive successes, but for those of us who came to the Lanes, they’ll always have a special place in our experience of a new kind of con.

For my full coverage of the Asbury Park Comic Con for The Beat, please click here.

And I Survived…SPX!

This year I attended my first Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland, in what seemed like only a couple of days after the phenomenal Boston Comic Con. I drove down a little ahead of the Expo in order to attend Dean Haspiel’s talk at the Library of Congress, celebrating the donation of over 600 minicomics from his personal collection to the Library, but also the ongoing collection that will house Ignatz Award nominated comics and other worthies drawn from SPX each year. It was a proud day for comics, and plenty of other comics folks turned up for a tour of the impressive comics holdings the Library already had on offer. If you’d like to see my coverage of that event for The Beat, you can find it here.

After returning to the hotel for a spell, some of us headed back into DC for the Literary Death Match event featuring Dean Haspiel and the Beat’s Heidi MacDonald as judges. It was a hilarious event hosted in pro fashion with a whole cast of talented cartoonists competing through wits and art.

When SPX finally opened the next morning, the crowds were impressive and I realized right away how special the Expo was. I’m new to indie comics, and this was a premier festival for creators and fans of the self-published, off-the-beaten path and even hand-made in comics. I was overwhelmed by the well of creativity I saw there, and tried to pick up a wide selection of minis produced in different ways. I talked to lots of creators, hearing their stories and motivations in the creative process, but I also saw the way in which everyone enjoyed seeing and talking to each other in an environment in which their efforts were understood. Add to that the all-star cast of famous names attending SPX this year from Daniel Clowes to the Hernandez Brothers and Chris Ware. It made for an ebullient atmosphere. It wouldn’t be far fetched to call the event one big comics party, but a party where people made record sales from interested attendees. This really signals a rise in popularity and recognition for indie comics.

I spent a lot of my time attending fabulous panels, hearing straight from veteran comics people about their careers and the future of the form, and covered lots of them for The Beat. You can see my day one coverage and day two coverage with pictures if you’re interested.

I also covered the entertaining Ignatz Awards which was one of the most up-beat ceremonies I’ve ever witnessed, not to mention the sprawling late into the night parties that followed. It left me broken down by Sunday morning, but ready for more knowledge. A full day of panels (reinforced by a great cooked breakfast) kept me on the move.

[These fine fellows are Jim Dougan, Dean Haspiel, and Joe Infurnari, all of whom create comics]

Driving back, my mind was literally still spinning with all the wit and wisdom I’d been a party too. As Warren Bernard said to me, it would be very very hard to top SPX this year, and as people started responding to the event online, it was clear that everyone had just as good a time as me. It was a crowded, lively, welcoming Expo, bringing in new readership and talent. I’d highly recommend people interested in comics attend in future years, whatever genre you’re into. It’s increasingly evident to me that comics is actually a fairly small world and if you want to hang out with like minded people, SPX is a premier place to do just that. Two thumbs up!



At the Crossroads of Music and Comics with Jeffrey Burandt/Jef UK, Part II: “The Irony of Performance”

Jeffrey Burandt took two hours out of a sultry evening at the end of August to talk shop with me in Bryant Park, and while we roughly pursued the chronology of his life and artistic endeavors, themes kept popping up that were difficult to put down. They were the zombie concepts that drive Burandt forward, challenging him to push the boundaries of standard artistic output. Yes, I said “standard”. On a day when you’re feeling generous, you admit that everything that artists produce is original and unique because no one could ever do the same thing the same way twice, but in a cynical mode you do realize, maybe when reaching for a CD on a shelf in a shop, that things can get a little samey even among the talented. The only way to assure yourself that you can avoid that form of stultification in music, or in comics, is to keep redefining those boundaries and surprising yourself as well as your audience.

To start off with, Burandt acknowledges that his alter ego and stage name Jef UK is a “fictional character” who does not savor the “careful thoughtful things” that Burandt, as a writer, comes up with. Jef UK is all about the internet and the ways in which it renders the whole world “Beta”. In a world with “no such thing as a final iteration”, Jef UK can splash his R-rated comics onto screens, then later choose to revise, and reframe them as sequential narratives that may eventually see a more formal print format. I ask Burandt for some examples of changes he’s been persuaded to make and he whispers a few that I recognize from the Americans UK comics up on TRIP CITY, a multi-media digital arts salon. We consider a particular ending and whether he should change it before the print version (names have been concealed for the protection of innocent comix). Burandt’s comics for TRIP CITY share a common feature in their short-story format, one which Burandt feels is capable of “suggesting a really big world” while avoiding tying down the narrative to a single chronological thread.

The “Beta” aspects of digital comics for Burandt tie into his appreciation for both the unique qualities of demo recordings and the hammered down and polished features of albums when the songs have been been played “hundreds of times”. Demo recordings have haunting qualities and unique surprises that create a more visceral experience for the reader the way a freshly pressed digital comic might. Burandt’s a fan of Beck, Bjork, and Radiohead, and I can see a consistency linking his philosophy and tastes. These are all bands who privilege the texture of live playing and performance, even in their recorded albums, and make a point of creating new avenues for their compositions in concert gigs.

[photo by Walker Esner]

From Burandt’s descriptions of more mainstream print comics projects he’s worked on, it is clear that he, like most comics creators working today, finds the industry more than a little maddening. A particular frustration is the time-frame involved. A graphic novel, he explained, may be picked up, and a certain amount of advance money paid, but it could be years before the book sees print, if ever. In a climate where you have to “get published to get published”, this elaborate waiting game isn’t helpful. Self-publication and digital media, just like live performance and demos, are a way to put art into the community in a more immediate way.

[Portrait of Jef UK by Seth Kushner]

But, in the case of music, if you are going to build a band’s reputation largely on performances rather than big record label albums, how do you do that? Burandt’s solution is to recognize what he calls the “irony of performance”. The “blending of fiction and reality” that he previously discussed with me in terms of founding his fiction-based real band Americans UK becomes even more significant when you acknowledge Burandt’s premise, that “at the heart of all art performance is irony”. Burandt defines artistic irony as something “projecting itself as something it is not”, a form of duplication. For instance, a song about heartbreak being performed, is not necessarily the experience of heartbreak in itself. It may recall, recreate, or suggest that state, but forgetting the artificiality of the performance is part of the irony.

This all plays into Burandt’s use of stage “uniforms” as Jef UK, from black domino mask to capes and other comic-linked trappings. His dream band costume, he muses, would be for his band to turn up as 5 Spider-Men on stage. “How is that less gimmicky”, he asks, than the stuff hipsters wear to emulate each other?

If you assume the costume, and take on the gimmick, you’re only one step away from bringing comics to the stage, it seems. Maybe that’s the real crossroads of music and comics for Burandt: performance. Americans UK perform “Sons of Ba’al” to the stark black and white clear-line style of an accompanying comic projection. The images the comic contains draws on layouts that veer between traditional comics panels, the large panels typical of digital comics, and the experimental distribution of text you often see in CD lyric pamphlets or covers.

The fantastic images of demon-human characters ties in with plenty of comic traditions while the black and white palette carries an indie comics association. The comic was posted on TRIP CITY to be accompanied by the musical track, but also includes meta material such as sketches from the artist, Ham Gravy, aka Michael Lapinski , and commentary about the comics art from Burandt.

Check it out and see what you experience. Maybe making the transition into total sensory overload is just a matter of taking the plunge.

Burandt and Americans UK may be making bigger waves than they think, since I’ve heard a couple of other young musician/artists lately discussing the possibility of comics performance projection combined with a musical set. It’s not that it’s never been done before, since images in live performance have been around, pretty much since time immemorial, but the quality and originality of the art and music make a seismic difference to the audience’s experience. Jeffrey Burandt, aka Jef UK is a man with a seemingly endless well of ideas about the overlap and crossing points between the arts in their various forms. Thanks for the chat, Jeffrey. I hope everyone gets a chance to see and hear Americans UK push the aural/visual envelope again soon.