Studio YOLO “Aporia” Challenge

Studio YOLO was founded after 8 artists and their mentor completed the Atlantic Center for the Arts Residency in October of 2012, and worked together for 3 weeks on individual and communal comics projects. One of their projects with mentor Dean Haspiel, Eisner-nominated and Emmy Award winning artist, was A LETTER LASTS LONGER  where Dean provided the text and each artist had to complete their comics interpretation of the story. YOLO took this idea and ran with it, posing a challenge a month after the residency, and the challenge is open to all and sundry who wish to participate. Each month, text is posted on their website with the rest of the month to submit a comic based upon it. In March, “Aporia” by artist Christa Cassano, was posted and in April, the results were published.

I had a great idea for the comic, but am newly returned to drawing, trying to take classes on and off this year. Still, they kept insisting I shouldn’t chicken out, so I was able to make their extended deadline. The result is below. I hope to keep up with YOLO’s challenge regardless of my drawing skill level in future because it was a difficult but majorly empowering experience for me to “just do it”.

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You can find a massive interview with all 8 members of Studio YOLO about their residency experience here and a review of the new Atlantic Center for the Arts Anthology BREAKERS, to which they contributed, here.

Studio YOLO are:

Christa Cassano
Fionnuala Doran
James Greene
Dean Haspiel
George Jurard
Meghan Lands
Gregory Mackay
Jp Pollard
Jess Ruliffson

The Future of Comics Scholarship at the SWTX PCA Conference, 2013

The Southwest Texas Pop Culture/American Culture Association hosts a conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico every year, and three years ago, it’s where I presented my first foray into comics scholarship. I was pretty terrified to do so, having only returned to reading comics less than a year before, but I was talking about (still) one of my favorite comics, Alan Moore and JH Williams III’s PROMETHEA, which I consider a game-changer in the presentation not only of female heroes in comics, but in the comics presentation of esoteric concepts. My first paper went much better than expected, despite the fact that my panel was at 8AM, and the altitude was making me feel high. It led to my first publication in a comics studies journal (the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics), but in retrospect, I think it was more significant because I met one of the greats of current comics scholarship, Rob Weiner.

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He’s the area chair for Graphic Novels and Comics at the SWTX PCA, and aside from his varied pop culture scholarship and media involvement, he’s produced quite a few excellent books and collections of essays on comics scholarship and comics in libraries that have paved the way for younger scholars to feel grounded in this new field (most recently WEB SPINNING HEROICS, a collection of essays on Spider-Man) . Not only is he an invaluable resource, but he represents the inclusive attitude so vital in comics scholarship right now, seeing the potential in new ideas and giving comics primacy in study, rather than letting theory (so prevalent in “the academy”) dominate. He’ll be embarrassed by all my praise, but let’s be clear: I wouldn’t even be writing about comics without Rob, and writing about comics has changed my life, so I’m very grateful.

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I’ve been back every year to the SWTX PCA, and followed them to the national conference occasionally (all lovely people there too). I’ve been very impressed by the way a substantial number of panels on comics scholarship have been run every year, and every year several of the panels have speakers claim to be “brand new” to talking about comics in a scholarly way. This year talks ranged from cultural understanding in TINTIN (bucking the trend in criticism of colonial ideas), to discussions of autobio comics I’d never even encountered (always good), as well as plenty of talks on X-Men, WATCHMEN, and more mainstream titles. The talks were all earnest, carefully researched and presented, and gave a little preview of where comics scholarship is headed, which is into increasing acceptance in academia as a “serious” subject.

When critiquing the current state of affairs with other scholars, we all agreed that we hope in the future scholars, regardless of their subject area backgrounds (from English Lit, to Film, Law, and Sociology) will really spread their wings and resist the ossification that adhering too strictly to theory-dominance creates. To explain that a little more, what we meant is that there’s a lot of pressure in all things academic to spend a lot of energy establishing theoretical framework, which becomes a form of peer pressure that can take away from an enthusiastic discussion of the subject being studied. It feels like putting the cart before the horse, and often takes the spotlight off the great art form that we love. There’s a place for theory, and it needs to be there for a detailed critique of what comics have accomplished as a “serious” art form, but it’s a fine line between using theory and theory using scholars. So much for our soap-box.

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My own presentation this year was particularly exciting for me, creating the first ever academic discussion of Emmy-Award winning artist Dean Haspiel’s BILLY DOGMA comics. BILLY, featuring a bruiser hero with poetic prose and his fists of fury girlfriend Jane Legit, has been running for 15 years in various formats, and has increasingly challenged the way that relationships are presented in hero comics. My talk focused on the way that relationships can be handled seriously as part of the psychology of hero stories, rather than simply presenting miserable, failed relationships (typical in superhero comics focusing on a secret identity) or as a “happy ending” (like many folk tales involving heroes). There’s a strong middle ground where relationships can act as part of the heroic development of well-rounded individuals struggling with their own internal demons, but it doesn’t often find its way into hero comics. Long live BILLY!

I had plenty of great slides to use to illustrate my points, and this led to discussions with other scholars later about the increasing importance of using slides so the audience really experiences the comics being talked about. As surprising as it may sound, using visual slides in academic talks is a relatively recent thing. When I presented my first American academic paper on film studies back in 2007, there was no way to use Power Point in my conference room and using the DVD player to try to show clips of a film was a complete disaster. Things are slowly catching up- thankfully since comics scholarship needs these resources.

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The feedback I hear every year at the SWTX PCA is that it’s a place to reconnect with like-minded people, who often become close friends over time (and I have made several there), and the “new” scholars in the panels I chaired also spoke about how the people they met made a big difference in inspiring them to continue in comics scholarship. It’s not the easiest road in the world, often facing scrutiny or stubborn lack of desire to understand from academic circles, but that’s changing, and the only way it’s going to really change is to keep on doing what we love.

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One of the highlights of the conference, by the way, was a packed screening of the 1926 film THE BAT, a silent film whose talkie sequel was a big influence on the genesis of Batman as a character and a comic. Taking into account the various trends in pop culture that impact comics is very important, and keeping comics scholarship too narrow a field is a big way to miss out on gems like this.

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I spent the last day and a half in New Mexico exploring some familiar haunts in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, basking in the intense sunshine (through my dark sunglasses- intense!) ,and taking in some museums where I got the appreciate the tumultuous history and amazing Native cultures of the Southwest. Talking with Pueblo culture craftsmen, eating some of my favorite Southwest foods and just reminding myself what a big world it is always adds to my experience of the conference when I go. It was another great year at the SWTX PCA and, yeah, I hope I’m there for many years to come. I hope next year there will be even more comics panels, even more unique and original ideas I haven’t heard before, and an increasing flow of newbies who pave the way for future appreciation of comics.

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Beat Reviews: Celebrating Peyo’s the THE SMURFS from Papercutz

The Smurfs were a big part of my childhood. I started collecting the figures whenever I could at a young age, and I remember coveting one of the small blue rubber figures more than bigger presents at Christmas or on birthdays. My brother had a Papa Smurf figure I was always stealing and squirreling away when he wasn’t paying attention. I grew up in Germany when I was very young, where Smurfmania was pretty well entrenched, but it wasn’t until I returned to the USA that I got the watch the cartoons rather than simply read and reread some kids books starring them (our TV in Germany only had one English channel and the only program I remember being able to watch, with great enthusiasm, was The Muppet Show). In fact, the first time I visited my grandparents’ house on our move back to the USA, we each found lying on our carefully laid out beds a plush Smurf doll and I was ecstatic. I still have mine, and my brother’s Papa Smurf doll which I stole, yet again.

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Watching the cartoons was a clock-work highlight of my week. It meant Saturday to me, and it was something my siblings and I all agreed on. There would be no talking during the show, none at all, and if you spilled your cereal, you better clean it up quietly. I’m assuming this is all a typical story of kids in my generation. I couldn’t tell you exactly why I liked the Smurfs, but a lot of the medieval and folktale elements of the show seeped into my consciousness and probably nudged me further toward medieval studies later on in life. Even then I realized the nonsensical nature of the mythology- how they could live without more supplies in their village, not to mention how they reproduced, was a bit of a joke, but it was a joke viewers were in on.

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So, all these years later, when Papercutz sent some PDFs of their English-language translated Smurf comics, the originals drawn by Peyo himself, my way, it was like being handed a strange time-capsule. I had already scooped up a couple of their paperback all-ages graphic novels out of sentimentality, and truth be told, a few years ago, I discovered I could add to my Smurf collection with vintage figures in shops. My favorite, of course, was the magician figure. I hopped right on board with a review, which turned out to be as much a celebration of Peyo’s remarkable imagination and beautiful artwork (there’s something about his rounded lines and crisp use of colors that just never ages) as an assessment of the plot of The BABY SMURF.

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But this particular volume was rewarding because it assessed many of my childhood questions. Where DO baby Smurfs come from, and how do they fit into the Smurf universe? I found the comic to be so much more modern and edgy than I expected that it really turned my reading experience from a nostalgic interlude to an astonished salute to a great master of visual storytelling.

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So check out my review for The Beat here, as well as a discussion of the preview contained in the upcoming GN of another work by Peyo that I didn’t know about previously, titled in English BENNY BREAKIRON. The fact that Peyo addresses superheroes in this character was another surprise that blew up in my face, much like those neatly tied red-bow packages you have to watch out for in the Smurf village. Enjoy!

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Beat Reviews: Putting the Creepy in Comics with Dan Goldman and Stephen Bissette

In December of 2012, I dove in and started doing reviews for the Beat. Though I was just starting to find my way when it came to reviewing comics, I was helped along by the willingness of creators to provide interviews with insights into their creative process. My first two review-interviews dealt with one of my favorite comics subjects: the uncanny and weird. I grew up reading Edgar Allen Poe, and always loved it when the stalwart Nathaniel Hawthorne delved into the mystical. In my religious school upbringing, I noticed my teachers were always a little uncomfortable when things got truly weird in these great short stories, but I couldn’t have been happier. Pushing the limits of the imagination in creative works is one of the most noble aspects of any artistic endeavor, in my opinion.

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Dan Goldman, longtime indie creator, has worked on his comic RED LIGHT PROPERTIES for seven years but is now more than pleased that it’s been picked up by Monkeybrain Comics for digital publication. I reviewed his first five issues of the entirely self-created comic and asked him a few questions about the uncanny and bizarre elements of his stories about a flawed but intriguing character, Jude Tobin, who “cleanses” real estate properties in Miami of the lingering effects of violence and pain. One choice quote from Goldman includes:

I’ve been researching the occult/paranormal since I was a boy. My grandfather died right after my fifth birthday and I used to see him around the house for years. After he passed, my mother shared with me something she’d read about Peter Seller’s death experiences during a heart attack and it just sunk down into my consciousness, emerging again around the time I got a library card. I think it was the same summer GHOSTBUSTERS came out. I was a weird little nerdling then; I used to ride my bike to the library during the summer (they had cold A/C) and I stayed mostly in the back aisle of the library, poring over musty old spirit photography books.

One of the things I found truly compelling was the way in which Goldman clearly connects personally with his subject matter. Each issue is also totally unique in its vibe and storytelling. Visually, Goldman is a fantastic artist, blending digital technology, photographs, and traditional artwork to create a twenty-first century ripping yarn. Check out my full review and extensive interview with Goldman here.

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For my second review with The Beat, I found myself engaged with the work of a comics legend, Stephen Bissette. Not only is Bissette a committed scholar and author of works on comics, but he pays his experience drawing comics forward by teaching at The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. His lifelong passion has been horror, from comics to films, and his recent works continue to conjure awe in his readers. I reviewed his Vermont Monster Guide as well as his truly old-school ‘Zine Monster Pie, and got the bask in the glow of some of his thoughts on the horror medium. Of course I was in awe, it’s Stephen Bissette! As a big fan of his work on SWAMP THING and a general weird tales junkie, this was one of those moments where you realize that you love what you do writing about comics. When I asked Stephen what he enjoyed most about the encyclopedia of the weird that is the Monster Guide (and it’ll make you want to leave the lights on no matter whether you’re anywhere near Vermont or not), he said:

It was just a pleasure to draw, period. It was great working with the art director and team at UPNE, but nothing was as much fun as just drawing the creatures. It was a path to getting my own drawing chops back up to speed after a lengthy period in which I really didn’t do much drawing, save for my work in the classroom at the Center for Cartoon Studies.

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Bissette is nothing if not a masterful visual storyteller and an incredibly dedicated artist and author. He preserves the ambience of monster ‘Zine culture beautifully in Monster Pie with collaborator Denis St. John. It’s a compendium of the unpredictable and mood-laden, a full art gallery exhibition in a few folded pages. Bissette credited some of his return to ‘Zines to his experiences working at the Center for Cartoon Studies:

Zine culture was part and parcel of my experience growing up; some of my first published artwork appeared in 1970s genre movie fanzines like CRYPT OF TERROR, JAPANESE FANTASY FILM JOURNAL, and Ted Rypel’s OUTER LIMITS fanzine, and I contributed a fair amount to comics zines of the late 1970s and early 1980s, too. Zine culture was also central to Denis’s generation, via other kinds of comics and media zines; CCS’s first Fellow who became a fellow instructor, Robyn Chapman, rekindled my own enthusiasm for zines of all kinds with her sheer passion for zines. Robyn’s love for zines was absolute and genuine, and fueled the whole CCS zine culture in many ways. CCS is a zine and comic factory in its own right, its incredible what comes out of the basement production lab on a monthly basis.

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I couldn’t have asked for two better guides into reviewing than Dan Goldman and Stephen Bissette. Their willingness to share their ideas and experiences made all the difference in opening my eyes to all that lies behind the production of such great weird tales. Check out my full review of The Vermont Monster Guide and Monster Pie here at the Beat, complete with Bissette’s discussion of their genesis and influences. A big thanks to both Dan Goldman and Stephen Bissette for their thought-provoking and truly creepy books, and also for taking the time to talk to their readers.

Off-Again, On-Again Artistic Endeavors

I recently wrote an essay for the digital literary arts salon TRIP CITY about my recent attempts to return to creating artwork. I had to delve pretty deep to try to explain why it was such a struggle for me, but given some time, I started to remember more interesting anecdotes and more reassuring stories to tell about art in my life.

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Any discussion of art for me starts with my grandmother Cleo, a beautiful, elegant, and very fashionable lady who, at the age of 14, bobbed and bleached her hair in a drug-store bathroom to keep her parents from stopping her. She wanted to be like the movie stars. At the age of 16, she went away to commercial art school in Washington D.C. with her father, a master cabinet-maker’s, support. The increasing pressures of the Great Depression brought her home again after only a year. She was devastated by the setback in pursuing her passion, but tried to move on with her life, even doing freelance work for local businesses at home. She married young, and traveled the world in the wake of World War II, collecting beautiful objects from Paris, London, and Rome, and even from the capitols of Asia. But her husband didn’t approve of her artwork and over time she set her easel aside. Maybe it was the nude sketching- it was a conservative world she moved in.

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Visiting her house as a kid was totally mesmerizing. In her later years, she had become a consummate gardener and her gardens were like enchanted kingdoms full of every kind of flowering tree and shrub. Inside the house was just as intriguing- you could get lost even in smaller rooms in the mazes of antique and exotic furniture. Crystal and china jangled everywhere and it was a gauntlet not to break anything (but if you did, she glued it back together perfectly without a single harsh word).

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It took quite a few years of observation to realize that her ritual of showing me her stacks of paintings and sketches (modest but sizable) had a deeper meaning for her. Each piece was infused with memories of a time she wished she could recapture before she gave up art. As a kid, I’d hand her my pencils and try to get her to draw with me, but arthritis had made it too difficult for her and she shied away from trying. All of this influenced me at a time when I still treated art and writing as a connected thing. All my books were illustrated and if I found a book that wasn’t, I thought it was some indicator of laziness on the part of the author (“There aren’t even any pictures!”, I’d say disapprovingly). When I looked through Cleo’s old, fine turn of the century books, they were illustrated, too, in whatever language they appeared, further confirming my suspicion that those were “proper” books.

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So when I wrote stories, mainly heavily influenced by the fairy-tales and mythology I was reading at the time, for each page of words there’d be a full-page illustration. It was slow work, but when it was done you had an actual book. I’d punch holes, tie or sew them together and there you had it. Sometimes if I was feeling particularly generous, I’d give them to other people for Christmas. But mostly I kept them for myself.

As I mention in the TRIP CITY essay “To Draw or Not to Draw”, I had a big falling out with art as a teenager. It was knock-down drag-out and we went our separate ways. Ironically, it was at a time when I was actually getting fairly proficient by art-class standards, but I felt it was a definitive break and took off in favor of writing instead. One of the many factors that led to this break was the idea growing in my mind that art had to be perfect, and singular, whereas writing was more malleable and reproduceable (in an age of photo-copiers and PCs) and I didn’t like that constraint. Well, to learn more about my thoughts on the matter, you can read the essay.

In short, I returned to artwork through comics, first dabbling with producing thumbnails, then cautiously taking a comics anatomy class that pretty much confirmed my terrible conviction that I still wanted to draw, and maybe had always wanted to. Cleo regretted not using her more able years to draw, draw, draw, (and paint), and while I’m not 100 percent certain I’ll ever achieve her degree of charm and virtuosity on the page, I’m trying to keep her lesson in mind. On that note, and since writing “To Draw or Not to Draw”, I’ve taken another step and signed up for another art class, this time Basic Drawing, at the Kubert School. It seems like a shockingly big step to take in the context of my many years away from drawing, but I know for sure that Cleo would be delighted. You have to do what you can in the time that you have.

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The TRIP CITY Interviews : Origin Stories

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My origin story as a journalist is tied up in the history of TRIP CITY’s first year of digital life. I had done plenty of writing in my life, but there were two genres of writing I had completely avoided, pretty much on purpose: autobiography and journalism. I had learned to avoid autobiography laced into fiction or poetry mostly from watching friends get slapped across the face by angry partners at readings, or from writhing around thinking “TMI” if there were no altercations to break the tedium at the same readings. My antipathy toward journalism went back further to high school when I was forced into editing the school newspaper for a semester by pleading teachers and admin. It had started badly with a guilt trip because there was no one else willing to do the job, and it only got worse as I was forced to print retraction after retraction for being too candid in what I considered bare bones and dry as dust, yawningly boring accounts of school events. One rather imposing teacher even blocked the hallway and slammed her fist into a locker to make her point. I had gotten into the middle of some kind of teacher-world rivalry without realizing. Journalism was a bad word after that, and I’ll confess my attitude was snobbish. I didn’t see any room for creativity in that prison-like atmosphere.

There was a significant blip on the radar in my 20′s when I picked up a book by Hunter S. Thompson. It was actually a volume of his diaries and I started with that before reading whatever of his work I could get my hands on. I had never even heard of New Journalism. It was as if I had lived in a world without the concept. But I came to the conclusion, misguidedly, that it probably wasn’t possible to write like that anymore, since every piece of journalism I saw was as bland as I expected it to be. Thompson lurked somewhere in the dusty corners of my brain, just a minor doubt, for another decade.

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I heard about this event in Brooklyn in March 2012, a book launch with some readings, and decided to go since it involved my more recent love, comics. As soon as the thing started, I pulled out a notebook and started taking down notes, thinking I might do a book review, because I was becoming more and more astonished by what was playing out in front of me. The launch for LEAPING TALL BUILDINGS by Christopher Irving and Seth Kushner actually began with some live comics performances by TRIP CITY folks and friends, and by the time Seth Kushner started talking about the ground-breaking photo essay book, I was mezmerized and strangely uncomfortable. There was something about presenting all this as a live event that was getting to me. It’s strange when you can point to one moment in your life and identify a turning point that brought about a lot of personal change, even stranger when you can blame someone else for it. Dean Haspiel saw me taking notes and asked if I was a journalist. When I said, “no”, I was probably a little horrified. But he asked if I would write up the event for TRIP CITY. That I said yes to. Journalism was bland to me, but TRIP CITY, I could already see, was not. It was something remarkable I wanted to know more about.

Writing that article was pretty excruciating. I had no idea what I was doing since it didn’t fit any formal conventions I was used to. The challenge of capturing a live event in a way that made sense, and hopefully made people feel that they had been there made me feel like stopping before I even started. I came to the conclusion around 4 in the morning that the only way to do it was to include myself. Then I remembered Hunter Thompson and that old question in my mind. After that, the article wrote itself. That’s certainly not the end of the story, far from it, but that was the beginning of writing journalistically for me.

When TRIP CITY turned one year old, it was an honor to try to pry the literary arts salon’s own origin story out of the four founders and to look ahead toward the site’s future and goals. TRIP CITY breaks paradigms and brings the literary, visual, and aural arts together in new and unique combinations that you’d be very hard pressed to find anywhere else. That confluence brought me in, and changed my artistic direction pretty profoundly. I wanted to know how that happened, and for the most part, I got my answers.

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For my initial essay about what TRIP CITY is and does from my perspective, check out “The Shock of the New“, which I wrote in November 2012 for The Beat.

In my interview with co-curators Jeffrey Burandt and Chris Miskiewicz, you can read about their take on digital multi-media here.

For my interview with co-curator Dean Haspiel, you can hear him talk “Around the Digital Campfire“.

For my interview with co-curator Seth Kushner, you can hear all about his “Male Uterus“, here.

I owe these guys a profound debt of thanks for the ways they altered my trajectory in life, even if they had no idea they were doing so at the time. It’s been a phenomenal year for TRIP CITY and I couldn’t be prouder of this one year old prodigy and all its diverse and dynamic contributors. Congrats!

Celebrating Milestones in Comics: Eisner Night at MoCCA/Soc. Ill. and the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival

In the last days of Hurricane Sandy recovery on the East Coast, I set off from my motel room in exile for a celebratory night at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art/Society of Illustrators in NYC. The subject was the life and work of the comics phenomenon Will Eisner, complete with a screening of the excellent documentary Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, directed by Andrew B. Cooke, including a delicious fall-flavored catered dinner.

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It was a lovely evening, despite the howling Nor’easter setting in. In fact, the weather gave the city a feel reminiscent of the noir atmosphere of THE SPIRIT comics for which Eisner is best known. Hearing from comics veterans and educators Danny Fingeroth and Paul Levitz about one of their own personal heroes was also very enlightening, particularly since Levitz was responsible for bringing Eisner’s SPIRIT into DC collected editions for the first time. I reviewed both the documentary, and the evening’s event here for The Beat.

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By the time the weekend rolled around, I was finally back into my house following 13 days of evacuation and power outages from the hurricane, and the 8 inches of snow dumped on New Jersey had melted too. I didn’t want to miss the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, since I hadn’t yet attended, but took a more circumspect attitude as a face in the crowd that day, just trying to get a feel for the event’s goals and aims compared to other indie comics events I’d witnessed and enjoyed in 2012. There was, however, one big draw that got me out of bed early: hearing Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, and Richard McGuire talk about “The Architecture of Comics” in a panel moderated by Bill Kartalopoulos.

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I waited in a crowd of fans and enthusiasts to see all these comics greats in conversation, and it was well worth the effort. Spiegelman was in top form, dealing out off-beat wit and wisdom, and praising the self-effacing Chris Ware about his new work BUILDING STORIES while talking about his own development as a sequential narrative storyteller. You can find my extensive coverage of the panel for The Beat, here.

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The Festival itself was energetic, powerful, crowded, and ,to me, brought out a unique vein of comics production for the public to sift through. More than Small Press Expo, there was a distinct feeling of locality and underground production in the work. It was more edgy, more punk, if you will, and had its own unique vibe. I caught up with Dean Haspiel and Jay Lynch at the Toons table, and had some nice chats with Jim Salicrup of Papercutz who was there as a fan himself.

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That evening, I had a welcome comixy focused meal with Dean Haspiel, Heidi MacDonald of PW and The Beat, Jim Salicrup, and a hearty group of Dean Haspiel’s students from his recent teaching gig at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida. Not only were they a lot of fun to get to know, but I was treated to insights into the character and comic SHIFTYGOTH, a new multi-contributor project taking wings online, and particularly through Facebook.

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[Shiftygoth being Shiftygoth]

My venture to Brooklyn provided yet another piece of the indie comics puzzle, helping me create my first year’s impressions of where creator owned work in comics has come from and what’s on the way given the veritable explosion of indie shows in recent years. I’d highly recommend attending BCGF if you want to see diversity in comics, hand-made work, and just want to hang out with comics people devoted to their craft.

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