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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Hell and High Water

I didn’t have the worst experience I could have had by any means- that’s reserved for lots of truly suffering people in the wake of hurricane Sandy, but such as it is, it’s been a week that exceeded my expectations in nutsiness. I tend to underestimate weather because I generally criticize overblown media hype. I didn’t think my coastal town in New Jersey would be evacuated and I truly did not expect the horrendous images of devastation that I’ve seen from New York, Hoboken, and points south in New Jersey. It’s still dawning on me that I’ll never see the Seaside Heights boardwalk, where I tend to go when there’s nothing else to do to play some skeeball and eat pizza, again. Or the Atlantic City boardwalk which I’m now glad I explored and went on the rickety and fairly dangerous rides there, coming pretty close to being hurled into the sea. Things are changing. When they are all rebuilt, there will be fewer traces of the roaring twenties in Jersey’s coastal scene and many people will remember Sandy with very real shudders and grief.

I made my way out from the coast by car the night before things got bad, and was surprised by the lull, but glad for a quick trip. I optimistically blogged about the books and comics I had brought with me for The Beat, which you can find here: “Frankenstorm Reading: Weathering the Evacuation Blues”. 

Before too long, the lights went out. When I stepped outside to look at the woods where I was staying on the night of the hurricane, a herd of deer fled by me, startling me and them. They had a look of fear. A flock of birds almost collided with me in the dark, too, getting out of the way for what was coming.  Despite this momentary awe, I slept fairly soundly, having had a rough couple of days, but when I woke, I was in the middle of a battle ground.

Hundred year old trees were thrown around everywhere, roots dangling. The narrow lanes of the near-countryside neighborhood were totally blocked by the giants, many of them teetering against flimsy power and phone lines. But the rain had stopped and the world seemed to be breathing again.

The general mundane annoyance of aftermath set in. No power. Stumbling around in the dark. No internet. No cell-phone signal. I don’t think I’ve ever been totally without phone access. That probably panicked me more than the devastation. It was hard to focus on anything to pass the time. Everything felt unhinged. That was Day 2.

Day 3 the sun peeked out, but not for long. A cold front had moved in. Took the car out under the leaning trees and past men working with chainsaws. A couple of restaurants were open. No word about the house I left by the shore except the power was out. We managed to rig up internet and the cell phone reception improved. My panic subsided a little.  Here we are in limbo, but it won’t be for that long. People are hauling New Jersey and New York back onto their feet.


I think what I’m going to remember the most are the images that have been trickling in of unbelievable scenes, havoc in human habitations, but also the stories I’m hearing of how people are helping each other, putting up multiple guests and looking after one another. I’ve never been close enough to an event like this to see the microcosm of what people do in times of stress and how it brings out the good deep down in an often jaded and distrustful world. I won’t forget these things easily and I doubt anyone close to these events will either.

-photos by Russ Shannon

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.

Leaping Tall Buildings at GreenLight Bookstore, Brooklyn, with Seth Kushner, Chris Irving, and PW’s Calvin Reid

The comics-focused photo-scholarly book Leaping Tall Buildings, by Seth Kushner and Christopher Irving, has been the source of many great panels around the bookstores and comicn shops of New York (and even in Canada) lately! This one was more low key, but brought in the expertise of Publishers Weekly’s Calvin Reid and also struck an interesting, mellow note talking about the recent passing of Joe Kubert. Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn is a lovely venue and it was a real comics event for comics fans where a meaningful conversation was had by all. Check out my coverage of the event, and some reflections on it and on our comics “family tree” at TRIP CITY, here.

The New York Comics and Picture-Story Symposium Brings Professionals Together

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In my debut article on the comics news and pop-culture hub website THE BEAT, I cover the newly formed New York Comics and Picture-story symposium including presentations by Danny Fingeroth (former Marvel-editor, writer, educator) on Stan Lee and Harvey Pekar, Simon Fraser (comics artist) on his life’s work, and Andrea Tsurumi ( comics and picture-story artist, auteur) on past and recent projects.

Check it out at THE BEAT with a few pictures, here.

For more about the Symposium, visit their website here.

Comics Rock? David Lloyd, Steve Marchant at the 3rd International Comics Studies Conference, Bournemouth, UK

This article for the multi-media arts salon Trip City recounts the keynote talk given by comics legend David Lloyd (V for Vendetta) and comics activist Steve Marchant (Cartoon Classroom) at the International Conference for Comics Studies held in Bournemouth, UK in June 2012. It was a fantastic conference bringing together scholars all over the world to discuss the role and function of adaptation, “multi-modality” in comics and comics in education. Head over to TRIP CITY to see my “chronicle” of the talk, featuring a discussion of the term “comic” and whether it’s still detrimental to the sequential art medium!

View it here at TRIP CITY.

At the Crossroads of Music and Comics with Jeffrey Burandt/Jef UK: Part I

In my experience, the two art forms most difficult to describe in conversation or discussion are music and comics. This is not because you can’t find words to use, but because you end up piling adjective upon adjective, adverb upon adverb, and even being forced into new hyphenated words groups. That can be a very intriguing thing, but it can also make you steer clear of the challenge. In a way, I dread the moment, when making a rare visit to see one of my musician brothers, they ask me, pointedly, what I think of a new album by a favorite band of ours. Usually, we’re driving between one point and another, we only have a few minutes to get into it, and I just about break into a cold sweat. I focus and take a breath. It’s like shooting in the dark to get my message across.

One phenomenon that takes extra verbal space is the “I hate this new album” reaction when the discordant strife of a new style emerging smites your ears from the supposed safety of a label you’ve followed for years. So now I start my answers with disposable honesty: “Of course, I hated it at first, but…”. Are comics any different? When I pick up new a work by a favorite comics writer or artist, I anxiously scan for some degree of recognition. Can I still tell it’s theirs? Have they compromised in some way? Will this experience somehow ruin my past adoration? I’m waiting for that sense of being met at the station by a friend in a strange country, usually late at night to boot.

As with music, I find it very difficult to explain in words what my reactions to the new comic work are, but find it a little less paralyzing to do so after some time has passed. With comics, you are never really sure what you saw or did not see during the first reading experience, or even what you heard as your mind fills in the spaces between the panels with its own brand of narrative. The mysterious jumps it makes to create an organic whole personalize the story to what is essentially a narrative of your own creation. Music contains its own uncertainties in received performance, particularly live performance. The problem highlights the complexity of both mediums. Science tells us that all sensory perception is incredibly complex, and looking into human reactions to art forms is a like unwinding DNA, but I’ll throw in my two cents with music and comics for intricacy because they specifically target a derangement of the senses.

[Jef UK, photo by Seth Kushner]

So imagine my reaction to sitting down with a person who works in both mediums and has the alarming temerity to marry the two and expect the audience to walk away with both cranial lobes intact. I wonder if he realizes that he’s essentially going after their skulls with an ice-pick, or more specifically, targeting their eyes and their ears as well as their sense of spatial relationship. That’s the kind of derangement I’m talking about.

Jeffrey Burandt, sometime of Austin, Texas, now Brooklyn, New York, lived parallel artistic lives for quite some time before recognizing the potential for experiment. Growing up, he read comics as his first form of literature, and so absorbed visual literacy as par for the course. Superheroes and adventure stories were his mental diet, but by high school, performing music took up a lot of his time and a simple jam session on a Friday night is still “one of [his] favorite things” in life.

Founding the band Americans UK in Austin in one of those strangely literary moments that life can throw at you, arose from a fictional band in a sci-fi story Burandt was working on. It quickly became his reality, complete with a sense of the attitude and style such a band would espouse. The band lived and died in Austin and has since lived, died, and risen again in Brooklyn. It’s a creature of many lives, but it just keeps coming back, each iteration more strangely evolved than the last.

During one of the “death” periods, it occurred to Burandt to turn his creative writing degree from Brooklyn College, the pursuit of which brought him to this Northern Babylon, toward comics. The medium had obsessed him his whole life, and he had always been a big follower of Marvel’s output, from Brian Bendis’ work on the Ultimate Universe to Matt Fraction’s currently running Cassanova. Grant Morrison’s DC and Vertigo work had also turned his head, particularly The Invisibles. Why not write comics? The penny hadn’t yet really dropped for him, but he was rapidly approaching a crossroads. In the hiatus between band resurrections, which he describes as a “vacuum of making music”, he found himself writing a comic about the fictional band that had first led to it’s real-world avatar’s creation. It began almost innocently when he turned his real-world drummer JTR3 into a robot cyborg since he had always been quite the “machine”. The germ of a story developed. A cyborg heart might need recharging. Inscrutable technology might be from the future. Time-travel broke loose as a guiding plot-device. Throw in a villain, a noir-ish murder mystery in time, and voila, the real-world defunct band returned to its fictional roots.

That’s when all hell broke loose, artistically speaking. You see, Burandt, a true student of literature, has always believed in the “layers” inherent in storytelling, and had a particular penchant for the fake autobiography format. Ideas from his graduate degree’s sci-fi novel project, as well as from his own life fed into the comic, and thus filtered, emerged again into his life. Americans UK was born again in tandem with the comic that told its fictional history, and his own. Burandt had stumbled into an intersection between the major artistic forces in his life and chose to explore them rather than heading for the hills into safer territory. Burandt began to draft stand-alone short comic scripts to fit within a larger arc with a graphic novel as the goal, and worked with a number of collaborating artists to bring these episodes to life.

Meanwhile, he expanded into a wider sphere of comics writing, including a graphic novel project with Oni Press, Odd Schnozz and the Odd Squad, with a 2013 release date. Performances of the resurrected band Americans UK, Burandt’s comics work, and some freelance writing for a magazine brought him into contact with Brooklyn’s Dean Haspiel in the early days of planning the multi-media online arts salon Trip City. Haspiel, multi-faceted comics artist, writer, and teacher, brought Burandt in as a music and comics contributor to the digital site. Short comics featuring the characters Americans UK with a rotation of talented artists contributing, appear on Trip City, often with an interactive musical soundtrack to emphasize the unusual junctures in the band/comics relationship.

But it’s also the live performances you have to watch out for. I was fortunate enough to attend one of Trip City’s live salon events where I first heard Americans UK perform, and witnessed the audio-visual interaction between the luminous, projected comics, and the musical sound-track the band provided. One of their newest songs at the time, “Sons of Ba’al”, was particularly effective in rattling the senses through the use of stark black and white images, combined with written language, while the band played a track resonant enough to illicit phone calls from the police. It was quite a trip for the audience. I was struck by the vast potential of the unusual combination I was witnessing, on a night already strong in performance comics presented by several Trip City contributors. In any concert, perspective is a strong influence on later memory. What did you really hear, or think you heard? How much of that was informed by your knowledge of previous albums, attending prior performances, or your proximity to the stage? In short, you create the performance as much as the guy, in this case, in the domino mask. And by the way, you are going to read comics at the same time, and provide a whole other layer of instantaneous collaboration. Americans UK were certainly the first fictionally real band I had ever heard perform surrounded by the illuminated panels of their own fictional universe.

[Trip City Live Salon at Fornino's, Park Slope, Brooklyn]

I jumped at the chance to sit down with Jeffrey Burandt a couple of months later and hear his story, and try to figure out how he ended up in the jaws of this unique experiment. The mental leap necessary to bring the two mediums of comics and rock music together seemed to me to be like taking the Nemean Lion in one hand and the Hydra in the other, and though Burandt was not oblivious to the unusual aspects of his labors, sitting in Bryant Park on a humid August evening, he seemed to have reached a point where he could harness the unusual beasts of both comics and rock and find their point of mutual cooperation.

We discussed the state of comics industry, the trials of self-publication, his musical tastes, and the past, present, and future of the band and the comics: Americans UK. First thing first, I indulge my curiosity and ask him about his double nomenclature, a not-so-secret identity, featuring as both Jeffrey  Burandt and as Jef UK in the worlds of literature and music. He admits it’s complicated as friends and fans aren’t sure what to call him when, but Burandt still perceives an important distinction.

Jef UK is his “comics name” used on message boards, and in the promotion of the Americans UK comic. For his formal literary work, either as a prose novelist or as a graphic novel writer, he uses his full name, Jeffrey Burandt. I comment at this point that Stan Lee found himself in a similar situation, setting aside the more literary Stanley Lieber in readiness for his great American novel, and using his first name, Stanley, as Stan-ley, written Stan Lee, to distinguish his comics career. In Burandt’s case, however, Jef UK is also a fictionalized version of himself, making the situation more “layered”. The ambiguity is something that Burandt associates with digital self-publishing, too, where everything is essentially “beta” and can be revised. Jef UK is an author name for the “rated R stuff” that might go up online, whereas Jeffrey Burandt has predominately produced “all ages” comics work. The two could easily cross or overlap, but haven’t yet forced a decision the way that Stan Lee felt his epic comics career did, finally formally choosing the new form as his legal name.

After a few seconds of talking to Burandt, I was already wondering if two hours will be enough time to explore so many diverse ideas. We started off talking about music, and the “hate it” phenomenon. “When you hear something new, you need time for new neural pathways to develop” he explains with a serious expression, as if it’s the most important truth in the world. Maybe it is. Maybe it’s the fading daylight, the cars streaming by the park, and the dream-like atmosphere as the streetlights come on, but I begin to get the impression that this intersection between comics and music is, in fact, a “really big world” opening up to exploration.

[Stay tuned for Part II of the interview, featuring the state of the comics industry, the irony of performance, and an up-close look/listen at Americans UK’s Sons of Ba’al]

Also check out this recent podcast with Jef UK.

Leaping Tall Buildings @Jim Hanley’s Universe, July 25, 2012

I had the good fortune to attend one of the most entertaining panels I’ve yet seen, bringing together a range of comics professionals who were featured in the new photo-essay comics history book Leaping Tall Buildings by Christopher Irving and Seth Kushner. Chris Claremont, Larry Hama, Dean Haspiel, Kevin Colden, Simon Fraser, Matt Madden, and Joe Infurnari turned this into a riveting event as they discussed their own comics origin stories, the mementos and memories they hold onto from comics past, and where they all are headed in the near future. Hosted by Chris Irving and Seth Kushner, the event “chronicle” I did can be found on TRIP CITY, here, with photos by India Kushner. Here are a couple of my own, too.