Studio YOLO poses a challenge each month to adapt a short script into comics form. This month the text is called “Forgiven” by Jess Ruliffson and this is my submission:
Studio YOLO poses a challenge each month to adapt a short script into comics form. This month the text is called “Forgiven” by Jess Ruliffson and this is my submission:
WonderCon this year was a unique experience for me for several reasons. Firstly, I’d never been to this con before, and though, truth be told, I would’ve enjoyed if it’d been held in San Francisco, since I’ve never been there either, the fact that it was held in Anaheim meant that I got to hang out with two of my best geek friends Michele Brittany (a pop culture scholar and photographer) and Nick Diak (another pop culture scholar with an encyclopedic knowledge of film and strange music) who are local to Anaheim. That gave me a little more confidence in tackling the new. It had also been several years since I’d made it out to the West Coast, but the occasion that inspired me to get on a plane was being invited by my comics scholar friend Chris Angel, one of the founders of the Denver Comic Con (which I’ll also be checking out this year) to participated in a Comics Studies Conference panel on publishing comics scholarship these days. With Chris and I in the panel was another prominent and groundbreaking scholar Rob Weiner, editor of a vast array of scholarly books on comics, music, and film, and really a pioneer in publishing on those subjects in the world of academia (his most recent book is Web-Spinning Heroics, on Spider-Man).
That’s the comics scholarship side of things, and enough motivation to go to a con, since I don’t need that much of a push, but as for WonderCon, I also ended up being the only Comics Beat reporter to make it out, and that gave me pause. It meant that I had a lot of strange freedom- I could cover anything I wanted to cover- but also a kind of overwhelming choice in what to pick out for coverage. In the end, I tried to push myself to attend some events that I might not normally pick out to attend, but also follow my instincts and inclinations, because if you can’t have fun at a comic con, that kind of defeats the purpose, in my estimation. When I arrived on a Thursday evening, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my hotel room overlooked the con, and I got to watch the banner being hung, and preparations underway. When I picked up my pass, I was impressed by the space itself, on all points really appropriate for a con of this size, and able to accommodate the numbers and needs of the fans.
Things kicked off for me on Friday, when I presented with Chris and Rob, the very first panel of the con. We expected limited numbers in the audience for this reason, but it was alarmingly packed despite the gigantic room. Rob talked about sticking to your dreams when it comes to publishing books, and not just hanging around assuming in despair that someone else is going to beat you to it. He provided some insights into the book publishing process and working as an editor with lots of contributors, and ended on a high note about the wide open field right now in scholarly book publication, particularly in comics scholarship.
Chris gave a truly illuminating walk through of her experiences using comics in the classroom, providing different models for use depending on the types of texts you’re teaching (she’s a medieval/renaissance professor) and the students themselves. She’s a classic example of how experimenting, introducing comics as a side-line to test the waters, can achieve great results for students, and lead you to bring comics more fully into the curriculum of literary study. My talk was on comics scholarship and social media, in particular, the scholarly online sites and semi-scholarly sites available right now, from Sequart Research and Literacy Organization (who I write for), to the Culture Gutter and Comics Forum, all great venues. I also gave a bit of a pep talk on using social media and tried to guilt everyone into setting up their own scholarly blogs (which, alas, even I do not update enough, but I believe in blogging strongly). We got great responses from the panel, and it was a very affirmative experience. Comics scholarship really is on the rise, folks, in very big ways.
Then it was time to get my mind together for some reporting. Not before I’d run around the con floor a little, grabbing freebies from the really affable Dark Horse Booth and scoping out the good back issue vendors for future reference (I ended up with a large set of The Dreaming for my collection/research later on and plenty of Walking Dead for my husband Russ Shannon, a massive fan of the comics and the show). Panel-wise, I liked the thematic approach of the “Icons”, (“What Makes an Icon?”) panel so checked it out. If nothing else, it consisted of some all-star names in comics from Mark Waid (moderator), to Ann Nocenti, J. M. DeMatteis, Dan Slott, and Doug Mahnke. It was an excellent way to start off the con proper, hearing about comics history and comics future from these experienced creators talking from the heart about their views on handling long-lived character. You can find my round up here, with plenty of quotes. Photos for most of these panels from WonderCon were taken by the fabulous Michele Brittany. I spent the rest of the afternoon running around the con floor getting a general sense of layout and planning my next moves. I made a last-minute decision to what turned out to be a brain-download of great advice in an Indie Marketing panel with Dark Horse (Jeremy Atkins), Archaia (Mel Caylo), comiXology (Chip Mosher), IDW (Dirk Wood), and Valiant (Hunter Gorin). Their blunt and honest approach to what has worked for them, or not, in social media yielded some of the most practical information I heard at WonderCon and it says a lot about these guys and their companies that they were so willing to share their lessons learned. You can read about that great panel here. That night I also wrote up some general impressions of how the con was working at this Anaheim location, including the building, staff, and comfort of fans, with some images. You can read that here, my claim that WonderCon had not “lost its Mojo” despite the move in location.
Saturday I took on a little more, trying to cover at least a few panels as well as keeping up with a scheduled interview with Matt Kindt about his work with Dark Horse, including the extremely alluring psychic spy series MIND MGMT. In the morning, I indulged my fannish curiosity and went to the VIKINGS panel, featuring the stars from the new History Channel show set in the early medieval period (if you know me, you’ll know this is right up my scholarly alley and I spent the first couple of episodes critiquing historical accuracy before being won over by the spirit of the show). I expected a few curious people like myself, not a rabid sea of enthusiasm. What a way to start the day after a late night. I attempted not to spill my coffee while eating a pastry and taking pictures and notes. To my delight, they showed a preview of on a massive screen of an upcoming episode and it looked gorgeous. The landscapes alone in the show are enough to warrant a cinematic experience. But enough gushing- check out my photos and write up here for The Beat.
I made what ended up being a good, but challenging decision to attend a Spotlight panel on Matt Kindt just before interviewing him. This 90 minute juggernaut, where Matt was interviewed by comics scholar Travis Langley, was so wide-ranging that it blew any questions I had drafted already out of the water and I then had about 20 minutes to come up with some news ones. On the plus side, I heard all about Matt’s life and work in detail, and it was a very moving story of artistic vision and tenacity, and it helped me understand his work far better than any other research could have. Please read my lengthy write-up with photos of that panel here, since it’s a real circumnavigation of comics creating right now, and lets you in on Matt’s psychology.
We held our interview shortly after, and it turned out to be so lengthy (thanks to his open attitude and kindness) that it turned into what I could only call a “Mega-interview” at the Beat once I’d finally written it up. In my scramble to think of new questions, I actually kicked off by asking him why we need stories (how impudent was that!) and his answers were amazing. Check out that interview when you get a chance.
I’m sure I would have liked to collapse at my hotel at that point, and though I was able to take all my con loot back to the room pretty easily, Michele and I marched ourselves to another Spotlight panel, this time on Ann Nocenti, who’s verve the previous day had so impressed me. I wanted to hear about her long Marvel history and her current work for DC.
She and Jim Lee (bonus!) showed us sketches for upcoming works and she revealed a lot about her varied life in film and comics, always conversational and entertaining in style. My interest was piqued in her new series Katana, which I’ve since checked out and really like. Highly recommend this samurai/yakusa tale of revenge with a heroine at the helm. It was a mellow, engaging way to end my reporting for the day, and left a big impression on me concerning women in comics. You can read about the panel here, and it’s quite a fun recap.
I was getting a little broken down by Sunday, and expected a little quieter time at the con compared to the well-attended and high-energy days on Friday and Saturday, so I wandered along, again with the spilling coffee, for a little panel with Nerdist Industries. I should’ve realized by then that any time I expected a low key panel it would be massive and full of screaming. And it was. Joss Whedon’s panel on his new Shakespeare movie was just letting out of a totally full stadium-sized venue and I muddled through crowds and found a convenient seat with several thousand others (but thankfully near the front) to hear what Chris Hardwick and Nerdist had to say.
I’d heard Hardwick speak before about the future of Youtube and had been very impressed. Whether you’re a fan or not, the man is deeply intelligent if you pose complex questions about media and has plenty to say. This turned out to be one of the highlights of the con for me. As Nerdist rolled out previews of future channels and plans, the repartee was so funny I could hardly breathe. Again, not how I expected to spend my morning, but it was a great surprise. Michele was a newbie to Nerdist and loved it too, taking some fabulous photos. You can see the write up and her photos here. There was also a pretty inspiring message at work throughout the talk and Q and A about fan empowerment and creation- here here!
I had two other “assignments” for the day, attending a Spotlight panel on Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner, and also interviewing DC Comics’ Dustin Nguyen about his new series Li’l Gotham. My other informal assignment was to buy a lot of comics, which I did. Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner presented an informal panel in their trademark conversational style that made fans feel like part of the conversation, fielding questions throughout, from Amanda’s driven workload on Silk Spectre to Jimmy’s upcoming work Captain Brooklyn. It was the sort of panel that mid-sized cons really specialize in, bringing in fans to get a sense of the personalities of inspiring creators, and giving them insights into future projects. You can read all about that panel here.
Interviewing Dustin Nguyen at the DC booth was initially a bit of a challenge due to the huge traffic the booth was getting, and security at first tried to turn me away until I insisted several times that I had an appointment. When DC realized what was going on, they were horrified and apologetic, and made every effort to get the interview underway. It ended up being a fantastic experience. If you’re familiar with Dustin’s work, you know that he brings many fine art traits to his painterly style, and on top of that he’s passionate about the Batman mythology. He’s created a visual sense in Li’l Gotham that wows readers from the start, and presents an all-ages comic in a very inspiring way. Talking to Dustin was like talking to a fellow fan, and I couldn’t have asked for a more humble, enthusiastic artist to talk to about their work on such a major project. Find my interview with Dustin here, and check out Li’l Gotham- you won’t regret it.
In the last few hours of the con, I actually felt rather energized from all these positive experiences and wondered what else I should do with my time. I decided to check out several of the mid-sized publisher booths and chat, from Dark Horse, to Valiant, Archaia, and Top Cow. At each booth, the people I talked to were simply lovely and had a lot to say about what works they were most excited about. I picked up lots of great books to try to lug home on the plane, and it was another really positive note for me at the con. When the con wrapped up, I felt like it could have kept on going another few hours at least, or another day, even, a sign that a con is going strong, rather than fizzling out.
I wrote a wrap-up of my impressions of the con, comparing it to my opening article, and included with it is Michele’s excellent photo gallery of the cosplay and scenes from the con. I ended up staying another day to go to Disneyland, but that’s a whole other story of observing the strange phenomena behind pop culture. WonderCon itself was a kind of perception-changing experience for me, in all honesty, my first con alone as a reporter, though I was never really alone thanks to Michele and my other friends. It gave me insights into how cons work, what fans are looking for, and the place of con culture in society right now. Along with that, I had my first con-interview experiences and they were so remarkably illuminating and fun that it has set a high standard for future experiences. I’d like to say thanks to everyone who helped me out at the con and made it such an encouraging experience; you know who you are. Viva WonderCon. I think it’s a very important contribution to pop culture with plenty to offer fans, scholars, and creators alike.
Photo Credits: The photos in this article were taken by pop culture photographer Michele Brittany. You can learn more about her work here.
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”.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.