What Andy Warhol Reminded Me About Comics

When I write editorials of a particularly personal nature on Bleeding Cool, I really should be reposting sections and links to them here as an archive of thoughts for myself if nothing else, so here’s my latest mini-revelation about the nature of mainstream comics icons that came courtesy of visiting the Andy Warhol exhibit at MoMA this past weekend on the 30th of May 2015.

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Here’s an excerpt from the end which deals with comics:

The things that Warhol pioneered we know have had tremendous bearing upon popular culture and therefore comics, but even the methods which he used to produce art are still part of the handmade mass-production I see at indie shows from silk-screening to stamping and sharing coloring in work with other artists. We reproduce art, to a certain degree, en masse, while preserving some of the handmade elements that prevented his own work from feeling as sterile as the marketplace he emulated and commented on.

But this also has bearing on mainstream comics and established properties. How can the image of a mega star like Marilyn Monroe be rendered personal? Warhol even used a press photo as his basis. And yet through sheer personal vision and will he rendered her image personal to him while still being owned by all her admirers. And it wasn’t his goal to take that ownership away from them but to enhance it. In the same way, an artist or writer working today might create their Tony Stark or Batman. We talk a lot about the constraint of licensed properties, the heavy-handedness and fear that corporations might display when making adjustments to flagship characters who earn them a lot of their upkeep, particularly in merchandise and filmmaking.

We talk less about the devotion those characters evoke in fans and comic superstars and why they continue to draw our attention. We keep hoping for another artist or writer to get it right in our book, to make those characters feel like the ones that belong to us again, and sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. But that doesn’t mean that for another group of fans, they didn’t get exactly what they were hoping for in their very personal commodity. Fandom is like that. It strikes a fine balance. The image has to be recognizable, but it also has to say or suggest something new that brings out innate qualities we recognize as true to that icon. Andy Warhol didn’t invent Marilyn Monroe, though in the time that’s passed since then, he’s certainly influenced her legacy. He’d be more likely to say that she had invented him, in that stardom and his response to it shaped him.

What’s the final word on comics? Just because you see what look like precise lines reproducing images that you think you’ve seen every day for 20 years, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a personal statement from the artist. Just because you see what looks like a radical transformation of an icon you care about into what seems like an impersonal repetition of an overly commodified subject, that doesn’t mean that a comic creator isn’t trying to reach you as well. The odds are they are trying to tell you what those icons mean to them, and it may be a pretty profound message they are trying to convey if you’re willing to listen. The fact something can be both universal and incredibly personal to each of us may be one of the strongest statements popular culture can make.

You can read the full article here, and it does make more sense as a whole since I talk about my assumptions going into the exhibit and how they changed before exiting.

Has it been 6 months already? I guess I better say something about being EIC at Bleeding Cool and leaving education

I am personally shocked to realize that I’ve already been acting as Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool for 6 months now, and also feel a fair amount of consternation that I never did a personal blog post about it. The biggest reason for this is that the job opportunity came somewhat out of the blue and initiated a frenzy of work which I knew would last exactly 6 months. Why? Because I made a difficult personal decision to accept the post as EIC even though it was full-time and I was still an English Professor, at least for 6 more months. This week in May, that particularly intense period of doing two jobs at once came to an end, and in some ways, the real work now begins. But at least I have the mental space and time to devote my attention to one major focus: making Bleeding Cool the best site it can be.

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I have a lot of friends who are professors, or pursuing Ph.D’s and it does raise some questions for them and for me about how to discuss my decision to leave academic employment. Though I may sound arrogant for saying so, I know that a number of people found my previous 2 years working as an English Professor, comics scholar, and journalist something that gave them a sense of satisfaction, an object lesson that the divide between academic and pop culture can be bridged and writers can wear multiple hats at once. I still firmly believe that to be true. If I had continued as the New York Correspondent at Bleeding Cool, the position I had held for 6 months before becoming EIC, and which was a part-time freelancing position, I would also have continued to be an English Professor indefinitely. So, the question is not so much why I have left academic employment, but why didn’t I stay?

There are many reasons, and I’m going to give some of them here quite honestly. I know that some of my reasons are things that educators struggle with every day and fight the good fight, but they are issues nonetheless. Some of my reasons are purely practical, as well, and aren’t based on issues in education right now, like the difficulties of doing too many things at once.

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Some of my reasons are:

-I realized that having pursued 4 degrees myself, and teaching all along (pre-school, middle school, high school, ESL, and finally as a professor), I had not actually been outside the educational system since I was 4 years old. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it was an eye-opener for me. I had unique opportunities that took me all over the world, growing up in Germany, studying in England for 10 years, and teaching ESL in Japan, so I don’t mean to say that I lived a cloistered life. But it was a very specific education-driven life nonetheless. In all, I had been educated for 21 years, and taught in some form or other for 13. There were times, both in the past and more recently when it was very difficult to stay purely within the educational system because I also felt the drive to be a writer, something I’ve been for as long as I’ve been in education as well. That tension in time commitments has always been problematic for me and I’ve spent many years refusing to choose one or the other. Much of my writing was academic, but much was not and there was rarely enough time for it.

-I was very successful as an educator. Wait–why is that a reason? Because it was always problematic for me. I actually never thought I’d make a good teacher, but was inspired as a researcher. I delved into some of the most obscure texts in European literature as a medievalist for many years and translated texts that had never appeared in English before. I spent many hours in libraries, and for the most part, I loved it. When I had finished my degrees, I wondered if I ought to try to be a published writer instead of teaching. But those who knew me suggested I try one semester as a professor just to make sure. And then things got complicated. Contrary to my expectations, I walked into a classroom and was a “natural” at teaching. I shouldn’t be that surprised, since I come from a family of educators, but it was a conundrum. I was highly employable and I was good at it. And working with students in a real live environment changed my life. It made me a much more aware and communicative person, and I made a difference in the lives of my students, inspiring them with a love of literature and writing. How do you walk away from that? Maybe you shouldn’t. But then there are the problems with education that I mentioned above.

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-There were a lot of things about formal university education that were not amenable to me and, unable to completely conceal this, I was generally known as someone who had opinions. As I also mentioned before, plenty of people fight daily to improve education and consider these struggles par for the course, but that doesn’t mean that educators should have to live such an embattled life. Some of the issues were, to name a few: the excessive amount of paperwork and assessments that increasingly developed over the course of my time teaching. When I started teaching, I had to supply a copy of my grades, and for writing courses, a portfolio students had created of their work. Just doing that was difficult enough to make sure students completed all the requirements. By the end of a 10 year period, I found myself having to constantly report (at an average of two week increments) on students attendance, behavior, estimated grade, status of completed work, and the worst of it being the end of semester duties. End of semester duties included having to personally collect and label copies of every rubric from every student, digital copies of final papers, comparative assessments of student progress in technical aspects of writing, and lastly assessments of the courses as a whole in specific numbers cued to rubrics. The end of semester duties in my final semester took me about 20 hours alone and necessitated scanning and labeling hundreds of documents with a fifteen word labeling system.

And I can say quite clearly from my personal perspective: this is not why I pursued four degrees or decided to continue to teach after my initial foray into teaching. Assessment may be the way to a better future, and yes, education should be accountable, but expecting professors who are already over-worked and underpaid to complete these duties is unreasonable. They are highly skilled professionals in specific fields, and data entry is not usually their area of expertise. They know all kinds of things, knowledge that might be lost to the world otherwise, and those are the skills and talents that they should be able to use in their work rather than drowning them in a sea of paperwork.

-I could add quite a lengthy aside about the well-known problems in the educational system and the hot topics of debate right now, but I’ll just mention them briefly: students do now feel that they have “bought” their education, that their professors are there to entertain them, and that if they don’t get the grade they want, they have a right to throw temper tantrums until the administration caves and takes the right to grade students away from the professor. Up until my very last day of teaching, I would have quite confidently said to you, “Yes, those are issues, but I have been able to handle them, actually. Because I don’t put up with it”. And I don’t, and haven’t. Sometimes that means standing up to bullying tactics, refusing to be worn down, and, in the end, believing in education as an ideal until you get through the confrontation with students and parents. But actually, something very funny happened in my last final exam that had irony written all over it for me. Without much warning, I faced the mother of these situations, the worst I’ve ever faced, where a student, several faculty, and the entire administration attempted to levy my decision on something. I already knew it was my last day, which made it humorous for me. But it did seem like a final confirmation of just how much professors are up against in striving to actually educate students and be fair in their decision-making. So, yes, there are big problems in education right now and unfortunately, professors are also left bearing a gigantic burden from all sides.

So those are the reasons I didn’t stay in academic employment, though I might well have done, and somehow tried to cope with these tensions and pressures, had I not been offered the position of EIC at Bleeding Cool.

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It wasn’t so much that I had a better job offer, but that I had the right job offer for me. Having become increasingly immersed in comics scholarship, and then comics journalism, I found many of the same rewards that I had felt through teaching. If that seems unlikely, consider the satisfaction of demonstrating to the world at large how to critically evaluate a worthy artistic project, something meaningful with socially-challenging themes and the potential to change the perspective of everyone, especially young people. Consider mentoring young writers, many of whom are college students, in how to express their analytical skills and reactions to art and literature in a meaningful way. Consider giving creators an immediate response to their hard work, essentially saying, while projects they are working on are even still in process, that their work is significant and we appreciate it as a society.

I’m not saying that writing and editing are better than being an educator, but just that both can change the world. And, of course, they work better together than separately. So, it’s very cheeky of me to ask professors who are overworked and underpaid to do something that I’m no longer having to balance myself, but if you have it in you, consider writing as much as is possible in your situation. Your perspective and skills are invaluable and seeing the response you get to your writing may just give you the spark of energy you need to deal with all the pressures facing you in academic employment. Actually, I don’t just speak for myself in saying that since many of my friends have told me point blank that this is the case for them and that writing has enabled them to have the boldness necessary to push even harder for changes in the educational sphere. Sometimes in academia it’s surprising how little voice you can be allowed to have, but in writing, well, voice is everything.

If you’re interested in seeing what I have in mind for Bleeding Cool and what my initial reactions were to taking up my position as EIC, there are some pieces that ran on the site after my hire which I can only apologize for not posting here on my blog sooner:

The announcement of my hire: http://www.bleedingcool.com/2013/12/10/hannah-means-shannon-the-new-editor-in-chief-of-bleeding-cool/

My essay on my intentions at Bleeding Cool: http://www.bleedingcool.com/2013/12/13/what-does-having-an-editor-in-chief-at-bleeding-cool-mean/

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

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.