Tagged: Graphic novels

Ed Catto: Great Graphic Novels, Old and New               

There’s a peculiar mix of older graphic novels and new graphic novels in our home right now. The new stuff is all part of a top-secret project I’m working on with my daughter, Tess. We can’t let the cat out of the bag yet, but you can check out her showcase of street art for the sneak peek tease. (And now that I think about it, who even puts cats into bags ?!?)

I’m struck by the wide variety of engaging, superlative creative endeavors we cram under the umbrella term “graphic novel.” While there’s one line of thinking that argues Geek Culture has outgrown the phrase “graphic novel,” it’s still handy and flexible enough for hardcore fans, casual fans, librarians, and bookstore owners.

Here are a few of the so-called Old Graphic Novels floating around here:

  • Fiction Illustrated Vol. 3 featured Chandler and was originally presented as “Steranko’s first visual novel, a ground-breaking blend of pictures, words and graphic design…”. It’s a gripping noir mystery with a stylish sense of visual design. I enjoy it more every time I re-read it. There are so many instances when you could say that Jim Steranko is at his best and this is one of them.
  • Gil Kane’s Blackmark is a sci-fi/sword and sorcery thriller that was first published as a Bantam paperback in 1971. Veteran comic artist Kane told this story with illustrated panels, captions, and only the occasional word balloon. Interestingly, with eerily parallels to today’s willful ignorance of climate change, this adventure takes place in a time when “Science is abominated, its secrets buried, its last adherents scourged and cast out by the people…” And the results weren’t pretty. Even when rendered by Gil Kane.
  • The Stars My Destination was an award-winning novel by Golden Age Green Lantern writer Alfred Bester, but for many, it really came to life when Howard Chaykin and Bryon Preiss collaborated on the graphic novel version. It’s a detailed adventure that expects the reader to keep up from the get-go. Chaykin, as you probably know, has a rich history of providing topnotch comics and graphic novels. He shows no sign of slowing down as he continues with his provocative The Divided States of Hysteria, published by Image.

And just so you don’t think I’m too enamored with the past, here are a few of the Newer Graphic Novels scattered around here:

  • Emil Ferris rocked the comics world last year with her debut graphic novel, My Favorite Thing is Monsters. It’s a wild ride by an unconventional, yet monstrously (sorry, couldn’t resist) talented creator. It was instantly talked about and then difficult to get. Now it’s available everywhere. With her clever illustrations and natural storytelling ability, Ferris shows readers how to create something spectacular and incorporate some of your favorite things along the way,
  • Charles Burns isn’t really the David Lynch of comics, but I can see why you might think that. His work is often confusing, dense and just a little bit creepy. As a reader, however, you feel that he would never take the easy way out. Burns engages his audience in a complicated covenant based on a respect for intelligence and his making-it-look easy skills. His 2012 The Hive is part of the trilogy but it stands well enough on its own. Of particular note to lovers of old comics, Burns absolutely nails the zeitgeist of old DC romance comics and John Romita romance art in particular.
  • Francisco Francavilla is absurdly likable as both a person and an artist. He’s hard-working, optimistic and personable when you meet him. Artistically, he uses his creations to embrace everything he loves and then wraps it all up with innovative design and unexpected color. You may be enjoying his current work from Dynamite on Will Eisner’s The Spirit: The Corpse Makers. His latest Graphic Novel, Black Beetle: Kara Bocek is a collection of short installments, originally appearing in Dark Horse Presents, featuring Francavilla’s own pulp hero.

  • Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand, as realized by Ramon K. Perez, came out a few years ago and I got my copy as part of the swag bag at the Baltimore Comic-Con award ceremony. (As an aside, the Baltimore Comic-Con just held the first annual Ringo Awards, which will become the new awards ceremony at this well-respected comic-con. I heard it all went very well. Kudos to all!) Tale of Sand is a skillfully rendered tale full of compelling moxie.

And, for a graphic novel that’s A Little Bit Old and a Little Bit New, let me offer this one up:

  • Classic Comics Press just released Kelly Green: The Complete Collection by Stan Drake and Leonard Starr. The hardcover collects five Kelly Green graphic novels from the 80s. As a bonus, it also contains one story that was never printed in English, The Comic-Con Heist, that’s all about Geek Culture. These adventures are sexy thrillers with realistic, sexy art by Starr at top of his creative game.

So many great things to read. I’ve got to read fast in order to also get to my Fast Company and Inc. Magazine.

Dennis O’Neil: Beauty and the Books

The lovely Joan Lee, Stan’s wife for over 60 years, died recently and this morning Marifran learned that Leroy A. Martin, with whom we used to double date in teen years, has not been with us for a while now. Teen years and innocent years fraught with nostalgia and maybe apt to prompt somber thought.

Yep, the world sure has changed, since I met Joan in the 1960s and since Lee Martin and I drove through Forest Park on the way to… somewhere. The changes weren’t predictable, not by us, and the science fiction crowd didn’t do so well either.

Which brings us, believe it or not, to graphic novels. Back when Lee and I were cadets at a military high school – hard to believe, I know – and later undergrads at a Jesuit university, novelists were kings of the literati. Many of them wrote for readers and not classrooms, and did that job well enough for their work to qualify as literature. Sometimes their stuff hit the bestseller lists and made pretty serious money and, yes, by some criteria, a few of them were celebrities. All that adds up to Success, at least by the standards of the times. Money + Fame = Success. Add literary respectability and, well…all Hail!

As to what this inky royalty produced, these whatchamacallems… oh yeah, books – hey, bub, this isn’t your American Lit 101 class (and never will be) and so I won’t attempt to define our subject. Novels. They come in many sizes and shapes and formats and tell stories sometimes seasoned with history and philosophy and autobiography and even religion… let’s end the catalog here, okay? You get the idea. Big book. Lots of words. Amen.

Some of the heavy lifting traditionally done by novels has been assumed by other, newer media. The specialty channels widely available on television – Netflix, Amazon and the like – can deliver intricate stories that require ten or more hours of playing time and deliver them unriddled with commercials. These may have the same amount of content as novels delivered using a different system.

But let’s not lament the loss of our beloved print formats just yet. Novels are still being read, but if – due to time warp? – our teenage selves saw them we might not recognize them as novels. Because some of them, the ones with lots of pictures, are sold as “graphic” novels” and that’s pretty much what they are: stories with more complexity than what’s found in the average comic book, but narrated using comic book techniques. Even the august New York Times, a validator of respectability, is serializing an autobiographical graphic novel in Sunday editions. (For some reason, the form seems particularly suited to autobiography.)

All this is further evidence that we live in a bitter and divided nation, culturally we’re blessed. Lots to enjoy and some of it really didn’t exist when…oh, say, Marifran and Dennis took in the Friday night flicks.

Martha Thomases: Terror At The Graphic Novel Pile!

You know that person at your high school reunion, the one who complains loudly about how hard she has to work to maintain her city place, her country house, and her condo in Bermuda? And how she can’t find good help anymore?

I’m about to be the comics industry version of that person.

When I first agreed to be a judge for the Eisner Awards, I mostly thought I would get to read a bunch of comics, have opinions, and get to show off. Utopia, right?

I had no idea.

I mean, I read a lot of comics. I spend $50 to $60 on an average week, sometimes more, plus I’ll order graphic novels online when I happen upon something appealing. I follow reviews and Top Ten lists. Every week, I try to find at least one new title to sample. I try to champion diversity in the medium, both in the kinds of creators who get work and the kinds of stories they tell. The least I can do, if I’m going to talk the talk, is to walk the walk.

And boy, are my feet killing me.

I knew I wasn’t reading everything. I knew there were several new generations of creators that I didn’t know about and who were working seriously on books that challenged my assumptions about what comics could be. I just hadn’t considered how many different directions they could go.

Twenty years ago, I used to joke that comics was the only entertainment in which the term “alternative” referred to the semi-autobiographical stories of straight white men. I mean, really, rock’n’roll had more diversity, Broadway had more diversity (and off-Broadway even more, and get out of the city and anything could happen). Poetry, ballet and modern dance, opera, orchestras — all had more diversity in their farm teams, if not on their marquees yet.

Comics has caught up. Comics might be doing better than the rest.

There are all kinds of new stories, too. Yes, autobiography is still a large (and entertaining!) category, but there are many other kinds of non-fiction. Some of these books seem to want to be textbooks, but a lot are just the graphic-story equivalent of the rabbit hole we descend when we start to look up stuff on Wikipedia.

There are adaptations of prose novels and short stories, weird shaggy dog gags with perfect bindings, and even a few how-to books.

Every day, I try to read one or two. The pile on my coffee table isn’t getting significantly smaller, but I hope to get through at least the most discussed book before the committee gets together at the end of April.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and read some of the free books I was sent. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.

Auburn to Celebrate Will Eisner Week

Our pal and ComicMix columnist Ed Catto (also the nicest guy in the Atlantic Northeast) is up to something. Check out this press release!

Explore the life and work of Will Eisner with Auburn, N.Y.’s Seymour Library on Monday March 6th with a panel presentation/film screening and on Tuesday, March 7th with a documentary at Auburn Public Theater.

Will Eisner (1917-2005) was a trailblazer in the comic book world, showing the public that comics could be a genuine form of literature and popularizing the term graphic novel. His landmark comic series The Spirit (1940-1952) was noted for its expressive artwork and experiments in content and form. This year marks the centennial of Will Eisner’s birth.

Geek Culture expert Ed Catto will host a panel on Will Eisner: Celebrating Graphic Novels: An Appreciation of Comics as Literature at Seymour Library on Monday, March 6th at 6:30 pm. The panel will provide an overview of Eisner’s work and highlight other graphic novels that demonstrate the enduring power of Eisner’s convictions. There will be a screening of the 2008 film adaptation of Eisner’s The Spirit, after the panel.

The documentary Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist will be held at the Auburn Public Theater on Tuesday, March 7th at 7 pm.  Ed Catto will introduce the documentary.

Industry support for this event has been strong:

  • Dynamite Entertainment is donating comics and a hardcover collection of their recent Spirit series as giveaways to attendees
  • Syracuse’s Salt City Comic-Con (June 24th-June 25th) will randomly give away tickets during both events
  • Paul Levitz, author of Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel will be donating a signed copy of this recent book to Auburn’s Seymour Library

Ed Catto is a marketing strategist and speaks frequently on Geek Culture and Comic Book History.

“Auburn, N.Y. has a rich, but checkered comic history. In 1948 Auburn held a comic book burning, as part of the anti-comics hysteria of the day. But by the seventies, one of the first comic shops was established in Auburn,” said Catto.

More information about Will Eisner Week in Auburn can be found at the  Seymour Library website: www.seymourlibrary.org.

Martha Thomases’ March Revelation


Hallelujah! Over the weekend, I had a revelation.

March, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, is the answer to every question, the solution to every problem.

Let me explain how I came to see the light.

I was at a conference for American Jews interested in increasing the opportunities for a shared society among Jewish and Arab Israelis. In attendance were representatives from various American Jewish funding organizations as well as Israeli Jewish and Arab leaders. It was heady stuff for me, and I was thrilled to see that Israeli Arabs are just as opinionated (and enjoy a good argument) as much as I do.

All of us being Semites, of course we wanted to eat. A lot. Over meals, we didn’t just discuss policy and programs. We talked about current events (oy) and our various jobs and interests. When I said I worked in comics and was writing a graphic novel, I got asked a lot of questions.

Some people hadn’t read a comic book since they were children four decades ago (or more). Some had read Maus, but didn’t know about anything else.

When I mentioned that they might enjoy March and told them that Congressman John Lewis had written this three-volume graphic novel, almost everyone was interested.

On this site, because we write about comics all the time, we know about John Lewis. And because we are rabid consumers of comics and books and movies and television, we know a lot about how comics influence our larger entertainment choices. We know that comics supply the creative content for a bunch of mega-billion dollar industries.

We know less about how comics can save the world. Specifically, March.

The third volume was published recently, and while I loved the first two, this final piece knocked me on my ass. It’s so good and so powerful and so subtle. I thought I knew the story about the March on Selma and the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s. I’d watched it on television in real time. I’ve talked to people who were there. I’ve read other accounts.

Nothing prepared me.

I’m a person who frequently enjoys movie violence. March 3 viscerally demonstrated the difference between fact and fiction. I felt actual pain reading about the mobs of white people who beat people demonstrating for their rights as citizens. I also felt pain for those white people, who must have led fairly miserable lives to think that the proper response to peaceful protest is to split a person’s head.

Somehow, Lewis and Aydin and Powell convey these horrors in such a straightforward fashion that I doubt any parents will object to their children reading the books for school.

An Arab woman who is principal of an Arab middle school in the Western Galilee told me her students very much admire Dr. Martin Luther King. She said they recognize that his fight is their fight. If/when there is an Arabic edition, I’m going to donate a bunch of copies to her library.

Let’s hope those kids are just as successful using King’s tactics as he was when they attempt to achieve their goals. And, because I’m greedy, let’s hope they create books that are just as wonderful.

Martha Thomases: Poetry In Comics

IMG_0071Once again my editor has suggested a topic for my column. Since I can wax pretentiously about all sorts of literary and aesthetic issues, he thought this round-table discussion about “poetry comics” might interest me.

And it did.

To me, art is something that makes me see the world in new ways. I frequently judge the quality of a work of art by how it deals with its limitations. For example, paintings (and photographs) are static objects each of a specific and unchanging size. Films are two-dimensional. Dance is non-verbal. Theater takes place on a stage. Yada yada yada.

Poetry is verbal and, in my head at least, each word is essential.

When it comes to poetry comics, I don’t entirely understand the concept, but it is an intriguing one. Is the artwork an illustration of the words, or an equivalent to a line of verse or a stanza? If the poet removed the artwork, would the poem be incomplete? Would the illustrations make sense without the words?

Can pictures rhyme?

In my opinion, a good graphic story-teller already treats each word as essential, editing out those that are not absolutely necessary to move the plot or illuminate character. As a writer who can’t draw, I find it incredibly challenging to write a script that lets the art carry the action, to trust the artist to convey the mood with images, not adjectives.

(I assume artists have parallel frustrations. Especially with me.)

IMG_0069Despite the assumptions of the article in the above link, poetry comics are not a new thing. In 2003, Norman Mailer published Modest Gifts, a collection of poems with drawings. My copy is signed by him, and he describes it as “my comic strip.” Norman’s ambitions as an artist were just about as lofty as his ambitions as a writer, although his skills as an artist were infinitely more limited.

It’s my opinion that the artwork in this book is absolutely an asset to the words. I don’t think the poems fail without the scribbling (which is pretty much how I would describe Mailer’s art style), but they are certainly more fun and more insightful with it.

Mailer was already 80 years old in 2003. No one looked to him for new and cutting-edge art forms. I think he’d be pleased to know that he was so far ahead of his time.

Now if only we could get that Ancient Egypt graphic novel happening…

Martha Thomases: Salaam Reads

Salaam Reads

It’s been brought to my attention that I can be something of a downer in these columns. Therefore, I am thrilled and delighted to be able to report on some good news this week.

Book sales are up. In bookstores.

Just a few years ago, the debut of e-books and the success of Amazon were supposed to doom the book business, especially at the retail level. That hasn’t happened, and, in fact, e-book sales have leveled off.

Personally, I’ve never considered e-books to be either morally superior or inferior to hard copy books. I like to read, and I’ve liked to read in every format I’ve come across. I love my Kindle because it’s easy to take an entire library with me when I travel, and because I like lots of pop fiction that I don’t need to display on my bookshelves. I love physical books, too, especially if they are signed, or if they have lots of illustrations. I have some of the storybooks my mother read when she was a girl. I doubt my grandchildren will want to access my (then outdated) Kindle menu.

It may be that book sales are up because all the poorly run bookstores went out of business, leaving only the ones who know how to sell books. It may be that, recently, there have been more books published that customers want to own.

Or it may be that the people who market books know how to reach out to new book buyers in a way that suggests how we can further expand the audience for comics.

To be clear, graphic novels remain a growth sector in the book business. However, the very fact that booksellers embraced a new product category like graphic novels early in this century shows how open the business is to new ideas.

Here’s another way that the book business is nimble: They welcome customers who might be turned away elsewhere, especially in today’s political climate. Simon & Schuster just backed a line of children’s books about being Muslim because one of their editors noticed she had nothing to read to her nieces and nephews that reflected their experience. I’m a Jewish adult, and I want to read all the books described in the link. I wish I’d been able to read them as a child.

The book business is different from the comic book business because it does not rely on its customers to return every week for new product. There are some rabid fan groups (such as those who read four or five romance novels a week), but there are not, to my knowledge, any bookstores dedicated to romance fiction. I do know that there are certain specialties (for example: mystery, science fiction, travel, cooking) but none rely on customers who must have first printings, or mint condition. These stores exist for the reader, not the collector.

Obviously, antiquarian bookstores are different.

In the last decade or so, we’ve seen more comic book stores that resemble bookstores, even as more bookstores stock graphic novels. We can get more stories in more places in more formats.

Life is good.

Martha Thomases: Every Picture Tells A Story

APBI have opinions about superhero comics that have no basis in anything other than my observations. There are no studies, no data, no proof whatsoever. But I have these opinions, and, quite often, reality supports them. Then again, quite often reality disproves them, but this column isn’t about that.

One of my core beliefs is that superheroes comics appeal to our inner two-year-old. That’s about the age when we realize that we have physical and mental limits, and we can’t shape the world to our whims. It’s natural that power fantasies attract our imaginations, because if we could fly and beat up any enemy and never get hurt, we could live the life to which we feel entitled.

This is also why teenagers like superheroes. However powerless you feel as a toddler, that feeling is dwarfed in comparison to how you feel when puberty hits. Now your body is not only able to do what you want it to do, but it’s actively working against you.

If you’re lucky – and you read good superhero comics, and you read other forms of literature and you have a good community for support – you will, while enjoying your power fantasies, begin to understand other points of view. I vividly remember stories from my childhood in which Lex Luthor found a world where he could be a hero. Through him, though looking at his face when he was finally cheered by people who loved him, I understood that each of us wants to be a good guy. We might disagree about what that means, but we are each the protagonist in our own stories.

This is a really long and roundabout way to say that comics are an excellent way to learn empathy and discuss lots of opinions. The most moving recent example I’ve found is APB: Artists against Police Brutality, an anthology about the state of police violence and race relations.

The contents are brief essays and comics about police brutality. Some are to my taste and some are not. (Hint: Clear lettering might not be moody and atmospheric, but it’s legible and that makes a huge difference if you want me to read what you wrote. Rant over.) Some of the essays are a bit didactic and some are so personal and painful that I could barely get through them. Every one came from a place I’ve never been. Every one (even the ones I didn’t like) made me see the world in a new way.

I’m a parent, and, as a parent, my heart skips a beat every time the phone rings when my kid is away from home. When he was first starting to go out by himself, without my hand to hold when he crossed the street, I would make him call me when he got to his destination because otherwise I would worry that he was dead in a ditch somewhere. When he went to college, he almost went out to a ditch just so he could call me from there.

My worries are about drunk drivers or falling pianos or random lightning strikes. I’m not particularly worried about cops. As a white person, that’s not how I was raised. I expect the police to respect me and to watch out for me, my family, and my property. I understand, intellectually, that this is not everyone’s experience.

APB made me understand this difference viscerally. I could see how the police looked from the eyes of someone who is terrified, who is about to be beaten. I could feel the puzzlement and pain a person feels when a loved one goes out to run chores and doesn’t come back, ever. I could feel the shame and heartbreak of a woman whose brother grows up to be a cop who kills an unarmed African-American kid.

The book ends with a list of 881 people killed by police between December 15, 2014, and the date the book went to press on September 11, 2015. I can’t tell the race of each person, nor can I tell the reason he or she was killed.

I do know that each and every one had a story.

Dennis O’Neil: Make Room, Make Room!

The room was large and dim, the food tasty, the entire evening pleasant. We were at this year’s Eisner Awards Banquet, held annually at the San Diego Comic Con International as a venue for presenting the Eisner Awards, named for the man who probably deserves to be called comic books’s greatest practitioner and used to honor people who have made outstanding contributions to Will Eisner’s chosen province. We saw and were glad to see some folk we hadn’t seen in years – decades? – and that was nice.

And I learned something about this quirky enterprise that has kept me fed and clothed for…what? – close to 50 years now?

I won’t keep you in suspense. What I learned was how diverse comic book publishing has become. Oh, back in my younger days I occasionally read what some termed underground comix and way back in 1995 I was honored to be mentioned in the thank-you section of Howard Cruse’s superb graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby. So yeah, I knew you didn’t have to wear a costume, have a double identity and devote your waking hours vanquishing evildoers to get your picture in a comic book.

But I didn’t realize, until the Eisners, how much comics had diversified. I’m guessing that because the direct sales market provided a place for interested parties to go and buy comics creators who saw the form as hospitable to much, much more than tales of fantasy-adventure realized that their work could be seen and even sold and sat down and did that work. And readers did see it and did buy it and all that helped comics to be recognized for what they had always been, a communications medium and – whisper this – an art form.

So there I sat, back to the dining table, looking at a stage flanked by two large screens on which were projected images of comic book covers. The fantasy-melodrama writers and artists were well-represented: no surprise and maybe cause for belief in a just universe – people should get what they deserve – but not the only game in town. All those storytellers with their pencils and inks and computers, not interested in derring-do as subject matter, but attracted to panel art as a narrative form, a means to do what has been done for tens of centuries by those with a need to shout and sing and scrawl and tell their stories,

For comics, it’s been a long climb from trash lit to respectability, from flimsy magazines a kid with a whiff of rebel bout him read behind geography books to the mainstream and – ye gods! – respectability. I’m not sure how I feel about that respectability, but my fellow celebrants at the Eisner Awards seemed to be handling it just fine.