Monday, 24 March 2014

Doctor Comics on Tolkien, Women, and The Fall of Arthur

This isn't so much a post as me plugging a friend in what has been a wonderful discussion to witness. My friend and fellow scholar Dr. Jason Tondro (who I blame for almost everything I've done in the last two years) wrote a blog post today about women in the fictional works of J.R.R. Tolkien. You can, and absolutely should, read it HERE. A lively, friendly, and wickedly smart discussion arose around this post on Facebook, between Jason and UC Riverside's Kody Lightfoot. If the HTML does what I want, hopefully you can read the comments below. Cheers!

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Funnymen: My Reconciliation with Comedy

I've been listening to a lot of podcasts in the studio lately. Headphones in, I am insulated from the distractions of the outside word, focused on the details of my work, in the proverbial zone. Inkstuds is my go-to show, a brilliant series of interviews with cartoonists by the cheerfully sardonic Robin McConnell out of Vancouver, BC. I started going through the Inkstuds archives starting from the first episode in November 2005, and over the last couple weeks I've learned a metric crap-ton of stuff about comics from Robin and his guests. I also backed his recent Kickstarter campaign, a roadtrip that I am sure will yield a wealth of knowledge and inappropriate humour. There's still a week left. Get on it.

More recently, though, I've been listening to Marc Maron's comedy podcast WTF, which I stumbled across on YouTube entirely by accident while feeding my Dylan Moran addiction. I love his humour, and have for years. I had recently watched the incredibly dry and darkly funny A Film With Me In It, which I was delighted to discover because I was getting a little tired of watching Black Books on repeat. I found this interview with Moran and started listening to it, realizing more and more just how quintessentially little I really knew about this man's life. That realization led me on a brief search for more interviews with the man, culminating quickly in my discovery of WTF. 

I was hooked immediately. It was the comics that did it. I clicked play on this interview with my favourite comedian, and the first thing mentioned was comic books. It turns out Maron is a fairly avid comics reader, asking Dylan Moran what, if any, experiences he had had with comics as a child growing up in Ireland, and it segued perfectly into a discussion of Irish life, isolation, and Catholic religion and their influences on Moran's comedic career. And I realized, this man has had a hell of a life. He's been through a sort of emotional genocide, in a country that existed under oppressive theocracy in all but name, and he's managed to come out the other side with enough will and humour left in his command to say something about it. I began to see some common ground. Not with me, understand. I have lived an exceedingly safe and sheltered life without alcoholism, divorce, abuse, or religious oppression. I'm incredibly grateful for this, but at times I can't help but feel a little...boring. I'm talking about the comic greats. On a whim two days ago, I started reading this book, Comix: The Underground Revolution by Dez Skinn. I didn't know much before this week about the first comix artists, or even how to properly define "comix". I had no idea of the messy, hallucinogenic, violent, sexual, socially prophetic stew these books were birthed from.
Dez Skinn's cover
Reading cartoonist R. Crumb's self-appraisal gave me pause: "[I was] a painfully shy out-of-it nerd...a lonely maladjusted weirdo with heavy Catholic guilt.". I thought, Damn, but that's a lot of weight for a guy to carry. No wonder these guys  turned their baggage into humourous catharsis. I've read many interviews with Spiegelman. I know how much he loathes the survivor's guilt he inherited from his parents, the leftover weight from a human extermination experiment that occurred outside of his lifetime, yet influences every moment of it. He hates it so very, very much, and it drives a significant part of his work. I listened to Louis C.K. talk about the depression and shame that he builds on in his self-deprecating routines. Stewart Lee mentions the questions he has to ask himself about where to apply critical pressure as someone sitting in a privileged position at essentially the center of society. the motivations are varied, often tragic, and wholly fascinating to me. It's a world I simply didn't give enough credit.
Spiegelman, the Holocaust inheritance
I've had...issues with stand-up comedy the past couple years. I think it had something to do with not being able to stand being around the people I knew who were doing it. I just didn't like them, at all. I have a better idea of why that was now. I have no idea if they were good comics. I've been to live stand-up a handful of times, usually standing in the back drinking and chatting with someone else who happened to be as disinterested as I. Dylan Moran was the only stand-up comic I had any interest in watching. I never paid attention to the craft of it. Listening to these podcasts by Maron and McConnell, I think I get it at least a little. I hear them talk about things like comedic timing, in both a visual and a performative sense, and realize that these two traditions are more closely related than I ever gave them credit for. The people who are great comics and cartoonists are craftsmen of this thing called "humour" that maybe I've never really understood, and avoided in my writing because it weirded me out a bit. I don't want to generalize. I'm not prepared to say that you can only be properly funny as a career if you're a legitimately fucked up human being, but I see common ground in the guilt, shame, and loathing of great comic figures, and I have to wonder if I could ever pull that attitude off in my work. I don't think I want to, because I don't want to fake it. I'm not a Comix artist, and can't be, because I'm not experimenting with drugs and my sexuality in the late '60s. I'm in the wrong context.
My own recent work, doodling in the pub
So, this becomes a question for me to wrestle with in my own work: do I want to pursue humour in my comics, and if so, where is it going to come from? I've never even felt the White guilt that weighs down some of my friends. I've got no Russian Mennonite shame fuelling my art. It has to come from somewhere else. Maybe the solution is whimsy, or nostalgia. Maybe it's academia, a world in which I find myself more and more immersed. Maybe it's the world of comic fandom itself, self-referential mockery, but that feels a little overdone. Geek culture has already been making fun of itself for years (Penny Arcade, anybody?). I dunno. It's a fun question to have on my plate.

I drew the page posted above after a frustrated night in the studio were I threw down my pen and went to the pub. I ended up sitting at the bar, doodling about some guy struggling in a vaccuum with his tenuous, dysfunctionally intimate relationsip with the voice inside his head. It isn't self-referential, in case you were worried. But, maybe it is. Maybe it was me fretting about my block, that evening's lack of inspiration. The "voice" in my head had deserted me and I was feeling a little lost. And it sucked. I rather like this little comic, and while it's not funny, per-se, it's something. It's a hint of that place where good art has its roots, quite simply...self. I'm going to look at it as a starting point to answering my question about humour. When I'm studying in England next year I'm going to track down some comedy clubs and give stand-up a second chance. And for now, I'm going to keep listening to and learning from Marc Maron and his guests, because I like laughing in the studio, even if it makes it really bloody hard to draw a straight line.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Comics Review, March 16 2014

I have an ulterior motive in writing this post: the first five of you to read it will push my views over 5000, which makes me rather happy. That's kind of a milestone for me, and I appreciate your readership. Cheers, to you.

(I also need something to do while I sit around waiting for Saga vol.3)

Now, to comics. Personal budget cuts have been hard on my pull list, and I've basically cut DC and Marvel out of my life altogether at this point. Which sucks, really, because Jeff Lemire is still doing a wonderful job with Green Arrow; I got pretty pumped when Tockman made an appearance in the comics and the show (Arrow), in the same issue that Diggle first appears in the comic. It was, I think, a sign that DC is beginning to do with Green Arrow what Marvel has done with S.H.I.E.L.D., create a storyline and characters with a foot in each world, print and screen.

At this point there are four print titles that get me all hot under the collar when they show up each month: FBP and Hinterkind, both from Vertigo; and Velvet and Pretty Deadly, both Image titles. I've reviewed most of these already, but it's been a while and I want to quickly touch on what I'm liking about each series. I think I'll start with Velvet.

Velvet #4 cover by Steve Epting

I've gushed a bit about the artwork in this title, and Brubaker's treatment of such a beloved but under-used spy trope, the "Girl Friday". That was after the first issue; #4 came out this month, and it's only been getting better. Our heroine, Velvet Templeton, has shown herself to be resourceful, elegant, determined, scared, angry, and most recently dumbfounded by the intriguing mess she has become embroiled in. Brubaker's writing is, as ever, superb, and Steve Epting's art is tantalizing blend of flair and grit. The punches fly thick and fast, and the shadows are deepening. I'm not sure that it's Noir, at least not to the level that Criminal or Fatale were. You don't develop such a deep loathing and pity for Velvet as you might for the Lawless boys, but she's got flaws nonetheless. Brubaker is still keeping his characters grounded in a sort of wounded reality, something I think his readers have really connected with over the years, maybe even the thing that his readership has become founded on. Feel free to prove me wrong on that count. Either way, Ed's sticking to the dark and secretive stories we've come to love him for, and this book is a treat to get my hands on every month.

Pretty Deadly #4 cover by Emma Rios

Pretty Deadly's been getting some wicked great reviews, and who can disagree? It's a phenomenal series. It got off to a rough start with that whole debacle about the issue that was torn up somewhere down south, but the number of issues #1s sold was astonishing. I don't really know that I can say anything about this series better than John Parker already has.
Pretty Deadly is an Eastern myth incubated in a Western Womb; a story within a story within a story; a dark fairytale about bad men, worse women, and Deadface Ginny, the reaper of vengeance, the daughter of Death. Commence head-banging now.
Everything about the series just clicks for me. Emma Rios's style of illustration is visceral, energetic, the kind of non-polished immediateness I've been trying to achieve in some of my own work. The colours are spectacular; if you've ever been to the Painted Desert in Arizona, you know what I'm talking about. The story...well, reading it as someone who cut his teeth on Louis L'Amour paperbacks and has developed an abiding interest in all things mythology, not to mention Eastern (Islamic, specifically Persian) forms of narrative, has been an absolute joy. The mythic landscape DeConnick and Rios are creating gets more layered and complex with each issue. The frame-narrative form solidifies. New characters are introduced, and new spiritual elements are made apparent, which adds a deeper consequence to the actions of the story. You become invested in their world, and that is a sign of a well-crafted tale.

Hinterkind #6 cover by Greg Tocchini

On the topic of mythology, Ian Edgington's Hinterkind has been an interesting ride. I don't often put it in the list of favourite comics that I rattle off when people ask me what I'm reading, and then I remember how pumped I am to find it in my box once a month. I must be enjoying it or something. For a couple issues near the beginning I wasn't quite sure where it was going. The premise seemed a little hodgepodge, a bunch of scraps of ideas that we were allowed to glimpse out of context one at a time, with no notion of how they might fit together. This last issue, though, #6, solidified in a big way. Some pretty massive hints were dropped about what's in store for us, in a way only attempted assassinations and airships can do. I will say no more. If you're looking for a unique blend of post-apocalypse survival and Hellboy-esque re-imagined faerie civilization, then this may be the book for you. The art's a little rough, and the start's a little slow, but I have a hunch that there's some big story in the next couple issues. I for one am looking forward to it.

FBP #5 cover by Nathan Fox

And finally, FBP, formerly Collider for those of you out of the loop (there's a physics joke in there somewhere...). This title is hands-down my monthly favourite, a colourful, sharp, unpredictable romp through the ins and outs of life in the Federal Bureau of Physics. It's so good that I keep thinking it's an Image title (I'm so unimpressed with DC these days that, when something good comes out, I assume they weren't responsible for it. I have to start cutting Vertigo some slack). I couldn't pick my favourite bit of this title if I wanted to. Oliver's writing is dry, smart, and funny; Rodriguez's art is the perfect pairing. Not to mention that I get a new Nathan Fox cover to drool over every month (a good reason to keep your comics in plastic, folks), though he did change up his style a bit on this last one. I'm still trying to figure out what I think of it. New story arc, though, starting in issue #8, so maybe it's just a matter of him creating a way of visually identifying a chapter. I'd be okay with that.

There's nothing I love reading right now more than this comic. They've done a great job of pacing the story, sprinkling each issue with hints of mysterious family tragedy and high-level corporate conspiracy. There's a lot that can go wrong when you privatize control over the fabric of reality. They dropped a Plato's Cave reference in this last issue, and I sort of shook my head and kept reading. The Cave was cool the first time I heard about it, but it gets a little worn out the more sci-fi you encounter. It looks like FBP might redeem itself in its use, primarily because at this point I have no idea where Oliver is taking us with it. This is the unpredictability I mentioned earlier; there are no rules in the world Oliver has created, or rather, what rules there were are fundamentally breaking down. Nothing is stable. Every issue is capable of pulling you in and showing you something you never saw coming, no matter how much you thought you had it figured out. It leaves you wanting more. It leaves me with the insatiable urge to go shoot pool...

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

It's a Beautiful, Crazy Life

Well hey there. I missed you guys, whoever you are. Ladies. Gentlemen. Everyone else.

It's been a crazy...month? Couple of months? It's been a while, any way you slice it. A lot has happened; let me fill you in.

NEWS!! It appears that I will be finishing my English minor at Durham University in the UK next year. I'm still waiting for the affirmative from the last stage of the application process, but at this point things are looking good. It's a daunting prospect; Durham's English department is currently the highest rated in the UK, surpassing both Cambridge and Oxford. I'll keep you posted on how that goes, and with luck I'll be writing to you from England in the Fall.

The first Sacred & Sequential post is up on Sacred Matters! I haven't written much here about the work I'm doing with S&S; I'll try and elaborate on it in the near future. We are, as you can read in brief at the bottom of Beth Davies-Stofka's article, a consortium of scholars working together to build a conversation around the intersection of religion and comics. I was honoured to have Dr. A. David Lewis ask me to join the project last year, and Beth's essay on Genesis in comics is the first published material to come directly out of this enterprise. I can't give too much away, but there will be more material appearing on Sacred Matters in the next couple months. Keep a weather eye on it. Also, thanks to Michael J. Altman for giving us a space online to publish the beginnings of this project; it's pleasure to be working with you.

Some of you may be following me on Twitter, and if that is the case then you are aware that I'll be traveling to Chicago in mid-April to present my paper Out of a Diasporic Metropolis at the PCA/ACA national conference. This prospect still terrifies me. I have a ton of editing left to do (but sshhh...don't tell anyone at the PCA), a hatchet job of about 5000 words to bring the paper down to a journal-appropriate length. I'm playing the optimist here and hoping to get published. We'll see if that goes anywhere. As it turns out, applying for a travel grant is actually a hell of a process. It's quite the Catch-22, in fact: in order to apply, one must submit a confirmed flight itinerary, which you only get once you buy your tickets, which you can't afford to be buying at all unless you get the grant. Quite an experience. I'm still waiting to hear about the grant; until then, I'll keep pecking away at this paper in hopes that I won't actually have to sell my soul to get to Chicago.

What I have had to sell is my art. After the credit card bill for those tickets went through I had about $200 to my name, which is half a month's rent for a shoebox on Leon Avenue. I'm lucky enough to have a steady illustration gig for The Phoenix News, though. As soon as I discovered just how broke I really was I emailed my editor to let him know that I would, in fact, be drawing the piece I'd turned down yesterday, and that if he had anything else I'd take that too. I found myself in the studio, drawing like mad because, for the first time in my life, my skill with a pen was actually my livelihood. It felt like this challenge was the thing that had missing from my art, like it was the missing piece of my passion: "Here; make this mean something. Make it more than just a hobby. Make it your life."

Shameless Plug: I recently put my self-published comic Inspired By Art up online at, where you can order it and get a FREE ZINE!

Any money I can put together from sales of said comic book will also go towards helping me reach Toronto in early May, to attend another conference. I've been selected to present this lovely piece to The Canadian Society for the Study of Comics, which happens to be holding their conference in conjunction with the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. I may have freaked out a little when I discovered that Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Dakota MacFadzean, and Jeff Smith are all going to be there. But only a little. I swear.

I have a lot of other things on my mind, but I'm saving them for other posts. You can look forward to reading about what I learned about monsters when I went to a Durer/Picasso show in Kamloops, my thoughts on Stephen Harper's speech in the Knesset, a comics review or two, and likely a sneak peek at my BFA grad exhibition as it comes together over the next month. Until then, I'll leave you with a tweet: