Thursday, August 28, 2008

Because making fun of Hollywood is soooo original

So I was recently assigned with the task of putting together a fall film preview roundup. Rather than do the dull, dry summations that just about every newspaper and magazine from here to Lower Slobovia will undoubtedly throw together, I decided to spice it up a bit by being really snarky and mean-spirited.

So how'd I do? Eh, I think I pulled my punches a bit too much, but I'll leave it for you to make the final decision. Sorry for the lack of photos, but formatting this took enough work as it was and I'm getting sleepy:

In a world ...

... where Hollywood gears up for one of its largest fall seasons ever, with a slate that includes inane comedies, mind-numbing kiddie flicks, cliche-ridden thrillers and so-called “serious” films aimed at netting an Oscar ...

... when big-budget films featuring vampires, serial killers, zoo animals, singing high school students and Josh Brolin as George W. are all aimed at netting as many beautiful dollar bills as possible ...

... can one man, armed only with Internet access, cut his way through the hype to determine if there’s anything he wants to see in the coming months?

Sure, why not?

Sept. 5

Title: “Bangkok Dangerous”
Starring: Nicholas Cage.
Directed by: Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang.
What it’s about: Lots of guns going off. Things exploding. Cage (playing a hitman) attempting to look cool. It’s a remake of a Thai film.
Will I go see it? Stylish thriller or z-grade schlock? This is the sort of movie that the Rotten Tomatoes Web site was made for.

Sept. 12

Title: “The Women”
Starring: Just about every over-30 actress of note, including Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Jada Pinkett Smith, Debra Messing, Carrie Fisher, Bette Midler and Candice Bergen.
Directed by: Diane English
What it’s about: It’s a remake of the classic 1939 George Cukor film, only with more of a “Sex & the City” feel.
Will I go see it? The trailer does look amusing, but I fear that attending would force me to turn in my membership in the local “He-Man, Woman-Haters” guild. And we can’t have that.

Title: “Burn After Reading”
Starring: Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich
Directed by: Ethan and Joel Coen
What it’s about: A CD holding the memoirs of a CIA agent (Malkovich) ends up in the hands of a pair of unscrupulous and rather dim gym employees (Pitt, McDormand).
Will I go see it? Duh, it’s a Coen brothers film.

Title: “Righteous Kill”
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino
Directed by: Jon Avnet
What it’s about: Getting two acting legends together onscreen. In this particular instance, they’re playing cops on the trail of a serial killer who may or may not be a cop as well.
Will I go see it? I’ve seen “Heat.” “Heat was a friend of mine. You, “Rightous Kill,” are no “Heat.”

Sept. 19

Title: “Lakeview Terrace”
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington.
Directed by: Neil LaBute
What it’s about: LaBute hacks it out for this formulstic thriller about a cop (Jackson) who terrorizes his new next-door neighbors. Hopefully the money will help fund one of LaBute’s more personal projects.
Will I go see it? Well, it does feature Jackson in full-on psycho mode ...

Title: “Appaloosa”
Starring: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, Jeremy Irons
Directed by: Ed Harris
What it’s about: Harris and Mortensen are a pair of tough gunslingers who have to clean out a one-horse town.
Will I go see it? Hmmm. It’s a “classical” Western, starring two of my favorite actors, with Irons as the villain. Why, this movie seems to have been made expressly for me!

Title: “Igor”
Starring: The voices of John Cusack, Steve Buscemi and Molly Shannon.
Directed by: Anthony Leondis
What it’s about: A hunchbacked lab assistant decides to try to win the Evil Science Fair with his own creation.
Will I go see it? It looks like “Nightmare Before Christmas”-lite, which is not necessarily a good thing. On the other hand, it would keep my kids quiet for two hours.

Title: “Ghost Town”
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, Tea Leoni
Directed by: David Koepp
What it’s about: Gervais can see dead people. Hilarity ensues.
Will I go see it? The trailer did make me laugh. Put me down for “maybe.”

Sept. 26

Title: “Miracle at St. Anna”
Starring: Derek Luke, Michael Ealy
Directed by: Spike Lee
What it’s about: A 1984 murder investigation leads back to the story of a group of African-American soldiers trapped in a Tuscan village in WWII.
Will I go see it? I’m curious to see how Lee tackles the “war movie” genre.

Title: “Choke”
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston
Directed by: Clark Gregg
What it’s about: Rockwell’s an unlikable sex-addicted con-man who falls for his mom’s doctor.
Will I go see it? A cheerfully black comedy sounds like just the thing to get me through the morass of “feel-good” movies being pumped out around this time of year.

Oct. 3

Title: “Beverly Hill Chihuahua”
Starring: Drew Barrymore, Salma Hayek, Jamie Lee Curtis and other actors apparently in desperate need of a paycheck.
Directed by: Like it matters.
What it’s about: Judging by the trailer, which features lots of badly animated Chihuahuas screaming “Chihuahua!” until my ears bled, it’s about making me contemplate how far the current state of American cinema has fallen.
Will I go see it? Unfortunately, I will be very busy the entire time this movie is in theaters trimming my nose hair. Such a shame.

Title: “Religulous”
Starring: Bill Mahr
Directed by: Larry Charles (“Borat”)
What it’s about: Mahr gets all Michael Moore in this irreverent documentary examining the world’s religous beliefs.
Will I go see it? Mahr can be insufferably smug at times, but assuming he approches the subject with a genuine curioity it could be a good film.

Title: “What Just Happened?”
Starring: Robert DeNiro
Directed by: Barry Levinson, John Turturro
What it’s about: DeNiro is a Hollywood producer on his way down the ladder and desperately trying to get his movie made.
Will I go see it? Maybe. Hollywood movies about Hollywood tend to have a bit too much navel-gazing to suit me.

Title: “Rachel Getting Married”
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Debra Winger
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
What it’s about: A young woman who’s been in and out of rehab reunites with her family for her sister’s wedding.
Will I go see it? Depends. Is this one of those painfully funny, awkwardly honest family comedies or one of those simpering, sloppily sentimental family comedies? I prefer the former to the latter.

Oct. 10

Title: “City of Ember”
Starring: Bill Murray, Tim Robbins and a bunch of freckle-faced kids.
Directed by: Gil Kenan (“Monster House”)
What it’s about: A underground city is losing power unless a plucky bunch of kids can figure out how to turn the lights back on.
Will I go see it? I’m beginning to get more than a little weary of movies featuring plucky bunches of kids.

Title: “RocknRolla”
Starring: Gerald Butler, Tom Wilkinson
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
What it’s about: Guns, guys in nice suits, explosions, impenetrable English accents.
Will I go see it? No. Ritchie hasn’t made a good film since he became Mr. Madonna.

Title: “Body of Lies”
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe
Directed by: Ridley Scott
What it’s about: Something about the war on terror, I’m not sure. The trailer’s mainly about DiCaprio and Crowe getting all macho and actorly in each other’s faces.
Will I go see it? This film has “desperate attempt at netting Oscar nominations” all over it. Those sort of films are never any good.

Oct. 17

Title: “W.”
Starring: Josh Brolin, Richard Dreyfuss, James Cromwell, Thandie Newton, Elizabeth Banks, Scott Glenn and many, many more talented people.
Directed by: Oliver Stone
What it’s about: The life and times of our current commander in chief.
Will I go see it? Yes, if just to see how North ties in the Kennedy assassination.

Title: “Secret Life of Bees”
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah
Directed by: Gina Price-Bythewood
What it’s about: A young girl in the '60s learns about life and love through a trio of eccentric beekeeping sisters. Apparently this is based on a popular novel.
Will I go see it? They might as well have titled the movie “Things Chris Mautner Has No Interest in Seeing.”

Oct. 24

Title: “High School Musical 3: Senior Year”
Starring: OMG! Vanessa Hudgens, who is, like, so pretty, and Ashley Tisdae and Corbin Bleu and the totally hot ZAC EFRON! Squee!
Directed by: Some guy, I dunno.
What’s it about: The gang is growing up and getting ready to graduate, so it’s all bittersweet good-byes, you know? Sigh.
Will I go see it? I’ve made an active effort to keep all things containing the phrase “Disney Channel” out of my house. It’s been a successful enterprise so far and I see no reason why I should alter it now.

Title: “Changeling”
Starring: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
What it’s about: A woman reunited with her missing child wonders if the boy is really hers. �
Will I go see it? Knowing the midstate, this probably won’t come around here until March 2009, but yeah. Eastwood hasn’t failed me yet.

Title: “Saw V”
Starring: Nobody you’ve ever heard of. Trust me.
Directed by: David Hackl. I have to say, that’s an unfortunate last name for a director.
What it’s about: Watching people being tortured and maimed in creative, disgusting and completely implausible ways.
Will I go see it? Depends. Will I understand what’s going on if I haven’t seen “Saws I-IV?”

Title: “Pride and Glory”
Starring: Ed Norton, Colin Farrell, Jon Voight
Directed by: Gavin O’Connor
What it’s about: Farrell’s the bad cop. Norton the good cop who has to bring him in. They’re also brothers.
Will I go see it? Great Godfrey, another cop drama? Was their a discount sale over at “Genre Cliches R Us” this year?

Title: “Crossing Over”
Starring: Harrison Ford, Sean Penn, Ashely Judd
Directed by: Wayne Kramer
What it’s about: A “Crash”-like meditation on illegal immigration, seen from the viewpoint of multiple characters.
Will I go see it? You know what I hate? When Hollywood decides to tackle some “serious issue” like racism or immigration and then they all pat themselves on the back because they think they’re “making a statement,” even though they’re just making obvious points that everyone already knows. I really hate that.

Title: “Synecdoche, New York”
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich”)
What it’s about: A theater director attempts to deal with the women in his life while trying to create a life-size replica of New York City in a warehouse for his next play.
Will I go see it? Yes. Kaufman’s one of the most intriguing screenwriters in Hollywood right now and I’m anxious to see what he accomplishes in the director’s chair.

Oct. 31

Title: “Zack & Miri Make a Porno”
Starring: Seth Rogan and Elizabeth Banks
Directed by: Kevin Smith
What it’s about: The title says it all, doesn’t it? A pair of friends decide to solve their money troubles by making an X-rated film.
Will I go see it? Kevin Smith is pretty hit or miss with me, but I confess to being intrigued by the premise. Plus, Rogan’s a pretty funny guy. I’ll probably check it out at some point.

Nov. 7

Title: “Quantum of Solace”
Starring: Daniel Craig as 007.
Directed by: Marc Forster
What it’s about: Dude, it’s a James Bond film. What more do you need to know
Will I go see it? Well, I still need to watch “Casino Royale,” but sure.

Title: “Madagascar 2: Escape to Africa”
Starring: The voices of Ben Stiller, David Schwimmer, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith and the late Bernie Mac.
Directed by: Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath
What it’s about: A sequel to the popular 2005 animated film. This time the zoo animals end up in ... well, read the title.
Will I go see it? While I tire of computer-animated animals putting on third-rate Warner Bros. schitck, my kids will no doubt drag me to the theater.

Nov. 14�

Title: “Australia”
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
What it’s about: Kidman inherits a ranch in the Australian Outback in the days just before WWII. Jackman helps her run it. Sparks fly.
Will I go see it? Luhrmann could make a movie about people watching paint dry and I’d go see it.

Title: “Soul Men”
Starring: Bernie Mac, Samuel L. Jackson, Isaac Hayes
Directed by: Malcolm D. Lee
What it’s about: Jackson and Mac are an estranged singing duo who agree to do a reunion performance.
Will I go see it? Prediction: the fact that the film includes Mac’s and Hayes’ final performances will in all likelhood not obscure how bad a movie it is.

Nov. 21

Title: “Twilight”
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Billy Burke.
Directed by: Catherine Hardwicke
What it’s about: Film adaptation of the uber-popular novel about a teen-age vampire and the girl who loves him. Anne Rice has a lot to answer for.
Will I go see it? These vampire books are insanely popular, which means there will be tons of uber-eager fans lining the cinema when this comes out. And I will be nowhere near them.

Title: “The Soloist”
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr.
Directed by: Joe Wright (“Atonement”)
What it’s about: Reporter Downey befriends the brilliant but homeless pianist Foxx and draws the world’s attention to his plight.
Will I go see it? Are you kidding? The synopsis alone makes me want to gag.

Nov. 28

Title: “The Road”
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Kodi Smit-McPhee.
Directed by: John Hillcoat
What it’s about: Father and son wander a post-apocalyptic landscape in search of safety. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cormac McCarthy novel.
Will I go see it? I likes me some dour post-apocalyptic drama.

Title: “Milk”
Starring: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
What it’s about: Penn plays Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected city supervisor in San Francisco, only to be assassinated a year later.
Will I go see it? Van Sant and Penn? Hell yeah, I’m there.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Graphic Lit: How-to books

One of the great draws about comics is that it has such low overhead. All you need is pen and paper and presto! You’re ready to make a comic.

Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that, as the following “how-to” books show:

“What It Is”
by Lynda Barry, Drawn and Quarterly, 209 pages, $24.95.

Part autobiography, part writing guide, part philosophical treatise and all pure genius, Barry uses a variety of artistic tools — including collage, watercolor and pen and ink — to examine the nature and central importance of art and the creative impulse while touching on themes like memory, imagination and myth along the way.

Barry writes with genuine awe about the creative process, attempting to define near-indefinable terms and ideas (“What is an image?”) while delving into her own childhood and, by extension, our own as well. For her, art is more an act of self-discovery than communication, and getting the work out on paper is more important than finding an audience or determining whether it’s “good” or “bad.”

More than just a mere tutorial (though it excels as that), this is a rich and rewarding book that should be read even if you’re not planning to draw. But especially if you are.

“Drawing Words & Writing Pictures”
by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, First Second, 304 pages, $29.95.

Perhaps you’re looking for a more definitive, textbooklike guide to making comics. If so, this meaty book, based on classes Abel and Madden teach at the School of Visual Arts, more than suffice.

Just about every aspect of comics production is covered, from how to lay out a page to lettering, using computers, developing your characters, inking and much more. Each chapter comes with a “homework” section and exercises, making this book more of a college-level class than a manual.

There have been a lot of “how to make comics”-type books, most of them superficially focusing on rendering and style. “Drawing Words” is a much more thoughtful, comprehensive book that I’d recommend to anyone interested in making comics. I predict it will quickly be the definitive go-to book for budding cartoonists.

“How to Draw Stupid and Other Essentials of Cartooning”
by Kyle Baker, Watson-Guptill Publications, 112 pages, $16.95.

Sometimes though, you want your advice quick and dirty. Enter Kyle Baker, cartoonist extraordinaire (“Nat Turner,” “Special Forces”).

Baker eschews a lot of the traditional how-to-draw advice (Baker on perspective: “Draw faraway things tiny and nearby things big”) in favor of some very useful and no doubt hard-won tips on things like how to stand out (“don’t do the same thing everyone else does”), design characters (“a good cartoon character should be easy for everybody to draw”) and be funny (“hitting is funny”).

This blend of no-nonsense advice and irreverent humor is about as far away from Lynda Barry’s approach as you can get, but if you’re looking to make cartoons in any sort of professional capacity, it’s also essential. Plus, Baker’s a very funny guy.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Graphic Lit: Gary Panter and Jack Kirby

Few artists have been able to combine the conflicting aspects of high and low culture as successfully as Gary Panter.

Appearing on the art scene in the late'70s and early '80s, he was an important member of the "Raw" crowd, frequently contributing to Art Spiegelman's seminal comics anthology.

His work, with its messy, slashing lines and abrasive, in-your-face attitude, was strongly allied with the punk rock scene of the time. Readers holding his books had to be careful lest they cut their fingers on his drawings.

Influenced by the psychedelic and underground comics of the 1960s as well as fine artists like Picasso, his comics disregarded conventional narratives, opting instead for an expressionist approach.

Yet Panter is not some obscure artist slinging paint in a lonely garret. He's done album covers for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Frank Zappa, designed children's playrooms and won the 2000 Chrysler Award for Design. Most famously, he was the production designer for the acclaimed Saturday morning show "Pee-Wee's Playhouse."

Now Panter is celebrated in a ginormous, two-volume, slipcased coffee table book simply titled "Gary Panter."

This obvious labor of love focuses primarily on Panter's skill as a painter. The first volume devotes almost three-fourths of its contents to his work on canvas, with his comics and other work sampled toward the back.

The second volume, featuring a wealth of sketchbook pages, is more revealing, offering hints to the artist's development and thought processes.

Overall though, the book is a wonderful testament to Panter's artistic skills. I'm in awe of his ability to take oddball items like old 10-cent toy packaging and, through his brush, refigure and transform it into something extraordinary and significant. His work both satirizes and celebrates America's "trash" culture.

Panter continues to influence generation after generation. One can hope this definitive collection, despite the high price, will continue to spread the good word. It's about time he got a book like this.

'King of comics'

One of Panter's biggest influences is Jack Kirby, the comic book creator who strode like a colossus over the medium during much of the 20th century.

Now the man who helped bring to life Captain America, the Fantastic Four and the Hulk, to name just a few, is the subject of his own coffee-table biography, "Kirby, King of Comics" written by longtime friend Mark Evanier.

Evanier has been working on an in-depth biography of Kirby for several years, but this isn't that book. It's more of a cursory overview of the man's life and accomplishments, designed for those curious but unfamiliar.

What makes the book worthy of purchase is the lavish and loving treatment of Kirby's art work. In addition to full-page covers and panels, there's a wealth of sketches and penciled pages, enough to satisfy the devoted.

At times the book veers dangerously close to hagiography. Beyond a few broad strokes, Evanier doesn't really make a case for why Kirby was important; he assumes readers will just infer it from the art. There are also a couple of odd editorial choices -- a foldout spread of painter Alex Ross reproducing one of Kirby's classic panels seems like a real waste of space.

We've been blessed recently with a number of handsome volumes collecting Kirby's work in recent years.

While this book is a welcome addition, I long for a more detailed biography.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Graphic Lit: Glamourpuss and Judenhass

What do you do when confronted with an artist whose work you admire but whose beliefs you find offensive?

That's the question many comic book fans have had to ask themselves about Dave Sim.

Sim first made a name for himself with the debut of the black and white comic book "Cerebus the Aardvark" in 1977.

Initially a parody of "Conan the Barbarian," after about twenty issues Sim decided to expand the book's scope considerably, ultimately delivering a complex 300-issue epic that spanned 30 years and delved into issues of politics, religion, gender and human experience.

Sim did virtually the whole thing himself, and, for many years, "Cerebus" was lauded as an example of the rewards of self-publishing. Accolades were plentiful and the series had a strong, devoted fan base.

Then, something changed.

Beginning with issue 186, Sim began protesting in lengthy, rambling and increasingly ugly essays on what he regarded as the evil excesses of feminism, liberalism and women in general. Here are a few samples: 
"Reason, as any husband can tell you, doesn't stand a chance in an argument with Emotion ... this was the fundamental reason, I believe, that women were denied the vote for so long."
"What the feminists and their ventriloquist puppet husbands are talking about doing with Government-Funded Daycare is raising children as if they were a herd of interchangeable swine. No surprise coming from a gender which has no ethics, no scruples, no sense of right and wrong."
"No one wants to be a woman."

As a result of all of this, Sim became one of the most polarizing figures in comics, reviled by some and warily tolerated by others. Those who chose to stick with the series often found themselves beginning sentences with "Yes, but."

Having wrapped up "Cerebus" in 2004, Sim came roaring back this year with two new comics, the bi-monthly "Glamourpuss," and the stand-alone "Judenhass."

"Glamourpuss" is a bit ... idiosyncratic, to put it mildly. It's a parody of fashion magazines, narrated by the title character, a shallow, self-absorbed but witty model who gripes about having to take anti-depressants or deal with her evil twin sister, Skanko.

But really, "Glamourpuss" is an excuse for Sim to practice and expound upon the photo realistic school of comic art pioneered by such folk as Alex Raymond and Al Williamson. Glamourpuss' monologues are frequently interrupted by Sim as he expounds at length about various styles, techniques and influences.

It's aimed at a select audience, but I found the two issues released so far to be a fascinating read. The fashion jokes are a bit obvious (and, considering Sim's professed feelings toward women, come with a slightly bitter edge) but watching Sim try to show what exactly captivates him about these artists is surprisingly compelling.

"Judenhass," on the other hand, tackles a much more somber subject matter — the Holocaust.

Working from the premise that centuries of Antisemitism directly led to the systematic genocide of millions of Jews, Sim juxtaposes noxious quotes from historical figures like Martin Luther and Voltaire with repeated images of dead bodies found at the concentration camps, all done in his new, photo realistic manner.

Some critics have noted that certain quotes seem to be taken wildly out of context, and I'm not sure I agree with Sim that centuries of prejudice and hate made the Holocaust "inevitable" (though it certainly didn't hurt matters, there were certainly other factors at work that led to the rise of the Nazis).

This is at times a harrowing and moving book. Sim takes an interesting tack, using a single image and breaking it up into tiny panels, each focusing on a different aspect, so that we notice say, a victim's teeth or clasped hands. It's a striking attempt to humanize the dehumanized.

There are those who will refuse to give any money to Sim because of his views, and I can sympathize with that attitude to a point.

Yet despite being the self-appointed chairman of the he-man woman-haters club, Dave Sim remains an artist worth paying attention to. Though very problematic works, "Glamourpuss" and "Judenhass" are alive and take chances in ways that few comic books these days are or do.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Graphic Lit: Classic manga

Most of the manga on bookstore shelves these days consist of contemporary works, aimed at a contemporary audience.

What's been pushing my buttons lately, however, are the classic Japanese comics of yesteryear.

Here's a look at some of these time-honored comics from the East, recently translated and repackaged for an American market:

"Dororo Vol. 1 & 2" by Osamu Tezuka, Vertical, 300 and 288 pages, $13.95 each.

Many of Tezuka's stories sound unusual when summarized, and "Dororo" is no exception.

The plot concerns a wandering swordsman named Hyakkimaru who is trying to collect the 48 body parts stolen from him by demons when he was a baby (he relies on a mysterious sixth sense and artificial limbs -- many of which hide secret weapons -- to get around).

Paired with the plucky titular youth, he travels from village to village in Feudal Japan, encountering a number of creepy and increasingly bizarre monsters in a sort of "X-Files" meets "Seven Samurai" fashion.

Tezuka fudges over issues of exactly how Hyakkimaru is able to function, much less wield a sword, but the story is no less compelling or entertaining for all its leaps in logic. Cartoonists-in-training would do well to examine the way Tezuka establishes a setting, for example, or lays out a tense action sequence.

In short, "Dororo" is a rewarding read and one of my favorite books of the year so far. Look for the concluding Volume 3 to come out at the end of the month.

"Cat Eyed Boy Vol. 1 & 2" by Kazuo Umezu, Viz, $24.99 each.

Fifty bucks might seem like a steep price to pay for a bunch of oddball horror tales originally aimed at kids, but Umezu's work here has a propulsive, surreal power that is nigh impossible to shy away from.

The Cat Eyed Boy of the title serves both as Crypt-Keeper-like narrator and protagonist. A wandering trickster god of sorts, his travels constantly rub him against some rather gruesome and inventive demons determined to wreak havoc.

The series preys heavily on childhood fears, such as the notion that your parents may not have your best interests at heart (or may even become monsters when the lights go out).

Like "Dororo," "Boy" doesn't always make sense, but instead is infused with a nightmare logic that anyone who has had a bad night's sleep will recognize.

"Red Colored Elegy" by Seiichi Hayashi, Drawn and Quarterly, 240 pages, $24.95.

Inspired heavily by French "new wave" cinema, "Elegy" tells the melancholy story of Ichiro and Sachiko, two young lovers torn between what society and their families expect of them and their own personal hopes and dreams.

Hayashi borrows heavily from film and animation, loading the book with symbolism (i.e. moths flickering around a lamp).

He also keeps his backgrounds and figures as minimal as possible, all the better to portray the characters' dissolute and existential lifestyle.

While I found the star-crossed lovers a bit self-absorbed for my cynical, Western taste, I was in awe of Hayashi's stylistic choices. Ultimately, "Elegy" had me thinking about comics in ways that I hadn't before, and I treasure it for that.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Graphic Lit: An interview with Jason

The one-named Norwegian artist known simply as "Jason" has been racking up impressive cultural cachet recently.

Books like the time-traveling, tongue-in-cheek romance "I Killed Adolf Hitler" have won strong reviews and steady sales. More significantly, his latest story, the Western "Low Moon," was recently serialized in the pages of the New York Times Sunday Magazine section.

Now the final volume of his back catalog, "Pocket Full of Rain," has arrived, collecting a lot of his early material, including several stories drawn in a realistic style quite different from the deadpan anthropomorphic style he uses today.

I talked with Jason by e-mail recently about the new book and making comics for the New York Times:

Q: What’s it like to revisit the material in Pocket Full of Rain? How do you regard your early work?

A: It’s a bit strange looking at the old material. It’s clearly a cartoonist looking for his voice or whatever you would call it. Some strips look better than others. And the weakest ones I chose not to include.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about how your style changed from the more realistic work in Pocket to the way you draw today? What made you want to change your style and how did you come upon your now trademark anthropomorphic characters?

A: It took me a long time to draw in a realistic style. Usually it took me a day to finish one panel. And when the whole thing was done, I wasn’t that happy with the result. The story as a whole I think is okay, but the drawings are a bit clumsy. So I tried out a couple of different other styles, and the animal characters were the ones I was most happy with. The drawing style in the stories Chalk and Glass I’m also okay with, but I think I made the right decision.
Q: I don’t think many people are aware of this, but you became a published cartoonist when you were still a teen-ager. What made you want to pursue this career at such an early age? Why comics?
A: I started selling cartoons and one-page stories to this Norwegian humor magazine called Konk when I was fifteen or sixteen, but it was just a hobby. Making comics as a profession in Norway was pretty unthinkable at that time. So my education is as an illustrator. It’s only the last four or five years that I’ve been able to make a living just as a cartoonist. There were some lean years before that, but it’s a choice I made, so I can’t complain. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.

Q: A lot of your work plays with traditional (for want of a better word) pulp genres, i.e. mystery, science fiction, horror, western, etc. What is it about these genres that appeal to you so much? And is there any particular genre that you haven’t tackled yet that you’d like to try your hand at?

A: Yes, I like the genres. Most of my favorite movies are westerns or science fiction films or film noir. Preferably older stuff, from the 30s up until the 70s. I don’t know why. They have a special quality those old films, I guess, that sometimes is lost in films today. Black and white films have some magic that is lost in color. I have an idea for a werewolf story. I’m not sure if it will be the next album, but I hope to make it one day.

Q: One of the things that I find impressive about your work is that, though your characters are drawn in a very deadpan style, you’re nevertheless able to wring quite a bit of emotion and drama (not to mention humor). Can you talk a little bit about how you’re able to do that? Is it just a simple matter of panel arrangement? Is it something you’re conscious of?

A: It’s something I try not to think about. It just happens. It’s who I am, I guess. I hope the stories are funny, but at the same time, they should have some melancholic quality.

Q: Related to that, you often in your work stick to a very basic grid of six or nine panels per page (more in Low Moon). Why? What’s the thinking behind that decision?

A: I like the grid, the way it looks. This way the panels have the same importance, visually at least. It’s up to the reader to decide which panel is the most important one or have the most emotional impact. It shouldn’t be me as the artist telling the reader what to feel.
Q: How did the chance to be serialized in the New York Times come about? What has that experience been like?

A: They contacted me. It’s been great, reaching a wider audience like that. It’s what you dream of as a cartoonist. And I was given freedom to do what I want. There were certain restrictions on the use of language, but that’s okay by me.

Q: Judging by your reception at MoCCA, you have more than a few American fans. Are you surprised that you’ve managed to find such a devoted audience over here? What is it do you think about your work that resonates so well across the Atlantic?

A; I don’t know. A lot of my inspiration sources are American, either genre movies or directors like Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley. So I guess an American audience can recognize and relate to the material. But I don’t have a specific audience in my head when I work.
Q: Is there any difference between the comics scene in the U.S. and the one in Europe?

Not that much anymore. Not like 20 years ago when you had a bigger gap between the cheaply printed American superhero comics and the French hardcover albums. The more alternative comics are not that different, whether they’re published by Fantagraphics in the US or L’Association in France. And actually a lot of the French comics are overrated. There is a lot of new albums every week, and a lot of it is not very interesting. You have to search to find the good stuff.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Did I mention I reviewed The Dark Knight?

Cause, um, I did. A few weeks ago. For the paper and all.

Man, I really need to do a better job promoting myself.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Graphic Lit: An interview with Darrin Bell

Continuing playing catch-up after a lengthy hiatus, here's an interview I did with Darrin Bell, creator of Candorville, for the Patriot-News. Candorville was the fourth and final strip we subbed for Doonesbury while it was on vacation, hence the dated references to Hilary Clinton.

Q: What made you want to be a cartoonist?

A: I’ve been drawing since I was three. My mom taught me how to draw. I always got a lot a lot of attention from teachers when I was caricaturing them. A lot of them told me if I don’t get my mind back on studying I’m not going to become anything. But I give a lot of credit to my mom. She told me if I find something I like doing, just keep doing it and make sure that I do it as best I can and someday I’ll be able to make a living at it.

I kind of forgot about then when I went to college. I wanted to go into journalism. I wanted to be either one of those talking heads on TV like Pat Buchanan or James Carville or I wanted to have my own column. I started writing for the Daily Californian — UC Berkley’s daily college paper. I was excited about it. I was interviewing people like the governor of California, our local congressman, Senator Boxer. I wrote articles and at the same time I had these cartoons that I was drawing in my spare time. I just dumped them on the paper and told them run whenever they feel like.

When my articles ran I asked my friends what they thought. None of them had read any of the articles but everybody had read my cartoons and loved them. So after a few months of that I figured maybe my future lies in that direction.

Q: How did Candorville come about?

A: Candorville grew out of those cartoons that I did. At the time it was called Lamont Brown. It was an autobiographical strip. It gave me an outlet to vent my frustrations about college life. After I graduated from college it gave me an outlet for other things.

I still didn’t want to do that for a living though. I wanted to draw editorial cartoons. I started drawing as a freelancer for the LA Times and San Francisco Chronicle and a bunch of other papers. When it came time to submit my cartoons for awards I submitted both those and Lamont Brown. Again, I got more feedback on the comic strips from people who work at the syndicates. I just thought I’ll develop those and keep sending them and eventually I got syndicated.

Q: Give me a time line. When did the strip became syndicated?

A: In 2003.

Q: How many papers is it running in now?

A: Not counting the papers running it as a substitute for Doonesbury, it should be about 70 papers.

Q: How old are you now?

A: I’m 33.

Q: What are some of your influences?

A: Mainly sitcoms. One Day at a Time, the first season. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that.

Q: Yeah, Valerie Bertinelli.

A: If you go back and watch the first season — not the later ones where they parody themselves — but the first season was really honest and raised a lot of questions even if it didn’t know how to answer them. That’s what I try to do in Candorville. It’s called Candorville not because I think I have all the answers but because I ask what I think are honest questions.

There are other sitcoms like All in the Family, Good Times, The Jeffersons and The Cosby Show.

Q: But as far as comic strips go, things like Doonesbury aren’t as much of an influence?

A: Not really. I didn’t read Doonesbury until just a few years ago. Bloom County I read mostly for the penguin. I was interested in the art work. My main influence in that industry would be Paul Conrad, the LA Times editorial cartoonist. His work was just amazing and I don’t think I’d be interested in politics today if it weren’t for him.

Q: I imagine a lot of people label the strip as political or an ethnic strip. Does that sort of labeling bother you at all?

A: It is overtly political but the labeling does bother me a bit because it’s also an overt relationship strip. It’s overtly ethnic just because it has ethnic characters. It deals with the same issues that I deal with on a daily basis. We all think about politics from time to time but we also think about our girlfriend or our friend saying things we wish they wouldn’t say. It’s a slice of life strip.
Q: Do you feel like you have any unique challenges to doing this sort of strip that touches on political and social issues that say, Hi and Lois doesn’t?

A: Yeah I do. I’m sure they have unique challenges too. For one thing whenever I include a character of color, no matter what I’m talking about someone’s going to write and complain because they thought that I was saying that all black people are this way.

I had one black character who doesn’t like to use the crosswalks. He likes to cross in the middle of the street because that’s an easy way to assert control over his own life. I got an email saying “I’ve seen plenty of black people use crosswalks.”

That’s the kind of thing I have to deal with. In general, whenever you talk politics you’re going to offend at least half the people. I try to make them laugh while I’m offending them. That takes the edge off.

Q: What sort of feedback do you get?

A: Judging by the email feedback and the people I meet at book signings, my readership is largely conservative and many of them actually support what I’m saying. Even if they don't agree with it they like hearing an opposing viewpoint. It gives them something to think about even if what they end up thinking is that I’m an idiot. It’s stimulating. It’s something interesting.

Q: What do you see the viewpoint of the strip being? One of the things I find interesting about the strip is you don’t really take sides. You mock Hillary Clinton frequently for example.

A: I’m thinking of endorsing Hillary Clinton actually. Either her or McCain. Whoever is going to give me the most material. I’m thinking of starting a cartoonists for Hillary fan club. A PAC to help her.

I’ve seen it described as conservative depending upon which people first see. When my strip has been commenting on Hillary and that’s the first week people see it in the newspaper, people think it’s conservative and hold onto that opinion. Even if I go on to talk about McCain, they express surprise to me that a conservative strip is talking about McCain. Conversely other people are sure it’s liberal.

I just don’t like being lied to. Whoever I think is lying to me or insulting the intelligence of the average American, that’s who I’m going to go after.
Q: Do you see the strip’s goal then to expose the lying liars?

A: Yeah, exactly. I’m scouring, looking for some examples for Obama. And if I find it, watch out.

Q: You recently led a group of African-American cartoonists in an event where you all ran the same strip one day. Tell me a little bit about that.

A: Yeah, I did lead that. The goal of it — we were trying to get editors and readers to start thinking about strips featuring characters of color and to think of them in terms of the themes they were dealing with instead of the color of the characters.

For instance, our syndicate did a survey -- you can get the numbers from them -- they found that most papers didn’t have any strips featuring any characters of color and those that did only had one or two. There are a handful of exceptions, I think it was three or four papers that had three. When one is added to a paper another one is taken out. I’ve replaced Curtis in a number of papers even though I don’t think there are any politics in Curtis and my main character is not an eight-year-old boy. It puzzles me why Candorville is always pitted against these other strips. The only similarity is the color of the characters. I don’t want to think that in 2008 that’s what editors are judging strips on. We give our readers a lot more credit that some of the editors do because we get direct feedback from them. We get feedback from people who feel that they’re right but they still enjoy the strip. Race is still an issue, but it shouldn’t be.

Q: Tell me a little bit more about the event and what sort of response you got.

A: We all ran the same strip on the same day. The strip was a send-up of the idea that all black strips are interchangeable. The only goal was to get people thinking that maybe they’re not interchangeable. Maybe when we want to replace a family strip we should look for another family strip.

Q: And not judge it by what color the characters are.

A: Yeah. Replacing Jump Start with Candorville makes as much sense as replacing For Better or For Worse with Doonesbury.

Q: So what kind of response did you get? Do you feel like it drew attention to the issue?

A: It did. It started a discussion just in the confines of the industry the discussion is important. We heard from a lot of newspaper editors who had been operating this way but not consciously. They thanked us for raising the issue. There were a lot of papers that were hesitant to sample our strips because they already ran one or two black strips and didn’t want to get rid of them so they thought "Why should we even try?" There are plenty of those who decided to give us a try. When Doonesbury went on vacation, there are a lot of papers trying out Candorville that already run one or two black strips. I’m told that many of them wouldn’t have done so without the protest. These editors see it mainly as a social/political strip and not a black strip.

Q: It’s hard enough for up and coming strips to get a foothold in the paper. Do you feel like because you have an ethnic strip that you have one more mark against you?

A: Yeah, that’s one of the arguments we were making during the protest. We face the exact same hurdles as all other new strips but we face the additional hurdle of being seen as a black strip. Where all these new strips are competing from six to 36 spots, we were all competing in effect for no more than two. We didn’t think that was a good situation. The thing about most of the editors I’ve met or spoken to — it’s not a conscious thing. People don't’ get into this business in order to discriminate. So we thought all we need to do is bring it to their attention. Once they start thinking about it, maybe they’ll change.

Q: You deal with some touchy topics — politics and race. Of the two, which do you feel is riskier for an artist to be discussing and how do you get your message across effectively without having a flood of hate mails and dropped strips?

A: I’ve always sort of combined the two in my head because the issue of race in this country is very political. When I first started out, I think race was the touchier issue. I used to get a lot of emails from people saying "Not another Boondocks," "Not another angry black man," "I don’t want my kid reading this." After awhile I think people stopped considering the race of my characters so much and I stopped hearing those comments. I started hearing from people thanking me for the diversity, even if they didn’t agree with what I was saying.

A lot of people used to want me to play up the positive of African American culture, because one of my characters isn’t what you’d consider a positive role model. I used to ask them what would be the point of that. This is a real problem, the hopelessness and bad decisions that some people make. This is a real problem and there’s no way to solve problems unless you first acknowledge they exist. In terms of the comics page, unless you learn to laugh at them. The best way to dismiss a problem is to see that it’s not grave. There’s some humor in it. If you can learn to laugh at something, that means you’ve learned to put it in perspective.

Q: What’s your take on the state of the comics industry today? A lot of the artist I’ve been talking to are very critical of the state of the newspaper industry.
A: I think we all [are]. It’s hard not to when you see papers shutting down or ones that survive slashing their comics section. When they haven’t really changed what they pay for comics since 1972 ... There’s also the consolidation in the industry. There’s huge corporations buying up papers.

We have it better than editorial cartoonists though. There are maybe 250 syndicated strips out there. There used to be the same number of editorial cartoonists, and that profession seems to be dying off by attrition.

Q: Does Candorville pay the bills? Do you have a day job?

A: Well I do two strips. My other strip is called Rudy Park.

Q: Tell me about that. I didn’t know about it.

A: Rudy Park started off in 2000 about a dot-commer who the bust happened and he was forced to get a job as a manger at a cyber cafe. At the cafe he’s got a ruthless, conniving boss, he’s got a 80something Luddite nemesis who hates him because he’s enamored with technology.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Graphic Lit: An interview with Richard Thompson

Ok, that was a nice break, but now it's time to knuckle down again. We'll kick things off with an extensive interview I did several months ago with cartoonist extraordinaire Richard Thompson, whose daily strip Cul de Sac is one of the best things going today. While Doonesbury was on vacation, The Patriot-News sampled a few new comic strips and I managed to convince the powers that be that Cul should make the cut, hence the interview.

OK, that's enough introduction now. Here's the Q&A:

Q: I’m a little ashamed to say I don’t know that much about your career before you started doing Cul de Sac. Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

A: As with most cartoonists it was something I always did. I always drew, even when I should have been doing other things like homework, back in grade school.

My parents always encouraged it, they liked it. It was always what I was going to be at some point. I just didn’t know what form it would take. I got into illustration 25 years ago, mostly newspaper stuff. I’m near Washington, DC, so I did and still do a lot of stuff for the Washington Post. When I was starting out I did several things a week.

Q: What kinds of things?

A: Oh spot drawings and illustrating articles. Little digbats. This and that. I started doing caricature and goofy stuff. I did some realistic stuff for them too which I didn’t much enjoy but I found I could do it.

I was doing a series for the Post, there’s a column called “Why Things Are.” It was written by Joel Achenbach and they syndicated it too. I guess it appeared in the Post for about five, six years.

It was a dream job. They just gave me an early version of the text and it was a loose-set up. He would take any question from readers and try to find an answer for it. Something as mundane as “Why are there no green cars?” to “What do you see when you close your eyes?” or “What does the inside of your nose smell like?” and on to more cosmic questions like “Why are there things?”

They didn’t much care what I did as long as I had some vague idea, something vaguely to do with the column. And I just went nuts with it. It got to be a little strip in itself in that each illustration had a balloon with some text in it, so it looked like a comic.

The editor there, Gene Winegarten, who started Dave Barry off in Florida, he pushed me — "Things" ended in about '93 maybe — he said "Why don’t you do a weekly comic for us." A year or so later I started dong a weekly cartoon. It was a free-for-all. They didn’t care what I did too much as long as it was spelled right and free of obscenities and nothing legally actionable with it. That turned into Richard’s Poor Almanac, which I’m still doing every Saturday.

Q: How would you describe that strip? Was it a social satire or a political strip?

A: It’s more social. It’s political sometimes, just because D.C. is a political town, but I wouldn’t call it an editorial cartoon. Politicians appear in it sometimes, but as an almanac I can make fun of the weather too.

Again, they don’t much care what I do as long as it’s funny and makes some sense. I just turn it in on Friday night and they don’t even look at it until it shows up. Another dream job. For years I didn’t think anyone was really reading it so who cares? The pressure was off.

Q: So how did doing a weekly strip lead to Cul de Sac?

A: The editorship changed a couple of times. I guess I’ve been through five editors with it. I think the second or third was Tom Schroeder, who came up to the post through the Miami Herald. He’s now the editor of the Washington Post magazine. Somewhere along the line he said, "Have you ever thought of doing a strip with continuing characters in it?" "Well yeah kind of." "Why don’t you put something together for the Sunday magazine and just have it be about Washington without being about official Washington, the people who live around here." I grew up around DC and the suburbs around DC. It sort of grew out of that. It’s a backwater side of Washington. Calling it Cul De Sac made it obvious it was not the center of town somehow. That started in 2004.

Q: This was done as part of the almanac or —

A: No, it grew out of it. It was a complete and separate entity when it started in the magazine. I did it as a full color watercolor drawing and everything.

Q: Now how did it compare to the strip today? Was it pretty much fully formed out of the blue?

A: I fooled around with it for a year before I showed him anything. I knew that it was about this family and took place in a very small neighborhood and that the husband commuted into Washington. It was somewhat specific. They went to Nationals games and the Zoo and the Smithsonian and stuff like that. It took a while though to settle who was what. I knew who the characters were but I didn’t know what they did. Like most strips they take a while to shake out.

Q: What was the idea behind this particular family? Behind just portraying the social life of the DC area did you have any other goals or ideas beyond that? It does feel like a very universal strip.

A: I had the characters lined up. I sort of to know them better. Like most comic strip cartoonists will tell you I started to hear their voices. They start narrating their lives and demanding their time on stage. They do the talking for you somehow. It’s up to you to capture the slice of life that three or four panels can take.

I knew that Alice, the little girl, she’s four years old and kind of — I think of she and her brother, she’s the unstoppable force and he’s the immovable object. And they can collide and sparks can fly. She’s self-absorbed and pretty unstoppable. Just stay out of her way. He’s curled up in his room in a fetal position in his own little world.

Q: How did it move out of the weekly slot into becoming a daily strip?

A: It was sort of a strain of happenstance chain of events. Lee Salem, who is the editor at Universal Press Syndicate, — back when Bush was first elected, to make a long story somewhat shorter, Bush did not have an inaugral poem read at his first inaugral —

Q: Is this about Make the Pie Higher?

A: Yeah. I did a Poor Almanac where I just took a string of Bush quotes that were mushmouthed and didn’t make much sense and strung them together into a free-form poem. When I did it I thought Jesus, this makes no sense but I’ve got a deadline. It showed up the Sunday before his inaugral and it leaked out on the Web somehow.

I didn’t notice, but my editor pointed out some months later that this thing was out there and called Make the Pie Higher. Lee Salem saw it and didn’t know it was a cartoon and he emailed me and said have you got anything else? I said "Where would I start?" He was coming for a conference here and so we met. We chatted over drinks and I gave him a pile of Cul de Sacs. And we kept in touch and some months later he said "We’d like to do something with this, how about a daily?" I said OK. A daily strip was something I’d avoided for years. I wasn’t sure if I had such a thing in me. He said, "We think you can do something with this." I thought, now’s the chance. I can’t back away from this. This was in 2006. And here I am, two weeks behind already.

Q: So what was the official debut of the strip?

A: It was September 2007.

Q: How many papers did it start out in?

A: I think it was 70.

Q: And how’s it doing now?

A: Pretty good. I think it’s in 120 or 110. It’s nice to hear there are 120 newspapers out there still.

Q: What kind of feedback have you been getting on the strip?

A: Pretty good. I started a blog just as an accident. I was kind of embaressed to do it but somebody said I should give it a shot. I get a lot of stuff back. I’ve gotten some responses from Italy recently where they’re starting to run it translated in a comics magazine. I get a couple a day from people saying “Gee you had Petey playing the oboe the other day and I’m a professional oboist and it’s nice to see that.” It seems like the really specific stuff goes over with a bang more than anything more general. I did one recently with Alice just collecting sticks, like kids do. My daughters have done that.

Q: My son’s four so he’s constantly bringing rocks into the house.

A: My daughter was doing that for awhile. She was bringing little pebbles in and drawing faces on them. Then putting them out in the yard thinking people will find these someday and be happy. How can you describe that logic?

Q: You write about these things, but you don’t do something a lot of comic strip artists do which is write about specific references to current events. You don’t refer to the Wii or whatever the hot new movie is.

A: I try to keep away from that. I can deal with that in the Almanac; make fun of that and get it out of my system. Also, I figure the ages of the kids — 4 and 8 — they’re not totally into the more advance pop culture stuff probably. Petey’s into comic books but I think he’s more into Chris Ware-type comic books, which are more likely to be depressing and bring you down more than make you want to go out and beat up bad guys. I can make my own little world and still make it somewhat specific to the real world.

Q: You talked about how you wanted to avoid making a daily strip for a long time. How has the adjustment been?

A: I’m not real far ahead. I’m so used to deadlines that it’s not as bad as I thought. There’s still miles of Bristol board to cover. I still pull all-nighters sometimes. I was talking to Mark Tatulli and we talk in the middle of the night. “What are you doing?” “Same thing as you.” I haven’t gotten it down to a science yet, which is probably a good thing. I don’t want to settle in too much. I’m tolerating it OK I guess.

Q: I was going to ask you what your schedule is like.

A: (laughs) I work at home which is —

Q: Ideal?

A: Good and bad. It’s ideal in that I can just sit in a comfy chair and work on it, but it’s always right there in your face. All the distractions are here. My daughters come home from school and it’s “Oh, what did you do today? What did you have for lunch? Take me out of this!”

Q: How did your previous work doing illustration, caricature and the Almanac prepare you for the demands of a daily strip?

A: I think it helped a lot in that I tried a lot of different things. I can fall back on them or go back to an old idea and rework it. Not so much old stale stuff but see how things fit together that I hadn’t thought of before. I try a lot of different styles over the years. Making things fit into this little world with these little kids and such. When I started it, Lee Salem said “Keep your day job.” My day job is doing illustration work and also the almanac, so it’s more of the same. I still try to do a lot of magazine illustration cause I need the money.

Q: How did you develop your art style?

A: Some of it was intentional. Over the years I’ve admired hundreds and thousands of cartoonists and tried to mimic or steal from them. Style is kind of a Frankenstein monster that you put together these pieces of bodies over the years and the stitches heel and suddenly boom, you’ve got a style. Nobody sees where the parts join somehow. There’s so many I’ve enjoyed over the years from Pogo to Peanuts to Ronald Searle and Chris Ware and everybody today. I hope to try new things and you either fall on your face or you don’t. Hopefully nobody notices that either.

Q: You talk about trying new things, can you give me an example?

A: Using a lot of black or using a thicker line. Stuff that nobody would notice. But when you do it it’s this sudden breakthrough and you go “Geez, look what I’ve done.” You point it out and nobody can see it. I do a strip and think “This is just godawful” and nobody notices that either.

Q: What are you influences? You’ve mentioned a pretty wide net so far.

A: There are cartoonists that you discover and this window opens and this whole new world is presented to you. I think Searle was one of those. I was 19 or 20 and I got this book of his for my birthday. The watercolor and the line and sense of things you can do with ink that I hadn’t even thought of. Then I can go back to Pogo and I remember the first time I read him in fifth grade. When I’m sure I didn't understand hald the jokes, but it was just so funny, this endless stream of vaudeville and characters just tripping over themselves, the language and everything like that.

Q: One of the things that strikes me about Cul is how you present the child as self-absorbed but in their own world completely and oblivious as to what other things might be gong on around them. The things that fascinate a child of four would not at all fascinate a grown-up and the tension you get from that.

A: It’s something my dad pointed out to me a couple of years ago. He said you’ve got all these people here and they’re in these little circles and don’t notice each other too much. All these worlds don’t collide so much. Just enough to create some friction and keep the wheels spinning somehow. Each one is an unreliable narrator. You’ve got this overall plot where the characters fit into it but they don’t see the whole.

Q: Especially with Alice. I was reading the strips where Alice’s Dad comes into read to her preschool and how the kids are more delighted by the fact he can’t get out of the chair than the story itself. How much of that is autobiographical?

A: Maybe that’s just the way my mind works, which is nothing I want to brag about. I don’t know if I could find another job doing such a thing, but I can think up tangents and non sequitars fairly easily. Doing the Almanac for years, when you’re trying to be funny people brace themselves and say “OK here comes the funny part. I have to laugh.” You have to surprise them. There has to be some kind of tangent or association they didn’t expect. Some kick in the pants they didn’t see coming. I try to do that almost continuously in Cul de Sac. One thing does not lead to another. It’s just a string of laundry down the line, flapping in the breeze somehow.

Q: I guess along those lines another obvious comparison would be Calvin and Hobbes, in the sense that Calvin is someone who’s completely in his own world.

A: Yeah, and everything is seen through him. You see the adult level above it, from a distance. But you also see it through his eyes.

Q: How does the strip come together for you? How do you plan it out?

A: It’s usually the words first. I keep a couple of ideas spinning in my head and try to see how they either fit together or don’t. If there are two or three elements that are disparate enough that they’re colliding and making something funny, some friction, then I figure there’s a strip in there somewhere. The rest is just filling in the blanks. Each one is this brief four panel thing. You have only so much time to make your point and get off stage somehow. Just finding that little slice of life is the hard part for me I think.

There are some I’ve drawn first. There’s one with Dil going down this tube slide and it took him 20 panels to get through it. The whole time he’s going “Oh boy, whee!” I had to figure out what happened at the beginning and end. The rest is just getting the timing right.

You leap from one thing to the next. I’ll have an idea for an Almanac or an illustration and think “maybe this would work better as a strip.” It’s not real logical. I talked to Stephan Pastis who does Pearls Before Swine. He’s fascinated with the process of writing. He’s very logical about it. I’ve seen his notebooks where he takes great care in how he writes out things. He can do it beautifully. He does it much more logically than I would. My method is bits of pieces of paper that I keep rearranging until I’ve got something funny.

Q: You cite a pretty wide net of influences. I get the impression you keep up with what’s going on in comics rather well.

A: Well there’s so much interesting stuff going on out there. I gave a Sunday strip to somebody at Drawn and Quarterly for a box of books. They sent me a bunch of stuff I hadn’t seen. That’s a good way to keep up on stuff.

Chris Ware, I first saw his stuff 10-15 years ago in Raw. It jumped out at me immediately. He’s a pretty dense read these days.

Q: With you, Tatulli and Pastis, there seems to be a renaissance in comic strips right now with a lot of new, talented people coming out.

A: Like we were saying, it’s not just with comic strips, the indie field is exploding.

Q: Do you think they’re feeding off of each other? Sometimes it seems like such tiny circles and no one’s paying attention to what the others are doing.

A: That’s more likely it but it might be breaking through. I hope so.

Q: Tatulli and Pastis are very opinionated on the state of the comic strip today. What’s your opinion? Do you find it hard for a new strip to break?

A: I think it is. I’ve had good luck with mine so far, but as Tatulli said, the day of the 1,000 paper strip is almost over. You don’t get that kind of coverage that you used to. There’s a lengthy process to get a strip into a paper and there’s such a long line ahead of you somehow.

Q: Are you frustrated at all? Do you feel like you’re fighting for space?

A: Sometimes yeah, but it’s doing OK, so in these days and times, newspapers are such a dicey concern anyway, that’s just one small part of it. Nobody knows what’s going on. I worked with the post for 25 years and seeing people taking buyouts and they’ve got a new editor and publisher there now so god knows what will happen.

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