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A Tip o' the Hat Archives

March 8, 2006

Nina Paley At Large

Wanna see the face above do something really amazing? Then check out the web site of Nina Paley, who bills herself as "America's Best-Loved Unknown Cartoonist."

Nina stopped being unknown to me when I met her at the 1989 edition of Comic-Con International in San Diego. I quickly learned that she is among the funniest cartoonists around, male or female. Just root around in some out-of-print bookstore bins until you find Nina's Adventures, the Pentshack Press collection of the comic strips she was knocking out back when she was content to let her drawings sit in unmoving, hilarious grandeur on pieces of paper.You'll be rewarded for your industry. (There are some online samples of Nina's old strip here.)

Nina switched her sights to animation a few years ago and has already created some short-form Flash masterworks. Now I'm on the edge of my seat waiting to see Sita Sings The Blues, the full-length labor of love she is slowly creating bit by bit in her Brooklyn apartment.

It's still years from completion I know, but the teaser clips viewable on her web site give a glimpse of the magic to come.

Now I see that she's auditioning voice actors for Sita. That makes the project seem yet one more step closer to reality. She needs investors to help her move forward on the movie, though, so if you're rich, run put some of your smart money on Paley. (And if you've got any left over, I could use a few grand myself.)

And speaking of my own petty needs, I know that some cynics among you may suspect that I'm raving about Nina today only because she wrote glowingly about Stuck Rubber Baby in the Nina's December 29 entry of her blog. Hey, Nina's and my mutual admiration society goes way back and transcends the blogophere by light years. Besides, I can't help it if we both have discerning taste!

March 13, 2006

Friendship Has Its Perks

Is there anyone familiar with the masterful work that cartoonist Alison Bechdel has been doing for the last twenty years who isn't frothing at the mouth to see what the creator of Dykes To Watch Out For will come up with now that a major publisher has given her 232 pages to play with instead of the third-of-a-tabloid-page strips to which she's been heretofore limited?
Unlike most of you, I no longer have to guess (tee hee!), since last week Alison shared with me the pre-publication bound galleys of Fun Home, her memoir in graphic novel format (or as she subtitles it, a "Family Tragicomic") that is coming from Houghton Mifflin in June. I lapped it up in a couple of lengthy sittings when I should have been grading paper from my QuarkXPress class, and Eddie is equally engrossed as I write this.

I won't say a lot about Alison's book right now, since I know how much her legion of fans will enjoy torturing themselves with curiosity between now and the book's arrival in bookstores this summer. I will promise you, though, that you've got an interesting, touching reading experience ahead during which you'll get fascinating glimpses of Alison's personal history that will broaden even further the appreciation for her gifts and insights on life that you've already gleaned from DTWOF.

One thing that won't surprise you, of course, is that it's a damned good book.

March 31, 2006

That Feeling In The Pit Of Your Stomach

Pictured above: George DeStefano's book; James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano; and Al Capp's Fearless Fosdick (Fosdick image ©1952 United Features Syndicate)
As evidenced by last Sunday's episode of The Sopranos, New Jersey Mafia boss Tony Soprano has at least one thing in common with legendary cartoonist Al Capp's crimefighting Fearless Fosdick: they can both have big holes blown in their stomachs and live to tell the tale.

True, James Gandolfini's character has had a closer call this season than Fosdick ever did, hovering with dangerous ambivalence during his coma's closing moments at the threshold of an enticingly lit "reunion party" where his dead mother and everyone he ever murdered were no doubt waiting to yell "Surprise!" if he stepped through the door—accompanied I'm sure by Nate Fisher, his dad, and five seasons' worth of the precipitously killed extras from Six Feet Under.

But Tony has baggage (in the form of a metaphorical briefcase) from his life on planet Earth that he isn't yet ready to turn loose of, and so he steps back from the unseen revelers and instead returns to the hospital where Carmela, the kids, and the extended Soprano "family" are holding vigil over his betubed corporteal self. So I gather that we will all be graced with his company for a few episodes more.

Since Gandolini is the uncontested star of the series, his character's survival comes as no big surprise, but that didn't keep me from vicariously experiencing my most harrowing hospital stay since my double-hernia surgery several years ago. I mean, poke around in my groin if you have to, but please don't ever let me look down and see a hole in my belly as gory as the one Tony Soprano was sporting for a while!

Mob dramas awash in bloodletting have always been a hard sell for me — weak-kneed, violence-hating wimp that I am — so I avoided The Sopranos when the first wave of hooplah hit and continued to abstain until the third season, when I made the mistake of watching one episode and was quickly hooked by the intriguing characters illuminated by uncommonly incisive writing. Everyone else in America was already ahead of me, of course. That's the story of my life; I was late in appreciating rock & roll, too.

Anyway, now that I've joined the Sopranos-loving masses and rented all of the DVDs to catch up on the shows I originally missed while suffering through the long drought leading up to this HBO season's new, reportedly final bunch of episodes, I'm so pleased that my longtime friend George DeStefano has written An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America.

While a lot of the mob movies George writes about with clarity and obvious insight I never saw and probably never will (yes, I saw the Godfather flicks and GoodFellas many years ago, but otherwise I'm largely a stranger to the films whose themes my pal explores), George's chapters about The Sopranos pulled me right in.

It's like batting reactions back and forth with a really smart college friend in the dorm, when you both should be studying but when both your heads are too full of ideas about a cool show you've just seen to crack the books. George offers a mix of intellectual analysis, occasional critical caveats, but more often straight-out grooving on the moments and characters he and I both dig. Good stuff to shoot the bull about after the spilled blood has clotted.

April 3, 2006

Unidentified Flying Feline Spotted in the Berkshires

Above: Patrick Rabbit, Eddie, me, and the amazing Phil Yeh. (Thanks for taking this snapshot, Linda Adams.)
Cartoonist Phil Yeh was in the neighborhood recently, painting murals in support of literacy and creativity as he often does (with local artists always invited to grab a brush and join in) and speaking about graphic novels to librarians who have the power to shelve them, hundreds of whom had gathered in Boston for the 2006 Public Library Association Conference.
The Winged Tiger, meanwhile, delivers issue 13 of Phil's comic book of the same name.
I used the term "in the neighborhood" loosely, of course, since Boston lies at the other end of a fairly long state from Eddie's and my home in North Adams. Then again, someone from California may balk at any Massachusetts resident's assertion that his can be termed a "long" state.

But be that as it may, a three-hour drive lies between Boston and our neck of the mountains. Never one to shrink from exerting whatever effort it takes to achieve his goals, however, Phil came a-calling, accompanied by fellow conference-attendee Linda Adams, Young Adult Coordinator of the San Bernadino Public Library.

We had a great time, as Phil and I always do on the rare occasions when we find ourselves within visiting distance of each other. Anyone who has been around Phil will tell you that he is a ball of fire conversationally, and Linda was delightful to talk to as well. Eddie served his delicious chicken stew, Lulu the dalmatian licked faces all around, and I got comp copies of the new issue of Phil's comic book series The Winged Tiger, which is good for many a chuckle while being awash in the enthusiasm for sheer creativity that makes all of Phil's comics both perfect for kids and balm for the soul of anyone who's feeling beaten down by the cynicism of our era.

Phil, of course, is the galvanizer and cartoonist-in-chief of Cartoonists Across America & The World, an enterprise that's way too little known considering the good it does. Phil boldly calls himself "the Godfather of the graphic novel." (go to his web site to see why), and like the most devoted godfather that any of us could ask for, Phil travels the globe as an untiring advocate for the art form he has helped nurture from his college days onward. Being around him always gets my juices flowing.

May 10, 2006

Churches, Schools, and Getting Even

There's something about Catholocism that generates art. I observe this from an outsider's perspective, not having been raised Catholic, but it still seems fairly evident to me. Ask Michelangelo. How many times have I wished that some Pope out there with deep pockets would decide that I was da bomb? Sure, cartooning is my medium of choice, but I could get into doing ceilings with the right financial incentive.

Then there's the sub-genre of Catholic art created by artists and writers who attended Catholic school during their youth. Once again I'm forced to extrapolate from such slim evidence as is available to someone whose closest brush with that particular educational environment was strolling past John Carroll High School on Birmingham's Southside when I was of college age. But judging by works like Christopher Durang's 1979 satirical play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All To You, there seems to be an element of bracing, unapologic revenge fantasy in many such works, with ancient psychological hurts once inflicted by tyrannical nuns serving as catalysts for score-settling by their student victims now grown to adulthood. What works best in this circumstance, as Durang has demonstrated in his stage works, is humor.

Of course, I've never known any tyrannical nuns personally, so I can't actually attest from personal experience to their real-world existence. But I have known some quite tyrannical Southern Baptists, and I can only shudder at how even more drunk with power they might have been had their sense of divine anointment been fortified by a uniform proclaiming their holiness whenever they walked through a door. So it doesn't seem a stretch to conclude that something corporeal keeps prompting one artist after another to look back in anger (or ridicule) at events and personalities they presumably felt scarred by in the Catholic schools of their youth.

In case you're wondering what has prompted this line of reverie, it's a provocative piece of animation called Sister Mary Dracula, created by my friend and fellow cartoonist Gerry Mooney. Take a look if you dare (and don't expect a crucifix to protect you).
Last week Gerry informed me that — not satisfied with skewering some unidentified torturer from his childhood with mere Flash animation — he now intends to bring his fanged bride of Christ to the graphic novel form. Early pages of this new work are already online, and Gerry's plan is to add new increments as they are completed so that visitors to his site can get advance peeks at a book that William Donohue and the highly excitable Catholic League are sure to be picketing once Gerry's work hits Barnes & Noble.

May 19, 2006

Ethan Green Alert

Above: Eric Orner's pen lines are made flesh — — and comely flesh it promises to be, too!
Cartoonists getting movies made from their comics. Hey, I'm for that! Maybe that Stuck Rubber Baby movie of my fantasies will actually make it onto celluloid someday after all!

Meanwhile, we LGBT cartoonists of the world can take pleasure in the imminent arrival onscreen of characters created by one of our own. I was informed this week that a film version of Eric Orner's hugely popular gay comic strip The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green is about to burst upon us.

No doubt about it: it's the queer tooners' turn. Frank Miller got Sin City into the multiplexes.Road to Perdition, the graphic novel brain-child of Max Allen Collins and Richard Piers Rayner team, made the leap. Terry Zwigoff steered Daniel Clowes' Ghost World onto the screen and now has done the same thing with Art School Confidential. The movie version of Harvey Pekar's American Splendor knocked everybody dead.

Meanwhile, pushy filmmakers can't stop themselves from making Alan Moore comics into films (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; V For Vendetta) no matter how persistently Moore refuses their money and spits in their eyes.

You go, Ethan!

I know Eric slightly. I was on a "Gays In Comics" panel with him at an Out/Write in Boston a couple of decades ago. We didn't shmooze a lot, since he was sitting at the opposite end of a very long table for the entire program, but his comments were enjoyable. A less cluttered bonding experience with him came in 2001, when The Advocate asked the two of us to collaborate on a "jam" strip in which Eric's title character would be interviewed by my own gay character from an earlier era, Wendel Trupstock.

For anyone who's curious, Eric's and my jam strip, having been offered first to Advocate readers in the magazine's August 15, 2001 issue, can now be found in the back pages of my omnibus collection Wendel All Together. If you get a chance to read it sometime and sense a certain unseemly jockeying for position between the two cartoon icons, your intuition isn't playing tricks on you. Eric and I agreed that it would be funnier to allow intergenerational tension to simmer below the surface than to subject readers to a respectful sincerity-fest.

May 23, 2006

Background Blurs

Below: Tone, the bike messenger
Above: The drum circle's Chaka
While I was living in New York City I would sometimes find myself musing, while strolling in a city park or speeding along a subway tunnel, about the strange fact that, while the details of my existence were endlessly fascinating to me, they meant less than nothing to other park-strollers or straphangers.

I was a background blur to most everyone in view. They knew nothing about my career anxieties or artistic dreams or family crises. I was merely part of the scenery.

All of those folks in my field of vision, meanwhile, were similarly engaged in lives that I would probably go to my grave knowing nothing about. Were they store clerks? Fellow artists? Nobel laureates? Were they thrilled by freshly minted romances? Distressed by impending divorces? Did they realize, in certain cases, how very sexy they appeared to others? Were they worried about growing old, or might they take pride in every wrinkle?

To notice sexiness or a wrinkle, of course, a viewer has to focus. But even if one idly penetrates a blur's surface to meditate on its details, one still knows nothing about the person within. And that goes both ways. If the oddly intense subway passenger across the car from me happens to allow her eyes to focus on me, she may decide that I look like an interesting person who is probably living an interesting life. Or she may not. Unless we break the barrier and converse, I will remain a mystery, whether blurred or in focus. Her event-and-emotion-stuffed life will proceed without my involvement once our train has reached its destination.

My friend Zina Saunders breaks through the blur barrier to converse. She is a painter who likes to stop and look closely at those bicycle messengers and musicians who cross her path. She asks them about their lives and passions. And then she paints them.

Her paintings will probably become a book someday, but while we're waiting for that eventuality we can enjoy them by visiting the web site where she's archiving them. It's called Overlooked New York.

She doesn't sweat realism when it comes to depicting her subjects' bodily proportions. She likes drawing oversized heads so she can pack more feeling into the facial expressions. As the guy who brought Barefootz into the world, I can relate!

Zina's DNA condemned her to be an artist. Her father was the late Norm Saunders, after all, who painted the legendary Mars Attacks! cards for Topps. If she hasn't been on your radar before now, here's a nicely done interview that will fill in some details.

Zina and I met while sharing microphones a few years ago on a panel of past-and-present Topps contributors in Philadelphia. Along with carving out her own niche as an illustrator, Zina has followed in her father's footsteps by becoming a Topps contributor in her own right. I was there by virtue of the Bazooka Joe comic strips I drew during the 1980s along with the smattering of bits I contributed later on to the Garbage Pail Kids series.

When she told me a couple of weeks ago about her Overlooked New York project, I told her that I admired her ability to "nail [her] subjects' inner lives with such economical brush strokes." Every blur in our world should have a chance to be coaxed into focus with such respect.

July 12, 2006

Alison on a Roll

When Eddie and I were preparing to fly homeward a couple of weeks ago after our visit with his folks in Florida, I picked up a Sunday New York Times at the West Palm Beach airport.

We were airborne by the time I made it to the New York Times Book Review and found my mood elevated even higher by my discovery that the Times had seen fit that very Sunday to give Alison Bechdel's Fun Home its due.

And that was just for starters. Eight days after Sean Wilsey's aforementioned piece in the Book Review ("a pioneering work..." said Wilsey) there came a second review of Alison's "Family Tragicomic," this one written by George Gene Gustines ("painfully honest and richly detailed in words and images...") for one of the same paper's Books of the Times columns.

If you read my March 13 blog entry you already know that I'm firmly in the "Hooray for Alison" camp, and — given the heightened mainstream awareness of graphic novels that has taken place during the eleven years since the Times oh-so-cruelly ignored Stuck Rubber Baby (brief pause for envious teeth-grinding on my part) — I'm not surprised in the least by the widespread accolades garnered by Alison's book. If any comics artist has even been overdue for general acclaim, it's the talented Ms. Bechdel.

I would be embarrassed, of course, to own up to even a miniscule degree of professional envy if Alison didn't admit to similar feelings toward herself. In a profile of Alison written by Hillary Chute in this week's Village Voice the creator of Dykes To Watch Out For muses, "It's weird because I've been publishing books for over 20 years [and] nothing has ever gotten attention like this. So, in an odd way, I feel envious of my own self. It's like, how come nobody paid any attention to me before? Is my comic strip worse than I thought? Or is this book better than I thought?"

Yesterday I heard from my French pal (and Wendel translator) François Peneaud, instigator of the Gay Comics List, who tells me that Alison's book is gearing up to make waves on his side of the Atlantic as well. "I've just learned that Fun Home will soon be published in France," he tells me, "and that it will be serialized this summer in a left-wing newspaper, Libération. Which is absolutely great, because a lot of people who don't read bandes dessinées [That's French for comics — H.C.] will see it."

François has wasted no time in composing his own online review of Fun Home, by the way, a review capped off with a link to the fascinating video of Alison's working methods that is currently housed on the book's promo page at Houghton Mifflin's web site.

It's a choice look at the artist at work in her lair. And while I'm fascinated to learn that some of Alison's secret drawing tricks are almost as peculiar as mine, my favorite moment is a moment of deft synchronicity between Alison and her cat, who clearly has learned from experience how to safely step off of a desk's surface into what would be, absent Alison's perfect timing, thin air. You'll see what I mean if you watch the video.

Our pets come to know us so well. And we them.

January 8, 2007

Two Portraits

Once in a blue moon an opportunity arises for me to do a portrait. (I mean, one that other people besides Eddie see.) A couple of those blue-moon occasions have arisen since we relocated to New England.
The subject of the drawing above (shown next to the snapshot it's based on) is my longtime friend Nicky Heron. It's included in a group exhibit called "Here's Looking At You" that features portraits of Berkshire personalities by Berkshire artists and is currently on display at Gallery 51 in North Adams. I call the drawing "Nicky In The Kitchen."

Nicky and I first crossed paths as fellow participants (albeit from slightly different collegiate generations) in the Birmingham-Southern College Theatre. After years thereafter spent geographically separated and only barely in touch, we've recently found ourselves neighbors again here in the Berkshires. She and her husband Jason Brown are both blessed with too many talents to enumerate, but prominent among their present family enterprises is BMA Studios, under whose auspices audio books like their most recent offering, Henry James's The Aspern Papers, are lovingly produced out of their impressive basement sound studio in Monterey.

When I first met Nicky she was playing a winsome prostitute named Karen in a one-act play called "The Old Man Dies" that I had written while still an undergraduate. Brief aside: My most influential mentor, BSC's one-time Drama Department chairman Arnold Powell, once remarked in response to a couple of my scripts that student playwrights who have never come close to knowing an actual flesh-and-blood prostitute seem irresistibly driven to populate their plays with them. Point taken.

Anyway, my college days were behind me when Cheryl Thacker (another longtime friend from college, Cheryl has since distinguished herself as a professional lighting designer) chose to direct "The Old Man Dies" as her Director's Lab student project. Naturally, I returned from New York to see it the result.

My eyes mist up when I recall what a cluster of old friends joined forces to mount that little workshop production in 1969. Of course, since they were my friends and not yours, I won't demand that your eyes get similarly misty. But take my word for it, if you had known this crowd you'd be misting up right along with me.

Drawing Nicky's portrait was a perfect way to celebrate her re-emergence as part of my present life. And there's been an interesting sidebar to our catch-up conversations: I had somehow missed learning previously that Nicky's grandfather, the formidably named Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, was a founder of DC Comics, under whose Paradox Press imprint my graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby was published. The family lore about Nicky's granddad reveals a larger-than-life historical personage whose exploits ranged well beyond the comics realm. A fascinating biography of this guy is obviously waiting to be written.

*****

I started this blog entry by referencing two portraits I've done lately, so I'll quickly share the second one with you before I go (see below). Its subject, Will Eisner, will be familiar to any of you who have arrived at this blog because of an interest in comics. Much written about and widely admired, Eisner was a giant of the sequential art medium who was still producing new and exciting works when death finally wrestled him away from his drawing board at the age of 87.

Will was a professional colleague with whom I chatted, talked shop, and occasionally argued (always amicably) at the comics cons and conferences where our paths crossed. When he passed away last year, I contributed the drawing below to an issue of Comic Book Artist magazine that was devoted to Eisner tributes.

About A Tip o' the Hat

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to Loose Cruse: The Weblog in the A Tip o' the Hat category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

Connections & Observations is the next category.

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