December 24, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Cartoonist Melissa Mendes’ new book, “Freddy Stories,” mixes autobiography with the history of children’s comics as a springboard to a promising future.
The Hancock native’s book stands as the end result of a five-year process, beginning with the creation of the character Freddy, who takes her through her college years and into her professional life across New England. Mendes attended Hampshire College in Amherst, then graduate school at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt. After that, she lived in Providence, R.I., before returning to her hometown.
Mendes was reading a lot of Little Lulu when she came up with Freddy, who always seems to wear a red hoodie — Mendes says she practically lives in hoodies, and so Freddy reflects that obsession. The tone of the comic echoes Mendes’ mid-30s comics creation, but unlike Little Lulu, is definitely a modern girl. Mendes’ book takes the reader through the divorce of Freddy’s parents and overnights with gruff bachelor Uncle Sully, among other scenarios.
“When I first drew her at Hampshire, she was totally silent; she never said anything. She didn’t have a name either,” Mendes said. “She had an imaginary friend, and she was like a vessel for me to write stories that are sort of about my childhood. The first story I did was about her parents getting divorced, and now her Uncle Sully is based on my grandfather.”
Freddy was given a more urban environment to grow up in than Hancock, and that was just the beginning to her taking on her own life in conjunction with the one Mendes had offered her.
“She evolved from being this silent, nameless character into having her own personality and being this more rambunctious kid and having a dog,” Mendes said.
Some people get into comics because they are surrounded by the form as a kid, but Mendes is almost the exact opposite. She says that comics just eventually found her.
“When I was a kid, I was always really into ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’ ” she said. “I never read superhero comics. I read some ‘Archie.’ I drew a lot, but I was more of a writer. But I really loved drawing.”
She focused on drawing all through high school, but for college, she decided to pursue linguistics, which did not work out for her.
Mendes had a lot of interest in comics, but found that it wasn’t one she could share with many people at Hampshire. She started a comics club to try and spark an interest, but there weren’t many people taking the bait.
There was one academic turning point, though. In a class on the conflict between Israel and Palestine, students were asked to write a paper about a conversation between the two as a way to illustrate their views. Mendes got permission to do it as a comic instead.
“I just drew these shapes talking, and I realized that was how I made sense of things: by drawing them,” she said. “I guess comics, to me, are a combination of my interests in language and art.”
Her senior thesis at Hampshire was a comic that featured Freddy. Even with these events lining up, Mendes still hadn’t made the decision to pursue cartooning and was even considering going into an education program for her future. An ex-boyfriend sent her a newspaper clipping about the Center for Cartoon Studies and it immediately intrigued her. Unfortunately, it didn’t actually exist yet.
“I emailed Michelle Ollie, who’s the president there, and asked if they needed an intern, and she said ‘sure,’ ” Mendes said. “I was one of the first interns, but there was nothing there yet, so mostly I painted things and babysat for people, but it was really great.”
Following that, Mendes decided the two-year program at CCS was something she should pursue, and that is what moved her into the realistic direction of wanting to pursue cartooning as a profession.
“I didn’t seriously think that I wanted to be a published comic artist until I made the decision to go to CCS and so before that, I was just doing my own thing.”
The school introduced her to many aspects of the industry, including the well-known mainstay, the comic book convention. To the outside world, comic book conventions might just look like a place where people go to buy merchandise and get books signed.
But in the comics world, they are the epicenter of networking, where publishers meet new talent, where outside of their studios, creators connect with other creators, and where older professionals find opportunities to mentor newcomers. They are the social and business center of the comics world.
The focus of the two-year program, though, is learning the hard grind of how to create comics as your job.
“The first year is really intensive, just churning out work,” Mendes said, “but it was really hard and really good. It’s like you have to be self-motivated, and you get what you put in.
“Before I went to CCS, I was more interested in education, but what it gave me was selfconfidence in my own work and helped me realize that I could draw comics and make stories, and that’s what I wanted to do.” One of the biggest differences from the Hampshire experience was the critical mass of other people interested in cartooning and working in the field, that was at her social and educational disposal.
“I think a big part of that was the community of it and going to conventions — my classmates all being really talented cartoonists. We had a visiting artist every week and meeting professional cartoonists and being surrounded by it is really great.”
It was during her time at the CCS Mendes first applied for the Xeric Grant, a prestigious award to help newcomers in the field self-publish their work.
Though the traditional publishing world is beginning to catch up with this mentality in the digital age, in the comic book industry, self-publishing is anything but a signpost for marginalization — it’s encouraged and respected and often the breeding ground for much of the avant garde and intellectual work in the form.
“This was the second time I applied,” Mendes said. “The first was with my senior thesis project at Hampshire, which wasn’t completely finished, and I didn’t get the grant then. I think that’s why, for this time around, I just redrew the two mini comics that I had done about Freddy, and I presented that as the finished book, put all together with a cover. But the actual final result is twice as long as what I applied with.” Mendes graduated in the summer of 2010 and set to the final phase of finishing up “Freddy Stories” for the eventual publication. This process would take another year and be juggled with a so-called real life and a graphic design job in Providence.
After the book was published in the fall, Mendes realized that it was no time to take a breath. She needed to figure out what was next for her, what she actually wanted to do now that Freddy was accomplished. “I think I got stuck for a little while,” she said. “I was still doing stuff and I had to finish the book when I was in Providence, but, a lot of people have that experience after grad school. I’m just now starting to get back into making work and being more serious about it.”
The answer to her questions have involved multiple forms of investigation. She’s been creating clay figures of her characters and selling them. She also started doing a regular Freddy web comic in order to experiment and expand into color work, as well as feel out the notion of syndicating a strip.
She also hasn’t given up on the education world. She has done — and hopes to expand upon — part-time library workshops for kids and teens, teaching them how to do comics.
Like working on Freddy, settling into the world of comics has been a journey from which Mendes pulls lessons of selfsufficiency and creativity.
“So far, it’s been pretty good,” she said. “At least I don’t have to have a day job right now.”
November 10, 2011 § Leave a Comment
In this touching picture book memoir, acclaimed children’s book author and illustrator Allen Say recounts his youth in Japan before and after World War II, a time during which he worked to become an artist.
Say’s desire to be an artist survived the disapproval of his father, as well as war and occupation. A newspaper article about one boy’s long trek to gain an apprenticeship with a famous Manga artist inspired Say to seek out the same, and the story follows those years of learning his craft until Say’s eventual trip to America.
In having his story unfold, Say employs a number of narrative and graphic mediums depending on what any given section demands. There are traditional picture book segments, with photography, sidebars and even comics pages that reveal the small conversational moments behind some of the bigger turning points.
Say’s story is filled with thoughtful wisdom that should speak to any kid about what it takes not only to embrace one’s creativity, but make a life of it — and his skill at telling the story is definite proof of the sureness of that wisdom.
July 8, 2011 § Leave a Comment
War time Manga first published in 1973 and finally available in our country offers World War 2 from the viewpoint of our enemies. In fact this is a fictionalized memoir — Mizuki calls it “90% true” — of the author’s service on a small island in New Guinea.
In Mizuki’s presentation, average Joe Japanese soldiers contend with the island’s greatest dangers — malaria and alligators — until the American army shows up and begins to push inward. Young and inexperienced, with a focus more on their tummies and libidos, the Japanese soldiers don’t take seriously the cultural expectation of their military careers — an honorable death in service to their country. Their commanding officers take it very seriously, though, and the reality of a suicide charge clashes with their personal fears.
Mizuki peppers the tale with an amiable goofiness that captures the period and his experience, but it is filtered through a graphic rage at what he and his fellow soldiers experienced. Sometimes grim and gruesome, “Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths” is a powerful revelation of the price of war on all sides, and the expectations of national service that hold countries above men.
April 16, 2011 § Leave a Comment
As Brooklyn memoirs go, Martin Lemelman’s graphic novel “Two Cents Plain” covers the kind of nostalgia you would expect — from egg creams to Jewish neighborhood antics — but nestles them in something deeper.
Lemelman does not offer a straightforward memoir but rather snatches of memory compiled in such a way that a vivid recollection is given to the reader. His boyhood is gathered from bits and pieces and put into a tapestry that creates something not comforting at all, except by virtue that it happened and it is his. The idea may be to embrace the past because the past is what happened, and why spend your life fretting over what never was?
In revealing his childhood, Lemelman exposes the forces at work — his battling mother and father, the shadow of Poland, the constantly evolving big city and the neighborhood that functioned as a further intimate landscape that stretched out from the second floor of the candy store Lemelman’s family owned.
Escapees from Poland following World War II, Lemelman’s parents attempted to make it in the new world without much agreement, moving from rural farm schemes to urban shop ones. Lemelman’s mother is stubborn and vaguely dictatorial, his father more of the same, and he and his brother operate in a world where the casual corruption of New York City cops means they get to take shop merchandise without permission. It’s almost a free for all without proper authority figures, and Lemelman is left to take stock of the whole experience and ask what exactly happened to him.
The narrative moves from the cloistered Jewish neighborhood to the combustible multi-ethnic one that saw strangers take the place of what amounted to extended family, and racial suspicion ignites threats and criminal activity among the populace. It was a disintegration of a place that was only really unified out of need, in order to combat the alienation that could bear down on immigrants.
With Lemelman’s sketchbook style art, “Two Cents Plain” comes off as immediate and visceral, in direct match to the off the cuff narrative delivery. The dangers of urban living haven’t changed all that much over the decades — on Lemelman’s page, they are presented as a pageant of similar prejudices and struggles, just with changing faces dealing with them.
March 27, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Eddie Campbell has made his mark all over the world of comics with his distinctive and evocative, scratchy drawing style that reached its fullest potential in “From Hell,” Alan Moore’s epic and meticulous fictional study of Jack the Ripper. The later — and dreadful — film adaptation of the graphic novel proved just how integral Campbell was to the presentation with its inability to replicate the tone and animation created by his visuals.
Campbell’s life work, though, is a series of autobiographical strips and graphic novels about Alec McGarry, the artist’s alter ego, a heavy-drinking Scotsman with a philosophical air. Campbell’s “Alec” stories unfold like a beat poet verse — immediate and wandering, in the exact moment of which it speaks, and snaking in such a way that it allows the present to wind itself around the poem as it searches for the future. This tactic allows the reader to pretty much live Alec’s life alongside him, in the same philosophical and drunken haze that he brings to his own experiences.
The massive “Alec: The Years Have Pants” — 640 pages covering 30 years of a man’s life, released by Top Shelf Productions — collects years of Campbell’s stories in one volume, a sprawling documentary of the life of an accomplished artist and storyteller that lays itself out real time.
The earlier stories, which chronicle Alec’s years as a young drunk having flings, drinking too much and earning money as a sheet metal worker, happen in real time, without the knowledge of what would become of the boy. That immediacy is part of the power behind the storytelling. With each subsequent installment, it’s up to Campbell to draw the connections himself — literary retrospect doubles for the way the mind builds its own themes in a personal recollection.
Campbell’s improv poetry style of narration creates a variation of word association that utilizes actions and ideas in order to make sense of it all by mixing it up. It’s all presented in the cluttered mien of an amiable drunk sitting next to you at the bar, doing his best not to jumble the events as he attempts to relate them.
The collection takes us through the decades to Alec’s later — that is, current — years as an artist and family man, thus widening the circle. As such, the Alec stories are a beer-fueled — and later on, wine-fueled — “Finnegan’s Wake” for the autobiographical comics set, and one that deserves much attention beyond the world of graphic novels. It’s garnered the attentions of NPR and the Boston Globe as a major and brilliant autobiographical work — let’s hope the real world continues to notice.
March 27, 2010 § Leave a Comment
There is something jarring about the intimacy of John Porcellino’s “Map of My Heart,” from Canadian publisher Drawn and Quarterly. It’s not any big revelations that give it that quality — rather the earnestness about his life’s smallest moments, as well as those observed regarding others.
Porcellino offers slices that usually have no punchline — nor denouement of any kind — and in their open-endedness perfectly capture what each moment of life is like for any of us. At no point does any person know what comes next, and Porcellino’s narrative captures this reality, creating little isolated sections of our larger, conscious movements that put an artistic microscope on the specific emotions of that specific moment.
Porcellino’s tales are realized not only through his spare journaling, but also brief zen-like fables and moments of spare poetry. Setting the tone for his work, though, is his simplistic cartooning — to describe him as unskilled is not an insult, merely a hint at the outsider quality to his work that makes it more vibrant. Any strip in “Map of My Heart” is the sort of thing you might find rendered on a stray piece of paper you find in the street, or in a box of someone else’s recycling that you decided to rifle through in the hope of find old New Yorker issues. It’s this quality to the artwork that gives the book a feeling that we are not meant to see this work, that these are entries between Porcellino and himself — and that only strengthens the allure.
Porcellino began self-publishing his King-Cat Comics in 1989, the beginning of the ‘90s zine boom, and this collection captures well the spirit of that do-it-yourself era that predated blogs. In this manner, it’s not only the autobiography of some guy, but also a chronicle of a medium and movement that passed as quickly as it came.
October 23, 2009 § Leave a Comment
In her new documentary film, “Beyond Greenaway: The Legacy,” director Sue Gilbert looks at a way of life that has passed on — that is, her own family’s — and how it has affected the children and grandchildren.
The lifestyle in question is that of the ultra rich — but not merely measured by money. Gilbert’s parents were a very traditional kind of affluent, embracing the sort of upper class lifestyle that is hidden to most people unless they watch a lot of screwball comedies from the 1930s or pay attention to the comings and goings of the British Royal Family.
Gilbert’s father, a Williams College graduate, brought the family to Greenaway, an island off the coast of Connecticut complete with a mansion and private bridge — and with them came the trappings of an era that was fading away. Everything about the Gilbert family was proper, and this created an unusual childhood that Gilbert and her siblings now find both shocking and charming all at the same time.
Her parents were the subject of Gilbert’s 1982 documentary film “Greenaway.”
It was in high school that Gilbert began to realize her family wasn’t what most people considered normal. The opulence, the formality, the servants — these were all taken for granted by childhood friends who thought, “that’s the way it was at the Gilberts’,” but visits home from boarding school with friends had to be prefaced by lectures on appropriate conduct.
“I began to realize that I had to warn them on the way from the airport or the train station and let them know that they weren’t going to an ordinary house — that they needed to be prepared for the kinds of dinners where personal things were not discussed and we had to dress up, and it would probably be important to avoid my parents at all costs and do our own thing,” Gilbert said. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 12, 2009 § Leave a Comment
It’s very often acknowledged that being a parent is a thankless task. I think this is the case not because your children will find something to blame on you whether you tried your best or not, but that they will invariably someday point a finger at your worst deficiencies as a person and this reality may be painfully undeniable for you — and yet you might be forced to deny for your own psychological survival. No one ever tells you about this aspect of parenting, but the information is there in the relationship with your own parents — and they with theirs — in what can often become an alarming roadmap of dysfunction left unacknowledged and including indicators as to the road ahead with your own kids.
Acclaimed chidren’s book illustrator David Small examines this and reveals his fractured childhood in graphic novel form with “Stitches.” While he unveils his own familial skeletons he also clues readers in to something I have suspected for years now – he is a masterful and fluid cartoonist with a strong grasp of body language to further his tale.
The book is centered around a singular incident in Small’s childhood — a supposedly routine operation that robs him of his voice — but from both ends of that nightmare unfolds the daily atrocities visited on the child. With two unstable women in his life — his mother and grandmother — and a father who wavers between being oblivious and hostile, Small’s childhood is one of casual alienation accentuated by daily battle. The strange atmosphere of the household and the psychological violence so heavy in the air operates as a mask for family secrets that create emotional spaces.
Told visually from the point of view of the child, Small recreates that swirl of mysterious impressions that dance around as a simulation of cionsciousness growing. Small presents that series of unexpectedly important moments in your own mythology that only make sense in hindsight as you are able to pull togeher the story of you. In this way Small’s intensely personal book is also vibrantly universal — most people go through this process in their adulthood and Small’s story benefits from this way of connecting with each other. Who hasn’t shared family horror stories? And who doesn’t have them? It’s a comfort that this success children’s book author and illustrator — he’s won that Caldecott Medal and the E.B. White Award — can not only rise above his upbringing, but relate his experience with such visual eloquence.
August 1, 2009 § Leave a Comment
With “The Photographer,” the team of Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefevre and Frederic Lemercier have created something new. Part travel book, part graphic novel and part photography monograph, Lefevre’s journey through Afghanistan with a team from Doctors Without Borders has been translated into an affecting memoir that weaves real emotions and experience with superior storytelling and design.
Lefevre — who unfortunately died from a heart attack in 2007 — was a French photographer who chronicled his experience in Afghanistan in 1987. He told the stories to friend Guibert — an accomplished and acclaimed artist — and along with Lemercier, who designed and colored the book, his tales were realized as a massive and meticulous work of autobiography and travelogue.
Lefevre’s story follows him on his journey by land through Pakistan and into Afghanistan and back again — as well as every bit in between. It’s a trip fraught with a looming fear of danger, in which strangers in a strange land cannot trust that everything won’t fall apart at any given moment. As the doctors navigate the war-torn landscape, they also deal with a parade of drug dealers and soldiers and stricken poor and innocent victims of war — and the book’s portrayals of these people move past any stereotypes you might expect as it examines the gray humanity of each person who enters the tapestry.
In telling the story, the visuals dance from Lefevre’s evocative black-and-white work and Guibert’s personable and stylized cartooning. Cleverly laying out the photos in contact sheet format — photography’s visual cousin to sequential art — Lefevre’s images add solid realism to Guibert’s evocations of Lefevre’s experience. The camera itself becomes a character whose viewpoint is represented throughout, a gaze that does not lie, even when it is pointed toward Lefevre himself.
Somewhere between the personal recollection of Lefevre — with all the typical foibles of human memory and the inarguable truth of the photographic images, this dual-media graphic novel lies in an important nexus that captures in its pages the way history is created and passed on. The truth is somewhere between Lefevre’s documentary work and Guibert’s efforts to capture the story from inside Lefevre’s mind and heart.
July 25, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Manga — that is, the Japanese style of comics — has taken America by storm in the last decade or so, moving beyond a niche audience and deep into mainstream youth culture. Yoshihiro Tatsumi is one of the most respected practitioners of that form, renowned for his serious work that investigates the dark side of the post World War 2 Japanese psyche in artful stories not meant for kids.
It’s a part of Manga that is hidden to many Americans, who only encounter the form on the packed shelves of places like Barnes and Noble, where most the titles involve teen-age girls in very short skirts. Tatsumi offers gray depths for interested adults to plummet into.
In his new work, the decade-in-the-making autobiographical novel “A Drifting Life,” Tatsumi lightens it up a bit to offer a fictionalized chronicle of his own early career. In episodic format, Tatsumi traces his early days as a fan artist entering post card contests in Mangas to his first large successes in the late 1950s, when he began mining new territory in the format working through different genres and challenging himself to do better with each subsequent work. Tatsumi’s biggest influence was the American art film and he set about revolutionizing Manga by applying film techniques to the storytelling, thus creating an entirely new language of visual storytelling for print.
“A Drifting Life” goes into the minute details of the way that industry worked in the 1950s, the types of artists who sought to create within it and the sorts of businesses that put out the books.
It’s a coming of age tale that involves fly-by-night businesses and farms of young artists churning out product day and night. It is also an amazing history of Japanese pop culture — Tatsumi scatters each section with Japanese pop history, giving the reader a crash course in the subject and also providing a context for the leaps and strides being made by the characters portrayed.
As an introduction to another form — as well as another culture — “A Drifting Life” is a charming and informative work. But more importantly, it serves as a gateway to the creative lives of those in other cultures as well. It’s a painstaking effort to document the studio habits of commercial artists in Japan half a century ago, with the hindsight of miracles they forged in their work.