Wednesday, October 24, 2012

First Class

Every month, my favorite piece of mail is the subscription package from Oily ComicsChuck Forsman's "micro comics" label is doing tremendous work in asserting the creative (and maybe very modest economic) viability of the old school mini-comic formatBut more significantly, as an editor and cartoonist, Forsman is showing a vision for strong stories that examine the terrain between youthful naivete and adult maturity.

This month's crop included Forsman's own The End of the Fucking World #12; Max de Radigues' Moose #12; Melissa Mendes' Lou #7; James Hindle's Close Your Eyes When You Let Go #3; and the Silver-Age-level prolific Michael DeForge's Elizabeth of Canada #1.  It's a line-up to envy, in part made possible because the 12-page, quarter sized format isn't a tremendous ask of either cartoonist or publisher, so it's possible to get work from young lions like DeForge, or committed contributors Warren Craghead, Sammy Harkham, Josh Simmons, or Dan Zettwoch.  But it's also enviable because the format restriction is producing results that require each cartoonist to develop serious strength in the economy of their storytelling.  If Oily were a monthly anthology, it probably wouldn't work, for practical and creative reasons.  But because each series stands alone, and forces a monthly deadline, the cartoonists and their stories are all developing a solid voice and polish.

This month's group cohered especially well.  The anchor pieces TEOTFW and Moose have settled into the suspenseful midsections of their narratives, where the characters and conflicts have been established, and now the action is unfolding at a captivating clip.

Moose, a painful meditation on bullying amongst children, has arrived at a moral turning point whose effectiveness is heightened by needing to wait a month to find out what happens next.  De Radigues shines for his ability to convey how children display their foundational human character in their actions and gestures.  This issue captures the sympathetic positivity of his bullied protagonist in a powerful five page sequence that displays an emotional range from adrenaline-fear to wonder to worry-fear to nervous uncertainty of consequence.  It's promising work.

Forsman's TEOTFW is a quieter, younger, and more credibly restrained version of Natural Born Killers that explores adolescent nihilism, confusion, violence, sexuality and bonding.  Forsman's characters are navigating a sequence of increasingly bad and life-destroying decisions, and as we get to know them, we discover that the environments that led them down this road had more to do with the kind of suburban neglect most American audiences can relate to than with any sensational or rebellious in-born trait.  You know from the title that this will not end well, but Forsman's pacing, characterization, and charming drawings make you anticipate each new installment.  It's a must read.  And if you haven't read the Hank Williams issue yet, you're so lucky.

Mendes' Lou displays the lives of a group of early adolescent characters in a spacious, rural American setting.  Mendes credibly observes the simultaneously sweet but self-absorbed qualities younger teenagers and pre-adolescents can show.  Her work is most fun when she's capturing how groups of kids who don't really get the world yet cope with unstructured time.  Whether she's drawing boredom on the couch, immersion in the music from the headphones, or clusters of kids making off-base conclusions about a simple adult behavior, there's a lot to enjoy in her observations.  The naive qualities of her young characters are being tested by their first-hand observation of ongoing physical violence against the presumably debt-ridden pizza shop owner who employs the eldest of the group.  Mendes is still finding her voice, and is showing steady issue-over-issue improvement in both drawing and storytelling ability.  There's some odd continuity problems between issues (for instance, a character wears a cast in one, but not the next, although not much time is indicated to have passed), but the emotional vitality of the work allows that stuff to be taken in stride.  Another beautiful element of the Oily format is that its small bite, small buy-in approach gives artists a regular platform for growth in a way that spendier and more ambitious formats don't.

Close Your Eyes When You Let Go takes us to the opposite side of the maturity spectrum from the other titles, portraying the paralyzing crush of adult responsibility and worry encountered by a new father.  Hindle sensitively expresses an internal landscape of self-doubt, best intention, and fear in a character who comes to the abrupt realization that he has everything to lose.  Those internal moments are punctuated by big scenic shots of the story's suburban setting, where the quiet of the environment and the large black spaces in the drawings lure the reader into the unsettling headspace the protagonist must navigate.  The three issue series is a good short story that is well suited to the format.   Hindle's decision to examine a situation so profoundly normal led him to capture an anxiety that is universal, and hard-wired in every reader.  There isn't enough here for a graphic novel, and it's the kind of story that would have been lost in an anthology, but that worked in this tiny package.

DeForge's Elizabeth of Canada was a delightful surprise.  I admire Forsman's ability to coax someone like DeForge, who's already been recognized as a finalist for the Cartoonist We Expect Big Things From designation to work in this format.  And Elizabeth of Canada delivers.  Set in the Canadian frontier at the end of the 19th Century, DeForge sets up a story about a young mother, her teen daughter, and other presumably single-digit-aged child as they advance ahead of the male provider into the uncertainty of the unsettled country.  DeForge's trademark surrealism of both art style and world building are here, but it feels more grounded and less outrageous than the wilder, and more confrontational work on view in his Koyama Press series Lose.  Although we're in set-up turf, I admire how he immediately captures the good humored mother-daughter bond on the first page of the book.  DeForge is a gifted cartoonist, and I like seeing him play an acoustic set like this.  I look forward to seeing where it goes.

In the late 90s I remember being blown away by the emergence of Tom Devlin's Highwater Books and Jordan Crane's Non because they'd cultivated a generation of unexpected new talent, and they presented the work in a format that defied the conventions of Cerebus on one hand, Hate on the other Alt comics, and the "ashcan" format farm league understanding of mini-comics.  Highwater's beautiful object quality, with silk-screened covers and lush interiors, and Non's high aspiration to stand shoulder to shoulder with Arcade, Raw, and Weirdo as a must read anthology for bleeding edge talent pointed the way for the decade of art comics that followed.  Business mutations happening in the same period established a dynamic where cartoonists jumped from mini-comics to graphic novels, partially due to the diminished viability of the periodical alt-comic, partially due to the sudden burst of traditional house cash to invest in developing the then-new growth category of graphic novels.  That gave us some pretty good comics.  But it also gave us a fair amount of beautiful silkscreened covers with undercooked interior content by cartoonists who gave up the ghost when the 5-figure advance failed to show up.  It also gave us some interesting work that disappeared when the advance never earned out.

Oily and the new generation of small publishers who've come to greater prominence, particularly since Dylan Williams died -- Koyama, Retrofit, Press Gang, Secret Acres, Domino Books, Revival House, Uncivilized Books, 2D Cloud, among others (and forgive me if I forgot you) -- seem to be an epochal shift as significant as Highwater and Non were in the late 90s.  All of these houses have embraced the short-form comic book and as a consequence are collectively giving a broad generation of new talent the room to grow.

Oily appeals to me not only because of the substance of the work, but because it's the kind of back-to-basics, unpretentious presentation of comics that puts all emphasis on execution and lets artists run or stumble on their chops absent any gimmicks.  And if they stumble one month, so what, it's just a dollar and twelve pages.  Better luck next month.

I can say with certainty, an Oily subscription is money well spent, and I encourage you to consider signing up for one before this current offer window closes on Halloween.  The quality of the work is always a treat when I find it waiting in my mail box.  It's as much fun to watch Forsman to develop as an editor as it is to watch he and his stable of cartoonists develop as creators.  And it's a template for the road ahead where new cartoonists can develop their craft without the surf or drown model of competing in a crowded marketplace with a graphic novel as your first entry into the audience consciousness.  No question, it's a future for comics, and it's just one of many.  And the more options the better, particularly when the results show as much promise as Oily does.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Maiden Autumn

Iron Maiden stalwarts Steve Harris & Adrian Smith each released side-project albums this year and they're a fascinating contrast in approaches to pop metal. 

Harris' solo "British Lion" is entirely non-threatening, and embraces more of the languid, faux-psychedelic leanings of Final Frontier. Harry's melodic sense is as well-honed as ever, but it's a a softer tone that speaks to the teen girl appeal that brought Def Leppard to prominence.  It's a pretty good starter metal album, and while it doesn't speak to me much, it isn't bubblegum either. That said, it has no balls, and that's pretty surprising. 

Smith goes the opposite direction with Primal Rock Rebellion's "Awoken Broken."  This is suburban garage metal for awkward dudes that leans fully into chunky metal hooks.  It's Smith minus the celtic prog rock ethic that infuses Maiden - an intriguing dimension of his skill set.  This one shreds in a way that will optimally lead teen heshers to early Metallica and current High on Fire.

The two albums couldn't be more different, and illuminate a lot of the tension that one hears in the The Final Frontier.  I don't think they signal an end to Maiden - Rod Smallwood runs too solid a machine for that to happen - but they definitely display fundamental differences in songwriting values that will continue to show Maiden drifting into the long, muddy compromises that their tunes have tended towards in the current era.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Cosplay At The Superdome

The Saints are having a terrible year, but it's a testament to their fans that each game is brimming with enthusiasm and the best cosplay in NFL fandom. Last week's loss in overtime was excruciating for these true believers, but the energy they put into their game day game faces is worth saluting.

I guess this guy is a conehead that fell to earth, landed on Bourbon street and got a tattoo.  His girlfriend must like projects.

Speaking of love.  
 These guys are half way between The Big Lebowski and The Borgias:

This is the face that launched a thousand nightmares:

Last year at NYCC I realized that Marvel Comics are as mainstream as the NFL, and watching the sport these days I see the line between football and superhero media is now paper thin.  As these guys attest:

Other intersections of football and geek media included:

 I love this pensive shot.  Put this guy on a postage stamp RIGHT NOW:
 On the other side of the icons, The King was in:
But I think the entire gestalt was best summarized by this celebration by our holy crew, completed by the lady beside them holding the Fleurty Girl Coach on a Stick, the frightened child and the macho dude at right looking on with approving NASCAR eyes:
This week will be make or break for the Saints, I think, but their fans remain my favorite in the sport.  Here's looking forward to an epic bout of cosplay when Green Bay's Cheeseheads, themselves some fine cosplayers square off against the Who Dat Nation.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Eternal Genius of New York

It catches you by surprise.  Although your paths through the streets may be so well internalized that your mind-map of the place trumps Google's, and while your attitudes may shift from antipathy to the well-worn affection of a familiar, it still has the capacity to surprise.  To be new.  To always be new, within what is archetypal.

My office is in Midtown on 36th Street and 8th Avenue, which I like to refer to as the last of the New York that Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore were describing in Watchmen.  Every time I climb the stairs from the A or E onto the corner of 35th and 8th, I'm immediately confronted with a vulgar, boiling huddle of every type of human being from anywhere you can fathom jockeying past each other down a sidewalk that shouldn't seem so narrow.

My heavy backpack and my keen desire to get out of this waddling, driven tangle leads me to appreciate the rushing lineman looking for a lane to make it to the the next set of downs.  I move fast, twisting through narrow openings, often overwhelmed with the desire to throttle the oblivious person strolling at a turtle's pace like Ray Lewis would do to an opposing quarterback. Stopped at a light when the cars zoom by, it's like waiting for a snap.  And whether the light is with you or not, if there is an opening in the traffic, we all bolt ahead.

In the three to five minutes it takes to get from the train to my office, I'll have encountered something like 400 people, all weaving past me as I am them.  All of us the lead in our own fast-paced drama in a city that's the biggest stage in human history.

I can get down on it quite often.  I frequently think of New York as a city of nine million people jammed together and ignoring one another to survive.  The eye contact, the empathy that characterizes your smaller towns, or your Southern climes, is anathema here.  It's an easy place to feel alone.  And the kind of alone that can make you go mad.

And yet there are those rare, occasional moments where there is no option but to be jolted out of the bubble of self-protected anonymity, and where the city's simultaneously beautiful and fetid diversity must be taken in as a true expression of the sublime.  And when you're not the only one that sees it, and you can't help but make knowing eye contact with your neighbor who sees it too.


Walking to pick up lunch at 2 in the afternoon.  You pay on Seamless to avoid having to wait in an order line, but go out to appreciate the cool, deep blue splendor of the not quite autumn day.  The kind of day that says we survived the summer: bright clear sky and air that passes for fresh because we forgot what crisp air is.

From 36th to 40th along 8th Avenue is a strip of bodegas, bars, porno shops, shoe stores, sushi joints, chinese take-out, cosmetics shops, storefronts selling kung-fu DVDs and discount sex toys, wholesalers of off the rack fashion, hardware suppliers, a storage closet selling belts and backpacks, a 7-11, a Subway, White Castle, cheap electronics, stripper supply shops, a liquor store, barber shops, halal carts, discount department stores that carry everything you'd never want, and the ubiquitous dollar slice shops that have vanquished the hot dog as the dominant spare change food.

Some guy fresh from 1983 is hovering by a phone booth muttering: "Newport, Newport, Marlboro, Newport," the way they used to advertise some stronger smoke.  A psychic is sitting on a stool outside a store thrusting her hand with a card out into the pedestrian traffic.  A tall black guy in a bulky and flamboyant jacket wearing a soft blue and red striped top hat, big sunglasses, and a crooked, but confident gait patrols the stretch between 39th and 40th.  Walking back from picking up your sandwich he's in the face of a passing tourist shooting the scene with his camera phone.  "Hey, what's up, Steven Spielberg," he growls. 

It jolts you out of internal space, pops that bubble.  It catches you by surprise.  Suddenly you see that this is the real life version of the cantina scene from Star Wars, and why wouldn't you want to be just another weirdo alien here anyway? 

Look.  See: 

A beautiful pale young lady in a black leather spiked jacket, combat boots, blonde hair, studs pierced onto the top of her nose somehow tastefully complementing the ferocious green eye makeup that mirrors the green of her intricate breast plate tattoo.

A Latin boy with angular hair, one side shaved, with a grid of foreign characters that could be Sanskrit or Klingon tattooed into his scalp, wearing a shiny vest with shoulder pads that wouldn't be out of place in a 1990s X-Force comic.

Sporty ladies on the way from the gym, every single one of them takes your breath away.

A pudgy man in a wrinkled gray suit, greasy scalp going bald from worry but still accompanying Lady Gaga in his headphones.  "I want your love, and all your love is revenge, you and me could write a bad romance." 

Back at the desk, taking a bite of the sandwich that you'd immediately declare Bahn-Mediocre, you think back on the street.  Fuckin' New York, you sigh, both appreciative and amused.


After work, and after the gym, I get to be on the list for Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra's gig at Webster Hall.  When I get there, the place is packed.  At the bar, I discover they're selling iced coffee.  Genius!  I climb the stairs and onto the VIP balcony, trying not to feel like an imposter.

Ronald Reagan takes the stage.  Not a reanimated version of the GOP's messiah, but a 2-piece 80's pop saxophone group from Boston.  They belt out "Don't Stop Believing" and suddenly the young crowd bursts into spontaneous accompaniment.  At once I'm awed and horrified.  If F. Scott Fitzgerald had his Lost Generation, and Richard Hell was part of the Blank Generation, am I now looking at the Reconstituted Generation?  One where all of human history and culture is accessible, and beauty can be found in equal, possibly indiscriminate measure in both Beethoven and the Bee Gees?  There's nicer ways to say it and there's shittier ways to say it.  But either way, it's a hell of a thing to see a room full of people reciting by heart the words to a song that was old when they were conceived, and to do it with sincere force.

Reconfiguring, recontextualizing, and reclaiming the past, there's a lot of that going on tonight.  I had the best spot in the house, just above the front of the stage, where I could look down on the performers and look out at the audience, and the crew.  And so I was perfectly perched to see the fog machines billow a perfumed cloud into the hall while the front rows of devotees clutched white roses in anticipation of Amanda's arrival.  And when she emerged in her kimono, the roses flew to her feet.  But before Herself's performance came a surprise -- cabaret performer Meow Meow emerged in a crimson gown with a wreath of black feathers arching out from her back like a scrawny peacock's tail. She pulled a boy from the crowd onto the stage to kneel beneath her and hold her microphone while she rested her armpit on the crown of his head, leaned in, told him to hug her and then belted out a performance of knowing feminine dominance.  It's an echo of a dream of Weimar decadence.  It continues after the cabaret interlude.

Meow Meow has now gone up to the balcony and is perched over the crowd with a white megaphone to announce the arrival of Amanda Palmer.  Palmer is perched upon the shoulders of a man in a white tuxedo who carries her through the parting crowd and onto the stage amid the blast of big drums, big horns, and big guitars.

This was a transcendent performance by any measure.  The Grand Theft Orchestra brought a heavy rock grounding that was well complimented by carefully-deployed horn and string sections.  The content of the performance was an ascension of successive catharses.  An elegant sequence on loss opened with Palmer reading anonymous confessions that audience members had put in a box.  As each jarring recollection was made public, she became an avatar of vulnerability, and after reading the last painful scrap of memory, the stage was bathed in fiery orange light and an explosive, angry rendition of "Astronaut" brought a visceral sense of painful cleansing.  Later, the tempo of the songs having built as high as it seemed they could go, she dived into the crowd and they guided her, wearing a train the size of a parachute, in a full revolution of the hall.  In what seemed like it should have been the closing encore, Ronald Reagan came out to lead a rendition of "Careless Whisper" which started as Kraft Singles but wound up as imported Brie, with camera & video tech Sarah Lasley being offered the mic to perform the money shot of the song.  And somehow there was still another emotional bank to climb, leading into a wrenching version of "The Bed Song" and culminating in a "worry for the structural integrity of the building" foot-stomping audience-as-instrument rendition of "Leeds United."

The show was a triumph not merely because of Palmer's showmanship, but because it reflected extraordinary teamwork between the band, the crew and the management whose unity of vision developed a unique and substantial performance.  And, in one aside, Palmer pointed out that part of the intensity is the city itself, and all of the talented people who are here and who came to share her stage, and the emotional radiance of the crowd.

And I think a key part of that intensity is that we were a group of New Yorkers who, eleven years on from an indelible morning are starting to wake up on the eleventh day of September and absently remember, at some point in the day, what the day means.

"Hey, what's up, Steven Spielberg?"  Indeed.


After the show I met and congratulated Sarah Lasley who introduced me to Vickie Starr, Eric Sussman and Super Kate from Girlie Action, Amanda's management team.  I congratulated them as well -- their hard work was apparent and the result was superb.  In the after-show crew & VIP bar I was talking to Lauren Diamond, a musician who was standing next to me for the whole show and was awestruck the entire time.  In the middle of our conversation a grubby but pretty, thoroughly hammered young guy walked up to her and said, "I just want to say I'm drunk, and you're beautiful, and I really want to get your number."  She flustered entirely, and gave him her phone to enter his number, then accidentally called him when taking her phone back.

Later, I'd see him again on the L train back to Brooklyn.  He was still wearing his All Access sticker and cradling a giant plastic bag.  Another lady from the show with an All Access sticker was sitting across from me and they said "hey" across the train.  She asked what was in the bag.

"Beer!" he answered.  "I've got like fifty beers, they were giving them away.  Shit, does anybody want a beer?" he cried out to the half full train.  "Would anybody on this train like a beer?"

A middle aged guy with a strong Brooklyn accent and a salt and pepper crew cut in a royal blue polo shirt and khakis asked, "Are they cold?"

"Fuck yeah, they're cold.  Right out of the bucket.  You want one?"

"Yeah, I want one."

"Well, come on over and get it!"

So he walked over and got a can of Corona.  "Anyone else want a beer?"  Another lady raised her hand.  "Come on over!"  So she did too and they both cracked them open.  Those three downed their beers as the train shot through the tunnel.  A few folks got off at Bedford and a few more got on.  Again the question was raised, and this time, as we neared the last stop, the train was much less restrained.  Almost everyone got in on the offer and walked onto the platform with an open container.

I stepped out the Emergency Exit gate at Lorimer and held the door for a lady coming up from the same car on the train.  "Best late night train ride I've had in a long time," she laughed.  We shared our mutual amusement as we climbed the stairs, then wished each other a good night before turning our different ways.

Fuckin' New York.

It catches you by surprise.

It makes you look your neighbors in the eye and realize that sometimes that ain't so bad.

It's the city's eternal genius.

It's the city's immortal strength.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Cop Fetishism In Minnesota

When I stepped off the airplane and into the baggage claim area at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport this morning, I caught this display of law enforcement patches.  There's some weird shit in here.  Not as weird as the police museum in Tokyo I promise I'll post about soon.  But, still weird.  After I got done shooting this display, I turned to find an airport cop leading his dog around the baggage claim area and taking great delight in the way it was enthusiastically sniffing a box.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Start Again in the Month of May

The picture at left is a new piece of graffiti on the Williamsburg Bridge that I saw while walking back from Manhattan earlier today.  New is always a relative term in New York, which moves so quickly that a few days out of circulation can be enough to completely alter the landscape of your personal experience of the city.  So this was new since the last time I crossed the bridge.  This time, I'd probably changed as much as New York had in the time that elapsed.

The amount of life I packed into the two or three weeks between bridge crossings was almost as robust as the pace of life as experienced by the city that I keep my home in.  In that short period of time I've walked on the other side of the planet, spoken to audiences of librarians, academics, politicians, lawyers and reporters in three cities, and lived off of the coffee in twice as many airports.  When I was walking home tonight, with the sun setting behind me, I was returning from giving an interview on manga censorship that will air on ABC's Nightline, and visiting my friend who was blowing through town on a rapid whirlwind of a trip that might even give me whiplash.  The Arcade Fire was in my ears singing "Culture War" as the shadows grew long:
"These are different times that we're living in.
'Cause these are different times.
Now the kids are growing up so fast.
They're paying for our crimes."
Those words might encapsulate the topics that recurred in the various lectures and interviews I gave this month.  And, catching up on the world in those half-alive and lonely moments of jet lag when I'm awake at odd hours absorbing the headlines I've missed since I've been away, the other part of the chorus comes ringing to life:
"You want it/you got it/here's your culture war. 
You want it/now you've got it/so tell me what's it for."  
The last time I wrote to you, I was talking about my trip to Portland at the start of the month.  Since then, May has been a blur.  My flight from Portland landed long enough for me to get a night's sleep and head out to Long Island to deliver a presentation on graphic novels and censorship to the 37th Annual Long Island Library Conference.  Though feeling the time lag from a heavy month of criss-crossing the country, I was energized to speak to this packed room about the medium I love.  They were a terrific crowd, and they displayed a pronounced difference in the attitudes about comics and graphic novels than the one I experienced when I first interacted with the library space over 10 years ago.  Back then there was a strong generational rift between the establishment, who were affected by the Wertham-era stigma that comics were low value speech, and the younger generation who was just getting out of library school and had grown up on Neil Gaiman, Chris Ware, Rumiko Takahashi, and the overall concept of the graphic novel as a powerful form of literary expression.  Now that generation is coming into a position of established prominence, and an even younger group is emerging that takes the value of comics as a given.  So the discussion about why we should collect graphic novels seems to have given way to how should we collect them, and what are the challenges and concerns associated with doing so.  I spoke about the medium's merits, genres, and the history of censorship that informs the battery of challenges currently faced by library professionals managing the category in their systems.  I find that the success or failure of a talk can be measured by the questions one receives after the presentation, and here I was met with folks looking to delve deeper into the historical casework I discussed, and the authors whose work provoked those challenges.  This is a long way from the question of whether or not comics have a place in libraries.  "These are different times," indeed.

Less than a week later I flew to California to visit a friend and close out some writing deadlines for the Fund and for me over a long weekend.  Then it was up to LAX for the long trip across the Pacific to Tokyo.  It was my first time in Japan, and I'll be writing about it at length in a series of posts on CBLDF's blog and this one over the coming weeks.  But in short form, I was there to participate in a symposium on international manga censorship, representing the issues we face in the States that the CBLDF has had to defend.  While I was there I met with members of the Diet, Japan's legislature, and members of the Democratic Party of Japan to discuss laws affecting manga's free expression rights.  I also met with an esteemed group of representatives from the publishing industry who opened my eyes to the careful self-censorship measures that the industry takes in response to the legal climate facing the medium.

I was treated to dinners at back alley dives and high end restaurants where I spoke to lawyers who litigated on behalf of manga, academics who study the art form and its cultural import, foreign scholars who are charting its impact on the world in real time, and advocates who've dedicated their lives to advancing the medium even in the face of government censorship and public confusion.   I was taken to world class bookstores where manga enjoyed full floors, and manga specialist stores that composed 3, 4, or 5 floors of nothing but comics and anime.  I was taken to Akihabara, an entire city district given over to the forward looking subculture of manga, anime and video game fandom, and technology enthusiasm.

Through all of these experiences, I encountered a robust culture of individuals and institutions dedicated to the power of comics as art and expression.  Even more significantly, I encountered representatives of communities that haven't met all of their counterparts that exist internationally, and who feel, in some respects, that they are facing their challenges to protect this important medium all alone.  As the Arcade Fire sang to me as I contemplated this trip tonight, "We're soldiers now/In the culture war. We're soldiers now/But we don't know what it's for."  I know I walked away from the trip with a sense of solidarity in the fight to protect comics as free expression, and with a new understanding of the issues facing my international compatriots.  I hope that they experienced the same sense of common cause.

I was only in Tokyo for four days.  And, of course, if you read this blog, you know that I have a curiosity for wherever I am, so I spent as much of the free time I had wandering the streets to uncover life as it's lived, art as it's made, and the communities who make both happen.  I'll be posting about what I saw in the days to come.  But, in total, it was a brief but amazing time.

When I got back I had enough time to take a day and a half off to manage the jet lag, and then it was back to the office where I prepared to speak at a continuing legal education event sponsored by the New York State Bar Association about comics and manga in the wake of the Protect Act's designation of drawings and cartoons as part of a category within the  new crime "obscene child pornography."  That was another heady conference where I spoke alongside prominent legal scholar Amy Adler and Michael Delohery, chief of the High Technology Crime Bureau at the Westchester County DA's Office.  Michael drove home the complex landscape he faces as a prosecutor seeking to prosecute the truly contemptible criminals who contribute to the sexual victimization of children, alongside a world where every horny teenager has a powerful computer that records and transmits media in their pocket, and a legal landscape that, on paper, doesn't distinguish between drawings and reality.  He's one of the good ones, who does prioritize prosecuting the real criminals.  But, as my presentation showed, there are still cases involving people being prosecuted for mere drawings where no real people were hurt.

The long weekend arrived shortly after this presentation, and today I began a new work week speaking about all of these areas to a reporter for ABC News who was putting together a story for Nightline.

Heady times.

When I first touched down in NY at the start of May, I knew that the month represented a long road, where I would confront the matrix of art and law that affects comics in the United States and Japan.  But coming out the other side, my perspective in enlarged, and so is the stage where I share it.   

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Four Days In Bridge City

My favorite way to think of Portland is that it reflects an alternate reality where John Lennon was never assassinated and Ronald Reagan was never elected. There’s something deeply loveable in the city’s homebrewed hipster sincerity. 

I know hipster is a term of derision in the contemporary setting, but I’m bored with hipster hating.  Hipsters are just the most recent permutation of the Bohemian impulse.  It’s an attractive impulse, one that says that the world doesn’t need to be the way that the forces of commerce, or politics, or propriety say it should.  It’s an impulse that says life can be lived artfully, creatively, on one’s own terms, and without permission from the powers that are.  

Hipsters and Portland are maligned for upholding a certain air of affectation in assuming those values.  So is my home base of Williamsburg.  And certainly there are the insincere poseurs within those ranks.  What most people don't notice is that most fleeting hipsters aren't insincere so much as they're just trying an identity on.  I say more power to them.   Phonies are phonies, and they’re easily flushed out and more easily dismissed.  The more people asserting or attempting an alternative mode of living to whatever happens to be mainstream, the better.  Humanity grows through diversity.  Diversity thrives amongst the oddball enclaves, whether we call them hipster, or hippie, or punk, or beat, or beatnik, or bohemian.  

Portland is one of the United States’ most vital places to assert that life can be organized in a fashion that is idiosyncratic and strange and, most of all, beautiful precisely because of all that.

Last month I got to spend 4 days in Portland for the Stumptown Comics Festival.  Here's what I saw.

I hit the ground running on Friday, going over to the Portland Convention Center to set up the CBLDF booth at the Fest.  The onsite team was on top of things and made getting the booth in a breeze.  After the booth was ready for the next day, I zipped down to Floating World for the Henry & Glenn Forever & Ever launch party.  The boy band above are author/instigator Tom Neely on the left, Benjamin Marra in the center, and Ed Luce on the end.

Floating World is a few blocks away from international bookstore icon Powell's and near Chinatown -- it should be a must visit if you're looking for funky comics in Portland.  Jason Leivian and his crew do a remarkable job curating a store of handcrafted art comics, prints, and objects, while also hosting a positive range of current comics & graphic novels, and vintage records.  It's a good thing I didn't have a lot of room in my travel bag, or I could have put some hurt on my budget in this place.  Here's a few snaps.

Floating World had a show of Benjamin Marra's American Psycho art up.  I've never seen Ben's originals before, and they were fun to look at.

After Floating World, Zack Soto of Press Gang, and Study Group, and many other comics oriented things including his own book Secret Voice gave me a lift up to Michael Ring's excellent shop Bridge City Comics on Mississippi where they were hosting the Stumptown Drink & Draw welcome party.  They were extremely crowded, even when I got there around 10, so I didn't get as many pictures.  This is another great store, though.  Clean, well designed, with a terrific graphic novel and current comics inventory.

After Bridge City, Zack & I headed to Waypost, where we just missed the night's comics reading, which is a drag, because Theo Ellsworth was one of the artists in the set, and he's one of my favorites.  I mingled there for a bit, then caught a lift with Tom Neely to the Horse Brass on Belmont where we had a nightcap with Andrice Arp, Sean Christensen, and Emily Nilsson.  I hung out a little bit after those guys left to grab a cab and was treated to some Slayer for my troubles.  Life was good.

The con started the next day, and I was lucky to have Craig Thompson signing for us.  He's a real class act, and did terrific sketches in everyone's book.  Here he is with Breena Wiederhoef, who was showing off her new book Picket Line.

Cory Marder passed at the end of Saturday, so I didn't have the gusto to go check out the party at the Jupiter for very long, but from what I did see it was extremely well attended and looked like fun.

Sunday the con was robust, and I got to go check out the floor a bit.  I picked up a lot of comics, but I'll leave that to a separate post.  Teardown at the end of the show was a breeze, and when I stepped out to flag a cab this dude picked me up:

He was cranking Overkill, so we talked about metal until he dropped me off at some brew pub where I caught dinner with Brett Warnock and his young son Carter, Jeff Lemire, Nate Powell , Emi Lennox, Joe Keatinge, and Chris Ross.  Jeff, Joe & I talked comics over some killer Asian fare, until Nate brought the topic over to metal, where I switched sides (of both the table and the conversation) and joined Brett, Nate and Carter in a conversation about favorite bands.  After that, Brett drove me down to Pony Club where I got to spend an hour with Ben Marra talking NFL and art.  Ben unpacked what was going on with the Draft, and we lamented the circus that will be the 2012 New York Jets.  I also expressed my strong desire to see Ben do a football comic.  It would be amazing!  After the event, Shannon Stewart took me to Dot's for a beer.  I love their bathroom doors:


Monday I had a Stumptown board meeting at the new IPRC. This is one of my favorite non-profits and I was excited to see it move into this killer space:

Later that day I met up with Shawna Gore to see Mares of Thrace, an astonishing metal two-piece from Calgary.  The singer Thérèse Lanz plays a forceful custom guitar made to behave as both guitar and base with a huge 20 piece effects set.  She rocks equally convincing cookie monster and classic vocals.  She also should be cast as Anne Bonney in a Kathy Acker meets Ridley Scott pirate movie.  Drummer Stef MacKichan had a huge, goofy happy grin as she played ferocious but spacious percussion.  This group is terrific metal, and a lot of fun to see live.  I really hope they open for High On Fire and come to New York, then my metal year would be complete.

After that I went out to meet up with Zack Soto, ending up at a house party where I spent the better part of the night talking to a fellow who taught me about the Coast Guard.  He'd served for many years, and made a convincing case about it behaving as the most civilized branch of the Armed Services.

See, this is Portland for you.  My passions are comics, metal and meeting people.  In my short stay I got to indulge in all of it. The folks I met were fascinating oddballs, every single one of them.  And that's the charm.  Sure, the world as we know it would likely be too dysfunctional to survive if everywhere was like Portland.  But the place is a good argument for the notion that the way we organize ourselves isn't the only way to live, and there's a great way of life to be found in pursuing an idiosyncratic path.  I love it for those reasons, and always get joy out of visiting the town and its people.  Portland shows that the way it is is the way we make it, and don't let anyone else tell you different.

Keep at it Bridge City.  You're a beacon of hope for the rest of us.