Blog about some recent reading

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Let’s start with the meat in the middle: Charles Portis. Why hadn’t I read Charles Portis until 2019? Maybe I initially dismissed the idea after first seeing True Grit (1969) with John Wayne. I know I was a bit more interested after seeing True Grit (2010), but I still didn’t quite realize that Portis is like Cormac McCarthy or Barry Hannah, picaresque and hilarious, a scion of the dirty south. I picked up his first novel Norwood at a tiny wonderful little bookstore in Portland Oregon this summer, prompted by its being in a Vintage Contemporaries edition more than anything else. I loved its energy and humor, and picked up copies of The Dog of the South and Masters of Atlantis, and promptly read them. (I couldn’t find a decent looking copy of True Grit and ended up ordering one on AbeBooks for four bucks.) I’ve heard Masters of Atlantis referred to as the masterpiece, and I thought it was very funny and even Pynchonesque (and also really relevant in its evocation of con artists and scammery), but Dog of the South was the most affecting of the three novels. A kind of bizarre road trip novel, Dog is told in first person narration by an asshole loser who, like most asshole losers, doesn’t realize that he’s an asshole loser. By the end of the novel he won me over though, and even grew as a person (I hate that I wrote that sentence). Dog’s shagginess is a small virtue; Master’s shagginess is unexpectedly grand. Norwood seems like a trial run at both, but also wonderful and grotesque. I read the first part of True Grit yesterday and loved the voice. I need to do a proper Thing on Portis, but for now, color me a Portishead.

I read Fernando A. Flores’ debut novel Tears of the Trufflepig last month, which I picked up after reading J. David Gonzalez’s review in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The concept of the book—a very-near future where drugs are legal and cartels have taken to trafficking “filtered” (genetically-altered) animals is fascinating—but the prose and structure left something to be desired. Trufflepig suffered perhaps from its proximity to my reading Anna Kavan’s Ice and Portis’s Norwood.

I read the first chapter of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1948 historical novel The Corner That Held Them today. Amazing stuff: Ironic, mordant, energetic, and surprising. Set primarily in a spare humble corner of 14th century England, Corner starts with a cuckold murdering his wife’s lover, “sparing” her, and then founding a nunnery in her honor when she dies. Warner’s prose shuttles her nuns into the Black Death plague with bathos and wit. Really loved what I read.

I read In the Time of the Blue Ball by Manuela Draeger this weekend and loved it too. There are three tales in the collection, translated by Brian Evenson and Valerie Evenson. Draeger is one of Antoine Valodine’s pseudonyms, but also one of his characters—a concentration camp librarian who invents tales for the camp’s children. The stories are whimsical with a dark edge, an edge perhaps provided if one know more of Volodine’s project (encapsulated neatly in Writers). The Draeger stories focus on a detective named Bobby Potemkine and his dog Djinn, and they are lovely.

I continue nibbling at Chris Ware’s forthcoming opus Rusty Brown. “Nibbling” is not the right verb—look, I’m gobbling this thing up. It’s astounding: funny, painful, gorgeous, maybe the best thing he’s done to date.

Kilian Eng’s Object 10 simply happens to be at the bottom of the pile. It too is gorgeous.

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Blog about Chris Ware’s Rusty Brown (Book acquired, 7 Aug 2019)

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I finally dug into Chris Ware’s forthcoming graphic novel, Rusty Brown yesterday. A finished review copy arrived on August 7th, 2019, the day that David Berman died.

I had spent some time simply looking at the book’s exquisite book jacket, which unfolds into a kind of two-sided poster thing, complete with notes and suggestions how the reader might personalize the jacket by folding it in different ways. The spine section of the jacket is also quite amusing—a sort of TV Guide goof that stages Rusty Brown as a television special (in four parts, including comedy, western, sci-fi, and drama). There’s also a crossword puzzle, a maze, and other minutiae. If you’ve read Ware, you’ll know that his work is often crammed with little details like this. Here are two pictures that fail to capture how gorgeous this thing is:

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Here’s the inside cover, too:

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So well and anyway. I tooled around with the cover for a half hour or so on that Wednesday then started in on making dinner, the making of which was interrupted by a text from a friend telling me about Berman’s suicide.

If you’ve read Chris Ware—maybe you’ve read Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth or Building Stories, both of which are exceptional—hell, Building Stories is like the invention of a new genre of reading itself—if you’ve read Chris Ware you likely know that his work can be really fucking sad.

I have not wanted to read anything really fucking sad for the past few days.

(I’ve been rereading Berman’s collection Actual Air and reading Charles Portis’s comic picaresque The Dog of the South.)

On Sunday afternoon I decided to dig in. I met the cast of Rusty Brown:

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–and picked up the setting:

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The introduction of Rusty Brown runs over a 100 pages and intertwines several of the characters’ perspectives. If there’s a lead though, it’s Woody Brown, a miserable son of a bitch who hates his life (wife, kid, teaching job) and daydreams about running away or even killing himself.

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Woody’s poor son, the titular Rusty, daydreams as well, fantasizing that he’s gained superpowers (well, a superpower—incredible hearing) and fixating on his Supergirl action figure, who enters his bored mind when he’s at school. School is bad for Rusty, too; he’s bullied terribly. Ware depicts these scenes with honesty and pathos, but also humor. Consider this little cut scene:

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The comic timing frequently leavens the first part of Rusty Brown. The thought bubble here cracked me up:

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We also meet Alison and Chalky White, a brother and sister who are starting their first day at a new school. They’ve moved in with their grandmother; they’re new to Nebraska, and they’re miserable. Ware runs their story concurrently with the Browns’ story, and the two occasionally sync up in wonderful little plays on perspective.

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Ware also inserts a version of himself into the story. Mr. Ware is the art teacher at Rusty’s school. Ware’s depiction of Mr. Ware is a kind of mean self-parody, but also very funny and even warm at times.

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Mr. Ware has been working on a series of Pop Art paintings that he hopes will achieve “an intuitive transcendence of culture and corpus.”

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Ware has been working on Rusty Brown for over a decade and a half now (you might’ve read bits of it here and there over the years), and the depth of storytelling here shows. Full review forthcoming, but for now, here’s publisher Pantheon’s blurb:

Rusty Brown is a fully interactive, full-color articulation of the time-space interrelationships of three complete consciousnesses in the first half of a single midwestern American day and the tiny piece of human grit about which they involuntarily orbit. A sprawling, special snowflake accumulation of the biggest themes and the smallest moments of life, Rusty Brown literately and literally aims at nothing less than the coalescence of one half of all of existence into a single museum-quality picture story, expertly arranged to present the most convincingly ineffable and empathetic illusion of experience for both life-curious readers and traditional fans of standard reality. From childhood to old age, no frozen plotline is left unthawed in the entangled stories of a child who awakens without superpowers, a teen who matures into a paternal despot, a father who stores his emotional regrets on the surface of Mars and a late-middle-aged woman who seeks the love of only one other person on planet Earth.

 

 

Eddie Campbell’s canon of great graphic novels, 1977-2001

Eddie Campbell’s book Alec: How to Be an Artist (Eddie Campbell Comics, 2001) covers the “rise and fall of the graphic” over the course of a few decades. Alec combines memoir with art history and art criticism, all told through scratchy inks and spidery lettering (and plenty of pastiche–Campbell literally pastes the work of other comic artists of the last century throughout the book, along with “serious” artwork  ). While Campbell’s autobiographical stand-in “Alec MacGarry” is obviously central to the story, other figures loom here, including Bill Sienkiewicz (“Billy the Sink”), Art Spiegelman, Stephen Bissette, Dave Sim, Eastman and Laird—and especially Campbell’s From Hell partner, Alan Moore.

How to Be an Artist offers a fascinating and personal look at the time before (and immediately after) comic books reached a tipping point into (gasp!) serious artistic respectability. Witty, warm, and occasionally cruel, Campbell’s book explores the intersection of commerce and art in a very particular place and a very particular time.

The book was especially revelatory for me, I suppose: I transitioned from super hero comics to, like comix in the early nineties, a transition helped by works championed in How to Be an Artist, like Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Sandman books and Dave Sim’s Cerebus. Indeed, the backpages of Cerebus in the late eighties and early nineties operated like a long messy ranty meditation on the theme of “How to be an (independent, successful, self-publishing) artist”—and it was also in the backpages of an issue of Cerebus that I first saw Campbell’s work (the prologue of From Hell was published in Cerebus #124).

How to Be an Artist’s final chapter sees Campbell offer up a canon of “graphic novels” from 1977 to 2001 (I’ve typed out the full list at the bottom of this post). Campbell (or, properly, Campbell’s persona Alec) begins the chapter by dwelling on the problematic term “graphic novel”:

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After resolving to use the term, despite whatever problems might be attached to it, Campbell goes on to point out that, after the success of works like Watchmen and Maus, a glut of so-called “graphic novels” flooded the market place. He then goes about naming the best, those works that represent a “worthwhile phase in the human cultural continuum”:

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The list is organized semi-chronologically; Campbell groups works in a series together, as with Will Eisner’s Dropsie Ave books. Here’s the first page of the canon, to give you an idea of its form and layout (note that the list, like the entire book, is written in the future tense):

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I’ve never read When the Wind Blows.

I’ve also never read, to my shame, the unfinished project Big Numbers (by Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz). Campbell details the drama surrounding why the project was never finished in How to Be an Artist. I’ll have to track it down.

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Campbell includes a trio of Love & Rockets novels. Poison River is the first one I read. I was a junior in high school; I checked it out from the public library. Somehow my mother saw it, flicked through it, and was mortified.

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Campbell seems to split the difference on Dave Sim’s Cerebus, including critical favorite Jaka’s Story along with the later novel Going Home (which sees Sim trying to reign in the project and steer it toward a conclusion). (Nobody asked me but I would’ve included Church & State and Church & State II).

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Joe Sacco’s comix-journalism is excellent, and Campbell includes both Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde. These “graphic novels” (they aren’t really graphic novels, except that they are) expanded what was possible not just in comics, but also in journalism.

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From Hell isn’t the only one of his own works that Campbell includes on his list—he also includes another Alec novel, The King of Canute Crowd. I love the gesture—an artist fully assured of the qualities in his best work. For the record, if pressed to name “the best graphic novel” I would probably immediately say, “Oh, it’s From Hell of course” (and then hem and haw and hedge, bringing up Chris Ware’s Building Stories, the first half of Sim’s Cerebus project, David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios PolypLove & Rockets, etc.).

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Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan shows up on the list, of course. I’m sure Building Stories would be on here too—along with dozens of others—if the list were updated. Indeed, Campbell’s canon (my term, not his), ends with this disclaimer:

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Here’s the full list:

 

A Contract with God, Will Eisner, 1977

A Life Force, Will Eisner, 1985

The Dreamer, Will Eisner, 1986/1991

Dropsie Avenue, Will Eisner, 1995

Tantrum, Jules Feiffer, 1979

When the Wind Blows, Raymond Briggs, 1982

Maus, Art Spiegleman, 1991

V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd, 1988

Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, 1988

Big Numbers, Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz, 1990

The Death of Speedy, Jaime Hernandez, 1989

Blood of Palomar, Gilbert Hernandez, 1989

Poison River, Gilbert Hernandez, 1994

Jaka’s Story, Dave Sim and Gerhard, 1990

Going Home, Dave Sim and Gerhard, 1999

Alec: The King Canute Crowd, 1990

The New Adventures of Hitler, Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell, 1990

The Cowboy Wally Show, Kyle Baker, 1987

Why I Hate Saturn, Kyle Baker, 1990

Violent Cases, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, 1987

Signal to Noise, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, 1992

Mr. Punch, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, 1995

Casanova’s Last Stand, Hunt Emerson, 1993

Tale of One Bad Rat, Bryan Talbot, 1995

City of Glass, Paul Auster/David Mazzucchelli, 1994

The Playboy/I Never Liked You, Chester Brown, 1991/1994

Stuck Rubber Baby, Howard Cruse, 1995

Palestine, Joe Sacco, 1996

Safe Area Gorazde, Joe Sacco, 2000

Ghost World, Daniel Clowes, 1997/2000

It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, Seth, 1997

Ethel and Ernest, Raymond Briggs, 1998

Gemma Bovery, Posy Simmonds, 1999

Cages, Dave McKean, 1998

Uncle Sam, Steve Darnall and Alex Ross, 1998

From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, 1999

Hicksville, Dylan Horrocks, 1998

The Jew of New York, Ben Katchor, 1998

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware, 2001

Goodbye, Chunky Rice, Craig Thompson, 1999

Dear Julia, Brian Biggs, 2000

Berlin, Jason Lutes, 2001

 

 

Sunday Comics

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Today’s Sunday Comics entry is a page from Chris Ware’s magnificent 2012 novel Building Stories (Pantheon Books).

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I had occasion to look through Building Stories again this week. I had to paint a room, which required moving books from shelves, which meant unshelving Building Stories, which unwieldy beast that it is, has been covered in other books for a few years. Building Stories takes the form of 14 different sized books in a box—it’s pretty hard to shelve in any accessible way, which is a shame (but also a pleasure). Ware’s opus seems to me one of the best American novels of the past decade, but I think its greatness tends to get overlooked because a) people are still prejudiced against comics and b) it challenges all the “reading rules” we bring with us to novels—there’s not a “right way” to read the novel. You have to put it together your self, in a sense. Anyway, for me the page above, which is the last page of the chapter called “Disconnect,” is the “conclusion” of the novel, a sort of metacommentary epilogue that (somehow) ties the narrative threads together in a moving and satisfying “end.”

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Playdate — Chris Ware

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Crumbling — Chris Ware

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Cooking/Gardening — Chris Ware

 

The first page of Chris Ware’s new novel The Last Saturday is up at The Guardian

CWChris Ware, one of the greatest living American novelists, will be publishing his new novel The Last Saturday, “tracing the lives of six individuals from Sandy Port, Michigan,”
in installments in The Guardian this fall.
 New episodes every Saturday.

 

Charles Schulz is the only writer I’ve continually been reading since I was a kid (Chris Ware)

It was the Peanuts collections in my grandfather’s basement office that really stayed with me through childhood and into college. Charlie Brown, Linus, Snoopy, and Lucy all felt like real people to me. I even felt so sorry for Charlie Brown at one point that I wrote him a valentine and sent it to the newspaper, hoping he’d get it. I’ve said it many times before, but Charles Schulz is the only writer I’ve continually been reading since I was a kid. And I know I’m not alone. He touched millions of people and introduced empathy to comics, an important step in their transition from a mass medium to an artistic and literary one.

From Chris Ware’s new interview with The Paris Review.

A Nancy strip by Chris Ware

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From Acme Novelty Library #3

Self Portrait with Charlie Brown — Chris Ware

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Illustration for Ozu’s Tokyo Story — Chris Ware

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I Never Stopped Loving You — Chris Ware

I did not know that Chris Ware did a cover for Candide

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“A terrifying ritual of bloodshed and murder” | Chris Ware

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Josh Melrod Talks to Biblioklept About His Documentary, Cartoon College

When I first read the press materials for Josh Melrod and Tara Wray’s documentary Cartoon College, I’ll admit that I was mostly interested in the prospect of seeing comix legends like Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Lynda Barry, Chris Ware, Scott McCloud, and Stephen Bissette discuss their craft. What Melrod and Wray deliver though is much more—an intimate and often very moving look at the lives of the young artists who attend the prestigious Center for Cartoon Studies. This is a film about passion, drive, commitment, and what it means to be an outsider.

In my review, I wrote: “Cartoon College offers an intriguing story about real people trying to do something that they love, and I enjoyed that. This is a film about the impetus, motivation, and hard, hard work that goes into the creative process. Great stuff.”

Josh was kind enough to talk to me about making the film over a series of emails.

See more at the film’s official website. Cartoon College is now available on iTunes.

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Biblioklept: How did you begin the documentary Cartoon College? How did the project come about?

Josh Melrod: In 2006 my wife, then my girlfriend, Tara Wray, had just finished her first movie, Manhattan, Kansas, and was looking for her next project. She’s a huge fan of Chris Ware and she read an article about how he’d been a visiting lecturer at CCS, which had just opened a year earlier, and that was enough to get her thinking about a cartoon school documentary. She asked me if I’d consider moving to Vermont for a year–we were living in New York, and had been for a while–and I said ok. Then we had to convince James Sturm and Michelle Ollie, who founded the school, to let us film, which took several months of emails and a couple of face-to-face meetings and a trip or two to White River Junction. Once they gave us the green light we basically packed up and moved to Vermont. That was in August of 2007, and we’ve been here ever since.

Biblioklept: So you guys were shooting for like, three years? When you started did you have an idea of the kind of story you wanted to tell in Cartoon College?

JM: Our original conceit for the movie was a year in the life of a cartoon school. It was supposed to be more about the institution and how it was helping to revitalize White River Junction, which had been a town in decline for about a century. So we shot for the 2007-2008 academic year and then started working with an editor in New York that summer. It took about six months to get a rough cut put together, but when all was said and done we weren’t happy with what we had. Part of it was that the story of the school’s impact on the town didn’t quite come together–it was an arc that was unfolding too slowly to really be seen during the year we’d been filming. But we also realized that what really interested us, much more than the school itself, was documenting the creative lives of the students and witnessing these aspiring artists at a very pivotal time in their careers. We basically scrapped the rough cut, which was a pretty difficult decision, and went back to film for what turned out to be another year-and-a-half.

The filmmakers, Tara Wray and Josh Melrod
The filmmakers, Tara Wray and Josh Melrod

Biblioklept: Some of the students, like Blair Sterett and Jen Vaughn, for example, are on screen a lot more than others. Was this because they were more open to the cameras? Were there students who were reticent to talk to you?

JM: Jen is kind of a natural in front of the camera, so in a sense she was more open than some of the others. But there were only a very small handful of people during the entire production who told us they really didn’t want to be filmed. A lot of the cartoonists we spoke with are fairly introverted, and quite a few, both the younger and the more experienced artists, discussed how they express themselves best through their comics, but it doesn’t take too long for most people to begin to forget the camera is there.

Biblioklept: I like that the film is really about the career of cartooning, and that the film focuses on the arcs of these aspiring cartoonists. You’ve got all these great interviews with people like Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman and Charles Burns, but their comments ultimately work to illuminate or enrich, through their perspectives, what the students are going through. It seems like there’s a lot of restraint and wise editing on your end here. Can you talk about how you put the film together? I’m curious how intuitive the process of forming the narrative was . . .

JM: By the time we finished shooting we had something like 150 hours of footage. I don’t remember how it all broke down, but maybe forty percent was interviews. There was a lot to go through. But it was pretty clear what the character arcs were for Blair and Al and Jen. Actually, it’s kind of hard for me to remember the process in any great detail. I was just starting to work on the rough cut when Tara and I had our twins, so for the first six months of the edit I was working from around ten at night until six a.m., stopping every couple of hours to help with feedings and changing diapers, and getting a few hours of sleep here and there during the day. It’s all very blurry, and sort of miraculous that I finished the rough cut at all. My method of working was to cut the footage down from 150 hours to just 10, which is a manageable amount of material, and from there put together an assembly that had the basic structure of a movie, and then loosely refine that into a two-hour rough cut. Then I went to New York to work with another editor, Chris Branca, who came in with a ton of great ideas and further refined the story. As for the interviews serving to illuminate what the students were going through, that was pretty organic. The challenges that a person faces when they decide to become an artist are fairly universal–the self-doubt, managing your time, coming to terms with your own limitations, figuring how to make a living, etc.–so the experiences shared by the established artists were in-line with what we documented from the students.

Biblioklept: You brought up that Tara’s interest in Ware’s work kind of sparked the genesis of the documentary. Were you a fan of comics too? How much did you know about the cartooning world going into the filming process?

JM: As a kid I loved Calvin and Hobbes and Bloom County/Outland and The Far Side, but those all ended when I was in high school and I pretty much stopped reading comics at that point. Then, after Tara and I moved in together, I’d pick up some of the books she’d leave around the apartment–like Jimmy Corrigan and Hate, I remember in particular–but I knew virtually nothing about the cartooning world when we started the movie.

Biblioklept: Have you become a fan since then?

JM: I love comics, but I’m a very casual fan. I still gravitate towards non-graphic novels, and I’m not quite sure why that is. Comics certainly demand more attention from the reader, if the reader we’re talking about is me–the interplay between the pictures and the text require a level of focus that isn’t needed when you’re just reading words, although I’m not sure I ever noticed that when I was a kid–and so maybe it’s that I don’t always have the mental energy to pick up a heavy graphic novel. I am really interested in reading comics from the people in the movie–CCS graduates are doing just incredible work and a lot of the former students we followed are starting to put out books now. Katherine Roy just illustrated a book and has a couple of others coming out soon; Jen Vaughn released a book last week; Josh Rosen is going to start serializing the project he was working on while we were filming; Joe Lambert, who we interviewed but didn’t appear in the movie, although he designed the poster, made a book about Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller that’s just incredible.

Biblioklept: What kind of movie would you like to do next?

JM: I’m working on a short, a fiction movie, with a couple of guys who used to edit a literary magazine with me. It was called the Land-Grant College Review and we published for five or six years starting in about 2002. We wanted to work on something new, and I’m really interested in doing a narrative, and they’d been thinking of doing a screenplay, so that’s what we decided to do. We’re still writing, but we have some good advisers on board and the plan is to shoot next summer. And I’m in the development phase on a pair of new docs. They’re both about personalities, as opposed to being issue-based, which is a common denominator. One follows a semi-famous performer and the other involves a family on its summer vacation. It’s still pretty early to talk confidently about any of this stuff. I just have to keep plugging away and see what happens, but these are the projects I’d like to do next.

Biblioklept: The docs sound intriguing. I spent some time in the Land-Grant College Review archive just now—what a great collection of authors. Your little microfiction there is a good creepy laugh. What are you reading now?

JM: Thanks! We had a short but good run, and got to publish a lot of great writers. One of my most prized possessions is a postcard that David Foster Wallace sent me–in response to a letter I’d written asking him to send us a story–saying that he’s “just working on stuff that isn’t suitable for publication any place.”

As for what I’m reading, I just started [Erik Larson’s] The Devil In The White City, which I’d been hesitant to open for a few years since I do a lot of reading before bed and I thought it would mess with my sleep. So far so good.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

JM: No, never stolen a book, but I have gone a long time without paying for a book. A lot of the books on my shelf I picked out of piles left on the curb or at the recycling center near where we live now. Sometimes I like to let the universe decide what I read depending on what I find in front of me, which is how I got to read The Universe And Dr. Einstein, a lay readers guide to general relativity that I still managed not to understand.

Cartoon College, A Documentary Featuring Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Art Spiegelman and Other Comics Legends

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In the opening scene of Josh Melrod and Tara Wray’s new documentary Cartoon College, aspiring cartoonist Ryland Ianelli lays out the reality that, despite all the progress the medium has made as an art form worthy of respect, comic books are still outré:  “It’s gotten easier to talk to people who are open to the idea of comics being worthwhile—but at the point you say, Yes I’m going to school for comics, they’re completely ready to dismiss you.”

Cartoonists have always been outsiders—even in art schools, a traditional gathering spot for outsiders—and it’s this feeling of alienation and displacement that undergirds the emotional platform of Cartoon College. The film is not just about the Center for Cartoon Studies (CSS), a highly-selective two year MFA program founded in 2005 in White River Junction, Vermont, or the cadre of master cartoonists who inspired the school, and, in some cases teach there. For plenty of comix nerds (like me), it’s enough to see masters like Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Lynda Barry, and Chris Ware talk about the art, medium, and business of cartooning. But this documentary offers more. Cartoon College succeeds because it tells the genuinely moving and engaging story of its students, self-described outcasts who find a sense of community and even family in the program.

Melrod and Wray take us into the extreme demands of the CSS program. In the first year (“boot camp”), students practice fundamentals—drawing, theory, writing, history. In the second year, the students produce a thesis—a finished work of some kind—to determine if they pass the program and receive an MFA. All this work is to ensure that students “will be ready to face the uncertainty of a career in one of the most labor-intensive, drudgery inducing art forms,” as the film puts it.

The faculty (all distinguished cartoonists,  including Stephen Bissette, James Sturm, and Alec Longstreth, who are featured prominently in the film) repeatedly remind students and audience alike that most of cartooning is labor-intensive drudgery: it’s not really that fun, it requires lots of discipline, and most people can’t cut it. The CSS, like most art schools, employs a workshop technique to help students grow, get feedback—and also, implicitly, as a means of maintaining quality control. Workshop scenes and other critiques are often some of the most painful moments in the film, as they highlight the very personal stakes for the aspiring cartoonists, who quite literally put their lives into their work.

Melrod and Wray wisely compose their narrative around just a few of these students, while giving us enough scenes with others to flesh out the film. Blair Sterrett gives the film a definitive arc. He’s clearly a troubled, struggling artist, trying to channel his former experiences as a Mormon missionary into a thesis, but as the deadline approaches, it’s clear his book’s unfinished. Sterrett’s scenes (particularly an early critique) are very moving, and—a bit of a spoiler—there’s a triumphant feeling when he returns to the CSS to finish his MFA. 

We find another arc in Jen Vaughn, who has too many jobs and too many ideas. Of all the student artists, she seems the most open to the camera, and her self-assured posture by turns belies a greater vulnerability and depth. In one illuminating scene at the MoCCA Fest, Vaughn tries to pique a muted festival goer’s interest in her project Menstruation Station; when he walks away without seeming to say anything we catch a glimpse of weariness bordering on desperation.

There’s also Al Wesolowsky, who at 61 is the oldest student. An archaeologist at Boston University, Wesolowsky tries his hand at the CSS program despite his self-admitted limitations as a draftsman. In some ways he’s the soul of the film. At one point he delivers a brief monologue wherein he describes the loneliness he feels at having no family, but the pleasure he’s found in a makeshift family at CSS.

Loneliness and alienation are perhaps the bedrock themes of comix and cartooning, as anyone who’s read Spiegelman or Ware or Burns—or really any of the master cartoonists interviewed in Cartoon College—can attest. Spiegelman is the first professional to pop up in the film, after the filmmakers have already introduced us to the students, and one of the first comments he makes is that comix allows cartoonists to come into contact with “a bunch of other outcasts.” This sentiment is repeated again and again, by students, teachers, and masters alike; we learn that Ryland Ianelli was voted Prom Queen by the cruel students of his high school; student Casey Bohn tells us that everyone in his small town thought he was “gay or British”; Lynda Barry puts it plain: “Childhood seemed to me like it lasted too long.”

Of all the master cartoonists on screen, I was most captivated by Chris Ware, who comes across as reflective, cerebral, and even philosophical. He points out that cartoonists are always “sifting through generations”,” handing down tropes, skills, ideas. Ware, chronicler of loneliness, perhaps makes the strongest case for cartoonists-as-community.

The idea that the students need to foster a community is reinforced by Bissette, who tells the that they must share contacts, share ideas, and be colleagues. Bissette and the other CSS instructors repeatedly emphasize the publishing dimension of cartooning, paying special attention to the idea that these cartoonists can self-publish. Cartoon College is larded with shots of students hand-crafting their art, and Bissette likens what they are doing to Warhol and his Factory. He also points out that this new generation’s desire is not to draw Spider-Man or Batman but their own creations.

An energetic scene at the MoCCA Fest shows this cottage industry at work, as artists buy and trade for each other’s work. But the instructors and pros are very clear—or try to be clear—about the economic realities most cartoonists will face. Ware and Burns point out that commercial illustration is a necessity to feed their other projects. Juxtaposed with these moments, our students describe their dreams of a comfortable retirement and book deals, a moment undercut by Lynda Barry gleefully pointing out that she makes most of her moeny selling “shit on E-bay.” 

It might have been tempting for Melrod and Wray to cram all the footage they had of famous cartoonists like Barry, Françoise Mouly, Scott McCloud, and others into Cartoon College, but to the filmmakers’ credit they use the masters sparingly. Art Spiegelman tells us at one point that “We think in bursts of language, not in long Jamesian sentences…the number of words that might be able to fit in a speech balloon are the core of a linguistic thought.” The insight is intended for cartooning, but the filmmakers apply it to their medium, letting the camera do much of the work for them,  offering only the most essential moments (like when Charles Burns completes a sketch and the student audience breaks into applause). Cartoon College is at its best when it shows us the difficult experiences of the students intercut with commentary by the seasoned, successful professionals, who understand precisely the pain these people are undergoing. 

Before I started watching Cartoon College, I wondered who it was for. My interest in Spiegelman, Ware, Burns, et al. was enough to prod my interest (and the soundtrack featuring Archers of Loaf, Portastatic, and Tortoise didn’t hurt)—but would the film appeal to, uh, non-geeks? Ultimately, I think the documentary is about the drive toward art and self-expression, and the ways that communities and relationships can form around this drive. Cartoon College offers an intriguing story about real people trying to do something that they love, and I enjoyed that. This is a film about the impetus, motivation, and hard, hard work that goes into the creative process. Great stuff.

Website and trailer: