Grand Comics Festival 2015 in Brooklyn

Last Saturday afternoon I went to the Grand Comics Festival at Bird River Studios, located at 343 Grand Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  It was a mini comic book convention for independent and small press creators.  This is the third year that the Festival has been held.

Grand Comics Fest billboard

The guest I was most looking forward to meeting was James Romberger, whose work I‘ve enjoyed for a number of years.  Romberger has been a frequent contributor to the political comics anthology World War 3 Illustrated.  He his work also appeared in various volumes of the DC Comics / Paradox Press Big Book of series, including The Big Book of Death, The Big Book of Losers and The Big Book of Urban Legends. He drew several stories for the Papercutz revival of Tales of the Crypt.

Romberger has also written numerous articles about the comic book medium.  Among these, he has penned some very insightful analyses of the works of Jack Kirby.

As I was aware that Romberger was a fan of Kirby, I wanted to ask him to contribute a drawing to my Beautiful Dreamer sketchbook.  Romberger looked through it and claimed that he was a bit intimidated by the quality of the pieces done by previous artists.  Nevertheless he agreed to do a sketch.  His sketch was definitely very lovely.  I really appreciate the effort that he put into this piece.

Grand Comics Fest James Romberger

There were so many talented creators with really interesting books for sale at the Festival.  I really wish that I’d had more money to spend, but I’d just paid the rent less than a week earlier.  Even so, I was able to make a few purchases.

I picked up The Late Child and Other Animals, a collaboration between Romberger and his wife Marguerite Van Cook, herself a writer and artist (as well as a member of the late 1970s punk band The Innocents).  The book recounts the story of Van Cook’s mother, and of her own early life in England.  I’m looking forward to reading this one very soon, and hopefully I will have an opportunity to discuss it in an upcoming post here.

It was good to see Josh Neufeld again.  I bought a copy of The Vagabonds #4, the latest issue of his autobiographical series that is now being published through Hang Dai Editions.  Over on his own blog, Neufeld describes The Vagabonds #4 as “a spicy blend of journalism, social commentary, memoir, and literary fiction.”  I’ve often found his works to be very thoughtful and moving, so I expect that this will also be a quality read.

At the show with Neufeld was his wife Sari Wilson.  This is my first time meeting her, although I felt like I already knew her.  Neufeld’s previous issues of The Vagabonds chronicled the couple’s eventful life together, including their experiences backpacking through Southeast Asia.  It was nice to finally meet Wilson, who wrote three of the stories in The Vagabonds #4.

Neufeld was selling several books by his Hang Dai studio mate Seth Kushner.  Sadly, Kushner passed away only a few short weeks ago after a long battle with cancer.  I don’t believe that I ever had the opportunity to meet him.  Judging from the reminiscences that have been written by his friends and colleagues, Kushner was both a talented creator and a nice guy.

Secret Sauce Comix #1 is an anthology that contains Kushner’s collaborations with several artists, published by Hang Dai Editions.  I haven’t read it yet, but I glanced through it and it appears offbeat and interesting.

Secret Sauce Comix 1 cover

I also purchased Mr. Incompleto, the latest project by independent creator Josh Bayer, whose work I enjoy.  Bayer has this insane, hyper-detailed yet cartoony style to his work.  A fan of the Marvel comic books from the 1960s and 70s, and filters that through the prism of underground comix, resulting in appealingly bizarre stories.

Finally, I bought a couple of issues of Tales of the Night Watchman, a mystery / horror series written by Dave Kelly published by So What? Press.  What attracted my attention was the pulpy-yet-cartoony cover for one of these, with the eye-catching title “It Came from the Gowanus Canal.”

There were quite a few other books that I was contemplating purchasing.  As I said, if I’d had more money to spend I definitely would have gotten more of them.  But I needed to save some funds to do the laundry the next day, and the need for clean socks & underwear sadly outweighed my interest in comic books.

The Grand Comics Festival was a fun, relaxed show.  I hope that it returns again next year, and that I’ll have the opportunity to get some of the comics that I had to pass on this time.

Comic book reviews: Dean Haspiel’s Fear, My Dear

Here’s another one for the “better late than never” category!  I’ve been waiting quite some time for Dean Haspiel to finally bring his rough & tumble love-struck brawling philosopher Billy Dogma back into print.  I finally got my wish when Z2 Comics published Fear, My Dear: A Billy Dogma Experience earlier this year.  The volume collects two tales originally presented online at the ACT-I-VATE webcomix collective.

I picked up my copy of Fear, My Dear at this year’s MoCCA Arts Festival in April.  Why wait so long to review it?  Well, as with Dean Haspiel’s prior accounts of the romantic misadventures of Billy Dogma and Jane Legit, the stories in Fear, My Dear are not really linear narratives that progress from one plot point to another.  Rather, they are surreal chronicles replete with allegorical symbolism, possessing a significant emphasis on emotion and atmosphere.  Fear, My Dear is undoubtedly intriguing reading, but it certainly left me perplexed as to how to pen a coherent review.

I undoubtedly think that the two tales within this volume, “Immortal” and “Fear, My Dear,” are fertile ground for analysis.  As with many other works that are also not easily interpreted, I believe that Haspiel’s examinations of the dynamic between Billy and Jane are ones that will reveal further layers of meaning upon subsequent re-examinations by readers.

At its heart, the book is an examination of relationship between Billy and Jane, seemingly equal parts devotion and anger, an explosive cocktail of raw emotions percolating within each of them.  The stories, especially the second one, also delve into Billy’s mind and soul.  Haspiel addresses that oh-so-fine line that divides love and hate, the all-too-similar nature of the passion of love and the passion of violence.

Fear My Dear pg 14

For the most part Haspiel’s artwork is drawn within a four panel grind.  It is interesting to see how he frames the action within this strict structure.  Varying his layouts between close-ups, long shots, and everything in between, with numerous angles and perspectives, Haspiel demonstrates his strengths as a storyteller.  A single color is utilized for each segment, red in “Immortal” and yellow in “Fear, My Dear.”

Haspiel’s illustration is beautiful, as well as beautifully grotesque.  I’ve always found his art to be impressive, but this is undoubtedly some of his strongest work.

You can certainly see the influence of the two gods of Silver Age comic books, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, in Haspiel’s work.  At times Billy brings to mind Kirby’s two iconic tough guys, Ben Grimm / The Thing and Sgt. Fury.  Jane somewhat resembles the curvy, wide-hipped, big-haired groovy gals that The King so evocatively rendered.  The “space-god” which is awakened by Billy and Jane’s tempestuous love recalls something from one of Ditko’s Doctor Strange stories.

Nevertheless, despite those clear influences, Haspiel possesses a style all his own.  Like all the best artists, he is inspired by elements from those who went before him, experiments with them, takes them in different directions, and creates something new & distinctive in the process.

Fear My Dear pg 87

Haspiel’s scripting for the Billy Dogma stories, the cadence of his dialogue, is undoubtedly unique.  In his introduction to this volume Haspiel’s long-time friend & associate Josh Neufeld describes it as “part hard-boiled slang, part beat poetry.”  That is a brilliant articulation that sums up Haspiel’s utilization of language.  I’m happy Neufeld made it, since that saves me the trouble of attempting to explain it in what probably would have been a much less coherent manner!

So, welcome back, Billy Dogma and Jane Legit.  It’s been a while, but it was well worth the wait.

Comic books I’m reading, part four: graphic novels

As I mentioned in Part Three of this series, I’ve increasingly been picking up more and more “independent” comic books.  And that includes graphic novels.  I recently read a very good graphic novel, The Battle of Blood and Ink: A Fable of the Flying City, published by Tor.  There are also several other books that I purchased in the last few years that I never had an opportunity to read until now.

The Battle of Blood and Ink is written by Jared Axelrod and illustrated by Steve Walker.  I met Walker at the New York Comic Con a few years ago.  At the time, he had just illustrated another book, The Sons of Liberty, which had been written by Alexander & Joseph Lagos.  I thought it was a pretty good read with some nice art.  So when I heard that Walker had a new book out this year, I picked it up.

I guess The Battle of Blood and Ink would be described as a steampunk adventure.  It is set in Amperstam, a flying city.  The protagonist Ashe is the publisher of The Lurker’s Guide, the city’s newspaper.  Ashe uses The Lurkers’ Guide to attempt to expose what she sees as the oppressive activities of Amperstam’s government, embodied in the form of the icy Provost.  Ashe also has a case of amnesia concerning her childhood, as well as a set of mysterious tattoos on her arms.  These are things she has brushed to the back of her mind, but she soon finds that they have great significance, both for herself and Amperstam.

The Battle of Blood and Ink: A Fable of the Flying City
The Battle of Blood and Ink: A Fable of the Flying City

Jared Axelrod’s writing very much reminded me very much of the work of one of my favorite authors, Chris Claremont.  Like Claremont, Axelrod has two strong, independent female characters in the lead, in this case Ashe and her adversary, the Provost.

Axelrod also utilized one of Claremont’s favorite tropes, the examination of identity.  Are we who we really are, or are we living the roles that society has shaped us into?  Ashe comes from Amperstam’s underclass, and her fiery independence & fighting spirit are in many ways a direct response to this, a rebellion against her social station, an act of defiance against the city’s elite.  However, when Ashe is offered the opportunity to join that social stratum, to live a comfortable life with her friend & admirer Cardor, she hesitates.  Would she still be Ashe?  Or instead would she be someone who had been molded into being by Cardor, transformed into the woman he wants her to be?  Likewise, the at-first seemingly villainous Provost is a much more complicated being once examined.  The city’s ruler perceives herself as a servant of duty.  Every choice the Provost has made has been, she claims, for the good of Amperstam.  She sees it as her responsibility to make the difficult choices that others are unwilling to make, no matter how heavily they may weigh on her conscience.  Obviously her motivations do not make some of the Provost’s decisions any less iniquitous, but Axelrod explains why she does what she does, and how she feels an obligation to pursue the course of action that she has.

In regards to Steve Walker’s work on The Battle of Blood and Ink, he has really grown as an artist since The Sons of Liberty.  He has a style that could be described as Charlie Adlard crossed with Jamal Igle.  Walker obviously put a tremendous amount of time & thought into designing Amperstam, its inhabitants, geography, architecture, and technology.  A few of his preliminary sketches are on display in the back of the book.  The upshot is that Amperstam is in many ways a fully realized city, with different neighborhoods and socioeconomic groups.  Walker also renders very exciting action sequences, both on the streets of Amperstam, and in the skies above the city.  There are a few instances where the action could have used somewhat more clarity.  But on the whole Walker is very good at storytelling.

So I would definitely recommend purchasing a copy of The Battle of Blood and Ink.  It’s an exciting read with superb artwork.

Anyway, delving into that big pile of previous unread graphic novels that were starting to stack up in my apartment, what else has been occupying my time?  There was a trio of intriguing, original works that I finally took the time to sit down and read.  Here are a few brief thoughts on them.

World War 3 Illustrated editor & contributor Sabrina Jones created Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography.  Duncan was, to quote the foreword by Lori Belilove, “the mother of modern dance and the muse of modernism.”  I had what might be considered a very passing knowledge of Duncan before having picked up this volume, but from I knew she was an interesting figure.  Indeed, reading it, Jones tells the story of a very talented, free-spirited, revolutionary, eccentric woman, one who had a tremendous impact upon the world of dance throughout the globe in the early 20th Century.  Jones’ biography is a cursory look at Duncan’s life & achievements.  But she provides a detailed bibliography for anyone seeking further information on the legendary performer.  Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography stands out for Jones lovely, flowing line work, which really brings across in still images a feeling of fluid motion & grace.

Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography
Isadora Duncan: A Graphic Biography

A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge is a book by Josh Neufeld that was inspired by his work volunteering for the American Red Cross in Biloxi, MS.  Neufeld became acquainted with a number of individuals whose lives were affected by Hurricane Katrina.  He kept in touch with them, and recounted their stories.  A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge is a very sobering look at what happened during one of the worst natural disasters of the last decade, told from the points of view of the people on the ground.

I really enjoyed this book, because it really cut through the inaccurate sensationalism that often plagued the reporting of events in New Orleans, and told it as it really was.  This was a very eye-opening read.  It was a great look at how humanity, under the worst circumstances, is sometimes able to rise to the occasion and be the best it can, with unlikely true-life heroes materializing where you least expected them.  Neufeld’s artwork really captures the grim devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and the subsequent flooding.  His people, with their expressions & body language, have very palpable emotions.  It was a really engaging read.  Hurricane Katrina is definitely a weighty topic to explore, but Neufeld does it in a thoughtful, respectful manner, letting his subjects’ lives unfold on their own, telling their own stories.

A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge
A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge

The final book I read recently was Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli.  I will be up front on this one: it is not a casual read.  There is a tremendous amount of depth, symbolism, and philosophy to Mazzucchelli’s work.  On the surface, the book looks at the disintegration and rebuilding of the life of an architect.  Asterios Polyp is an acclaimed university professor who has designed numerous revolutionary buildings.  Actually, that is to say, Polyp has drawn them on paper, but none of them have been physically constructed.

The book is very much concerned with questions of identity and reality.  If a building has not been built, can it be said to really exist?  Likewise, there is much about Polyp that seems abstract and theoretical, that he is an idea for a person, that he is not really living a life so much as going through the motions of what he thinks his life should be.  Polyp is obsessed with the fact that he had a twin brother who died at birth, and he contemplates that perhaps he is living the life his brother might have if he’d survived.  Polyp goes so far as to videotape all of his activities at home to create a “video doppelganger” to stand in for his missing twin.

Asterios Polyp
Asterios Polyp

I am not going to pretend to understand much of what Mazzucchelli explored with this graphic novel.  It is very apparent that Asterios Polyp is intended to be re-read and contemplated.  What I do know is that Mazzucchelli spent some amount of time on creating this book.  No choice of line work, layout, color shade, or font appears to have been left to chance.  Even the unusual dust jacket size was a deliberate decision on Mazzucchelli’s part.  In a way, he can be regarded as the architect of this book, his designs as meticulous as those he assigned to the works of Polyp within the book.  Did Mazzucchelli intend that, as well?  Is he, in the creation of this work, mirroring his fictional protagonist?  By even creating this book, is Mazzucchelli blurring the line between reality and fiction?  Once again, I cannot say.  But it really does make you think.