[Jessica Abel, Paul Pope, Dean Haspiel, and Nick Bertozzi, on the road from M.I.T.]
Jessica Abel, Paul Pope, Nick Bertozzi, and I, rendezvoused early at Cafe Reggio on MacDougal Street in the west village of Manhattan Thursday morning. The road trip to Cambridge, MA, gave us a good 5-hours to catch up with each other. Nick played a round of mash-ups as DESTINY'S CHILD sang over NIRVANA riffs. I brought KRAFTWERK [my latest return to analog robot sounds], and FELIX DA HOUSECAT'S "Watching cars goes by" became our roaring posse tune. Nick and I discussed the next issue of RUBBERNECKER and the status of his graphic novel THE SALON, while Paul and Jessica discussed the formal qualities of the comix page. We all came to the conclusion that Fumetti's [photo comix], made for bad sequential narratives and didn't allow the reader to naturally marry text with images. A photograph steals a single second of time whereas the innate inaccuracies of a drawn image psychologically allows for considered time to pass alongside words. Photos are being used more in mainstream comics, often manipulated to look like illustration, and the effect largely fails the esthetic experience I desire in a comic book.
We grabbed a quick bite of Mediterranean food before hoofing it through M.I.T.'s Hall of Infinity, towards the room we would speak in. We gave Vanessa Bertozzi [Nick's sister and organizer of this little event] a hug and met the charming Professor Henry Jenkins, comix academic and champion of the form. After brief introductions and the lights dimmed, Jessica spoke first and showed an overview of her career from its origins to date. Seeing her "Jack London" pages projected wide across the wall was amazing to study. It's rare that one holds a magnifying glass up to their work. I was reminded how beautiful and lush Jessica's drawings can sometimes be. Her painted covers were majestic and I think she plans to create and sell prints of them. Paul spoke second as he discussed his origins as a frustrated painter cum cartoonist who has come to solely create in terms of comix. For someone who originally needed to "destroy comics" in order to learn them, Paul embraced his heroes. NEW GODS meets CORTO MALTESE by way of Philip K. Dick; Paul Pope is an innovative visionary whose influences have gelled into an original sensibility that I admire and always learn from. Paul ended his overview with a promotional page from his upcoming kids project, BATTLING BOY. The art he projected humbled me. Nick was third as he gave the colloquium a much needed injection of humor. Nick grew up on the polar opposite sensibilities of CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED and R. CRUMB comix [sans the naughty bits as per his cautionary father] and tried to make an early comix impact with marketing tactics. Discovering the popularity of Shannon Wheeler's TOO MUCH COFFEE MAN comix, Nick decided he'd corner the alcohol market with the short lived THE INCREDIBLE DRINKIN' BUDDIES and TRANQUILIZER, which cost him a good $16,000 of solid debt. It wasn't until after his failed attempt to sell and publish FILTHY BABY [my favorite Bertozzi comic to date, bar none], that he took some much needed advice from me [when we lived together] to take personal risks, tell the stories he wanted to tell, and quit trying to fill industry holes [maybe certain ideas will never sell and that's why they don't exist in the market?]. Heeding my advice, Nick went on to win a Xeric Grant for his innovative map-comic BOSWASH, got published in L'Association's COMIX 2000, and scored Alternative Comics as a publisher for THE MASOCHIST'S, and his award winning RUBBERNECKER series.
Not having prepared any cohesive thoughts for the brief discussion of my career overview, I wanted to let my images prompt knee-jerk reactions and jog memories. I was pleasantly jolted by my schizophrenic career. Having dreamt of becoming a penciller for Marvel Comics' THE FANTASTIC FOUR, only to discover the underground comix of Chester Brown and Harvey Pekar at an impressionable age, I was curious to learn my hyper ability to hopscotch between genre and semi-auto-bio over the past many years. Having had semi-success with my first co-creation in 1987 with THE VERDICT, I've never apologized for my desire to draw genre oriented comix. Having failed two early attempts to draw for DC Comics [the second attempt occurred when I fell off a 3-story building shattering my legs and compromising my drawing hand], I studied and made films only to return to the comix industry via KEYHOLE mini-comix with Josh Neufeld [aka 4_eyez]. Learning to write for myself, taking chances to create original characters, and exploring semi-autobio while collaborating with established writers, snowballed into a career that is inconsistent yet littered with obscure highlights. I've worked with masters and peers and made a small dent with my solo offerings, keeping one foot firmly planted in the independent pond while mangling franchise characters in the mainstream. I showed art from OPPOSABLE THUMBS to BILLY DOGMA, THE THING to CAPTAIN AMERICA to X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN, from BATMAN to JUSTICE LEAGUE, THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF THE ESCAPIST to VAMPIRELLA. Ending off on my current projects, Harvey Pekar's THE QUITTER, and my upcoming 2-man superhero anthology with Scott Morse, AS BIG AS EARTH.
After the digital slide show, there was a Q&A. One woman asked us about the future of comix. Paul weighed in about city building and how gadgets and environmental innovation will always be something he explores in his world view. I expressed my mission to perpetuate the dying art of romance and honor and the poetic struggle that lies within. Something I struggle with in my own life. Another woman asked us what we do to make our books stand out from the rest. I told her I strip my clothes off at conventions and everyone laughed. Overall, I would hazard to guess that 35 people, including cartoonist Greg Cook, showed up for the event.
The after party furnished pizza and soda in Professor Jenkin's abode where his living room was a virtual comix lounge. I met and talked with Meg Lemke, an editor from HOUGHTON MIFFLIN, who was very interested in developing original graphic novels. She was a huge fan of Craig Thompson's BLANKETS and we discussed the pros and cons of micro-managing creativity. At one point, the group discussed SIN CITY. Some folks were disappointed in its cinematic structure. I declared it a unique spectacle that had you recovering from the first third of the repeated themes in the movie until it finally stopped. I suggested that fans of Frank Miller abandon the notion of cinema when watching SIN CITY and to bring a seat belt. I met LJer rojagato who was awfully kind and quite gracious.
A student named Tracy, invited us to take a private tour through the infamous M.I.T. Media Lab. Bug-eyed we jumped at the chance. Tracy took us through a few floors of sheer innovation. It was hard to grasp the amount of ideas and information that was being experimented on. Young geniuses were staying late because this is where their brain belonged. A place where time had no place because most of their ideas probably wouldn't make practical sense into today's culture and economy. I saw things that sobered and frightened me. Things that I would never have considered. From far flung domestic fantasy's to sentimental solutions [like a picture frame laced with buttons you press to send lit hugs & kisses to your loved ones far away], to the advancement of communication, the internet, cars, to visualizing people and environments with only the use of sound manifesting image, to romper rooms staged with playful musical toy sponges and monkey robots made from Legos. There were rooms sealed from public view but the hint of weapon technology was ever present as computer lined cloth and combative skin haunted the halls in glass cases. We saw the future and it was Jack Kirby's OMAC.
So, we all went back to the Mediterranean place which was also a bar. Tracy, who is half black/half Spanish, had recently written an essay about the representation of the African-American image in comix and was curious about my intentions for THE YELLOW KITE in my A-OKAY COOL comix. We wound have having a semi-heated debate about art and how it provokes reaction and what is the responsibility of the artist. I argued that my creation was an absurd parody of the superhero team yet clearly a love letter to the Silver Age of comics, and that THE YELLOW KITE was one reaction to a version of the black culture I grew up on and admired. Having dug Blaxploitation and dub reggae, THE YELLOW KITE was a fond celebration of Rudy Ray Moore's DOLEMITE and Lee "Scratch" Perry's THE UPSETTERS. Growing up to witness the invention of rap with Afrika Bambaataa and The Soul Sonic Force's PLANET ROCK, and Run-DMC's ground-breaking IT'S LIKE THAT, and taking part in the culture thereof I didn't feel it blasphemous, as a white man, to brandish black superheroes in my comix. Tracy had a hard time getting past the depiction of THE YELLOW KITE'S wide nose, big lips, afro, and pot belly, which confounded me. What? Some black people don't look like that? She thought the wooden scepter referenced the jungle spear and wondered why his cape was a kite? I suggested that she may be over-thinking my supposed "racist art" and that maybe she should learn to embrace some of the qualities of her own character. She admitted to having identity issues. Despite creed and gender, it's how my characters act and what they do that should concern her. In "The Flight of the Yellow Kite," Nushaun Kevorka is inadvertently transformed into a superhero and saves the day from evil. One could claim THE YELLOW KITE absurd, but the intent of his character is a force for good. Tracy thought future stories involving THE YELLOW KITE could have him fight for black rights. I told her that would be trite and not what I was trying to say with that character [although, oddly enough, I've plotted a future story where THE YELLOW KITE battles a Nazi Terrorist]. She agreed it could be trite. We were in a Mexican stand-off as we knocked back another round of whiskey. Finally, she asked if she could write about THE YELLOW KITE in a follow up to her recent essay. I gave her my blessing.
We spent the rest of the night knocking back more whiskey and taking cheesecake pictures. Nick drove Vanessa and Tracy back to their respective homes while we blasted our posse tune "Watching cars goes by" before calling it a night and hitting hay.
On the car ride back to NYC, Paul showed us original art from SOLO and his upcoming THB and BATMAN YEAR 100. Studying Pope's work up close, I came to realize that I'm just another rinky-dink ink-slinger and that, until my work manifests a sole sensibility, my name will never justify sitting above a franchise title. Face it, you're not reading just another issue in a long history of BATMAN comix when reading Frank Miller or Paul Pope. Conversing about that kind of creative carte blanche with Pope, who is incredibly humble yet focused, it caused me to think more about my station in the comix industry and the work I have to do of I want a shot at telling and selling the tales I wish to draw. I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to draw Pekar's THE QUITTER, make creator-owned comix like BILLY DOGMA, while developing new collaborations with writers I admire but I need something more. If there's one thing I walked away from my experience to and from M.I.T., is that tomorrow will soon become yesterday and I better get what I want today.
Inside M.I.T.'s sanctum sanatorium, The Media Lab:
[L to R: Jessica, Nick, Dean, Vanessa, & Paul]
Bar banter and cheesecake:
On the road back to NYC: