Monday, March 2, 2015

Angoulême: Year Zero

Yours truly, at Angoulême, with a copy of the latest Charlie Hebdo.

I'm back, after a month-long book tour in Europe. There's too much too write about in one blog post, and most of it would bore you anyways. So I'll focus on the Angoulême International Comics Fest, which Matthias Wivel in The Comics Journal dubbed Year Zero.

It was, of course, mere weeks after terrorists slaughtered 12 people, and injured 11 others,  at the office of Charlie Hebdo, while another fanatic killed a policewoman and an additional four at a kosher grocery. How would this play out at Angoulême? I wasn't sure what to expect.

Angoulême, as everyone should know by now,  is the greatest comix fest in the world. Creators from every corner of the globe gather here, along with 100,000 or so fans. There's no cosplaying hordes, no  dealers with slabbed $5,000 copies of Spider-man #14, no giant displays featuring a line of Justice League Craftsman Tools, no Walking Dead cast members signing 8x10s for $50 a pop, no t-shirt towers. At Angoulême, it's just comix publishers selling comix to comix fans. No one on the planet reads comix like the French. Not only do they buy them in per capita numbers larger than any other folk, but they respect the art form. Comix aren't junk culture to them. You'll never encounter someone in France looking down on you because you make (or read) comix. Just the opposite, in fact. 

Angoulême should be on the bucket list of every comix lover. The 2014 fest was my first. It stands as the highlight of my career. My colleague Frank Santaro wrote about  it, also in The Comics Journal. It's a great piece that really captures the experience, my experience. I read it every now and then, just to remember and smile.

The Nouveau Pavilion, where my publisher is located. Heaters pump hot air into the tent, which winds along a city street, the length of several football fields.

Inside the pavilion! And security kept the crowd smaller than the norm!
Angoulême is a sleepy village about three hours south of Paris by train. The fest is held in the last week of January. No one is sure why it's held in the dead of winter, other than it's been that way for 40 years, making it one of the oldest comic cons in the world. The old center of the town, up on a hill and surrounded by a magnificent medieval wall, is totally given over to the fest. Huge  tents.... portable halls would be a better description... are erected in the streets. Every public building is reserved for panels, exhibits and performances. Most locals in the center rent out their houses and flats to fans and visiting pros. For one week in the dead of winter, this small town becomes the center of the comix universe.

As usual this year, there were weather issues. My French publisher, Éditions Çà et Là ( it means Here & There) publishes only foreign creators, including many from the States. Serge flies a bunch of us over for Angoulême each year. This year, of course, the entire Northeast was snowbound. Everyone flying out of New York or Boston was grounded. That's the risk you run when you hold a festival at the end of January. There's been talk of moving it to May or June, but nothing ever seems to get done. After four decades, I guess the date is pretty well entrenched.

I lucked out (although initially I grumbled about it) and went via Atlanta, so I was one of the few who arrived on time. Cooled my heels at the Paris Montparnasse train station for a few hours... and I do mean cooled, because European train stations are unheated and, since Montparnasse is fairly remote and not in the center of Paris like some of the other stations, there's nothing to do but tough it out and wait. Later that afternoon I stepped off the train once again into Angoulême.

Right away, you could tell the festival was different. Security was ramped up to the max. Armed soldiers patrolled the street. They were right there in the train station. First thing I saw when arriving. It was necessary, of course. The French were admirably defiant after the Hebdo attack. If the fanatics wanted to respond to that defiance, where better than at France's largest cartoon festival? Mow down more infidel cartoonists and their infidel fans. I wasn't worried in the least. Heck, Angoulême was probably the safest town in France this week!

I wondered beforehand if Angoulême this year was going to feel like a funeral. It was quickly obvious that it wouldn't. Outside of the heightened security, I didn't see much of a difference. People were talking about Hebdo, sure, but most everyone was here for the love of comix. That, as much as anything, I thought, was the best way to honor the Hebdo cartoonists.

Even the ramped up security measures were taken in stride. There were long lines to enter every building and tent. Credentials were checked, bags were searched, everyone was wanded and patted down. It made moving about the fest a pain, and often damn near impossible. This is the price we pay to flip off the fanatics. The fans didn't seem to mind.

Hebdo covers, plastered on walls and displays throughout town.

The slow-moving line to enter one of the tents. I didn't hear any grumbling, even when
the freezing rain started.

All around town were reminders of the slain cartoonists. Posters of the Hebdo covers, the very ones that enraged the terrorists, were plastered everywhere. Most storefronts proudly displayed a Je Suis Charlie sign in the front window. A large banner honoring the dead hung on the facade of  the town hall. 

But once I was at the Çà et Là booth in Le Nouveau Monde pavillion (reserved for what we would call Indy Comix publishers), it was business as usual. I got right to work, with a 3-hour signing session. A solo signing, it turned out, because Joe Lambert and Liz Prinz, who were scheduled to man the booth with me, were still stuck in snowbound Boston. It's a little tougher than it sounds. It's not just simply scrawling my name on the title page. French comix fans expect what they call a "dedicace," a nice signed drawing on the title page. Some creators go all out. Joe Lambert does intricate double-page ink drawings. Brendan Leach pulls out the brushes and adds watercolor washes to his. I stick to ink, because (not to brag) the lines waiting for my dedicace are too long to spend 20 minutes on every one. It's enough work as it is just to crank out a nice ink drawing! I enjoy it, actually. The fans watch you draw, smiling all the while. Some chat you up. It's a great way to engage with people who like your work. 

A drawing of Wendy O. Williams, a dedicace for Punk Rock et Mobile Homes.

My first trip to France, I fretted about people standing in long lines, so I scribbled as fast as I could and the dedicaces were.... well, let's just call them "rushed." No more. I don't linger, but I take my time and try to do a nice piece. The French don't mind waiting (some even bring portable chairs for the line!) and I don't kill myself working at a full sprint. Luckily, since I've been cranking out Trashed pages since August, I was at mid-season form. Doing 50 dedicaces in a signing sessions was no problem at all. The Mon Ami Dahmer dedicaces are all the same, a somber drawing of Jeff with some Fall leaves fluttering past. It's a little boring, since it's the same drawing over and over, but it's a drawing I've perfected, so the fans walk away happy. The Punk Rock et Mobile Homes dedicaces I have more fun with. Joey Ramone is my go to, but I happily take requests. It tickles me when a fan requests Ruby or Uncle Elmo or Becky the Biblethumper.

Overall, from my observation, con-goers were talking about Hebdo, to be sure, and it hung over the festival, but the mood was far more upbeat than I expected. Many French fans thanked me for the piece I drew following the attacks, which eventually wound up in a special insert in Liberation, one of France's national papers.  I was interviewed several times about the attacks, as well, including by the New York Times, an institution that has never shown the slightest interest in my work or opinion before. But here at Angoulême, the reporter was anxious to talk to me. Amusingly, one of the Çà et Là staff, who didn't give a rat's ass about a US newspaper, shooed her away, since she didn't have an appointment for an interview. The reporter returned later and was shooed away again! Luckily, I overheard this exchange and intervened. The reporter questioned me as I drew a dedicace of Joey Ramone. Very fitting, no?

Working on a dedicace. I prefer to stand, Puts me at eye level with the fans I'm drawing for and, after a long flight and train ride, it's good to stretch my legs.

I have fans write out their names, so I don't screw up the spelling. It's a nice souvenir of a
trip, a book filled with names.

I had at least two signings a day, which didn't leave a lot of time to look around the fest, since moving from venue to venue was difficult with the security lines and pat downs. I was determined to check out most of the big exhibits, though. The showcase one was the Calvin & Hobbes show. It debuted at the Ohio State Cartoon Museum last year, and since Waterson was awarded the grand prize at Angoulême (sort of a career achievement award) it was loaned out to the fest. In fact, Ohio State's Jenny Robb and Caitlin McGurk were in Angoulême to babysit the show!  Hilarious to spend evenings at the Chat Noir pub with a couple Ohio State pals, so far from home. I don't have much interest in Calvin & Hobbes, to be honest. I'm just not one of Watterson's fanatical groupies. It's good stuff, don't get me wrong, and I don't fault anyone for being attached to it, but I wasn't reading many comix during the strip's lifespan. I didn't grow up with it, like so many who love it deeply. For me, it was Peanuts, then Kirby.

The Jack Kirby exhibit was the one I was most anxious to see, and it would have been amazing, if not for the Hebdo attacks. Angoulême has a large museum, down the hill and across the river, in the new town. It's a proper museum, quite impressive, and it's here where the featured exhibits for every fest are held. But a Hebdo exhibit  was hurriedly thrown together, so the Kirby exhibit was bumped to a pavillion. Obviously, you're not going to display $1 million in Kirby originals in a tent, so the real pages were swapped out with same-size photocopies. Word has it the originals were stacked on the dining room table of the rental flat of the curator! It was an amazing selection, going all the way back to Golden Age Capt. America pages. You all know what a Kirby buff I am, but viewing photocopies, even with the originals somewhere in the village, well, that just doesn't generate the same thrill.

I made sure, however, to set aside an afternoon for the Charlie Hebdo exhibit. Joe Lambert and Kevin Cannon went with me. Security was even tighter at this exhibit. Everyone was carefully searched and the line was huge. But much to my surprise, we were waved through, thanks to our badges that IDed us as "auteurs." This is the only place in the fest where this happened.

Joe Lambert takes in the Hebdo exhibit.

It was one of the most powerful and moving exhibits I've ever seen. Granted, for someone like me, who once made a career penning cartoons that would have fit very easily into Charlie Hebdo, it packed an emotional whallop. I felt tears running down my cheeks at several points. Joe and Kevin were both moved by the exhibit, but not on that level, which is understandable since they've never done political cartoons.

The display, a history of Charlie Hebdo, impressively thrown together by curator Jean-Pierre Mercier and his team in a mere 10 days, traced the publication from it's early days as the magazine Hara-Kiri in the early Sixties, through the founding of Charlie Hebdo in the Seventies, to the current incarnation, which was started in 1992. 

Many viewers were taking notes. Others were overcome with grief and sprawled across the cases, like a spouse throwing herself onto her husband's casket. Others simply stared at a single display, one which obviously meant something special to them. I watched one man, on his knees, stare at one cover for a good 10 minutes. I was curious to ask him why, this cover in particular meant so much to him, but I didn't want to disturb his reflection.

The serpentine display cases led viewers on a winding path through covers, cartoons and controversy (unfortunately, with no English translations of the accompanying  text so I missed out on the full history), right up to the final issue before the slaughter. That lone cover, set by itself, had a powerful effect. Wham! Here's the end. I staggered back a bit when I got to it, so overwhelming was the visual.

Stretching along an entire wall of the large gallery was a blackboard, where people were encouraged to pen their own thoughts. It was covered at this point, with messages layered on top of each other many times. I didn't pick up a piece of chalk and add my own. I already had my say, after all. To scrawl something else seemed more showy than genuine, I thought. Maybe that's silly, but I don't regret it.

Another moment that resulted in a hard lump in my throat, above. A father teaches his daughter the simple act of defiance in the name of freedom of expression. He patiently talked to her the whole time, explaining that they weren't simply drawing fun pictures on a big blackboard, but that this meant a great deal more.

In a separate room, behind the blackboard, was an exhibit devoted to the individual work of the slain cartoonists. As I moved around the displays I heard people softly sobbing. The total effect on the overall exhibit was simply staggering. To be honest, it wasn't in keeping with Charlie Hedbo at all! It's understandable, of course, since this is, more than anything, calling hours at a funeral, but I didn't hear any laughter, or even see any smiles as people viewed the work. Shouldn't there be laughter? Wasn't that the life's work of these men? I mentioned to Joe and Kevin that it would have been completely appropriate had loud fart noises been piped into the gallery. 

I left Angoulême the following day, for a a week-long book tour of Provence. By the time I made it back to Paris, most of my Çà et Là compatriots were gone. I still had another week of signing around Paris and other places in France, then Belgium and then to the Netherlands for the launch of the Dutch version of My Friend Dahmer. I took the Metro from the train station to the Place de la Republique, the nearest stop to my hotel. The grand open plaza was also the scene of the impromptu gathering of thousands on the night of the Hebdo attacks. I dragged my luggage behind me as I viewed the memorials littering the statue at the center of the square.

I dumped my bags at the Hotel Cosmos, and, since I had the rest of the day free, headed over to the Hebdo office, where the murderous assault took place. It was only a few blocks away. I didn't want this hanging over my head during my stay in Paris. I wanted to go there anyways, so might as well get it over with.

The building is right in the heart of Paris, quite near the Bastille. It's incredible that the terrorists could drive away and slip the noose after the assault! In NYC there would have been 1000 cop cars screeching up to the front door by the time you could count to 20. I suppose the unexpected nature of it is to account for that. Paris is not Fortress America. In fact, there was almost no police presence at the building. Just a couple cops directing traffic in the street, as gawkers slowed to gander at the memorials that were piled along the fence. And they were packing up to leave as I walked up in the late afternoon.

Three weeks had passed by this point, and the weather in France I'll charitably describe as "shitty." Driving rain, mostly. So most of the memorials, especially the notes and drawings, were weatherbeaten and decomposing. Garbagemen cleared it all away once a week, so the memorial was steadily replenished. The flowers that lay along the fence were wilted and brown. The overall effect was quite sad. It's as if the emotion had drained out of it. All that was left was sadness and regret.

Still, some were quite moving. This piece, obviously the contribution of a working cartoonist, is brilliant. I  couldn't find anything about the cartoonist "Laleu" online.

What I found most heartening were the simple reminders all over the city, and all over the country, for that matter. Like this one, stenciled into a crosswalk on a quiet Paris side street. 

As many French told me, not many people cared or thought much about free speech before the attacks. All the terrorists had done, outside of murdering 17 innocent people, of course, had reminded an entire nation how important this issue was to them. And where no one read Hebdo before the attacks (it had a circ of roughly 50, 000 and was kept afloat by a consortium of larger publications who provided budget and resources), now EVERYbody reads Hebdo. The print runs are now in the millions. This won't last, of course, that's only natural and there's always a shelf life on defiance, but it's admirable. All the gung-ho Americans who crack nasty jokes about the French and their supposed lack of fighting spirit should take note. 

It's not an experience I'll forget, being here mere days after the attack. And, of course, a week later, a fanatical lunatic tried to assassinate another cartoonist in Copenhagen. My fear is not being a jihadist's target, but rather for the chilling effect these assaults will have on the artform. Hell, the American political cartoon is already a nearly dead genre. It's been downsized, de-fanged and dumbed down by the corporate masters of media. Think they'll stand up to the threat, real or, more likely, some meaningless online rant? Let's not hold our breath.

Monday, January 26, 2015

And I'm off!

I'm off for another European Book Tour. Check in on Facebook and Twitter for photos, updates and musings. Blogger won't allow me to log on to my page here from abroad. Total pain in the ass.

Thursday, Jan 29: Angoulême Comix Fest. A four hour signing marathon at theEditions ÇàetLà booth in the Forum du Nouveau Monde.

Friday, Jan. 30: Angoulême Comix Fest. Drawing concert at the Angoulême Théâter. Three hour signing at the Editions ÇàetLà booth.

Saturday, Jan. 31: Two hour signing at the Editions ÇàetLà booth.

Sunday, Feb. 1: Two hour signing at the Editions ÇàetLà booth.

Monday, Feb. 2: to Friday, Feb. 6: the Prix Litéraire Festival in Provence. I'll be doing several public signings.

Tuesday, Feb. 3: signing at 17:30, Librairie Papiers Collés, Draguignan

Friday, Feb. 6: Signing at 17:30, Librairie Contrebandes, Toulon

Saturday, Feb. 7: Signing at Librairie Mollat, Bordeaux at 16:00

Monday, Feb. 9:  Signing at Fnac Les Halles, Paris.  17:30 – 19:00 

Tuesday, Feb. 10: Signing at Boulinier, Paris. 18:00

Wednesday, Feb. 11:  Signing at Grand Nulle Part, Rouen. 15:00 - 19:00

Thursday, Feb. 12: Lecture and signing at Mine de Rien, Besançon. 14:30 - 17:00

Friday, Feb. 13:  Signing at Cook and Book, Bruxelles, Belgium. 17:00 – 20:00

Saturday, Feb. 14: Signing at Het Besloten Land bookstore,  Leuven, Belgium. Afternoon. 
Sunday, Feb. 15: , signing at American Bookstore, Amsterdam. 15:00
Monday Feb. 15: Signing TBA
Tuesday Feb. 17: 
Signing at Lambiek, Amsterdam.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

To the critics of Hebdo

I leave for France Tuesday, to attend the Angoulême Comix Fest, the Priz Librairie Book Festival in Provence, and for another book tour around France, Belgium and the Netherlands. I've been putting off writing this post for over a week now, mainly because I've been scrambling to finish as much work as I can before I leave for the month, but also just to let things die down and emotions cool.

If you've been following me on Facebook and Twitter, you how deeply affected I was by the Hebdo attacks. As a (former) political cartoonist, as a popular graphic novelist in France, with both Mon Ami Dahmer and Punk Rock et Mobile Homes on the bestseller list in that comix-crazed country, and as a free speech advocate, the murders of the Hebdo staff hit me hard. 

But what I want to write about today is the backlash.

The bodies weren't even in the ground before critics began piling on. Mostly the attacks came from the English-speaking Left, particularly in Britain and here. Most publications in these two countries wouldn't even reprint the cartoons that led to the slaughter. That's simple corporate cowardice by Big Media Inc., and the subject for another post.  Far more troubling is the reaction of some of our commentators and columnists. I'm going to call out two of them.

Glenn Greenwald's piece for his website The Intercept got re-posted everywhere. Greenwald's take on Hebdo:

Some of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were not just offensive but bigoted, such as the one mocking the African sex slaves of Boko Haram as welfare queens. 

He then posts a dozen cartoons, culled from Arab and White Power publications, that show the same bile (he thinks), but directed toward Jews.

Is it time for me to be celebrated for my brave and noble defense of free speech rights? Have I struck a potent blow for political liberty and demonstrated solidarity with free journalism by publishing blasphemous cartoons? If, as Salman Rushdie said, it’s vital that all religions be subjected to “fearless disrespect,” have I done my part to uphold western values?

Greenwald (again, so he thinks) is holding up a mirror to us Islamaphobe Westerners. Here are some cartoons that are as bad as the Hebdo ones, but taboo here in the West. Bet they make you squirm, don't they?

Problem is, Greenwald, like many other critics of Charlie Hebdo, and like the jihadists and radical imans themselves, completely misunderstand the cartoons in question! In Greenwald's case, he is flat-out WRONG.

This cartoon is not an attack, as Greenwald mistakenly states, against Boko Haram's sex slaves. It's a dig at Marine Le Pen and her far-right National Front Party, a favorite Hebdo target which has made stunning gains in recent elections and which often rails that France's liberal asylum policy results in immigrants, mostly Muslims and Africans, who just want to live off welfare. Get it? France's rightwing thinks even Boko Haram victims are just out for a welfare check! But no one grasps that here, even though it sounds an awful lot like a FoxNews screed about African-americans and the infamous Welfare Queens, no? And comedians and cartoonists here mock that all the time.

Hebdo, which is, in fact, unabashedly liberal and pro-imigration, not racist and rightwing, often does the exact same thing Stephen Colbert does, mocking the rightwing by pretending to be rightwing, and no one is dumb enough to take Colbert at face value! 

Why has this been missed by Hebdo's critics here in America, most of whom were completely unaware that this publication even existed two weeks ago?  Because our Princelings of Media like Greenwald are in a rush to judge, and, frankly,  smug.  You can't understand satire if you don't understand context. In this case, I don't think Greenwald even bothered to get this thing translated, let alone ask a Frenchman what it meant. This is pure intellectual laziness.

The other opinion piece that set my teeth grinding was by Steven Litt, art critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He was moved to muse on the Hebdo controversy after taking in an exhibit on Nazi propaganda at Cleveland's Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. 

No, really.

He writes:

Here's what troubles me: Beyond violating the Islamic prohibition against depicting their prophet, the Charlie Hebdo caricature of Muhammad employs exaggerated ethnic features that, to my eye, come uncomfortably close to racial caricatures of Jews used by the Nazis to create a social and political environment conducive to the "Final Solution."

Yeah, uncomfortably close.... except the Hebdo cartoons were made by lefty cartoonists in Paris while the Nazi cartoons were made by murderous psychopaths who slaughtered millions of innocent people!! Other than that minor detail, they're exactly alike!  Good Lord. My mouth dropped open at this ridiculous comparison. Of all the criticisms I've read of Hebdo, THIS one tops them all!

Now, I've met Litt. He's a good art critic and, for the most part, I enjoy his articles. Many years ago, he even reviewed my first solo gallery show here in Clevo. It was a largely favorable review, but it was painfully obvious he didn't really "get" comix. Not much has changed, judging from this off-target piece.

Litt then links the Hebdo cartoons to France's antisemitism in the years before WWII. The problem there is that the oldest of the slain cartoonists, George Wolinski, who was a Jew, by the way, was all of 11 years old when the war ended in 1945. He and his mother had to flee their native Poland in 1936 to escape the pre-war pogroms. Jean Cabut, aka Cabu, was seven. The rest were born in the Fifties and Sixties. The editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, was born in 1967! These people had absolutely nothing to do with French racial attitudes in the Thirties. That's like dismissing the cartoons of Tom Tomorrow because America once had Jim Crow! It doesn't even make sense. OK, they're all French and France was once pretty hostile to Jews, 75 or so years ago, so ergo..... J'accuse! Litt obviously has no clue that the Hebdo cartoonists are all  progressives, and Hebdo has never been accused of anti-Jewish attitudes. They're not anti-Muslim either. They just don't have much use for religion, any religion.  Litt's train of thought here is as preposterous as it is factually incorrect. Is it so hard to look this stuff up?

He then goes on to compare the Hebdo cartoonists to 19th-century artist Honore Daumier, which is the sort of thing art critics love to do when trying to understand something as lowbrow as cartoons, rather than look at REAL influences like the postwar American humor comics, such as Harvey Kurtzman's Mad, and the great magazine cartoons of the Fifties, ala Charles Addams. In fact  the root of this particular style of European cartooning is right here among the dead. Wolinski and Cabu are comix pioneers in France, important and influential cartoonists purely on their own merit.  They have no more a connection to Daumier than I do. Cartoonists tend to look at earlier cartoonists for inspiration anyways. We're incestuous in that way.  Why art critics always try to trace comix roots back to someone they read about in Art History class is a puzzle. I suppose that's to be expected, especially here in the US where highbrow regard for comix is practically nil.

Litt concludes: 

My view is that the Charlie Hebdo cartoon of Muhammad is offensive, pointlessly inflammatory and indicative of a double standard over caricatures of Muslims and Jews. 

I am for free speech but I am not, as they say, Charlie Hebdo.

Twisting "Je Suis Charlie" to be some wrong-headed declaration against racist caricatures that aren't, in fact, racist? At that point, I hurled the paper away from me in disgust.

I find it utterly dismaying when American liberals start clucking their collective tongues in PC angst over the Hebdo cartoons. Not to their taste? Understandable. Charlie Hebdo is a political fart joke. It's crass, and tasteless and unapologetically lowbrow. It's not the gentle, wine-sipping humor of New Yorker cartoons. The Intellectual Left has always had a problem with cartoons in this country. My experience with them, especially with oh-so-earnest publications like The Nation, Utne Reader, etc., is that they are FAR more likely to censor cartoons than anyone else. There's just something about comix that raises their suspicions. It's an American thing, not one shared by our French friends, who embrace comix like no other nation.

Hebdo cartoonists and staff, particularly Rènald Luzier, aka Luz, who defiantly drew the latest Muhammad cover and will likely be a jihadist target for the rest of his life, deserve nothing but respect, especially from journalists writing from their cozy, safe homes here in Fortress America.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Story Behind My "Je Suis Charlie" Cartoon

Spread from the Charlie Hebdo insert in Libération newspaper.

It's been a trying few days. The massacre in Paris hit me harder than any event since 9-11.

If you've been following me on Facebook or Twitter, I've been posting about this all in real time and writing specifically about the issues involved. I won't repeat it here. Instead, I'd like to explain how my Je Suis Charlie piece came together, and what has happened since. It's all been quite incredible, and very humbling.

I'm not friends with the folks that were slaughtered, although I briefly met Stephane "Chard" Charbonnier at last year's Angoulême Int'l Comics Fest. It was no more than a passing introduction and a handshake and smile. But these were colleagues, who did the same type of cartoons I drew for two decades. We're a small brotherhood. I lost some of my own, men and women killed for ideas, by sociopaths who are obsessed with their cult of death. I cried that day. 

Throughout the ordeal, as the hunt for killers went on, I was in contact with my colleagues in France, specifically those at my publisher Éditions Çà et Là. You can imagine what they were going through, but, despite the threat of further terrorist attacks, the staff was heading out that evening, mere hours after the attack at the Hebdo office,  to a rally at Place de la République, organized through social media by the comix and literary communities of Paris. I watched it unfold online as thousands flooded the grand plaza.

Place de la République

Place de la République is the heart of Paris. The hotel I often stay at during my trips (three in the past year) is but a few blocks away. I've walked across that plaza 100 times at least, since the metro stop is directly below. Seeing the familiar streets cape and the monument that dominates the plaza, and the thousand and thousands of Parisians holding aloft handmade Je Suis Charlie signs or, even more moving, drawing implements, in a simple courageous act of defiance, was very emotional. I knew then I had to draw something.

I wasn't interested in drawing a political statement. I drew political cartoons for years, first in college at Ohio State, then as a pro from 1984-1989 for a crappy paper in Florida and (against my will) as the 2nd-string political cartoonist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Then again from roughly 2001 on in my comic strip The City, as it morphed into a political cartoon after 9-11. But I hung it up a year ago when I retired the strip in favor of a full-time career as a graphic novelist.  Like an aging ballplayer, I couldn't go back.

"Not afraid."

What I wanted to do instead, was pen a tribute to my fallen comrades, and to the concept of free expression, to which they gave their lives. The images of the day, particularly the drawing tools held aloft, immediately came to mind. Who better to hold them than Otto, my protagonist from Punk Rock & Trailer Parks? I felt the image of the lead character of a bestselling book.... and PR&TP is, magically, one of the top-selling indy books of 2014 in France... would resonate with french comix fans. They absolutely love "le Baron!" It's one of the most surprising and wonderful things that's happened to me. This was my meager way of giving something back. The pose in the cartoon, of course, mirrors Otto's pose on the cover of PR&TP. I toyed with drawing the entire cover, with the joshing crowd surrounding Otto now staring out and holding drawing tools. But it was very late and I was fast running out of gas, so I opted for the simple lone figure and the black background.

I drew it in half an hour, and posted it on my publisher's Facebook page. It quickly started flying around French comix sites. The Angoulême Festival featured it on their site. French newspapers and magazines posted it. Éditions Çà et Là replaced the home page of its website with the cartoon. Messages of thanks poured in from French fans. More tears. And then Liberátion, the national newspaper that volunteered to take over the publishing of Charlie Hebdo, since, with most of its staff murdered and its offices and computers riddled with bullets,  Hebdo could not produce a weekly magazine on its own. The next "issue" would print as an insert in Liberátion and the editors decided to run the tribute cartoons, including mine. The spread at the top of this post is from this insert. 

The Place de Bastille.

I never imagined the response would be like this. I am truly flabbergasted, and humbled, and very proud to be a part of it. I leave for France and the Angoulême Fest in two weeks. I imagine this will be a very emotional trip. I can't wait.

Nous Sommes Tous Charlie. We are all Charlie.

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Year to Come

Wow. What a year 2014 was. Be hard to top it. I approach the new year as I have the previous 30 of my career; keep my head down, keep pounding away and the rest will take care of itself. 

Here's a few things in store for 2015.

The big one, of course, is the release of my next original graphic novel, an all-new Trashed, due to hit the stores in August or September or thereabouts. Putting the finishing touches on it right now. 

Fans of the original– my Eisner-nominated, first attempt at long-form storytelling– won't be disappointed. It's the same mix of small-town weirdness, bizarre characters, shit job antics and the hilariously nauseating details of life as a garbageman. This book has more in common with my later webcomic, which no one really read, like most webcomics, than with the original memoir from 2002. I brought the story up to the modern day, and it's no longer memoir, it's fiction. Gives me more freedom as a storyteller. In fact, this book will pull together the two webcomic episodes I previously posted (before the release of MFD put it on hiatus back in 2012) and add the three new episodes I had written but hadn't yet produced. It's the sprawling epic I envisioned making over several years, in one big 240-page tome.

This book came about when I was talking to Charlie, my editor at Abrams, about new book projects. It'd been two years since My Friend Dahmer launched and they were anxious for me to make another book. So was I! But I had set aside all of 2012 to promote that book, and then 2012 turned into 2013, and then 2014.... and I was still promoting that book! Time got away from me a little bit. 

I decided to ease back into writing in summer 2013 with another Trashed webisode, just to shake the rust off.  OK, it wasn't like I wasn't doing anything. I was still, at the time this all came down, cranking out my comic strip The City, although that was becoming ever more frustrating to write and draw. I lost my biggest client paper when the Cleveland Plain Dealer threw itself on its sword, cut back from daily publication to four days a week and laid off a third of its staff.  That was the final straw and I made the difficult decision to shut the strip down at the start of 2014.  I was pretty sick of doing it anyways, especially with other projects beckoning. When I mentioned to Charlie I was going to do another Trashed webcomic episode, it was he who suggested, whoa, why not do that as a book? The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. First of all, I love the characters and the story. It's fun to draw and fun to write. It's also something I've had success with in the past and, following an international smash like MFD, it's a huge challenge to deliver a follow up, since anything will be compared to MFD. And, quite frankly, I'll never have a book like that again.... because there isn't another book like that! So why not just come back with a strong book that's a proven success? Made perfect sense to me! Besides, it was already mostly written! 

Naturally.... me being me.... I had to re-draw the first two episodes to make the whole story look seamless. That led to my workaholic Fall; four months of 14-hour days, 7 days a week. But now it's in the can and I think it's a strong book. Charlie proclaimed it "a masterpiece." Haha... I doubt that! In truth, I can't tell anymore. I've worked on it too long. But I think people will enjoy it, and it'll get the "what next?" monkey off my back. The nice thing is my following is about 100 times bigger after MFD. I saw the benefit of that when Punk Rock & Trailer Parks was released in France after MFD and rocketed up the bestseller list. Didn't sell squat here in the States when it was published before MFD.


First up in 2015, however, is another month-long European book tour in February! I'm off to the Angolême Int'l Comics Fest, then a week at a book fest in Provence (where Mon Ami Dahmer is up for another prize), then a week of signings around France and then off to Amsterdam for the launch of Mijn Vriend Dahmer.

When I return, I'll at long last fire up The Baron of Prospect Ave. webcomic again. This is the substitute, rust-shaking project I concocted after Abrams claimed Trashed. I got 11 pages of the first chapter posted before I had to shelve it for the Trashed deadline. I'm itching to get back to Otto and this story, especially since I left it with a cliff hanger. Who is the mysterious person in Otto's room? I have lots of ideas for this tale, which eventually will be turned into a full book. It's a pure labor-of-love side project, and we all need those. Much like I did with Punk Rock & Trailer Parks and the much-loved punk scene in Akron, I've pegged this tale on another fond part of my past: books. Specifically, the paperback book culture of the late Seventies and the legendary Kay's Bookstore in downtown Cleveland. I'll be pulling all sorts of stuff into this story, including punk rock and downtown crazies and porn kings and, yes, even a serial killer! All will be revealed in time. 

My plan is to post a full chapter, maybe 30 pages or so, for free, then run a Kickstarter to fund the rest and then find a publisher who wants the book.

By summer, I'll also start writing my next graphic novel. No hiatus this time. I have a few ideas, but nothing I'm ready to announce just yet. 

I also have reached verbal agreement with a couple indy comix legends to work on compilation books they'll be producing this summer. That'll be fun.

Then come the Fall, the Trashed book tour kicks off. I've already agreed to be a featured guest at SPX, which is always a highlight. Looks like I'll be returning to the fabulous Miami Book Fest, too! Hopefully, I'll also be a part of the new comix fest at the Ohio State Cartoon Museum in November.  That would be very cool. 

In between promotional jaunts, I'll be wrapping up the pre-press work on True Stories: Volumes 2, 3 and 4. Those will all be coming out every two months starting in Spring 2016 from the fine folks at Alternative Comics. Maybe Volume 5, too. We'll have to see how much material I have. I'm very pleased at the reception Volume One received. It validates the 24 years I poured into the comic strip. Makes me feel very good, especially to bring it to readers who weren't familiar with my semi-obscure strip.

And, there could well be some big news with the My Friend Dahmer film. The screenplay was just named one of the hottest circulating in Hollywood. It's not something I'll have an active hand in, other than providing the source, but a great film can only help my comix, so fingers crossed. 

So all in all, I have more on my plate than I can handle in the coming year! From here on, I want to have several projects in various stages, so I never go 3 years between published works again.  I wish I was faster. Shit man, I want to produce as much work as I can in the time I have left. With my medical history, who knows how long that is? I don't worry about it, but I do feel a sense of urgency to make as many comix as I can. This is the downside of  not emerging until age 50. I wasted three decades of my career on other things. Well, ok, not wasted, because I had a lot of fun making a comic strip (for the most part) and, before that, I loved the beginning of my eight years as a political cartoonist, even if the last five years were an ever-bigger drag, and I did some good work in both those genres. I can't regret that stuff, because I wouldn't be the creator I am now if I hadn't done those things.  Still, it's hard not to wonder what if....?

But that's the past. All I care about is what's next. I'll live as large as I can. Work 'til you die! Should be a fun year.