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.