Saturday, June 27, 2020

New interview with the Quebec Comics Fest

Image may contain: 2 people, including John Derf Backderf, people sitting, eyeglasses, beard and text

Here's a fun video chat with Raymond from the Quebec Comics Festival and the fine folks from La vie en BD (Life in Comics) podcast, about my work, focusing on the upcoming KENT STATE.

Yeah, that's my lockdown hairdo. I look like a hippie. My wife likes it, so I guess I'm stuck with it.

It's mostly in English. Give a listen HERE.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Echoes of 1970, fear and anxiety in 2020.


Some of you have asked asked what moved me to make Kent State. Think about America 1970. An authoritarian regime and a brutal, often deadly, police response to anyone who stood up and raised their voice in protest.

Now think about America 2020.

Stand up to those in power, stand up to the cops, and you feel their full military force. Didn't take long for the Minneapolis cops to use gas and rubber bullets and clubs, did it? They murder a man in public, in front of a dozen witnesses who beg the smirking killer to let the man breathe. A day later cops attack a crowd of people protesting that murder. And the following night, the city was on fire. Well done, officers. You had a chance to ease tensions, to let people peacefully have their say, to demand justice and real systemic change. Instead you lit the fuse.

"Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable." –John F. Kennedy
Wouldn't extreme police restraint be the order here? Let the people have their say. punish the criminal cops, reform your ranks, change your practices. Be better at your jobs! Does the Minneapolis mayor have any control over this police force at all?The great cautionary lesson of Kent State is that when protests threaten those in power, the price of dissent will be bitterly high.
Especially, then as now, if you're black.
One of the biggest issues of the Black Panthers in 1970 was police brutalizing the black community. The police and the FBI, under orders from Nixon, unleashed a secret war against the Panthers. Their leaders were arrested and jailed, forced into exile in other countries, or gunned down in cold blood. This war was then expanded to include Nixon's long list of enemies, virtually anyone left of the Republican Party. It involved every layer of the intelligence services, FBI, CIA, the IRS, Military Intelligence, and filtered down to state and local authorities. It's the same punishment Trump has vowed to unleash on HIS enemies.
This war on US soil was noted for its sweeping unconstitutional, often illegal, methods spread over nearly a decade of abuse. Thanks to the Patriot Act we foolishly allowed to become law, many of these things are now perfectly legal. That was the point of the Patriot Act! Dick Cheney, who started his political career in the Nixon White House, remembered the scandal of CointelPRO (the name of the illegal war) and wanted to ensure any abuses in his War on Terror would be excused.
"Mission accomplished."
The lesson then that the government learned from the Kent State era? Not what we had hoped. Law enforcement (from local to fed) has spent 50 years militarizing their forces, perfecting crowd control techniques, and arming up with weaponry specifically designed to crush protests. The government will never again allow the kind of mass unrest we had in 1970, which filled the streets of every city and roiled every campus, and forced US policy to change. If you try, as we're seeing in Minneapolis, they will immediately move against you with overwhelming force. They want people to be afraid to protest.
Unless, of course, you're a bunch of white far-right protestors waving guns and QAnon signs. That's different.
Gee, wonder why?
It's my fear, especially with an increasingly desperate, anti-democratic president who feels his grip on power slipping away, is that we have circled right back around to 1970. The partisan hatred is the same. So the story of Kent State is, sadly, as relevant now as it was in 1970. We've learned little as a society in those 50 years.
We are perilously close to another Kent State.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Fifty years, and one day later...




OK, so now what?

Yesterday, May 4, the mainstream media did their pieces on the 50th anniversary of the Kent State Massacre, and a day later has moved on.  Because of the lockdown and the cancellation of all the events at the university, it was, by my observation, half the coverage it would have received. That’s the last interest they’ll show in this event until the 60th, if even then. The media loves a good round number. Odd numbers, not so much.

I’m sad for all the survivors of May 4, the Students of 1970. This was to be THEIR richly-deserved moment. After a half century of cover-ups and lies, of the university trying to bury the past, of bloviators and apologists telling them to “get over it and move on,” this was– finally– their chance to receive their due. The slate of events at the university was incredible. I bet 15,000 people would have flooded the campus. There would have hugs and tears and embraces. The pain the Students of 1970 carry with them is palpable. It’s there in every one of them I’ve met, and I’ve met dozens and dozens. Many are still burdened with PTSD. That’s what happens when you see your friends gunned down in cold blood right in front of your eyes. Think of your own college experience, and how treasured that is for most of us, those heady, transformative years when you come of age, find yourself and lay the groundwork for the rest of your life. Then drop a government massacre in the middle of it. The students of 1970 are all in their Seventies now. They waited so long for this. How many more chances will they have? Not to be morbid, but I watched this happen with my Dad and all his WW2 comrades. Generations die out and vanish from the world. It’s the way of things. What a pity to have the indomitable Students of 1970 be cheated like this, by a fucking virus and the blunders of an incompetent, narcissistic oaf.

Mine was one of several books that were to be released in conjunction with the 50th. I won’t apologize for piggybacking onto the event. I make books to sell books, as has every author throughout history. This isn’t a hobby. It’s my career. It’s more than that, of course, it’s a calling, or perhaps an obsession, but it’s what I do. KENT STATE has been on a list of potential books for years. I had other books I wanted to make first, and, frankly, I didn’t have the drawing skills needed for this tale (and perhaps STILL don’t have those skills). Yes, the 50th looming on the horizon was the impetus for finishing the book, but the desire was there regardless.

KENT STATE is a book of which I’m very proud. It’s an important story, and one that the vast majority of Americans don’t know at all, or have misconceptions about. I think I’ve told it pretty well. Here's an EXCERPT. As we head into, I fear, a prolonged period of extreme partisan warfare, government repression, and the very real possibility of a victory by anti-democratic reactionaries, the story of KENT STATE is a relevant now as it was in 1970. Do you really think Trump and his oligarch enablers are going to slink off quietly? 

The plan all along was to launch the book in April and do as much mainstream media as could be mustered, up until May 4. Hopefully, that would have been a great push for the book, reaching far beyond the comics world, and generated lots of interviews, reviews, and, yes, sales. But after May 4, when the media moved on, the book was going to have to survive purely as comics. I always knew that. So we planned a two-tier promotional campaign. I had events stacked up in April for audiences that were only interested in the history, not in comics. After May 4, the tour switched gears to events that were for comics or books. That would have carried me into the Fall, for the second leg of the tour.

That plan went up in a puff of smoke a month ago when the pandemic hit and we all locked down.

Again, I realize this sounds crassly commercial, but hey, what good is doing a book that isn’t read? Coming up through indie comics, where I had to fight tooth and nail to be seen and heard and taken seriously, especially by the mainstream, I’m wired to sell my work hard. I’m old school. I don’t flounce in for a 2-hour signing at a comics festival, then disappear. I table for the entire 2 or 3 days and sell every damn copy I have. 

The release of the book is now delayed until September 8. So much for piggybacking onto the 50th. It’s the best of bad options. There’s no point in releasing a book right now if no one can buy it. The distribution system is running on half steam, and all the bookstores are closed. Yeah, Amazon is up and running, but y’know what? I don’t want to help make Amazon even more MORE dominant! Comics retail is totally shut down. The monopoly distributor has closed up and Marvel & DC aren’t even making new floppies. It’s a total stop. Maybe by September, the retail machine will be running again, what’s left of it and even if only at half steam. It’s also possible it WON’T be, but at least there’s a chance, as opposed to now, when there’s no chance at all.

Nonetheless,  the book got some nice coverage this past week. A great write-up in the New Yorker, and the piece for WKSU which found its way to NPR’s Morning Edition. Most of the rest who were planning pieces are holding off until the book release, if they have interest at all at that point.

It’s likely that the book is screwed, as is every book that comes out in 2020, and maybe every book in 2021. I can’t see book events and, especially, festival and cons returning for several years. Can you imagine San Diego Comic Con or the Angoulême Festival being held during a pandemic? We’ll need a cure for this fucking virus before those things happen again. Everything I planned on to promote the book is basically out the window. How will we sell books in the COVID world? Unclear. What happens if the carnage is as bad as feared and we plummet into another Great Depression? Also unclear. It was going to be an incredible year of travel and events. It is what it is. Thankfully, I still have the past decade of incredible memories to hold me until I can hit the road again.

I hope you’ve found the posts  of the past week on social media interesting and moving. We’ll fire up the promo campaign in August and I’ll pepper you all with posts and media once again. Until then, pre-ordering Kent State will certainly help. I recommend Bookshop, where the hardback (which is a beautiful edition) is currently on sale. Bookshop is a non-profit online service that hooks up buyers with indie bookstores who do mail order. Here's the LINK.

Stay safe, everyone. Be well. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Kent State on NPR


Interview with yours truly on the Kent State NPR station HERE.

Photo by reporter Jeff St. Clair. I'm standing on Blanket Hill, right at the spot the Guardsmen wheeled as one and opened fire. Fifty or so protestors were at the bottom of the hill. See that lone kid walking in the parking lot there? That's just about where Jeff Miller was standing when an inch-long copper-jacketed bullet tore through his open mouth and blasted out the back of his skull, killing him instantly. 

In that parking lot beyond, 500 students walked innocently past, on their way to and from class. Eight to 10 soldiers fired directly into that lot, emptying their clips. 

One of the shooters' initial excuses for this massacre was that they were "surrounded" and in "fear for our lives." Look at the distance involved here. Would you find that kid in the parking lot a potential threat in any way? There were no protestors on the hill. There were about 100 kids watching from the Taylor Hall terrace on the right, not protesting, just observing the spectacle. The student farthest from the Guard who was hit was in front of that building in the distance, the length of over two football fields away. He was shot through the neck, the bullet miraculously missing both his spine and jugular by a fraction of an inch.


Despite the release of Kent State being delayed until September, thanks to the lockdown, it's still generated some media attention. There's no such thing as bad publicity, of course, but it's frustrating that it's unavailable for anything other than pre-order. Ah well, that's just the hand that's been dealt.

This week, I got a nice write-up in The New Yorker, which hails Kent State as "gut-wrenching.'"

"This spring marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Kent State shootings, an occasion explored in Derf Backderf’s deeply researched and gut-wrenching graphic nonfiction novel, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio” (forthcoming from Abrams ComicArts). Backderf was ten years old in 1970, growing up outside Kent; the book opens with him riding in the passenger seat of his mother’s car, reading Mad, and then watching Richard Nixon on television. “Kent State” reads, in the beginning, like a very clever college-newspaper comic strip—not unlike early “Doonesbury,” which débuted that same year—featuring the ordinary lives of four undergraduates, Allison Krause, Jeff Miller, Sandy Scheuer, and Bill Schroeder, their roommate problems, their love lives, their stressy phone calls with their parents, and their fury about the war. As the violence intensifies, Backderf’s drawings grow darker and more cinematic: the intimate, moody panels of smart, young, good people, muddling through the inanity and ferocity of American politics yield to black-backed panels of institutional buildings, with the people around them saying completely crazy things, then to explosive splash pages of soldiers, their guns locked and loaded, and, finally, to a two-page spread of those fateful thirteen seconds: “boom!” “bang!” “bang! bang! pow!”



Sunday, April 19, 2020

Kent State to be released Sept. 8!





Finally got the actually release date. KENT STATE was, of course, originally scheduled for an April release, but you know what happened. Abrams has pushed the date to September in the hope that the book retail machine will be back up and operating, even it's only at 50 percent or whatever. That's better than the current state, which is not at all.

You can pre-order the book in the usual places. Links to the left here. 

Friday, April 17, 2020

Lockdown video interview

Talking with Dave Filipi of the Wexner Center at Ohio State University.


Thursday, April 9, 2020

Greetings from the Bunker





I don't know what to write about this nightmare. 



I thought about doing some regular True Stories about living (hopefully) through this, but what is there to write about? Sitting in my studio under lockdown and scrolling through ever-more-gloomy news reports? I leave the house once a week to get food for my family, that's it. Is my search for toilet paper a compelling diary comic? 



I talked about this with a colleague. "There's going to be a LOT of comics about coronavirus," he said. He's right. I see some of them on Twitter already. 


If I have nothing worthwhile to contribute, and nothing has come mind yet, maybe I'll just go in a completely different direction. People need distractions. OK, maybe not right NOW, when it's pandemic 24/7, but eventually, when this thing starts to ease up. If the warnings are true and it's two years before this passes, with recurrent flare ups that send us diving back into our homes, and sends the economy plunging over and over again, then people will REALLY need distractions.

I think back to popular art during the Great Depression. Comics didn't wallow in the suffering and economic misery and the rising tide of fascism around the world, terrifying things we're repeating here in 2020. Readers instead devoured the humor of Popeye and the gentle laughs of Gasoline Alley. They thrilled to daily installments of exotic adventure strips set in far-flung climes, like Terry & the Pirates and Cap'n Easy, or in the mind-bending fantasy of Tarzan, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. In 1938, Superman ushered in the superhero and the introduction of comic books. Real-life struggles were seldom depicted.

Of course, comics were different then. They've grown up since.

I dunno. We'll see. Right now, what I'm dealing with is the total loss of my planned book tour, some 40 cons, signings and speaking gigs that took me right up to San Diego Comic Con in July. There's a second leg in the Fall, which is still on, but for which, frankly, I don't have much hope. I spent months planning this tour, and rested up in anticipation of the grueling schedule, which had me criss-crossing the country, as well as a couple jaunts to Europe. It  all vanished in the space of a couple days. The official release date of Kent State was yesterday btw. I glumly noted the date from here, then watched an episode of Shitt's Creek to take my mind off it. Now the release has been pushed back to Sept. 8, as detailed in my earlier post.

So... I'll be getting back to work soon. Might as well get something out of all this unexpected downtime!

I've been experimenting with color these past few weeks, retrofitting pages from Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, as in the page depicting The Baron's debut, above.

None of my long-form comics have been color, of course. Trashed had a spot color. The rest are b&w. The City was b&w for 15 years, too, before I reluctantly added color. Shitty color, since alt-weeklies had infamously bad reproduction. I regret adding color to that strip. It was a lot more work and didn't add anything to the read. Other, smarter creators, never made that switch, like Matt Groening and Lynda Barry. Their strips were b&w to the end, as they originally envisioned, one consistent body of work. Mine is split in two, The City of the 1990s, and then the color one of the 2000s, which was an entirely different strip, really. I should have re-named it. Thought about doing that. I regret not doing so.

But I've worked in full color for years and years, all the way back to my first newspaper gig in South Florida. Posters, record covers, book covers, gig flyers, freelance illustrations, hundreds of images, all were done in color. I prefer very dramatic eye-catching colors, in fact, which always surprises those who only know my work in b&w. Here's some samples.

A very early, unpublished story from 1989. I drew this on scratchboard (!!) and colored it with Dr. Martin's Dyes. Crazy media in which to work. Didn't stick long with that!  The colors aren't really working here. I was shooting for a noir-ish look, but it needed a much stronger black.


This was an illustration for the Detroit Free Press, also from 1989. This is pen&ink over color pencil. Another goofy mixed media. Color pencils are very waxy, so most ink won't stick. The scanners of the day also had big problems picking up the color. I was very happy with the piece, though. In fact, this is the exact moment it all came together for me, stylistically, After several years of frustrating experimentation. I finished this piece and literally yelled, THAT'S IT! The saturated, dramatic color palette became a staple, too. This one pivotal piece carried me through the next decade, and still resonates in my work.




Comp CD cover, 1995. I moved to gouache paint after my earlier failures, and that proved to be a reliable media. Pen & ink took to it beautifully, too. I've never been a great painter, but strong ink line covers many a weakness. There are a lot of European comics creators who still work this way! Their work is gorgeous, but MAN, it's time consuming.



Above: the poster for Int'l Performance Art Festival, from 1999, billed as the final one (although that turned out to not be the case). I drew this huge, poster size, with gouache paints and pen & ink.





Above: album cover for local band Hazard Adams, 2010. Everything from here on is digital color, applied to scanned pen & ink drawings. I miss paint, but not enough to go back.



Above: Klaus Nomi, for the Belgian magazine Focus, 2014.



Above: poster for The Genghis Con, 2016

Above: wraparound album cover for the Essential Styrenes, 2016. There's Magee from Trashed and Otto from Punk Rock & Trailer Parks in the crowd!



Above: the most dramatically colored piece of all is this poster for the Rock en Seine Festival in Paris. This one was printed as a HUGE poster for the Paris Metro! It was an eye-grabber, for sure. No one can accuse me of being shy with color!






More dramatic colors, in a poster showing young Jerry Siegel, the co-creator of Superman, in front of his house in Cleveland, for the Siegel & Shuster Society, 2016.




Above: and finally, another album cover, for pals Chris Butler and the late Ralph Carney. Really crazy colors on this one. 


So moving forward, yeah, I think my books are going to be full color. That's a pretty daunting amount of work, of course, adding color to 200-300 pages of art, and not a job I'll be tackling myself. I'll have to hire a colorist. But the world is in color. I love b&w and the DIY vibe it has, and the moody purity of it, but it's time, past time, to move on.

Here's another test page from PR&TP to whet your appetite:





















Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Release of KENT STATE pushed back to September



The release of KENT STATE: FOUR DEAD IN OHIO has been pushed back from April 4 until September 8, 2020. 

This was a difficult decision, since I very much wanted the book to be published in conjunction with the 50th commemoration of the Kent State Shootings on May 4. The coronavirus and unfolding events, obviously, have torched those plans. Abrams Books decided it would be better to wait, in the hope this crisis will ease over the summer, and the country can return to a semblance of normality. I completely agree. In fact, I pushed for this.

This is an important story, one I don’t want overlooked during the necessary fixation on the pandemic and its effects. I’m very proud of this book. The story of the four students who were cut down is deeply important to me. The issues that KENT STATE raises have no expiration date. In fact, it could well be it’s more relevant than ever in September. 

Be safe, everyone. I’ll see you in the Fall.

Locked out of Facebook. Again.

For the 10,000-plus of you who follow me on my Facebook feed, yeah, I've been locked out again. This is, if memory serves, the third time this has happened in the past 5 years or so. The latest, I suspect, is Facebook's admitted "glitch" in their A.I. rooting out Russian bots that are spreading fake news about coronavirus. Sorry, Uncle Putin, I've failed you!

Hopefully, this is resolved soon. Or maybe it won't be. I've been focusing more on Twitter, since my last lock out, and this may be the thing that prods me to abandon Facebook completely. I was planning to after the Kent State launch and tour anyways, but... hahaha... well, what difference does that make now?

My Twitter is HERE

Monday, March 16, 2020

Book tour update




Yeah, the book tour above is looking like a smoldering ruin. If you follow me on Twitter and Facebook, you already know the first three events are canceled. The big NYC launch ain't happening. The gallery show at the Society of Illustrators will still be hung, God bless em, but with the city on lockdown, who will come? I was particularly looking forward to the opening of that show. It's a huge honor and a real career validation. It'll hang until mid-June. Maybe this will have blown over by then. Yeah, I know. Wishful thinking, probably.

All the libraries are currently closed, it's anyone's guess for how long, and the state universities have shuttered campuses for the remainder of the semester, so those events are likely finished, although I haven't gotten final word yet. This is only a technicality.

I hold out slim hope for some of the fests later in the Spring, but that is probably just wishful thinking, too. I'm not optimistic about Comic Con either.

As of right now, there will be no book launch. Kent State will be released on April 7 and the online stores will start selling it then. Brick-and-mortar stores? Who knows if they'll even be open by then. 

I'm not looking for sympathy here. It is what it is. Every author with a Spring book is facing this same challenge. 

I'm hoping to set up an online signing service. My favorite indie bookstore here in Cleveland will take orders from anywhere, I'll personalize the copies and add a title page sketch, and the books will be shipped out. So people who want a signed book will be able to get one. Unless, of course, the post office shuts down, too. Groan. So stay tuned for details on that.

I'm now re-focusing on the Fall. Jesus Christ, I hope this thing has passed by then. A second leg to the tour above was already in the works. Some of the cancelled events will be rescheduled then, if possible. I fear the fests and cons that are cancelled will remain so. 

Stay safe everyone. Hopefully, I see you somewhere down the road.


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Kent State Book Tour, Part 1





Here's the schedule so far, for the first half of 2020. The Fall festivals and events will be added later. These are the public events, so hopefully I'll see you at one. Check back for further updates and details.


Thurs., Mar. 26 – Society of Illustrators, New York City, Opening of Kent State gallery show, featuring sketches and original art, plus talk & signing

Fri, April 3 – OFFICIAL BOOK LAUNCH, The Strand Bookstore, New York City, signing and talk

Sat.-Sun, April 4 to 5, all day – The MOCCA Comics Fest, New York City

Tues, April, 7 pm – Akron Main Library, Main Event Speaker Series, slideshow talk & signing

Thurs, April 9, 11:30am to 1:30pmCleveland City Club, slideshow talk

Weds, April 15 – Wexner Center, Ohio State University, slideshow talk & signing

Fri, April 17, 7 pm – Quimby’s, Chicago, slideshow talk & signing

Sat, April 18, noon – Abraham Lincoln Bookstore, Chicago, live webcast & signing

Weds, April 22, 7 pm – Parma Cuyahoga Public Library, slideshow talk & signing

Fri, April 24, 6 to 9 pm – CLEVELAND BOOK LAUNCH, Mac’s Backs and the B-side Lounge, slideshow talk & signing

Tues, April 28, 6:30 pm – Bowling Green University, Library of Pop Culture, slideshow talk & signing

Sat, May 2, 1:30pmFREE COMIC BOOK DAY, Carol & John’s Comics, Cleveland, slideshow talk & signing

Sat-Sun, May 9 & 10 – TCAF Toronto Comics Arts Festival

Sat-Sun, May 16 & 17 – VanCAF Vancouver Comics Arts Festival

Sat-Sun, May 30 & 31 – Stripdagen Comics Fest, Haarlem, the Netherlands

June 2 to June 6 – Paris signings, details to come

June 13 & 14 – CAKE Chicago Alternative Comics Expo, 

Sat-Sun, June 27 & 28 – American Library Assoc. Convention, Chicago

July 17 to 19 – San Diego Comic Con!

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The new book! Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio



Here it is, my latest, due to hit the stores on April 4. This book, a project near and dear to me and one I've long wanted to tackle, was four long years in the making. People I've shown it to tell me that it's good. I've stared at these pages too long and honestly can't tell anymore. It's always that way. I think it's good. Haha, too late to turn back now! 

The early reviews have been heartening.

Publishers Weekly, in a starred review (that's a good thing!) says:

"Backderf delivers a provocative, heartbreaking account of the days leading up to the infamous tragedy of May 1970. His expertly crafted chronicle of this defining moment in U.S. history serves as a deeply moving elegy for the victims. "

The Library Journal, in another starred review, says: 

"An incendiary corrective to the myths and misconceptions surrounding these events and a memorial to the lives lost or forever altered that should be required reading for all Americans."

Here's a few pages. This is the most challenging book I've ever drawn.






Preorder? Why of course you can. here's the Amazon link. Although I'd prefer you buy it from your favorite indie bookstore.