Wednesday, December 15, 2021

A recap


Well, awards season is now a wrap. Here’s the final tally for KENT STATE:
EISNER AWARD, Best Non-fiction Book
ALEX AWARD, for YA literature, The American Library Association.
RINGO AWARD, Best Non-fiction Book
Nominated for two Angloulême Prizes, Harvey Award Book-of-the-Year, two other Ringo Awards, and a couple other awards I’m forgetting off the top of my head.
It’s all I could have hoped for when I launched this book into the Covid void a year ago. The mix is different, but it’s garnered as much hardware as MY FRIEND DAHMER. Never dreamed I’d have another book like that! The Eisner is the big prize. I'll be buried with that at my Viking funeral!
Thanksgiving week seems a fitting time to look back at the past year and of tossing KENT STATE out into the world. I’ve very grateful for the reception it got… but it was THE most challenging book release I hope I’ll ever have.
I feel an odd mix of satisfied pride and loss. The book was originally slated to come out in April 2020. It was timed to piggyback onto the 50th commemoration of the Kent State Massacre in May 1970. That sounds crassly commercial, but I think the book speaks for itself in that regard, and we in the book biz routinely tie releases to anniversaries of events. It was a great plan, draft behind the big media coverage of the 50th and get attention a mere comic book would not normally get, not in the US anyways. Then I’d springboard into a promotional tour of cons and fests that would last the rest of the year.
The buzz was building as the launch approached. I never thought KENT STATE would be the sales and critical hit MY FRIEND DAHMER was, but it felt like it was going to be a big one. I was pretty excited. So was Abrams, my publisher, who were pushing it as one of their big Spring releases.
Then, of course, it all went to hell.
Covid hit, and the book business basically shut down for 3 months. The week-long May 4 commemoration at Kent State was cancelled, and the media barely noted it and moved on. No one gave a crap about anything but Covid and the Bloated Orange Buffoon’s rantings. Faced with nothing but bad choices, we delayed the release until September. The most ambitious tour of my career, which would have seen me crisscross the US and Europe, went up in a puff of smoke in a matter of days.
In September, we started again from scratch. Despite the lost momentum, the book sold briskly out of the gate. The first printing of MY FRIEND DAHMER sold out in its first week. KENT STATE’s first printing took about a month. All things considered, that ain’t bad. Then MORE challenges. The 2nd printing got held up in the supply chain clog. The book was on backorder everywhere when holiday shopping started. What can you do? I just had to shrug and laugh. Copies eventually arrived. KENT STATE is now in its 4th printing.
It also sold well in Europe. In France, where I enjoy an inexplicably large following, it was a smash hit! The coverage in French media was incredible: press, radio, podcast, television. Translations in Dutch, Swedish, Portuguese (out of Brazil) and Finnish (!) followed, and a Spanish edition is on the way. Again this trails MFD, which is currently in 18 languages, and TRASHED, which is in 14. I think Covid definitely affected the number of foreign translations. Publishers were being cautious. I doubt KENT STATE will ever make up that ground, so that's a loss.
All “touring” was done via Zoom, and MAN am I sick of Zoom! The cons and fests, where I would have sold thousands of copies and talked to thousands of fans, still haven’t returned. The signed-book mailorder service I set up with MacsBacks here in Cleveland was a rousing success. KENT STATE is their #1 selling book EVER. That’s been a great innovation that I’ll use with future books, so chalk that up as something good to come from the Lockdown.
My publisher made the absolute best of an impossible situation… but I certainly feel as if much was lost, especially the experience and joy of a book tour. I don’t have that many of these left, frankly, and I’m loathe to lose a single one, especially with a book as important to me as KENT STATE.
I hope I never have to go through another launch like this one again!

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

A Kent State Artifact


Here’s a gift I recently received.

This is an original printed copy of the Scranton Report, officially titled The Report of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, issued in September 1970, following June hearings. Produced by the US Government Printing Office. The report looks at all campus unrest during the 1969-70 school year, specifically the fatal confrontations at Kent State and Jackson State.
Although the Report naively believes a few of the many false narratives put forth by state and local authorities, and doesn’t follow up on what were later revelations, it was the original go-to document for the massacre. It is based largely on the earlier FBI Report on Kent State, which was remarkably blunt considering it was J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and was in 1970 employing the wildly unconstitutional, and still secret, COINTELpro against the antiwar movement.
The Scranton Commission was convened by Nixon, part of his Machiavellian scheme to deflect the political blowback coming his way from the Kent State massacre. The Report clearly puts the blame on the Guard leaders and strongman Gov. James Rhodes, describing the actions of the Guard on May 4 as “highly questionable” and “a disaster” and calls the shootings “unjustified.”
Rhodes, who had been a key ally of Nixon in the 1968 election, was furious and refused to accept the report or enter it officially into the state record. He was an oaf, but Rhodes was a shrewd politician who ruled Ohio with an iron fist. He was completely undercut by Tricky Dick, who had no more use for the governor, since he was to be term-limited out of power at year’s end and couldn’t run for reelection until after the 1972 presidential election. So Nixon shoved him in front of the bus. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
This copy came to me from my pals at MacsBacks Books, who do my mailorder of signed copies. I had a pdf I used as source material.
“This should be with you,” Suzanne, the owner, told me.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Kent State and Comics, a look back. Part 4


Continuing my look at how the Kent State era played out in comics and cartoons.

Finally picked up a nice copy of this issue of Mad #139, from December 1970. It’s pretty remarkable. Mad wasn’t known for daring political statements, but this cover is positively incendiary. Mad was fat and profitable in 1970, with a circulation approaching 2M a month, making it the most successful cartoon magazine ever. Warner Bros. Inc acquired Mad (and DC Comics) in 1969, and along with the film studio, formed the largest entertainment corporation in the world, so Mad was hardly the scruffy counter-culture publication it had once been. As insanely successful and profitable as it was, however, a formulaic lethargy had definitely settled in. This issue shakes things up a bit.

Publisher Bill Gaines had editorial autonomy, and he waded into the hot-button topic of the year here, unruly student radicals.  Older Middle America wanted them all rounded up and shot. Literally. That was a common refrain after Kent State, one that Nixon gleefully exploited. This issue must've make the corner-office squares at WB awfully queasy, I’m sure. Good for Gaines and his editors.

The cover— and WHAT a cover!— is drawn by the brilliant Jack Davis, a superstar illustrator by this time, a guy who drew more Time magazine and TV Guide covers than any other artist ever. Davis, of course, was one of the original stable of Mad artists assembled by the visionary Harvey Kurtzman back in the EC Comics days.

What made this cover so subversive is you really have to take your time and study it to pick up on everything in the background. At first glance, it's just another benign Alfred E. Neuman cover, but then the radical mob behind him comes into focus, and you realize Holy Crap this was quite a risky image!

Look at the signs. “Pigs off Campus” and “Escape to Canada,” and "1-2-3-4, we don't want your fucking war!", the chant that so unsettled older middle America (with the "fucking" blocked out, of course, but it's still there and would be apparent to anyone in 1970). There are signs referencing draft resistance and "Free Bobby," meaning Bobby Seale, who had been given a 4-year sentence on contempt by Judge Julius Hoffman during the Chicago 7 Trial!

Not to mention the cop bludgeoned to the ground and out cold. I'll call "bullshit" on this one, because it's the opposite of reality. Police had been pummeling student protestors for years, without restraint or accountability.

Edgy stuff for a kids mag! But the way Davis renders the scene, it all blends together and obviously slipped right by conservative news dealers. Brilliant!

It's also a cover that's uncharacteristically edgy for Mad in 1970, as they had mostly abandoned the (mild) political satire that was once its staple in favor of silly kid gags and endless pop-culture spoofs. National Lampoon had just debuted in April 1970 and was quickly finding its legs. It was elbowing Mad aside by this time.

Published in December 1970, this issue of Mad wraps up the “Year that Trembled,” one of the worst years we've ever suffered. It hit the stands just seven months after Kent State and Jackson State, and the massive Student Strike that resulted in campus uprisings, and brutal government crackdowns, from coast to coast. The summer brought the infamous Hard Hat Riot in New York and the Weathermen bombing campaign that sent the Feds into a frenzy and dominated headlines. It truly felt like the nation was teetering on the edge of mass revolt.

But when classes started again in Fall 1970, the air had gone out of the student antiwar movement. Nixon gloated about the “salutary effect” of Kent State. That’s true, combined with the cutbacks in the military draft and the total meltdown of SDS at the hands of the Weathermen. The Antiwar Movement moved off the campuses and into the streets.

So Mad is a bit late to the game here, following the culture rather than out front, but we can chalk some of that up to production deadlines. Hard for a magazine like this to keep pace with breaking news. This magazine was being written and drawn starting in September 1970, probably, just four months after the Kent State Massacre and in anticipation of campuses exploding again in the Fall. But the much-feared mass uprisings didn't occur. 

There are more goodies inside on the same theme. The great Don Martin weighs in on the Hard Hat Riot! Again this is the opposite of what happened– the hard hats demolished antiwar protestors and sent dozens to the hospital.

The biggest WTF in this issue is Dave Berg's "The Lighter Side of the Revolutionary Movement." Un-friggin-believable. Presumably, Berg was still working on the "Lighter Side of the Fred Hampton Assassination."

It's four pages of the signature Berg lazy gags. Yeah, Mad is really getting "down with the kids" here.

Overall, Mad #139 is a fascinating artifact. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2021


For the first time since my book was released, I paid a visit to Kent State.

Since it’s the break between Summer and Fall semesters, I had the campus completely to myself. I can count the people I encountered on just two hands, which would hardly be the case in another week when 25,000 students flood back onto campus.
Last time I was here was in February 2020. I had just returned from the Angoulême Comics Festival in France and a subsequent tour, and was gearing for to the looming release of the book, originally scheduled In April. I had an interview with the university’s NPR station, WKSU, to kick off the promotion blitz. The reporter and I walked around the campus and talked about the events of 1970.
Two weeks later the pandemic hit like a hurricane. The release of the book was pushed back to Fall 2020, my 6-month-long book tour went up in a puff of smoke, and the whole world went into lockdown.
Seems like a thousand years ago.
So I spent an hour or so wandering the site and reflecting. It’s a very moving experience to trace the footsteps of the people whose stories I recount. They felt very close by.
The pylons here mark the spot where Jeff Miller fell. At the top of the hill, way in the distance, is the Pagoda, where the Guardsmen wheeled and opened fire. The distance you see here completely erases the Guard's lie that they "feared for their lives." There was no one near them when they opened fire. Jeff was the closest of the four killed to the soldiers!

Just in front of Jeff's marker is that of Alan Canfora (below), shot and wounded in the arm. The tree here, which was obviously much smaller 51 years ago, likely saved his life. It took a couple slugs as Alan hid behind it.
Markers have been added to the site for all the nine wounded students.
Alan passed away last Fall. He was a force. The black flag here replicates the larger black flag he famously waved at Guardsmen on May 4, fashioned from some drapes in his student hovel, and was probably the reason he was targeted by the shooters.

Atop Blanket Hill (below), looking down at the Victory Bell and the Commons.

Bill Schroeder stood here, watching the Guard move against 400 protestors chanting around the victory bell, and several thousands students up on the rim, most with books in their hands, as they paused to watch the unfolding drama between classes. The guard marched across the Commons from the buildings in the distance, then up the hill, bayonets drawn and indiscriminately fired tear gas at any and all students in their path. 

Sunday, July 25, 2021

KENT STATE wins an Eisner!

KENT STATE won an Eisner Award, for Best Reality-based Book. This is the big one, and I'm over the moon about it.
Disclosure: that's not the actual trophy. Haven't received it yet. I'm using an old Eisner here as a prop. Full disclosure: I fell asleep! It was a remote ceremony because of the plague, Pacific Time, and I dozed off and awoke with a start at 2 am. Only then did I see the first congratulatory texts. Classic. My big moment and zzzzzz.
Honestly, my first reaction was relief. I can’t make a better book than this one. It was a daunting challenge that took four hard years and left me completely spent. I wanted this win bad, I freely admit.
This Eisner, yeah, this one is special. As fond as I am of my TRASHED Eisner, for Best Lettering— In fact, I’m using that Eisner as a prop, since obviously, I won’t get the 2021 trophy for a bit— THIS Eisner is in one of the major categories, one of the big boys, the award FUN HOME and MARCH won, and it was a KILLER list of nominees. Absolutely brutal. Stone-cold classics all:
by Frank "Big Black" Smith, Jared Reinmuth, and Améziane (Archaia/BOOM!)
by Gene Luen Yang 
(First Second/Macmillan)
by Mme Caroline and Julie Dachez, translation by Edward Gauvin 
(Oni Press)
by Joe Sacco 
(Metropolitan/Henry Holt)
by Tian Veasna, translation by Helge Dascher 
(Drawn & Quarterly)

To win against such formidable competition, with a book that has been an obsession and a labor of love for a long time, is beyond gratifying.
It’s a bit anticlimactic, too. I’m typing this on my couch, instead of whooping it up at Comicon. You only get so many of these moments in life, and this cursed plague has snatched this one away, as it has stolen so much else. It is what it is. My first Eisner Award win was such an amazing experience. I just basked in it. I’m thankful I had that experience, because I’m thinking of it now.

Above: giving my acceptance speech at the 2016 Eisner Awards ceremony.
I’d like to thank my beloved editor Charlie Kochman, who enthusiastically jumped on this project the moment I pitched it. Pam Notarantonio provided beautiful art direction. Chad Beckerman did the color on the cover, which I love. Maya Bradford, my publicist, faced daunting challenges in the weirdest year of book promotion ever. And all my colleagues at Abrams who made this book better, through wave after wave of copyediting and fact checking, to last minute tinkers and tweaks. I am SO grateful to you all.
My lovely wife Sheryl played a crucial role, first as a “comics widow” who gamely held the house together during that final year of me locked in my studio for long hours. She also whipped the footnotes into shape. How many comics authors can boast of a Pulitzer winner serving as a personal copy editor? Sheryl cried when she read the first draft. I knew I was onto something at that moment.
I’d like to especially thank the Students of 1970. Thank you for sharing your stories with such honesty. Thank you for so enthusiastically embracing this project. You are an inspiration. You were in 1970, for courageously standing up to forces of the state, and paying a bitter price for doing so. You’re still an inspiration, looking back on decades of activism and productive lives well lived.

Above: Canfora (L) in 1970, behind the tree that took the bullet meant for him,
and the Alan I knew (R).

Last Fall, we lost longtime activist Alan Canfora, one of the nine students who were shot and wounded on that fateful day. Alan could be a tough customer, and did not suffer fools. He was an invaluable resource and I’m deeply in his debt. Honestly, I have no idea what he thought of the book! I sent him a copy, but his health was failing and I never heard back. What an indomitable force he was, and we are lesser for his passing.
Most of all, I’d like to thank Bill, Sandy, Allison and Jeff, murdered on May 4, 1970. This is their story, and I felt them nearby throughout the four years it took to make this book. Getting to “know” them, through their friends and classmates, was a joy and an honor. Jeff, in particular, was always at my elbow. He was a young guy looking for his path in life and having a great time while doing so, much as I was at that age. I feel him now, as I write this.

Above: a newly-surfaced photo of Jeff, a week before he was murdered on May 4.

And finally, this one is for you, Mom. As many of you know, I lost her last Fall to Covid. One of my favorite memories of her was when my 4th grade teacher was fed up with me drawing in class during her lessons. She’d take away my notebook. I’d draw on my desk. She’d scold me for drawing on my desk. I’d draw on my pants! Finally, she summoned my mother to discuss this problem. After a long monologue detailing my crimes, with me slumped glumly in a chair, my mother shrugged. “So? Let him draw. He’s still listening.” My teacher could only stammer in disbelief. My mother would have none of it. She knew that drawing comics was like breathing or eating to me.
“Just let him draw.”
Thanks for always letting me draw, Ma. I miss you.

Friday, July 9, 2021

A "politicized" Captain America? Sorry, rightwingers, this is nothing new.

Here's a recent Twitter thread that I'm archiving here.

So out of nowhere, FoxNews had a segment on the latest storyline in Captain America, which they apparently find too "woke."

They wheeled in some unknown rightwing "comedian," whose name I have already forgotten and is not worth looking up, as a guest to comment on this outrage. Like all rightwing comedians, he was completely unfunny, and launched into an extended rant about how the diabolical Libs at Marvel have changed HIS Capt. America into something unrecognizable with this "recent politicization." Gone is our patriotic ass-kicker and in his place is a lefty do-gooder.

“It’s so sad when Captain America is like Captain Woke or Captain Propaganda… I’m done with Captain America. He’s dead!" Then conservo-bore superdude actor Dean Cain jumped in, babbled something about "kissing the dirt" every time he returned to American soil, babbled some more about Cap, then admitted he hadn't read the new storyline and was only recounting what he heard on FoxNews. Needless to say, Twitter was not kind.

The big problem here is that Cap has ALWAYS been political.
This is a character who PUNCHED HITLER IN THE FACE on the cover of his debut issue in 1941... 80 FRIGGIN' YEARS AGO!!
In March 1941, when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created this cover, America was not yet at war with Germany. Pearl Harbor was nine months away and the country was divided over whether to go to war or stay out. In fact, there was a sizable number of Nazi sympathizers here in the US who greatly admired Hitler and Nazism. The German American Bund held big rallies in New York City (you've no doubt seen the film footage). Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford were both great admirers, and, history has revealed, collaborators of Adolf (and were also both  raging antisemites and white supremacists).

So the stunning cover of Cap #1 was, in fact, a powerful political cartoon by a pair of Jewish kids from New York, maybe THE most influential political cartoon of WW2... and it was aimed at America's youth!

It's obvious neither of these FoxNews nitwits know shit about Cap's history. But I do.

Here's the first issue I read (above), when I was 10 in 1970. In it Cap goes on TV to preach tolerance, and is attacked by Nazi Baron Zemo's supergoons in an attempt to silence him. Note also the use of "Up Against the Wall!" as the title, the favorite battlecry of leftist protestors in 1970. Yeah, nothing political there, 51 years ago.

In reality, almost every issue of Cap from 1969 to 1975 dealt with some political issue. Stan was getting heat from the college audiences to which he often spoke (See Abraham Riesman's Stan Lee biography for details). Stan chose Cap as the title to make "relevant," a full year before DC did so to Green Lantern/ Green Arrow, to much greater acclaim. 

Need more proof? Here's (above) the 2nd Cap I bought (in a Whitman back-issue 3-pack!), where Cap wades into a campus protest. This issue is from 1969, when the nation teetered on mass insurrection and near civil war.

The 3rd issue of Cap I bought featured a giant robot who tried to demolish NYC's ghetto (Harlem or the South Bronx) to "free the oppressed." He is cheered on by African-American residents of the slum. Turns out was all a diabolical scheme by AIM to start a race war. Apparently, AIM later formed the Boogaloo Boys, who've been trying to do the same at BLM uprisings recently!

Horrors! Here's all kind of "woke" dialogue, FoxNews! From 50 years ago.
Shall I go on? Oh, why not...

A few issues later, Leila Taylor (above) is introduced. She's described as a "militant," and is obviously a Black Panther. Not exactly an uncontroversial storyline in 1972, at the height of the bloody FBI war on black nationalism.

Then in #143, Cap finds himself in the middle of a fullblown black uprising, with a club-wielding African-american throng facing off against NYPD. Turns out it's all a plot by the Red Skull, yet another Nazi. This story is a real head-shaker, but yeah, no politics here.

Then there's THIS storyline from 1972 (above)! The real Cap faces off against the commie-hating Cap of the 1950s (the real Cap was frozen in ice, remember? Even amateur Marvel fans who only watch the films know THAT). Fake Cap is revealed as a far-right, white-supremacist creep! Let's call him Capt. MAGA. 

What do y'all think of THIS one, FoxNews??

Let's jump back to 1954 (above) and the Cap that had to be retrofitted into the Seventies character history. In the Fifties, he apparently joined up with Joe McCarthy and Roy Coen and became a rightwing avenger. FoxNews WOULD approve of this era, but it was certainly a political one, further blowing holes in their current complaint.

Oh hey, let's not forget in 1974, Cap rejects nationalism and "America first" and throws away his Capt. America identity to become Nomad, the Man Without a Country.

Haha. Wonder what FoxNews would make of THIS dialogue?

And then there's Bicentennial Battles, a late Kirby masterpiece, where Jack ruminates on what it means to be an American, in ways FoxNews would NOT approve. You remember Jack Kirby, right, FoxNews? He's the guy who co-created the character back in 1941.

GASP! Cap is teaching Critical Race Theory to kid comics readers of 1976! Alert Sean Hannity! Dispatch the Oath-Keepers!
All this is just from MY years of superdude readership. So outside of 80 FUCKING YEARS of stories, yes, Capt. America has NEVER been politicized.
I hate people who don't know shit about comics.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

A fun milestone for KENT STATE

I was informed today that KENT STATE is the top-selling book in the entire 39-year history of Macs Backs, my indie bookstore HQ here in Cleveland that has been handling all my mailorder signed copies.

Their inventory software only goes to 999, and KENT STATE blew right past that number some time ago. "You flipped the odometer," I was told.
In fact, my pals from Macs just picked up 5 boxes of signed copies this morning. If you want one, the order link is below. All come with nifty title page sketches like this one here. With this batch I drew all protestors. Previous batches I drew Guardsmen. If you have a preference, I'm sure Macs can accommodate you.
Macs has been a real lifesaver, what with my long book tour going up in a puff of COVID, and all signings and cons cancelled. And I'm happy I could funnel sales their way, during a pretty challenging time for them, too.