Wednesday, February 26, 2014

And,on the other hand, dude, YOU SUCK!

Feeling great, riding high after my return from Europe, and look what pops up in my Google news alert.

It's a hilarious podcast discussion from Comic Book Syndicate. Ten or so comic book fans gather in Detroit Comics, a mainstream store in the Motor City burbs. They're obviously regulars at the store and seem to know each other quite well. This week they offer their opinions on My Friend Dahmer.

Most of them have ever heard of me before, or have seen my work, or are aware that the book just won a friggin Angoulême Prize. Most of the group, in fact, hate the book…. giving it tepid 5s and 6s out of 10, with lots of "mehs" and shrugs of disinterest. One dude gives it a 3 and just thinks I suck in every way! Then they all proceed to talk about all the issues I raise in the story for an hour and a half, without really realizing they're talking about the very issues I meant to raise, or give the book the slightest credit for spurring that discussion. The podcast rambles a bit, especially when the pizza guy shows up, but here are the highlights (I was laughing pretty hard as I jotted these down):

"It was kinda boring overall."

"There was really no skill in the art or, really, the writing."

"The book is behind is behind its times (sic). It's not really significant. You can see this kind of thing every night on 20/20 or Nightline"

"He just kept repeating the same stuff over and over, the crazy behavior, and after like half the book it was like, OK, we get it."

"Do I really need six panels of some foot going crunch, crunch?"

"He was too late with this. I wish he woulda done this book in the Eighties or something." Note: Dahmer wasn't caught until 1991.

"The art was not good at all. I don't see any skill in the art. All I see is like high school level figures. It's a really bad imitation of art that's better. I've never even heard of him before this. Without the subject matter, how good a comics creator is this guy? Not stellar."

"Nah, he's much better than that other guy we've read a couple books of, the Death Ray guy, that Clowes guy."

"Glad we're doing a super-hero book next."

It's funny, because I was just trying to explain to some French comix dealers how US comic fandom is split into mainstream and indy fans, and how there's this yawning chasm between the two, which, from my observation, seems to be growing even wider. They were amazed by this. Superhero books have minimal readership in France, where comics are HUGE, although they have what they consider mainstream comics. It's just not long-underwear stuff.  As far as I can tell, not being able to read French, their mainstream books are rendered more classically and are not experimental in style or format. The indy stuff comes more from foreign creators, although it's starting to impact French creators, just as the great French creators like Moebius and Tardi influenced a generation of US creators.  Comix fans in France, however, read all kinds of books, and don't seem as Stalinistic about their tastes as US fans.

It's not absolute, of course, but, for the most part, in the US superhero fans look down on indy stuff and indy fans would rather have bamboo shoots shoved in their fingernails than read Wonder Woman or Before Watchmen. If you go to New York Comicon, all you'll find is mainstream stuff. If you go to SPX, you won't find a superhero book in the building. And then you have to toss Manga fans in there, who are altogether different.

It can get a little more complicated than that, because I still love a lot of the Marvel and DC stuff I grew up reading, and I know a lot of other indy creators do, too. Josh Bayer and I have had long exchanges about Jack Kirby and Herb Trimpe, for example. And, of course, there are folks who read superhero stuff who like indy stuff, as well. And then there are a few creators like Richard Corben who can flourish in both worlds. But yeah, for the most part, those worlds remain separate. Shouldn't be that way. Not sure why it is that way. But that's my observation.

This podcast discussion really drives that divide home. They didn't even know who Dan Clowes is!! I don't really mean that as a putdown. That's just the way it is here in the States (although I was truly flabbergasted by that statement). I couldn't cough up, say,  the names of the top mainstream artists right now either. Not a clue. Totally ignorant. I'm guessing 75 percent of the mainstream writers and artists I wouldn't recognize and/or have never heard of. Not that I'm totally up to speed on indy creators, either. But I'm kind of a weirdo that way.

Is this a bad thing? Dunno. We're all reading comix of some kind, and the more the better. Obviously, this one group of mainstream fans think my book sucks. OK. 

I'll let the Duder speak for me:

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Live from Angoulême Podcast

Hey kids, your favorite scribbler sits down with Heidi MacDonald for a chat on the Publishers Weekly podcast. My bit starts at the 5:45 mark, if you want to skip over the intro. We taped this across the street from the tent where I was signing, in the author's lounge. Thus the sound of glasses clinking and murmured voices in the background.

Sunday, February 23, 2014


Fresh off the train in the village of Angoulême.

I'm back. Almost a month abroad in France and Belgium on book tour, and at the  Angoulême International Comix Festival, a week-long celebration of all things comix.

Jeezus, where to start? I will say this, if I croaked tomorrow, the past month will stand alone as the highlight of my career.

I arrived in France a day late, due to the polar vortex that closed airports across the entire eastern half of the US. Thanks, Obama! But benefiting from a monster tailwind from that same vortex, I arrived in Paris an hour early. I lucked out and managed to catch an earlier train to the village of Angoulême, a two-hour ride to the south, and avoided a five-hour layover.  Luckily, I'm an experienced traveler with 20 or so trips abroad under my belt. I got off in Angoulême and simply followed the crowd from the train station up the hill, dragging my bags,  to the town center and the festival. Took awhile to talk my way into the venue without a pass. Good thing my picture was in the program! 

One of my first discoveries was that Blogger wouldn't allow me to log on to my account from a "suspicious" locale without a confirmation code. Unfortunately, this code was texted to my cellphone…. which doesn't work outside the US. OK. So there would be no posts this month. Those of you who follow me on Facebook or Twitter got daily updates. To the rest of you who "endured" a month of radio silence, sorry about that.

Angoulême is the Cannes Film Fest of comix. It's one of the oldest cons in the world, started in 1974. The festival takes over the entire village and draws an estimated 200,000 fans each year. Every venue and building in town is devoted to the fest, and dozens of tents are erected in the streets and plazas to house publishers and merchants and artists. Tents isn't really the right word. They're more like portable buildings, with a hard floor and lighting and heat! My French publisherÉditions çà et là (which translates to "here and there"), was in the indy comix tent, which was the length of about two football fields. Éditions çà et là was founded by Parisian Serge Ewenczyk, who spent boyhood summers in New Jersey and developed a love of American comics. Éditions çà et là only publishes non-French creators and, thanks to Serge's eye for good comix and respected status in the French comix biz, Éditions çà et là is a fast-rising force in the French scene.

The whole town is devoted to comix. Streets signs, murals, displays in every corner of the village. Exhibitions are held in several venues. Even the buses are festooned with comix! What is almost totally missing is the overbearing corporate presence you find at, say New York Comicon. There are no Craftsman Tools meets the Justice League displays. No t-shirt tower. No video game launches, or autograph areas full of aging TV celebs. It's all about the comix here.

A little about the Franco comix scene. The French love, and create, comix more than any other European country. But the superhero dreck that curses American comix has very little readership here. A shop owner told me superhero comics account for maybe 10 percent of his sales, and that's way up from previous years, thanks mainly to the blockbuster films of the past decade. Comix, to the French readers and media, are a legit artform, as respected and beloved as the written word or film. And their comix readers stretch across demographics: young and old, male and female. Mostly they read bandes dessinées, or, as they're commonly called, BDs (pronounced "bay days"). These are what we call graphic novels. French readers love historical BDs, sci-fi, war, westerns, virtually everything save long-underwear schlock. Memoir, which has long dominated indy comix in the US, also seems to be relatively new and mostly comes from imports like MFD. The 24-page floppy has almost no presence here. Nor does, alas, the mini-comic, which, of course, is the format that is transforming American and Canadian comix. Hopefully, they'll discover the latter eventually.

I've long been a fan of French comix, ever since I unexpectedly stumbled upon the debut issue of Heavy Metal at the newsstand in the Summit Mall in Akron, back in 1977. The very mall where Dahmer's Command Performance took place! Heavy Metal brought translations of French comix greats like Moebius and Tardi to US audiences for the first time. It also produced a great transformation in US comix, which were bright and poppy in the late Bronze Age, with a few notable exceptions such as Frank Miller's Daredevil, the Warren mags and the first indy titles. The current dark, apocalyptic mainstream comix, with its mix of hyper-violence and twisted, cynical sexuality can be directly traced back to Heavy Metal. Just not as well done. Confession: I myself had a frustrating, but thankfully brief, Moebius phase during high school. Lesson #1 for any wannabee comix creator: don't try to imitate a genius.

So an invite to Angoulême has always been high on my list, and I've been been looking forward to this trip ever since Serge bought My Friend Dahmer and promised to bring me over for the fest. I rolled into town on a hot streak. Mon Ami Dahmer was the most talked about BD of the past year. It was also the top-selling indy BD in France, and, even better, it was nominated for an Angoulême Prize. Now MFD had been nominated for just about every US comix prize, too (Harvey, Ignatz, Rueben), but had lost every friggin one to Chris Ware and Building Stories. I mean, c'mon, that's not even a fair fight! Building Stories comes with a fucking board game! But… Ware's opus hasn't yet been translated into French, so it wasn't one of the 20 Angoulême Selection Officielle. Still didn't think I was going to win, but at least it wasn't a guaranteed, money-in-the-bank ass-whuppin'!

Derf books at the Éditions çà et là booth.

The streets of Angoulême are packed with comix fans.

Angoulême was all I hoped it would be. The Çà et là Collective, a dozen creators from all over the world, about half of whom were Americans, was a great group and we quickly bonded over long signing sessions and group dinners every evening. One of those, Frank Santaro, author of the melancholy and beautiful Pompei and a regularly contributor to The Comics Journal writes eloquently and accurately about our adventures HERE.

Most of us were housed at a 17th-century French manor about 40k out of town. Rooms in town are completely inadequate in number during the fest, especially for such a large group, so visitors scatter far and wide across the surrounding countryside. Serge found a wonderful place in the village of Cognac, where, yes, the drink itself is produced. It was really remote, surrounded by nothing but vineyards for as far as the eye could see. The country road which led there was barely wide enough for the van Serge rented to shuttle us about. At night, I gazed in wonder at a at pitch black country sky full of stars. The only other place I've ever seen a sky like that was in the Florida Keys. Every day we were awakened at dawn by Serge bellowing "It's wake up time!" A breakfast of French bread and coffee and off we went. To work!

The çà et là collective and our manor.

The signings themselves were grueling. Here in the States, or in Canada, fans are more than happy with a simple autograph. I spruce mine up a bit and add some drawn elements to my name. But in France, the norm is something called a dedicace, a full drawing on the title page! Once in awhile I do these at US cons, if asked. A-listers, or even C-listers, make a decent living charging for con drawings. But in France, it's expected, and it's free. Some of the guys really went all out. Gregory Benton did a huge, two-page, full-color dedicace in every book! They were amazing. It's kind of fun interacting with fans like that, and they're plenty grateful. Santaro suggested we stand up to draw our dedicaces using a box as a drawing board. It was a great idea. Easier on the back and better to engage fans eye to eye than to have them bending over you.

And, man, did the fans come! Ya know, I've always wanted to be one of those guys that had fans lined up at my table. Never came close to that in year's past, before the graphic novels. I remember my first few cons back in the Nineties, back when The City was my only product. I'd make slow but steady sales of my wares, but most con-goers, especially at mainstream cons, walked right by my table without as glance and I could but stare in awe at the more popular creators and the crowds that milled around them. I remember once at the Mid-Ohio Con I had a table next to Greg Horn, one of the big mainstream cover artists of the era, who specialized in realistically-rendered superhero cheescake. Sort of superhero softcore, really, but the fanboys ate it up. The dude had 30-40 people lined up at his table every second of the day, all snatching up autographed poster prints of favorite Marvel and DC covers. Horn was making a fortune, but his fans often spread out and clogged up the area in front of my table, totally obscuring me from view! I remember one guy leaned onto my table with a sweaty paw on a stack of my books, arching to see what horn was drawing. Another left a giant soda on another stack of my books! I'd politely ask them to queue up away from my table and receive glares and grumbles in return, only to have the line expand like an amoeba a few minutes later and once again block me from passing fans. It just drove home what an obscure unknown I was! I bailed after Day One and drove home, blowing off Day Two. What was the point? So I always dreamed of being one of those guys, with fans lined up in front of my table. In Angoulême, I officially became one of those guys. I signed close to 200 books during the fest. By the time my post-Angoulême book tour was done, I had signed over 600 total! Each one with a dedicace. Ouch. Well, like I said, I dreamed of being one of those guys.

Helen, the talented art director of çà et là, Santaro looking amazed, and Joff Winterhart,whose personality can best be described as crazed extrovert, but his book Days of Bagnold Summer is a funny and touching tale of a mother and son.

After each long day of signing, at least two stints of 2-3 hours each, plus, on my part, a few interviews or Q&As, Boss Serge took us all to dinner at apparently the only good restaurant in the town. All the publishers were there with their own stables of creators. The çà et là  crew was Serge and his staff, myself, Gregory Benton and his girlfriend Florence, Anneli Furmark, Joseph Lambert, Li-Chin Lin, Ulli Lust, Mana Neyestani, Dash Shaw, Joff Winterhart and Frank Santaro. I knew Frank , a fellow Rustbelter, from various cons, and Joe and Ulli I had met at TCAF a couple years back. The rest I had never met before, but we all quickly bonded over bottles of wine and delicious meals and wonderful conversation. When My Friend Dahmer first came out and the acclaim started piling up, I was called out by Joyce Brabner, Harvey Pekar's wife. "Stop being so reclusive," she told me. Was I reclusive? It must be so.  I think it was because I was new to graphic novels and indy comix, coming as I did from the newspaper world, and I'm not the most outgoing person, I admit. But her words startled me into action. I would make an effort to get out there and meet people. And I have. From SPX, to TCAF, from Chicago to Columbus, to here on my home turf of Cleveland, I've been making friends and putting myself out there. So it was at Angoulême. And it's a lot easier when the great people you meet are such amazing creators, too,  all different and incredibly unique. 

The last day of the fest was the award ceremony, by invite only. I went with Serge and Joseph Lambert, whose outstanding Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller was also nominated. It was a strange ceremony, before a packed house in the large town auditorium. There were actors onstage, a disembodied voice that served as the narrator, and a rock band. As a nominee, I got to sit up front. Turns out Serge learned that I had won a prize just before the ceremony, info leaked to him by a secret ally. He kept advising me, "You should think of something to say if you win." I was too dense to pick up on this clue.  The ceremony was all in French, the venue was hot with all the people, and I was exhausted after a whirlwind three days… so I started to drift off. Suddenly Serge was elbowing me. "Derf! You won! Go up to the stage!" I managed to stagger up there without falling on my ass, someone handed me my nifty trophy, and I stammered out a few quick words of gratitude, with the help of a translator, to Serge and to my editor at Abrams, Charlie Kochman and stumbled back to my seat where Serge beamed ear to ear.  "It was a big goal of mine to some day win an Angoulême prize!" he said.  I'm glad MFD brought it home for him. He deserves it.

Serge and me and the prize.

At the end of the event, the 10 winners went on stage for group photos, to thunderous applause from the house. The Angoulême Prizes are a HUGE deal in Europe. Everyone knows about them. It's quite a contrast from ,say, an Eisner or Rueben, which is known in the business and among comix fans, but of which the general population has never heard. I looked out at a mass of about 30 photogs snapping pics like crazy. I felt like a fucking movie star! 

The ceremony was broadcast all over the village and in all the tents over loudspeakers, so when I returned to the çà et là booth, my compatriots greeted me with whoops and whistles. I think out of everything, this meant the most to me. Santaro told me when my name was announced, they all danced around the tent high-fiving each other on my behalf. It truly was a moment I'll never forget. It was a week I'll never forget.

And there was still three weeks to go on my book tour!

Punk Rock et Mobile Homes

An unexpected thrill to my recent adventures in France was the incredible reception Punk Rock et Mobile Homes received. The book was released right after the Angoulême Fest closed, timed perfectly for my two-week book tour around France and Belgium. It won't come close to out-selling Mon Ami Dahmer, of course, but by the final days of the tour, I was signing more Punk Rocks than Dahmers

This was great, because I'm sure sick and tired of drawing Dahmer. With Punk Rock, I had the freedom to sketch a variety of characters on the title page– something the French call a "dedicace" and insist on. No quickly scrawled autograph here! A fan (above) requested one of the Fart Tape!

Punk Rock & Trailer Parks came out in the US at the very end of 2008. A little over five years ago. It's a book I'm still very fond of, and proud of, and stands as one of the pivotal works of my career. It was both my comeback and the work that launched me into a new career as a graphic novelist, a change of genres that has brought me far more success and acclaim than my previous career as a comic strip artist ever did. 

I wrote PR&TP while recovering from two long years of cancer treatment. I had dabbled in long-form storytelling earlier with the first Trashed and the embryonic My Friend Dahmer stories, both of which received Eisner nominations. So I knew I was on the right track. Then came cancer, and I simply didn't have the gas to take on a major endeavor like a book. Once I emerged, spent but hopeful, out of cancer treatment I decided, for obvious reasons, that I didn't have time to waste. If I wanted to do a book, get to it. And at that time, although I was in remission and the prognosis was good, I was not "cured" and the cancer could well have come roaring back. So I wrote PR&TP, while on vacation with the family, actually, at a lovely lodge in the Cottage District of Ontario, on the shores of Lake Kashagawig-a-mog (really!). This is a special place to me. My parents used to bring us here every year when I was a kid, to a different lodge (directly on the opposite shore from where I stayed this time, so I gazed at it every day). I hadn't been back in 30 years. But the family deserved a nice vacation after the ordeal we'd been through, so I took a chance, found what looked to be a similar lodge to one I remembered as a kid, and booked the vacation. It was a total home run. This was also the place where I first became a comics fiend, when I made a impulse purchase of Fantastic Four #102 at the lodge gift shop in 1970. So this is my personal Mecca, the holy ground where it all began. It's even more sacred to me now, because it's where I re-made myself.

Every day I dragged an Adirondack chair to a shady spot on the water's edge. Stuck a couple beers in the water to stay cool, burrowed my feet into the wet sand and, as small waves gently lapped against my legs, scribbled in the sketchbook on my lap. The kids splashed in the water nearby. I did this for a solid week. It was heaven. What emerged was Punk Rock & Trailer Parks. 

It took another two years to complete. It was a creative joy to produce, but slow going as I learned the craft and pushed myself to artistic limits I'd never dared challenge before. As much as I liked doing The City, especially at that time when it was still in 40 papers, before the great newspaper mass extinction, the freedom of a graphic novel, to write as long and as with as much detail as I wished, or as the story dictated, was a rush. This, I thought, even then, is what I should be doing. 

Punk Rock & Trailer Parks was released in Fall 2008, on the very day that the Wall St. Meltdown plunged to its depths with the failures and/or takeovers of Lehman Bros., AIG, Fannie Mae et al.  Worst. Timing. Ever. PR&TP landed like a shovelful of wet cement on the sidewalk. No one was buying anything, especially $16 indy graphic novels, as visions of 1933 loomed. The book got great reviews, but died. I didn't make a cent off it. 

This has grated on me ever since. This book that I was so proud of, that I believed was a great read, was nothing but a cult fave. Otto and Uncle Elmo deserved a better fate than this.

On the positive side, PR&TP transformed me as a storyteller, so it was far from a wasted effort. There would be no My Friend Dahmer, at least not in the form it exists, without the lessons learned from PR&TP.

And now here we are in 2014, and the comix fans of France and Belgium have made Punk Rock et Mobile Homes a hit! It's already in it's 2nd printing, a mere week after its launch. Sure, it comes hot on the success of Mon Ami Dahmer, the top selling indy book of the past year in France, but hey, I'll make no apologies for good timing for once! The book also received a gorgeous printing from my pals at Éditions çà et là. 

Here in the US, Otto's adventures were looked down upon by some as too raunchy and juvenile, which, of course, they are. That was the point after all, because that was punk rock. Critics here, outside of the comix press, tend to be real snobs when it comes to graphic novels. Probably because they, deep down, still think of them as little more than lowbrow comic books, crap for pimply teenagers or flabby, middle-aged losers. I also thought this was a book that had some breakout potential, and one the music press would be interested in. Ha. Wrong! I sent a review copy to every music mag and rock critic I could think of. Nothing but the sound of crickets. Maybe it was because this was a book about the Akron punk scene and not the CBGB's one. We all know how NYC editors and writers feel about anything that occurs out in the sticks. It was the same in 1978 with the music itself! Or maybe it's simply the continued dominance of superhero crap here. Despite the emergence of great indy comics in the US over the past decade, we just haven't shed those old attitudes outside of comix circles. So a graphic novel can only be taken seriously if it's like Maus or Persepolis. That's simply not the case in France, where superheroes have never enjoyed a wide readership, and comix are beloved as a legitimate art form and always have been. They judge a book purely on its merits. French readers are really taken with le Baron, and the punk rock aspects of the story are more mythological to the French, since punk was not the common rite of passage it was in the US or Britain. The top music mag in Paris, Rock & Folk, will be running a big piece on the book. The biggest newspapers have already run articles, and I did interviews on radio and tv.

What can I say? I'm on a roll. And fucking loving it! To paraphrase Elvis Costello, I'm an overnight sensation after 30 years!