Articles Published the Week of October 16th

Late Happiness: An Interview with W.S. Merwin

Box Brown's Tetris Pieces Together the Story behind the Game

Genndy Tartakovsky on Cage, Samurai Jack and Hand-drawn Artwork

Matt Phelan Talks About the Challenges of Reimagining Snow White

Gregg Taylor's Motion Comics Are Your New Saturday Morning Cartoons

The Comics Journal Interview with Sophie Campbell

Late Happiness: An interview with W.S. Merwin

One of the great privileges of doing what I do is getting to talk with fascinating people. I've had the opportunity to talk with some of our great living poets and recently I spoke with W.S. Merwin just after his 89th birthday and the publication of his new book, Garden Time. Merwin was the son of a minister who grew up in New Jersey and he went to get to know T.S. Eliot and Robert Graves, he was mentored by W.H. Auden, friends with Sylvia Plath. He also represents something I think is important–and which we didn't even have a chance to talk about–which is the politics of his career. He was opposed to the Vietnam War, was part of the anti-nuclear movement, has been a part of the conservation movement for decades. It's not just talk. He bought 18 acres decades ago that has been ruined, nothing growing on it, and now hundreds of varieties of palm trees grow there on land that's now being preserved. He is also, as he tells it, happy. We spoke about his life and career and what that means.


The Discovery of a Lost Georges Melies film!

A lot of people aren't into silent film. I love it, though, and the discovery that a lost film of Georges Melies has been discovered is the kind of cultural event that should be shouted form the rooftops. (Admittedly that sounds like something that might happen in a silent film as opposed to reality here in the 21st century, but still...)

Another short film of Melies was discovered a few years ago. There was the lost Sherlock Holmes film of William Gillette a few years back. So many silent films have been lost and it's exciting to see that a few have been found.

I can't wait to see this.

French Comics Framed: French Comics on Screen

On Thursday, I was at the School of Visual Arts in New York where I interviewed a five amazing French creators as part of the French Comics Festival. The creators (and who publishes them in the US):

Etienne Davodeau  (Lulu Anew and The Intimates from NBM)
Matz  (Triggerman from Hard Case/Titan, The Killer from Archaia, Cyclops from Boom)
Jean-Claude Mezieres  (Valerian and Laureline from Cinebook)
Arthur de Pins (Zombillennium from NBM, March of the Crabs from Boom)
Jean-Marc Rochette  (Snowpiercer from Titan)

We were discussing French Comics on Screen, and ecah of them has a very unique and different relationship with the film industry. Davodeau's book Lulu Anew was adapted into a film, though not by him, and he spoke about the changes that were made and why. Matz had a book adapted to film, which was released as Bullet to the Head starring Stallone, and that started a relationship with the film's director, the legendary Walter Hill. Rochette's Snowpiercer which he drew was of course turned into the film. (And he has a strange entertaining story behind it at various stages). Mezieres is a legend in French comics for his Valerian series which he's been drawing since 1967. He's also a notable designer for film, including most famously on The Fifth Element. And now Luc Besson is working on the film Valerian which comes out next summer.

Mezieres also revelaed that he's 20-something pages into a new Valerian comic!

de Pins started out as an animator and turned his short film into the graphic novel March of the Crabs. Now he's turning his series Zombillennium (3 volumes have been released of a planned six books) into an animated film that he's directing and writing. He showed off some design work and a scene from the film.

I've interviewed Davodeau, Matz and de Pins in the past. And was nervous to be interviewing Mezieres, who is a legend. Overall it was an amazing evening and I was thrilled to be asked to be a part of this.


TV Review: Some thoughts on the new MacGyver

I watched the first episode of the new MacGyver TV show. I was a fan of the original series starring the fabulous Richard Dean Anderson. I was not a fan of this new show. For a few reasons.

1. If I was going to send someone to be a spy and hide in plain sight in the 21st Century, I wouldn't have them wear a haircut from the 80s. You can't be a spy if you stand out like a sore thumb. As an un-stylish guy with a meh haircut, all I can say is, get a new barber.

2. He's arrogant as hell and it's annoying and grating. To write this I was looking at the wikipedia page for MacGyver and I came across this quotation: "According to Rich, every auditioning actor "hulked" his way through his audition. When Anderson eventually auditioned for the role, Winkler and Rich felt that he gave the character a human touch which the other actors could not." I think this is important. One of the things that the character and the actor Richard Dean Anderson so good is that he came off like an ordinary guy. He didn't act like he was the smartest, most talented person in the room, and throw his weight around constantly.This new MacGyver comes off as five times as arrogant and half as smart.

3. It's funny that a show where the premise is that he doesn't use a gun and uses science and gadgets to solve problems is kinda dumb. There's so little science and so little ingenuity.

4. Even stranger than that, the computer hacker character manages to do that magic thing that people on TV with computer access do which is that with a few simple keystrokes, they can do literally anything. In this case, in a matter of seconds she manages to locate a person. It's like a magic ball and means that no one TV has to investigate anything, they just banter and then jump to an action scene.

5. Does MacGyver need to have a roommate who's clueless about what he really does for a living? Whose stupid idea was this?

6. Exactly what does their boss do? She's introduced as this badass spy but ultimately does...essentially nothing. MacGyver and Dalton and the hacker make demands and she frowns and then says, okay. That's about it.

7. I do like actor Sandrine Holt, who I remember from Once a Thief and other things, but come on, you have to give her something to do and a character to play.

8. There's some sort of government conspiracy? I guess. The government wants the weapon for some reason and she's now part of some conspiracy to help or not or...I mean look, the US government is not going to turn out to be evil in this. I have no idea where this is going but honestly it doesn't seem to make much sense.

9. The character picks the handcuffs lock and then vanishes from the back of the car. Like magic. Really? We're making a show about science but there's also magic? Give me a freaking break

10. The episode ends with him and his teammates and their boss hanging out in his house drinking beer? It felt like a scene that gets added in because you need to fill a couple minutes. There is literally nothing in that scene that defines any of those characters and nothing vital to the plot.

11. Because someone will yell about #8, yes I know that MacGyver gets to name the new front organization for the secret government organization and he calls it The Phoenix Foundation, which is where Mac worked in the 80s show. But the writer could have just had the group called the Phoenix Foundation from the beginning. There was no reason for the scene.

12. I like George Eads. I really only know him as one of the supporting characters on CSI, who was there and honestly never gave him much thought. I do like him here. Maybe it's because I dislike all the other actors. I'm sure that's partly it, but he manages to take an underwritten character and add something to it (like a good actor does) and makes him interesting and entertaining. Jack Dalton on the original show was played by the great character actor Bruce McGill and I think Eads stands alongside McGill as an entertaining, fabulous character and a great character turn.

13. Honestly I think the show would have been better with Eads as MacGyver. He's the only character on this show who seems to possess a sense of humor. Because our lead characters and heroes should never smile or laugh, they must always be serious because they do serious work. Eads would have a good MacGyver. He might have been able to save this horrible script. Maybe.

14. I don't understand why shows hire Vinnie Jones to play a bland villain. It's a waste of an actor. Though they wasted every other actor on the show, so why not!

15. This was the second pilot of MacGyver. This cast made a previous pilot which the network didn't like so they wrote and filmed this pilot. Which means that while I watch this show and see poor writing and a lot of questionable choices, this was judged to be superior to the first pilot. I'm not sure if that means the first one was truly unwatchable, or if I would like it immensely more than this and I'm just out of step with what TV executives and viewers like.


Articles Published the Week of September 25th

Teri S. Wood discusses the grim toll of war in Wandering Star

I never read Wandering Star when it came out in the 1990's, but I was blown away when I read the collection of the series. At the beginning it's the story of a young woman who's the first human attending the Galactic Academy, which sounds like a various of Star Trek, where humans are at the bottom of the galactic pecking order. Then the war begins, though, and Wood pulls no punches. It's dark and brutal, but also hopeful and a really amazing book.

Alexis Deacon talks Celtic myths and "inescapable fates" in Geis

I really loved Geis, the debut graphic novel from writer/artist Alexis Deacon, which is out now from Nobrow. The book has its origins in Celtic mythology and folktales, but Deacon really takes these stories and concepts his own and transforms them into a really fun, unique and thoughtful book.

Lionel Shriver is Wrong

Will Lionel Shriver please stop.

I'm tired of hearing about how oppressed she is and how it's offensive to criticize her work.

Let's step back for a moment.

Joyce Carol Oates published a novel in 2015 titled "The Sacrifice". Now Oates is one of the most acclaimed writers of her generation, she's an immense figure with dozens of books in all different genres. This is a novel that has a lot of black characters, it's about racism as it plays out in the investigation and aftermath of a crime. She has every right to write such a book. No one has ever argued against that. No one did argue against it.

Here's the thing, though. When the book was reviewed, more than one person called her out for being so clueless and lacking in empathy and understanding, that the book is racist. Or that it's just racist, depending on how much sympathy they grant her.

In Roxane Gay's review in the New York Times Book Review, Gay argued that "To write difference well demands empathy, an ability to respect the humanity of those you mean to represent." Gay cites instances in the novel where Oates was very perceptive, for example the thought process of a black person being pulled over by the cops. Now some of Gay's criticisms could be described as simply a dislike of the style and approach that Oates used, and I think that Gay would agree, but her issues with the novel go far beyond that.

For example Gay points out that "Some of the black characters speak in a dialect vaguely resembling African-­American Vernacular English, but inconsistently and seemingly without syntactic rules." There are plenty of other issues Gay points to including the n-word being used "flagrantly, as if this were a Quentin Tarantino screenplay, often without plausible context." She argues that the word "nigra" was not something either white or blacks would have used in 1980's New Jersey and "Then there are the physical descriptions; this novel contains a lot of dark skin and nappy hair."

(As an aside, I've never quite understood the strange ways that mostly white writers will describe their black characters skin color. Sometimes it's weird and sometimes it's just creepy. Also they so rarely - if ever - talk about white people's skin color.)

But I digress...

None of those critics said, you cannot write this, but they all said, this is racist crap. Joyce Carol Oates can write and publish what she wishes, but she is not immune from criticism. Writing something and having a good heart doesn't mean that it's not ignorant or even racist.

Hell, Joyce Carol Oates wrote into the Book Review to protest the review. The book, as far as I know, is still in print and available. Plenty of people have reviewed it form various racial and cultural backgrounds and some liked it and some loved it and some hated it and some went meh.

Interestingly enough, Shriver in her recent series of talks and interviews has complained about the review of her recent book in the Washington Post, which she claimed “groundlessly accused her book of being ‘racist’ because it doesn’t toe a strict Democratic Party line.”  Ken Kalfus, who wrote that review, has some issues with that argument.

He argued that the book does contain some troubling racial characterizations but also that one of the two African-American characters speaks is the only character who speaks in what he called "sub-standard English." Shriver doesn't try to capture the ways that we all speak in detail, not pronouncing letters and skipping words and colloquial expressions, but does for a character explicitly described as black.

One could of course argue that Shriver is not going after people of color, she's just making this single character dumb and ignorant and she happens to be black while every other character speaks in grammatically perfect, enunciated English. But that's odd and it does require why this one character in the novel speaks differently than everyone else in the novel. Okay, let's say that it is obvious and somewhat unfair to say that it must be racism. It's not an unreasonable assumption, though.

And if this does make white writers or writers from other backgrounds to stop and look at how their characters speak and think about it, well, I'm not going to say that's bad. It's one thing for everyone to speak with an accent, with the dialogue rendered in the vernacular, but if only some characters are, then it is something that the writer should look at and think about why they did that and consider if they are assigning less intelligence, less humanity to those characters and what that might mean. A novel contains thousands of little choices and this is one people should probe.

Of course there are cases where people went overboard with trying to be "politically correct" which are obnoxious and over the top and laughable and offensive. People go too far. I think that's human nature. But if your response is, well, to avoid going too far we just shouldn't try at all. We should just allow racism and sexism to flourish because it's a slippery slope.

This is like the argument where white people say, being called a racist is horrible and offensive and the worst thing. And people of color say, um, actually there are plenty worse things being called racist...we can give you a list.

Hell, if you really believe that everyone is wrong and the characters are not racist and your work isn't racist, well, okay. Guess what, maybe next year or next century people will read it and reconsider it. People today read Conrad's Heart of Darkness differently than they did when it was first published. Sometimes writers end up distancing themselves from their older work because they see that it contains stereotypes and racist attitudes.

Lionel Shriver is making an obnoxious argument.James Patterson and Dan Brown don't give whiny interviews where they claim to be great important figures who are oppressed because critics fault their prose style. Some people have said that Lionel Shriver isn't a great writer and she's angry about it. I don't really see how this is about anything more than that.

Articles Published the Week of September 18th

Stephen Murphy Opens Up About Fear and Slivers of Hope in The Puma Blues

When I had the chance to read The Puma Blues, I have to admit that I was completely and utterly blown away by the book and I decided to talk with both artist Michael Zulli (in an interview that ran in The Comics Journal earlier in the summer) and writer Stephen Murphy, about the book. My conversation with Murphy was amazing as we spoke about the book on a lot of different levels, I through reading for pleasure happened upon a quotation that so affected me and echoed the ending of the book. The Puma Blues is not the easiest graphic novel, it's certainly not the most hopeful, but it is an amazing and moving book that really hit me on so many levels, and I'm so glad that Stephen and I had the opportunity to talk.


The MacArthur Genius Grants

First of all, the number of cartoonists/graphic novelists who have ever won a MacArthur doubled the other day. Lauren Redniss and Gene Luen Yang joined previous recipients Ben Katchor and Alison Bechdel.

Redniss got this award for work that really stands outside of the comics world. I remember when her book Thunder and Lightning came out last year and I loved this book but I remember coming up again and again against editors who didn't know who she was and weren't interested. Of course her publicist also never replied to my multiple emails... Still reading her work and others, I do see a future path for illustrated books for graphic narratives which try to throw out the language of comics and assemble their own artistic vocabulary. And that's something that I really hope this award and the attention she and her work gets will help push forward.

Yang on the other hand came out of comics, but what might be considered a more traditional route for a lot of artists but his career has really been one that was made possible in the shift in recent years and the emergence of book publishers. He's been published by :01 Books and has been one of the most talented and most important voices they've published from the beginning of the imprint. In the past decade he went from a minor figure in comics to the immense success that he really deserves.

I do wonder what this means going forward. I do hope that the MacArthur Foundation tries to encourage more visual arts and more narrative comics work. It's also notable that by naming Redniss and Yang it shows that do seem to be paying more attention to comics work in its many forms, which can only be a good thing.

Because there are still a number of geniuses in comics that have yet to be recognized. Like Lynda Barry. The MacArthur Foundation may be the only people in this country who don't describe her as a genius. (Yet!) There's also Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Carol Tyler...well, I have a list. They know where I am and should just e-mail me. I'll suggest a few possible names.

The other people who won this year are amazing. Just to read over the people is to blown away by the work that they've done over the years.

My love for poet Claudia Rankine knows few bounds. Her book Citizen is one of the great books of poetry of recent years.

Maggie Nelson is an amazing writer and her book the Argonuats who this incredible work about love and language, relationships, motherhood and the complexity of life in a way that pushes past memoir to that arer space where it becomes as much about herself as it about issues beyond herself.

Sarah Stillman is a nonfiction writer whose New Yorker article Taken from a few years ago about civil asset forfeiture should be required reading for all Americans. She's written a series of great longform pieces.

There's composer Julia Wolfe who's written some incredible music. Josh Kun who's done some great work as a cultural historian. Anne Basting who's an artist and educator whose work with people suffering from dementia has been really amazing. There's Ahilan Arulanantham, whose work as a human rights lawyer has been so important.

Happy Bi Visibility Day!

And to those who claim that September 23rd doesn't exist...go to hell.


I Guest Produced an episode of the Colin McEnroe Show about Mr. Robot and Our Cyberpunk Reality

The Future is Now: Mr. Robot and Our Cyberpunk Reality

I guest-produced an episode of WNPR's Colin McEnroe Show this week with Jonathan McNicol. We had writers John Shirley and Paul Di Filippo join editor and teacher Leigh Grossman and Slate's Willa Paskin to talk about cyberpunk and the TV show Mr. Robot. We could have kept going for another hour, but we managed to cover a lot of ground, the good, the bad, the influences, the unintended consequences of the genre.

I really appreciate Colin, Jonathan and the rest of the WNPR team letting me have some fun on the air.


Articles Published the Week of September 4th

Melissa Mendes on the family history at the heart Lou and The Weight

Melissa Mendes serialized Lou through Oily Comics and now Alternative Comics has published a collected edition of the book. We spoke about that and her ongoing webcomic The Weight, the influence of family stories on her work, how she uses silence to great effect

Alexis Fajardo on adapting myths for modernity in Kid Beowulf

By day Alexis Fajardo works at Charles M Schulz Associates overseeing Peanuts projects around ther world, and by night he writes and draws Kid Beowulf, a prequel to and rethinking of the great epic poem. We spoke about the influence of Asterix, what makes epic poetry different form superhero stories, and what he has planned for future volumes of the series.

The Rumpus Interview with Connie Wanek

Connie Wanek grew up attending school in a one room schoolhouse, studied visual art, didn't start publishing poetry until her late thirties, but her new book Rival Gardens, a new and selected volume of her work is a really striking book of poetry. There are those moments when you discover a new poet who isn't beginning, but has established a voice and a body of work. There were poems that reminded me of Jane Kenyon, and I hope that this book brings Wanek the wider readership that she deserves.