Matt Phelan brings Buster Keaton to "Bluffton"

I've been a fan of Matt Phelan ever since his first graphic "The Storm in the Barn." It was a masterful fable about a young boy growing up in the Dust Bowl. It was his first comic, though he'd been illustrating children's books for many years by that point, but he understood comics. I ended up giving the book to my mother, where it became a favorite of her fourth graders, and won a number of awards including the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. We spoke when it came out and it's one of those interviews that I'm immensely proud of.

I was thrilled to talk with him about his new book, "Bluffton." It opens in 1908 and tells the story of Henry Harrison, a young boy growing up in Michigan who befriends another boy his age. Harry's friend turns out to be a gifted vaudevillian named Buster Keaton, who would go on to be one of the great actors and directors in the history of film.

Like Phelan, I'm a huge fan of Buster Keaton, but it's a great story for many reasons (not just because of Buster).

Liniers and "The Big Wet Balloon"

Liniers is a great Argentinian cartoonist so while "The Big Wet Balloon" (out now from Toon Books in both English and Spanish language editions) is his first book to come out in the U.S., there's a reason why a quick glance at the book makes it clear that the man is a great cartoonist. I had the chance to talk with him at SPX recently and he was a great guy in addition to being a great artist and we had a fabulous conversation.

Carlos Batts and April Flores: Fat Girl

I always love it when I get to talk to artists and photographers over at SG and recently I had the chance to talk with Carlos Batts and April Flores. Batts is a great photographer and filmmaker and Flores is a well-known model and porn star. The couple has been working together, since, well since before they were a couple, and the work that they create together is different from the work they do separately in interesting ways. Their new project is a photography book, Fat Girl. The photographs are of Flores, taken over the length of their working relationship and done in a variety of styles and approaches.

I made the point that the book is not political, but the title is, and we talked about that, pornography, body image, the key to an open relationship and more. I've been a fan of both for years and had a great time talking with them.

Ramona Fradon and her long career, from Aquaman to Brenda Starr to "Fairy Tale Comics"

Ramona Fradon started working as an artist in 1951 at DC Comics. In the Silver Age she was perhaps best known for drawing Aquaman, but she was always interested more in humor comics and in characters like Plastic Man and Metamorpho–who she co-created with writer Bob Haney. (If Metamorpho sounds vaguely familiar, Neil Gaiman and Mike Allred did a story with the character for the acclaimed Wednesday Comics anthology a few years ago). Ms. Fradon took a few years off to raise her daughter and later she retired from comic books in 1980 to take over the long-running comic strip "Brenda Starr" from creator Dale Messick.

Ms. Fradon drew the comic strip until 1995, but like her earlier retirement, she's continued to draw. Her new comic is a contribution to the anthology "Fairy Tale Comics" which comes out this week from First Second Books. It's a beautifully drawn adaptation of "The Prince and the Tortoise" and Ms. Fradon will be at New York Comic Con next month.


Arun Rath and All Things Considered Weekend

Arun Rath has taken over the weekend edition of NPR's All Things Considered, overseeing the hour long show on Saturday and Sunday.

It's also great because the show is being broadcast from NPR West. One because they have a studio in LA so why not use it. But also it's nice to see NPR actively try to get some geographic diversity and

On Sunday's show, they covered the standoff in Kenya, the electoral victory of Angela Merkel, had a piece about Common Core standards, but there was also an interview with David Cross and Bob Odenkirk (which Rath was clearly excited by) and a nice piece about the new album from ?uestlove and Elvis Costello. On Saturday, Rath walked Sunset Boulevard and talked with Patton Oswalt about Moby Dick. It's that combination of news and quirky entertainment that I really enjoyed and I think with the right host and right sensibility, the show can really be a winner.

Of course on the opening show, there were dispatches from a few people across the Western U.S., which was, well, less than exciting. Having said that, I would like to see the show incorporate dispatches from across the Western U.S. (and Western Canada and the West Coast of Mexico as well). It would be nice to hear regular reports of what's happening - the art scenes, the economy, the ongoing water concerns, the changing environmental landscape. I'll be honest, I'm constantly frustrating living in New England at how little people know and care about the rest of the U.S. Of course that's because they're willfully ignorant (Some here really do think that everything west of the Mississippi consists of: Hollywood, Portlandia, ski resorts, with the rest consisting of places and people they don't care about and don't want to care about).

So hopefully they'll take advantage of being in Los Angeles and telling a few more stories from different places. There are plenty of great people they could hire to do commentary (Rebecca Solnit, Timothy Egan, Rick Bass, Terry Tempest Williams, Walter Kirn to name just a few). Looking forward to hearing what they come up with next.

Ghost Projekt in development at NBC

I was excited to see that Ghost Projekt is in development at NBC. Even better, the pilot is being co-written and directed by the writer/director of Troll Hunter, André Øvredal. I spoke with writer Joe Harris and artist Steve Rolston back when the book first came out a few years ago and read it again last year and it's a great read. Curious to see what the plan is to turn this book into an ongoing series, but there's a lot of material there and plenty of potential.

The story concerns an American weapons inspector and a Russian detective who team up after an incident that has supernatural implications and involves events that took place decades before. 

It's also the second time that NBC and Oni Press have worked together. NBC made a pilot of The Sixth Gun, a series that Oni publishes, though it ended up not going to series. The publisher has plenty of books that NBC should be looking at if they aren't already.


Charles Forsman and "The End..."

I got to talk with Charles Forsman, whose first major book "TEOTFW" is out now from Fantagraphics, who is also publishing another book by Forsman later this year. In addition to that, Forsman, who runs the publishing company Oily Comics, is serializing a new story in minicomics, "Teen Creeps,"the first two issues of which are out now.

We also talked about the planned adaptation of "TEOTFW" and the influence of the Center for Cartoon Studies on his life and work. When his name was announced at the Ignatz Awards last weekend–he won for outstanding minicomic–the applause from the audience was thunderous.

I'm Neither Important, Nor Very: SPX 2013

This was my first time at SPX and it was a good convention. It was also completely exhausting. The convention only lasts two days, and open at 11 am on Saturday and noon on Sunday, which is a good starting time. When I arrived the doors were already open and there was a line of people queued up to buy their passes.

I’m neither important, nor very, I’m just running a panel, I said to the staff member, almost apologetically. You'd think I'd have a better line when meeting women for the first time...but no.

The show takes place at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel and Convention Center, which is conveniently across from the Metro station. Despite being packed with people the hall was comfortable–though some people under the vents complained of being cold–and at times the aisles were packed, but for the most part people were polite and apologized when bumping into each other. There were girl scouts, people in costume, elderly, children, people with their infants in tow. It was a great cross-section of people. The room was set up so that there are many doors and after a few hours, all the doors were opened on three sides of the room and at many of the entrances and outside in the halls were water coolers, many with tins of mint next to them. (Just so you know, there are no water coolers or tins of mint at the San Diego Comic-Con)

(R to L): Jen Vaughn and Jacq Cohen behind the Fantagraphics booth. One of the small touches I liked about SPX was that the show gives balloons to those who have been nominated for the Ignatz Awards, which are handed out Saturday night.

The Ignatz Awards are also determined by ballot and anyone who attend the festival can vote. Here one of the show's employees walked the show floor encouraging people to complete and hand in their ballots.

The reason I was a VIP (deservedly, or not) is because I ran a panel, “March Spotlight with Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell.” It was the third panel on Saturday afternoon and the three had been signing at the Top Shelf booth earlier and after a short break were in front of a mostly packed room. I prepared a few slides, but they were more for the audience as none of the three needed any prodding to talk. We had a great audience. I’m told it was packed, but honestly I didn’t really look around the room much.

While I was asking questions and keeping an eye on the clock, Nate Powell was answering questions and drawing a sketch of the Congressman in profile, which he gave to me after the panel. It was a kind gift and I need to find a good place to put it.

We talked about A. Philip Randolph, Malcolm X, and so many other things. I’m thrilled that I could be a part of it. Heidi Macdonald wrote the show up for Publishers Weekly ( and she mentioned the panel in very kind terms. People kept coming up to me all weekend saying how great the panel was or how they heard great things about it, which was really gratifying.

Walking upstairs after the panel, a line just shorter than the one to get into the show in the morning, was wrapped around the outside of the ballroom as people lined up to get books signed by the three. Nate and Andrew are both great guys and deserve all the attention and success their getting because of the book, and it was a pleasure to get to see the Congressman again and have another chance to talk with him.

SPX will be posting video of the panel soon, but photographer Bruce Guthrie was there and has some great pictures of the panel on his website. He has also has pictures of other panels (Jeff Smith, Gary Panter) and a lot of pictures from the show floor as well.

I was there that weekend to do work. After the panel wrapped up, I did a few interviews over the weekend, but spent most of the time walking the convention floor

I like talking to people at conventions. I’m not part of a group or clique, so I don’t have any good stories of hanging out with X, dining with Y, getting drunk with Z. I've heard and read a few people throw around the phrase "Adventure Time Mafia" and I'll be honest, I really don't know what that means. So I don't have a good or insightful insider take on the show.

Of course I did spend most of the show talking to people. My favorite part of any show is seeing people who I do know in comics – and tend to see a few times a year, usually at shows. Other times it’s meeting people I’ve interviewed, seeing publicists I e-mail regularly. Or I’m just meeting people for the first time. We discuss the work we’re doing, books other people have put out, thoughts on various creators, dissecting different books. We discuss our lives and share stories. And in a pinch, well, we can always talk about how we’re introverts and being a crowd like this and talking all day just starts to drive us a little nuts.

An incomplete list of the incredible people I got to talk with over the course of the weekend:  Alec Longstreth, Allie Kleber, Andrew Aydin, Brendan Leach, C. Spike Trotman, Carla Speed McNeil, Cate Hall, Charles Forsman, Chris Mautner, Chris Pitzer, Chris Staros, CJ Joughin, Cody Pickrodt, Colleen AF Venable, Dan Nadel, Dan Zettwoch, Dave Roman, Dash Shaw, Dylan Edwards, Dylan Meconis, Elizabeth Staley, Elle Skinner, Gene Yang, Gina Gagliano, Glynnis Fawkes, Isaac Cates, Jacq Cohen, Jason Viola, Jeff Smith, Jen Vaughn, Joe List, Joe McCulloch, Joseph Remnant, Josh Shalek, Julia Phillips, Julia Pohl-Miranda, Justin Hall, Kathleen Glosan, Kenan Rubenstein, Kevin Huizenga, Laura Knetzger, Lena Chandhok, Leslie Stein, Marguerite Dabaie, Nate Powell, Nathan Marsh, Neil Brideau, Noah Van Sciver, Pete Wartman, Renee Lott, Rutu Modan, Sam Spina, Sara Turner, Terry Nantier, Tom Kaczynski, Tracy Hurran, Veronica Mautner, Whit Taylor, Zach Smith, Zan Christiansen.

I’m sure I’m missing plenty of people because it was an exhausting weekend–plus I’m not always great at names. I did get to meet Kate Beaton. We’ve crossed paths at different shows, but I dislike approaching people when they’re just walking around. Hell I felt awkward enough bothering her when she was hanging out drinking coffee behind the D&Q booth. She was as gracious as one might expect from reading her work.

Because it’s life, I also never got to talk with a lot of people I wished I could have. I saw Leslie Stein briefly, but sadly we didn’t get to talk. I spoke with Tom Spurgeon for a few minutes late on Sunday. I didn’t end up talking to Matt Bors or Seth. Would have liked to chat with Danielle Corsetto, Rebecca Mock, Kate Leth, Nick Abadzis and plenty of other people. I never saw Heidi Macdonald, but I never see Heidi Macdonald.

I managed to pick up a large number of books that piled together comes to almost two feet high (all the more impressive–or troubling–since most of them are minicomics). I should have them all read by next SPX. Fantagraphics and D&Q both sold out of some of the titles they brought and had just a few piles of books by the end of Sunday. Cartoon Books had a great weekend, selling out of not just the many boxes of Rasl they brought to the show, but boxes they got from a nearby bookstore as well, plus copies of Bone, Little Mouse and stuffed animals. Others didn’t do quite so well, and many said that the year wasn’t quite as profitable as last year had been for them, and others described it as a good show for sales, but not a great one, but even they didn’t complain much about the show.

People have often spoken of SPX in evangelical terms and I didn't have that response. Which is fine. Even in a show this size, there should be the opportunity for lots of people to have very different experiences and have very different shows. I have nothing bad to say about SPX. I liked the size and the tone. I liked the people. A lot of good comics debuted at the show. I have nothing bad to say, but it still feels as though I'm damning the show with faint praise. It was a good show.

Fiona Staples' ongoing "Saga"

I've loved Fiona Staples' artwork since I first came across it in the pages of "North 40" years back. She went onto draw "Mystery Society" a miniseries she made with Steve Niles, various fill-in projects, some great covers. The reason why everyone knows her name - and why she had to buy a new shelf for all her awards - is because of "Saga." I had the chance to talk with her recently about how she works, thinking about coloring, and Image Comics has shared a preview of next week's issue #14

Arthur de Pins welcomes us to Zombillenium

I had the chance to talk with French cartoonist and animator Arthur de Pins about Zombillenium. The new book is the first in a series and his first book published in North America. It's a comedy and a monster story. Monsters are walking around in the modern world and most of them work at the theme park Zombillenium. Of course no one finds the monsters - including zombies - scary anymore.

It's funny, inventive, dark - and the second one comes out next year and I can't wait.

Kazu Kibuishi redraws Harry Potter

It's hard not to love Kazu Kibuishi. I've been a fan of his work since I first came across it in the very first "Flight" anthology many years ago. We've spoken and run into each other over the years and it was great to talk with him again. He's been working on "Amulet," which is a great graphic novel series, but his new project, designing new covers for the Harry Potter series for the books' 15th anniversary (which, and people will start to attack me once I say this, I think are better than the originals).

Emma Vieceli on the move

I spoke with Emma Vieceli, who is an artist you've probably come across if for no other reason than she's incredibly prolific, drawing different books for different companies in different genres and doing so with an an enviable ease.

This summer, the second volume of "The Avalon Chronicles" was published by Oni Press, with two more in the works. In December, the third volume of the "Vampire Academy" comes out, the graphic novel series adapted from Richelle Mead's bestselling novels. In addition Vieceli is in the midst of working on the first of two "Alex Rider" books adapting the Anthony Horowitz series. She's also contributing to "Young Avengers" over at Marvel. Oh yes, she's also developing a historically accurate series detailing the life of Richard III, still plans to complete her "Dragon Heir" series, and is developing a webcomic.

In short, if you don't know who Emma is now, you will soon.

Andrew Sullivan reblogged Me!

I'm a longtime fan and reader of Andrew Sullivan and his blog The Dish is essential reading (though admittedly one I skip in the days I really need to get work done...) so I was a little thrilled that he mentioned and re-blogged (and read) the interview I did with Gregory Orr in the Paris Review.

Gregory Orr on poetry, myth and more

I've been a fan of the poet Gregory Orr for a few years now, and recently had the opportunity to talk with the man for the Paris Review. I mean it's exciting enough to write an article for the Paris Review – I've been reading Paris Review since I was a teen and getting to write even a short interview for them is a thrill. We covered a lot of ground in the interview, talking about his recent work and how it's changed over time, on the enduring power of myth and more.

His comments about myth have gotten a lot of attention:

"The beautiful thing about myths is that you’re never telling a myth, you’re retelling it. People already know the story. You don’t have to create a narrative structure, and you don’t have to figure out where it ends. As a lyric poet, you can take the moments of greatest intensity in the myth, or the moments that interest you most, or the ways of looking at the story that you think would be most fun to rethink—you don’t have to do the whole story. You want to know what human mystery can be revealed by retelling it. D. H. Lawrence said that myths are symbols of inexhaustible human mysteries. You can tell them a hundred, a thousand times, and you’ll never exhaust the mystery that’s coded into that story. That may be a little hyperbolic, but I believe it."

Rich Stevens is a Rocker

Rich Stevens has been one of the major figures in webcomics since...well, since there's been a webcomics scene. "Diesel Sweeties" was and is one of the funniest strips on the internet and I know that the pixel artwork isn't for everyone

The new collection of the strip is "Diesel Sweeties: I'm a Rocker, I Rock Out" available now from Oni Press. I'll let the book description speak for itself: "boils down hundreds of strips of music elitist snobbery into an intensely potent jam of cheerful disdain and will heap minute upon extended minute of enjoyment into your life."

Michael Fry's "Odd Squad"

I've long been a fan of "Over the Hedge" the daily comic strip from Michael Fry and T Lewis that looks at wild animals surviving - and thriving - in suburbia. It was turned into an animated film a few years ago, which was successful but didn't warrant a sequel for some reason. Fry is also one of the people behind Ringtails, which did great short animations of various comic strips and New Yorker cartoons.

Fry continues to write "Over the Hedge" but he's also an artist and his new project is the book series "Odd Squad" about a group of middle school kids and their realistic, funny, bizarre and over the top adventures. (Of course I was an odd kid in middle school, so admittedly, not everyone may agree). The book are great fun and as I pointed out, unlike a lot of middle grade, I never felt like anything was being oversimplified or talked down to.


Happy 90th birthday, Mort Walker!

Cartoonist Mort Walker turned 90 today. Just as amazing, his strip "Beetle Bailey" celebrates his 63rd year in the newspapers. Michael Cavna spent some time with Walker recently:

I spoke with Walker three years ago when "Beetle Bailey" was celebrating sixty years. I got to visit him at his home in Stamford, CT. What's notable is that Walker is still writing and drawing every day. I saw Walker last year at a public event, and he was still doing well. 90 years young and still going strong, every day. That's something we can all aspire to.

Happy birthday, Mr. Walker!


R.I.P. Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 when I was in high school, writing poetry all the time, obsessed by writing, and there was something about his work that I really responded to. He wrote about nature and rural life, but it wasn’t pastoral. He dealt with politics but he wasn’t a political poet. He quickly became one of my favorites.

A few years later, he visited Vassar College, where I was studying, and gave a read reading to a crowd that couldn’t fit, with people standing along the walls and listening in the halls outside the open doors as he read. Professors let classes out early or cancelled them so students could attend. It was one of those wonderful, extraordinary events to see .

Mr. Heaney was also my first big interview. In retrospect, I should have made a point of doing a few more interviews before trying to talk with a Nobel Prize winning author I admired the hell out of–but of course, life doesn’t always work out so neatly. I knew, slightly, the poet Eamon Grennan, who taught at Vassar before he retired a few years ago and asked him if it might be possible to talk with Mr. Heaney for a few minutes after or before the reading.

I remember sitting there with a cassette recorder and when I transcribed the interview a day or two later, it was obvious that I was nervous, stuttering a little, but I had prepared a few questions and for those five minutes Mr. Heaney was thoughtful and funny and the truth is that even though I no longer have a copy of that interview, I remember some of what he said to this day.

My cassettes are gone–thrown out long ago. There was a good chance that I had recorded over it before I switched to working digitally. The word processing document that it was transcribed and edited onto was lost many computers ago. I don’t have a physical copy of the magazine and sadly, when I hunted for the interview online, I couldn’t find it. I may have to return to Vassar one of these days and hunt through the library for a physical copy and make a photocopy.

What I remember of the interview is my final two questions. Well, it was really my final questions but but I was nervous and so did a poor job of phrasing it initially and so he jumped in and answered what he thought I was asking. It was very kind of him, but he was a very kind man.

In his Paris Review interview, which was published in 1997, he was asked about his Nobel lecture and he joked about how in conversation with one of his friends they talked about whether he should mention Yeats in the speech and talked about just the other Irish writers who have won the prize. I started to ask him about it and he said that it was just a bit of fun, but my question was about how he thinks about and locates his own work in the context of those writers and Irish poets.

And he responded by saying that he thought that he and Grennan and he proceeded to name a few other writers were part of the same moment and that their accomplishments and the awards they had received were a recognition of what they had all accomplished.

Here’s a guy at the top of his craft. He’s a bestselling writer who’s a poet and translator, more awards than most of could count from many countries, cultural, literary, academic. If he had talked about what he’s interested in compared to what Yeats was interested in, that would have been a perfectly reasonable answer. But instead he talked about his peers and said that they had accomplished something important and that they were all being recognized for it.

That stood out for two reasons. One because it showed what kind of person he was. He was a kind and humble man who was willing to sit down with a student and answer nervous poorly-phrased questions. He understood that it wasn’t just about him. Part of that is the result of having such a kinship with others with the same goals and ambitions and concerns, but it’s just that he was a good guy.

It was a moment that I didn’t really understand until later when I transcribed it out and thought about it, but it’s a feeling that I’ve come to know after doing many interviews. It’s that moment when you ask a question and the interview subject gives an answer that offers you–and theoretically others–something new to think about, another way to perceive their work, different avenues to explores. Sometimes these moments surprise the person speaking and sometimes not, but they are the moments that I love about interviewing people.

Rest in peace, Mr. Heaney. He was an excellent poet, a brilliant mind and a kind person. I continue to read– and love–his work to this day. And in some small way, he played a role in setting me on this path that I walk down.

Before he died, he sent his wife a text message: Noli timere. Latin for "don't be afraid." Just minutes before he died.

Don't be afraid...

Teddy Kristiansen's "Genius"

Teddy Kristiansen is one of those people who has such a unique vision of the world, it's an incredible and all too rare occasion when the artist has a new book out. This year though is a great one for fans of his work. At the beginning of the year, Vertigo released a massive omnibus of "House of Secrets" the series that he did with writer Steven Seagle. In the spring DC released "Solo" collecting twelve issues drawn by twelve different artists - one of them Kristiansen - one of the company's best recent attempts at something new and exciting and innovative. Kristiansen was up for an Eisner Award for his book which came out last year, "The Red Diary / The Re[a]d Diary" (though he didn't win). He also has a new book out with writer Seagle, "Genius."

I had the chance to meet Kristiansen last year in New York and he was a very nice guy and I had a great time talking with him. I'm still a little stunned by how few interviews I've seen with him and how little attention has been paid to his work, especially in light of how much of his work has been released or re-released in the past twelve months. Fortunately I had the opportunity to have a brief conversation with Kristiansen over e-mail. I think he's one of the inventive and interesting and most talented artists working in comics today. I don't think the interview does justice to his own genius, but it should give a sense of who he is, what the new book is like and how he works and thinks.