Reflecting on TCAF 2013


A couple of weeks ago I went to the Toronto Comics Arts Festival.

I hoped to write a comprehensive post  but, silly little me, I hadn’t realized what a huge happening TCAF was. I knew there was a lot of things going on, but I hadn’t imagined how much goes on at once at the Festival.

While, I only have a few things to say about this years’ TCAF, the TCAF write ups of veteran convention go-ers,  Tom Spurgeon and Dustin Harbin, are choc-a-bloc with information on the festival.

Dustin Harbin’s post covers a lot of ground, but a point he touches upon, that I don’t happen to hear mentioned enough in the North American comics community is the payment models for these kinds of events:

The comics industry seems to run mainly on low or no pay. It can–and obviously does–lead to great and valuable work; but overall I think of it as an enormously unhealthy business model longterm, both in the macro sense, from publishers to event organizers to criticism, and the micro sense, in terms of the artistic work being done and the space for artists to be paid enough to create.

Comics is unique in that this volunteer spirit seems to be present both at the top and bottom of the spectrum, but I think it would be stronger if there were a visible model of payment and value at work. There will always be room for those of us with the passion and energy to donate spare time and skillsets to projects we believe in, whether paid or not. But for the health of the larger industry, I think volunteerism should be the exception, not the rule. – Harbin

I feel we’re at a really interesting point in time in terms of comics shows and zine-fairs. Young folks seem more engaged than ever in terms of exhibiting and there seem to be many more small, local shows with low barriers of entry for exhibitors. Besides that, it seems that veteran creators are getting their due on panels and as special guests to many of these shows *cough* Hernandez Brothers *cough*.

What with the unfortunate departure BCGF from the expo ecosystem, there’s a real absence that should be filled. Hopefully that absence is an impetus for folks to come out of the woodwork to try work out new models for the ways shows work. Above all, there is a real possibility, that with some real thinking, we’ll see models where volunteerism is the exception.

Careful long-term thought from the outset might just allow all the energy and excitement that has developed over the past 4 years in the American comics industry to transform into a reliable and sustainable network of shows and conferences.

I’m excited to see how the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo and Autoptic turn out this summer. Here’s hoping that in the next year or two folks come out of the woodwork and they break some new ground…

Back to TCAF!

Among the comics that I read during the festival, the most noteworthy for me were the works of Finnish cartoonist, Maria Björklund and Montrealaise cartoonist Antonin Buisson.

Maria Björklund is a cartoonist and animator who resides in Helsinki. I came across her work when I discovered Planeetta Z(Planet Z) at the Finnish Comics Society’s table. Her Planet Z comics are published in several papers, highlights of which have been gathered in her book. 


Björklund’s comics explore the wild and wacky ecology of Planet Z through expertly crafted 4 panel gags. Björklund’s color choices show off juicy and vibrant characters.  The comics depict a cheery survival of the fittest. The comics are filled with many playful instances of recursion and of the cyclic nature of food chains.

A bit like a nature documentary in four panels the strip is a mix of cuteness, mystery and cruelty. The comic has no main characters, but some of the animals do have recurring roles in the strips.857756_540585139305200_570620661_o

The moment I picked up the book I knew it was something special.

Bjorklund was present as a representative of the Finnish Comics Society. It was great to experience such a wonderfully curated selection of new comics from Finland firsthand.

The Finnish Comics Society is an association of makers, readers, collectors and researchers that presents comics both to the wider public as well as to the cultural establishment in Finland.

They put on the annual Helsinki Comics Festival, the largest comics event in Northern Europe. The society also maintains Comics Center Helsinki, an open cultural center for comics and related art, publishes anthologies and albums featuring Finnish, Scandinavian and Baltic artists and organizes several international projects every year.

It was great to see a large Finnish contingent in Toronto.

sacapatatesThe moment I first read Antonin Buisson‘s comics was pure joy.

Overwhelmed by the hundreds of new books that weekend, his simple black and white comics caught my eye for their subtlety. They were soothing in their silent absurdity. I picked up a copy of his 44 page collection of silent, unedited absurd short stories, Garder le Rhythme (Stay on beat).

I’ve been reading it before bed every night.

All in all, I had a wonderful time, floating from tables to panels to friends. I hope to do it again next year!


Jordan Crane’s NON #5

The Schulz Library is officially open. The first thing I’ve taken out is Jordan Crane’s Non #5.

There was a review of NON #5 in the Comics Journal #240 in 2001, but given that access to that information is only available to suscribers of TCJ, I thought that illuminating on the details of this gem of a publication would be good to have on the web. If anything I’d like y’all to see what a beautiful motherfucker Crane put together.

Take a look at this beautiful anthology.

What you’re looking at its a die-cut cardboard container holding three separate perfect bound comics wrapped within a hand-silkscreened cover. Put out in 2001, this baby is the way it is out of necessity.

From Crane in 2008:

NON #5 is definitely a little different than all the rest of them. NON #5 took that shape because it had to. That was the only way to collect it all together. I was originally going to have Col-Dee and [Kurt Wolfgang’s graphic novella] Where Hats Go in the [main NON] book. That was the original plan. But then Kurt and I got Xeric Grants to print them and we were able to overlap projects, which theoretically would save me money. It would’ve been a hell of a lot cheaper just to print the book as one big book, now that I look back on the whole thing. Those Xeric Grants were actually a hindrance. I was like, “Thanks for the $8,000 that ended up costing me $5,000.” [Laughs] Since those were Xeric Grant books, I wanted them to be a part of the package, but they had to work separately because they were going to be sold separately as well.

So that was my solution to that problem: I looked at the budget constraints of the book and tried to figure out how to make it as cheaply as possible. “How can we make it and still turn a profit?” It was just accepting the constraints and not being like, “I’m going to push my publisher to spend money that they don’t have.” In one way the form isn’t the point. In the biggest way the form isn’t the point. It’s about working within those constraints and creating the most high-quality work that is possible. It’s giving the proper attention to creating a book.

NON is worth thinking about because of the what it records at the dawning of “age of the anthology”. At the time of the publication of the five issues of NON (1997-2001), there was a ton of work being made by awesome dudes and dudettes that wasn’t seeing the light of day. NON gave those artists exposure. Given this environment, you can see why Crane would say the following to Sean T. Collins in the above quoted interview in 2001 about his curatorial work as NON’s editor.

 In a way, NON was really easy. It was a bunch of very obvious choices, because all these great guys were not being published. I was like a kid in a candy store. It was not a hard anthology to edit.

Sure, it wasn’t hard for Crane to choose the best material, but the fact that it wasn’t hard to choose didn’t mean Crane was going to take a backseat to the process. Crane’s laboring over the overall design choices kept the whole publication astoundingly cohesive.

So, why no more NON? Well, today’s world of contemporary comics seem to find themselves in a milieu steeped with anthologies full of rich contributions and high production value. It’s a trend that has become a strong current in the past ten years and that at the time of NON #5’s publication, Crane could already see coming. Today you’ve got Harkham’s Kramer’s Ergot, Fantagraphics’ MOME, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Comics, Nobrow … that’s a lot of beautiful fucking anthologies coming out regularly and that’s without me counting the vast sea of selfpublished minicomics anthologies.

Given the healthy state of anthologies, let’s look back to NON #5. Who was the contributing crew?

Many of these fine folks were being published by Tom Devlin’s Highwater Books at the time.

So, what do I love about NON #5?

Let’s start off with Mat Brinkman’s illustrations that punctuate the whole reading experience. His work elicits immediate laughter and provides a solid counterpoint to the rest of the stories. They give each story the breathing room it needs in order to be experienced satisfyingly. Whenever I make an anthology, I’m sure as shooting going to use this technique.

And my favorite contribution? Hands down, Pshaw. Pshaw’s lively cartooning was the biggest hidden treat. The only other time that I’d come across his work was in a comicscomics newsprint that comicscomicsmag had put out a while back. It was when I’d discovered the Picturebox crew and was still unfamiliar with what they were all about, but for some reason, the Pshaw strips that were printed really resonated with me. They were truly rad.

Besides, Pshaw’s short little ditty, Kurt Wolfgang’s wordless novella, Where Hats Go was a delight. It had me physically feeling the tangling plot. It was a borderline synesthetic experience for me. The ups and downs in the pantomime were felt with an immediate intensity that I rarely feel when words are included.

This deceptively simple story tells of a young boy in search of his grandfather’s hat, a cherished link to the man & all the memories associated with him. The artwork is dense, filled with detail, but it never becomes too busy or confusing.

I was thoroughly impressed by Wolfgang’s capacity to put me in a headspace that was  just a couple steps away from my traditional headspace of verbal communication. One reads the Where Hats Go and halfway in, as the story is catapulting forward, the reader realizes that not a single word has been read and yet the whole story is grasped.

Where Hats Go, sees Wolfgang work a really solid arc and includes several nice plot twists, along with a truly satisfying open ended final frame. I’m a sucker for heartwarming wordless stories (Set to Sea, Last Lonely Saturday), so the fact that I loved this that much isn’t too surprising.

Lot’s of great things in here that speak to the state of American independent cartooning circa 2001 and well worth experiencing first hand.

If you want to learn more about Jordan Crane or a more detailed telling of how NON #5 came to be the beautiful beast that it is, be sure to read Sean T. Collins’ 2008 interview with Crane.

Krazy Kat: A real beauty

I pride myself on not being too highfalutin. As such, I won’t try to talk about the role that George Herriman’s Krazy Kat plays in the 20th centuries art traditions. Nevertheless it’s important to note that with fans like Pablo Picasso, William Randolph Hearst and e.e. cummings lovers of Krazy Kat are in good company. Krazy has been floating around me for the past two years but only recently have I given Herriman’s work the time of day. I regret every second of those two years without Krazy.

From the simple premise: Kat loves Mouse, Mouse Loves Self, Dog Loves Kat grow an infinite set of stories that Herriman masterfully captured in pen and ink.

Reading Krazy requires some patience on behalf of a reader. Each page has its own visual meter and Herriman’s writing jumps across language and orthography often. Nevertheless, those who stick around begin to notice how it is exactly that he plays with the meter.  With enough patience and faith in Herriman, a reader can experience sublime visual rhythms of his 90 year old strip. His lyrical prose is absolutely marvelous. To read his comics you wind up channelling something from outside yourself and that is their beauty.

While reading Krazy Kat: The Art of George Herriman, I came across the following well known quote. Herriman’s own description of his creation brought me to tears.

“…be not harsh with ‘Krazy’ – He is but a shadow himself, caught in the web of this mortal skein. We call him ‘cat,’ we call him “crazy,” yet he is neither. At some time he will ride away to you, people of the twilight, his password will be the echoes of a vesper bell, his coach, a zephyr from the West. Forgive him, for you will understand him no better than we who linger on this side of the pale.”

-George Herriman

Herriman was a gentle man who deserves to be remembered. You can begin remembering him by paying his legacy it’s due. Read some of his Sunday pages. Take your time and savor every moment.

This #*?! Isn’t Very Funny

This article originally appeared in CMU’s school Newspaper, the Tartan.

Jim Rugg is a Pittsburgh comics powerhouse. His contributions to the vitality of the comic scene have included mini-comics, self-publishing, and creator-owned work with independent publishers. It’s no wonder the ToonSeum is honoring the contemporary cartoonist and working artist through the month of May with its exhibit, This #*?! Isn’t Very Funny.

This #*?! Isn’t Very Funny features Rugg’s well-known work on Street Angel and Afrodisiac as well as new and seldom-seen pieces. This is Rugg’s first solo exhibition and a first for the ToonSeum, as the exhibition reflects the more adult sensibilities of the comic world. Most of the pieces exhibited are recent, shorter pieces originally made for anthologies and newspapers, dating from after the completion of Afrodisiac. Much of the pieces are directly inspired by original production art of the 20th century, the often-discarded line art that was produced for the sake of reproduction.

While it’s safe to say that the idea of comics in fine art galleries has found its place in contemporary art criticism, it is still unclear how a viewer is intended to engage with comics in a gallery environment: whether one is supposed to pay respect from a distance or inspect the minutiae in search of the human touch. While both are valid approaches, they go against the cognitive escape afforded by the traditional private experience associated with comics.

As such, contemporary artists are asked to present their work either as fine art or as comics. It seems that they must determine whether the focus will be on the art or the narrative. When facing this dilemma, artists feel they must choose. In This #*?! Isn’t Very Funny, Rugg bravely provides solutions to this forced dichotomy.

Rugg approaches the puzzle of exhibiting comics in a museum by creating art specifically for the gallery environment. By drawing single large panels, the comics fit within the traditional framework of a painting, and by allowing his panels to feature characters drawn at different sizes, he can create an unparalleled sense of depth. As a viewer gets closer, smaller details make themselves apparent.

A noticeable example of this practice is Rugg’s use of word balloons of different sizes within individual panels. The word bubbles’ varying sizes invite the viewers to get closer, if they want to read the text. In this way, Rugg consciously designs his work so the audience engages with it in the gallery space and so the work can confidently straddle the seeming divide between comics and fine art.

It’s important to note that while it’s safe to label Rugg as a pop artist, his work does not exhibit the intrinsic post-modern detachedness of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein’s mid-20th century work. His work has real heart. As he describes on his website, Rugg seeks to “reconcile pop culture’s adventurous promise with the realities of the world around [him]” and he “[uses] the style and visual vocabulary of cartoons to question and lampoon consumer culture.”

Rather than communicating solely through abstract notions of color, line, and form, Rugg expresses his visions and communicates in the language of our collective, mass media-constructed childhood memories. That image language is his pop. Rugg uses comic tropes in unexpected ways: narratives advanced through fragments, covers for nonexistent stories, or sketched splash pages.

“I live in a complex world of race and gender roles, politics and religion, suburban isolation and the confusion of middle age,” reads Rugg’s artist statement on his website. “In my artwork, I bring these realities to bear on the once-safe world of escapist entertainment and attempt to understand the values of the world around me through India ink, steel pen nibs, sable-hair brushes, and pixels.”

His work is on exhibit through May 6th. If you’re in downtown Pittsburgh for the Spring Gallery crawl, do stop by the ToonSeum and give his art a chunk of your time.

Eisner at the ToonSeum

As odd as it may seem, Pittsburghers can find a slice of the Big Apple in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh until May 27.

This is because the ToonSeum, Pittsburgh’s museum of cartoon and comics art, is currently presenting Will Eisner’s New York, a rare collection of original works by legendary comics pioneer Will Eisner. The exhibit chronicles the artist’s informal history of the city that shaped many of his illustrated masterpieces. Simultaneously personal and universal, Eisner’s depiction of New York City captures the nuance that the greatest of biographers are capable of.

The exhibition is curated by cartoonist and critic Denis Kitchen along with comic book writer and editor Danny Fingeroth; it is presented in partnership with the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York (MoCCA). MoCCA had originally organized an Eisner retrospective in 2005, soon after Eisner passed away at the age of 88. Many of the pieces are from this restrospective. The ToonSeum’s display of Will Eisner’s New York is the first time that this particular collection of New York oriented work has been shown outside of New York City.

Considered one of the most important contributors to the development of the artistic medium of comics, Eisner was best known for his leading role in establishing the graphic novel as a form of literature with his book A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories. In this work and the subsequent works he created during the ’80s and ’90s, Eisner explored the communicative depths of the medium and laid down a framework for generations of aspiring cartoonists.

Will Eisner’s New York allows audiences to explore the artist’s most intriguing element, the ever-changing landscape of New York City. The exhibit includes over 50 original works spanning Eisner’s 70-year career, each capturing a glimpse of the city’s beauty and squalor. Dense but not overwhelming, the exhibit allows visitors to fully experience the city from pre-Depression to modernity. From immigrant ghettos to claustrophobic subways, dirty alleyways to towering rooftops, ramshackle tenements to grandiose bridges, Will Eisner’s New York reveals the artist’s powers of observation and empathy and, above all, the brilliance of his pen.

An exhibit like this makes it possible for visitors to lean forward and peer at the original drawings and, in so doing, increase their appreciation of Eisner’s art. Getting close to the original drawings, and to such a broad array of them, reinforces the notion of Eisner as a master of this 20th-century art form.

The ToonSeum’s main gallery houses the exhibition and displays it in a concentrated yet uncluttered fashion. A lively jazz soundtrack with pieces by the likes of Duke Ellington, Cannonball Adderley, and Cab Calloway accompanies the exhibit and adds the energy of New York to the halls of the ToonSeum.

Small details in the exhibit like a light post, a fire hydrant, and a manhole cover make for nice touches that embellish the exhibition. These details invite visitors to experience the work viscerally, on their own terms, and to develop their own relationship with the master’s work and with the city of New York.


On Rachel Ries

I’m going through a lot right now. Rachel Ries’ music is helping me go through it. I met her last week in Austin. I thought I’d share her influence on me with you.

Hailing from the vast expanses of South Dakota, Ries can bring audiences to tears with the trembling of her harmonies. A talented instrumentalist, and deft songwriter, Ries has been traveling around the country accompanying Anais Mitchell as part of the Young Man Band on Mitchell’s most recent tour.

My introduction to Ries was at the Whip In. Just south of downtown Austin, right off of I-35, situated on a busy corner of the southbound access road, the Whip In is a flat-roofed, cinder-block building that at first glance looks much like an ordinary convenience store. But upon entering, its clear that it is a different creature. To the right of the door, there is a cozy dining space warmed by wooden church pews, antique tables, Indian wooden screens, and colorful printed textiles. Beercave, coffeehouse, cozy restaurant: The Whip In is a magical place.

It was there that I saw Ries play for the first time. She took the stage with Anais Mitchell, Matt Fockler, and Southpaw Jones, and performed a suite of songs including Mitchell’s powerful “Young Man In America.”

Ries pulled every last one of my heartstrings; she had me weeping in awe. She’s know to make grown men cry. Despite the myriad of performers that I saw across the city during SXSW, it was Ries’ raw performance that impacted me the most.

That night I chatted with her and picked up a copy of her most recent recording, On Laurel Lake EP.Besides overflowing with massive doses of honesty, the On Laurel Lake EP reveals skilled production and recording techniques. Ries tackled the album by herself on a personal retreat in Tennessee and dug deep to patch the songs together.

On this album, Ries’ trembling harmonies punctuate her sophisticated melodies. Her craftmanship is apparent on this exquisite folk recording. From the slightest wavering of vocals to the gentlest of brushes on the guitar pickups, Ries captured it all on the recording. While not as seemingly hip as Bon Iver’s Blood Bank, her recordings on the EP have a poignant delicacy that allow it to exist free from hype. In a different vein from On Laurel Lake is Ries’ 2007 release, Without A Bird.

Warmly analog and carefully orchestral, Without a Bird showcases the artistry of some of Chicago’s finest players: Kevin O’Donnell (Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, Neko Case), Joel Paterson (Devil in a Woodpile, Kelly Hogan, Steve Dawson), Alison Chesley (Bob Mould, Verbow, Poi Dog Pondering) and Ariel Bolles (Bakelite 78). Without a Bird was recorded and mixed analog and it shows. As would be expected, in contrast to the On The Lake EP, the songs have much more of the city’s rhythms flowing through them.

Across albums, Ries’ music constantly grapples with the tumultuous dichotomy between life in the city and life in the country. In her own words:

“This life I’ve chosen felt suddenly precarious, muddled, and far too far from the source. What do we really need? Out here in the ‘real’ world I ask for so much more than family, faith, food and shelter. So much vapor.”

While Ries’ songs are heartbreaking, they are not love songs. They speak to life — its joys and its anguish. They talk of so much. Memories, dreams, and illusions sit beside anguished lonesomeness in Ries’ songs to create a heart wrenchingly powerful combination.

Fans of early Liz Phair, Anais Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, and early Regina Spektor  will certainly find much to like in her recent recordings. For those interested in learning more about Rachel and her music, check out  this interview at Gaper’s Block and this interview at WBEZ from 2009.


On ZZK Records

The future of music is blasting out of the sound system at Zizek Club in Buenos Aires, Argentina. At Zizek DJs and producers mash-up Cumbia, Reggae, Hip-Hop and Electronic Music and create a space where musicians work with new ideas and the chance to show what they’re doing in the current music scene. Arguably the hot bed of the borderline avant-garde transformation of the Latin American sound of Cumbia, Zizek Club has created whirlwind of energy in just a few years time and has spawned the acclaimed record label, ZZK records.

Born out of their weekly Zizek Club, the rapidly expanding crew of ZZK records all share a hunger for getting on the road and spreading their gospel. Established in 2008 by Texan Grant C. Dull, ZZK records now manages 11  “New Cumbia” groups with “Digital Cumbia” as its most active sound.

Dull first came to Argentina in 1999 and reinvented himself more than once, going from musicologist and online magazine editor, to visual artist for events and finally to curator and DJ. He founded the bilingual cultural website, and co-founded ZZK Records and Zizek Club with his Argentine partners. Behind the decks, Dull, who goes by El-G peppers his sets with live percussion, collaborates with his peers on stage and brings his unique vision of global music and culture to the arts community at large. It’s only natural that his label would do the same.

ZZK Belongs to a new movement of world rhythms born out of cities that are being reinterpreted using electronic music to make something new, fresh, and fun. Baile Funk from Brazil and Kuduro from Angola, popularized by M.I.A. and Buraka Som Sistema respectively evidence the rise of this global movement of sonic reinterpretation.

In the case of ZZK, membership to this new movement is shown by Tremor, an Argentine trio on ZZK Records. Tremor researches folklore traditions by region and bridges generations, geography and genre through technology to produce their signature style. Their sound is equal parts electronic music and native drum. It owes as much to anthropology as it does to popular music.

Today, ZZK is now home to  the psychedelic cumbia of Fauna, to the experimental beats of Chancha Via Circuito, the hard hitting cumbia hypnotics of El Remolon, King Coya, Tremor, the theatrical Frikstailers, newcomer Mati Zundel, the first lady of ZZK – La Yegros, and the label’s latest signings, chip tune obsessed brothers Ignacio and Luciano Brasolin, aka Super Guachin.

Mixing cumbia, bastard pop, and reggaeton, ZZK’s mission is to modernize the sounds of the night of the past.


Check out this teaser of what has recently been coming out of ZZK.

And be sure to marvel at this video of Mati Zundel’s Señor Montecostes done by Marco Lizama. Single frames in this video are studies of form and color as brilliant as any work of 20th century color theorists. It rules.

A personal favorite of mine from ZZK has been Chancha via Circuito‘s Rio Arriba. Thanks to him I’ve been listening to Jose Larralde continuously.