November 29th, 2013

Spurgeon on the Billy Ireland Experience

If my personal take on the Billy Ireland opening whetted your interest, I highly recommend Tom Spurgeon’s own personal trip report on same. True, I do pop up in Spurgeon’s post about as often as Ralph Morgan in an old B-mystery – and thanks for the kind words, Tom – but it’s his perspective as a veteran observer of the scene that’s the real draw. Click here for the report and enjoy an excellent account of that amazing event.

November 25th, 2013

The CBR “Omaha” Interview

Alex Dueben of Comic Book Resources just posted a fairly lengthy interview with Reed Waller, Denis Kitchen and me about the Omaha the Cat Dancer finale. It’s three separate interviews, actually, stitched together in pretty masterful fashion to give the appearance that all three of us old guys are sitting at the same table. All told, it covers the history of the series, lets Reed talk about the development of his work, and allows Denis to discuss Omaha’s place in comics. It’s a smart and respectful piece, and you can read it by clicking here.

November 21st, 2013

My Own Private Ireland

So. The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum Grand Opening Festival of Cartoon Art.

What an amazing experience.

I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to enjoy it if not for Chris Couch – N.C. Christopher Couch, that is: art historian, multi-tasking university lecturer, author of that lovely recent Jerry Robinson biography, and the brave soul who followed me into the editor-in-chief chair at Kitchen Sink Press – who invited me to speak on a panel celebrating the 35th anniversary of Will Eisner’s seminal A Contract with God. (And thanks, while we’re at it, to the Will and Ann Eisner Family Foundation, NBM Books and WW Norton, all of whom made the trip possible.)

The visit began Wednesday night with a signing at Columbus’ Laughing Ogre shop. It’s one sharp-looking store, beautifully stocked and laid out, and the customer service is first-rate – professional and friendly and knowledgeable. We were treated like royalty by manager Jeff (below), and it was a terrific introduction to my Columbus experience.

The following morning it was off to Ohio State University for the kickoff of the Festival’s academic conference, a two-day feast of papers presented by writers and scholars from around the country, plus a handful of creators with worthy things to say. Oh, yeah, and me.

There were papers on Walt Kelly and Pogo, Peanuts, autobiographical comics, newspaper cartoons from World War I and earlier, and a wide range of fascinating esoterica. Sure, one or two of the presenters could have benefited from reading-out-loud lessons, but the food for thought was laid on thick, and it’s hard to picture anyone walking away from the conference not feeling more educated or inspired.

But let’s be honest: the star of the show was the Ireland itself. Situated in Sullivant Hall on the OSU campus, it’s a big beautiful old building, gorgeously refurbished, absolutely awe-inspiring to everyone who laid eyes on it:

My God…it’s full of comics…

When I first entered the building, my eye was drawn to a shelf of Milton Caniff merchandise on display in the reading room adjacent to the lobby…including a Steve Canyon Jet Helmet just like the one I owned when I was six years old.

The reading room itself was a knockout, with items on display from Caniff’s archives, including two Reuben awards (one of them absolutely gleaming) and other trophies and volumes from his personal library. Though only a representative handful of other books had made it to the shelves in time for the Festival, there’s plenty of room for the Ireland’s huge collection of reference material and reading copies. I was mildly astonished to discover that something of mine had made the first cut, improbably located between books by Gary Trudeau and Eddie Campbell:

I was even more knocked out to see Eddie Campbell himself sitting there, soft-spoken, Puckish and handsome. We’d never met, only corresponded and spoken on the phone, and it was a pleasure to introduce myself and be allowed to look over his shoulder at the volumes of early 20th century newspaper cartoons he’d been studying since arriving in Columbus.

My panel was held Friday morning and, if the comments I heard the next two days can be believed, we nailed it. (I think the fact that most of us had actually known and worked with Will had to help.) Andrew Kunka led off with a look at correspondence between Eisner and First Kingdom creator Jack Katz, followed by Chris Couch with a painstaking and persuasive look at the influence of Ashcan School artists on Will’s graphic novels, and Danny Fingeroth wrapped it up with a breezy comparison of Will’s stuff and Jewish-American prose fiction.

As for my contribution – a talk on Will’s evolution as a writer from his pulpy early days to his mature graphic novels – I’d been given a mandate to keep things informal, and after hearing the first day’s frequently very serious presentations, I tossed the draft I’d brought to Ohio and worked through the night to come up with a more off-the-cuff (and less self-impressed) approach. The illusion of spontaneity takes a lot of preparation, but in this case I think it worked; keeping things loose and occasionally flippant, editing on the fly as I spoke – though the talk was actually completely scripted – provided a change of pace from the more scholarly entries that seemed to go over well with the audience. (I’ve agreed to post my “paper,” so keep watching this space if you’re interested.)

The panel was chaired by OSU’s Jared Gardner, who gave us each glowing introductions – mine, in fact, nearly stopped the proceedings cold when he mentioned my involvement in bringing Omaha to a conclusion, which drew a huge and prolonged ovation from the entire audience that seemed to take forever before Jared could finish his remarks. The outpouring of appreciation for Reed and Kate from those scholars in that unlikely venue nearly choked me up. For me, it was one of the high points of the entire Festival.

After working all night, the rest of the day should have been a blur, but everyone else was on such an infectious high that it was easy to keep going. The academic conference ended with a fascinating keynote address by Henry Jenkins…and then it was time for the grand opening celebration. Present at the ribbon-cutting ceremony were old-school comics royalty – Jean Schulz, widow of Charles; Mort Walker and sons Gary and Brian; the family of Chester Gould – and more present-day scholars and creators than you could count. Former curator Lucy Shelton Caswell, the visionary who started all this over 30 years ago, was greeted with an explosion of sincere applause that seemed to go on forever, and rightly so.

Remarkable artwork was everywhere, even back in the staff offices, where a wonderful array of self-portraits by top cartoonists was casually displayed against one wall. And the gallery upstairs was breath-taking. A pair of exhibits, Treasures from the Collections and Substance and Shadow (curated by Brian Walker), were jaw-dropping. Though barely skimming the surface of the museum’s holdings, it was one holy grail of cartooning after another:

a quartet of original images from the 1914 Gertie the Dinosaur;

Carl Barks’ pencil art for the cover of “Sheriff of Bullet Valley”;

original art for a complete seven-page Spirit story;

the vast art board for an early Prince Valiant;

Neil Adams’ and Denny O’Neill’s “I been readin’ about you…how you work for the blue skins” page from Green Lantern/Green Arrow sharing a case with Kelly’s “We have met the enemy and he is us” Pogo Sunday;

a Popeye Sunday watercolored by Segar…

Basil Wolverton…Thomas Nast…Richard Outcault…

Here’s a tiny sampling of what I saw. If you want more, there are images everywhere on the Net right now.

I must have wandered through the exhibits, slack-jawed, for a couple of hours. At one point Tom Spurgeon approached and said, “What do you think?”

“What do I think?” I replied. “They’ve got fucking Gertie the Dinosaur on the wall, man!” – not the way I ordinarily speak to casual acquaintances, but I was overwhelmed. At least I didn’t call him dude. Spurgeon chuckled and said, “Yeah, I know.”

I was at least a little more articulate on Saturday when I joined Spurgeon for a casual get-acquainted breakfast which turned out to be a low-key delight. He’s exactly the smart, witty and decent guy he appears to be on his blog, and I hope I have the chance to spend more time with him in the future.

The Saturday Festival began with a special presentation of the Elzie Segar Award to Lucy Caswell, an opportunity for the assembly to demonstrate their love for the lady again. The next few hours were devoted to solo presentations by Matt Bors, Stephan Pastis and Eddie Campbell, who rambled on about his whimsical Snooter, reminisced about his discovery of comics history, gave a welcome shout-out to Woody Gelman and reminded us of the importance of Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book.

Throughout the Festival, the people I met were impressive, warm and welcoming. A few quick outtakes: Eddie Campbell, accessible and instantly likeable. Archie’s Nancy Silberkleit, sure that we’d met before, though we hadn’t. Scholar Enrique Garcia, constantly smiling and brimming over with ideas. Danny Fingeroth, quick and grinning and vastly knowledgeable. Current Ireland curator Jenny Robb, smart and unflappable and also sure we’d met before, though we hadn’t. Brian Walker, eager to share his treasures with all. Kirk Taylor, beaming non-stop like a kid in a candy store. Charles Hatfield, cool and friendly and enviably articulate. Daniel Yezbick, filled with stories that touched me. A middle-aged guy who told me that he remembered meeting me when he was “a little kid” (hmmm). An unidentified woman who was sure we’d met before, though we hadn’t…

Saturday’s official events wrapped up with a Q&A with Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez in a packed auditorium. The guys were terrific and touching as they discussed their careers and their individual approaches, dropping anecdotes about their childhoods and praising their mother’s encouragement. Gilbert’s memory of the moment Jaime transformed himself from budding cartoonist into the Love and Rockets artist was quietly electrifying, a perfect summation of the creative impulse that this Festival was all about.

The Festival would continue into Sunday, but Saturday was my last day, so I hit the after-hours schmoozefest at the Hyatt bar for one last gulp of all that comics culture: a smart move that filled my evening with smarts and snark and occasional warmth.

Near the end of the evening, the Hernandezes showed up, prompting a parade of distinguished scholars to line up with piles of books to be signed. (Once a fan…) I hadn’t seen the Bros for 20 years or so – we used to shoot the breeze in the pro suites of various cons back in the day – and after the deluge of autograph-seekers eventually thinned out, I stepped over to say hello, not sure that they’d even remember me. It turns out that they did, and we had a good time catching up. Jaime and I must have chatted for half an hour, and it was a delight watching him page through a copy of On the Ropes and praising Dan Burr’s art. I finally offered him my copy of the book, and he insisted that I personalize it for him. It was, of course, a lovely gesture…and I can’t think of a more satisfying way to wrap up my Billy Ireland experience than having Jaime Hernandez ask for my autograph.

That was my Ireland experience. Everyone who attended will have their own set of indelible memories – see Tom Spurgeon’s excellent roundup of links for a broad sampling – thanks to the hard work of Jenny Robb, Caitlin McGurk and the entire staff. It was filled with iconic moments and images (note how many people have posted nearly identical photos online), and what seemed an endless string of unexpected personal highpoints.

Goodbye Columbus, and thank you.

November 12th, 2013

Hello, Columbus

So I’m off to Ohio, to take part in the Grand Opening Festival of Cartoon Art at the gleaming new Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University in Columbus. (During the trip, I’ll be working on a way to abbreviate that particular mouthful.)

Kicking off my grand tour of the Independent Art Capitol of the World, I’ll be appearing at the wonderfully-named Laughing Ogre Comics for a creator signing from 5-7 p.m. on Wednesday. (Cameron Stewart will follow on Thursday, and Paul Pope bats cleanup on Saturday.)

On Friday at 10:30 a.m. I’ll be joining moderator Jared Gardner, Christopher Couch, Andrew Kunka, and Danny Fingeroth in a panel celebrating the 35th anniversary of Will Eisner’s A Contract with God at OSU’s Sullivant Hall Auditorium.

I’m likely to post my thoughts on the Festival overall once I’m back home. In the meantime I’m looking forward to spending time at the Laughing Ogre, where I’ll be greeting the unsuspecting citizens of Columbus and signing copies of Omaha, On the Ropes and Kings in Disguise. Hey, bring those cherished copes of Mr. Hero along, too. If I wrote it, I’m not too proud to sign it.

November 4th, 2013

A “Ropes” Review Worth Reading

It’s gratifying to see that reviews of On the Ropes are still coming in, the most recent being from longtime comics blogger Johanna Draper Carlson on the Comics Worth Reading site. It’s a well-written piece that smartly encapsulates the characters’ main concerns and efficiently suggests the feel of the book without giving much away. Of course, anyone who compliments Dan Burr for the tremendous job he did on the art half of things is okay by me. (And describing Ropes and its predecessor Kings in Disguise as “fine examples of literary graphic novels” doesn’t hurt my feelings, either.)  Click here to read the whole review.

October 10th, 2013

Reed in Action

It’s taken a while to get it online, but the folks at Comic Book Resources have just posted a 13-minute video interview with Reed Waller on the history of Omaha the Cat Dancer, shot during this summer’s San Diego Comic Con. It’s unvarnished Reed, the guy I know – a little “am I seriously sitting here with a lei around my neck?” at first, but pretty quickly warming up and giving everyone a candid look at the sharp and decent guy behind all those naughty pictures. Click here to watch the video at the CBR site.

September 15th, 2013

The CWR “Omaha” Review

Longtime writer-about-comics Johanna Draper Carlson put up a lovely review of the Omaha the Cat Dancer finale on the Comics Worth Reading blog that takes the time to summarize the series’ history and offers a few entertaining thoughts on the book’s appeal. Her take on why the Omaha wrapup representsan artist’s significant, consuming accomplishment (and) a lovely way to wrap up a life’s work” is well worth reading, too, and you can do so by clicking here.

September 7th, 2013

The ComicMix “Omaha” Review

Writer Martha Thomases, who contributes a sharp and entertaining column to the Comicmix site each week, posted the first review I saw of the recently-published Omaha finale. Actually, it’s a combination of review and personal reminiscence, with Thomases reflecting on the days when the strip was new and all of us were much younger, along with her thoughts on what works and doesn’t work about the series in general. It’s a nice piece of work, and you can read it by clicking here.

September 5th, 2013

Reed Steps Out

We’ve now hit the official publication date for the Omaha the Cat Dancer finale, so you can expect a few posts on that subject in the days to come.

To begin with, here are a few shots of the Cat Dancer’s papa Reed Waller in his well-received appearance at this year’s San Diego Comicon, where the new book enjoyed a successful pre-pub debut.

As you can see in these photos provided by NBM, Reed’s appearance was pretty successful, too. He was swamped by fans, signed piles of Omaha volumes and – even though he was offering them at bargain Con prices – sold so many pages of original art that publisher Terry Nantier was joking that Reed earned more personally in San Diego than NBM. (Would that it were so…)

In all, it was something of a triumphal return to the spotlight for a legend of independent comics, and well deserved. Yay, Reed.

September 1st, 2013

A “Ropes” TV Interview

Here’s a TV interview I did right after On the Ropes came out, for a very good book program called Writing Out Loud that’s aired for years on my local PBS station. I think it’s the first time host Teresa Miller has thrown the spotlight on a comics work – she usually interviews big-name novelists, poets and assorted literary lights – but she did a lovely job of putting me at my ease and occasionally asked a question that really made me dig for an answer. You can spend a pleasant half hour with Teresa, me and my writerly tweed jacket by clicking here.

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