Up From Underground

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The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on serious comics last summer (July 11, 2004) that made cartooning look like Mafia business. In a full-page photo, godfather Art Spiegelman sat a table, surrounded by lieutenants Joe Sacco, Seth, Chester Brown, and Adrian Tomine. It was clear: Just as mafiosi are dark-haired guys who mumble, cartoonists are men who wear glasses. 

But it’s not necessarily so. For one thing, some of the most trenchant cartoonists wielding brush and pen today are women. The article mentioned Iranian graphic memoirist Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), but nary a word about Phoebe Gloeckner, Alison Bechdel, Jennifer Camper, or a host of other diversely talented women artists. If you’re a careful reader of Utne, you’ve seen their work in our pages, just as you’ve read elsewhere about Chris Ware and Dan Clowes, two others profiled in the Times article. Now we’d like to recognize some artists whose names and work should be widely known. 

Welcome to the world of Lauren Weinstein. Imagine strap-on home dentistry technology, picture Jesus Christ as pro wrestler, and consider the possible origins of equine sexual fetishes. The winner of a 2002 Xeric Foundation Grant (providing financial aid to budding comics artists), Brooklyn-based Weinstein depicts such wonderfully weird places and situations in her Inside Vineyland (distributed by Alternative Comics). The book features a longer story about a robot who goes for a walk and befriends a teenage boy, as well as drawings of bipolar dogs and a seer who really can tell the future (“One day you will die”). Weinstein calls herself a “schoolmarm by day, rocker by night”–she teaches at Parsons School of Design and sings in the band Flaming Fire, a collective devoted to making music that comments on the human quest for philosophical and religious meaning. For more of Weinstein’s work

Montrealer Leanne Franson took a five-year break not long ago from drawing her minicomic Liliane, Bi-Dyke, a series based on her own life. Two compilations, Assume Nothing and Teaching Through Trauma, were published by British small press Slab-O-Concrete in the late ’90s before the publisher abruptly folded, leaving Franson in the lurch. The creator of these edgy comics investigating bisexuality and gender flux turned her energy to successful children’s book illustration. Among other jobs, she worked on 13 editions of Ripley’s Believe It or Not books, where she did her own fact checking. Fellow cartoonist David Kelly got her started writing comics again, first by soliciting work for his publication Boy Trouble. This led to a new Liliane book, Don’t Be a Crotte (Dansereau Editeur, 2004)–roughly, “don’t be a shit” in Quebecois French–in which “bourgeois capitalist Liliane” hires a friend to wash dog drool off her walls and parses a befuddling conversation about identity politics. Lately Franson has been writing 20-page stories on such topics as female-to-male transgender issues and “passing,” drawing six panels a day and publishing them on the Web site liliane.keenspace.com

Anders Nilsen has been drawing birds for a long time. Little birds, often in flocks. Social birds, sparrows probably. Sparrows that talk. But these aren’t the sort of happy animals that made Walt Disney rich. Nilsen’s visionary Big Questions comic book series has grown increasingly dark since its inception as a self-published minicomic in the late ’90s. Its birds encounter crashed airplanes, bombs, and skeletons. One is eaten by an owl. The bomb explodes. What does it all mean? After a Xeric grant in 2000, Nilsen’s comics started sporting color covers. Now he has a new book–Dogs and Water–published by Drawn & Quarterly, the Montreal-based publisher of Joe Sacco, Adrian Tomine, Julie Doucet, and others. Here there are no birds at all. Instead, the grim, existential, and nearly wordless tale follows a backpacker, accompanied by a teddy bear, through the tundra on a road to nowhere. Nilsen himself lives in Chicago in a house overlooking a park that is home to black squirrels and “worm-eating seagulls,” where he ponders big questions.

Originally from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Graham Annabelle now lives in Berkeley, where he is an animator by trade, working in film, television, and computer games. Thanks to Alternative Comics (whose publisher, Jeff Mason, does double duty as a trial lawyer), Annable’s books Grickle, Further Grickle, and Stickleback provide a different form of delight. Here’s Annable’s wry cartooning mind at play: A man sits in a courtyard, admiring a woman at another table and writing a tale in which a woman travels the world. He struggles to convey a suitable description (“She was so beautiful and lovely and very smart . . .”). Suddenly the object of his fancy is joined by a man. Our hero is distraught, but just for two panels. Then he considers what he’s written, and admires it with a smile. It’s a quintessential story for an artist whose imagination sometimes takes a morbid turn, as when a farmer plucks a baby from a vine, only to see it promptly die. Annable has been a hockey player since childhood (“Cartooning and hockey feel like a good balance to me”) and is editor of the comics anthology series Hickee. His work appears online at www.grickle.com

Jeffrey Brown’s sweet, sexy, poignant graphic novel Clumsy (Top Shelf Productions, www.topshelfcomix.com) documents a one-year love affair with deceptive simplicity. Though his graphic style is bare bones, Brown pays scrupulous attention to details that may cause readers to blush, feel embarrassed, know vicarious joys, and remember specific instances in our own sometimes halting, sometimes glorious lives. The Chicago-based Brown pokes fun at his own stories in a minicomic follow-up titled Be a Man, turning “”sensitive and pathetic” scenes into ones in which the protagonist is blustering, crude, and macho. His Unlikely (Top Shelf, 2003) used the same format less successfully. (Reading it is a bit like seeing someone naked against your will, or like watching a train wreck in slow motion.) Brown’s work is more recently featured with that of two other artists in the Drawn & Quarterly Showcase #2, the second of an annual series.

9 More Artists to Know About

Jen Camper, cartoonist author of SubGURLZ, editor of the forthcoming Juicy Mother (Soft Skull Press), a collection of comics “by and about queers, women, and people of color.” 

Robyn Chapman (www.un-pop.com), creator of the new zine Hey, Four Eyes! and co-editor of True Porn, a comics anthology of “autobiographical sex stories.” 

Sammy Harkham, publisher of Avodah Books, editor of Kramers Ergot, and featured artist in the forthcoming Drawn & Quarterly Showcase #3

Kevin Huizenga (www.usscatastrophe.com/kh), creator of the Supermonster minicomics series and contributor to Drawn & Quarterly Showcase #1

Megan Kelso (www.girlhero.com), editor of Scheherazade: Stories of Love, Treachery, Mothers & Monsters (Soft Skull), a compendium of work by younger women comics artists. 

Keith Knight (www.kchronicles.com), creator of The K Chronicles, a weekly strip that has been collected in Fear of a Black Marker and two other books published by Manic D Press. 

Josh Neufeld (www.joshcomix.com), 2004 Xeric Foundation grantee and creator of A Few Perfect Hours . . . and Other Stories from Southeast Asia and Central Europe (distributed by Alternative Comics). 

John Porcellino (www.king-cat.net), creator of long-running King-Cat Comics, a deceptively simple and poetic look at everyday wonders, some earlier collected in Perfect Example (Highwater Books). 

Sara Varon (www.chickenopolis.com), creator of Sweaterweather (Alternative Comics), a sweet and playful fantasy world in which rabbits befriend squirrels and a snowman smokes cigarettes. 

New York Takes Note
Pantheon picks up the best of small press comics 

Thanks to trail blazing by small presses, big commercial publishers in New York now issue books that once would have been unthinkable for them. One such publisher is Pantheon, now a division of Random House (itself owned by German multimedia conglomerate Bertelsmann AG). Besides issuing Art Spiegelman’s latest, a board book for adults titled 9/11, Pantheon is also just publishing Epileptic (Jan. 2005), a powerful graphic memoir by French cartoonist David B.–born Pierre-Francois Beauchard–who reports on what it was like to grow up with a brother who had seizures two or three times a day. This tale of macrobiotic communes, medical quackery, bad dreams, and sibling compassion cannot easily be matched by words or pictures alone. As they did with Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Pantheon snatched Epileptic from Seattle-based indie comics publisher Fantagraphics (www.fantagraphics.com), which had planned to publish the books. (“No hard feelings,” says Fanta’s Eric Reynolds. “That’s publishing.”)

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