Girl Power!

Yeah, we all know chicks rule, especially the ones that don’t like being called chicks. And yes, women are gaining ground, earning more than half of all college degrees. But did you know they’re kicking ass in comics too? I’ve been discovering some awesome female talent lately, artists that are quickly becoming my favorites.

Chief among them is the amazing Kate Beaton. She is the indie-comics-world darling, and for good reason. Not only are her comics incredibly smart (often riffing on historical themes), but her drawings are totally superb. Her line is tops, harkening back to classic cartoon masters like Silverstein, Steinberg, Steig, and Quentin Blake. She is at the top of the game. Just look at how much expression she gets out of those simple faces!

Although she publishes her comics on her website, Hark! A Vagrant, she released them in book form and it looks like it’s doing great. Right now it has 51 Amazon reviews with a 4.5 star average. I bought it, and have been enjoying it each morning with tea.

Next up we have Jillian Tamaki with her online comic, SuperMutant Magic Academy. This gem is a dark parody of Harry Potter, but with its own unique cast characters. Jill really has a talent for social critique. I’ve started at the beginning and haven’t gotten through them all yet, but so far I especially like this one, this one, this one, this one, this one and this one.

Jillian Tamaki has also illustrated some graphic novels, which I hope to check out soon.

Next up, we have Kate Leth of Kate or Die! — a bisexual, feminist, generally badass comic creator. I like this one a lot.

Even though Hyperbole and a Half hasn’t been updated in over a year, it totally gets honorable mention. Using my investigative skillz, I uncovered the creator, Allie, did not in fact die. Turns out the pressures of success made her want to hide (see this facebook note). Guess that’s what happens when your Blogspot post gets over 4000 comments. She’s also writing a book. We’re rooting for you Allie!

Finally we have Vera Brosgol, creator of the fantastic graphic novel, Anya’s Ghost.

This year Vera won an Eisner Award for “Best Publication for Young Adults”. This is the award I’ll be gunning for with the book I’ll begin after I finish my current one. 2015 Eisner’s, here I come!!!

Anywho, cheers ladies! Thanks for brightening the world with your creativity. Comics make me so hot OMG.

I *Love* Autobiographical Comics

The crazed hustle and bustle of the city drives me mad nowadays, but it’s almost worth enduring if I can get to a comic book shop. While in Los Angeles I visited Meltdown Comics, a huge store on Sunset Boulevard. Grazing the endless rows of comic books and graphic novels, I came to understand the sheer variety of illustrated options out there. You have your testosterone laced superhero stuff, action-packed japanese manga, stark and cynical social commentary, historical fiction, comedies, sci-fi, cutesy-talking-animal things. Whatever your personality, you will find a corresponding comic book style to intrigue you.

During this visit I found myself gravitating towards lighthearted autobiographical comics. Usually small-press zines. I’m not sure why I find this genre so charming, though it might have something to do with the voyeurism of peeking into somebody else’s life. It takes a sensitive and creative person to spin interesting stories out of mundane, common tasks, and it’s interesting to see the artists grow with each everyday observation. It’s not saving the galaxy from the forces of evil or ‘nothin, but it’s life. I like life.

While at Meltdown Comics, I discovered some great artists. I enjoy this guy’s work a lot. His name is Sam Spina and he produces an annual book called Spinadoodles. He creates a comic EVERY SINGLE DAY OF THE YEAR. That’s a heroic feat, trust me.

Here’s a fellow, JP Coovert, who does a similar thing in a sparse way.

And this is the work of Toby James. I like how Toby will occasionally infuse his narrative with pure fantasy, like with this comic about motorcycles.

It takes a certain kind of narcissist to make autobiographical comics, God bless us all.

New Shel Silverstein Book of Poetry

In September 2011, HarperCollins will be releasing a new book of poetry and drawings by Shel Silverstein titled Everything On It. Thing is, Shel died in 1999. Without his guidance, will this volume even come close to perennial classics like Where the Sidewalks Ends and A Light in the Attic? Are Shel’s heirs scraping the bottom of the barrel in hopes of a big payday? I dunno, but I can’t wait to find out!

Children’s book writers are allowed to cuss, right?

I was on my way to an a illustrator’s critique group put on each month by a few guys from the Austin SCBWI. It would be my first time attending and I was excited. I got it my car, headed west down Ceasar Chavez, north up I-35, west on 38 1/2 Street, and BAM! Traffic at a standstill. “Must be construction,” I thought as I cut my way down some side streets trying to find an alternate route. Detour signs littered the road. “Oh no! The Austin Marathon is on today!” I remembered, while cursing the chicken-legged men in their short shorts.

I spent a good 30 minutes trying to find a route to the critique group. I even went way north and tried to come down Lamar. No luck. The critique group was isolated, surrounded by a moat of runners.

“North Lamar… I don’t get up here often,” I mused. “Maybe I’ll stop by Half Price Books.” (the best used bookstore warehouse in the world, for you underprivileged non-Texans)

So that’s what I did, and even though it wasn’t my first choice, perhaps it was fate which brought me to cart away a pile of life changing books.

First up, The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker. List, $60. HPB: $19. A huge book, weighing probably 15 pounds, it has every New Yorker cartoon published from 1925 to 2004. Many of the 68,000+ cartoons are actually printed in the book, the rest come on 2 CD’s. Some of these cartoons are so brilliant they give me shivers. I guess I’m weird that way.

These two were published in 1937.

And since graphic novels seem to be all the rage these days, I picked up a few titles from a great publisher called Top Shelf Productions. These aren’t your superhero comics, folks. These are amazing feats of visual art – and literature too!

My favorite so far is Dear Julia, by Brian Biggs. It has breathtaking artwork and a fascinating, suspenseful story which plays out like a foreign film (and not one of those crappy, hard to understand foreign films). I highly recommend this book.

Another Top Shelf book I found was an autographed copy of James Kochalka’s The Sketchbook Diaries. Basically it’s just a daily journal in cartoon form. Most of the entries I find pretty boring, the funny part is: I can’t stop reading it!

The drawings are so simple and the situations so mundane, it actually inspired me to start a cartoon journal myself! I’m no Indiana Jones, but my life feels a heck of a lot more exciting than his!

And then today, I was walking near the river/nature area near my house, when I was struck with an idea for a middle grade chapter book (I blame Because of Winn-Dixie!). It was crazy, everything just came to me at once! Plot, characters, settings, everything! And while I suspect it’s natural for a writer to fall in love with his own ideas, I really believe I have an objectively good book idea on my hands!

Cartoons, graphics novels, picture books, chapter books, short stories, long stories, dumb stories, smart stories.

I could go in any number of directions, but I still don’t know what the fuck it is I’m doing.

Book Review: A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever!

At the SCBWI conference there was a bookstore selling books by authors and illustrators in attendance. Having just won a Caldecott Honor a week prior, a little book called All the World (written by Austinite Liz Garton Scanlon, Illustrated by Marla Frazee) seemed to be getting All the Attention. So mid-way through the day, when it was announced there were only 3 copies left, I hastily made my way to the bookstore, brutally pushing little old ladies out of the way when necessary. I still wasn’t quick enough. All the World was sold out. It turned out to be a blessing, however, because instead I picked up another Caldecott Honor book by Marla Frazee titled, A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever!

I’m so glad I found this book! Even though All the World is very good, this book is more along the lines of what I’m looking to do.

First off, it’s illustrated by Marla Frazee, so needless to say, the pictures are wonderful and fit the text as seamlessly as a soundtrack. But how is the story itself? After all, Marla is known as an illustrator, not an author.

I think she nailed it. The characters feel lively & real, and she clearly knows what makes young boys tick. The average boy (especially when he gets together with a friend) is not interested in museums or learning about flowers at nature camp. Marla knows and shows that young boys are happy to be left to their own devices, which most often include: rough-housing, eating junk food, and playing video games. She doesn’t forget how adults present “edifying” activities for children, but understands that ultimately it’s the children who decide what interests them.

Not everybody likes this view of children, and many still believe that picture books must show how children should behave rather than how they do behave. Taking that a step further: some people believe children’s books must show how the world should be as opposed to how it is. (examples: this amazon review, and this blog post) I have no problem presenting an alternative world to kids – a Utopian vision for example – but to gloss over reality and pretend everyone is “perfect” represents a covert form of moralism, which I find repugnant and obsolete since the days of Ursula Nordstrom.

I think those who complain that this book has no moral, fail to see the subtle lesson contained within. Marla allows this lesson to go down as sweet as syrup, so that you don’t even know you’ve learned something important about life. I think that’s the way to do it.

Personally, I learned a lot of lessons from this book – especially about illustration and the craft of picture books. For me, it was an education on the pacing and layout of picture book illustrations. I enjoyed how Marla used many illustrations on a single page, weaving them in and out between the text, creating action and a sense of cohesion. I also liked how she avoided repetition by breaking up these multi-illustrated pages with glorious, full, double-page spreads. It allows the reader to take a break from the action, rest, and enjoy the beautiful scenery. I also learned how speech bubbles, which are traditionally found in comic books, can make a wonderful addition to children’s books as well.

Finally, I learned a thing or two about humor in kid’s books. Often time it seems that children’s books resort to cheap laughs by using potty humor (and it’s true: young kids do love booger jokes), or over-the-top silliness. In contrast, in this book Marla Frazee uses a quiet kind of humor boarding sarcasm. A favorite device she uses is incongruent text and image. For example, at one point it reads, “He had never been away from home for an entire week, so he was very sad when his mother drove away.” Yet right under this text it shows the boy with a great big smile on his face yelling: BYE! At another point it reads, “Nature Camp was just so great.” And the picture shows the boys hiding inside the house on a beautiful day, speech bubbles reading: “Wanna go outside?”, “Nope.” I love how Marla gives her audience credit by allowing smart humor. It’s a smart choice on her part. Most of the children I know have a more sophisticated sense of humor than their adult counterparts.

Yikes! This review became much longer than I expected, but there’s just so much in this book. I recommend it to anyone, but especially to writers and illustrators working on their craft.

How many ways to draw a dog?

I volunteer with the Austin Public Library reading books to children. Once a week I receive a new themed “storytime kit” which includes several picture books, some puppets, and maybe even a song or two. It’s a great opportunity to give back to the community while learning what children enjoy in their books.

The theme of this week’s kit was Dogs and I became interested in the wide variety of ways our illustrators drew a dog, so I thought I’d do a little critique. Of course, nothing is more subjective than taste, so disagree with me if you’d like, but it’s a fact that I have better taste than you.

Our first dog comes from a book called Pillow Pup, illustrated by Mireille D’Allance.

This was my least favorite artwork mainly because I enjoy line, and as you can see here, the line is very soft and not distinctive. I’m also not a big fan of cute art, and I’m afraid this puppy is much too cute. However, to the illustrator’s credit, the book is about a puppy who steals pillows, so perhaps the soft & cute art works to the story’s advantage. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the story either.

Our next book is called Sit, Truman! and was illustrated by Cara & Barry Moser.

Here the artwork is vastly different from the last book, but I found it only slightly more enjoyable. Clearly the artists are exceptionally gifted at producing realism via watercolor, but I guess realism isn’t important to me when it comes to children’s illustration. As I read this book it felt like I was looking at photographs or viewing a “fine artist’s” work in a gallery. Once the “wow, this looks real” factor wore off, the illustration was a tad boring. But here again, the artwork may have lent itself to the story: the chronicle of a normal, non-fantastical dog’s misbehavior.

Then we have A Dog Needs a Bone, by Audrey Wood.

In this book, unlike the previous two, the dog has human emotions and even the ability to talk (to itself, anyway), therefore giving the character much more personality. Although not a technically skilled artist like Cara & Barry Moser, Audrey Wood’s drawings are expressive and have a certain lovable quality reminiscent of naive art. Even the medium is rather unique: crayon on brown paper bags. The children enjoyed this neurotic dog with it’s silly expressions.

Next we have Sally Goes to the Vet, by Stephen Huneck.

I enjoyed this artwork a lot. It was clear, concise, strong, and folk-arty. It was made using carved woodblocks pressed in colored ink, and the effect is pretty captivating. If the story was a little more exciting, we’d have a real winner.

Speaking of winners, have you heard of Jules Feiffer? Perhaps not, but he has a long and distinguished career as a cartoonist, noted for his contributions to Playboy Magazine, The New Yorker, and for having illustrated many books including The Phantom Tollbooth. I like him because he is very good with line. Just take a look at his picture book Bark, George.

Even though his drawings are clear, they also have a pleasant amount of messiness and uncertainty to them. I’m also amazed by the amount of movement he is able to capture; even though they are perhaps the most simply drawn, his characters come to life more than any of the previous books. The story was enjoyable and the kids went wild at the downright ridiculousness of it.

My only complaint is probably minor to most folks but kind of a big deal to me. Jules Feiffer is a master of line – he doesn’t work in color. The color in this book was done with computer, and even though it doesn’t say who did it, I think it’s a safe bet to assume Jules didn’t. I’ll make another assumption and bet the publisher wanted it in color (because it sells), whereas Jules would have been perfectly happy to leave it in black & white. Personally, I think color is a distraction from masterful line work. A single B&W drawing was included on the front of the hardcover, hidden underneath the colorized dust jacket. Compare.