Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Chutz-POW! The Rest of the Exhibit

In addition to my drawing of Sophie Scholl, the Chutz-POW! exhibit at the 3 Rivers Arts Festival also features artwork from four other Pittsburgh cartoonists representing other Holocaust Upstanders. In addition to the artwork each panel features photos and a lengthy description of each of the people featured. I'm not going to reproduce the text here, more for the sake of brevity than anything else. Go see the exhibit, or if you don't have the opportunity and are interested in the stories of these Upstanders look them up. There are amazing stories here.

Art by Marcel Walker
The first panel pictured here is a reproduction of the cover of the comic book that will be released later this summer. This features stories about Pittsburgh Upstanders, most of whom are not featured in the Exhibit. I'll talk about that in more detail when the book is released.

Art by Mark Zingarelli

The one person who is featured in both the exhibit and the comic is Les Banos. Les's story is pretty unbelievable, and deserves a full graphic novel or movie instead of the six pages I tried to fit the info into. (That's true of all of these people, really). Les Banos is a famous Pittsburgh sports photographer. He was Jewish and during the Holocaust was part of the Hungarian Resistance. He was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the C.I.A.), and became an SS officer and served as a double agent! The artwork here is a preview of the upcoming comic. 

Mark Zingarelli is a native of Pittsburgh and a freelance cartoonist / illustrator for over 35 years. He has had art studios in San Diego, Seattle and now lives in Western Pennsylvania. His award winning illustration work and comics have been published internationally and he is currently finishing a graphic novel for Farrar Strauss & Giroux.

Art by Gary Morgan

The next panel is of the Bielski Brothers. The Bielski Partisan group led by Tuvia Bielski operating in the forests of Western Belorussia was one of the most renowned resistance groups against the Nazis in World War II. Together with his brothers, Zusya, Asael, and Aharon, Tuvia disrupted enemy lines and secured arms allowing his partisan movement to grow in numbers.

Gary Morgan is a freelance artist and illustrator. He went to college at I.U.P., and graduated with a B.F.A. in metals and drawing. His comics work can be seen in The Field at the Edge of the Woods.

Art by Marcel Walker

Irena Sendler used her position as a social worker to gain access to the Warsaw Ghetto and help smuggle children out of the horrible conditions and into a network of safe houses, churches, and other hiding places. She issued hundreds of false documents with forged signatures, giving the Jewish children temporary identities. Irena kept records of each child’s true identity in coded form and buried them in jars beneath an apple tree in a neighbor’s back yard, across the street from the German barracks.  It is estimated that these jars contained the names of 2,500 children. In 1943 her efforts were discovered and she was arrested, severely tortured, and sentenced to death by the Gestapo.  Even under these circumstances she refused to give the Germans any information.   While awaiting execution she was saved. Irena continued working under a false identity.

Marcel Lamont (M.L.) Walker is a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native. He graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and from 1993 to 1999 was an art instructor at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Today he is the Artist-in-Residence at Pittsburgh’s ToonSeum, The Museum of Cartoon Art, where he teaches workshops and has contributed artwork to their NORTH and OAKLAND anthology comic-books. In 2014, Walker was the portrait artist for scientists depicted in the nationally-touring exhibit COMIC-TANIUM!: THE SUPER MATERIALS OF THE SUPERHEROES. Currently, he is also the creator/writer/artist of the comic-book HERO CORP., INTERNATIONAL, a mash-up of the workaday worlds of superheroes and the machinations of corporate America.

Art by Loran J. Skinkis

The final panel is of Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg was recruited by the US War Refugee Board. Wallenberg’s task was to save as many Jews as he could in Hungary from the Nazi regime. He was given the status of a Swedish foreign diplomat, which allowed him issue thousands of Swedish Embassy stamped “protective passports” to Hungarian Jews. The fate of Raoul Wallenberg is unknown. He was last seen with Soviet officials under suspicion of espionage. Rumor has it that he died in a Soviet Prison.

Loran J. Skinkis is a full-time illustrator and graphic designer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After attending Mt. Lebanon Senior High in 1989, Loran joined the United States Marine Corps Reserves. His unit was activated and sent overseas to Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War (1991). After returning home, Loran went to school at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Loran has worked on such titles as Photocopy Comix Illustrated, The Electric Owl, Pastaman, Star & Stripes, Burgh-Man, The Pittsburgh Steel-Man and most recently The Field on the Edge of the Woods. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Chutz-POW! My Sophie Scholl Exhibit Art

If you haven't read my previous post that serves as an introduction to this topic you might want to go back or this will be out of context.

When the Chutz-POW committee was discussing the list of Upstanders to include in the museum exhibit I found myself particularly fascinated by the story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose. Even though my primary role was as writer of the comic book (Sophie's story does not appear in it), I do draw comics occasionally and have a couple of professional credits to my name. I decided I wanted to draw Sophie's page for the exhibit.

Sophie's story, in brief, is heroic and horrific.

Sophie and her brother Hans were born in Germany and raised Lutheran. They were teens during the rise of the Nazi party and witnessed the growing abuses of the regime (this is an incredibly abridged version of what took place). They were increasingly appalled at the direction Germany was headed. They, along with a number of friends, formed a secret society called The White Rose and began a movement of passive resistance. They wrote exposes' and essays that were overtly critical of the Nazis. They printed these as flyers and discretely distributed them.

They were eventually caught and arrested.

Sophie was beheaded by guillotine on February 22, 1943 at the age of 22. Her final words were, "How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause. Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

The last flyer by The White Rose was smuggled out of Germany and later dropped in the thousands all over Germany from Allied airplanes.

This story really touched me, and when I started looking for more information on Sophie I found lots of photos of her online. These kind of blew me away. She looks absolutely contemporary in most of these. Young with a funky hairstyle, happy and full of life. She could be one of the students in my class at Chatham this spring. One of my customers at the comics store. Someone I see when I go out to shows. The same age range as my goddaughter.

Do a Google image search for more.

So I drew Sophie Scholl. My style leans more toward the stylized and iconic than it does toward realism. I like to think of myself as influenced by Jaime Hernandez (of Love & Rockets fame), and Dan DeCarlo and Harry Lucey, famous Archie Comics artists. I'm nowhere near as good as any of these, but it's what I aim for. The black and white line work is an abstraction and the goal was to turn Sophie into a comic book character in my style while still being able to recognize her. Parts of my composition used very specific photo reference.

The exhibit is in color (the comic will be in black and white). I think of myself as primarily an inker when it comes to my comics work, and that's where most of my actual professional comics experience is. I love working with a bottle of ink and a brush. My own pencils are very loose because I prefer working out the details directly in the ink. As a result of this I don't work in color very often and admit to being a little intimidated by the prospect. My style lends itself to more traditional flat coloring than to heavily rendered or shaded colors, so that's the direction I went with this. I'm happy with the results.

Seeing the reproduction of my art in context at the 3 Rivers Arts Festival yesterday was really rewarding. The drawing was accompanied by text pieces telling Sophie's story. Two of the other members of the Chutz-POW! committee were there when Marcel Walker (my friend and one of the artists on the project) and I arrived. They introduced us to the people who were there and we received a spontaneous round of applause. I can't tell you how gratifying it is to see something that I have worked this long and hard at finally out where we can share it with the world.

The following are photos of my Sophie piece in context at the exhibit. My next blog will detail some of the other artists and Upstanders involved with the project.

What follows is the description of Sophie's story that was sent to me by the Holocaust Center.


Word found on a scrap of paper left behind in the cell of White rose resistance leader Sophie Scholl on the day of her execution;
February 22, 1943

Sophie Scholl was born in Forchtenberg Germany on May 9, 1921. Sophie had loving parents and enjoyed spending her time outside and learning. She even had an interest in art and theology. Soon she began to question the Anti-Jewish doctrine of the Nazi Party and grew increasingly frustrated along with her brother, Hans, about the direction in which Germany was headed.

In 1942 Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl, Christopher Probst, Willi Graf, Alexander Schmorell, and their Professor Kurt Huber formed the resistance movement called “The White Rose”.

The White Rose was a German resistance group who spoke out against the Nazi regime’s mass atrocities and crimes to humanity.

Horrified of what their nation became, Sophie and the members of the White Rose wrote and distributed leaflets urging Germans to oppose Hitler and the Nazi Party.

After the defeat at Stalingrad in January 1943, Sophie, and Hans, distributed Anti-Nazi leaflets in the hallways of the University of Munich urging the students to rebel. However, the university janitor recognized Sophie and Hans and turned them in to the Gestapo, the German Secret State Police. Soon after their arrest, the Gestapo found the other members of the White Rose.

The members of the White Rose were tried by the Volksgerichtshof (People’s Court), overseen by Roland Freisler, a Nazi judge and the State Secretary of the Reich. Sophie Scholl and the members of the White Rose were sentenced to death by beheading. However, they remained defiant and proud. The words “To stand defiant before overwhelming power” were found on Hans’ prison cell wall and before execution he shouted, “Long Live Freedom!”

Sophie Scholl along with her brother and the other members of the White Rose stood up for their country and their people even before certain death. Their last leaflet was smuggled out of the country and scattered over Germany by Allied plans.

Fight Against the Party!”

The day of reckoning has come, the reckoning of German youth with the most repellent tyranny our nation has ever seen...

For us there is only one slogan: Fight against the Party! Get out of the party hierarchy, which wants to keep us silent!

The German name will be dishonoured forever if German youth does not rise up, to revenge and atone at once, to destroy their tormentors and build up a new spiritual Europe. Students! The German nation looks to us!

Translation: Lucy Burns

Contents copyright 2014 The Pittsburgh Holocaust Center.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Chutz-POW! (phase one)

Last fall (2013 for those of you reading this in the future), I was approached by the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh to serve on the steering committee for a project they wanted to create. The history of the Holocaust is horrific, but they wanted to find a way to celebrate the lives and stories of people who stood up against Nazi oppression and made a difference. The basic concept they had in mind was to utilize the metaphor of the Superhero to talk about real people who did heroic things during the Holocaust.

This might sound, at first, like a strange idea, until you realize that most of the writers, artists, and creators of superheroes and comic books in the 1930s and 1940s were Jewish. Superman, Batman, Captain America and dozens of others of these brightly colored heroes first appeared at the exact same time as the events of the Holocaust that led up to World War II.

The Holocaust Center worked in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Toonseum. I was recruited in my role as Resident Comics Scholar and Comic Book Historian for the Toonseum. Initially I thought my primary function was to offer them knowledge and research on the topic of comics of the time period. As the project grew and took shape my role expanded (not that I am in any way solely responsible for the project... lots of talented and motivated people took part in bringing this to fruition). This blog is a brief introduction to the project. There will be future entries that explain some of the pieces of this in more detail.

In our early meetings I learned the word Upstander, a term that is used to describe anyone who stood against the Nazi regime. I inadvertently named the project. We were brainstorming ideas for a name and I jokingly said “Chutz-Pow!” with the emphasis on the POW part because it's a comic book sound effect. I thought it was over the top, but everybody loved it. So, Chutz-POW!: Superheroes of the Holocaust was born.

There are three phases of Chutz-POW! (at least as I see it right now... this is designed to be an ongoing and evolving project that could last for years. I know the Holocaust Center has other plans for the future of this, but for right now there are three I want to talk about).

Phase one is a museum display focusing on the early history of comics and the symbolic connections of the Superhero with the Upstander. This display will feature information on international Upstanders accompanied by comics style artwork by a number of local Pittsburgh artists (I'll talk about this more specifically in a future blog). This display premieres this weekend at the annual 3 Rivers Arts Festival running June 6 through the 15th. Though my primary role in this project has been as a writer I contributed a piece of comics art for this display. I was fascinated by the story of the Upstander Sophie Scholl and chose her as the subject of my page. For more info on Sophie her Wikipedia page is a good place to start, but there's a lot more. I'll be blogging more about her as well.

This is a photo of the exhibit panel featuring
my art of Sophie Scholl. I'll post a scan of the
original art in my next blog when I talk about this process.

The museum exhibit is designed to be displayed at other museums in the future. It will be on display at the Pittsburgh Toonseum later this summer. There are plans for it to appear at comic book conventions and, if all goes well, at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, and perhaps even in a museum in Israel.

Phase two of Chutz-POW! is the part I was most involved in. We decided that it would be a good idea to produce an actual comic book. My experience as a writer and a comic book creator, as well as my background in research, made me the obvious choice to be the writer on the project. I also know a lot of the local comics artists and have good working relationships with them, which is essential in a project like this. The comic tells the stories of five local Pittsburgh Upstanders and is in the final stages of completion as I write this. It is scheduled to be published and available later this summer, so I will talk about that in more detail when the time comes.

Phase three is the part I have the least involvement with. The Holocaust Center plans an educational program where the comic will be utilized in middle schools and high schools as an aid in teaching the Holocaust. This will be an ongoing program.

In the meantime, go check out the Chutz-Pow! exhibit at the 3 Rivers Arts Festival!

Addendum: I wrote an intro for the Museum Exhibit that ended up not being used in its entirety due to space limitations on the display. I really like it, so I'm posting it below. This serves as a pretty good introduction to the ideas we have been working with over the course of this project.

Holocaust Intro – First Draft

While the concept of the Hero in fiction dates back to antiquity the modern genre of the Superhero was born with the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 in 1938. The ideas that we most associate with the superhero were all present in that first thirteen page story: a brightly colored costume, a secret identity, and powers and abilities beyond those of normal men. Superman was a character that would forever change the world of heroic fiction and inspired a legion of characters that show no signs of abating.

Superman was the creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The two Jewish teenagers originally conceived of the character while living in Cleveland. By the time Superman first appeared they were working regularly as a writer and an artist for National Periodicals, the company that would one day become DC Comics.

Many of the earliest creators of the comic book industry were Jewish. The man who created the format of the modern comic book in 1929 was Max “Ginsberg” Gaines. National Periodicals was founded as a publishing company by Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz. Creators like Will Eisner, Jerry Iger, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby (Kurtzburg), Stan Lee (Lieber), and Bob Kane became the foundation upon which the entire comics industry was built.

Like most Jewish families living in America in the 1930s they heard stories of what was happening in Germany under Hitler and Nazi rule. Jewish heritage, culture, and political awareness could not help but find its way into the art they created.

Superheroes were calling for American intervention in their stories for months before the start of World War II. The most famous example of this is the cover of Captain America #1 (by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby), where the good Captain is seen punching Hitler in the jaw. This was published in March, 1941, months before Pearl Harbor and years before American troops set foot in Europe.

The superhero became enormously successful in a very short period of time. In the last days of the Depression with another World War looming, it was a time in need of heroes. These characters served as an inspiration. Though they had powers beyond that of normal humans, the lessons they taught were available to us all. Do the right thing. Stand up for yourself and for those who can't stand up for themselves. Recognize evil and stand against it. Fight for what you believe in if that cause is just. They were easily understood metaphors for everyone who read them.

The stories of superheroes covered the pages of magazines in brightly colored glory, but the truly heroic acts of that era were accomplished by very real human beings, many of whom will never be celebrated or even known. The Chutz-Pow! exhibit is an attempt to share the stories of some of these real life heroes. There were no costumes or special powers. They were simply men and women who stood up against evil. If the superhero is defined by his ability to inspire others to heroic actions then these men and women are superheroes indeed.

Their lives are proof of a simple truth.

We can all stand up. We can all be heroes.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Neverending Library Blog Tour

Fair warning... Most of this blog entry is a repost from a couple of years ago, so if you're a regular reader you may have already seen this. But, my friends over at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh are sponsoring a blog tour. It's called the “My Library Story” blog carnival, which will run between Sunday, May 18th and Saturday May 31st. You can read more details about it on their blog post "The Neverending (Library) Story."

I realized that I had already written about this! But, it's an opportunity to share it again with the legions of new followers I have made since then.


If you have a great library story to share, now is the time to do so.

From here on out this post is a reprint:

I've been thinking about libraries recently, and how grateful I am that they exist. Reading and books are such a major part of my life that I simply can't imagine a world where they weren't readily available.

I grew up in the country. The grade schools I went to in first through third grade (in Nineveh and Rogersville, PA respectively), were small community schools. In Nineveh there were only three classrooms and three teachers for six grades. First and second grade kids shared a room and a teacher, as did third and fourth, and fifth and sixth. Neither of these two schools were big enough for an actual library. One day a week the Bookmobile would show up. This was the traveling library for the entire school district and I assume it spent the rest of the week at other grade schools. It was essentially a large motor home lined with bookshelves and books.

The librarian was a wonderful woman by the name of Mary Berryman. She was small built, with gray hair, catseye glasses, and a sweater held on by clasps. I know how amazingly cliché this description sounds, but it is the truth. When I was six I thought she was old, but she continued as the district grade school librarian well past the time I graduated college, so my perceptions are a little skewed.

As I've said elsewhere on this blog, I learned to read, mostly from comic books, well before I began first grade. Mom is an avid reader and instilled her love of books in me very early. Library day was my favorite day of the week.

I'm not exactly sure of the chronology of this, but I also remember the Library came to our community during the summer months as well, for a summer reading program. It's possible I went to the Bookmobile before I actually started school. Mom tells me that once when she took me I chose the books I wanted and when I took them to check out Mrs. Berryman asked my Mom if they weren't a little too advanced for me. Mom said they were what I wanted, and if they were too advanced, well then, there was something for me to learn from them. She continues the story that when we returned the books I couldn't wait to tell Mrs. Berryman all about them.

Mrs. Berryman guided thousands of students through the hallowed shelves of her library over the years, but I think it's accurate to say I was one of her favorite kids. Mom instilled my love of books. Mrs. Berryman and the school library facilitated my access to them in a way my family could never have afforded. I was voracious (still am).

Oddly enough, the first three real books (chapter books instead of stuff written primarily for kids), did not come from the library. Mom bought me a copy of the Howard Pyle version of The Adventures of Robin Hood. I inherited copies of both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn from my older brother. I had read all of these by the time I finished third grade.

By the time I entered fourth grade the school district had built a brand new school building in Graysville, PA and consolidated several of the smaller grade schools in this new location. Mrs. Berryman finally had a permanent home for her library, and for the first time I had access to one every day. I couldn't begin to tell you the number of books I read there.

In addition to the library we were periodically given a catalog from Scholastic (or the 1970's equivalent) that we could order books from. I remember getting several in this fashion, including my first copy of All In Color For A Dime, a collection of essays about comics of the Golden Age. This was probably my first, conscious knowledge of comic book history, and definitely my first exposure to the concept of comics scholarship (just as an aside... I loaned my copy of this to the Chatham student I'm advising this semester because one of the essays ties in specifically with the topic she is writing about for her thesis.)

My original copy, with this cover, is long gone.
A revised edition came out a few years ago.

In seventh grade I went to the West Greene High School building (there was no separate middle school then; grades seven through twelve all wandered the same halls and used the same facilities). Of course I very quickly made myself at home in the library there and became a very familiar face to the new librarian, Mrs. Hildreth. The books housed there were aimed at an older audience of course.

During my teen years, in addition to the books I read from the library, I began to buy a lot of cheap paperbacks: Westerns, spy novels, and men's adventure stories with guns and girls. They were the kind of books that were probably inappropriate for my age and certainly not available at the school library. Eventually I discovered Science Fiction and Fantasy and was somewhat redeemed.

During my last year in high school there was a day when the seniors went to work as an assistant with one of the grade school teachers and help with their classes. I couldn't think of anyone back at Graysville I would rather spend the day with than Mrs. Berryman. She proudly introduced me to her classes as someone she was proud of and who had a bright future, because as she told them, I had always read books.

Mary Berryman did eventually retire and lived a long life. She's gone now but shines in my memory as the absolute Platonic ideal of a Librarian.

During college and grad school I had access to libraries of course. I used them primarily for research and class projects, but there was always the reading for pleasure aspect of it. I read a lot of Hesse, Henry Miller, Proust, and Kerouac while at Edinboro.

Somehow though, once I was out of school, I simply didn't go to a library very frequently. I still read, but I was buying most of my material by that time. I felt like I needed to own everything I read. One of my high school teachers, Will Hinerman (more on him in another post), had a large library of books in his home. There were always books around when I was growing up, but I don't think the idea of a personal library ever crossed my mind until I saw his. It became a goal. To supplement the books I bought at the big chain stores and local book stores I haunted used book stores and flea markets. I suppose I have a little bit of the hoarder in me.

So over time I accumulated a lot of books, a fact that was brought home to me a couple of years ago when, for the first time in many years, I needed to move them.

I started going back to the library regularly when I started working in Oakland. The main branch of the Carnegie Library is around the corner from my store. Over time I have realized I don't need to own everything I read (I would already be out of room in my house if that were the case). I'm there frequently and take advantage of many of their services. I have come to know many of the librarians there, and they are all exemplars of the Berryman credo.

There are two people in my life who I consider close, dear friends who are librarians, one at the Carnegie and one at a university library far away. One of them tells me that every day in the stacks she hears the books sing to her and feels it is a sacred duty to take care of them. The other one refers to the library as a “Temple for the Secular Soul.” I love that they both use the language of the sacred to refer to what they do.

For most of recorded history the ability to read was reserved to a special few. It was one of the things only the very privileged ever learned. The idea of archiving the collected knowledge of the world, its history and its stories, is one of the greatest ideas in our history. Today, when the skill of reading is taught to everyone, I fear it is all too often taken for granted. The ability to read was kept from the lower classes, slaves specifically, in an effort to keep people uninformed and more easily controlled. Ideas can be dangerous things, especially to the status quo. Today, when information is at our fingertips, when the wisdom of the ages is readily available, far too many people choose to remain willfully illiterate. Books are gateways to other worlds, to other ways of thinking, to knowledge and wisdom, to entertainment and enlightenment and empowerment.

In a recent conversation with one of my librarian friends she told me that someone had accused her of reading too much. My immediate response was to say that there's no such thing as reading too much. This was based on my own belief that there are far more books I want to read than I will ever be able to read in my lifetime. After giving it some more thought I do want to amend my initial kneejerk reaction. It is possible to read too much if you never actually go out and have a life as well. Your life is your story; you are writing your own book every day. It should be filled with something other than reading. But reading provides guideposts and maps for the kind of life you want to live.

In spite of the pages I devour, I don't think I live to read.

I read to live.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Manga and Anime and Comic Book Fandom

As part of my job at Phantom of the Attic Comics I spent the weekend at Tekkoshocon, Pittsburgh's annual Manga and Anime convention. We set up every year as a way of promoting the store and hopefully selling some merchandise. While Phantom has always stocked a certain amount of Manga (actually we were on that trend long before it exploded in bookstores across America), it has never been our focus. We view it as another piece of the giant puzzle that is comic book retail, but for a long time there was simply no competing with the giant book chains in terms of depth of stock or pricing.

For the uninitiated Manga refers pretty specifically to comics produced in Japan. In Japan it refers to all comics. Manga is simply their word for comics (likewise, the term Anime refers to Japanese animation). Here in America Manga has come to refer to Japanese comics as a way of distinguishing them from American books. It has also, probably unfairly, come to refer to some very specific stylistic qualities, i.e. big eyes, small mouths, and wildly exaggerated hair, among others, that have very little to do with content. In Understanding Comics Scott McCloud makes the point that the word Comics does not refer to a genre. Any kind of story can be told using comics as a format. I think far too many people use the word Manga in the same way. It is not a genre, and Manga is not an all-inclusive term that defines content.

Manga developed on a parallel course with American comics, and the ways in which they have always influenced and been influenced by the other are too numerous to recount. It's part of the lecture I give on the topic in my Comics and Pop Culture class at Chatham University.

The distinctions between American comics and Manga seem somewhat arbitrary to me, and based more on surface qualities than anything else. There was a time when there was no distinction that really mattered. Most people of my generation have fond memories of watching cartoons like Speed Racer, Kimba the White Lion, and Astro Boy when they were kids. They were simply cartoons then. We didn't know their origin nor did we care. In the 80s shows like Robotech, Battle For the Planets, and Voltron appeared on American TV and while my generation was now older, we still watched and enjoyed a lot of this. Translated Manga began to appear in comics shops in the 80s as well. Comico published Macross (the series Robotech was based on). Series like Appleseed, Grey, and Akira appeared and we accepted them as part of the Direct Sales explosion of new titles that were appearing at that time. Many American creators were directly influenced by Manga. Wendy Pini on Elfquest is one. It can easily be seen in Scott McCloud's Zot! and later in his seminal Understanding Comics. Frank Miller's Ronin is pretty directly a result of him reading Lone Wolf and Cub.

But somewhere in the last thirty years there has been a tremendous backlash against Manga among older fans and I gotta say, I just don't understand it. These are stories that feature Superheroes, Fantasy and Science Fiction... you know, all of the things that drive most American comics. But I hear it from customers all of the time. When I posted on Facebook that this was the topic of my lecture this week many of the comments were derogatory toward Manga in general. Usually, these comments come from people who have never really read anything that closely resembles Manga, but the prejudice still exists.
I have to wonder why.

So let's explore that topic a little and see if we can come up with some answers.

Now I should begin with the caveat that I really don't read a lot of Manga. I too have been guilty of some of these prejudices. Some of it is that I have a really difficult time reading right to left, the way most Manga is published, instead of the left to right style I have always read in. I've tried, but I just can't make my brain do it. If I had been exposed to this at a much younger age I'm sure this wouldn't be a problem, but at 52 my brain isn't as flexible as it would have been when I was 10. It's a shame because I'm sure this has prevented me from reading some very good work.

I am more familiar with Manga than many people simply because of my profession. Over the last eighteen years I've sold a lot of it and seen series come and go. I have friends and customers who are really into it. I have godchildren who are pretty much full-fledged comics geeks and I have Manga to thank for that (though my influence no doubt played some part in that as well). My experiences at Tekkoshocon have given me some measure of insight into Manga fandom and culture as well, and it's not what the uninitiated think it is.

So what's the disconnect?

I think part of it is simply the factor of age. As much as we old folks hate to admit it we all get stuck in our past to some degree or another. Whatever it was that first turned us on to a hobby, whether it's music, or books, or sports or comics, that's the stuff that stays with us forever. Comics were never cooler than when we were twelve years old, no matter when that happened to be. The stuff that defined the experience for us still defines what we think comics should be. Many of the same people who I find disdainful of Manga really don't like what's going on at Marvel and DC right now with their favorite superheroes either. The art style has changed. The storytelling is different. Therefore, in an example of bad logic, they are not as good as my memory tells me the old comics were. Nostalgia preserves comics far better than any mylar bag. With Marvel and DC, because the same characters are still being published, we carry a fondness for these characters and an ongoing desire to recapture the feeling they once brought to you. With Manga, if you've never read any of it, it's easier to simply dismiss it wholesale. Everything about it is foreign to your experience. Putting it down is easier than engaging the vastness of genres and styles that are actually included.

Age plays another part in this as well. A significant percentage of the Manga that has been translated and brought to America in the last twenty years is aimed at a younger demographic, specifically teens. The sad truth, all my compatriot old dudes, is we're not the demographic Manga is produced for. It's okay if we don't like it or if it doesn't speak to us. It's not supposed to. We have gotten older and we expect our hobby to come along with us, and in many ways it has. But it has also continued to be produced for a completely different audience. One of the ongoing conversations in American comics fandom for the last thirty years has been the issue of “Why aren't more kids reading comics?” “What can we do to bring young people into the hobby?” Why don't they make comics for kids anymore?” The answer to that question is, they have been. But because it's Manga and not the same stuff you loved as a kid you don't recognize it as such.

The Manga explosion in national bookstores did more to bring young people into the hobby of reading comics than anything the major publishers have done in decades. Maybe not the comics you like, but comics none the less. Remember... the old folks didn't like the comics you were reading back then either. Thousands upon thousands of young people are now fans of comics as a storytelling medium as a direct result of Manga. The ten year olds who were into Fruits Basket and Naruto are now twenty year olds who are reading the Avengers and Captain Marvel and Batman and Saga. The increased presence of our favorite characters in the form of the movies has made these young readers more aware of them as well, and because they already read comics it's a natural transition that is taking place. Statistically more people are reading comics in some form than in years and years. Manga has played a huge role in this.

I also think there is a gender issue involved. Just like a lot of Manga is aimed at a younger audience a lot of it is aimed at a female demographic. That's an area our traditional comics publishers have been, and continue to be, notoriously bad at. As a result of this marketing more young women read comics than at anytime since the height of the Romance Comics genre (and that was in the late 40s and early 50s, so it's been a while). If you're a forty year old man, this stuff really isn't aimed at you, and that's all right. Not every book in the bookstore is aimed at you either. But, if you have a ten year old daughter that you want to read comics then Sailer Moon or Fruits Basket are probably better choices than that Walt Simonson run on Thor from the 80s that you love so much.

There are so many cliches and misperceptions as to what Manga is all about. On Saturday I posted a Facebook update with a Tekko anecdote because it was funny to those of us who know. In retrospect, based partly on the responses it garnered, I realize it helped promote a negative stereotype. In brief, my co-worker, a twenty-something woman, was approached by a middle aged man at our table. He was decked out in My Little Pony gear and asked her if she knew where the hentai table was (I'll wait a moment while those of you who don't know what this is take a moment to look it up. Warning, NSFW and you might want to clear your browser after. Back? Okay then). Was he being inappropriate in approaching her, or were his social skills just that bad? Either way, it was a little weird and amusing. But I realized by the responses this story received that a lot of people seemed to assume he represented the typical fan at Tekko, and that's just not true. He was very much the anomaly. But this has become the image a lot of people have of Manga and Anime. It's an unfair prejudice that does damage to the entire industry. It's not like American comics, or novels, or music, or whatever, don't have their share of strange sexual and pornographic imagery. Taking one example of something you find weird and generalizing it to the entire scope of an art form is simply lazy thinking.

I want to go on record here and say that as a comics retailer who sets up at conventions (not as many as lots of other stores do, but my fair share over the years), Tekko is by far the most fun show I work. There are two words that sum up the overall atmosphere of Tekko, and they are things that I feel are increasingly lacking at other comics related conventions I attend. The two words are enthusiasm and joy. This is a Con filled with hundreds of people who really, really love their hobby. They are having so much fun. Everyone is in costume. They are excitedly discussing their favorite books and characters and getting really excited by the paraphernalia in the dealers room. There is music and people dance. There's gaming and cheering and a whole lot of laughter. As someone who admittedly does not read most of what is available I still find the atmosphere to be contagious. It's difficult not to get caught up in it.

And isn't this what we want from comics fans? Enthusiasm and joy both seem to be conspicuously absent from other shows. Not entirely, obviously. Comics conventions are not dire halls of mourning, but the comparison between a Methodist funeral and a New Orleans style wake is not a big leap in my experience.

So next time you feel the urge to badmouth Manga remember that you're badmouthing joy. You're putting down something that is exactly how you felt about your favorite comics way back when. You are discounting something has been good for the comics industry. You don't have to like it. I don't read or watch very much of it (though I admit to being completely hooked on the Attack on Titan anime right now). You don't have to appreciate it. Like I said, most of it simply not for you, and that's okay. Appreciate it for what it brings to the hobby. Manga has been a gateway drug for reading comics for thousands of kids, many of whom will continue to read comics, someday maybe even the ones you think are good.

And isn't more people reading comics what we all really want?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour

My friend Leigh Anne, over at her Be Less Amazing blog, participated in the Writing Process Blog Tour. She was invited to do this by local Pittsburgh Poet Angele Ellis (you can read her responses HERE). Leigh Anne made a more general call for anyone to participate. I'm doing the same. If you want to be a part of this, answer the questions below and link back to me. I'm curious to see what other people have to say.

What Am I Working On?

Way too many things, probably. I'm currently working on a paid professional comics project involving the Holocaust in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Holocaust Center and the Pittsburgh Toonseum (this is my first public announcement of this). I serve on the steering committee as a comics historian as well. The overall project involves what will be a traveling educational art/history museum installation called “Chutz-Pow!: Real Life Superheroes of the Holocaust.” The idea is to focus on real people who participated in genuinely heroic acts in the midst of this tragedy. We're using the metaphor of the superhero to do this. Many of the earliest comics creators were Jewish and had connections with European Jews during this period. Many served in the military in World War II.

My primary responsibility is writing a 24 page comic book that will be given away as part of the project. I'm telling the stories of five Pittsburgh residents who fit the description of a “real life hero of the Holocaust.” This has involved a tremendous amount of research. The biggest challenge of this for me is trying to fit these tremendous stories into four to eight page vignettes. I'm lucky to be working with four local professional comics artists. This is shaping up to possibly be the biggest, most important writing project of my life so far.

The installation will premiere at the 2014 Pittsburgh Three Rivers Arts Festival. I will be making more specific announcements about this project as the details develop.

In addition to this project I occasionally blog at two different sites, this one and another one over at Word Press. That ones, called Masks, is the home of my very specific ramblings and thoughts on comic book history and serves as a first draft space for what may someday be a book on the topic. This one is home to a wide variety of topics. I write the occasional book review for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

Then there are my novels. I have four complete novels available, and I'm currently about 50,000 words into the next one (though it seems to be taking awhile).

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

In the course of submitting my novels to agents and publishers I was told many times that while they loved my writing style (one agent called it “lyrical”), the problem was that they didn't know how to market it because it didn't fit comfortably in a specific genre. Three of my novels (I leave Bedivere out because it is pretty specifically Arthurian fiction), straddle the line between Horror and Urban Fantasy. The tropes of each of these are certainly present, but it's difficult to pinpoint either. When I was submitting I would craft my pitch either way depending on what the publisher was looking for. I've had others refer to my work as Dark Fantasy, Slipstream, Magical Realism, and Speculative Fiction. Okay...

So what makes my work different? While I deal with elements of Horror my work isn't as dark as a lot of that genre. Even in my darkest moments I am still inspired by heroic fiction, so I guess that's where the Fantasy comes in. There is a message of hope in my work that that is absent from a lot of Horror, without ever slipping into “the hero who will save the world” cliches. I'm not very interested in the classic monsters of Horror (at least in writng about them). It might be more commercial but the world has enough vampire and werewolf and zombie fiction right now, and don't get me started on the overdone Lovecraftian, tentacled horror from beyond. There's way too much of that to dig through. There are so many other mythologies and folk lore to mine for ideas.

Why do I write what I do?

I've always been drawn to the fantastic. I learned to read from comic books, so the idea of heroes living in a world of monsters and aliens and super powers is my default worldview. I like the metaphor that these genres provide. When we write about monsters we're writing about the monstrous in ourselves. When we write about heroes we're appealing to our own better self. Genre fiction allows us to exaggerate these things and explore the ideas in sometimes deeper ways.

And, simply because I enjoy these genres myself, I find them more fun to write.

How does your writing process work?

When things are going well on a novel I sit down at the keyboard and write. I try for at least 1000 words before I will let myself walk away. There's no magic to it other than showing up for work. I usually have spent a lot of time thinking about the project and what comes next, and I will have a few notes, but in general I'm not a big outliner or planner. Within certain parameters I want to be open to let the story take me where it will. Characters frequently say and do things I never planned until the moment I wrote the lines. When that happens it is usually a sign that the story has become a living thing and I need to listen to what it's trying to tell me.

The process works better for me when I have some kind of writing routine in place. Recently I have not been showing up to work as often as I would like, at least not on my novels. As I stated above I have been spending a lot of my creative time on the Holocaust project. I'm also teaching a class this semester and a lot of my energy has gone toward that. These are not meant as excuses, simply the reality of time management at the moment. I made a conscious decision to put a hold on the novel I'm working on because I knew these other commitments would eat into my time and energy. The fear is always that once I get off the novel-writing horse it can be difficult to get back on.

But I write because I write. It's a big part of what defines me.