MoCCA 2005:

On the Floor

MoCCA is held in the gorgeous and historical Puck Building, once the home of a beloved early 20th century periodical devoted to humor. It’s in the heart of New York’s trendy NoHo district, replete with galleries, hip boutiques and unusual eateries, giving the entire event a different feel than the standard convention center or hotel con. With the panels on another floor and the tables strategically spaced apart, the overall crowd flow of the festival made it relatively easy to get to every table. (On the other hand, the show’s organizers might want to consider moving Fantagraphics’ table to a slightly less congested location)

With New York one big ball of sweat during the weekend, the one thing the show couldn’t afford to have was an air-conditioning problem. So of course, the smallest of the three main exhibition rooms was a sweatbox. The poor exhibitors must have taken a bath (not to mention needing one after being there for 7 hours), considering that the crowd tended to stay in the relatively cool main exhibition hall. Happily, this problem was fixed on the second day, but the conditions made the show more exhausting for all involved.

On the floor, it was clear that the bigger publishers didn’t prepare many items to debut at the show. There was no BLANKETS or PROJECT: TELSTAR that everyone simply had to have. Fantagraphics did have a few advance copies of MOME, their exciting new anthology of younger cartoonists. FBI is doing it right: a quarterly anthology with the same lineup of cartoonists in every issue. Some of the artists are choosing to do longer serialized works, while others are doing one-offs. It’s got to be murder to keep that many cartoonists on time, so we’ll see how closely the book sticks to a quarterly schedule. I am most excited to see the work of Kurt Wolfgang and John Pham exposed to a larger audience. Pham’s clear-line work evokes Jordan Crane, while his design sense is somewhere between Chris Ware and video game culture. After working through his influences in the eye-popping minis EPOXY and SUBSTITUTE LIFE, I am eager to see where he’ll go from here. Wolfgang is the instigator of the hilarious & cruel LOW-JINX anthology, strips that mercilessly skewer the world of alt-comics. At the same time, he’s written remarkably tender stories as WHERE HATS GO and the upcoming PINOKIO. His page composition is always varied and eye-catching, while his thick, exaggerated line provides a nice balance to Pham.

While stalwarts like Top Shelf, Alternative and Drawn & Quarterly didn’t really have much in the way of new stuff, the double-A and single-A companies filled that gap rather nicely. First and foremost is Dylan Williams’ Sparkplug Comics, an imprint that shows off the publisher’s remarkable good taste. In production is a comics version of GK Chesterton’s classic novel THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY. A different artist will adapt each chapter of this wild tale of a detective who infiltrates a group of bomb-throwing anarchists. Sparkplug debuted what I considered to be the best book at the show: Austin English’s CHRISTINA & CHARLES. English has been producing a minicomic about Thelonius Monk called THE TENTH FRAME for some time, now in addition to being one of the Comics Journal’s best critics. In particular, English has a keen eye for identifying new talent, and is currently the writer of TCJ’s online minicomics column, Dogsbody.

CHRISTINA AND CHARLES represents a quantum leap in his development as a writer and artist. His art is primitive in the tradition of John Porcellino, but also has the strong visual flair of a Souther Salazar. Considering that the book is told from the perspective of children, the style makes perfect sense. English’s design is a perfect match for the themes of his story. Both of the title characters are outsiders and dreamers who face a world that has little use for them. Christina is a teenaged schoolgirl from a poor background who recounts the ways she tries to engage the world. She tries to build friendships and to find love but is frustrated at every turn. The narration has the feel of a girl’s journal or sketchbook. Charles is an adult, and his younger brother narrates his tale. English goes to town formally in this section, imagining a conversation between Charles and his mother as a sort of improv jazz session, where color and shape on the page represent particular instruments. Charles is an outsider who is eventually institutionalized, but his younger brother lovingly recounts how his brother indulges his imagination. The greatest strength of the book is that English perfectly realizes the narrative voice of both characters, making this an absorbing read despite it not being plot-driven.

Other interesting books included the new volume of the SYNCOPATED anthlogy, edited by Brendan Burford; DEATH COMES TO MONKEYSUIT, the newest volume from that eclectic group of animators; DON’T TREAD ON MY ROSARIES, a collection from criminally underrecognized British cartoonist John Bagnall; and CHRZ, the collection of the serial from EILAND artist Stefan van Dinther. SYNCOPATED featured various sorts of reportage, often on obscure music or shifting cultural trends. The opposite of navel-gazing autobio, it’s filled with quiet and incisive observations. MONKEYSUIT has long been a joy to read thanks to its wide variety of material, high production values and the top-notch chops of its artists. The newest volume was no exception, with standout stories from Pat Giles, Prentiss Rollins, and Amanda Baehr. Bagnall’s strips are very British, with a dry wit and simple elegance in his line. This book is a collection of assorted short stories, ranging from the story of the connection between a chemist and a monk, David Bowie in Berlin, and disappearing phrases. CHRZ, found at the fantastic Bries table, is van Dinther’s masterpiece, a complex and silent point-of-view narrative that is challenging and engaging. The way the visuals switch between a fly’s-eye view, the dream narrative of a sleeper and various other points of view is comics formalism at its most exciting.

With a limited amount of space available, the programming was still quite varied. There were panels on comics as children’s literature, political cartoons, and gender in manga. Gary Panter and Adrian Tomine had their own panels, while Frank Miller sat down with Neal Adams to present him with the MoCCA Festival Award. I attended the Gained In Translation panel, featuring artists R.Sikoryak and Paul Karasik describing the ways in which comics have been adapted from literature and other sources.

Sikoryak, known for his uncanny ability to mimic any style for comedic effect, presented a survey of the history of comics adaptation. Old chestnuts such as Classics Illustrated were discussed, and Moby Dick was a favorite point of discussion for Sikoryak because so many comics took liberties with the book’s ending (e.g., slapping on a happy fate for the characters). Running short of time, he turned things over to Karasik, who started with a slightly more didactic approach. He read a bit from Huck Finn and asked the audience to describe the character, then showed slides of a comic that essentially excised every interesting trait from the character…a Badaptation. Karasik, currently a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, then showed some hilarious slides from a Partridge Family comic from the 70′s that was entirely incomprehensible as any kind of story…a Fadaptation. That led to a discussion of Harvey Kurtzman’s version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: a Madaptation, of course.

That particular story showed off Kurtzman’s understanding of one of the underlying themes of the original story, that the whole place was more than a little frightening, filled as it was by insane and sometimes violent characters. There’s a brilliant page when Alice is increasing and then shrinking her size where the panels on the page start getting smaller on every row and winds up with Alice getting trapped by the panel itself. By providing a steady structure (a standard 9-panel grid on each page), it became easy to jar the reader when the pattern was disturbed.

The lessons from Mad influenced Karasik’s adaptation of CITY OF GLASS, the Paul Auster story that he did with David Mazzuchelli. The book would be difficult to translate into comics, but Karasik knew that it would be possible to do something in the spirit of Auster. He stuck with a 9-panel grid (often consciously referencing this formal structure with images like prison bars) that slowly disintegrated as the main character’s life falls apart. Interestingly, he approached the adaptation from a practical standpoint in terms of how much room he had to write. Adapting a 203 page book, knowing that he had 120 pages of comics to work with, meant that he had a ratio of 1.7:1. So for about every two pages of novel, he had to write one page of comics, trying to keep the rhythm of the comic similar to that of the book. He did have some advantages in being able to show things that Auster described in detail using imagery, but it was the innovations on the page that matched the intricacies of Auster’s existential detective novella.

Karasik went on to talk about THE RIDE TOGETHER, the novel/graphic novel he wrote with his sister Judy. Their older brother David is autistic, and the result of their collaboration was a heartfelt but unflinching family biography. Judy, a poet, wrote her chapters in prose and alternated with Paul, who did his sections as comics. Both use the tools of their trade in an effort to talk about their family, specifically the life of their brother and what it must be like to be him. Paul’s stories are especially vivid, with magical realism employed as a way of understanding certain behaviors. Karasik concluded by noting that anyone trying to adapt literature into comics must read Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad in order to understand how much formal structure influences storytelling.

The big attraction of perhaps the entire weekend was a panel wherein novelist Jonathan Lethem (MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE) interviewed Dan Clowes (EIGHTBALL, GHOST WORLD, and the recent ICE HAVEN). The duo had been in the same orbit of sorts for some time, living in Chicago, Brooklyn and Berkeley. Clowes noted that living in Chicago, he had a real sense of its “Second City” nature, and thusly grew up liking and rooting for second-rate versions of things: Cracked instead of Mad, the Monkees instead of the Beatles, etc. He grew up in the poverty-ridden south side of Chicago, and noted that when he moved to Brooklyn, it was sort of the “south side” of New York, and when he moved to Oakland, it was the “south side” of San Francisco–he felt he’d never make it into the big leagues.

Lethem then asked him some questions about ICE HAVEN, misidentifying it at first as ICE STORM and then ICE HARVEST. On a formal level, Clowes wanted to make a sort of “perfect” comic book, one that had sort of the feel of a page of newspaper strips. Of course, the central idea that he had was, “what if every strip on the comics page was interrelated somehow?” What if Blondie was somehow connected, thematically or narratively, to Prince Valiant? That led to the way he created the central narrative of the book, where aspects of the narrative are left unspoken and unseen, much like the gutters between panels. In other instances, he left strong visual and verbal clues that are deliberately obscured by his formal storytelling conceit (multiple strips) . Clowes worked very large for the original publication of the Ice Haven story in EIGHTBALL, and was happy to essentially cut each page in half and have a more horizontal reading experience, much like the early Peanuts collections. He noted that he was happy when offered a chance to expand and reformat ICE HAVEN as a book, and considers it to be the definitive version of the story.

In ICE HAVEN, there is not an obvious narrative connection between each strip, but there are always thematic threads and even some seeming non-sequiturs that in reality act as a sort of encapsulation of the themes. Clowes talked about the out-of-nowhere “Rocky, 100,000 BC” strip as being the template for his Ice Haven characters: an outsider in his own environment, incapable of finding the same kind of happiness as everyone else and especially irritated by outside pressures, noises and events. In a sense, Rocky was the original version of Random Wilder, one of the main recurring characters.

Both Lethem and Clowes discussed their fetishization of the unrealized in their work and lives. Clowes noted that his ideas were perfect before he actually has to try to draw something, and that it’s all downhill from there. It was always preferable to see this potentially perfect store from afar than to actually enter it and be disappointed. Both men note their simultaneous ambivalence and attraction to “beatnik poseurdom”, wanting to find their crowd or scene but winding up being repulsed by the thought of becoming a member.

Once again regarding the unrealized in art, both noted that in their stories, they tend to write loosely, with only certain goals or big scenes acting as guideposts. What interested both men is that many readers never interpreted the Big Scene as such, finding set-up scenes more compelling. That led to both using erasure (in the Derridian sense) of that “big scene”: excising it altogether. Not seeing the big scene makes us think about how important or exciting it must have been. Being exposed to set-up scenes that point to this absent big moment leaves the audience longing and interpreting the events surrounding the scene on their own, and that open-endedness results in a more stimulating read.

Talking about his fetishization of objects as an obsessive collector, Clowes revealed that with great effort, he has scaled back a number of his collections. He did note that the advent of downloadable music has played a weird trick on him: he can no longer really “own” such music. The actual object that contains musical recordings is a worthy acquisition, quite apart from the music itself. Clowes even admitted that when he downloads music, he draws and designs packaging for each disc so he can show his friends something they’ll never have, recreating the fetish experience that he had lost. Lethem noted a similar feeling of distress, noting that the loss of a music-as-object led to a sort of “existential vortex”, and that he admired Clowes’ solution.

When asked how they were able to come up with dialogue that was uncannily naturalistic yet didn’t have the clipped feeling of real-life speech, Lethem said he used a sort of method acting for his characters, while Clowes phrased it as “dressing up as a character”. This allows dialogue to flow naturally, immediately and intuitively.

The interview was enlightening because it was clear that Clowes had a tremendous regard for Lethem, and it showed in the respect and attention he paid to his questions. Clowes is a legendarily snarky smart-ass at times, and he even mentioned that he ordinarily hates attending panels such as this. Happily, both men had the sense to end the event when things had degenerated into a mutual admiration society.

In my last column on MoCCA, I’ll discuss 12 excellent mini-comics that I read, and how the reader might obtain them.

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Rob Clough fights cancer by day, and writes about comix, college basketball and funky music by night. He is the comics editor of Other magazine and is happy to have published many fine cartoonists. He used to write for Savant and just finished something for idea-bot. He is married to award-winning poet Laura Clough (formerly Jent), with whom he lives in lovely Durham, NC.

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