How to Read Harold

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): coverTo celebrate Crockett Johnson‘s 110th birthday, I offer some advice on how to read Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955). Sort of. This is not so much “advice” as it is a glimpse of my work-in-progress, How to Read Harold: A Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson, and the Making of a Children’s Classic.  The book (when finished, and presuming anyone wants to publish it) is both a biography of a book and a succinct introduction to how children’s picture books work. Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon reveals how complex an apparently simple story can be, and offers a case study in what we miss when we underestimate, trivialize, or simply fail to look closely at the art of the picture book. Indeed, the book’s deceptively transparent aesthetic makes it ideal for this purpose because, at first glance, most people would deem the book self-explanatory. What more can be said about a boy, a crayon, and the moon?

In what is currently 15 very short chapters (and will ultimately be perhaps 25 very short chapters), I offer different ways in thinking about one book — and, in this sense, I’m making a nod to Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik‘s forthcoming How to Read Nancy, a brilliant close-reading of a single Nancy comic strip.  More than merely an expansion of their original essay, the book offers 43 ways of reading the Aug. 8 1959 Nancy and, in so doing, provides a master class in how comics work.  I’m hoping to achieve something similar for picture books.

Here, then, is an extract from How to Read Harold.  Enjoy!

One, Two, Three Dimensions; or, “And the moon went with him.”

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): "He made a long straight path so he wouldn't get lost."

Thanks to the stylistic consistency of Johnson’s clear line, Harold and his artwork all inhabit the same reality. Their shared aesthetic allows Johnson to convince us that, for example, oscillating between two and three dimensions is perfectly normal. Or, at least, this oscillation — which begins at the moment when Harold draws the path — convinces most people. It puzzled both of Johnson’s editors. Looking at Johnson’s dummy, his editor Ursula Nordstrom said, “I found myself asking such dumb questions — like where did he draw the moon and the path and the tree?”  First among a list of “The parts I am not too sure of,” Harper reader Ann Powers also named “the pathway at the beginning (too strange?).” It may be strange, but when Harold is standing in an empty void, it also makes sense for him to draw a “long straight path.” It’s practical. It anchors him. It also creates the illusion of three dimensions in what has — up to this point — been a two-dimensional space. Unlike most pre-schoolers, Harold understands the vanishing point.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): "And the moon went with him."

In one sense, the observation that “he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere on the long straight path” echoes such advice as “taking the road less traveled” or “getting off the beaten path.”  Harold’s decision to leave it announces his creativity. In another sense, the observation is literally true. His drawing only appears to have three dimensions. He’s actually on a flat page. The most he can do on this “path” is walk in place. To get anywhere, he needs to acknowledge the flatness of the page and walk off the path, into a new space, blank and ready for his crayon.

As he departs from the path, “the moon went with him” suggests a three-dimensional reality — even though only some of Harold’s drawings actually have three dimensions. The dragon and boat are 2-D. The pies and picnic blanket are 3-D. The balloon begins as one-dimensional (a curved line), becomes two-dimensional (a circle), and ends as three-dimensional (two ropes extending behind, and two ropes in front). But its basket stays two-dimensional, as does the house it lands in front of. Yet these differing numbers of dimensions (often on the same page) don’t seem inconsistent or out-of-place because the moon helps trick us into seeing these scenes in a three-dimensional space. When we walk at night in the real, physical world, the moon seems to follow us. The moon is the only part of Harold’s drawing that’s able to move, hovering over his head, far off in the distance, as he walks along.

Though neither named in the title nor represented on the cover, the moon is as important as Harold and his crayon. Perhaps acknowledging the moon’s key role in this trio, two later Harold books feature the moon on the cover: next to a tightrope-walking Harold on Harold’s Circus (1959) and as the “D” on Harold’s ABC (1963). The moon is Harold’s companion throughout Harold and the Purple Crayon, and the third constant visual motif. After its introduction, the moon appears in every scene (every page or two-page spread, in the four “city” pages) — along with the two other constants (Harold and his crayon). Harold might be read as a stand-in for the reader, the crayon as his (or our) imagination, and the moon a guiding light. Or, better: Harold is the artist, the crayon his medium, and the moon his muse.

Crockett Johson: Herald Tribune Children's Spring Book Festival, 1958

Crockett Johnson’s poster for the 1958 New York Herald Tribune Children’s Spring Book Festival courtesy of Chris Ware.

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Trump Is the Voldemort of Presidential Candidates (Dedicate Your No-Trump Vote)

Trump is Voldemort

Just before the first debate, I wrote a little essay for the Dedicate Your No-Trump Vote project.  Here’s a small excerpt:

Donald Trump is the Voldemort of presidential candidates. Now, wait just a minute (you might object): Trump has an elaborate coif, but Voldemort is bald! And Voldemort is well-spoken, while Trump uses the vocabulary of a fourth-grader! Both true. But Trumpy and Voldy otherwise have so much in common.

Both built their political careers on scapegoating minorities. In his bid to make wizarding great again, Voldemort wants to expel Muggles and those of Muggle ancestry — even though he himself is the son of a witch and a Muggle. Trump — the son of a Scots mother and an American Klansman father — also likes to blame immigrants. Mexicans, he says, are “rapists” and “criminals.” Islam “hates us,” Trump alleges, and Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S.

My essay also makes a case for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.  I contrast her sane policies with his dangerous ones, and note another key difference:

        I support Hillary Clinton because she is compassionate, and has been throughout her career.  Donald Trump cares only for Donald Trump. There are countless stories of Clinton coming to the aid of others, whether making sure 9/11 first responders got the help they needed, fighting for children’s health care, or sustaining a correspondence with ordinary citizens like Aleatha Williams — who, as a child, wrote to the then First Lady. Clinton kept in touch, attended Williams’ middle-school luncheon and high school graduation. It’s impossible to imagine Donald Trump — a man who attacked a grieving Gold Star family — doing anything of the kind. He has no heart. No compassion. No humanity.

The whole essay is over at Dedicate Your No-Trump Vote, where you’ll also find great pieces by many other (much better) writers.  Check it out!  Make sure you’re registered to vote!  And VOTE!


Related posts on this blog:

Ambiguous credit: I’m not sure who made the meme I’ve used at the top of the post, but it wasn’t me.

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Election 2016: The Mixtapes

Both 2016 election mixes: Trump (at left) & Clinton (at right)

With the 2016 presidential election slightly less than 6 weeks away, it’s time to get up and dance. Or run around flailing and hollering. Likely, a bit of both. To aid you in this necessary activity, I have assembled two mixes — one for each of the two major presidential candidates.  Actually, I’ve assembled three. For those offended by profanity, I have a “clean” version of the Hillary Clinton mix (omitting YG’s “FDT”).

Each mix strives to represent key ideas of the candidates’ campaigns. I’ve compiled songs that reflect the key concerns of the fascistic, narcissistic fraud who is running as a white supremacist. And I’ve assembled songs that reflect the key ideas of the experienced, even-tempered, feminist neoliberal.  So, I present to you, dear listeners,…


The Angry Mob: TrumpPence Uber Alles

The Angry Mob: TrumpPence Uber Alles

1. I’m always surprised to read that evangelical voters support Trump, since he personifies at least six of the Seven Deadly Sins (lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, envy, hubris, and sloth — the last of which was most visible in his lack of preparation for the first presidential debate). In the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” (1968), Mick Jagger’s smooth-talking con-artist Satan nicely encapsulates The Donald’s approach to life.

2. Zevon’s “Mr. Bad Example” (1991)* articulates the precise business philosophy of Donald Trump. He’ll swindle you, and then move on to the next scam.

3. The Psychedelic Furs deliver an apt description of the candidate’s rhetorical approach: he’s full of hot air. “President Gas” (from 1982, and about President Reagan) is even more applicable to the kind of president Trump would be, and to the followers he attracts: “You’ll say yeah to anything, / if you believe all this, but / Don’t cry, don’t do anything. / No lies, back in the government. / No tears, party time is here again. / President gas is up for president.”

4. In “Kiss Me, Son of God” (1988), They Might Be Giants sing, “I built a little empire out of some crazy garbage called the blood of the exploited working class. But they’ve overcome their shyness, now they’re calling me ‘Your Highness.’” Were TMBG thinking of The Donald when they wrote this?

5. “Who are the ones we kept in charge? / Killers, thieves, and lawyers.” Tom Waits’ “God’s Away on Business” (2002) describes the amoral heart of the Trump campaign.

6. Whenever I look at a Trump rally, the lyrics from the Kaiser Chiefs’ “The Angry Mob” (2007) enter my head: “We are the angry mob. / We read the papers every day. / We like who we like, / we hate who we hate. / But we’re also easily swayed.”

7. In “The Future” (1992), Leonard Cohen evokes the fascist nightmare embodied by the soulless fraud who craves approval and wants to commit war crimes: “It’s lonely here — there’s no one left to torture! / Give me absolute control / Over every living soul. / And lie beside me, baby — that’s an order!”

8. Apocalyptic dystopian dance music from Talking Heads’ live album Stop Making Sense (1984).

9. Aerosmith, describing a world on the brink, also advises against “judg[ing] a wise man by the color of his skin.”

10. Make America Hate Again! The Delgados’ “All You Need Is Hate” (2002) seems to be the guiding principle of the Trump campaign.

11. Randy Newman intended “Political Science” (1972) as satire; Trump hears it as wise foreign policy. “We give them money, but are they grateful? / No. They’re spiteful and they’re hateful. / They don’t respect us. So, let’s surprise them. / We’ll drop the big one, and pulverize them.”

12, 13, 14, 15, 16. These songs reflect the fact that the world will only become more unstable under a President Trump. Indeed, I’m not sure we’d survive his presidency.

17. Trump’s America is not the America I want to live in. And so, the David Bowie-Pat Metheny collaboration “This Is Not America” (1985) joins this mix.

18. I dedicate Pulp’s “The Fear” (1998) to a fear-mongering campaign presided over by an unhinged charlatan: “This is the sound of someone losing the plot. / Making out that they’re OK when they’re not.”


* Spotify has given you the live version; I chose the studio version. Both are good!

Stronger Together: America, the Exceptional

Stronger Together: America, the Exceptional

1. The Mavericks recently recorded a version of this postwar Popular Front anthem, a pop hit for Frank Sinatra. Its lyrics (by Abel Meeropol, who also wrote the lyrics for “Strange Fruit”) deliver a message as necessary today as it was then: “All races and religions — that’s America to me” is the antithesis of Trump’s campaign, and the center of Clinton’s campaign.  I’ve included the Ravens’ 1949 a cappella version. As a bonus track, here’s the Mavericks’ version, too.

2. Woody Guthrie’s response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” is the perfect rejoinder to the classist (yet classless) Trumps: “There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me. / There was a sign was painted, said private property. / But on the back side, it didn’t say nothing. / This land was made for you and me.”  This is the excellent version by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings (2004), but check out Guthrie’s original, too.

3, 4, 5. Clinton’s campaign has sounded the notes of American exceptionalism that both parties summon when rallying voters to their side. These claims cannot of course be verified, but they’re patriotic.

6, 7. Clinton has an actual plan to invest in American jobs, rebuild infrastructure, and tax the wealthy to pay for it.

8, 9, 10. At the Democratic convention and in her ads, the Clinton campaign has been stressing the feminist nature of her candidacy.

11. Ike and Tina Turner’s “Workin’ Together” (1971) echoes the “Stronger Together” slogan of the Clinton campaign. Also, Clinton knows how to work with others.

12. Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People” (1970) is a funky anthem of mutual respect for difference.

13. The Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself” (1971) is great advice. Also, Clinton’s approach to others is to treat them with respect. Trump likes only those who flatter him; all others are disposable.

14. Billy Bragg and Wilco’s “All You Fascists” (2000) is another Woody Guthrie song (music by Bragg), included because Trump is a fascist thug who admires fascist thugs.

15. The NSFW song on the mix, and the reason I’ve assembled an alternate “clean” mix, as well. YG’s “FDT, Part 2” is also great, but I’m limiting myself to one song by each artist.  Here are the videos for both parts —

16. The original recording (1974) of Nick Lowe’s song, later made famous by Elvis Costello.

17. The Rascals’ “People Gotta Be Free” (1969) because Clinton has a far better grasp of this idea than The Donald does.

18 & 19. People do have the power. Get out and vote!

20. Soweto Gospel Choir’s beautiful cover (2007) of U2’s tribute to Dr. King.

21. I like the slow pace and touch of melancholy I hear in Ray Charles’ voice. The song is patriotic, but there’s something in the performance that acknowledges the complexity of loving a country that oppresses you.

Stronger Together: America, the Exceptional [clean version]

Stronger Together: America, the Exceptional [clean version]

Since some listeners may not want to expose children to profanity or simply may dislike cursing themselves, I’ve omitted YG’s “FDT” — which leaves room for two different songs.

3. Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.” (1959), grouped with the patriotic, American-exceptionalism songs.

20. Josh White’s “Freedom Road” (1944). Returning to the Popular Front era, White (who recorded his version of “The House I Live In” before Sinatra recorded his) sings for integration, featuring the lyrics of Langston Hughes.

Were you inclined to burn CDs, each of the above mixes fits on a single CD. I also restricted myself to one artist per mix. As a result of these choices, many suitable tracks had to be omitted.  Here are a few.

… for Trump

  • “Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)” by The The (1989)
  • “America Is Waiting” by Brian Eno & David Byrne (1981)
  • “Going Fetal” by Eels (2005)
  • “There’s A War Going On For Your Mind” by Flobots (2007)
  • “Ignoreland” by R.E.M. (1992)
  • “Everything Goes to Hell” by Tom Waits (2002)
  • “Mad World” by Tears for Fears (1983)
  • “The Day the Devil” by Laurie Anderson (1989)
  • “Your Mind Is on Vacation” by Mose Allison (1962)
  • “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M. (1987)
  • “Run on for a Long Time” by The Blind Boys of Alabama (2001)
  • “Your Racist Friend” by They Might Be Giants (1990)

… for Clinton

  • “Wavin’ Flag” by K’naan (2010)
  • “The Star Spangled Banner (Live)” by Jimi Hendrix (1969)
  • “The Schuyler Sisters” by Renée Elise Goldsberry, Phillipa Soo, Jasmine Cephas-Jones, Leslie Odom, Jr., Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton (2015)
  • “Freedom” by Anthony Hamilton & Elayna Boynton (2012)
  • “Turn Me Around” by Mavis Staples (2007)
  • “Love Train” by The O’Jays (1972)
  • “Freedom” by The Isley Brothers (1970)
  • “Coming to America” by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (2008) or Neil Diamond’s original (1980)
  • “Respect” by Aretha Franklin (1967)
  • “U.N.I.T.Y.” by Queen Latifah (1993)
  • “We’ll Never Turn Back” by Mavis Staples (2007)

Register to vote at!

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Unregulated, untrained, unsafe: campus carry at K-State (in the K-State Collegian)

No guns. Sign on door of ECS Building, Kansas State UniversityIn addition to increasing the risk of suicide and fatal accident, armed students make other students uncomfortable and squelch debate. A university should be a safe place where students can discuss important but uncomfortable subjects, where they can engage in vigorous exchanges of ideas. Campus carry changes this dynamic: when every student is a student with a potential gun, an unspoken threat revokes the safety that sustains freedom of speech.

— me, from my op-ed in today’s K-State Collegian

I would also add this: without freedom of speech, the university ceases to function as a university. So, if you’ve an interest in Kansas State University continuing to be a university,… VOTE!  In the November elections, support candidates who oppose campus carry, and who are willing to either repeal or amend the so-called Personal and Family Protection Act (which would more accurately be described as the Guns! Guns! Everywhere! Act).

[The title of this blog post is the title under which I submitted the piece. It was published as “Permitting guns on campus is unsafe, disruptive to learning.”]

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Talent on Tape: Scattered Thoughts on Morton Schindel (1918-2016)

Mort Schindel with Wild Things (photo: Scholastic)You may not know the name Morton Schindel, but you certainly know the people he worked with. At his Weston Woods Studios, using his “iconographic” technique, he adapted works by Maurice Sendak, Robert McCloskey, James Daugherty, Ezra Jack Keats, Tomi Ungerer, and William Steig, among others. His film of Steig’s Doctor De Soto was nominated for an Academy Award. Schindel passed away a month ago, at the age of 98, but I just learned of this yesterday.

In June 2001, while working on my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, I went to Weston Woods‘ offices in Connecticut, and interviewed Schindel. I had only a passing familiarity with his works (having seen some when I was a schoolchild), and so my questions were less informed than I would have liked. But Mort very graciously told me about his life, career, and acquaintance with Dave (a.k.a. Crockett Johnson) and Ruth.

Schindel: Eventually, probably in the late ’50s, I took an interest in [Krauss’s] A Hole Is to Dig.  Ruth and Dave were still living in Rowayton, but not long after that they moved up to Owenoke Park in Westport. And, we would get together ostensibly to talk about their work or our work, but in this field, there’s not much of a dividing line between the work you’re doing and the personal relationships that you develop.  That’s one of the joys of the whole thing.  And I can remember that I always felt that I could do a better job if I knew where it [the work to be adapted] was coming from.  And the more I knew about the people and how the book developed, the better.

Morton Schindel (photo credit: Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times)        The main thing that I can remember about A Hole Is to Dig was that I asked Ruth whether she really picked up these sayings from kids.  And in her inimitable style, I can remember a cackling laugh, and her saying almost apologetically with a big broad smile that no, most of it had been her idea.  And, obviously it was a good idea that was strongly supported by wonderful drawings which Maurice did.  And I think that that was their first collaboration.

Nel: It was.

Schindel: And I think it was one that they both treasured because Maurice was relatively new at that time.  And, I’m quite sure it was Ruth’s most successful book up until then.  She had another one that I think was called The Growing Story, by Phyllis Rowand, I think – is that right?

Nel: Yes.  Nina is her daughter.

Schindel: My memory is better than I thought.  We were interested in that one but for some reason we never did it.  Well, the reason was is that it was for very young children, and in the beginning for the first several years, I was making films and then filmstrips.  But preschools didn’t have filmstrip projectors….

He talked more as much about the business as he did about the people — the latter of which was more my interest.  My favorite part of the interview was his recollection of making short films about creators of children’s books.  I had never seen either Krauss or Johnson on film, though I figured some footage must exist.  Schindel said:

Now, another thing is that – just trying to pull all this together – at a certain point, I had decided to make some biographical films of children’s book illustrators and actually in the beginning I don’t think I started with the idea that I was going to make films.  I think I wanted to share these people with people in the schools and nobody tried to do that, and I didn’t know how to do it.  So, the logical place to start would be to do interviews with them, and then see what I could edit out of the interview, and then make them available on tape.  I did a little series called Talent on Tape.  And, I think the most successful one I did was May Massey because I still get requests for that one.  And it’s been put into some useful collections.  May, you know, was regarded as the principal editor of children’s books in the early days.  She was the editor at Viking Press, and she nurtured people like McCloskey and Don Freeman and people like that.  So, the tape that I made about her I think was the only one that existed.  So, most collections that had been collecting things about children’s books would like to have that tape.  Anyway, that’s leading up to the fact that I recall doing one with Dave and Ruth.

On the tape here, you hear me asking “Really?”  Because, I am thinking, this is the moment! He does have footage! Mort continued:

What I would do is I would conduct an interview with them and then I would sit down and try to edit it into something that makes sense.  And what took maybe two hours would maybe get edited down to 10 or 15 minutes sometimes.  I distinctly remember working on the one that I did with Ruth and Dave.  And I was interviewing them together.  And it says something about their reluctance to express themselves orally because I had this hour or so of tape – could have been less because maybe they were not as crazy about expressing themselves verbally – and when I was all through editing it, I had a piece of tape that was about two inches long.

I laughed, and he added:

There was just nothing.  It was all kind of – I can’t say it was gibberish – but it was more sounds than it was continuity of words.   I think that that’s – it says something about how they communicated.

I figured, OK, he didn’t have enough that would be useful for his Talent on Tape series, but surely he saved the tape he didn’t use.  So, later in the interview, I asked him: “you mentioned that you actually taped them: I don’t suppose you have that tape, do you?” He said, “No.  Literally, it was nothing.  If I had it, it would have been an impression, but there wouldn’t have been any information.”

To this day, I have never seen any footage of either Crocket Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  Given their prominence in the world of children’s books (as well as Johnson’s work in comics and Krauss’s in avant-garde theatre), this surprises me.  I assume that somewhere, in some vault, there’s film of them.  But I’ve never seen it.

Later in the interview, he shared some impressions of the two of them:

His [Dave’s] expression and everything was hearty, there was an obvious strength.  Ruth was diminutive, even next to a man of normal stature, and she squeaked as much as she talked, if you know what I mean.  You know, I’m filling in now some of the nuances for you, since you said you obviously never met them, and you have to pick all of this up from hearsay.  Strangely enough, Ruth came across as a bit of a kooky artist, and Dave was all the way in the other direction.  Put a bowler on him, he could have been a banker.  Obviously, they were both exceptionally fine artists.

In my biography, I describe Johnson and Krauss as “complimentary opposites.” He’s one of many people whose memories conveyed that impression.

When I left, he insisted I take some videocassettes (this was 2001), including one on Robert McCloskey and one on Gene Deitch — who animated two of the Harold films that Weston Woods distributed. Indeed, it was Gene’s Facebook feed that alerted me to Mort’s death.

Weston Woods Catalogue, featuring Ezra Jack Keats' A Whistle for Willie

Morton Schindel was one of the last of his generation of children’s-book people. With his passing, a good bit of the history of children’s literature also leaves us. I feel very fortunate to have had a chance to talk with him and dozens of other artists, writers, and filmmakers. So many are now gone.

To learn more about Schindel’s life and work, you might take a look at some of these:

Photo credits:

  1. Photo of Morton Schindel from Scholastic (and included in the SLJ obit).
  2. Photo of Morton Schindel: Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times (and included in the NYT obit).
  3. Front cover of Weston Woods catalogue, featuring Ezra Jack Keats’ A Whistle for Willie.

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Armed and Unsafe: Why Kansas Universities Must Reject and Not Adapt to Weaponized Campuses

As of July 1, 2017, the Kansas legislature is forcing all state universities to admit guns onto their campuses — classrooms, offices, laboratories, libraries, student unions, dormitories, counseling services. Everywhere. The Weapons Advisory Work Group has drafted a “University Weapons Policy,” and we have been invited to comment. If you’re employed by or attending Kansas State University, please submit your comments.  In case you need some inspiration, here is what I wrote.

No guns. Sign on door of ECS Building, Kansas State UniversityDear Weapons Advisory Work Group,

Thank you for the time you’ve spent crafting the University Weapons Policy — a thankless job with an unachievable goal. Thanks also for granting us the opportunity to review the draft of this policy.

The key problem — as you likely realized, while drafting this — is the state’s (sarcastically named?) Personal and Family Protection Act is impossible to implement safely. For instance, the University Weapons Policy states, “There are no University locations that have been designated as prohibiting concealed carry with permanent adequate security measures” (p. 3).  None?  Not even the nuclear reactor?  Or labs with volatile chemicals?

Yes, the “adequate security measures” written into the law are prohibitively expensive to implement. Those who drafted the law deliberately defined the “adequate security measures” in precisely this way. According to the law, buildings equipped with metal detectors and armed guards are the only locations where guns may be prohibited. To secure all buildings at Kansas State University (including Vet Med and the athletics buildings) would cost $110,419,000. The state of Kansas’ annual contribution to the university’s budget is approximately $160,000,000. In other words, only by devoting 69% of the state’s contribution to “adequate security measures” could the university legally secure entrances to all buildings. That’s unlikely to happen, and the legislators who voted for this bill know that.

No guns (sign)Perhaps the expense is why you’ve marked stadiums as an exception to the state’s campus carry policy: “To the extent adequate security measures are used to prohibit concealed carry into stadiums, arenas and other large venues that require tickets for admission, the tickets shall state that concealed carry will be prohibited at that event. Signs will be posted as appropriate” (p. 6). It’s a great idea to attempt to protect people from lethal weapons at football games. But could we not extend this language to the places where the business of the university actually gets done? If we’re willing craft such an exemption for the stadiums, then why not issue “no concealed carry” tickets for labs, classrooms, libraries, and offices?

I am also puzzled as to how the university will enforce this new weapons policy.  In Kansas, anyone over the age of 21 can legally conceal-carry without a permit, without training, and without a background check. As a result, the policy — while well-intentioned — does little to maintain the safety of the university’s students, faculty, and staff. For example, I appreciate the University’s attempt to provide guidelines for “Carrying and Storing Handguns” (p. 4) and for “Storage” (p. 5). But how will these guidelines be enforced?  The sanctions are a start: “Any individual who violates one or more provisions of this policy may be issued a lawful directive to leave campus with the weapon immediately” (6). But what would stop the individual from coming back another day?  And how will we discover that the Weapons Policy’s provisions have been violated?  The individual starts shooting people?  A gun goes off accidentally, and kills a classmate?  Also, if there is no Campus Police officer in my classroom (and there is almost never a Campus Police officer in my classroom), what actions should I take when confronting a student or faculty member who has begun shooting people?  If a shooter threatens my classroom, what might I do to minimize the carnage?

The problem here is that the law — and the University Weapons Policy it has inspired — still allows students to bring guns into classrooms, dormitories, dining facilities, counseling services, and faculty offices.  It’s great to stipulate (as the university policy does) that students & faculty cannot store guns in classrooms and faculty offices, but… guns can still be brought into classrooms and faculty offices.

So, if a student has a grade dispute, am I allowed to ask if he’s armed before making an appointment to meet him in my office?  Or would it be safer to just give him whatever grade he asks for?  For that matter, if all of us can carry weapons, under what conditions are we allowed to fire them?  If a student is acting in a way that makes an armed faculty member feel the need to defend himself or herself, when would the faculty member be justified in opening fire?  The weapons policy says that when “necessary for self-defense,” one can “openly display any lawfully possessed concealed carry handgun while on campus” (p. 3).  OK, but what’s the criteria for “necessary” here?  If we are armed (and, for the record, I do not plan to arm myself), when would it be acceptable to shoot?  Similarly, under what conditions would the shooting of a faculty member or staff member would be justified?  If we’re allowing guns on campus, then guns will be used on campus. We need to establish clear criteria for their use: “necessary for self-defense” is dangerously vague.

What provisions will the university be implementing for those who are particularly at risk? For instance, a student goes to Counseling Services: she’s feeling traumatized, after being raped by a weapons enthusiast who is also a fellow student. What will the university do to ensure that she feels safe in Counseling Services, in her dorm, or in her classes?  What provisions does the University Weapons Policy have for her?  I would also be interested to learn how the university plans to protect those classes in which students have necessarily uncomfortable discussions about subjects that elicit strong responses: racism, genocide, sexism, transphobia. How will the University Weapons Policy ensure that classrooms are a safe space to explore difficult subjects?  How will the policy address the fact that, when any classmate can potentially be carrying a weapon, we — students, teachers — are less likely to talk about challenging subjects? A university is supposed to encourage the free and open exchange of ideas, but concealed carry makes this exchange less free and less open. Where does the policy addresses this problem?

Indeed, why does the University Weapons Policy not mandate a warning on the university’s website?  People (students, faculty, staff) who are both armed and untrained pose a threat to the safety of those who study and work at the university. All should be warned that entering Kansas State University’s campus after July 1, 2017 is dangerous.  The university posts advisories for other hazards — thunderstorms, tornados, and the recent “boil advisory,” when a power failure compromised the town’s water supply. Why not an advisory for the increased risk of gun violence?

Advisories: Campus Carry KSU

I understand why the weapons policy has been drafted, but it is insufficient. I realize that your mandate has been to comply with this law, even though the law itself poses a risk to the safety of all who work and study here. However, there are times when, given an absurd and dangerous task, you are morally obliged to question what you have been asked to accomplish instead of simply surrendering to its absurdity. Apply the critical thinking we teach here to the task of creating a University Weapons Policy. The university’s response to Kansas’ “Personal and Family Protection Act” should be: “No. We cannot both comply with this law and ensure the safety of our students, faculty and staff. Indeed, inviting guns onto campus is incompatible with the mission of this university. With the exception of campus security or research involving weapons, guns have no place on campus.  Period.”

Sincerely yours,


Philip Nel

University Distinguished Professor

Director, Program in Children’s Literature

Department of English

Kansas State University

Guns in Higher Education

General Resources

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Dancing on the Manhole Cover: The Genius of Richard Thompson (at The Comics Journal)

Richard Thompson, The Complete Cul de SacThe great Richard Thompson, creator of the best comic strip of the 21st century (so far), passed away last week.  If you don’t know his Cul de Sac, you really should.  The easiest way to acquaint yourself with its (and his) genius is to pick up a copy of The Complete Cul de Sac — two volumes, covering all 5 years, with an introduction by Art Spiegelman.

In case you need further persuasion, you might take a look at my brief essay in today’s issue of The Comics Journal.  Here’s a little excerpt:

Its ability to generate joy in each rereading is one reason that Cul de Sac will endure, even though its creator has left us. Richard Thompson lives on in his work precisely because his work is so alive. His line is loose but solid, scribbly yet calligraphic, energetic but focused. Each panel of Cul de Sac — heck, each corner of each panel — is full of art, humor, and character.

And here’s a Cul de Sac:

Richard Thompson, Cul de Sac, Feb 2011

Many other great tributes and essays:

More Cul de Sac posts on this blog:

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A Report from Comic-Con 2016

Designated Survivor ad, side of building, downtown San Diego, 20 July 2016[Taps microphone.] Greetings, fellow nerds, fans, and affiliated wanderers! If I may interrupt the daily (hourly?) reports of chaos and pain that saturate your newsfeed, I’ll bring you what I hope is a satisfying report from this year’s Comic-Con. Yes, while the Republican National Convention was busy opening a hellmouth in Cleveland, I was in San Diego, learning and talking about comics. In some wonderful ways, Comic-Con is the opposite of our contemporary dystopian moment.  In other ways, it’s also symptom of that same moment.

Sure, I’m aware that Comic-Con is now an entertainment-industry promotion-palooza (also featuring comics). I know that every available surface entices us to consume (watch the new show, buy the action figure, get the Lego set, etc.). And I’d love it if it comics were more of a central focus than they now are.

But to accentuate the positive for a moment, Comic-Con is a community of nice people — whether they’re comics people or TV-and-film people, whether they’re immersed in a fandom or not, whether they’re cosplaying or dressed as civilians. (I cosplay as a middle-aged English professor. This is my third Comic-Con, and my, er, costume is getting more convincing every year, if I do say so myself.)

So, read on for G. Willow Wilson, Jeff Smith, Kate Beaton, tips on teaching with comics, random observations from yours truly, and more!


Temperatures Rising

Walking Dead: ID for ComicCon 2016Situated on the coast of southern California, San Diego’s weather is predictably pleasant. Usually. After landing midday on Wednesday, I took the bus to several blocks from my hotel, and walked… getting hotter and hotter. Daily, temperatures edged into the upper 80s Fº (above 30º C), a trend that will become normal as the climate changes. In response to more imminent existential threats, this is the first year that Comic-Con no longer uses paper badges in a plastic sleeve. Each person’s badge has a unique ID card that must be scanned every time she or he enters or leaves the convention center. Conference sponsor The Walking Dead was on this year’s badge. Enjoy that metaphor because it will return.

Teaching with Comics

Teaching With Comics panel

I started my Comic-Con by drawing pictures. From 4 to 6 pm, at the San Diego Central Library, Peter Carlson (Green Dot Public Schools), Antero Garcia (Colorado State University), and Susan Kirtley (Portland State University) led a workshop featuring classroom educators Samantha Diego, James Kelley, and Jenn Anya Prosser.

Susan Kirtley (a 2013 Eisner-winner for her book on Lynda Barry) asked us what comics are, which is always great because there are so many different definitions. After people offered some answers, she highlighted the answers of Will Eisner, Scott McCloud, Dylan Horrocks, though of course we could bring in others (as I expect she would have, had she more time) such as Thierry Groensteen, Charles Hatfield, or Hillary Chute.

Her comments reminded me, also, that some people face resistance to teaching classes on comics.  She told us that if people are skeptical of why you’re teaching comics, to tell them you’re “teaching graphic narratives as a way to promote multimodal literacy.” Resistance to studying comics interests me because it’s one of the most complex narrative media ever invented. There is so much to say about it.

She also took us through a few exercises.  One was this, which is inspired by Ivan Brunetti’s single-panel comic exercise in Cartooning Philosophy and Practice.

Kirtley (inspired by Brunetti) slide

We had 1-2 minutes to do this.  Here’s what I came up with for Guus Kuijer’s The Book of Everything.

Nel, The Book of Everything, in 4 panels (created in 1-2 mins.)

She then had us all do a one-panel version.  In Cartooning Philosophy and Practice, Brunetti does a single-panel Catcher in the Rye.  It’s brilliant.

Ivan Brunetti, Catcher in the Rye

Mine — done in 1 minute — for The Book of Everything is not brilliant. Obviously.

Nel, The Book of Everything, in 1 panel (created in 1-2 mins.)

But this brings me to another key part of her pedagogy. She does these exercises with her students. “I do it when they do it,” she says, because that levels the critical plain.  She also encourages us teachers to reward students’ risk-taking at moment of assessment: “Make it OK for students to fail — and don’t penalize them for that.” Susan builds in rubrics that take into account the entire process. I like this.

Peter Carlson and Samantha Diego spoke on “Engaging Readers, Empowering Writers, Creating Communities: Civic Superheroes,” via the idea of the superhero.  They asked us:

What superpowers do you want?


Those questions elicit an array of profound responses. One grade-school student had told them invisibility to prevent the other kids from making fun of her appearance.  In our older crowd, answers included persuasion, and healing.  I and at least one other audience member chose healing as our superpower.  When I talked with Susan afterwards, she said that this superpower — healing — really appealed to her, too.  This makes sense. As we age, mortality looms larger. In the Dallas airport, en route to Comic-Con, I read a 43-year-old friend’s (likely) final column for her local paper. Aided by an unrelenting brain tumor, death will likely claim her before the year is out. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, we all must face the inevitability of our own deaths. I don’t conceive of the healing superpower as an end-run around death, but a way to alleviate suffering on that journey towards the moment when our time finally runs out. For her, perhaps the superpower could buy her more time or at least enable her to retain her cognitive abilities. Even superpowers have limits, I know.

G. Willow Wilson, Ms. Marvel: No NormalReturning to the exercise, some follow-up questions from Carlson and Diego:

What would you do with those powers?

Where would you go?

Who would you become?

They also suggested that the first issue of a comic — say, Ms. Marvel or Storm — can be a good way into these discussions.

Jenn Anya Prosser had us close-read some panels, but I failed to take notes on that (since it’s something I already do). Antero Garcia and James Kelly addressed why we should teach science and English together, and suggested that comics can be a great way to have these conversations.  Comics ask big questions:

What does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be mutant?

What does it mean to be other?

What does it mean to be?

Science addresses these questions, too. They can also help students think about genetics, viz:

Garcia & Kelly's slide

Preview Night

Afterwards, it was Preview Night!  Though we could have gone to watch previews of not-yet-released shows, Susan Kirtley and I instead zeroed in on the comics sections of the exhibit hall, where I squandered aimlessly — well, not entirely aimlessly. As usual, I bought more than I should — both that night and on subsequent days. But accumulating books is an occupational affliction.  And, hey, it’s good to give your spine a workout, right?

ComicCon 2016: Phil's books and swag

Also, on Preview Night, the crowds are not as thick as they become on subsequent days.  But the hall is always something of a sensory overload.  I sometimes think that Comic-Con should have strategically placed sensory deprivation chambers where Con-goers could sit and decompress for five-to-ten minutes at a time.  There’s a lot to take in.

SDCC exhibit hall floor 21 July 2016

Wonder Woman at 75

From the MAD magazine booth:

MAD: Make America Dumb Again

I chatted with some of my Fantagraphics pals, as well as folks I didn’t know at other booths. Susan and I also met Snoopy — who, to my delight and surprise, did not attempt to sell us any insurance. Then we went off to dinner & had a great chat! (By “we,” I mean Susan and me. Snoopy declined our invitation. Presumably, that round-headed kid had already fed him.)

Kirtley, Snoopy, & Nel


The Jogging Dead

Balboa Park is a few blocks east of the Holiday Inn Express I stayed in. So, first thing Thursday morning, I thought: great, I’ll just jog east, find my way into the park, and have a good run! A helpful person at the hotel’s front desk assured me that there were many ways into the park, and pointed me in the right direction.

However, and unlike New York City, San Diego’s streets and signs offer guidance to cars, not pedestrians or runners.  Though Park Boulevard runs along the edge of the park, it offers few points of access to the park itself, and then (when you finally get in) the park has signs promising trails that turn out to dissipate suddenly. As a result, for part of my journey back, I ended up running in the bike lane along Route 5. Like all places in downtown San Diego, I was never far from the city’s robust homeless population — encamped at the edges of city sidewalks, against a fence in the shade of trees on Park Boulevard, and just off the edge of the highway. Luckily for me, they (and other walkers) had beaten a path from Route 5 back to the city streets I sought.

Part of the Comic-Con experience is always the contrast between the shiny abundance promised within the event and the privation of those who live on the streets outside. Whether silently holding a sign asking for help or sound asleep on the ground, San Diego’s homeless are both politely invisible and a vivid reminder of how America actively neglects its most vulnerable.

At first, I thought our Walking Dead ID cards an apt metaphor for the homeless among us, but now I think them a better metaphor for the conference-goer — walking past suffering, declining to admit that we are seeing what we know we’re seeing. I gave one sign-bearing man $5. I think, in future, I should carry small denominations and just give them to each person begging. I honestly don’t know. But I do know that we do need investment in mental health facilities, affordable housing, and job retraining for those down on their luck.  OK, getting off my soapbox and back to the con….

G. Willow Wilson; or, Ms. Marvel Fans Embiggen

G. Willow Wilson panel

To a full room that included at least nine people dressed as Ms. Marvel, Ms. Wilson introduced herself: “I’m Willow Wilson. I tell people: ‘the G is silent.’” Interviewed by her friend Josh (I didn’t get his last name), she told us about herself — which was great because, though I know her Ms. Marvel comics, I did not otherwise know much about her.

Wilson was born in New Jersey, but grew up in Colorado. As for religion, she said, “I was raised an atheist, but I was never very good at it. When I was a teenager, I realized that I was a particular kind of monotheist, but I was embarrassed about it.”  Indeed, when she did convert to Islam, she did so in secret — not telling anyone until later.

She studied Arabic for two years at university, and then at the age of 19 left for Cairo, where she would live for the next five years. Upon arriving, she realized that the Arabic she had learned was classical Arabic, which, she says, “would be like learning how Shakespeare speaks.” So, she had to learn modern Arabic. Which she did. While working there as a journalist, she met her future husband Omar.  They and their two children now live in Seattle.

G. Willow Wilson, Air #1She and Sherman Alexie share a publisher, and live about 12 blocks from each other. When she was starting out (having published, I think, Air, and Cairo), she was headed to a conference. Her publicist advised her: when you get on the plane, look for Sherman Alexie and share a cab after you get there. So, she’s walking through First Class on her way to coach, and Alexie spots her.

Alexie: Are you G. Willow Wilson?

Wilson: Yes.

Alexie: I loved Air!

G. Willow Wilson, Ms. Marvel: Generation WhyOf all that she said during her conversation, this struck me as the most profound: “You are sometimes able to get to people through fiction what you cannot get through to them through the nightly news.”  Her Ms. Marvel is, I think, the embodiment of this very idea.

When Marvel asked her to do Ms. Marvel, Wilson says her “first thought was ‘no’ because there’ll be all kinds of blowback.” She figured she would get lots of hate mail, just as she had gotten for previous work. But, she said, “when Marvel comes to you and says they’ll put their weight behind a project like this, you have to say ‘yes.’ I said ‘yes.’”  Writing the Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel comics were “a cool opportunity to shed positive light on a community that does not get a lot of positive attention.”  When the first one was published, she thought: “Brace for impact!” But the impact she expected never really materialized. Sure, there was a little hate mail, but response was mostly positive. She concludes, “It was one of the most life-affirming things I have ever done.”

She concluded her session by reading Chapter One of The Bird King, a new novel set in 1491. As she said before she began, “You guys will be the very first people to hear it who are not paid to like it”

There was only time for two questions at the end.  Here they are.

First question was: Advice for women creators who want to get into the industry? Wilson: “The good news is this is now a discussion we can have without people losing their jobs. People are now taking subjects like harassment, equal access to corridors of power more seriously. But there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Second questioner referenced the fact that there are no black women comics writers (at Marvel or DC), and asked “How does that make you feel when you’re writing one of the most nuanced and awesome [characters of color]”?  Wilson replied, “We need to be in the business of recruiting more people.  I love Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Sitting in the Marvel writers’ room, with him across from me, was one of the highlights of my career. But you shouldn’t need to have a MacArthur Genius grant to get hired to write comics.”

Note: The very next day, Roxane Gay tweeted that she has been hired by Marvel to co-write a comic with Ta-Nehisi Coates.

But the greatest thing about this panel were all the people who dressed as the Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel. After the panel was over, they all gathered with Wilson to embiggen!

Ms. Marvels Embiggen!

Cushlamochree! Or, The Kindness of Strangers

GhirardelliAfter lunch, I stopped into the Ghirardelli shop because, well, chocolate.  I had a chocolate ice cream, and reviewed the notes I’d made that morning. In a few hours, I would be appearing on a panel devoted to Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby (1942-1952), which I’m co-editing and Fantagraphics is publishing. (The third volume just came out.)  Typically, I tend to perform a script, or to at least consider the possible questions in advance. But this panel was mostly unscripted, and so I was a little anxious.

A young couple walked past my table, and then walked back, and the young man asked if he could use the plug next to me. I said of course! And I moved over so that he could sit where I had been sitting, and his girlfriend could sit opposite him. He asked what I was doing. I told him. He said: OK, pitch it to me. And… I did. This person who I have never met before listened, offered a little feedback, and helped me talk through the presentation.

I learned a little about him, too. He said, “Not to brag, but I’m the nerdier of us two.” I love that “nerd” is now a term of approbation. When I was his age (a phrase I never used while talking with him), one would not brag about being a nerd! He and his girlfriend are both seniors at San Diego State University: he’s a music major (jazz drummer, in particular). She’s a graphic design major. They were both working for Comic-Con because it grants them a free pass to the conference, and it’s fun to go to Comic-Con. I think her name is Morgan; his name has, unfortunately wandered away from me. If you two happen upon this blog post, thank you!

Encounters like this are what make Comic-Con a welcome respite from the news. There is kindness and generosity in the world. Not enough, but it is out there. It’s our job to make more of it. To quote Ram Dass, “We’re all just walking each other home.”

After that, it was back to the exhibit hall, a quick coffee and a chat with Eric Reynolds, and then…

Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby: What Makes a Great Comic Strip.

Barnaby panel: Tom Spurgeon, Eric Reynolds, Philip Nel, Jeff Smith

This was why I came to Comic Con — to be on this panel!  In the photo, from left to right, that’s The Comics Reporter’s Tom Spurgeon, Fantagraphics Associate Publisher Eric Reynolds (my pal, and co-editor on the Barnaby books), yours truly, and… Jeff Smith!

Whatever anxiety I’d had vanished instantly. The panel was a delight. As you may already know, Smith is as nice a guy as you would expect the creator of Bone to be. I’m also grateful to him for lending his celebrity to our quixotic endeavor. I’m sure that half of the small audience appeared simply to see him. (There were only about 25 people in a room that seats more like 300.) I hope our conversation — led by Tom Spurgeon — helped move a few copies of Barnaby.

Johnson, Barnaby Vol. 1: Chris Ware blurbYou see, Barnaby is the last great comic strip that has never been collected in full. Its admirers include Charles Schulz, Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Jules Feiffer, Seth, and Daniel Clowes (who designed the books, and would have been on the panel if he’d been on an earlier flight). Told in Johnson’s elegant clear line, Barnaby tells the adventures of its five-year-old title character and Mr. O’Malley, his loquacious, bumbling, endearing con-artist of a fairy godfather. O’Malley is a great character of possibility, allowing Johnson many opportunities to satirize politics, business, or (coming in volume 4) the emerging medium of television. The strip is both topical and a Calvin-and-Hobbes-esque fantasy. Just as only Calvin sees the reality of Hobbes, the children of Barnaby all see the fairy-world characters, but — also like Calvin and HobbesBarnaby’s adults fail to perceive the reality of fantasy. We readers, however, know that O’Malley and friends are real. Barnaby is a beautiful and influential strip, but — like Krazy Kat — it was never a popular strip. At its height, Barnaby was syndicated in a mere 52 papers. By contrast, at the same time, Chic Young’s Blondie was running in 850 newspapers.

Crockett Johnson, Barnaby Vol. Three (1946-1947), ed. Philip Nel & Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics, 2016)

Fantagraphics is committed to bringing out all five volumes of Barnaby, and I love them for that. I also wish we could help find a larger audience. So, if you’re reading this, why not pick up a copy? Encourage your local or college library to pick up these, too, along with Fantagraphics’ many beautiful editions of classic comics (notably Krazy Kat and Peanuts).


Breakfast with Ebony

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas & Philip Nel at the Broken Yolk, in San Diego, 22 July 2016Friday began at the Broken Yolk, where I had breakfast with Ebony Thomas — whose book The Dark Fantastic should see print in (I am hoping) the next year or two. It’s a really smart way of thinking about how the dark other functions in fantasy. (Make a note of it now, and pick it up when it comes out!)

I actually met Ebony at my very first fan conference — Nimbus 2003, in Florida, thirteen years ago.  I’d written a small book on the Harry Potter series, and they invited me to give a keynote. In this respect, I think our aca-fan (Henry Jenkins’ term for “academic fan”) trajectories are opposite. I went to academic conferences before ever appearing at a fan one, whereas my sense is that she had more fan conference experience prior to becoming an academic.

Part of the fun of conferences — whether academic or fan — is seeing friends, and making new ones.  So, good to see you, Ebony!  Hope you enjoyed the rest of the con!

Keeping It Short

Keeping It Short panel: Abraham Riesman, Kate Beaton, Lisa Hanawalt, Emily Carroll

Moderated by Abraham Riesman, this panel featured Kate Beaton, Lisa Hanawalt, and Emily Carroll.  Though the panel was on short comics, my notes are actually, um, a bit longer than expected.

Abraham Riesman: What short form comics did you read growing up?

Kate Beaton: Sherman’s Lagoon

Lisa Hanawalt: Garfield, Calvin & Hobbes, adult cartoonist B. Kliban

ArchieEmily Carroll: All newspaper strips. I read every one every morning, even if I didn’t like it — I read Rex Morgan every morning. I read a lot of Archie comics, which at the time had no continuity.

AR: What spoke to you about Archie?

Emily: The only comic that had really pretty girls in it.

Lisa: Me, too.  Did you like Betty or Veronica?

A discussion ensued on who preferred Betty, and who Veronica, but I didn’t note it all down.

AR: What does an average workday look like?

Kate: Some cartoonists work 9-5 with lunch breaks, but…

Lisa: I fuck around until 3 every day at least. But usually until 7.

Kate: It might take all day to get into that, until something is actually working.  [Kate then recalled 2 aunts coming to visit at around lunchtime, thinking she’d have a lunch break. That led her to imagine herself saying the following sentence to her aunts.] I just stare at the wall all day until something comes and you ruin my flow?

Emily [adding to Kate’s imagined comment]: Now I have to start wasting time all over again?  I try to start before the afternoon or else I feel bad. But early afternoon is when I start.

AR: How much planning before you draw the finished product?

Emily: I start drawing right away.  Whether it’s the beginning or end — just because I need to see it materializing.

Lisa: For me, it depends. If there’s a narrative, then I have to plan that out. But I also do improv comics. I did some corporate slogans, and the first draft is what got published because it was funniest. Because if I try to make it neater, it’ll be less so.

AR: I love “just fucking do it”

Kate: I write a lot in my head. So, especially, if it’s a three or four panel gag, I have it all in my head.  So, you get a nugget — that’s the angle I’m going to use. And you sort of tumble it around, until you get the right combination of things. If you work too hard on the drawing, it ruins it. I try to go for the energy that comes in the first few lines.

AR: How do you keep the emotion in the artwork?

Emily: My first thought is I only have a few emotions anyway. I either feel angry or guilty or I’m Ok.  …But my general thought is what [I failed to note the rest of her answer]

Kate: You’re not telling people how to feel. You’re showing them how you feel.

AR, to Kate: Any jokes you had to abandon?

Kate: Sure. Not all history is hilarious. You try to bring in a topic that isn’t funny, but should be shared.

AR, to Lisa: what’s funny about birds?

Lisa: What isn’t funny about birds? I just like looking at them — they’re hilarious.

AR: What’s the funniest thing about birds?

Lisa: When a toucan eats a bunch of fruit it [Lisa mimes action of toucan eating fruit, throwing it up into the air, gulping it down. Everyone laughs. She then adds an additional funny bird behavior:] When they sit on their nests.

Lisa Hanawalt, from Hot Dog Taste Test

Kate then offered a short discourse on fecal sacks. The young birds, who cannot yet leave the nest, poop in sacks. This allows the adults to throw their young’s waste out of the nest.  She recalled a grackle who lived near her, and used to decorate her car with these fecal sacks. Her car was blue, the grackles assumed that since it was blue, it must also be water.  Lisa found this story fascinating.  (I did, too.)

AR to Emily [re: earlier question on emotions]: You didn’t mention fear?

Emily: Oh yeah, that’s true.

AR: ‘Cause you write horror. How often are you afraid?

Emily: All the time. Every day.

AR: How much of Anne Herron is true?

Frontier #6: Anne by the Bed

Emily: Anne by the bed?

AR: Yes.

Emily: None of it.  I made it all up.  But it turns out there is an unsolved mystery of an Anne Heron (with one r).

AR: When I interviewed you a few months ago, Kate, you said that cartoonists are horrible to be significant others with at a party because they’re always there drawing.  Is that true for the two of you?

Lisa: I hardly do it anymore. But I used to because I was shy, and I thought it would be an ice breaker.

Emily: I don’t really go to social gatherings. [Laughter from audience.] So, that’s not an issue. I draw less now than I did before.

AR: How much does doodling influence your work?

Kate: Less and less.  Now, you’re like: I really need a different hobby.

All panelists agree that they now do less drawing for fun.

AR: How do you know how to represent time?

Led by Emily’s response, all panelists agree that they go by instinct, and then go back and edit — if it reads too fast, they’ll go back and put in something else to slow it down (says Emily).

All panelists addressed unpublished or unfinished work. All have work that they’ve decided not to publish, nor to continue.

AR: How often to you look at your finished old work?

Lisa: I look at it every couple of years. I go back, and think oh, hey, this is actually pretty funny.

At this point, Kate mentioned she wasn’t feeling well.  She apologized, and left for the washroom.

AR: Is your work ever misunderstood?

The answer to this question (which I failed to record) led to the next one.

AR: How often do you check Twitter, look at comments, or avoid them?

Lisa: I look at everything.  I really should stop.  I even read the Goodreads reviews.

AR: Oh, you shouldn’t do that.

Emily: Oh, I can’t look at those. I do, sometimes.

Did you ever read that Guardian essay about the person who gave bad reviews?

Lisa: Totally obsessed with that. Totally understand. Once I was at a convention, and a lady picked up one of my books, and threw it back down on the desk and ran away. I think about that all the time.

Emily: A few months ago, I just deleted all of my follows except for my wife and the library. So, that way, I couldn’t go and check all my follows. I’m becoming increasingly reclusive, I guess.

Lisa: That [not being on Twitter] sounds nice.

Emily: I realize that even the nice comments didn’t make me feel good!

At this point, Kate returns!

Kate: I’m doing much better.  I had my hair tied back, all ready to rumble.  But it was just poop.

Kate apologizes for including those bodily details.

AR: You’re sitting next to Lisa.

Lisa: I’m like in love with you right now.

Kate [explaining]: I’ve moved to the country, recently, and I don’t drink much any more….

Kate Beaton, Wuthering Heights 1

Kate Beaton, Wuthering Heights 2

AR: How often do you think about Wuthering Heights?

Branwell Brontë's painting of his three sisters, after he painted himself outKate: A lot. I never finished that comic.  I need to.  Anyone ever been to the Bronte parsonage?  I feel like haunted by Branwell [brother of Charlotte, Emily, Anne].  In a family portrait, there’s a weird person-shaped hole because he painted himself out.

AR: Don’t we all feel like a person-shaped hole?

Kate: I did just a few minutes ago.  [Kate then comments on Branwell, who was alcoholic…]  In these [Bronte] books, characters like these brooding frustrated men — like Heathcliff — make me think of Branwell.

In the Q+A, I asked Kate how her process of her picture book The Princess and Pony was different than comics.

Kate said that working closely with an editor was a big difference.  The book is much more polished than her cartoons.  Also, she said, it’s not just a gag. It has a story, and that had to make sense.

In response to a question about (I think) favorite horror narratives, Emily responded, “I like horror that’s really long and boring and nothing happens, and then something maybe happens and then it’s done.”

Questioner asked if they had a reader they trusted who they could turn to for feedback.

Lisa: For me, it’s my partner Adam. But also guys like these — I have a lot. Of cartoonist friends.

Emily: My wife will read over my work. She’ll say it’s too fast or too slow, and I’ll say you don’t understand my process and vision! And then I fix it.

Kate: Don’t read Amazon or Goodreads. [Quoting reviews] “I think there are secret gay people in the book.”  Or “I don’t want to expose my children to farts.”

30 Minutes to Go; brief conversations with Beaton & Sousanis

Kate Beaton's inscribed & illustrated title page for my copy of Step Aside, PopsAfter the panel, I had only 30 minutes before I had to leave. So, I dashed down stairs to the convention hall, where I hoped to meet up with Eisner nominee Nick Sousanis — who’d just arrived earlier that morning — and to say goodbye to the Fantagraphics gang.  Said my farewells to all but Eric (who was moderating a panel), texted back-and-forth with Nick, and decided, well, yes, I could buy just one more book. So, over at the Drawn & Quarterly I bought Kate Beaton’s latest, Step Aside, Pops, which she inscribed and decorated.

I also thanked her for The Princess and the Pony because it’s great to be able to give my princess-obsessed niece a book about a warrior princess. Kate recommended Cherie Priest’s I Am Princess X (2015) and Jeremy Whitley’s Princeless (2012-). I said “Emily’s 5. Would these…?” She said that they’d be for when she’s a bit older. Looking at them on-line, now, I see that I Am Princess X is a YA hybrid comics/text, and that Princeless is marketed to kids from ages nine to 12, which (I think) means that Princeless could be something she’s interested in sooner than that.

Nick arrived when only had about 5 minutes left. I stayed for 10, we chatted, parted, and — along the way back — I realized that, yeah, I really did need the full half hour to walk back to my hotel. Jogging a bit of the way, I narrowly made noon check-out and the shuttle to the airport.  (I had to leave because I’m scheduled to give a keynote at a picture books conference at Kent State on Monday. I’m leaving for that first thing tomorrow morning. Update: American Airlines cancelled my flight. So, I’m now scheduled to leave first thing tomorrow afternoon. Fingers crossed!)

The End?

So, I still worry that America is slouching towards fascism, that state-sanctioned murder threatens people of color every day, that extremism festers and erupts here (Make America White Again!) and abroad (most recently: Nice, Turkey, Munich, Kabul).  But, for a few days in San Diego, glimpses of a different possible future emerged — a future where people do not fear each other, but care for each other. A future where our interests bring us together. Yes, despair lingered at the edges of the Comic-Con experience, as it always does. However, the con was mostly a respite from the violence and hopelessness that afflicts us. And I’m grateful for that.

My previous years’ reports from Comic-Con:

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Migration, Refugees, and Diaspora in Children’s Literature: Call for Papers (1 Nov. 2017)

Drowned City, The Island, Number the Stars, War — What If?, How I Learned Geography

A Special Issue of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly

Edited by Philip Nel

Deadline: 1 November 2017

In September 2015, photos of three-year-old Alan Kurdi — his corpse washed ashore on a Turkish beach — came to symbolize the urgency of the Syrian refugee crisis. World leaders promised to do more, people debated whether printing the pictures was appropriate, and charities experienced a surge in donations. In children’s literature, the figure of the child as refugee, migrant, or displaced citizen has long been a powerful trope, disrupting the assumed connection between personal identity and national identity, exposing virulent xenophobia, but also awakening compassion and kindness.  As Europe faces its largest refugee crisis since World War II (and demagogues stoke nativist/racist anger in Europe and North America), this special issue will examine children’s literature’s response — both contemporary and historical — to refugees, migrants, and members of diasporic communities.

Subjects papers might consider include (but are not limited to) how texts for children represent: the ways in which the term “migrant” can dehumanize people, whether persecuted minorities qualify for refugee status in their own countries, the many reasons for displacement (such as race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, war, economics), questions concerning human rights, and how the vulnerable figure of the child brings these questions into sharper focus.

Papers should conform to the usual style of ChLAQ and be between 6000 and 9000 words in length.  Please send queries and completed essays to Philip Nel (, with “ChLAQ Essay” in the subject line) by 1 November 2017.  The essays chosen will appear in the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 43.4 (Winter 2018).

The Arrival, Day of Tears, I Am David, Bamboo People, Inside Out & Back Again

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Again. And Again. And… ENOUGH!

I can’t watch the latest videos of police murdering black men. I feel that I should watch them, to bear witness. But… the depressing regularity of these videos threatens to engulf me in despair. So, I am not watching the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Instead, I will write a few words — expressing sentiments I’ve shared before and that others have expressed more eloquently.

#BlackLivesMatterLet’s start with three words: black lives matter. If you are tempted to respond “all lives matter,” please don’t. Of course all lives matter. But all lives are not equally at risk. Black lives are much more susceptible to being cut short — by police, by stand-your-ground enthusiasts, by others. And that’s why we need to say black lives matter, but we don’t need to say all lives matter. If I see red flashing lights in my rear view mirror, and a member of the police signaling me to pull over, I do not fear for my life. I am calm because I am white. When a person of color sees those red flashing lights, his or her experience tends to be quite different. Hundreds of years of brutalization at the hands of the law can make a non-white person view representatives of that law more warily.

To say the least.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American LyricAs Jesse Williams observed a couple of weeks ago, “we know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm and not kill white people every day.”

Or, as Claudia Rankine writes,

because white men can’t

police their imagination

black men are dying

If you haven’t read her Citizen or watched Williams’ speech, please take the time to do so.

I don’t for a minute believe that adding my words to their (far more eloquent) words will end police brutality, or transform America’s profoundly racist system of justice. Did the oxymoronic coupling of those last four words pass you by? Let’s revisit them: racist system of justice. In other words, it’s a system of justice which is not just. Until it is not racist, it is also not justice. This is why Williams also said, “we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor on people routinely targeted by police

While I do not believe that my individual words will make a difference, I do believe that if enough people speak up, we can change the system, move it closer to justice.

I also believe that, as the primary beneficiaries of white supremacy, it is white people’s responsibility to end white supremacy. Stay with me here, fellow white people, and I’ll explain what I mean.

As a white person, I am a direct beneficiary of American racism. Every day. Let’s start with the fact that I have never been the target of racism. I’ve never been asked why I speak so “white.” Nor have I ever been asked to speak for all white people. While shopping, I’ve never been tailed by a store detective. My job application has never been passed over because my name looked “ethnic.” And red flashing lights in my rear view mirror do not make me mortally afraid. I could write a much longer list, but my point is that the unearned privileges of whiteness accrue over time. For non-white people, the penalties and their attendant psychic stresses also accrue over time. In other words, white supremacy not only grants me advantages; it actively penalizes non-whites. Every day.

I say this because a lot of white people fail to realize that you don’t have to actively support white supremacy in order to be a beneficiary of white supremacy. All white Americans are beneficiaries of white supremacy, whether they want to be or not. Our privilege conveniently conceals itself from us, and so we don’t notice our unearned advantages. As a result, we also don’t notice that those privileges are built on the oppression of others.

In other words, recognizing white privilege is not an occasion for hand-wringing or white guilt. It is instead an occasion for recognizing that whiteness makes all white people complicit in a system that disenfranchises, terrorizes, and murders people of color. Yes, we whites can and should mourn the loss of yet another black person. But we also need to ask ourselves what it feels like to be beneficiaries of the system that murdered Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and so many others.  As Naomi Murakawa puts it, rather than trying to imagine that you can feel black pain, you should instead ask yourself what it feels like to live in “a country that incarcerates a greater proportion of its citizens than any nation in the world, and that has built an elaborate system of cages that actually does cage black people… What does it feel like to be on the side of that where I pay taxes for that, and the defense happens mostly in my name?”

Start there.  Start with recognizing your complicity.  And then act.

Further reading

  • James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers” (originally published in The Saturday Review, 21 Dec. 1963). “any Negro who is born in this country and undergoes the American educational system runs the risk of becoming schizophrenic.  On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the stars and stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war.  He pledges allegiance to that flag which guarantees “liberty and justice for all.”  He is part of a country in which anyone can become president, and so forth.  But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization – that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured.”
  • Britt Bennett, “White Terrorism Is as Old as America” (New York Times, 19 June 2015). “This is the privilege of whiteness: While a terrorist may be white, his violence is never based in his whiteness. A white terrorist has unique, complicated motives that we will never comprehend. He can be a disturbed loner or a monster. He is either mentally ill or pure evil. … A white terrorist is anything that frames him as an anomaly and separates him from the long, storied history of white terrorism.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Reparations for Ferguson.” (The Atlantic. 18 Aug. 2014). “The destroyers of your body will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” (The Atlantic, 21 May 2014). Long and well worth your while.
  • Michael Eric Dyson, “What White America Fails to See” (New York Times, 7 July 2016). “The problem is you do not want to know anything different from what you think you know…. Whiteness is blindness. It is the wish not to see what it will not know.”
  • David Graham, “The Second Amendment’s Second-Class Citizens” (The Atlantic, 7 July 2016). “The two shootings give a strong sense that the Second Amendment does not apply to black Americans in the same way it does to white Americans.”
  • Sally Kohn, “This is what white people can do to support #BlackLivesMatter” (Washington Post, 6 Aug. 2015).
  • Chuck Wendig, “I Am a Racist and a Sexist and Probably Some Other –Ists, Too.” (Terrible Minds, 23 Nov. 2014)
  • Dan Zanes, “Be Less Racist: 12 Tips for White Dudes, by a White Dude” (The Mashup Americans, n.d.)

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