Archive for September, 2012

Clear Lines and Comics Luminaries: A Report from SPX

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby and the American Clear Line School. Left to right: Mark Newgarden, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Eric Reynolds, Philip Nel. Photo by Paul Karasik.

It’s hard to put into words what it means to spend over a dozen years on a book, and then be able to talk about it with smart, talented people whose work I admire.  Saturday’s panel at the Small Press Expo — featuring Daniel Clowes, Mark Newgarden, Chris Ware, Eric Reynolds, and myself — was exactly that.  Titled “Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby and the American Clear Line School,” the panel aimed (among other things) to spread the word about Fantagraphics’ Complete Barnaby: Eric and I are co-editing, Dan is designing, Chris wrote an intro for Volume 1.  Since that book isn’t out yet (currently expecting a February ’13 pub date), it also enabled me to draw upon my dozen years of research for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (which is just out, and features a cover by Chris).

For 50 minutes, we had an illuminating conversation about Crockett Johnson, Barnaby, and how comics work.  Few people understand comics as well as Mark, Dan, and Chris do.  If you’ve ever heard Chris Ware speak or read an interview with him, you’ll know that he is one of a very few comics creators who can articulate, clearly & with precision, how particular comics work — and do this all without notes, speaking in what sound like perfectly punctuated paragraphs.  He was just as sharp, the following day, on the Building Stories conversation between him and Dave Ball.

Crockett Johnson's Barnaby and the American Clear Line School. Left to right: Mark Newgarden, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Eric Reynolds, Philip Nel. Photo by Paul Karasik.

It’s also fascinating to me that three quite different cartoonists are drawn to Barnaby. With the exception of Ice Haven (my favorite Clowes book, incidentally), Daniel Clowes’ works have the fewest visual similarities to Johnson’s style. Chris Ware’s precise line recalls Johnson’s, though he favors more detailed pages than Johnson does. Mark Newgarden’s line is thicker and looser than Johnson’s, though his aesthetic is closer to Johnson’s succinct minimalism.  What all four share in common is a sharpness, a precision that gives their work a vital presence on the page.  All four understand the visual grammar of cartoons; they are fluent in the language of images.

Commercially, SPX was a success, also. Fantagraphics kindly sold copies of my biography (we sold all of them), and set up signings for me at their booth — the first of which found me sitting next to Dan.  Chris very generously signed the prints of his cover, for my Johnson-Krauss bio., and I sold about a dozen of those, too.

Daniel Clowes and Philip Nel signing books at the Fantagraphics booth. Photo by Alvin Buenaventura.

But, for me, what made it special was getting to hang out with so many great artists, writers, editors, & scholars. I never thought I’d find myself at dinner with Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Adrian Tomine, and Françoise Mouly. When I told Mike Deforge (an up-and-coming comics creator who was also at that dinner) that I felt like I’d been invited to the grown-ups’ table and wondered how the heck I got there, he admitted that he felt the same way.  So, a hearty thanks to Alvin Buenaventura for inviting us! (On that note, check out Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist, edited by Alvin & with an essay by Chris.)

There are many other highlights — hanging out with Mark N. & Megan Montague Cash, getting to show them original Barnaby strips at the Smithsonian, meeting fellow Crockett Johnson fans, other comics scholars, seeing Warren Bernard’s astonishing personal collection of comics (at his house), discovering a group of comics artists engaged in an ongoing alphabet project, and so much more.  And the Barnaby panel was a career highlight.

Thanks again to Dan, Mark, Chris, and Eric for making it happen.  Thanks to Bill Kartalopoulos for including us in his great program.  And thanks to everyone I met for a fantastic SPX.

Photos by Paul Karasik (top two) and Alvin Buenaventura (lower one). Thanks, fellas!  Enjoyed seeing you, too!

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Cushlamochree! Barnaby, the Small Press Expo, & more

Chris Ware, poster for Small Press Expo 2012

Do you like comics? Any chance you’ll be in the vicinity of Bethesda, MD this weekend?  If so, then come to the Small Press Expo!  On Saturday the 15th, you can hear Daniel Clowes, Mark Newgarden, Chris Ware, Eric Reynolds, & me talk about Crockett Johnson‘s Barnaby.  Here’s the panel description:

Barnaby advertisement, 19 April 1942Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby and the American Clear Line School

12:00 pm | White Flint Auditorium

In a canny mix of fantasy and satire, amplified by the clean minimalism of Crockett Johnson’s line, Barnaby (1942-1952) expanded our sense of what comics can do. Though it never had a mass following, this tale of a five-year-old boy and his endearing con-artist of a fairy godfather influenced many. To mark the launch of The Complete Barnaby,Dan ClowesMark NewgardenChris Ware, and the book’s two co-editors — Fantagraphics’ Eric Reynolds and Crockett Johnson biographer Philip Nel — discuss the wit, the art, and the genius of Barnaby.

Later that day, I’m chairing a panel on “Comics as Children’s Literature,” featuring Françoise Mouly, Renée French, and Brian Ralph:

Comics as Children’s Literature
5:00 pm | White Flint Auditorium

Comics’ fraught historical legacy as children’s literature and children’s comics’ status as an expanding category of contemporary publishing will be discussed by cartoonist and picture book author Renée FrenchFrançoise Mouly, founder of the TOON Books imprint and co-editor of The TOON Treasury of Classic Children’s ComicsMark Newgarden, co-author of the “Bow-Wow” children’s comics and picture book series; and Brian Ralph, author of the all-ages graphic novel Cave-In. Children’s literature scholar Philip Nel will lead the conversation.

I’m honored to be in such august company.

But there’s more!  Perhaps you would like to buy a 20″ x 39″ print of Chris Ware’s beautiful cover for my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss?

Chris Ware's cover for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

I will be selling prints specially designed by Mr. Ware.  (He’s removed all of the text except the title and my name.)  Find me at the Fantagraphics booth (tables W40-44), where we’ll also be selling (and I’ll be signing) copies of the biography itself:

  • Saturday, September 15, 1:00 – 2:00 PM    Daniel Clowes // Philip Nel
  • Sunday, September 16, 2:00 – 3:00 PM    Philip Nel // Rich Tommaso

Both items will be available while supplies last.  You can see a full signing schedule on Fantagraphics’ website.

There’s much more.  Artists Gilbert & Jamie Hernandez, Paul Karasik, Adrian Tomine,… plus a full panel each devoted to Ware & to Clowes, footage of cartoonists screened by Mark Newgarden,… comics scholars David Ball, Sara Duke, Ken Parille,… and, oh, go read the conference schedule.

Hope to see you there!

(And… here ends my commercial announcement.)

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The Company Owns the Tools

Henry Vicar, The Company Owns the ToolsIt’s Labor Day.  Looking for a pro-labor novel for older children/young adults?  Thanks to Archive.org, you can download (for free) the full text of The Company Owns the Tools, a 1942 novel written by Henry Gregor Felsen (1916-1995) under the pseudonym Henry Vicar.

Here’s what Julia Mickenberg has to say about the book in her excellent Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States (Oxford UP, 2006), which (not incidentally) introduced me to this novel:

One of the few texts for children from this period that deals very explicitly with the conflict between capital and labor is Henry Gregor Felsen’s story for young adults The Company Owns the Tools (1942), which he wrote under the pseudonym Henry Vicar. In this story, an honest young mechanic from a small town in Iowa gets a job in Motor City (Detroit), building cars for the war effort. There he receives a humbling lesson in assembly-line mass production, quickly deciding that the only way to maintain any dignity in his work as an individual is to band together with the other workers, despite the company’s harassment of the union and its efforts to divide works along racial lines. The logic of the union is dictated by the logic of mass production, in which each individual unit is essentially the same as any other. As one of the men puts it: “They can do without any one of us, but they can’t do without all of us.” (Learning from the Left, pp. 102-103).

Or, if you prefer a harder sell, here’s what the interior flaps of the dust jacket have to say.  The front flap:

You’ll want a front seat at the gigantic struggle between Capital and Labor which young Hollis McEachron finds when he comes up from the country byroads face to face with Big Business — strikes, riots, company police, and union meetings.

If you are employed — if you are an employer — if you are just a spectator on the side lines watching this important development in the functioning of democracy — you’ll want to read this book!

Every man and woman in America today is vitally concerned with this question.  Treated as it is here, from a neutral and unbiased viewpoint, each side is focused in its true perspective.  Here are characters you will long remember, action you will not forget — a story which concerns you.

The back flap:

BORN on a farm, Henry Vicar, too, finally came to the city to live.  So it is not just from his extensive research that he writes the story of Hollis McEachron; it is partly from his own experience.  Mr. Vicar traveled widely in this country, Canada, and South America, gathering material and getting opinions from which to write this book.  Authoritative in its details, it is also well-balanced in its treatment of the whole problem of relationships between Capital and Labor.

Keenly interested in all of the social problems which affect the functioning of our system of government, Mr. Vicar has made a contribution in THE COMPANY OWNS THE TOOLS which will be appreciated by every thinking American, no matter what his position may be.  It is full of keen observations and good, hard-headed American straight thinking from start to finish.

During a research trip some years ago, I copied down both of those jacket-flap descriptions from the copy held by the Special Collections Research Center, E.S. Bird Library, Syracuse University.  Thanks to Kathleen Manwaring for bringing it out to show me!

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Source of image: the what what Tumblr.

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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: a mix

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)Here is a mix to celebrate the publication of my new biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012).  Its official publication date is today (Sept. 1st), though it’s actually been available for a few weeks now. Given my own interest in music, it’s curious that I know relatively little about the musical tastes of Johnson and Krauss. So, while this mix does include some music they liked, it’s organized more by themes — each of which can be explored more fully in my book.

1)     Take the “A” Train  Duke Ellington (1941)      2:56

Crockett Johnson listened to Duke Ellington, and so did Mr. O’Malley. In response to a strip in which Barnaby’s Fairy Godfather enjoys an Ellington record, the composer himself wrote to PM (the newspaper where Barnaby first appeared) to express his admiration for the strip. Johnson owned the LP set The Duke.

2)     The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)  Simon & Garfunkel (1966)            1:43

Johnson was born in 1906 at 444 East 58th Street, a block south of where the 59th Street Bridge was under construction. Though this song (like many on this mix) was released long after his childhood, Simon’s lyric makes me think of the imaginative, dreaming boy who became Crockett Johnson.

3)     Baltimore Fire  Charlie Poole (1929)      3:12

In February 1904, the Great Baltimore Fire destroyed more than 1500 buildings in the city’s downtown business district. Ruth (who turned 3 that year) and her family were far enough north to escape the flames, but memories of the blaze stayed with her. She had a life-long fear of house fires, and kept her manuscripts in the freezer (as a precaution).

4)     Violin  They Might Be Giants (2002)      2:27

When she was growing up, Krauss played the violin. She was a creative player, but not exactly an accomplished one. Her avant-garde poetry (from later in her career) makes me think that she might have enjoyed this song’s Dadaist sense of humor.

5)     If I Had a Boat  Lyle Lovett (1987)      3:09

The sense of humor and associative logic of “If I Had a Boat” might also appeal to Krauss; the other reason for its inclusion is Johnson’s love of sailing.

6)     I Sing I Swim  Seabear (2007)      3:40

Krauss enjoyed swimming. Johnson sometimes joined her. The bio. includes a photo of the two of them, in bathing suits, on a beach — perhaps just before a swim?

7)     Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?  Buddy Johnson (1952)      2:18

Both Ruth and Dave (Johnson’s given name, and the one his friends used) supported civil rights for African-Americans. Johnson, a sports fan, joined the End Jim Crow in Baseball Committee in 1945. In 1947, Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first black player in the American Major Leagues.

8)     A Cup of Coffee and a Cigarette  Jerry Irby (1947); intro. by Bob Dylan (2006)            3:26

Both Ruth and Dave drank coffee, and he smoked.

9)     Coffee in the Morning (Kisses in the Night)  The Boswell Sisters (1933)            2:57

He probably needed the coffee a bit more than she did: he was nocturnal, often working until sunrise, going to bed, and then getting up for breakfast at lunchtime.

“The Midnight Special” and other Southern Prison Songs, performed by Leadbelly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet10)  The Midnight Special  Leadbelly and The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet (1940)      3:08

Johnson and Krauss had the LP set, “The Midnight Special” and other Southern Prison Songs, performed by Leadbelly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet.

11)  Talking Union  The Almanac Singers (1941)      3:06

An active supporter of labor unions, Johnson would likely have known this song.

12)  The House I Live In  The Ravens (1949)      3:04

An anthem of the Popular Front (and a hit single for Frank Sinatra in 1945), “The House I Live In” was certainly known by Johnson and Krauss. It was written by Earl Robinson and Lewis Allan (pseudonym of Abel Meeropol) — Meeropol/Allen was a leftist better remembered today for writing the anti-lynching song, “Strange Fruit,” which Billie Holiday began performing (and first recorded) in 1939. Though I have found no evidence of it, I would not be surprised if Johnson knew Meeropol: they shared a political outlook, and moved in some of the same New York circles.

13)  Homegrown Tomatoes  Guy Clark (1983)      2:59

Barnaby isn’t the only one who had a Victory Garden. Johnson did, too. After moving to Connecticut in the early 1940s, he enjoyed gardening. By the 1950s he began to favor other pursuits.

14)  Mr. O’Malley and Barnaby  Frank Morgan & Norma Jean Nilsson (1945)            0:07

This, the first of several adaptations of Barnaby, appeared on the 12 June 1945 Frank Morgan Show.

The Carrot Seed (art by Crockett Johnson)15)  The Carrot Seed  Norman Rose (1950)      5:36

The classic adaptation of Ruth Krauss’s 1945 picture book (with art and design by Crockett Johnson).

16)  You Be You and I’ll Be Me  The Free Design (1969)      2:42

The Free Design’s song title seems too close to Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s I’ll Be You and You Be Me (1954) to be a coincidence, but it of course may well be just that.

17)  What a Dog / He’s a Tramp  Peggy Lee & Oliver Wallace (1955)      2:25

Johnson loved his dogs, and was quite content to let them be their doggy selves.

18) Dog  Bob Dorough (1966)      3:27

19) Onomatopoeia  Todd Rundgren (1978)      1:35

Krauss had a great ear for the sound of words, something you see (and hear) both in her books based on the spontaneous utterances of children and in her later verse.

Crockett Johnson, Merry Go Round (1958)20)  Carousel (La valse à mille temps)  Elly Stone, Wolfgang Knittel (1968)            3:30

Johnson and Krauss owned the LP Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, on which this song appears. I expect it was more her choice than his. I’ve also included the song in tribute to Johnson’s least-known (and most experimental) book, Merry Go Round.

21)  Get Happy  Art Tatum (1940)      2:46

Mr. O’Malley wasn’t the only one who enjoyed boogie-woogie piano. Johnson liked it, too. He owned the LP Decca Presents Art Tatum, which includes this song.  “Happy” also has a nice resonance with The Happy Day (1949), Krauss’s collaboration with Marc Simont.

22)  Comic Strip  Serge Gainsbourg (1968)      2:12

I don’t have a recording of “Mr. O’Malley’s March,” and so instead here is a playful tribute to the comic strip medium.

23)  Pies for the Public  Zoë Lewis (1998)      4:57

“So he laid out a nice simple picnic lunch. There was nothing but pie. But there were all nine kinds of pie that Harold liked best.”

24)  The Books I Like to Read  Frances England (2006)      2:13

This tribute to picture books begins with Where the Wild Things Are (written by Johnson and Krauss’s friend) and name-checks Harold and the Purple Crayon.

Carole King, Really Rosie (art by Maurice Sendak)25)  Alligators All Around  Carole King (1975)      1:54

In recognition of how important Maurice Sendak is to the biography, here is a song based on his book of the same name.

26)  Wake Up (Where The Wild Things Are version)  Arcade Fire (2009)      1:39

It’s impossible to stress enough Maurice’s role in this — both in their lives, and in mine. I wish I could thank him once more.

27)  Neverending Math Equation  Sun Kil Moon (2005)      2:53

During the last decade of his life, Johnson painted tributes to great mathematical theorems and even worked out a couple theorems of his own.

28)  Garden of Your Mind  melodysheep feat. Mr. Rogers (2011)      3:07

The works of Johnson and Krauss inspire us to think and to imagine.

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