ALPHA: Abidjan to Paris, -a graphic novel

The landscape of graphic novels is as vast as the Sahara. ALPHA follows an African refugee on a tortuous journey across that very desert. The story is by Bessora, a French author of African and European ancestry. French illustrator Barroux’s  lush ink wash drawings bring an immediacy to the journey.

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Alpha, a carpenter, is compelled to migrate North. He leaves his home in Cote D’Ivoire. There is nothing there for him. His wife and child have already gone ahead. He holds out hope that he may find them en route or in Paris.

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I read Alpha in an hour. The images flew by, – close-ups, followed by stark landscapes. I’ve traveled a bit with a sketchbook in Africa. The mark making in this book sometimes feels raw, but the details ring true, as if we are looking over Alpha’s shoulder into his personal sketchbook.

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Simple declarative sentences glide like subtitles below the art. The handwritten text takes a bit longer to read than a text font might, but it fits Alpha’s determined voice. He muses, “I never imagined Africa could be so vast. People always say ‘Africa’ as if it is a tiny country. They’ve got no idea.”walk.jpg

The journey of this publication is nearly as remarkable as the journey in the book. Alpha was first published in French by Gallimard, Paris, 2014. It won recognition from Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International. In 2016 it was translated into English by Sarah Ardizonne, published by The Bucket List, Edinburgh, Scotland. Bellevue Literary Press, NYC, has now published the U.S edition with help from NEH and the NY State Council on the Arts. Scan7.jpeg

The French Comics Association gave me a review copy of Alpha at the American Library Association Convention in New Orleans. The French Comics Association is a cultural enterprise supported by the French Embassy and a consortium of French and Belgian publishers. Someone once told me the organization was created in response to the growing influence of manga comics in the U.S. and Europe. That is surely an oversimplification of their mission, but they are doing important work.

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The character Alpha, may be fictional, or perhaps a composite of many individuals. Nevertheless, his tale of smugglers, fake passports, wasted bribes, and desperate migration is happening today. Alpha is a story worth sharing. I will gift my review copy to Dr. Steve Schnell, a Kutztown University geography prof who is writing a college course, “Exploring Place through Comics and Graphic Novels.”  – Imagine that! And I will ask my university’s Rohrbach Library to order a  copy. Great graphic novels, like great novels, can spread the gift of empathy.

 

Running with Type like Frank Viva

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A page detail from Sea Change © by Frank Viva

I showed my Digital Illustration class Frank Viva‘s illustrated book, Sea Change.  The typography is wonderful. The Globe and Mail put it nicely, “With Sea Change, a graphic novel in the truest sense, author and designer Frank Viva blurs the lines between written word and illustration.”

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art © Frank Viva from Sea Change

Sea Change is published by Toon Books as part of their Toon Graphics series. Toon Books has a free teacher’s lesson plan for every one of their titles. The guide to Sea Change notes  “Text can do much more than simply communicate the plot of the story. Text can be playfully designed, arranged, or organized to add another layer of visual meaning to the narrative.”

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A quote from Louis CK,  art © Christian Debuque

I asked my students to be inspired by Sea Change. They were to pick an evocative line of type and weave it into an illustration. They were to make type an integral element of the image. We also considered Viva’s use of a limited palette. They could pick their personal palette of 5 colors plus black. I usually find artwork about boredom, um, boring, but I was impressed by Christian Dubuque’s moody piece, above.

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Inspirational quote, art © Rafael Nunez-Castaneda
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Art © Kylie O’Connor

Rafael Nunez-Castaneda, Kylie O’Connor, and Julia Taft all illustrated inspirational quotations. Rafael and Kylie didn’t limit their palettes much, but worked the type in well.

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Art © by Julia Taft

Below is an image that looks like a Valentine card by Kaitlyn Reber. I should note the students are working in Adobe illustrator and Photoshop on Wacom tablets.

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detail of illustration © Kaitlyn Reber

Most of the students in the class are far better with digital media than I am. I hope they continue to play with typography and some are inspired more work in this manner.

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Art © Jenn Prendergast

Type is a specialty of the Kutztown Communication Design curriculum. Type is not something I teach, but I have picked up some typographic knowledge by osmosis. I remember when nearly every kid’s book was done in New Century Schoolbook. If you haven’t looked a children’s book lately, there has been a revolution in type. Our students, following the likes of the great Frank Viva, are joining that revolution.

$15,000 Advance for a Kid’s Comic by New Artist. Hey, you!

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Graphix, the young adult and children’s comics imprint of Scholastic announced a contest at Comic-con. Some contests are scams; they charge high entry fees, or insist you give up rights to your characters at time of entry. This one looks wonderful. It is only for unpublished creators. The prize is publication and a $15,000 advance. I’ll explain what an advance is in a minute, if you don’t know already.

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Cover of Raina Telgemeier’s new fall 2016 book.

The deadline is April Fool’s Day, 2017, but it is no joke. Comics for kids are a red hot commodity. According to Publishers Weekly Raina Telgemeier‘s Ghosts, her next graphic novel for kids will have a first printing of 500,000 copies. Telgemeier’s book Smile has been on the NY Times bestseller list for 218 weeks! I read her Sisters and loved it.

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art for El Deafo © Cece Bell

Graphix would love it if this contest uncovers the next Raina Telgemeier, or Cece Bell, or Gene Luen Yang.

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A panel from Cece Bell’s award-winning ‘El Deafo.’

If you haven’t read a graphic novel for kids recently, pick up anything by Telgemeier or Gene Luen Yang or Cece Bell’s El Deafo. These books are all quite brilliant and deal tastefully with serious issues including gender roles, racism, and disability. It is heartening that such great storytellers are having financial success.

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From Gene Luen Yang’s ‘American Born Chinese.’

Back to the Contest: The contest website explains what they are looking for: “Since our founding, the focus of Graphix remains on creator-driven graphic novels appropriate for children and teens that bring exceptional art, rich content and strong storytelling to realistic fiction, memoir, fantasy and beyond.”

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David Saylor, founder of Graphix, has a short video that clarifies this search further on this page. He is looking for up to 5 new artists. The $15,000 is better than the typical advance a new artist might get.

OK, That $15,000 prize. What is an advance?

What exactly is an advance? Same as in the record business, an advance against royalties.  Remember when Bruce Springsteen sang, “a record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance.” It’s money up front. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say you have a contract for 10% royalty on a $10 dollar book. You’ll get 1 dollar for every book sold. Suppose you got a $10,000 advance when you signed the contract. You will not get any royalties until book number 10,001 is sold. If you sell 15,000 copies, the publisher will send you a check for $5000.

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‘Boxers’ and ‘Saints’  by Gene Luen Yang

There is an interview with graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang at the TED Ed blog. the whole interview is interesting.  Here is one important thing he says that I try to convey to my ambitious illustration students:

“When I was really little, I wanted to be in animation — I wanted to be a Disney animator; that was my lifelong goal. And then after I started collecting comics in fifth grade, I slowly switched over. I think it solidified for me when I was in college and I took a summer-long animation class, and during that summer, I produced like two, three minutes of animation total. That’s when I realized that animation is so labor-intensive that it’s actually very difficult for one person to have control over an entire project. I mean, comics is really labor-intensive as well, but at least it’s manageable enough that one person can do it. If you really want to, you can do the whole thing all on your own.”

That’s great advice. My advice: Read something new by one these stars of this genre. I am recommending this contest to my illustration students. What if Graphix doesn’t select your work?  Well, there are other publishers focusing on graphic novels for young people. You’ll have a project ready to go.

 

Viva Frank Viva!

 

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From Trip to the Bottom of the World © Frank Viva.

I love Frank Viva’s “Trip to the Bottom of the World with Little Mouse.”  It is drawn digitally in Adobe Illustrator, yet it has a retro feel. I got to meet the Canadian author/illustrator at the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting in Boston.

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2- page spread from Sea Change ©Frank Viva

He flew down from Toronto where he heads an award-winning graphic design agency, Viva & Co. I was blown away by his new book Sea Change. The book is getting sensational reviews for both its story and graphic design. Sea Change is a Toon Graphic title. That means it is geared toward middle-grade readers. The literary quality and the visual design is so fine that older readers will appreciate its genius.

The pages of Sea Change are filled with playful typography, -the sort we read about in Phil Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. I showed my copy to Prof. Karen Kresge, who teaches advanced typography at Kutztown. She was so impressed she went directly to her computer to preorder a copy.

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Experimental type by Lewis Carroll and Stéphane Mallarmé from “Meggs”

School Library Journal says “Viva’s bold, simple illustrations are whimsical and bring to life the story’s unique characters. The unconventional format of this funny, poignant coming-of-age story will appeal to fans of comics and graphic novels.”

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detail from Sea Change ©Frank Viva

Graphic designer Chip Kidd is a fan: “In ‘Sea Change’ Frank Viva ingeniously weaves words and pictures to evoke that heartbreaking, strange, wonderful moment—when the very worst experience of your life somehow becomes the very best.” 

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It would be a crying shame if the design was extraordinary and the story fell flat. That is not the case here. The story is quite moving, written with an understated grace. The narrative has a great sense of place, namely, a remote fishing village in Nova Scotia. The author’s voice reminded me of Jack Gantos’s popular Joey Pigsa novels, though Viva told me he was not familiar with those books.

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details from Sea Change © Frank Viva

None of the great reviews I’ve seen touched on the chilling anti-Italian bias our young hero  endures. The book is not a memoir, but I asked Frank Viva if he had experienced bigotry as an Italian kid in Canada. “Oh Yes” he said, “I grew up in a very Anglo neighborhood. It wasn’t hurtful, but it was memorable, and it was typical.”

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The drawing style in Sea Change recalls Ben Shahn’s best graphic works. Viva explains that he sketches freely in pencil, then digitally colors the work in Photoshop.

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    A New Yorker cover by Frank Viva

Besides his children’s books Frank Viva is known for his elegant design work for fortune 500 companies and many New Yorker covers. He has come a long way. He told me about his college years delivering seltzer bottles to fifth floor walk-ups in Manhattan. Oddly enough, Ontario College of Art and Design allowed him to pursue his art studies in New York City.

Young Frank once thought he was headed for a career in fine art, but found work as a junior art director when he returned to Toronto. In the 70’s, he was a contributing cartoonist to the short-lived Toronto-based underground comic, “Berford Seaman’s Fabby Thighs and Butter.” I found a cover of the comic online. It bills itself as “a Canadian Magazine Everyone Can Read and Not Understand.

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Sea Change is an important work. It delivers a sea change from the typical design of ‘chapter books’ for young readers. I found myself totally immersed in the story, and I expect younger readers will, too.

Full disclosure: I got a free advance reader’s copy of Sea Change. Not only that, Frank Viva bought me a beer on a barge in Boston Harbor. Really! However, that one strong pint at the Barking Crab did not affect this review.

Serious Comics, Deadly Serious.

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Dr. Rachel Williams talked comics with Kate Chambers and Alexis Manduke.

Rachel Marie Crane Williams, PhD, was invited to Kutztown University to speak at the 6th Annual Diversity Conference. She draws comics about social issues –prison, poverty, lynch mobs. She also teaches at the University of Iowa. She has a joint appointment at the University’s School of Art and Art History and the Dept. of Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies. Her flight from Iowa to Pennsylvania got cancelled (twice !) due to winter storms. It seemed she would not reach the conference. She jumped in her car drove across country. She’s unstoppable!

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Her work on The School To Prison Pipeline

She raced straight from her car to our illustration class. Her artwork is informed by news, history, politics, and social practice. She shared a stack of images from her graphic novel on the Detroit Race Riots of 1943. She told us how she traveled to Detroit to do research. She obtained original news photos from The Detroit Free Press archives and transcribed contemporary interviews done by the NAACP.

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A project based on her work at an Iowa women’s prison.

Sometimes her visual essays are sponsored by organizations. The School to Prison Pipeline, for example, was done in 2011 for Jane Addams Hull House Museum, the Chicago Freedom School and Project NIA.

She talked about her work inside the Iowa Correctional Facility for Women. A student asked if she liked Orange is the New Black. She said she didn’t think much of the Netflix series, but recommended Image comic’s Bitch Planet. It’s science fiction, but somehow manages to evoke a real sense what life is like for women behind bars.

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Dr. Williams asked every student in the class to give their ‘elevator pitch’ for their zine project. She gave lots of good advice. She advised cartooning students to make a font from their own handwriting. A personal font creates a far authentic match to one’s drawing style than using comic sans. There are a number of web sites that will convert your handwriting into a usable font for free. Here is one tutorial.

She also recommended the digital publishing platform ISSUU. Many of her comics and graphic essays are available on ISSUU via her website.

The pages reprinted above and below are from  Black and Blue: Stories of Police Violence. This comic was distributed by Chicago’s Project NIA , part of an educational outreach project about police violence.

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Detail from Black and Blue: Stories of Police Violence

Her forthcoming project is the monumental graphic novel, Run Home If You Don’t Want To Be Killed: The Detroit Race Riot of 1943. She began work on this project in 2008. It is finally nearing completion and will be published by University North Carolina Press and the Duke Center for Documentary Studies. Meanwhile, there is much more graphic work by Rachel Marie Crane Williams on her website.  All images in this post © Rachel Marie Crane Williams

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From her forthcoming graphic novel on the Detriot Race Riots.

PYONGYANG on my mind.

details from Pyongyang All art © 2001, Guy Delisle
details from Pyongyang All art © 2001, Guy Delisle

I’ve been to Seoul and Pusan in South Korea, but everything I know about Pyongyang I learned from a comic book. Guy Delisle drew a marvelous book, Pyongyang, a graphic memoir of working there in 2001.

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Few Americans ever visit Pyongyang. Delisle is Canadian from Quebec, He was hired by a French studio to direct animations being drawn in North Korea. Odd, how the global race to the bottom in wages means children’s cartoons are made in the least happy country on earth.

prodogiesPyongyang was a critical success. The Globe & Mail (U.K )said: “smart, sharply observed and funny, without downplaying the untold horrors (death camps, starvation) that lurk around every corner.” Canada’s National Post wrote: “Tinged with black humour, Pyongyang offers a perspective no straight-up print journalism could.”

Screenshot from the blog at www.guydelisle.com
Screenshot from the blog at http://www.guydelisle.com

The book was translated into a dozen languages and optioned for film. Until last week it was going to be a movie starring Steve Carell. I expect it would have been a far more interesting film than The Interview. On December 19, Guy Delisle announced on his blog that he learned Pyongyang, the film, was canceled, collateral damage to the SONY fiasco. Delisle wrote, “What saddens me the most are the reasons that lead to this. One would have imagined that a huge corporation would not bend so easily under the threats of a group of hackers from North Korea. Apparently they hit a sensitive nerve.” Delisle’s full statement in English and French can be found here.

lovemoviesSpeaking of film, part of Pyongyang deals with the movies. Delisle learns that Kim Jong-Il, (father to today’s supreme leader Kim Jong-Un) loved the movies. Believe it or not, Kim Jong-Il’s secret police kidnapped South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok and forced him to make films in Pyongyang.

PYONGYANG-01Get Pyongyang. Buy it, or ask for it at your library. It is a thoughtful book about an unthinkable place. You can read a free excerpt of Pyongyang at the website of Delisle’s Canadian Publisher, Drawn and Quarterly.

Hansel and Gretel and Lorenzo and Neil

Lorenzo Mattotti with his original art for Hansel and Gretel
Lorenzo Mattotti with his original art for Hansel and Gretel.

Once upon a time, in 2007, The Metropolitan Opera staged Humperdink’s Hansel and Gretel.  Françoise Mouly, art editor for The New Yorker, helped organize an exhibition at the opera house based on the fairy tale. Contributors included stellar New Yorker cover artists including Roz Chast, Jules Feiffer,  Anita Kunz, Christoph Niemann, Gahan Wilson, and Lorenzo Mattotti.  Mattotti, one of Italy’s most important contemporary graphic artists, contributed a series of large-scale india ink drawings.

All images from toonbooks.com
All images from toonbooks.com

Pictures Came First: Françoise Mouly is also publisher and art director of the influential line of children’s books, Toon Books. She shared Mattotti’s moody artwork with her friend, writer Neil Gaiman. She asked him to retell the tale first written down by the Brothers Grimm in 1812.

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Neil Gaiman, from Toon Book’s Facebook page.

Gaiman, best known for Coraline and The Sandman, took up the task. Gaiman told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour this tale of Hansel and Gretel, of lost children and starvation, resonates in 2014. He spoke of his recent tour of Syrian refugee camps, “talking to Syrian refugees who ran out of food, – telling me of getting permission from their imams to eat cats and dogs, – eating grass, – drinking swamp water. -This is Hansel and Gretel!” Full interview is here.

© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti
© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti

“…shadows crept out from beneath each tree and puddled and pooled until the world was one huge shadow.” There is a wonderful visual verbal synergy here. The cadence of Gaiman’s prose flows as swiftly and smoothly as Mattotti’s brushwork.

© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti
© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti

In April at MOCCAfest, the comics convention in NYC, I met with Françoise Mouly about a book I’m working on with her. (More on that another day.) She shared with me the proof of Hansel and Gretel. The black and white printouts were neatly folded, fastened together with scotch tape. I held it in my hands and looked at Mottotti’s art for the first time. I found the images remarkably powerful, but not what I expected of a Toon Book. Toon Books are all different, but generally made in a colorful comic book style, with panels and word balloons. Mouly explained Toon Books was branching out with a new line, Toon Graphics.

© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti
© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti

She asked me what I thought of the book. I told her it was quite beautiful and I expected it would be a great success. That was an understatement. Gaiman recently read Hansel and Gretel to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall. The book hasn’t even been released yet and it is already in its third printing. Variety reports Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Juliet Blake bought the movie rights to the book.

© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti
© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti

The NY Times gave Hansel and Gretel a glowing review. Gaiman said it was the best review of his career. Mouly said it took her breath away: Written with a devastating spareness by Neil Gaiman and fearsomely illustrated in shades of black by Lorenzo Mattotti, the newest version of “Hansel and Gretel” astonishes from start to finish. It doesn’t hurt that the book itself is a gorgeous and carefully made object, with a black floral motif on its pages’ decorated borders, along with red drop caps and tall, round gray page numbers. (Published by Toon Books, the New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly’s venture into richly illustrated books for children, it comes in two formats, with an oversize one that includes an afterword about the evolution of the tale.) Their rendition brings a freshness and even a feeling of majesty to the little tale.” -NY Times. The full review can be seen here.

© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti
© 2014 Lorenzo Mattotti

Hansel & Gretel is being released Oct.28. For more info, including video interviews with Gaiman and lesson plans based on the book visit Toon Books here. Near NYC? Lorenzo Mattotti is flying from Europe to visit McNally Jackson Books, 52 Prince St, NYC on Sat, Nov.1. He’ll read from the book and share how he makes his pictures. Details here.