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.


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.


Bak’s Book: Island of Memory


The adventurous graphic novelist T. Edward Bak is coming to Kutztown University to speak about another adventurous explorer from the 18th century.  Bak’s ‘Wild Man’ tour includes stops at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, SAW in Gainesville as well as KU. The KU event is Free. Boehm, Lecture Room 261, Tues. Nov. 19 at 7:00 pm.

Letterpress print of Stellar Sea Lion © T Edward Bak
Letterpress print of Stellar Sea Lion © T Edward Bak

Bak, who now calls Portland, Oregon home traveled to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands to research “Island of Memory.” The 72-page graphic novel is based on the adventures of the German naturalist  Georg Wilhelm Steller.

Steller worked on the ill-fated Russian expedition led by Vitus Bering that explored Alaska in 1741. Steller discovered a number of species of birds and animals unknown to Europeans. The Steller Sea Cow became extinct within a 25 years of his initial description of the docile beast. The Steller Jay, though, is still common on the Pacific coast. It’s similarity to the American Blue Jay led Steller to rightly conclude Alaska was not an island, but part of the North American continent.


Bak’s publisher, Floating World, puts it this way, “Steller’s first-hand descriptions of the natural and human worlds at this crossroads of continents illuminate the unique confluence of culture and ecology binding North America to Asia via the North Pacific.” Island of Memory is “Part natural history, part adventure yarn and part experimental narrative, this …fever dream is the artistic realization of Bak’s inquiry into the socio-ecological consequences of empire.”


Bak’s Island of Memory is a labor of love, and only the first installment of a planned four-volume epic work on Steller. In an interview with designer Francois Vigneault, Bak recalled when he first visited to Alaska to work on a ship, “I flew to Sitka, and the minute I stepped off the plane, I realized ‘I’ve been headed here my whole life. I’ve been on a trajectory my entire life to come here.’

detail from  Bak's Alaska sketchbook/
Steller Sea Lions detail from Bak’s Alaska sketchbook

I got on the ship, and the first morning I woke up to the announcement: “We’ve got humpbacks starboard!” and there were humpback whales breaching beside the boat. I ran to the window and flipped out. So there are humpbacks every day. Constantly around the boat, breaching around the boat. There were sea lions constantly. Sea otters! We saw sea otters, like rafts of sea otters, floating out in the passage. And of course there are bears everywhere on the shore, and moose everywhere, wolves and orcas and Dalles porpoises, so many crazy birds. Anyhow, all of this was completely overwhelming for me. I had no idea what to expect. I expected to see wildlife, but not anything like this.”

Bak’s Island of Memory presentation touches on art, ecology, geography and the humanities. The event is co-sponsored by Kutztown’s Modern Language, Geography, and Communication Design Depts. A book signing will follow his illustrated presentation.MemoryZ

Opportunity Knocks: Grab Bag for Illustrators

art © 2013 Alabaster, previous SAW min-grant awardee
© 2013 by  Alabaster, previous SAW mini-grant awardee

The Sequential Arts Workshop, SAW, in Gainesville, Florida is once again offering two mini-grants of $250 to artists working on a comic or graphic novel project. True, this is not a lot of money, but if you need to buy time to work on your art every cent helps. What I like about this grant is that the runners-up get honorable mentions with pithy advice from the experts at SAW. To apply and view past awardees, see SAW, here. The image above is by Alabaster who is working on a project called Mimi and the Wolves.


Are you an illustrator, designer, app developer, hand-letterer who breaks the rules? Here is an opportunity to strut you stuff. KU Prof. Denise Bosler is doing her second book for HOW, it is called Creative Anarchy. Submit your best rule-breaking designs here.  She’s looking for zines, T-shirts, custom type, under-the-radar marketing, -you name it.

That reminds me. When I was kid I studied art with a teacher in her basement studio in Elizabeth, NJ. She had two rules for artists. 1. Never use a ruler. 2. Never make a head larger than life-size. This was around 1960. The next big movements is art were OP Art ( rulers!) and Pop Art  (think Warhol’s oversized portraits.) So, break those rules!

Collage illustration © Stephen Knezovich
Collage illustration © 2013 Stephen Knezovich, see below.

Looking to launch a career as an illustrator, but haven’t got that first publication? Check out Poets & Writers’ expansive list of literary magazines. There are hundreds of listings.  Some are university related, many pay only in copies, but this is a way to build your portfolio. The P&W site can be searched using the subgenre: Graphic/Illustrated. I’ve just done that, and after a few dead ends, found a magazine that I’ve heard good things about, Creative Nonfiction. I clicked through and interestingly enough Creative Nonfiction includes an interview with writer and collage-illustrator, Stephen Knezovich.



At one time, art grants were not worth the trouble of an application if you identified yourself as an” illustrator.”  The prejudice may have  evolved since there is/was a market for illustration, so grant moneys were reserved for the fine arts. That’s changing. Pittsburgh illustrator Jim Rugg has gotten several grants including a Creative Development Grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation to pursue his illustration and design experiments. His latest project, Supermag, above, has been getting rave reviews.


The College Art Association has an Opportunities page that includes Grants, Residencies, and Calls for Entries for exhibitions. You need not be a CAA member to access the site. How about an Artist’s residency in the U.S or abroad? Nowadays “graphic artists” are considered for these opportunities. Places to look include Mira’s List. Mira’s web site is a bit dormant, but you’ll get her latest updates via her Facebook page:  Two other searchable sites for grants and residencies are ResArtis and Trans Artist.


Lastly, if you are a printmaker… And, in my opinion, all illustrators should become familiar with the basics of printmaking. You can search the term “Call for Entries.” Check the links page on McClain’s Printmaking Supply Company web site. I just entered an International Print Exchange at La Calaca PressDeadline extended to Sept. 30. The exchange and exhibition honors Mexican illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada’s centennial. 2013 is the 100th anniversary of his death, not birth, but this death centennial celebration makes sense as Posada is so closely associated with the Day of the Dead. He created Catrina, Mexico’s most iconic calavera (these skeleton characters are also called calacas.)  I will leave you with my entry in the La Calaca Print Exchange, a silkscreen print of Posada as puppet.

Feliz Cumpleanos Posada, silkscreen on paper © Kevin McCloskey, 2013
Feliz Cumpleanos Posada, silkscreen on paper © Kevin McCloskey, 2013

Dr. Lakra’s Grand Canvas

Dr. Lakra’s art often appears in Juxtapoz magazine.

Dr. Lakra is not a real doctor. He is a tattoo artist and collector of classic porn. He is, of course, more than this. The cutting-edge magazine Juxtapoz often features his art. I met Dr. Lakra late one night last week in a warehouse across the main highway from the center of Oaxaca.

Dr. Lakra’s MACO mural, opening night, July 13, 2012, photo: KMc

The warehouse encounter was the second of Lakra’s two art openings within a week. The first was the inauguration of an enormous temporary mural at MACO, el Museo Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca. Packed with artists, journalists, and photographers, the MACO opening was so crowded I didn’t even realize Dr. Lakra was in attendance.

Dr. Lakra’s formal MACO opening showing Samurai section of his mural. Photo: KMc

The MACO mural, which he completed in a few weeks with three assistants, covered two high walls. It included a two-story illustration of a Japanese warrior tearing the face off an opponent, clearly appropriated from a Ukiyo-e print. There were monumental sepia-toned portraits of mid-20th century Mexican glamour girls. A troupe of black silhouettes danced along the foreground, bringing to mind Kara Walker’s work.  At sunset the shadows of the trees in MACO’s Patio C played across Lakra’s mural lending the artwork an eerie sense of motion.

Dr. Lakra's canvas mural. photo: KMc
Dr. Lakra’s warehouse mural on canvas, left panels. Photo: KMc
Dr. Lakra’s warehouse reception. Right panels in background.

The second opening, at the warehouse, was quite different. Dr. Lakra greeted everyone cordially, even gatecrashers like me. He wasn’t drinking, but offered us mescal and beer. A woman asked him if he had a bottle opener for her beer. Dr. Lakra took a plastic Gatorade bottle and wedged its orange plastic cap under the beer bottle cap. With a deft flick of the wrist he popped open the beer bottle. The Gatorade bottle was still sealed. Seems Dr. Lakra is a master of many arcane skills.

I was told this warehouse is the studio of another internationally known Oaxacan artist, Demian Flores.  The murals at MACO were painted directly on the walls. These murals filled two giant stretched canvases, one on each side of the room. Done in the same mix of sepia and gray washes, these images were more grotesque than the museum piece.

A gory detail from Dr Lakra’s canvas mural.

Bits of ancient maps and medical anomalies jostled against genies in bottles and high-heeled shoes. Dr. Lakra told me he and his crew had also completed this project quickly. I wondered if the opening wasn’t a tad premature. Some collage elements on the canvas, old duotone magazine photos, fluttered in the breeze each time the warehouse door swung open.

Dr. Lakra looking at his mural with Cesar Chavez. Photo: Kevin McCloskey

In 2007, Dr. Lakra contributed an artwork to my friends of the ASARO collective, a large cubist painting of a man tied to a chair, being tortured. I found his new work even more disturbing than that painting, but I expect this is his artistic intention. Bottom line: I may not like all his imagery, but I do like Dr. Lakra.

NOTE: A very short video of Dr. Lakra’s MACO mural can be seen here .

5 questions about illustration for Matt Phelan

Matt Phelan is coming to Kutztown this weekend for the 2012 Children’s Literature Conference. Even if you can’t make the conference you might go to the KU bookstore to pick up his books at a discount. He is a prolific and popular illustrator. He writes as well. A piece of Matt’s original artwork from his award-winning graphic novel, A Storm in the Barn, was in the Dornish collection show last year at KU’s Miller Gallery. I emailed him five questions and here are his replies.

Art from Storm in the Barn, courtesy & © Matt Phelan

1. Do you recall an author or illustrator visit your elementary school when you were a kid?

Matt Phelan: I don’t recall anything that remotely cool happening at school. I don’t think author visits were a thing back then. It’s a shame because Lloyd Alexander (author of the Chronicles of Prydain and many other books I loved) lived in my town and might have been open to a school visit. Many years later, I ran events at a Borders store and I would invite illustrators in for signings mostly so I could ask them questions.

pencil sketch © Matt Phelan for cover of Around the World

2. Are more children’s books headed in the graphic novel direction, like your recent Around the World?

Matt Phelan: The children’s publishing industry is definitely interested in putting out more graphic novels for kids. The great thing is, like all of children’s publishing, they are open to many different kinds of graphic novels. So there’s room for superheroes, talking mice, and creepy historical fiction set in the Dust Bowl. I believe there will be more picture book illustrators like me trying graphic novels in the near future. It’s already happening with people like Dan Santat (“Sidekicks”), Jarrett Krosoczka (“Lunch Lady”), and multiple Newbery Honor-winning author Jennifer Holm (“Babymouse”) putting out fantastic graphic novels for kids. Eric Wight came from comics and animation and is now creating a hybrid of prose and comics for his Frankie Pickle young reader series. Innovations like that and the variety of stories makes me think that children’s publishing is the most exciting place for comics today.

3. Any advice for aspiring illustrators?

Matt Phelan: The only thing you have compete control over at the beginning is your portfolio. And that’s really the one thing that will get you work. Before you worry about mailings, contacts, or any of that marketing stuff, concentrate on making the strongest portfolio you can. Other than that, I recommend that illustrators take an acting class or two or at least read some books on acting. I studied acting in college and it has proven to be the most useful training I’ve had for my work.

"Niles" watercolor © by Matt Phelan from his blog.

4. Often students say they met/know someone who has written a kid’s book and wants illustration. I give them the standard warning that publishers prefer “unencumbered projects.” What do you think, are they better off coming up with their own original story?

Matt Phelan: Publishers do not want to see illustrations in manuscript submissions unless the author and illustrator are the same person. If you want to write, then submit a sketch dummy of a book you have also written. If you want to illustrate other people’s books, then all you need is a strong portfolio. I’d say that illustrating someone’s unsold manuscript (even if they offer to pay you) is time that could be better spent elsewhere.

5. Have you been to Ireland? or taken a trip abroad that’s influenced your art?

Matt Phelan: I actually went to Ireland on my honeymoon, Why do you ask? Does my work seem Irish? At any rate, I always bring plenty of sketchbooks on vacation. I think everything has potential to influence your work at some point. The important thing is to be open and observe as much as you can. Sketching forces you to slow down and notice. (I’ve included some Ireland sketches of one of the many walls of the Aran Islands and some sheep in County Galway.) I have taken some research trips for my work. I spent a week in Muskegon, Michigan which is the setting for my next graphic novel. Sadly, I didn’t have the time to circle the globe for Around the World. A missed opportunity there, I think.

Stone wall, Ireland, from a sketchbook. Courtesy Matt Phelan © 2007

Notes: I asked about Ireland out of curiosity after finding a web page where Matt explains the pronunciation of his Irish surname. If you haven’t read any of Matt’s work, I especially recommend Around the World. It graphically recounts three true stories of round-the-world voyages, by the reporter Nellie Bly, sailor Joshua Slocum, and bicyclist Thomas Stevens. It is like getting three good books for the price of one!

Courtesy Matt Phelan,

More of Matt Phelan’s entertaining thoughts and lively sketches can be found on his own blog – planetham.

High on the High Line

Lower Manhattan from the High Line © 2012 Rona Dacoscos Macias

The Trailing Edge of Digital Photography. This February, Rona Macias spent a week in NYC and shot pictures from the High Line. The High Line, if you are not familiar with it, is a long and narrow public park built on the site of the historic elevated freight train line. It runs North/South two stories above the streets of Manhattan’s West Side.

High Line, Winter 2012 © Rona D. Macias

I asked her what’s so special about this place?  “From the High Line you can see HOBOKEN! ” writes Rona. “The Statue of Liberty! You are high enough to see architecture from a different level without being inside.”

Hoboken from the High Line (detail) © 2012 Rona Macias

She continues, “Anytime of the day is good, but I was surprised how beautiful the light was in the morning with the mists over the river almost covering up the Lackawanna train station. And, the best part is it’s near Chelsea Market where you can pick up something to eat along the way.”

Grand Central Station © 2012 Rona Macias

Naturally, Rona took shots of the Empire State Building and Grand Central Station. She also visited some lesser known sites, like Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. According to Rona the temple below is the final resting place of German immigrant Charles Feltman. In 1870 Feltman put a sausage in a horizontal roll and invented the Coney Island hot dog. The rest is history.

Tomb of the Inventor of the Hot Dog. ©2012 Rona Macias

Rona recommends searching the web for the latest in tilt-shift photography. Here is one site with over 80 examples and links to tutorials. And amazingly, Rona doesn’t use a pricey camera. Her Canon A1200 HD can be found on Amazon or Best Buy for as little as $80.

Hate Trolls, Love ELPHS

Strrets of Moyogolpa, Nicaragua, ©2011 Shelley Seale

My next camera will be a Canon ELPH. The wonderful photo above is by Austin-based travel writer Shelley Seale. She captured the colorful street in a small town on Ometepe, a volcanic island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Oddly enough, Shelley doesn’t think of herself as a gifted photographer. Do check out her ‘Trading Places Global’ travel blog to follow her adventures and see more of her work. Josh Berman, co-author the The Moon Handbook: Nicaragua shared Shelley’s picture (above) on Facebook. I wrote to her to ask about this eye-popping image, and if she had any photography advice to share.

Volcano, Ometepe, Nicaragua photo © 2011 Shelley Seale

“I assure you that was all the work of my fun, fantastic ‘miniature’ setting on my little Canon ELPH 500 camera. I don’t know if I would have any real tips for newbies; I can only say what I do, which is have my camera ready at almost any given time to snap that quick street shot or something happening in the moment. This is why I like having such a small camera.  – I even shot photos and video from the back of a motorcycle with it! I let the camera do the work and experiment with the fun settings and unusual angles or eye levels.”

Street scene, Luang Prabang, Laos, © 2012 Shelley Seale

Looking at Shelley’s Trading Places Global blog, I noticed she takes advantage of the magic of early morning light for her most dramatic shots, as in the Laotian street above. Canon’s ELPH 500, the model Shelly uses, can now be found online for about $220. Canon’s ELPH 300 is a slightly cheaper alternative: refurbished units go for under $150.

On a tighter budget? Rona Dacoscos, a San Francisco friend, uses the Canon’s A1200 HD. It has the same miniature setting. Canon’s A1200 can be found on Amazon or Best Buy for as little as $80. However, Rona recommends finding time to test every possible effect as soon as you unpack your camera. She sent back 2 lemons before she got one that was fully functional. Next post I’ll share some of Rona’s images.

Speaking of Scenic Nicaragua: My brother lives there part of each year and I’ve visited twice. Nicaragua is a colorful place to sketch, paint, or photograph. My friend Gerald Pavon is a great guide, and fluent in English, German, and Spanish. His Eco-Camp Expeditions, based in Leon, leads treks to Nicaragua’s highland coffee country, Ometepe, and other parts of Central America. Info: