Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush/Trickster event at Busboys & Poets

I don’t think this event had an official title, and I don’t blame the participants for this, but I do think it could have been organized a bit better. It was also sadly under-attended.

And while those sound like complaints, I think the informality of it actually worked to this event’s advantage. It felt more like a group of friends hanging out and talking about comics.

Brooklyn-based Christopher Cardinale gave his presentation first. He started by giving his background — he collaborates in communities around Brooklyn to create murals — and has been featured in World War 3 Illustrated magazine as well as defunct Punk Planet. If these things aren’t an indication, he’s someone who uses his art as activism.

His recent full-length comics work, Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush (Cinco Puntos Press, 2010) is based on a short story by Luis Alberto Urrea. Most of his presentation was about the visual research his did for the book.

Cardinale said he started out just drawing sketches based on Urrea’s words and his own memories of when he lived in Mexico, but at a certain point, he decided he needed to go to the town, Rosario, in which the story is set. Urrea’s uncle still lived there, but he could only provide Cardinale with his nickname. The town was small enough that Cardinale was eventually able to find this uncle who helped show him around the town.

Mostly, Cardinale spent time taking photos (many of which he showed) and sketching areas of the town. Since the main characters in the book were teenagers, he convinced a few teens in the square to let him draw their portraits (although the kids wanted to keep them when he was done). He also sought out photos from the time period the story is set — the 1960s — from Urrea’s family.

He showed some comparisons of his early sketches — the way he imagined things — versus the reality. The most striking was a bridge that runs through the town. Cardinale initially pictured it as a small, mostly wooden bridge. The actual bridge was large and concrete.

He finished his presentation with a recording of Urrea reading from the story, accompanied by art from the comic.

Matt Demicki talked about Trickster (Fulcrum Publishing, 2010) next. The project came about after he’d read a Native American trickster story in an anthology and decided to illustrate it. He thought there might be something to the concept, so he began reaching out to Native American storytellers. He looked for balance — he wanted a broad range of tribes as well as trickster characters.

After each storyteller submitted his or her story, he began pairing the stories up with artists, although he was careful to make sure that each storyteller was happy with the artist.

It wasn’t necessarily an easy project. One storyteller did decide to not participate, even after artist Gokhan Okur had already created pages for it (you can see them here). Others didn’t want to write their stories down due to Native American storytelling being such an oral tradition (in those cases, Dembicki would transcribe the stories).

Dembicki mentioned there wasn’t too much resistance overall to the comic format. Some tribes actually thought it was a great way to preserve the stories since the oral tradition was dying out, and it made storytellers like Hawaii’s Thomas Cummings Jr. more interested in the comics format.

Dembicki then tried to play Joseph Stands With Many reading his story, which was featured on NPR, but Busboys & Poets’ wifi was having none of it (this is a common occurrence, really). You can watch it at NPR.com, however.

After that, Jacob Warrenfeltz and Michael Auger talked about their role in the book.

Warrenfeltz said in his comics he’s drawn a lot of people and cities (and I think he probably mentioned motorcycles in there too) but not too many animals. He liked the chance to be able to do so. He said that many writers give him fairly formal scripts, breaking down each panel, and that he sometimes feels like a “monkey with a pencil.” This project wasn’t like that, however — he was given a two-page short story to work from and so he found the process liberating. He also praised Dembicki as an “idea guy” and that he’s always happy to participate in whatever project he has going on.

Auger was brought into the project late after some things fell through. His background is more in illustration and children’s books and no so much comics. He did say, unlike Warrenfeltz, he traditionally draws animals, so he did think this would be an easy fit. However, his story actually ended up not having too many of them. Still, there wasn’t much dialogue so his approach wasn’t too different from how he tackles children’s books.

Due to the bad wifi connection, Dembicki didn’t get a chance to talk about the process for the cover, but Fulcrum Publishing has a whole entry about it. While I agree that Peter Kuper‘s initial design is striking, I think the eventual cover (which features Warrenfeltz’s art) is much more evocative.

After that, the artists signed books and the Busboys and Poets staff began to put the pressure on everyone to get out (they had another event to set up for).

The event was sponsored by the books’ publishers and Teaching for Change.

Full disclosure: I know both Matt Dembicki and Jacob Warrenfeltz.

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