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Pénélope Bagieu at the Gaithersburg Book Festival

bageiu

You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but French cartoonist Pénélope Bagieu is a knight.

Bagieu laughed off being a Chevalier des arts et des lettres, saying it mostly consisted of getting a hug and a heavy pin, it did set the tone for her conversation with George O’Connor at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 16.

Bagieu, who is a recent transplant to the U.S. (Brooklyn, specifically — she joked the next thing she’s working on is finding a couch), discussed with O’Connor the recent translation of her first graphic novel, Exquisite Corpse (First Second, 2015) into English as well as her life, her work and being a rock star (she’s a drummer! Despite the fact she said her former band sucks, she was still a drummer in a rock band and that’s amazingly cool).

Bagieu got her start drawing a comic called Josephine for Swiss magazine Femina. While she had a background in animation, she had never drawn a comic before, so she said she learned as she went. After she completed a year, she realized she had a book. After three years, she had enough and liked the idea of writing a complete story. That became Exquisite Corpse.

O’Connor asked about why it took so long for the book, originally published in France in 2010, to appear in English. Bagieu talked about meeting First Second editor Mark Siegel in France and how he expressed interest in her work, but because of translation and rights issues, it just took a long time. She also discussed the differences between French and American markets. In France, books are just released; in the U.S. there are worries about if it’s for adults or if it’s for kids. She also laughed that books can’t be “too French” for American audiences.

Bageiu said she’s enjoying her time in America and loves that people are connecting with her work. She finds it amazing and delightful her book was translated. She joked that she doesn’t even care if people come up to her and say Exquisite Corpse is “crap” because they “said it in English.”

O’Connor asked about the main character of Exquisite Corpse, Zoe. Zoe wasn’t a reader and O’Connor found that intriguing. Bagieu said that was actually something she could relate to, mentioning that famous people were the people on TV in her world. She also mentioned that despite making comics, she didn’t really read them until some bookstore clerks helped her out. She mentioned My Mommy: Is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill by Jean Regnaud and Mile Bravo as the breakthough comic for her. It left her “crying like a fountain” and made her realize that comics aren’t just adventures or “boyish.” She said she now gives all her friends comics as gifts, and she pointed out, she’s “never wrong.”

Bageiu and O’Connor then discussed her process. She writes a lot before she ever starts drawing, and said no one else can really understand her scripts but her. She plans things out because the moment she starts to draw, it’s “scary.” She said the one thing she’s really careful about and clear about is the dialogue.

When asked about her influences, Bageiu said her mom had a lot of picture books, and she spent a lot of time with those. She mentioned ’50s and ’60s illustrators, especially, and cartoons. She used to tell people she wanted to grow up to be Tex Avary.

As far as upcoming projects go (other than a couch), she just completed a book about the ’60s folk scene, focusing on Mamma Cass, called California Dreaming. While there’s no promising it will be out in English, she’s hopeful.

In conclusion, O’Connor asked if Bageiu had any dream projects. She said she doesn’t really think that way, but at a panel at Toronto Comic Arts Festival, she and other panelists were asked what all illustrators dreamed of doing. Everyone one of them said “the cover of The New Yorker.” While she didn’t say she hopes for that, it doesn’t seem out the realm of possibilities for her.

After all, there are so many things she wants to do. She wants to live “one hundred years” because she has so many stories to tell.

But since Bageiu has already been knighted, I don’t think any of us should worry about what the future holds for her.

Library Con at Petworth Neighborhood Library & Comics by Women

library-conYesterday, I was a speaker at Library Con at the Petworth Neighborhood Library. It was a small, mostly family-oriented event but well-organized and fun. I am always going to be a fan of events that make comics — of all genres and styles — more accessible to more people.

I first saw Jacob Mazer of Animal Kingdom Publishing discuss his work and the anthology of comics, prose, poetry and criticism he edits. It’s still a young publication, but I definitely think there’s room in the world for more things like this, allowing comics to reach audiences they may not otherwise. Not everything in the second issue is to my tastes, but there is some thought-provoking work in it.

Then I saw Gareth Hinds, whose adaptation of Romeo and Juliet came out last year. He talked about always loving to draw as a child and comics ended up coming naturally to him. He worked in video games for a long time before quitting to create graphic novels full-time. He broke down his process for each book and I was interested to hear he changes techniques and styles for each specific book. He also spoke about the challenges of adapting classic literature.

After that, it was my turn. I talked about comics by women (what else?) and I think it went well for it being such a big topic. My concept was not to give history but offer up titles that people can buy right now. I had a good discussion with the attendees too.

You can download my PowerPoint presentation or a PDF of it, but I’ve also created a list of the creators and titles I discussed below (with links to their websites where appropriate).

I have reviewed some of these books and written more about some of these creators. You should be able to find what you need through the tags.

History/background

 lumberjanesMainstream: Superheroes

Mainstream: Sci-fi/Fantasy

Children and Young Adult Comics

marblesAutobiographical

Manga

  • Kyoko Okazaki: Pink, Helter Skelter
  • Moto Hagio: A Drunken Dream, The Heart of Thomas
  • Takako Shimura: Wandering Son
  • Moyoco Anno: In Clothes Called Fat, Insufficient Direction

UK, Europe and Around the World

  • Mary Talbot: The Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, Sally Heathcoate: Suffragette
  • Isabel Greenberg: Encyclopedia of Early Earth
  • Julie Maroh: Blue is the Warmest Color
  • Marguerite Abouet: Aya series
  • Rutu Modan: Exit Wounds, The Property

strong-femaleOnline comics

Minicomics & cutting-edge creators

Through the WoodsPublishers, groups and events

Top Picks of Comics by Women for 2014

Comics & Medicine Conference 2014: From Private Lives to Public Health

comics-medicineI heard it a few times when I mentioned I was going to the Comics & Medicine Conference 2014 — “I’m surprised there’s enough about that for there to be an entire conference.”

I would always happily point out that one of the top-selling graphic novels in recent years is an autobiographical tale about a girl’s experiences with dental trauma.

I am, of course, talking about Raina Telgemeier’s Smile.

And after mentioning that, people do begin to realize just how huge the topic of comics dealing with health, illness and medicine can be.

In so many ways, comics are uniquely suited to communicating about health, whether it’s personal stories or instructive information. After all, comics marries visual elements with words and it becomes more effective than either one could be alone.

I attended Comics & Medicine as a guest of Small Press Expo (we were one of the sponsors) and while I was only able to attend on Saturday, I was so thrilled I got to go.

To be clear: This was, at its core, an academic conference. While many comic creators were involved, the focus was on presenting papers and sharing knowledge. This was absolutely reflected in the sessions I attended.

The presenters from Shared Experience: Time, Transformation and The Unknown

The presenters from Shared Experience: Time, Transformation and The Unknown

The first featured Nicola Streeten discussing a project she was involved in where she told a story from the perspectives of both the doctor and the patient. Army Capt. Joshua M. Leone presented his paper about how comics can help servicemembers heal from trauma through the closure they can provide. MJ Jacob shared personal insights into how creating comics — or being unable to — helped her deal with her depression in unexpected ways. (Henny Beaumont was scheduled but unable to attend.) All three presenters were discussing personal stories — whether they were their own stories or someone else’s — and how comics could provide different perspectives and connection to the world in an intimate and powerful way.

I then attended most of the Health Education and Accessibility presentations, which brought up topics I hadn’t thought much about. Two from Research Triangle Institute International discussed their process of creating two comics in partnership with Naval Health Research Center and Headquarters Marine Corps to help servicemembers with psychological stresses. Dana Marlowe then discussed accessibility issues when it comes to online comics.

Ellen Forney

Ellen Forney presents Marbles

The outreach to military servicemembers — both in terms of creating comics for them and helping them create their own comics — seemed to be a small focus of the conference. I was unable to attend it, but James Sturm did discuss some of the work he’s done with a VA medical center in Vermont. Overall, the therapeutic aspects of comics is one most people there seemed very excited about exploring further.

Ellen Forney was the final keynote speaker for Saturday. She presented in abbreviated form the first two chapters of Marbles, her honest, emotional and informative account of learning she had bipolar disorder and then learning to cope with it. It was book I’ve read and loved (it’s a tough read in places but also fun and often funny) but I didn’t quite realize until Saturday just how educational it was. She outlines not only her personal experiences with bipolar disorder but also offers a great deal of factual information about it and its treatment.

And I think that was really the best part of this experience — I certainly felt like I knew about the connection between comics and issues of health, illness and medicine, but I began to realize just how much comics had taught me about these subjects. Reading Marbles, I didn’t realize how much about mental illness I was actually learning. And I know that Smile often gets passed between young friends when they first get their braces. I also think about the delightful work people like Cathy Leamy (who it was great to see briefly!) when it comes to issues of women’s health (Mindful Drinking was one of my favorite comics from last year, period!).

crowd

Attendees shop in the marketplace after the conference presentations

I think more so than anything else, comics offer an easy point of connection. Maybe you don’t want to watch a graphic video of a surgery; maybe a medical text is too dry; but a comic can find the right balance of personal, informative and entertaining.

As someone who is not in the field of health or medicine, or even someone who really creates comics, it was incredibly inspiring to see what wonderful work all these people are doing. I know I left wanting to know more and how I can contribute to this field somehow.

(Special thanks to conference organizer Lydia Gregg and John Hopkins University for hosting.)

Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki at Politics and Prose

Mariko Tamaki, left, and Jillian Tamaki at Politics and Prose on May 17, 2014

Mariko Tamaki, left, and Jillian Tamaki at Politics and Prose on May 17, 2014

Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s discussion of their new graphic novel, This One Summer (First Second/Groundwood Books, 2014) at Politics and Prose on May 17 was introduced by what seemed like an unlikely choice: A young man named Frans. In his metal T-shirt and camouflage pants with long hair and a beard, he didn’t seem like someone who would be too into a young adult graphic novel about two girls created by two women. But that was the point: Frans told us that while he came into comics through ’90s titles like Cyberforce, he found a lot to connect with in This One Summer.

If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.

For about an hour, the Tamaki cousins discussed their book and their work overall in an intimate chat, taking questions from the audience of a few dozen. The two had a playful, easy chemistry with each other, which showed why they are such effortless collaborators.

Many questions focused on their creative process. Mariko said she gives Jillian a script that’s written in a play format, but mostly trusts what Jillian will do with it. And the idea of “trust” was a big theme in how they work with each other. Jillian said she felt entitled to ignore some of Mariko’s dialogue and direction, and Mariko was OK with that, saying that most of those things were for her own understanding.

As opposed to their first collaborative graphic novel, Skim, this story was more complicated so there was more back and forth and more editing (and many Skype conversations). Both spoke of the strengths comics as an artform has — Mariko said that part of writing comics is writing very sparsely and letting the visual elements do much of the work.

Many people had questions about the editing process for this book and comics in general. The Tamakis did a lot of their own editing, but they did work with their publishers. They both said they were fortunate to have publishers who understand what they’re doing and because they did Skim, both publishers knew what sort of subject matter to expect.

That led to a question if they were ever forced to make changes. Mariko said they never felt forced to make any changes and Jillian said she didn’t know why anyone would be surprised by what they were creating. Mariko said that the things that define “young adult” literature have changed and Jillian added most kids aren’t going to pick up a book unless it has edgier elements in it.

When asked about writing about female protagonists, Jillian shrugged it off. She said she only wants to make books she wants to read and she doesn’t understand the trends. She’s more interested in realism and didn’t think, at the time, that Skim was really a YA book. Mariko commented that the subtitled on the mini-comic version of Skim was “This is the diary of Skim Takota. So fuck off” and she wasn’t interested in writing to market. She said she can’t write a dystopian adventure story and her characters would be “the first two characters to be killed off in the Hunger Games.

Both talked about the hard realities of doing what they do. As much as Jillian loves making comics, it’s subsidized by the other things she does — teaching, illustration work and more. Because of that, she said “I should just make the comics I want to make.” Mariko laughed about having to teach a class about working as a writer and said it should’ve been a class on “Working four jobs.” But both felt their other jobs is what gives them material and depth and keeps them motivated. Jillian said she creates comics for comics audiences primarily, since they’re the ones who know the medium. If others like it, then that’s just a bonus.

They joked about the differences between U.S. and Canadian literature — mostly that Canada isn’t into that whole “hero” thing but instead, just surviving, and they liked that Canadian literature is full of “cranky, frustrated women.”

When asked about how she’s able to convey such subtle emotions, Jillian offered this advice: “If you want to learn how to draw, make a comic.” She’s someone who’s still learning and growing as an artist, despite her years of experience. Mariko offered her praise, saying that in anyone else’s hands, the moments Jillian draws would be melodramatic.

As a perfect summary to the talk, as the two discussed their expectations for This One Summer going forward, Mariko said simply “What I wanted this book to be, it already is.”

But if the reaction from everyone — including Frans — is any indication, it’s going to be much more than that.

(Also on Saturday was the Gaitherburg Book Festival. I have a few photos and few thought on Tumblr.)

Lynda Barry at the National Book Festival

lynda-barryWhy do we enjoy art? Why do we want to make art? I’m not sure if Lynda Barry knows the answers to these questions, but she’s someone who is going to find out.

Her presentation at the National Book Festival on Sept. 22 was hilarious and insightful and it’s really hard to do it justice by writing about it (I think video should be up on the National Book Festival website eventually). Her points where made mostly through anecdotes which were all entertaining. The 45 minutes she was allotted weren’t nearly enough (sadly, there was too much glare on the screen so she abandoned using her slideshow).

She started her talk by saying this was the sort of thing she would’ve made up when she was in the second grade — she gets invited by the Library of Congress to talk to a bunch of people! — and her delight at being in front of this crowd was always clear. She said art was a form of “transportation.” Basically, since she had drawn a picture, she got to be here. And while that’s a really simple way of looking at it, when Barry says it, it’s absolutely true. Art can and does take us places.

She talked a bit about her family life (making jokes about her amazing Filipino grandmother and her Norwegian heritage) before asking the audience to remember their first phone number and say it out loud (I, sadly, do not remember mine). In our minds, our phone numbers are images. This introduced the recurring theme throughout her talk — that we are attracted to and attached to images.

She told a few funny stories about the objects children get attached to, including one friends’ daughter had named Mr. Banana. She joked that when you ask kids if their favorite stuffed toy is “alive,” they know you’re a grownup messing with them. But when you ask if their favorite stuffed toy is dead, it completely changes. Objects have meaning beyond their physical reality.

She then joked about how she never had an imaginary friend as a kid and tried to make one up — an imaginary imaginary friend, but that didn’t quite work. She knew she’d never succeed because she had a friend who had an imaginary friend named Sprinkles that she could only talk to through a fan. Nothing about that was rational, which made it both satisfying and real.

Because of that kind of thing, Barry said she always likes talking to kids. They’re honest and intense in their play. And play is essential to who we are. She basically said adults are crazy because we don’t play enough (that’s something I absolutely agree with).

Probably the most powerful story she told was about research into mirror therapy. People who have phantom pain after having a limb removed often feel better after they see the opposite limb relax in a mirror. The only way to resolve pain is to see it reflected, she said. And that’s what art does. We can hear a song or read a book or see a painting and suddenly feel like we’re understood. It lessens our pain because it’s reflected back at us.

Consuming art is fine, she said, but making art is better. That’s what makes life worth living. It’s not about if it’s “good” or “bad” — it’s about doing it, about expressing something. It’s a good lesson for everyone.

And that reminds me: I’ve done some abstract paintings off and on in the past year. I said to someone that “Oh, they’re not good but I don’t really care.” This person told me “They’re good because you made them.” That seems to be Barry’s point, ultimately. All art is good if you’ve made it. So just go make it.