Tag Archives: cartooning

Recommended Reading: Comics and Graphic Novels

As some of you may know, I am a cartoonist and graphic novel fan in addition to my regular duties blogging here at FWD. While I don’t get the “HEY ANNAHAM WHAT COMICS AND STUFF DO YOU LIKE TO READ?” query too often, I thought it might be useful to give an overview of graphic work that I think FWD readers and commenters might enjoy. Many of my recs have to do with illness and disability; a few, however, don’t. I’m always working on a new cartoon of some sort (mostly single-panel or multiple pages), and want to share the fruits of my research with folks who may want to read graphic novels, but have no clue where to start. Alternatively, some of these might make useful gifts for the holidays, either for the comics fan in your life or for yourself!

Lynda Barry: This woman is pretty much my hero. Although Barry has a background in art, her work shows that you don’t have to draw comics “realistically” for them to have an impact, or for the artwork to be strikingly beautiful. I probably would have stopped drawing autobiographical cartoons long ago were it not for her work; I do not have much artistic training to speak of, and there seems to be a widespread misconception that only “trained” artists can draw cartoons worth reading! While Barry does not address disability in her cartoons, many of her colorful slice-of-life strips bring readers back to the confusing and bizarre world of childhood and adolescence. If you were — or are — a “weird kid,” you will absolutely connect with Barry’s comics. Her 2008 creativity manual-slash-collage dreamworld What It Is may be particularly useful for the artists (or wannabe-artists), or indeed anyone who needs a push to start writing and creating; a follow-up, The Near-Sighted Monkey Book, was recently released. For those not familiar with her work, I recommend The Greatest of Marlys (a compilation of her long-running alternative comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek) and the autobiographical collection One! Hundred! Demons! to start, followed by What It Is; for those of you who like darker material involving (fictional) teenaged misadventures, drug use, and general weirdness, her illustrated novel Cruddy is a must-read.

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home (2006): Known primarily as the writer and illustrator of the alternative comic Dykes to Watch Out For (also worth checking out!), Bechdel really hits her stride with this lengthier autobiographical tale of family drama, the tensions between appearances and reality, destructive secrets, and sexual awakening. I could provide a synopsis, such as “This is a story about the writer’s complex relationship with her father,” but it is so much more than that. This is one of those books that I want to recommend to everyone who enjoys reading; it’s a work that rewards the time put into it tenfold. I get something new out of it every time I re-read it. The way that Bechdel draws facial expressions is nothing short of priceless, and the narrative as a whole is consistently amazing, complex, and intense.

Al Davison, The Spiral Cage (1989): This one can be sort of hard to track down, but: it’s very much worth the effort. Davison has spina bifida, and this graphic novel chronicles his life with both that condition and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/M.E. The result — with its many nods to surrealism, and interesting explorations of masculinity and disability, as well as spirituality — is an honest, beatifully written and illustrated look at life with multiple disabilities.

Rantz Hoseley (editor) et al., Comic Book Tattoo (2008): Do you like (or love) Tori Amos’ music? Do you enjoy comics? If so, this is probably an anthology that you will get lost in for a couple of days. I was way, way into Tori’s music before I discovered comics and graphic novels, and the amazing range of this anthology — a collection of short graphic works and interpretations inspired by the singer’s massive back-catalog — makes it worth a look. For a compendium with such a huge variety of artistic styles and song interpretations, this collection has very few duds, and the overall quality of the stories included makes it worth the $30 price tag. This is not an anthology that you will read only once and then shove it onto the bookshelf to collect dust, in other words.

Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner (with illustrations by Frank Stack), Our Cancer Year (1994): Comics writer Harvey Pekar (he died earlier this year) was known as the cranky protagonist of American Splendor, but this collaboration with his wife, peace activist and journalist Joyce Brabner, brings illness and disability into the mix, and the result is positively great. Although the Pekar-Brabner-Stack team do not gloss over the realities of cancer at all — there are ample panels, and pages, that show the gruesome, life-altering effects of testicular cancer and its harsh treatment protocol — one does not get the sense that showing the worst aspects of this disease is for shock value. As Pekar and Brabner assert at the start of Our Cancer Year, this graphic novel is not just about cancer — it is also about partnership, the everyday (or not-so-everyday), and life.

David Small, Stitches (2009): For a full-length graphic work that doesn’t use much text or dialogue, this is certainly an astonishing piece. Small, who is a children’s book illustrator, utilizes his unique artistic style for this memoir, which tells the affecting tale of his battle against cancer — and near-fatal family secrets — starting when he was 11 years old. Small’s success at creating an overarching mood in this book is difficult to describe; all of the seemingly small choices that he makes as an author and illustrator here add up to a memoir that is both harrowing and ultimately life-affirming. In a review of Stitches for PopMatters, writer Sean Ferrell comments that “[the] book does not exemplify rising above, it exemplifies the continuing, life-long struggle to release the toxic histories we drag around with us.” It is truly to Small’s credit that he has used such painful past experiences to create an unforgettable work.

Commenters, what are some of your favorite comics and graphic works?

Things That Make My Life/Art Easier: Pens

As s.e. wrote about in a post earlier this week, I am a cartoonist in addition to all the other crap that I do. I’ve been drawing (and writing) for most of my life, and finding the perfect pen has been something of a wild turkey-chase with mixed results. I know that an entire post devoted to pens may seem silly, particularly given the more serious things that I have written about here on FWD. Re-reading some of Amanda‘s Things That Make My Life Easier posts has inspired me to write about…well, writing (and drawing) implements, because the right ones do make things easier for me.

I first read about the pain-reducing benefits of felt-tip pens in the second edition of Starlanyl and Copeland’s Fibromyalgia and Chronic Myofascial Pain: A Survival Manual; the authors, both medical professionals, include the use of felt-tip pens in a lengthy list of tips designed to reduce pain on an everyday basis. Felt-tip pens tend to be easier on the hands and joints. My one huge issue with felt-tips, however, is that many of them produce stronger lines than I would like. This is more of a problem when I attempt to use them for artistic purposes, as I don’t mind a little more heft in my hand-written notes and scribbles. I do use felt-tips on occasion in my cartoon work — especially for panel borders and heavy lines — just not very often.

Felt-tips are good for writing, but depending upon what sort of lines you’d like in your artistic works, the ease of use that felt-tips produce may be their only advantage. Obviously, they’re not the greatest for detail work. I tend to shy away from brushes and pens that require the use of an inkwell or a separate bottle of ink, as the gorgeous lines one can produce with those tools so often translates into absolute hell on my hand and wrist joints, plus a lot of repetitive motion from dipping the brush or pen into the ink and bringing it back to the page (which often equals further hell).

Ball-point pens that don’t have a lot of ink “flow,” in my experience, aren’t great for cartooning either, though they can be useful for storyboards and quick sketches. The ball-points that have worked the most effectively for me have been the “business”-type pens that most folks associate with actual business work. Perhaps people in business have to write things quickly and therefore cannot depend on crappy ball-points and/or face the frustration that inevitably arises when said crappy ball-point runs out of ink. Non-crappy ball points, such as the Uni-ball line of products, may be a bit more expensive than “traditional” ball-points, but if you want a smooth line that is not going to translate into extreme wrist or hand pain, a “business” pen of this sort might be for you.

Another pen type with which I have had some success has been actual drawing pens; many brands are available at art-supply stores or bookstores. I have found that experimentation with different types of pens is a good bet, if you’ve got the time for it (and assuming that you are cool with dropping a couple bucks on pens that might be either awesome or a total disaster). The Preppy fountain pen, made by Japan’s JetPens, may be a good bet for people who would like to experiment with fountain pens and the lines that these pens can create, but who may not have the time, energy or inclination to use a more traditional fountain pen (it has a reloadable ink-cartridge system that is very convenient). There is also the Stabilo brand, which I discovered quite by accident in the clearance rack of an art supply store (I bought a couple specifically because they were on sale). I use the Point 88 type because it’s light, comfortable to hold and can do excellent detail work, but your artistic/writing mileage may vary.

There is no “perfect” pen, of course, but there are some damn good ones out there if you’ve got the inclination to experiment.

Creative Work: Annaham in Print!

Some of our readers may be aware that our very own Annaham is, among many other things, a talented cartoonist who explores disability in her cartoons.

Line drawing of a woman in a bed, sitting up against the pillows as her eyes—popping out of her head—focus on her body parts, which have detached from their sockets and are floating around the room.

Writing about her experiences as an artist, Annaham says:

The fact that I consider myself a “disabled feminist cartoonist” may seem, to some, to be an almost hyperbolic adoption of the worst aspects of identity politics; the politics of identity, ability, and (mis)representation, however, are central to my work. In this fairly short comic, I want to put forth the idea that a condition such as fibromyalgia (which I have), and the theoretical perspective that it and similar conditions deserve, can be effectively represented via an explicitly visual form. Conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivity, lupus and certain types of arthritis are all “invisible” illnesses which can be disabling. As scholar Susan Wendell contends, however, those with invisible and disabling or potentially disabling conditions are subjected to constant scrutiny, doubt, and disbelief from those around them. There is no question that art is a powerful medium; my hope is that this project succeeds in both making the “invisible” illness experience visible via the form of comics, and in addressing the challenges facing a theory of invisible illness.

The zine ‘When Language Runs Dry’ recently published her piece ‘Invisibly Ill.’ Here’s a sample panel, and if you want more, you can pick up a copy all your very own!

A line drawing depicting a young woman from the shoulders up. She appears to be split down the middle of the image, with the left side showing her as "normal" and the right side showing her as covered in nails that are obviously causing her extreme discomfort. Her facial expression on the left is neutral; on the right, it is pained. Text above the image reads: "Elaine Scarry, in her seminal work <em>The Body in Pain</em>, notes that "To have pain is to have certainty; to hear about pain is to have doubt." Text below the image reads: "The nature of a condition such as fibromyalgia--where some who have it can 'inhabit' dual worlds, makes this disparity quite pronounced."

Here’s some more information about what’s in this edition of ‘When Language Runs Dry’:

Chronic pain is defined as pain that persists for more than six months. It is often mysterious and goes undiagnosed, but can stem from injury, illness, surgical complications, or can be an inherited condition. Because it is a condition that is invisible, pain often goes without treatment or validation. The chronic pain experience is not just about the physical sensations, but also has serious emotional and social implications.

Finding good information and meaningful dialog about chronic pain can be challenging. Many of the resources out there are very clinical, too general, or are written from outside the pain experience. There are few voices by folks with chronic pain about their struggles and how they keep living as full a life as possible. This zine attempts to begin to fill the empty space with a diversity of voices telling their stories. We hope that by publishing these essays people will feel a greater sense of permission to speak out. Further, we hope to create more community for those with chronic pain and their allies.

Hot off the presses, the third issue of this edited collection includes 4 new essays, a 15 page comic essay, contributor bios and reading/resource list. Themes include parenting with chronic pain, invisibility and chronic pain, and some ways we’ve found to survive and thrive in the face of ongoing illness.

(You can see more of Annaham’s work at her website.)