Sunday, December 03, 2006

Rapallo Report

(A castle filled with comics)

I was invited to Rapallo by Luca Boschi who is a walking encyclopedia about 20th Century Italian Pop culture specifically comics and animation. He is also a cartoonist and journalist and a member of a society of comics fans who hold an annual feste di comics in Rapallo. He got me on the guest list and, without telling me, got me into a lot more.

Rapallo is a seaside town. Cafes and restaurants line the street fronting the beach. The boardwalk (actually, more of a brickwalk) rings the semicircular beach. A leisurely stroll from one end to the other might take 30 minutes although judging by the median age of most of the Rapallans I saw this walk might take as long as two days. At one end, jutting into the bay, is the regulation boat rental closed for the season. At the other end, jutting out into the bay. is the regulation castle. It is a small castle that got kicked off the hill overlooking Rapallo by the other bigger, meaner castles.

Inside the castle was an exhibit from two schools of comics. As you walk in you see work by students from the comics school of Milan. My gang, the Scuola di Comics Internazional, filled the galleries on the second floor, or what is known in Italy as the first floor. When I arrived with the head of the comics school in Florence, Marco Bianchini, and his sweet wife, Novella, the rest of the school clan (5 or 6 former students and the Assistant Director, Sara Sasi) had only just arrived. We walked to the castle along the water gasping at the stunning beauty of the El Greco sky, the sharp hills rising from the sparkling water, and a sailboat on the horizon thoughtfully placed there for our cameras.

The first person I was introduced to at the castle exhibit was Ivo Milazzo, one of the few mass market Italian cartoonists whose work I can actually identify and admire. The Italians have a penchant for the American Western and on and off for many years Milazzo has drawn a feature called Ken Parker. One of the reasons I like Milazzo’s work is ‘cause it is nice and loose and he is not stingy with the black ink. Another reason is that I can usually follow his stories while still retaining my shamefully minimal abilities to read the Italian language. He is a nice guy and I never met anyone named Ivo before so I said his name as much as possible. He kept his distance for the rest of the night.

Ken Parker is rivaled in popular sales only by another Western character called, of all things, Tex. Tex is the longest running non-humor series in Italy now being drawn by my boss, Marco, along with a rotating stable of 5 or 6 other cartoonists of the “realistic” school of comics.

“Realistic “ is an interesting choice to describe Tex. Of the 300 page story he is working on, Marco told me that he hands in about 20 pages at a time for approval. He got a call about one scene that he had drawn where Tex is beating down a door. Now you can imagine that beating down a door with one’s bare fists takes some exertion, even if you are a beefy chappy like Tex. So Marco drew his face in a grimace indicating masculine exertion. “Uh-uh,” said the editor, “Too much masculine exertion. Change the face.” Tex, it seems, is only allowed to show a minimum of masculine exertion. In fact, I am told, that Tex only has four facial expressions, well, actually five, if you count “affection”, but this is used so rarely that even Tex scholars keep it in the footnote category.

Tex has a sidekick, named, I kid you not, “Pard”, as in “Pardner”. I assume that this is the guy’s full name as he is never called anything other than, “Pard”. “Don’t forget to bring home a quart of milk after your 12:00 showdown with the Dalton gang, Pard,” Mrs. Pard calls from the screen door.

We went to a theatre where a presentation was being made about animation. As the speaker spoke about the process of making an animation the same 35 second loop of animation played behind him on a screen. I saw a guy’s head expand and burst 274 times.

Afterwards we stood around, sipped proseco, nibbled crackers and I caught up with the lives of my students who had graduated last year and whose work was being exhibited. A fellow who spoke English came up to me. He was German and had come to a lecture I had given last year in Erlangen. He is a huge comics enthusiast and had driven all day from Germany to come to Rapallo. Strange? As far as I could tell, the comics festival in Rapallo was not exactly a must-see event. It is organized by fans of comics for fans of comics. There are no tents with sellers booths, no people walking around in costumes. But take it from an insider, anything is possible when it comes to the mad passions of a fan boy. Still I felt that maybe I was missing something. He showed me his most prized possession: a sketchbook filled with sketches by famous artists. He trailed Robert Crumb for a full day finally cornering him coming out of a church in France somewhere. The sketch was very nice, but a little shaky.

The next thing I know we are headed to a restaurant that I had been told was very particular. “Particular” is one of those words Italians use that mean many things depending on how it is pronounced. I can’t begin to pretend that I really understand all of the word’s nuances but when Luca Boschi told me that this restaurant was “particular” he paused for a moment before saying “particular” and looked meaningfully off into the distance as if to see if there might be a better word, but nope “particular” it was, and is.

When we arrive I notice that comics characters had been brightly painted on the side of the restaurant. In fact, you cannot miss them. I was so amazed that while staring at an enormous The Phantom I walked smack into Dagwood and nearly broke my nose. But inside the restaurant the decorations were not merely gaudy wall paintings by a talented Rapallan art student. The walls were covered with framed hand drawn original comic art by…well, by just about everyone. They had to escort me to my seat.

On the way to my table I passed Herriman, Kelly, Gould, Opper, Segar, Caniff. Y’know the usual guys you see hanging around the walls of a restaurant in the middle of figgin’ nowhere. Then I sat down at my seat and my jaw, which I had just scraped off the floor hit my plate with a clank. There at my elbow, woven (not merely printed) into the rose colored linen tablecloth, were my pals Nancy and Sluggo.

Should you want to drop by some time for a plate of pasta with funghi or chicken braised with olives and white wine while admiring a full page Bushmiller Sunday from 1952, the name of this joint is U Giancu which was the name of the original owner and is also the name of the son who now runs it whose name is also Fausto. Confused? Don’t worry, everything at this place is a little askew and the tilt only got more pronounced as the evening fell into full swing and I met U Giancu/Fausto , himself.

He looks like Mr. Clean’s father-in-law. When we met, he knew who I was, poured me a gallon of wine and handed me a mound of pasta the size of Mount Rushmore. I was surprised to find out that many people seemed to know my name and came to shake my hand and pour me some more wine and before long I was having a very jolly time, indeed.

Fausto has a trademark. Every time he goes into the kitchen he comes out with plates of grub in his massive arms and a different knit watch cap on his bald head. How could I tell they were different? When I first met him he there was a miniature golf player on the cap. Every time Fausto moved his head the duffer swung his little plastic putter. Over the course of the evening I saw him in caps featuring a variety of animals, Spiderman, a glass rocket ship, and, I believe, a toilet.

After dinner, Fausto stood on a chair in front of the bar and got the room silent which took a few moments. I figured that something good and weird was about to occur so I snagged a front row seat. He called up an elderly gentleman named Carlos Chendi who has been writing stories for Disney Italia for 40 years and presented him with a box. Oh, great, an awards ceremony. I have sat through many an awards ceremony in Italy since I have been here. At best they are dull.

I am siting there trying to figure out how to sneak out of my seat and get a good look at that Dick Tracy strip across the way when something really weird does, in fact, happen.

Carlos calls my name and I am shoved up to the front and presented with this box containing a plaque with my name on it commemorating this night. I am stunned but now I realize why all these guys knew my name thanks to my pal, Luca Boschi, I am the surprise honored guest, but the surprise is on me. Fortunately, I do not make too big of a fool of myself and remember to say nice things about Italian hospitality and the high quality of the output of Fausto’s kitchen.

(Fausto, Carlos, Paul, Luca)

After they dispense with me they give out some serious awards to cartoonists who have really worked hard this year and deserve recognition. As the ceremony concludes more people shake my hand, but a couple of honest guys ask me, “Just who are you, anyway?” At this point I am able to pull out the brand spanking new copy of “Citta di Vetro” which had just been released as a deluxe newsstand edition that very day. When they see David Mazzucchelli’s name on it, they grin, shake my hand again, and pour me some more wine.

(Milazzo endulges a fan. Note Raymond and Caniff in background)

Soon it is time for dessert and I learn the true purpose of the evening and why that German guy drove all day to get here. Fausto sits me down and, asking me if I would mind drawing some pictures for a few fans, pours me a stiff grappa. I look around and see that these fans from the Society are all scurrying around from table to table to get sketches from all of the artists and the 10 watt bulb in my head flickers to light.

As I continue to draw a miracle occurs along the lines of the loaves and fishes; my grappa glass never appears to be empty and I know for sure that I was tossing those babies back. But that is about all of which I am certain. From that point on the evening gets a bit fuzzy.

When I come to it is the next morning and I am not sure how I got to the hotel. I crawl to the bathroom and look at my sorry face in the mirror. On my head is a knit cap on top of which is bouncing a bobble-headed Topo Gigio grinning ear to ear.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Lucca Report 2006

In most ways this years’ comics festival in Lucca was a huge improvement over the one I attended last year. By moving the festival inside the walls, which surround of the city, the business of comics festivals (the meetings, the networking, and the commerce) improved dramatically. Also improved was the fun of comics festivals (the collecting, the trading, and the hemorrhaging of the credit card). But many would agree that the biggest improvement of all was only having to walk one minute out of any of the dozen or so massive tents to find a great cappuccino.

In past years the festival has been held outside the city walls, inconveniently located in a run- down parking lot a good 30-minute walk to the center of cappuccino. Hence people were always running late for luncheon meetings, lectures, and staged reenactments of the battle of Zxon 5 from the 2nd volume of the “Worlds and Galaxies Untred Upon” trilogy: “Barf’s Revenge”. Hey, it’s hard to stage a faithful reenactment of a pivotal battle when your head Squatsch Sergeant is on the other side of town and he’s the guy with the enchanted crystal Burpon.

For the underinformed, the official title of this festival is “Lucca Comics and Games”. The Games part is big. All the major video game designers are present hawking their wares along with all of the fantasy card games, board games, and action figure games. I even saw a few guys squatting in semi-hiding behind one of the tents playing a craps game. I suppose they were embarrassed ‘cause their game is so old fashioned and has only two moving parts.

Along with the games territory comes the opportunity to get oneself dressed up as a favorite game character, especially if oneself is a girl between the ages of 15 and 20. There is even an entire area of the pavilion devoted to this activity called CosPlay, a clever and catchy combination of the words Costume and Platypus.

As I understand this (and remember I am a 50 year old American male, not exactly the informed audience for this particular activity), in CosPlay you and your buddies get dressed up in your favorites fantasy figures and put on small skits. I saw some robots and Stormtroopers go at it with black painted papertowel rolls.

But in many CosPlay plays the play is merely a vamp. Mostly I saw adolescent girls dressed in skimpy outfits posing with each other, pausing in tableaux, and then changing poses and pausing again. As far as I could tell the poses were not slides in an ongoing storyline, but just cool poses. It seemed merely odd to me until I looked around and saw a bunch of old guys drooling with cameras waiting for the next tableaux. I got the hell out of there, pronto.

A woman explained to me that CosPlay is actually a very creative activity for girls because a lot of them make their own costumes and write their own skits. It was described as a healthy alternative to the kinds of mischief many teenagers get mixed up in. Maybe so, but as far as I could tell the Vampirella and baby doll outfits that these girls poured themselves into outnumbered the Amazons, Valkeries and Presidents of Germany as role models by 10 to 1.

Not all costumed festival-goers indulge in the regimen of formal CosPlay. They simply get dressed up and wander around. Mostly it is long black robes and painted faces, but I noted an interesting fad: The Big Object trend. Lots of Big Swords and I mean BIG. Big Guns, Big Lightning Bolts, Big Shields, and Big Carpet Tubes Painted Black also known as Big Things. Why the Big Objects? Well, holding your symbolic icon lets others know immediately who you are just like those ancient frescoes of the Saints that pepper the interiors of Italian churches. So, on the very same day in Lucca, I saw two guys with Big Keys. One was peeling on the church wall: St. Peter. The other was peeing on the alley wall: Sargon the Magnificent.

In the States I do not think that you would get very far from the parking lot without someone making a big stink if you came dressed up as a girl in a black bikini scrambling around on all fours attached to a leash held by your black-faced boyfriend wearing black paper mache ram’s horns. I later learned that the boyfriend was one of my cartooning students from the Scuola di Comics in Florence. I am going to look at his work a bit differently from now on.

I guess the weirdest costume, though, was the guy in torn jeans and a tee-shirt who had a large metallic pyramid for a head. When I mockingly described this to my students they looked at me like an idiot and solemnly explained that he was dressed as a magic talisman from a game that everyone knows about a duh.

The antics of these dolts prancing around are all so silly and ridiculous. Look, I generally let my fellow man live his or her own life. I am tolerant if someone wants to spend their time and money participating in events like Nascar racing or Pet Shows. But Gaming?! I just don’t get it. Why don’t they devote themselves to something really important like, say Comics?

There were several huge white tents filled with comics vendors. I sat in the Coconino Press table because I am lucky enough to have my book, City of Glass (co-created by the great David Mazucchelli), printed by an outfit called Coconino Press. Coconino Press is an oasis of decent comics in Italy (meaning: they print stuff I like). The best thing that can be said about most Italian comics is that they are called ‘Fumetti’, or “little puffs of smoke” based on the design of word balloons, I suppose, but maybe it was someone’s idea that they should all be burned. (Hmmm…I think I may lose some friends, here.) Anyhow, let’s just say that of all of the 9 or 10 editions of ‘City of Glass’ the best and most beautiful by far is the one published by Coconino Press. (Oops, there go a few more friends). Plus I get to say the word “Coconino” a lot and it’s a fun word to say.

The Coconino boys sold a hell of a lot of books at Lucca. Foremost among these books was one that debuted at Lucca called “S” by the cartoonist, Gipi. As I have said elsewhere in this blog, two of Gipi’s short books are available in English from Fantagraphics ) and I won’t invite you to my birthday party if you do not buy these books right now and read them. I wondered why the seat next to Gipi was always vacant whenever I came back to the booth from my regular cappuccino breaks but after a while I realized how demoralizing a location it was for another author. It was not merely that everyone on the planet seemed to want this book (while I had to bribe several students to even come by to even say hello to me). No, the painful part was watching him, out of the corner of my eye, dash off one beautiful watercolor illustration after another with such ease. If I didn’t love this guy so much I would hate him.

Coconino invited another American, R. Kikuo Johnson to Lucca to sign copies of his swell debut book, “The Night Fisher”. Kikuo is a smart and good-humored fella who also draws well. We snuck out at sunset to climb one of the two towers remaining inside the city to look at the other tower. People in the other tower were doing the same. It felt like one of those surreal wordless French gag cartoons from the 60’s. Kikuo likes the Jack Kirby of the Big Ant era while I prefer Jack Kirby of the late Captain Victory era, and if you know what that means God have mercy on your sorry soul.

On the train headed back to Florence I was getting ready for a very important nap (what the Italians call a ‘pizzolino’, another word I love to say), an activity that Italian train seats are ergonomically designed to discourage, when a couple got into the seats across from me still buzzing from their thrilling day at the festival and anxious to talk to someone about it, even if that someone only understood about 12% of the Italian they were speaking.

For them, it was the best festival, ever in the universe. And I think they really meant it, too. You see, he was Kaloo from Kabu (or Kabu from Kaloo, I never quite got which) and she was his mortal enemy, Cassandra, from Plowman’s Planet. They were usually mortal enemies, but they had buried the hatchet for the Lucca Festival to demonstrate that interplanetary brotherhood was possible. After a while they gave up trying to talk to me and cuddled shamelessly. She caressed his spiked tail as he whispered sweet nothings into one of her six ears.

Where’s that guy with the Big Key? Lock me up, Scotty.

Who watches the Watchmen? R. Kikuo and me, that's who.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Barcelona Blog

It is Sunday afternoon and I am sitting in the Barcelona airport taking a little time to think and write about the past two days. Actually, I am taking plenty of time to do this due to my ongoing inability to tell the difference between 14:00 and 16:00.

I arrived in Barcelona two days ago and the first thing that raised my curiosity about this town were the directional signs in the airport. The arrow icons were in Spanish, Catalan, French and English. Rather that saying the usual, “EXIT”, the sign in English read, “WAY OUT”.

I have been here as a guest of Kosmopolis, what the promoters dub a “literary feast”. Well, it was literary, I’ll give ‘em that, but the feast amounted to an all-you-can eat supply of warm water, bottled juice, bad coffee and a bowl of tiny graham crackers in the guests’ lounge. To be honest, they also fed us a fine lunch that I skipped out on ‘cause I was afraid someone would ask me exactly what I thought I was doing there, a question that I would be hard put to answer. Kosmopolis, which roughly translates from Catalan as “Cosmic Metropolis”, is an annual contemporary arts exposition heavily funded by the City of Barcelona and the Cosmos. It includes things like speakers (me), workshop leaders (also, me), live music, installations, performance artists, technogeeks, and major gallery shows (all not me). I saw some super-cool stuff, and some fairly weird shit.

Let’s dispense with the super-cool stuff since it is less fun to write and read about. There were two monster exhibits. Bamako is the annual collection of the best photography from Africa. The other show was a bone chilling visual history of the Chernobyl disaster. Both great.

As to the weird shit; I sat in on a lecture about the future of computer game programming which sounded to me like a strategy session for alienating future generations from the bothersome and smelly business of human contact. Another workshop was about the future of high-speed information sharing where the information was shared slowly and, to me, largely incomprehensibly. A poetry slam in Catalan consisted of two heavy amplified bald guys yelling nouns at each other.

I suppose that my talk would fall somewhere in between “super-cool stuff” and “weird shit” depending on which side of the stage one sat. I spoke and showed slides describing the process of co-adapting (with David Mazzucchelli) Paul Auster’s novel, ‘City of Glass’ into a comic. I did this in English while two people sat in a booth to the right of the orchestra seats and tried to translate my comments into Catalan via little earsets worn by the audience. This was a bit disconcerting at first as I am used to having my speech translated simultaneously in class by the amazingly effective Italian translator, Vanessa Petrucci. Unfamiliar with both comics and my vague attempts at humor, the two translators struggled in the booth to make me sound coherent to the audience of Barcelonans. The windows of the booth began to fog up after about 15 minutes.

It might have seemed like weird shit to the audience of 500, but to me it was super-cool. From my viewpoint on stage I watched the audience stare at me blankfaced, turn their heads to the translation booth, then turn back to me with further mystification. Like watching people watch a tennis match.

Many events occurred simultaneously because Kosmopolis is housed in an enormous four-sided building with an open courtyard that was once the Barcelona orphanage. The building was in poor condition when the city gave it to the Cultural Council who proceeded to completely rebuild the interior and give it a 21st Century sheen. One of the four sides was a hopeless mess when bequeathed, so they just tore down that side and replaced it with chrome and glass and escalators.

Most of the other guests were high-minded literary types or future-thinkers. There seemed to be about a dozen Russian writers who traveled in a group with a fog of gray smoke resting on their shoulders. This was all good, ‘cause I didn’t have anyone to talk to and could come and go as I please.

I did a lot of walking around Barcelona. I walked to the Gaudi gardens, the Gaudi museum, and the Gaudi cathedral. I saw a lot of Gaudi. I strolled around in the old part of town, which is very easy to discern as all of the streets in the new part of town are built on a grid. The old town is a snarl of teeny streets opening onto courtyards. One snaking road led me to the Saturday morning market. It is a lot like the Centro Market in Florence except that in Barcelona they gaily display their dead rabbits hung by the feet with their appetizing fur still on.

The tiny streets, designed for pedestrian and horses but not SUV’s, reminded me of Florence, where I am now living and teaching, but with a few significant differences. Although Barcelonans talk on their cellphones plenty, it is not with the same fanaticism, as do the Italians. In Florence people look at you funny if you are walking down the street not talking on your cellphone. In Barcelona I saw many people walking down the street talking to each other as well as people walking down the street >gasp< silently.

I also deduced in my fact-finding in-depth tour of exactly three churches that Jesus and Mary appear to have switched roles from their Italian counterparts. In Italy Jesus is generally seen either peacefully alive or peacefully dead. Mary is generally seen suffering. In Barcelona every Jesus I ran into was twisted in agony while Mary had just returned from the hairdressers. In fact I went into one church and saw a local good churchlady up on the pedestal fixing the hem of Mary’s dress. It would take a better sociologist than I (like, say, a real sociologist, or perhaps my sister, Judy) to divine the divine meaning here, but in the U.S. we have both the peaceful Jesus and the peaceful Mary and look at the mess we are in.

The best part of my visit to Barcelona was not the stroll through the charming old streets, or the Gaudi, or the poetry slam. No the best thing by far was my hotel room. The apartment on Via San Gallo in Florence where I have been staying is clean and modern but it is also teeny. To take a shower I have to rotate in-place in the coffin-like shower stall and strategize my ablutions so that I do not run out of the four minutes of allotted hot water. In the modern and spacious hotel room in Barcelona I took the kind of shower I have been yelling at my daughters for years not to take and what is referred to in my house as a Hollywood shower. I meditated in the rain forest.

The other aspect of my Florence apartment that really has me looking for another place is the fact that I cannot seem to get a completely solid night of sleep without being woken up. And the cause is always some different. In the past three weeks I have been roused from slumber by: the baker across the street loading and unloading baked goods from his little truck, the mysterious guy down the block who comes and goes throughout the night, but instead of having a door he has one of those roll-up and roll-down metal store-front protectors that he loudly rolls-up and slams-down whenever he enters or leaves his place which is quite often throughout the night, people throwing stuff into the dumpster directly below my window (a favorite thing to throw out in the middle of the night appears to be brittle plastic objects), and let’s not forget (will I ever?) the guy who I thought had been stabbed but turned out only to have stomach problems that he wanted the entire block to know about as he vomited virtually non-stop for 20 minutes, pausing briefly from time to time to gasp for air and to curse the city of Florence, in front of the dumpster and then laid down right there.

I had not realized how starved I was for uninterrupted sleep until my first night in my three star Barcelona flat in a large bed with crisp sheets and triple-glazed, modern, sound-proof windows so that no intruding noise from the street below could wake me up. That was the first night.

The second night I stayed out late and staggered home in anticipation of Little Paulo In Slumberland. I laid me down to sleep and those triple-glazed windows did their magic. Unfortunately I did not have a triple-glazed door at around 3 AM. Bone rattling raw mega-decibels sawed through the wood. Evidently the British couple next door was having a bit of a tiff. I could not get the salient details, even though I stood shamelessly in my underwear in the dark with the water glass from the bathroom pressed against the door as I have seen in the movies. The gist of the spat appeared to have had something to do with her walking into the room while he was having sexual intercourse with another woman. “You said you fookin’ loved me, you fook!!!”

He landed out in the hall while she yelled, no, really screamed at him. He tried to pretend that everyone else up and down the hall was not also listening with their water glasses pressed to their doors. Almost shyly he repeatedly asked her to: “C’mon, the door.”. Eventually he gave up that nice-guy tactic in favor of, “Open the fookin’ door you fookin’ fook!!!”

Eventually she let him back in. This turn of events was shortly followed by the sound of scuffling, thrown objects hitting the wall and breaking, and what I think was the sound of spraying water. The management let this go on for a half hour or until they were certain that nobody was actually being murdered and that every other guest in the joint was awake (Management has principles, after all) and eventually some guys came in and pulled them apart. I wish I could give you a detailed account of the dénouement and describe the black eyes and torn clothing, but a hard-hitting crackerjack crime reporter I ain’t. I cowered behind my door and creeped back into bed to try to make up for lost zzz’s. But I couldn’t go back to sleep.

I don’t think that I have every heard such a fight in my sheltered life. When my parents fought it was with multi-syllabic words through clenched teeth over strategy for enacting public policy for the disabled. When my wife and I fight we generally choose stone cold silence (although I am prone to mutter what is really on my mind under my breathe like a steam valve on a pressure cooker). I tell you, I was rattled.

In the morning at the remarkably taste-free free breakfast (how do they do that?) I scanned the couples to see if I could detect the guilty, but everyone else was doing the same. The place was filled with more fake ear-to-ear grinning than ever witnessed before in the dining hall of the Gran Ronda Hotel, Barcelona. It was WAY OUT.

Former orphanage

Thoughtfully placed signs everywhere in case I lost myself.

Saints and Sinners for sale.

3 Wise Men and 3 Wise Guys for sale, too.


This just in from one of my sharp-eyed students, Corrado, from the Scuola di Comics Internazionale in Roma. More Sacred and Profane combinations viewed through a plate glass window. Mussolini, Che, and the Pope. Anyone else have a contribution?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Luzern Report

I advise you to go to the Comics Festival held annually in Luzern if you want to see some very interesting contemporary comic art without a lot of commercial hawking, or if you feel like getting away from it all and, just for the hell of it, spend a lot of money. I could go on and on about how expensive things are in Luzern and come to think of it, gosh darn it, I think I will.

Sometimes I get hungry and when this happens I like to eat. I went to a restaurant. Not some fancy place with a curtain over the front window to ward off those pesky customers, but a dumpy place with a lot of young people inside smoking and drinking beer. I found out why they were not also eating when I was served a pile of potato slivers covered with melted cheese and served in a tub of crème di cholesterol. The sum total of ingredients came to about $0.37, the sum total of the bill came to about $27.50, and I came to on the floor with nice people pouring beer in my face.

The local people I came in contact were seemed very “nice”. Everyone smiled a lot. When I went into a store to buy an English newspaper the storeowners smiled a lot. I tried to speak in French/German to ask for directions, they still smiled a lot. As each painful syllable dribbled down my chin and landed with a thud they continued to smile a lot, but I could see the wife impatiently tapping her foot while the husband eyed my wallet with suspicion. The smile muscles on their necks throbbed.

The festival that these folks put on really is exciting. Here’s how it works: sprinkled throughout the small city are a dozen or so exhibits, installations, really, featuring an international array of comic artists. You are given a booklet with a list and a map and set off to fend for yourself. This is probably not a problem for most European festivalgoers, but it seems that when I am dropped into a new foreign town with twisting streets inherited from the Bronze Age I suddenly have the sense of direction of a toothbrush.

Nevertheless, I stumbled across some very fine exhibitions.

There are a bunch of guys from Hong Kong who call themselves,”Springrollll”. They created a fascinating exhibit of drawings, comics, and dolls that had something to do with the history of Hong Kong, or maybe not, but it was very cool.

Jonathon Rosen was one of the few Americans exhibiting and he ate up a few walls with a few massive paintings while visitors in the adjoining room were hypnotized by his mesmerizing and inventive film in which something may have happened.

A group of students from der Ecole d’Arts Applique aus Genf created an installation on the walls in 3D where you were handed a pair of those 3D glasses as you entered. I think that it was a wrap around cityscape, or Martian landscape, but it might have been the inside of a Salvatore Dali’s refrigerator. They were also doing some very sophisticated screen printing on sight under the watchful eye of their printmaker/teacher Christian Humbert-Droz, whom I spoke to in the courtyard outside the exhibit while two of his most accomplished students gave a third student an art installation hair cut that spelled out the name of their favorite band.

Anke Fruchtenburger makes really nice drawings and her exhibit in which large frames from a comics story wrapped around four interior gallery walls was stunning. It was about a girl who had a problem, I think.

Finally, under the train station there was an exhibit that I really did understand. It included works by about eight artists who all work in some kind of comics/illustration reportage. The work was very linear and concrete because it was all based on reporting about real places and events. On artist named (Yves) Noyau particularly stood out for me even though here he was only represented by some open sketchbooks:

Also in this exhibit was the work of my pal, Ulli Lust, whom I met at the Napoli Comicon. Ulli’s work in this show was a report about the town of Luzern itself. She is considering dropping her last name when she travels out of town because of the eyebrows and expectations that it raises. She has a cool website:

Ulli invited me and fellow American cartoonist, Peter Blegvad, to tag along to a dinner she had been invited to by some Finnish cartooning students. Free meal? At this point the numbers on my credit card had been worn down to nothing so I gladly assented.

Turns out that these students were staying in the house of some chums who were out of town for the weekend. Eventually we thought that we had found the house. But it looked so run-down that it was hard to tell. There was a good reason that it looked abandoned: it was! These kids were squatters and the place is set for demolition sometime soon. Sad and filthy stuffed animals stuck to the windows looked down on us as we tossed gravel at the second floor windows to get someone’s attention. One of the young women came down and welcomed us in explaining that, if for any reason we had to leave, the only way to reenter was to slide one’s tiny European hand through the mail slot and reach around to the functioning doorknob on the inside of the door. Looking down at my size 12 American mitt I entertained the idea of staying outside. Climbing the dark twisting staircase I was overcome by the strong suspicion that several male cats may possibly be in residence.

The flat brought back to mind an apartment I had visited a few times in Washington, D.C. back in the early-70’s that had been decorated in the same kaleidoscopic fashion one might call “Louis the 14th Hippie”. One of the hallmarks of such décor is that virtually every vertical surface is decorated with something…anything, and all of the horizontal surfaces are decorated with stuff that people left there sometime in the past.

The students could not have been more delightful, however, nobody was exactly certain what to do about dinner. I shooed them out of the kitchen, since I love to cook, and since, judging by the state of the kitchen I figured that I wanted to know exactly which of the available ingredients were going into my dinner. There was no refrigerator and maybe that was a good thing because when stuff is rotting out in the open it is more likely to get thrown away. I made a nice, simple pasta. It does not take too much to make a nice, simple pasta and here is the secret. Cook the pasta correctly (lots of water, lots of salt in the water, don’t overcook) and make sure that whatever else you put on top of it, you put in something peppery and something sweet. If you have nothing else but olive oil, black pepper, a little honey and salt you will be fine. Especially if, prior to serving, the diners have already plowed their way through several bottles of wine.

A group of about eight of us had a jolly time. If you ever need a good dinner guest to enliven a table I suggest that you call Peter Blegvad. He tells great stories, asks interesting questions and pays attention to the answers.

About an hour after dinner we all decided that we needed more to drink and after going through all of the empties on the table as well as those scattered about on the floor we concluded that to do this we needed to actually get up from the table and navigate through the semi-functioning door. Rather than heading back into the nauseatingly quaint and pricey town center we took a left and after walking a block or two we actually encountered people who did not have the same color skin as ours and bars that did not require a second mortgage to purchase a beer.

When I came to in my room at the I-Kid-You-Not “Hotel Tourist”, it was the next morning and I spent my last few hours in Luzern receiving resuscitation from the magnificent collection of Paul Klees drawings and paintings at the Rosengart collection. If you ever need a cure for a hangover, three solid rooms of Paul Klee will do the trick.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Rule 17

Judge a Book by it's Cover

I have not stepped foot in any of these Florentine hotels. They might all be swell. These are my own highly scientific empirical observations based on walking by them or looking at their names in the Yellow Pages:

The River Hotel: It is not very close to the River.

The Pitti Palace Hotel: Fewer and smaller rooms than the namesake. Also less art on walls.

The Golf Hotel: The closest golf course is Luigi’s mini-golf in Prato.

Hotel Michelangelo: Michelangelo designed some of the greatest bits of architecture in the city. Critics laud his staircase to the Medici Library with its bizarre half staircase that leads magnificently into the rest of the staircase. Needless to say he did not have a hand in the design of the Hotel Michelangelo.

Mona Lisa Hotel: There may be a reproduction of Leonardo’s painting in the lobby.

Hotel Souvenir: It’s a hotel and a t-shirt!

Canada Hotel, Arizona Hotel, and the Boston Hotel: Good choices if you are out late drinking and the only thing you can remember is where you were born.

The Real Hotel: It is.

The Jolly Hotel: It is not.

The Grand Majestic Hotel: It is neither.

Hotel Tina: Only people named Tina are allowed to register.

Dante Hotel: Seven rings of rooms each hotter than the last.

Real Hotel: Hope so. They paid good euros to be listed in the phone book.

Rex Hotel: Only for guys and their moms.

Hotel Airport: Owners couldn’t make up their minds. Is this a hotel or an airport?

California Hotel: Such a lonely place, such lonely place.

Residenza dei Pucci: Dogs welcomed.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Napoli Report

(signing at the Coconino Press booth. l. to r.: Gipi. Marco, Baru, Paul Karasik, Igort. Ever notice how all the GREAT cartoonist have only one name?)

From the Florentines, this is what I have learned about other Italians:

The Siennese are snobs.
The Luccans are xenophobes.
The Pisans are morons.
And people from Prato (right over the hill barely 20 minutes away, mind you) not only do not know how to drive, but they drive big, fancy new cars because they are show-offs.

Bring up the name of another town that you might be considering visiting, and everyone will have an opinion about what is wrong with the citizenry as well as with you for lacking the God-given common sense to want to go anywhere else in Italy. This animosity has been explained to me as a result of hundreds of years of turf wars where everybody was trying to take over everybody else’s towns. Italy did not become a Republic until 1861, and even now a Florentine can have trouble understanding the speech of a Sicilian should he be lacking God given common sense and find himself in Sicily (where, I am told, those barbarians do not know how to make a decent cup of coffee). In conversation, the mention of a trip to another town will merit at least one or two side-swipes, but mention that you are going to Naples and expect a head-on culture collision that will snarl-up conversational traffic for at least 30 minutes.

I made the mistake about bragging to some of my Florentine friends that I had been invited to attend the comics festival (from now on referred to as “Comicon”) in Naples and I am now qualified to write the guide book on why not to go there for a visit.

Florentine checklist:
In Naples:
DO be very, very careful whom you talk to.
DO look both ways and make sure your insurance is paid up before crossing the street.
DO accept directions from nobody, especially anyone in a uniform. (You will note that this last directive is a double-negative, or a double-positive, or something. I could not remember anything else that anybody told me to do that was draped in a positive tone.)

In Naples:
DON’T wear a Rolex.
DON’T accept opera tickets from a stranger because he will then know that you are out of your hotel room from 8-11 and take everything that is not bolted down, but they usually bring bolt-cutters, too.
DON’T forget to count your change.

My neighbor summed it up when he heard I was going by putting his hand gravely on my shoulder and explaining to me in terms that an American might understand that Naples is, ‘like the Wild West”.

The one thing that everyone begrudgingly admitted was that in Naples they do know how to make pizza, sort of.

Most of all, my Florentine sources informed me: do not expect to be treated well. The Neapolitans do not know how to treat a guest. “Spoil a guest” is one of the Italian Commandments right after, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s mother-in-law who makes really good gnocchi”.

They were wrong. As the guest of Comicon Napoli 2006, I was treated very well. The coordinators tried to make me feel as though I was right at home in America by providing me with a luxurious room at a Holiday Inn with a stunning view of some huge, ugly buildings (I was later informed by a Florentine that downtown Naples is thick with huge, ugly American-style skyscrapers because the Mafia runs the city and they are a bunch of thugs with no taste who like to pour a lot of concrete).

The Comicon itself was held in a castle. Yup, you read it right, a castle. Well, why not? Comicon…Castle! Get it? They both begin with the letter “C”, dummy! In a castle setting it is only marginally embarrassing to see grown men and women in medieval costume casting spells on one another and plunging cardboard swords through latex bodices. Can’t have a Comicon without those guys showing up. The subdued and tasteful lighting protected the delicate comic books and comic book readers from the natural light they so despise. And as far as I could tell, the infamous thieves of Naples were nowhere in sight due to the immediate presence of real dungeons directly beneath the Comicon.

Upon entering, I was set to do a book signing at a special desk with a beautiful new halogen lamp and swivel chair with the price tag still dangling. Wow! Unfortunately, the room I was to sign in was tucked behind a gallery wall so far off the beaten path that they had to send a rescue team in pith helmets to locate me with bloodhounds when the time was up. Fortunately, I had brought the crossword puzzle. unfortunately, it was in Italian. Actually, one comics fan did stumble upon me, took a quick look at my book (which contains exactly zero superheroes) and asked me if I would draw a picture of the super-character he had made up: Dinosman. My Italian has improved a little since I came here six months ago, but I think that I still missed a lot about the nature of Dinosman as described to me by this kid. As I understood and drew him, Dinosman is half man, half dinosaur, and one of his legs is either a rocket, a bazooka, or a cannoli.

If you do not know this about me already, in addition to making comics I like comics, too, especially old, stupid comics. I bought two old stupid comics at this comicon based on a purchase I had made last fall in Lucca when I bought a digest-sized comic called Gey Carioca featuring the comic adventures of the title character, a shapely gal. These adventures mostly consist of Gey losing her clothes and then trying to find odd objects lying around with which to cover herself.

At the first used-comics stand that I went to at the Napoli Comicon, one of these books just popped into my hands. I spent the next 20 minutes trying to find more issues with almost all of the vendors looking at the cover of this piece of trash I had lovingly clasped to my heart and then shaking their heads grimly saying, wordlessly that no, they had no other issues of Gey Carioca for sale, no, they had never seen Gey Carioca before, and yes, maybe I should seek professional help, the 24 hour on duty Comicon Psychologist was down the castle hall, third moat to the right.

The owner of the very last booth I went to was a grizzly guy who looked at the digest, snapped his fingers, and pulled a tabloid-sized version of Gey Carioca out of the 1 Euro bin. He knew that the artist was Paul Campani and he would be pleased to make this issue a gift with his compliments because he would just as soon be rid of the stupid thing. What I discovered back in the luxury of my luxurious Holiday inn room that night was that the Gey Carioca he had given me was done in 1948 and the digest I had first bought was printed in 1973. Both issues feature the same story but the later edition is completely redrawn panel-by-panel by Paul Campani who updated the hairstyles and cars but had also become a much better (or much worse, depending on one’s taste) artist in the intervening 30 years. I was also to learn from Alfredo Castelli (the great Italian comics historian and another Comicon guest) that Campani was one of the most important designers for early 60’s Italian T.V. animation and that his animation style set the standard for that pivotal era when suddenly every Italian home had a T.V. Thus Italian Baby-boomers recall his work vividly without knowing the guy’s name from the program “Carousel”. I was also told that “Carousel” which was broadcast at night, became the way many children learned to tell time because mothers across Italy told them that they had to go to bed right after “Carousel”: 8:00.

Well, that was more about nothing than I bet you expected to get into. But this is what happens when a comics geek gets his engines revved up. At least I didn’t ask you to draw me a picture of Dinosman.

(Note: In all Gey Carioca drawings above, the example on the left is from 1948 (more Milton "Terry and the Prirates" Caniff style) and on the right, completely redrawn in 1973 (more Bill "Mad" Elder style, but with 1970's hair).

As I made those scans yesterday, I took a closer look at Gey Carioca and now have my doubts whether the 70's version is, indeed, by the same guy, Paul Campani. Here's why: after you get beyond the hairstyle and hardware updates, and the fact that different formats called for different sized panels (and thus different compositions within those panels), the big difference between the two is the rendering. The 70's renderings of the 40's drawings are crisper and loonier (much more to my taste than the sub-standard Caniff rip-off that was so prevelant in the late 40's). But here's the thing: if Paul Campani had become so much better at drawing over 30 years why in the world wouldn't he improve the dumb-ass mistakes he made back in 1948? I now believe that he 1970's artist simply put Campani's drawings on the light table and redrew them with his own "style", changing the shape and compositions to conform to the publishers digest-sized demands, changing the style to conform to modern sensibilities, but did not change the figures to conform to the rules of anatomy or perspective. The earlier version is signed, "Paul", but the latter version is unsigned. Any help here, scholars?

...and pardon me for abruptly shifting gears, but I also believe that you should go read the interview with Ali Shalal Qaissi , the guy standing on the box wearing a hood from the infamous Abu Ghraib photo. While typing the incosequential drivel above, all I have been thinking about is that damn photo. It is important to see that photo again, have a face to put behind the mask, and feel that sick twist in your stomach. By the way, he says he was actually electrically shocked five times while standing on the box. The Specialist who was convicted was acused of only threatening to shock him.


...turns out that Ali Shalai Qaissi is not the man standing on the box in the famous Abu Ghraib photo. He contends that he stood on another box at another time and was electrocuted, as did other prisoners.


This in from comics scholar and author, Alfredo Castelli:

"...concerning the pocket "Gey Carioca"

Ten monthly issues, published by Edizioni Alpe from July 1973 to March 1974. Alpe had published the original series in 1948.

The series was redrawn by Attilio Ortolani ("Attor"), factotum artist at the Alpe publishing house (he did touching-up of pages, titles, filler stories etc). I should have guessed, as I used to know him well, but I didn't because he was specialized in humor drawings (Alpe published several humor comics such as "Cucciolo" and "Tiramolla", which, for a short time, were serious competitors to "Topolino/Mickey Mouse"). "Attor" also drew for a weekly called "Il Monello" new episodes of a short-lived American series, "Tippy Teen", when the original stories finished. Continuing under license discontinued American series was a common practice in Italy. One of them, "Little Eva", originarily published by StJohn, ended in 1952 in the USA; in Italy it lasted - with a new 8-page episode every week - until the late '70s (I myself wrote tons of Eva scripts in the '60s).
I lost contacts with Attilio 30 years ago or so, and I suppose he's retired and on his 70s. If it interests you I think I can find him easily thru colleagues.

For what concerns Paul Campani, see


"PAUL FILM" ANIMATED CARTOONS (Campani's job since 1958)(*)

* He also did many "Popeye" TV Cartoons for KFS under the imprint "Rembrandt Films"

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Rule 16

Can I just stop giving travel advice for a minute and simply give you an order? Good. The next time you are in the neighborhood of the Central Mercato in Florence, for God’s sake go to Nerbone and have a brisket sandwich.

The Mercato is a square block two-story warehouse of food. The downstairs is primarily a meat and cheese market with the random herb and vinegar shop thrown in just to keep the arteries unclogged. Although there are hundreds of different meats available in all forms it is fairly easy for even an American to identify the various cuts. This is because a lot of the meat still has its head attached. Upstairs are the fruits and vegetables. Prior to entering, take out your travel-sized can of WD40 and apply liberally to the neck: guaranteed, your head will spin. In the pursuit of honest and accurate reporting, I decided to carefully count all of the stalls and came up with the exact figure of: a lot. While my daughters do not share my unnatural obsession with aging newsprint, we all do love to cook and eat and a few of us do not even mind doing the dishes. The stalls in the Mercato are run by people who are serious about food, too…serious about selling it. The prices are competitive, the stuff is fresh, and great care is given to the presentation. It looks so good that you want to touch and squeeze everything, but please do not or the vendor may touch and squeeze your throat. I saw one tourist poke a grapefruit and within minutes his left hand was for sale downstairs next to a pig’s head.

The vendors’ day probably begins around 4 AM and by the time it rolls around for a mid morning snack, they head for Nerbone. Tucked in a far corner of the Mercato, Nerbone may as well be the culinary annex to the Duomo; it is that close to heaven. There is not much on the menu, but it is simply prepared and, given its proximity to the freshest food on the planet, it is, of course, fresh.

The other morning I wandered by around 10:00 and there were five guys who had already put in a good day’s work chopping off the hands of tourists all eating plates of pasta with tripe and drinking wine which I noticed was laced with water…after all there was still another full work day in front of them closing up shop. I swung by several times over the next half hour to detect the most popular dishes and also because I could not read the hand written menu tacked up on the wall. I needed to find something that someone else was eating so I could point to it with one hand while waving a fistful of Euros in the other.

On one pass I saw three husky men all attacking the same plate of cooked greens with slices of garlic the size of poker chips. On the next go-‘round I caught a crew of German tourists drinking beer and eating pancake stacks of roast pork slices. I knew I was getting close. Then on third circuit I saw my destiny. A guy, whom I recognized as one of the fish vendors, was tucking into a panino and I could tell I had to have one, too, just by looking at him. For a few seconds he went all fuzzy, as though he had turned to vapor. Hovering at mouth level, however, the panino remained in sharp focus as most of his corpuscles concentrated solely on that roll filled with hot brisket. Lucky for me the Maestro is very good at divining the needs of those of us who are Italian-impaired. I didn’t even have to point. Drool overcomes all language barriers.

He plunged a fork the size of an ox yoke into a steaming vat and withdrew a brisket that had been simmering for some time in what looked like a sea of grease, garlic chunks, and liquid temptation. He sliced open a roll and deftly dunked the bottom half momentarily into the vat. I would gladly have offered to dunk my head in as well, but that service was not offered. With his mighty Norman Bates’ signature knife he trimmed off several steaming slices, arranged them on the roll, momentarily assessed the stack, then added a few more until it was just right by his experienced standards. He then tossed on a little black pepper, a little (well, O.K., a lot) of salt, a dollop of salsa verde (it’s green, so my daily quota of the vegetable food-group could be checked off), a dollop of salsa picante (it’s red so my daily quota of the red food-group could be checked off), dunked the exposed bottom of the top half of the roll in the steaming juice, plunked on the lid, and tucked the whole thing neatly into an open ended plastic bag just made to fit. It is a good thing that it was early in the day because around 1:00 there is no place to sit and if I had not been sitting down I would have fallen to the floor and started to speak in tongues, the level of ecstasy was that high.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Angouleme Report

Rules Pour Vivre By When Attending a Comics Exposition in France

The most important comics festival in Europe (excuse me, the most important comics festival in our particular galaxy) is held annually in Angouleme. It is called “Angouleme”, after the town named Angouleme, where it is held. Got that? So when you ask someone, “Are you going to Angouleme this year?” It does not mean, “Are you going to visit the town of Angouleme this year to check out the scenic view?" It means: “Are you going to the most important comics festival in the galaxy this year?” In other words, “Angouleme” is synonymous with “comics festival” the way that “Bilbao” is synonymous with the Guggenheim Museum, or, “Anaheim” is synonymous with Disneyland, or “Baghdad” is synonymous with insurgent acts of violence against an enemy that shouldn’t be there in the first place. Are you going to Baghdad this year? No, I decided to take the year off and encounter random car bombs in the comfort of my condo in Passaic.

Americans consider San Diego synonymous with comics festivals, but from my vast experience of never having attended the San Diego Comic Con, let me tell you that the two events could not be more different. For one thing, when in doubt, comics fans in San Diego dump ketchup all over their food, while the comics fans in Angouleme glop on the cream sauce. Then there’s the age difference. Your typical European comics fans tend to be an older, world-wearier 25, whereas American comics fans are the far less mature 24 and tend to go for the juvenile superhero titles. There is barely a superhero in sight at Angouleme. The refined European tastes lean more towards down-to-earth tales of grim reality where talking animals have graphic sex with babes holding howitzers. But, let’s face it, no matter where you’re from the real purpose of a comics con is for those with like-minded interests to get together and have a fun time spending money.

The gathering itself does not take place in one central mammoth convention hall but is sprinkled in tents throughout the town. Existing structures also house various symposiums and gatherings. The press room, in a modest wing of the City Hall (which is basically a friggin’ castle), is decorated with floor to ceiling tapestries, velvet wallpaper, and gigantic palm trees with monkeys chattering in the upper branches. I left as a standoff was going on between an Alpha Male and Quasimodo for domination over the gigantic chandelier.

They strategically schedule this festival to coincide with what the French Farmer’s Almanac predicts will be the most inclement weekend of the year. Sounds like a bad idea, huh? Au contraire! Very clever, these French! Cold weather forces conventioneers inside buildings and it is a proven scientific fact that most credit card transactions occur inside, you guessed it… buildings! Years ago, before ever there was a comics exposition in Angouleme, the town was deserted during this weekend, and most every other weekend. The boulangers would sit sadly in the shop window and watch mould grow on their breads and cakes in the display cases. Now when this weekend rolls around the jolly boulanger is selling his wares like hot gateaux.

* * *

Travel smart
What the Departement du Tourisme does not mention in their copious literature is that to survive the weekend in Angouleme you need to pack the following:

Head to toe foul-weather gear:
When the snow began to fall on the second day, the dusting transformed the slightly grungy gothic town into the Brothers Grimm. But by the end of the day the slippery sludge made everything merely grim, brother, very grim.

Ropes, carabineers, a set of those small alpine pick axes:
Angouleme is a city built on a hill, a steep hill. Small way stations are set up at several strategic points of altitude where beautiful French nurses administer CPR (in French this roughly translate as Chequesbook Procuremente Rendezvous).

12 extra pairs of disposable shoes, socks, pants, and feet:
A basic tenet of slapstick comedy is that it is funny to see someone else fall. It’s no joke, though, when you are dashing down a slush coated hill trying to make a scheduled bus and you slip and fall right on your Asterix…and crack the spine! I speak from experience.

A tank of oxygen and a portable iron lung:
Necessary after the ascent up the hill where, instead of pristine alpine air, one encounters a hazy pea soup of cigarette smoke, speaking of which, don’t forget to bring:

A carton of cigarettes:
Whether you smoke or not, cigarettes are very handy to have on your person. I am not going to make (too many) broad generalizations about the European attendees of this festival, but I found that if you need directions many people will stare in silence at the mangled English-French syllables dribbling from your mouth until you pull out a pack of smokes and offer one at which point they will personally escort you to the doorstep of the address you seek if you also have a match.

* * *

Let Intuition Be Your Guide
The Dept. de Tourisme kindly prints hundreds of thousands of handy maps directing attendees to the various tents, pavilions and panels sprinkled about. These are very useful as filler for the hundreds of thousands of garbage cans to prevent them from being blown away. I am pretty good at reading maps (I can get from Canal St. to 59th St. on the IRT without getting lost) but I was continually losing my way with that damn map in hand. The reason is this: Angouleme is a spider’s web of teeny streets with temporary tents erected here and there…wherever there is an open square. It does not lend itself to accurate mapping. Once I ditched my map everything went well. After that I got lost on my own and without that map in my hand I did not look like such a (complete) moron.

* * *

Be patient
There are many reasons to attend Angouleme not the least of which is to get your books signed by your favorite artists. Knowing this I still could not believe my eyes when I saw the hordes of people lined up to get sketches by the guy who draws the animals dressed up like Philip Marlowe, or the guy who does the comics of the large-breasted swords clasping razor-sharp women, or the guy who draws the cigar smoking devil in a trench coat. Imagine, waiting an hour for any of those guys? No way! Not me! Instead, I waited an hour to get drawings from the guy who draws couples floating in water, the guy who draws hideously beautiful expressionistic gutter scum, and the guy who takes a couple of trips a year and publishes his sketchbook drawings in absurdly expensive albums. I had plenty of time to do this because nobody was really that interested in getting a sketch from me (the guy who draws a guy on the telephone) in the recently (and handsomely) republished French version of “City of Glass”. 17 people did come up to me and ask what my collaborator on that book, the justifiably beloved and extraordinarily talented, David Mazzucchelli, has been secretly working on for the past 10 years. I simply smiled in that smug, condescendingly knowing way that makes my daughter want to abdicate lineage and shrugged. Actually, I don’t really know what he’s been up to, either, ‘cause he won’t tell me, so don’t ask, O.K.?

* * *

Set Your Priorities
There are dozens of publishers, exhibits, panels, and events going on simultaneously. To make the most of your time, to make sense of the chaos, and to make sure you keep breathing, you need to stay focused. Come with a plan of attack and follow it decisively. I came with a group of students from the Scuola di Comics in Florence where I am teaching this year. Their goal was to show their work to publishers and get published. I am pleased and proud to report that many of the best of them walked away with the possibilities of contracts. A middle-aged man and his teenaged son were in line in front of me to get the latest sketchbook by Jacques Loustal signed by the great artist. They had a small address book, but instead of addresses it alphabetically listed the hundreds of albums they had in their collection. These people had goals that they met.

I, too, had a goal that was met. In a tiny bakery, which I may never be able to find again with or without a map, I had a perfect brioche.

I had another plan, too, although I did not realize it until I got home and downloaded all my photos. Upon reviewing these pix I realized now that my subliminal plan was to get my picture taken with as many of my idols as possible in the bizarre hope that:

a) By sitting next to them and having the flash go off, somehow my total body of published and unpublished work might somehow reflect a bit of their brilliant sheen and magically appear better than it really is.
b) Even though I only sat next to them for a nanosecond I could publish these pics on my blog and make everyone think that these titans were my best friends, or at least would lend me 5 euros in a pinch.
c) Some of their natural European panache would make me look like less of a dork or at least that, maybe, in sitting within the spectrum of their coolness that my hat would not look as ridiculous as my wife says it does.

Well, anyhow, let me tell you, that was one hell of a brioche!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When Ever Meulen does a sketch in a book he takes out his drafting tools and creates a tightly designed rendering using templates, a tiny ruler, and razor sharp pencils.

I had always assumed from Jose Munoz' dark and savage drawings that he would be a brooding misanthrope. He's not.

Gipi and I go way back...about three months when we met at Lucca. He won the Grand Prix for Best Album hours after this picture was taken. Although it is said about many people, in this case it is true: it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. It took him a day to recover from the shock. You Americans are now fortunate enough to be able to read his book, "The Innocents" through Fantagraphics in a format that is affordable and beautiful courtesy of Igort at Coconino Press. Go here and buy Gipi's book immediately or I will never post another blog...wait, on second thought...just go there and buy:

Lorenzo Mattotti is considered something of a God in Italy where they do not really care too much about comics. However, they do care about Pinnocchio (the little Italian boy who never grows up, a-duh) and he did a lovely illustrated volume of that tale a few years back. But, more importantly, Mattotti loves and draws beautiful women. I horribly lettered one of his strips for an English translation 25 years ago in RAW and I finally got to apologize.

( R.: Charles Burns, Joost Swarte, and Sgt. Dork)

I am assuming that this is being read primarily by Americans (hi, mom!) who probably know Charles Burns and have read his new book "Black Hole". No? And you call yourself an American?! Go here at once and buy this twisted tale of mutant love:

Joost Swarte has one of the greatest websites on the internet because it actually asks you to figure it out yourself. Even just watching it download is worth the work.

(L. to R.: Anders Nilsen, Paul Hornschemeier, Clarabelle)

I don't know what I did. Maybe it was my loud obnoxious American gushing, shameless asskissing, or stupid hat, but all the Americans I met were way cooler than me and kept me at arm's length. When I told a nasty anecdote in an unecessarily loud phony French accent in a restaurant about obnoxious French behavior I had witnessed I thought Kevin Huizenga was going to renounce his citizenship, melt into the floor, and/or murder me in any particular order, and, I am ashamed to say, that he had every right. They are old hands at this European comics thing, I guess, and I was so thrilled to be there that I behaved badly on more than one occasion...O.K., O.K.,...most of the time. Anyhow, I apologize to these guys and hope that sometime in the future they will speak to me again, in English.

All three are top notch cartoonists though (they are all so smart that it hurts) and you should go here now and not hesitate to buy all of their very fine books ( the time I finish with you today you will have spent most of your paycheck.)

Kevin Huizenga's "Ganges"

...and while you're there, don't miss Matt Broersma's super-fine "Insomnia"



(L. to R.: Buster Cretin, Ben Katchor, Richard McGuire)

I was walking across the street when I heard my name called. It was Ben Katchor and his wife. We stood in the falling snow and chatted casually as though it were Bleeker and 6th Ave. and this happened all the time. Later I went to a slideshow reading that Ben gave, We could have seen twice as many slides without the translator speaking after Ben for each slide because when the lights went up it appeared that everyone in the room was American.

Richard had a great surprise when he saw his design had been used as a graphic for a poster all over town announcing a lecture series. I guess nobody thought about telling him. Fortuantely the poster design was very nice and he was pleased. A very good store whose name I forget even painted some more of Richard's Popeye designs on the gate next to their store:

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Rule 15

Hide Your Euros

The Ponte Vecchio is the oldest bridge in Florence. The others were blown to bits in World War II to prevent the Allies from getting across the Arno and getting in line ahead of the Germans for tickets to the Ufizzi. Unlike most bridges in the world, this bridge is not about connecting two points, this bridge is a destination unto itself…or so several hundred thousand tourists are led to believe daily. “Ponte Vecchio” literally means old bridge, named so because in the time it takes to travel through the throngs from one end to the other you may discover that you have become a grandparent. I was skeptical about this thing from the moment I saw it filled with people. I have a general rule of thumb that has served me well, never hang around a place where lots of people mill around listlessly like stadium rock concerts and jail. I mean, this is a bridge and an old bridge at that (old as in 1345, not old as in 1945), and if you think it is a good idea to tread over something that old and creaky along with tons (and I mean, literally, tons) of other folks, that’s your business. High on my business agenda is staying alive to have at least one more capucinno and pasta dolce.

If you want to make sure that you will not be missing anything by staying on the shore, the following fact-finding report is provided here as a public service so that you do not have to go yourself. This is what you will see if you walk across the Ponte Vecchio:

1. Lots of jewelry, most of it real gold, in the store windows that line the bridge.

2. Lots of jewelry most of it not real gold inserted into fleshy mounds of teenage flesh.

3. Guys taking pictures of their girlfriends.

4. Girls taking pictures of guys they wish were their boyfriends.

5. Guys taking pictures of famous Europeans that happen to be printed on the Euros in what used to be your wallet.

6. Jewelry store owners rubbing their hands together and panting slightly.

Review that list. Did I say anything about the spectacular view from the bridge? No? Hmm…could that be because is no spectacular view from this bridge?! A bridge with no view! Wow! Gotta see that, Marge! Actually there is a small opening at the peak between the shops that line the bridge but it is generally filled to the max with pickpockets smoking, trading quips, and counting out their nice, fresh Euros. The view itself is obscured by a statue that itself is obscured by the kajillion bicycle locks…hmm… maybe it’s not a sculpture? I don’t know what they hell it is. All I know is that people are taking pictures of the fence around it ‘cause it is covered with bicycle locks. And just where did those bicycle locks come from, anyway? From all the bicycles that were stolen to procure the locks. It is a folk art monument to petty crime and you can have your picture taken in front of it with somebody else’s boyfriend while somebody else’s girlfriend picks your pocket and the guy in the jewelry store window rubs his hands together.

The Medicis had a private hallway built above the bridge connecting various bits of Medici real estate. Back in the day, the Medici family ran this town and if they had to get from one side of the Arno to the other they sure as hell were not going to walk among the riff-raff and they already had all the gold jewelry anyone could want as well as all the boyfriends and girlfriends. And really, when you are that rich and powerful you do not care about having your picture taken next to a fence covered with bicycle locks (although there is a portrait in the Uffizi painted by Leonardo of Lorenzo de Medici the Moronic smiling like a dope next to the fence with a pair of bolt cutters in his hands). This elevated hallway, the so-called Vasari Corridor, is lined with paintings of self-portraits by such artists as Rembrandt, Rubens and Hogarth. As far as I know, to this day you must be somehow related to a Medici to gain access. There is also a rumor of a secret Medici tunnel running underneath the Ponte Vecchio lined with paintings on velvet of sad clowns. Adolph Hitler, an amateur painter, was known to have revered the sad-clown-on-velvet genre and this is the true reason why the bridge was not bombed by the Nazis.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Rule 14

(Note chains)

Bring your own tree

I am sorry to report that the Florentines do not understand the true meaning of Christmas. This being the most Christian country in the known world outside of Crawford, Texas, you would think that the celebration surrounding the birth of Christ himself would evoke the proper Christmas Spirit. Nope, they simply do not understand that to have Christmas means to have your house, garage, and lawn ornaments drenched in zillions of twinkling little lights.

On the other hand there is one hallowed aspect of this sacred time that they do properly recognize: the ceremonious emptying of the wallet. The days leading up to the 25th found the streets of Florence awash with happy holiday shoppers gleefully continuing the great Christmas tradition of maxing the credit card. ‘Tis also the season to reflect and evaluate your relationship to your fellow man, particularly your fellow family members. Is your sister worth an Italian hand-tooled yak skin purse or should you just send her a candy bar this year? According to the signs in the shop windows there were sales galore. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that the word “sale” has a different meaning when used by the Florentine shopkeeper. When he posts a sign in his shoe store window that says, “SALE!” it means, surprise, that he has shoes for sale inside.

We went to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at our local church. They went crazy building churches back in the 1400’s and there are old cavernous churches sprinkled all about Florence. Going to Mass at one of these is a bit like going to church at the bottom of the Grand Canyon except the frescoes are much nicer.

The church-going population in Italy has been steadily declining in recent years (like, since 1725). Blame it on the low population growth, the shredding of moral fabric, or the bossa nova, these are lean years if you are in the soul-saving business. This being Christmas Eve, however every seat in the house was full. Still, that meant that there was plenty of room for us and about 50 other people who came late to stand in the rear and still plenty more room if we had wanted to bring along our pet aircraft carrier.

I’ll admit to being disappointed that they did not crank the organ up, but I guess with a diminished regular congregation they cannot maintain it. Instead the music was provided by a guy with a guitar joined by a small choir of angelic voices and, I believe, a set of bongos. Because of the cavernous acoustics of the church it was next to impossible to hear what was being said even with amplification, not that I would have understood it anyway since it was mostly in Latin and not even Pig Latin, angit day! However, any one of the dozens of little old ladies in the congregation who know the words by heart could have stepped up to the pulpit and taken over in a pinch should the priest have decided he had more interesting places to go like, say, the back of the church and hang out with our fascinating crowd.

Our group of Giovanni-Come-Latelys included a guy with a greasy ponytail and sunglasses (remember, this was MIDNIGHT mass) who did not even feign interest in the proceedings and kept going in and out of the church fiddling with a cellphone and a pack of Marlboros. There was the passionate couple who found the only vacant seat right in the Confessional thus taking care of both the sinning and the repentance in one-stop. There was the lady next to me who may be a Saint by now for working the miracle of simultaneously tapping her toe and snapping her gum whenever the music started while applying yet more mascara.

It was a quiet, subdued walk home. Without the glittering lights it hardly felt like Christmas at all. Usually we come out of Christmas Eve service back home singing those great carols (“Blue Christmas”, “Jingle-Bell Rock”), but we did not recognize any of the tunes sung by the little choir and guitar except one of the songs that sounded to me like, “Puff, the Magic Savior”.

New Year’s Eve is a different story. Many celebrants simply couldn’t contain themselves and the sound of firecrackers began early...three days earlier around two in the morning, as I recall. The assault grew steadily until by midnight of the 31st the whole town shook and the sky was lit with bright colors. It made me really feel good to be alive and not living in downtown Baghdad where this is a daily and far more deadly occurrence. This is not to say that downtown Florence is not without it’s dangers on New Year’s Eve.

We were about to walk home from a party across town but our friend, Camilla, insisted on driving us home. “It’s dangerous out there,” she explained. We laughed and told her that we were not afraid of teenagers with fireworks. “No,” she continued, “It’s REALLY dangerous”. She explained that it is a quaint tradition in Florence to throw things out the window on New Year’s Eve. In a symbolic purging of the old year you are supposed to throw out old objects that you do not need any more. Dawn of January 1st finds the streets of Florence littered with old socks, underwear, and tennis shoes, as well as tables, chairs, and ex-wives. We were told that appliances were a favorite projectile and gladly accepted the ride home.

1. Spread goodwill.
2. Floss daily.
3. Fewer carbohydrates.
4. Learn “Puff the Magic Savior” on the ukulele.