Showing posts with label SPX. Show all posts
Showing posts with label SPX. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The Silent Invasion's Michael Cherkas and Larry Hancock spill all at SPX

Cerkas and Hancock
by Mike Rhode

Canadian cartoonists Michael Cherkas and Larry Hancock were at the Small Press Expo at the NBM table promoting their new book The Silent Invasion 1: Red Shadows (160pp. B&W trade pb: $16.99; ISBN 978168112174151699.  DIAMOND CODE: JUL18 2036). The first book is a reissue of the story that began in the 1980s, but the plan is to continue with new stories and bring the series up to the present day.

NBM’s press release describes the book as:

The paranoid cult-classic science fiction mystery of the early days of indie comics returns! The series will begin with two books reprinting the original volumes, followed by the never before collected third album and concluding with an all-new fourth book of this epic series of conspiracy and paranoia. Set against the background of a nightmarish 1950s crawling with communist spies, corrupt FBI agents, McCarthyites, Stalinists, cold warriors, flying saucers, mysterious government organizations, The Silent Invasion weaves a byzantine tale of mystery and deceit as a bewildered investigative reporter Matt Sinkage pursues the truth behind an apparent alien invasion of earth that points to involvement at the highest levels of American government officials.

Before SPX started, I met with Cherkas and Hancock in their hotel room to hear about the convoluted history of the series, and what is planned for it now, as it returns years after it last was published.

Mike Rhode: My first question is… why bring The Silent Invasion back after thirty years?

[Cherkas and Hancock laugh]

Michael Cherkas: That’s a mysterious question. It comes down to this – Larry and I had worked on a fifth book that we did floppy comics for and they were published in 2001. Then in 2009, we self-published a hundred copies which we took to TCAF and they did really well there. So we figured there is an audience for this book, but we just have to find it and it’s not in the mainstream comic book field. It’s not superheroes and action adventure. Two years ago we were at TCAF and Terry Nantier of NBM was there…

Larry Hancock: Terry came up because of the 40th anniversary of NBM. He did a panel and asked us to participate since we were local to Toronto. At that point in time, we got to talking to him about doing another book. To clarify one thing, Michael referred to the last one that we’ve done being the fifth book of Silent Invasion. The book that is out now, book 1, was originally published as two books (books 1 and 2). Then the next book 2 will collect the original 3 and 4. In our new nomenclature, book 5 will actually be book 3.

MC: And when Terry publishes it, it will finally get its wider audience.

LH: We hope.

MC: And then at the same time, we are working on a new book that brings the story up to … we were originally going to bring it up to this era, but in retrospect it’s a really quick rush of events from 1965 to 2018.

LH: To say that a little differently, the original 12 issues we did as a comic book, which Terry originally reprinted as 4 books, are now going to be done as 2 books – 1 right now and 1 six months from now. And the unpublished 5 issues are going to be book 3, six months after that. And then subsequent to that we’re doing a book of brand new material.

MC: Book 3 takes place in the 1960s. The new book we’re doing starts in 1970 on the day that Apollo 13 runs into trouble. We introduce things like that not just to make people think that there might be a connection; [laughs] there is not necessarily a connection. Part of the intent is to try to bring it up into the era where we now have people in power who are more satirical than satire. Right now we have a Premier in Ontario and a President in the United States who are both in that satirical part of politics. That’s where we’re trying to bring this up to. Terry said that this is the perfect era to publish Silent Invasion again because of imagined conspiracies and the talk of the ‘deep state’ and all. He thinks there might be some synergy. [laughs].

MR: By doing new material, the first time since 2001…

LH: Just to clarify, while I’m known primarily known as the writer, and Michael is primarily known as the artist, but in actual fact we plot everything together. We live very close to each other and we constantly get together and plot everything. In general terms, Michael is the one who puts things on paper and I’m the one who provides the scripting. And Michael does the final editing on everything since if he doesn’t like it, it doesn’t get on the paper. [laughs]

MC: Or if the words don’t fit! [laughs]

MR: Larry, do you storyboard then?

LH: No, I keep saying I can’t draw a straight line, but then again I don’t need to draw a straight line…

MC: The way it works is that we do the plotting…

LH: …we visualize a good deal…

MC: …and years ago it was more detailed. In the current story we’re working on, we say this is the scene, and we don’t even describe it beyond the first panel in the sequence and where we want to end it up. Sometimes I go, “You know, I can’t draw any of this until I have some words.” I just want to get some to figure out the reactions [the characters should have]. Then there are other scenes where I’ll just say, “This is kind of what I want to happen, and I sort of know what the wording will be,” and I will lay out the pages really roughly drawn.

The current story we’re working on is supposed to be 125 pages, five chapters at 25 pages each. The first chapter, when I broke it down based on the story that Larry and I talked about was going to be 32 pages, so I said, “We need to edit this down.” We do that often, and after I do the roughs which then Larry scripts to, and even after I do the blue pencils which are supposed to be the final pencils, then Larry edits the script again, but often what happens when I think I’ve done my final pencils, when I’m start  lettering it, I think, “Oh, I don’t like something” and I just redraw the whole panel. That’s happened numerous times, or we’ll have something that’s two panels and I say, “Nope, that’s going to be one panel this time,” or something that says two panels I’ll turn into three.

LH: Michael gets very picky. [When] a story is published, if it gets printed a second time, it’s very rare that there isn’t something that’s changed. If you take a look at Michael’s original artwork, you’ll find panels pasted over top of panels, and heads over top of heads. When we originally did The Silent Invasion vol. 1, the first comic book in the collection has been substantially redrawn from its original first appearance as a comic book.

MC: Actually chapters 1 and 3 in the new collection are substantially redrawn from the original comic book.

LH: They’re the same as what Terry published thirty years ago in the graphic album, but between the comic book and the graphic album they changed a lot. We want our best foot forward whenever we’re going to be putting something out for the public.

MC: But then Larry tells me, “How many times are you going to redraw that? Are you going to sell any more copies? Does it really matter?” And he’s right. Because at the end of the day, most people don’t notice those imperfections… those perceived imperfections that I might see.

LH: I’m an accountant so I’m very practical.

MR: He’s creating stuff for future academics to study the three different editions, Renegade, first NBM and new NBM, and write papers on.

MC: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

LH: And I’m the one who’s had to convince him that we’re going to store all these past versions in boxes in my storage locker. Michael just wants to toss it all out, and I’m the one who keeps saying, “We need it for the archives. We’re going to get donation receipts that will be so valuable that we can go out and buy and extra cup of coffee off of it.”

MR: So you have saved the original art, and you’re able to rescan (or reshoot back then) it as necessary?

LH: Interesting enough, what’s happened to the original artwork when we go back to look at it… you’ll see in the book Michael uses zipatone, and in particular on some of those, the artwork bled too badly. The ink bled too badly so most of this is just reshot from the previous printed copies. But when we tested to see what was the best way to go about it, it turned out to be good.

MC: We knew that would work because we’ve had some European editions published and they just shot from the English-language NBM editions and re-lettered it.

MR: In this introduction, Max Allen Collins listed European artists such as Yves Chaland and Joost Swarte as influences on Michael’s art. Is this accurate?

MC: When we started this, I picked a style specifically so I could complete the art fairly quickly. The first three issues were teaching myself how to use a No. 5 Winsor-Newton brush too. To teach myself that I looked at the European guys who drew with brushes like Serge Clerc and Yves Chaland. There’s a whole school of that called clear line (aka “ligne claire”) but we were joking last night that I don’t do clear line. I do thick line. [laughs] I was just trying to figure out how to reduce the imagery so it’s almost iconographic and keep it fairly simple. There were a few other French guys I was looking at who were really loose. Yves Chaland and Clerc are precise; I was looking for something that had a quicker look to it. When we were doing this, I was also freelancing as a designer and illustrator. The first twelve issues were 50% of my time so I had to figure out how to do it in less time.

LH: When we were originally doing The Silent Invasion, we were doing it on a bimonthly schedule with Renegade Press, although we did take a break between issues 6 and 7, an extra month, but we had a deadline and we were working on a disciplined basis.

MC: Basically I was trying to work so we could do a full issue in six weeks. I hear in this day and age people do a whole comic in a month. I don’t know if that’s true or not because it seems like it’s a lot of work. I found doing this was very time consuming.

MR: I think it probably depends on your method. If you’re inking digitally, it’s probably faster than by hand.

MC: That’s another thing. I don’t do anything digitally. I still do it straight up the old-fashioned way. But we’ll see – I haven’t inked anything in years. I don’t know if it’s going to look like the old stuff. The last time we did was early 2000s. I’ve drawn stuff but what I’ve found is that my brushwork is thicker now so there’s going to be less detail in the art. But I’m not sure yet. I wish I had new samples to compare it to.

LH: In addition to doing The Silent Invasion at that time, we had a series we called Suburban Nightmares. The first volume that Terry produced was four issues from Renegade was all set in the 1950s and was childhood fears. The next stories that we did elsewhere that appeared in the second volume we updated to other time periods. We’ve done other stories as well. Michael did The New Frontier in Heavy Metal. That’s why the DC book by Darwyn Cooke was called DC’s The New Frontier.

MC: But nobody gets them confused anyway.

LH: I know. But since then, we’ve been working on other stuff on the side. We did one issue of a minicomic that we self-published that was distributed only in the Toronto area which is about a superhero who has lost his powers. It was called Union City Comics featuring The Purple Ray. The first issue was all about him attending a comic book convention and signing, but most people were giving attention to the people who started the Purple Ray TV show which was a big success. It’s sort of the idea of comic creators losing the rights to the characters and being overshadowed by the creation itself. At the end of the first issue, the publisher announces a big budget movie which he’s going to have nothing to do with, but they still use him for promotional material. We still have pages to do before we get up to 120 pages.

MC: I have penciled the entire second issue…

LH: But my point on that was going to be… what’s happened to the first issue?

MC: I’m redrawing it entirely.

[Both men laugh]

MR: So you will not be selling the minicomic here at SPX?

MC: No, we should have brought them.

NBM's Terry Nantier, Larry Hancock and Michael Cerkas at SPX

LH: I figured this is the big event to rerelease The Silent Invasion so we wanted to make sure the emphasis was on that. What The Silent Invasion was, when it was originally released by Renegade Press in 1986, was a big success at the time. We sold 14-15,000 copies of a black and white; by the time the last issue came out, it was down to 3,000 or 4,000. We were nominated in 1987 for a Kirby Award, the precursor to the Eisners. Amazing Heroes chose us as one of the ten best comics of 1986. When I say one of the ten best, I’m not talking about the ten best independents. We were one of the ten best comic books of the entire year.

MC: This is something that nobody knows. Larry, you might not even know this. There was actually one year I was nominated for a Rueben [from the National Cartoonists Society]. They have a category for comic books and I was nominated for the comic book. I don’t know how that happened but it was probably in 1990… it was just weird.

LH: At the time we were nominated for the Kirby Award, that was presented at San Diego and we sat in the audience briefly to hear ourselves lose to another Canadian comic book – Cerebus. At that time, Cerebus was riding high.

MR: You guys were doing this during the black and white explosion…

LH: That’s it. We say we didn’t benefit from the explosion because we came along a bit after it started, but we got hurt by decline of them.

MC: A lot of factors came into this. We could have continued to publish like a lot of people did and just trundled along, and had we done that, we might have found some kind of success again. But we thought, “I’ve got two kids, blah, blah, blah. There’s no way I’m going to do this right now.” That kind of stuff is better if you’re living in your parent’s basement…

LH: At the time too, when we were doing this with Deni, she did the twelve issues of Silent Invasion, and then we did four issues of Suburban Nightmares, and she was starting to fall off. The whole black and white market was starting to fall off. We were in negotiations with Comico to do a different series with them but they ran into hard times, and then we went to talk to Dark Horse and they eventually published Michael’s New Frontier as a black and white comic after it was initially printed in Heavy Metal, but then they also decided to concentrate differently. They paid us and a whole bunch of other creators a kill fee, on the basis that they’d been negotiating in good faith to publish stuff and then chose to stop.

Eventually we hooked up with Calibur and Calibur Comics reprinted the whole first six issues of The Silent Invasion with the intention of doing a new series, and they actually published the first issue of what we were calling Silent Invasion Abductions. After publishing the first issue of that, Caliber decided they were going exclusively with creator-owned…

MC: I think when Dark Horse killed our thing, it was something to do with them doing less creator-owned and licensing stuff. You know what, that was fine. We were just at the tail end of everything.

LH: That’s true. Some of the Suburban Nightmare stuff we did with Dark Horse was in Cheval Noir.

MC: The other thing at the time, Chris Kemp and I were asked to do a Vertigo proposal for Shelly Bond, and that went on. Chris and I did quite a bit of work on that one until she said no.

LH: We met with Stuart Moore who was launching DC’s Helix line. I went to some Oakland conventions that Michael wasn’t at and was trying to talk to Vertigo and others. Generally when I was meeting with them, they liked our writing but wanted to say, “Well, can we get somebody else to draw while you guys write?” and I said, “No.”

MR: You were caught up in the black and white implosion – did you guys consider working in color?

LH: At one point in time, when we were talking about reprinting this, we were considering adding one single color like Ms. Tree was published by Renegade.

MC: Yeah, I wouldn’t mind doing things like limited color, but not full color. Maybe picking a really limited pallete. Even in the new reprint, I suggested to Terry, “Let’s not print the black as black, let’s print it as another dark color, like dark brown.” That makes it look a little different, and like you’re thinking a bit more.

 LH: Michael’s chosen a color pallete specifically for the covers to stand out. We’ve got a sickly green, a sickly orange…

MC: The reason Terry wanted to reprint this now is that graphic novels are everywhere. I go into a bookstore now and the graphic section is huge. If I go into Indigo, the big bookstore chain in Canada, the graphic novel sections is quite large, and you often see a lot of graphic novels there that aren’t carried in comic stores. Ones that are literary. So you’ll see lots of things that aren’t in your traditional store. Although if you go into The Beguiling, you’ll see lots of them. In Toronto, there’s only The Beguiling that’s on that model; Silver Snail and all the other stores carry a lot of American superheroes. They do carry some other stuff, but not a lot of it, and you have to search for it. I think that Terry figures there’s a bigger market for graphic novels and a bigger market for a wider variety of artwork. If he publishes it now, it will find its market.

MR: So it’s really been 18 years since it’s been in print, and you guys will be new to at least a generation or two, even as comics are being taken more seriously as literature. Are you guys having problems writing the book with the satirical nature of politicians now? It’s hard to take our politicians seriously.

LH: It’s interesting because in the story line we’re doing now, about 120-125 pages, we’re setting the storyline to come up to the present and we’re conscious of where we want to go. We haven’t reached the difficult parts of the reflection of the current day. The story is set in the past, but we want to reflect the current day, and make it resonate with the people who know the current times and don’t know the past times.

In the first story, we introduced a Senator Harrison Callahan, who you will see in the second book. He was our Kennedy substitute at the time. Michael’s often talked about going back and making him a Kennedy instead of a Callahan.

MC: At this point, we’re still not sure how far up to the present we’ll go.

LH: When we were talking about this, Michael originally wanted to set this book going all the way from the 1970s into the 2010s.

MC: I want to do each story ten years apart, but now I’m not sure.

LH: It’s a little more difficult when we’re trying to do chapters with somewhat continuing narration and characters and stretching it over 40 years.

MR: Are you still following the same main character the whole time?

MC: We’re following the family instead because Matt Sinkage disappears at the end.

LH: Books 1 & 2 are about Matt Sinkage and one of his main characters particularly in book 2 is a guy who worked for the FBI called Phil Housley. Housley becomes our main protagonist in book 3 because of the alien abductions.

MC: And that one is the search for Matt Sinkage.

LH: And then in book 4, which we’re working on now, we start off with Matt’s brother Walter and his wife Katie, who were characters in the earlier books. As we progress, the main character turns out to be Walter’s son Sparky.

MC: Because abductions run in families. Did you know that? Alien abductions run in families, so if a grandfather was abducted, his children and grandchildren will be abducted.

LH: No, no, if the grandfather swears he was abducted, then the children and grandchildren will swear they’ve been abducted to.

[Larry laughs]

MC: This is another difficulty. Larry only believes in empirical evidence, and I believe that something is going but there is no empirical evidence.

LH: Again, this is the whole point of The Silent Invasion. What is really going on? Is it happening, or isn’t it happening? The fact that we both have different viewpoints on this thing is what turns this into a twisted story? Are the aliens real or aren’t they? Is there a conspiracy, or isn’t there? Is Matt Sinkage sane, or is he just a lunatic? We’ve got two creators who are jousting with each other. We talk about fist fighting during the writing. We’ve never come to blows, but we do have arguments. We also bounce ideas off each other and one says, “This is strange. We won’t do this,” and then the other one says, “Wait a minute. We can make that work.”

MR: I was a little bit confused at times reading the first book because Sinkage sees a flying saucer go overhead but everybody else at the party sees a jet. Later at the start of chapter 6, there’s three flying saucers in the sky and nobody paying any attention to them, including Sinkage.

LH: To some extent, it’s us just keeping the saucers and aliens present in the readers’ minds without characters paying attention. To some extent it’s for atmosphere, to some extent it’s for mystery, and to some extent it’s for creating that questioning in the reader’s mind.

MR: If they’re up as high as an airplane or higher, you wouldn’t be noticing. It would be a little dot.

MC: My brother claims he saw a flying saucer when he was in grade 5. He says he was at a friend’s house and looked up and saw a disc, but when he looked again it was gone. So what was that?

LH: We’ve talked a lot about storytelling. When you’re telling a story, you have to keep in mind: what do the characters in the story know, what does the reader know, and what do the creators know? All of those are different amounts and we have to juggle that. But you not only juggle it; you also get to play with it in regards to what you’re going to tease or not tease… whether you all it red herrings, or foreshadowing, or simply withholding information.

MR: Are you hoping to bring The Purple Ray or other books back into print?

LH:  The Purple Ray has never had wide distribution so we will talk to Terry about that eventually. It’s just an ongoing project.

MC: I would like to do it.

LH: Suburban Nightmares and The New Frontier – certainly we’d like to talk about getting that back in print as well. We’ve been working on The Purple Ray and Michael has also been working on a story that I’m going to help with about the Ukrainian Famine.

MR: Fiction, non-fiction, or a mixture?

MC: Fiction, but based on reality. Historical fiction.

MR: Do you have any family members who were in it? The Ukrainian Famine was caused by Stalin, right?

MC: I don’t have any family members, but I know people who did have family members in it. I’ve got fourteen pages of it finished. The first chapter is done. That’s an ongoing project too, one I’d like to finish in two years.

MR: Honestly, I think today that would be a better seller than reprinting your other comics.

MC: I think so too. I know that in Canada, there’s a big built-in market because there’s 1.25 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent and libraries and schools love that stuff.

MR: Any final comments to wrap up this interview?

MC: Buy this book!

LH: I don’t do rap very well; I’m just not a rapper. Michael and I have been successful at other ways of earning income other than just doing comics. The comics are things we do for ourselves and not necessarily for the money.

MC: Except that I really enjoy doing it better than design… [laughs]

LH: Doing Silent Invasion again definitely gives me the itch to get back in and do a bunch more.

MC: Buy this comic and make a couple of old comic book creators happy!

NBM Blog on Silent Invasion (mostly written by Cherkas)
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Friday, February 09, 2018

Review: Adrian Tomine's Killing and Dying

by Mike Rhode

If I had to come up with a quick descriptive word for Adrien Tomine's work (and I just did), I think I'd pick "astringent." Tomine's a master of a cool thin line with a flat color palette, and his stories are often about people you'd prefer to avoid IRL. Tomine will be in town at Politics and Prose talking with Linda Holmes about Killing and Dying, his 2015 collection of his Optic Nerve comic book now available in paperback.

I'm reviewing the book now, even thought I bought it at 2015 at the Small Press Expo, because Drawn & Quarterly sent me a comp copy, and I don't want them to think it was unappreciated. Also, because in spite of my description above, I like his work. There are six stories in the book, all obviously by Tomine, but all different from each other as well.

Tomine is one of the group of formerly alternative 1980's cartoonists such as Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware who've hit the big time, and whose work is now instantly recognizable, as they're doing regular covers for the New Yorker and publishing graphic novel collections on a regular basis. This is a far cry from when they all were part of the small press scene being published in 'floppies' by Fantagaphics Books. Amazingly, those who've stayed in the field have largely remained true to the aesthetic they developed in their early works.

Tomine's first story, "...Horticusculpture" is purposely constrained to appear to be a weekly comic strip telling the story of a man growing old while attempting to convince the world that his new plant/sculpture hybrid is art. Six "strips" in black & white mimic a daily, while the full page Sunday is in color. Someone more academically-minded could theorize about the appeal of old-fashioned comic strips for alternative comic book cartoonists; among others, Daniel Clowes did a whole book using this motif, as did Bob Sikoryak who cast his net of influences a bit wider in his book on Apple. In the end, Tomine's story is about a man who's largely a failure personally and professionally, but is redeemed in the very last panel by his family's love.

"Amber Sweet" is a story of a modern-day mistaken identity in that a college student is a doppleganger for a porn actress. This coincidence ruins her life until the two of them finally meet. "Go Owls" is a cautionary tale which of a woman letting a man assume control over her life under the guise of protecting her. "Translated, from the Japanese" could easily have appeared in the New Yorker. No people are shown in the story, just scenes from traveling on plane, but again it's another story about human loneliness and failure in relationships.

Local cartoonist Dana Maier told me yesterday that "Killing and Dying" is her favorite story in the book, but I had to dash off before we discussed it. We may have that conversation here, if I can convince her to. A part of another dysfunctional family, a teenage girl wants to try standup comedy, and her mother agrees while her father thinks it's a mistake. Tomine has put several twists in the story, so that's all I'll reveal. Finally, "Intruders" is from the point of view of a failed veteran who breaks into the apartment he used to live in during the day, attempting to recapture his happier past, while providing no trace of himself in the present.

Tomine's cool, cerebral stories won't be to everyone's taste, but they're definitely worth sampling and this is a good collection to start with. He's grown to be an assured artist and writer, and will continue to be part of the graphic novel 'canon' for years to come.

Adrian Tomine - Killing and Dying — in conversation with Linda Holmes — at Politics and Prose at The Wharf

Saturday, February 10, 2018 - 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Now available in paperback, this collection of six graphic stories shows the impressive range of Tomine’s narratives and his expressive use of line, color, and half-tones. Especially adept at capturing the nuances of character and emotion, Tomine, author/artist of Shortcomings and Scenes from an Impending Marriage, is one of the most literary of graphic storytellers. Many of the pieces here chart the turbulent arcs of relationships in which the partners are angry, disoriented, or both. In one variation on these themes, the title story focuses on a fourteen-year-old aspiring stand-up comic. As her mother praises her and her father criticizes her, the three work to deny the greater tragedy that is about to befall the family. Tomine will be in conversation with Linda Holmes, writer and editor for  NPR’s entertainment and pop-culture blog, Monkey See.

This event is free to attend with no reservation required. Seating is available on a first come, first served basis.
Click here for more information.
Politics and Prose at The Wharf   70 District Square SW   Washington   DC    20024

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

SPX Oral History - Christian Panas (UPDATED with a response by Greg McElhatton)

by Mike Rhode
(recorded in March 2017)

It's been on my mind for several years that the Small Press Expo could really use an oral history especially as it approaches its twenty-fifth anniversary, and the online history is pretty skimpy.

Christian Panas recently stopped back in the area for a few weeks, prior to moving to Japan. I was able to have one interview session with him while he was in town. This is edited by me for clarity, but has not been edited by Panas. Greg McElhatton has written to me with a response which is appended at the end, while being asterisked in the text at the places he indicated; since I was not involved in the show and have not deeply studied the history of it, I am only presenting what people say, and not attempting to determine any 'truth.'

Mike Rhode: When did you work on SPX?

Christian Panas: I would say 1997-2000.

MR: What was your role there?

CP: I started as a volunteer. I ended up working with the steering committee and I guess I was technically executive director for two years.*

MR: How did you start volunteering?

CP: I had moved back from Chicago to the area in '97 and wandered in to Big Planet Comics in Vienna. That's how I met Greg Bennett, and how I got interested in comics again. I had stopped reading them. I read comics from 4 years old through high school, and then just lost interest. It wasn't until I rolled into Big Planet and saw a lot of alternative press comics that was coming out that I got interested again. I found out about SPX and decided to volunteer and I had a blast, meeting those creators and seeing what was coming out. I just got really enthused about it. It was a real pleasure.

MR: Who were you reading at the time that sucked you back in?

CP: There was that whole movement with the Fort Thunder guys. Kurt Wolfgang. There was plenty of Fantagraphics that I had missed. I hadn't realized that Ivan Brunetti was putting out comics. He did a student comic strip at the University of Chicago when I was there.

MR: You liked the more "primitive" type of look then?

CP: Yeah, that's what got me back in. I always loved European and South American albums too, that were more polished, but still raw and powerful. This was lots of what Fantagraphics was putting out. At the time I discovered Munoz and Sampayo. Munoz blew my mind, and I got to meet him when I went to Angouleme in '99 with Greg.  There were also guys like Top Shelf, Jeff Mason's Alternative Press… between finding foreign stuff that I had missed and all the American indy stuff that I had no clue about, it really opened my eyes.

MR: So how did your role from volunteer to executive director evolve?

CP: It happened really suddenly. I was working at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum at the time, and I was doing a lot of cultural work in the anthropology department. We were working with other institutions so I went to Japan and Thailand, and I had experience working with artists in Trinidad & Tobago, and other things. I'll be very honest. I think part of it had to do with not being sure who wanted to be executive director at the time and part of it was that I was good at having rapport with people. I was good with schmoozing. We'd have those wonderful parties. At one of the SPX's when I was executive director we had in a Swiss cartoonist, and between folks like him and Joe Sacco, and Bob Sikoryak... I just had a good affinity and inclination to putting those people at ease, and drawing them out… making them feel welcome. To be honest, if I had anything to contribute, I think it was that. I think a lot of other people were involved in the real work of the show.

MR: Who else was involved with you at this time?

CP: There was Karen Flage, Greg McElhatton, Greg Bennett, Craig Thomas…  I also helped edit the 1999 and 2000 anthologies with Chris Oarr and Tom Devlin. We got nominated for the Eisner which was a lot of fun.

MR:  So did people undertake the job they could fulfill the best, or did you have to assign work to people?

CP: No, I was technically executive director, but literally it was the group meeting and functioning in an anarchistic sense – the good sense, not the chaotic one – self-actualized. Towards the end as I was having certain difficulties in my life, people ended up having to take up my slack.

MR: Where was SPX actually being held when you were working on it?

CP: In Bethesda.

MR: Were you involved with the Silver Spring interregnum?

CP: No, no.

MR: Chris Oarr was still director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) at the time, and you were working with Chris?

CP: I don't think he'd been doing it that long at that point, and in some way I was taking over executive directorship of the show from him.

MR: These were the days when it was still largely seat of its pants. Were you there when the parallel track with ICAF was going on?

CP: Yes. I have heard about difficulties and after I was involved, there was a split, but when I was involved, it seemed to be really great synergy. The artists that they brought were phenomenal. It felt really perfect to me. It was one of the many reasons I loved that show so much. The programming that they brought added such richness and depth, although I have to tell you I've been to one or two conventions in my life, including Angouleme, so I don't have much to compare to.

MR: SPX didn't really have any programming before that point, except for a few small press business things and a retailer thing on Sundays.

CP: Yes, exactly. And the softball game. We did have that retailers meeting and that was pretty much the program.

MR: It was in Bethesda in that little hotel with the two levels and it was outgrowing it rapidly at that point, I would imagine…

CP: It was really packed by the end. I remember it was an issue we were talking about constantly and trying to figure it out. A lot of people complained that getting tables was tough. As a show, my understanding is that is when it really took off in terms of filling up with crowds. It became a real indy (as opposed to local) show. At every stage, I remember how many of the creators who came spoke of it with real wonder and love, and spoke of it as a show that was feeding them.

MR: People make money every year, and some have been coming since the beginning… What were some of your successes?

CP: To me personally, it was just being involved with a lot of good people and being able to help provide that venue and that excitement and support to those creators. That felt really great. I can't remember how well it did in terms of sales, or publicity, and I wasn't the architect of new policies, but it felt incredibly fulfilling just making it happen.

MR: At the time, it was purely a fundraiser for the CBLDF, and that very well might still be the case, but I think it makes more money for the artists than it used to, and that's a concern for people who want to come since there are so many competing conventions. There's essentially a convention every weekend in America now, and people have to make an active choice to come to SPX now. Back then, there were only two relevant cons – SPX and APE.

CP: There's so much less distinction in terms of pop culture and knowledge. People know these creators and books more than they used to. It did feel seat-of-the-pants in a positive way, but those people on the committee … and Steve Conley was also a big part of it… worked extremely hard and did a great job. I guess one of my successes … working on the anthologies I really loved.

MR: Did the anthologies already exist when you started volunteering?

CP: Yes.

MR: And they kept getting thicker and thicker every year…

CP: In 1998, or 1999, the one that got nominated for an Eisner – there was controversy with people who felt that some of it was too experimental.

(courtesy of

MR: How did material get chosen for those?

CP: My vague recollection is that Chris and Tom and myself got submissions, and we met with Adhouse Book's Chris Pitzer who was the fourth in that group. I had my roommate Greg McEllhatton and Karen Flage look at the comics too, to get their input and to create a shortlist. Then Chris Pitzer, Chris Oarr, Tom Devlin and I holed up and went through and hammered out which ones we wanted in and and what order to put them in.

MR: So Pitzer's been running his own
publishing house for over two decades, and Devlin joined Drawn & Quarterly and is now the co-publisher, so I guess the experience was good for them too. Is there anything you can recall as a particular failure?

CP: I don't remember anything in particular.

MR: What were some of the more memorable events?

CP: We had Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman in. They were big names. For us, they were huge names. Honestly, my interest was a lot more to the people ICAF brought over. I remember sitting and having a drink with Will Eisner one night at the bar. I just remember how awesome that was -- the two of us randomly having a drink. Joe Sacco was a person I really loved talking to. I think we had the American debut of the Comix 2000 silent comics compilation and some of the L'Association guys. That was incredible. But having the likes of Miller and Gaiman show up for the CBLDF was a really big deal and it drew people. It gave support to the CBLDF and was great for us. After 300, talking Greek history at the after party with Frank Miller was fun. I made the mistake of framing a question I asked along the lines of 'how does it feel to come back to comics,' and he took offense at that, but I didn't mean it. [laughs]

MR: At some point there was an ill-advised attempt to rebrand SPX as 'The Expo.' Was that in your time?

(courtesy Grand Comics Database)

CP: I do remember that, but I can't tell you much more other than I expressed my opposition to the idea. I don't remember details other than I felt it was totally unnecessary.

CP: I don't know that it needs to be recorded, but one personal hurt I had was, after going out of my way to involve the committee in the anthology and giving them a first look, after we put out the anthology, I got a lot of shit and shit was talked that we somehow did a bad job, picking gratuitously weird stuff. But that's just human. That's really the only negative thing I can even remember from time. My time was limited and in the second year I was executive director, I had to bail. Greg Bennett and some other people saved me, because I was having personal issues at the time. They stepped in and picked up the slack, and took it over. 99%+ of my experience and feelings were great.

MR: Favorite parts? Least favorite parts?

CP: I loved the party afterwards! I have to say, and I helped throw it, but I had a facility for that aspect and enjoying it.

MR: The Ignatz awards?

CP: I was not involved with them. There were issues with getting the finished bricks, and I'm sure there were other, more substantive issues, but I wasn't aware of any other problems.

MR: The CBLDF used to hold an auction on the floor. Did you ever buy anything?

CP: I was never a great collector. I got stuff growing up that I liked, but I never had the collector mentality.

(Small Press Expo, September 2009. Crowd including Jeff Alexander.)

MR: Who took over after you left? Was that Jeff Alexander?**

CP: Yeah. Jeff had been involved before me. I met Jeff at Big Planet too, through Greg. Greg used to have to people over to his house. I think that's how a lot of us got involved with the show, and that's how I met Jeff. In the summers, Greg would have Hong Kong film festival parties and put a screen up in his back yard and have a barbecue. Jeff would bring whatever anime or HK films that he had. I think he was predominantly involved with the Ignatz at the time, and that was his main responsibility. Greg McElhatton, Karon Flage, Jeff and Steve Conley and I used to get together on occasional Friday evenings for drink and dinner after work.

The steering committee and the volunteers were a bunch of overall really enthused people who were self-motivated. The committee as a whole seemed to work well, figuring out who would do what, with people stepping in to fill in when needed in places. For me, in that period of the time, it was largely an incredibly pleasant blur.

*Greg McElhatton has written in, stating, "Christian Panas was not executive director for two years, but just a matter of months. He briefly took over in that position in the fall of 2000, after the 2000 show had ended (and the last of the three years that Michael Zarlenga was executive director). By the spring of 2001, Christian was no longer executive director or in fact on the Board or the Steering Committee. At that point, Greg Bennett and I took over as co-executive directors in an attempt to make sure the show would even happen. (As it turned out, the show was scheduled for September 14-16, 2001 and ended up cancelled for events out of our control. But it was on track to occur and we'd even gotten the front page of the Washington Post Weekend section.)"

**McElhatton states, "I ended up serving as executive director for 2002-2003, with a tremendous amount of assistance (and as assistant executive director) from Greg Bennett, without whom I couldn't have achieved a lot. Steve Conley was the director for the 2004-2006 shows, Karon Flage for 2007-2009, and then Jeff Alexander was in 2010. Warren Bernard took over in 2011 and has continued to run the show since then."

"(And before then, Lou Danoff and Jon Cohen founded the show in 1994; Chris Oarr ran the show in 1995-1997, and then Michael Zarlenga was executive director in 1998-2000.)"

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Meet a Local Cartoonist: A Chat with Vanessa Bettencourt

by Mike Rhode

Last weekend, I briefly stopped in the Hooray for Books bookstore in Alexandria on Saturday to meet Portuguese cartoonist Vanessa Bettencourt who was doing a drawing workshop for children, and I enjoyed seeing her interact with the kids in the audience. She agreed to answer our usual questions about her journey from Europe to northern Virginia.

What type of comic work or cartooning do you do?

My comics have a lot of humor and fantasy and a mix of manga and Disney styles together. When I'm not working on commissions for business, websites or people who want their portraits as comic characters, I work diligently on my personal projects.

I work daily on my free webcomic series,

It started as an effective way to communicate with Jon, my fiancé in a long-distance relationship, and became a way to share my life with those who stayed behind at home after I moved from Portugal to the USA. Now I share my daily adventures as a freelance artist in the USA.

In 2015 I set a goal of a year to write, illustrate and completely finish a graphic novel on my own. I accomplished the goal. Polly and the Black Ink is 520 full-color pages that I divided into five paperbacks. The first three volumes are already available.

Sometimes I take commissions to do political cartoons (as happened with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence), but between social and political I favor social issues.

How do you do it? Traditional pen and ink, computer or a combination?

For Polly and the Black Ink, I drew and wrote it all in paper for a few months first, then I scanned it and edited before the digital process of inking, coloring and adding the text. I write the text as I draw the scenes, instead of having a script. This way I have a better sense of space and where the text will fit in each panel.

This is my first graphic novel and I learned a lot, especially about writing short but meaningful sentences when sometimes I feel the character has so much more to say. For I only work digitally. I have my format and I stick to it. Commissions can be digital or traditional. I use Photoshop and I recently upgraded from an Intuos3 to a Cintiq 13HD.

When (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?

I was born in December, 1979 in Lisbon, Portugal.

Why are you in Washington now? What neighborhood or area do you live in?

I moved to the USA in 2015. I met my fiancé in 2012 when he hired me to draw all the covers for his epic fantasy series Heir of Scars, including chapter illustrations and maps. A few years later we started the K1 Visa (fiancée process), which I describe with a lot of humor in He was currently working in DC so we decided to stay. I'm a freelance artist so it's easier to adapt. We live in Alexandria near the Potomac river. As a Portuguese soul, I miss the ocean a lot, so the river is nice to have nearby.

What is your training and/or education in cartooning?

I have a degree in Portuguese and English literature. I became a teacher and worked for publishers as a fantasy illustrator Then, I returned to college for Fine Arts while I worked. I'm self-taught when it comes to comic books and cartoons. I started drawing this style for fun. A simple away to share my day with Jon then it became more serious. I intend to continue to learn, share and create more stories and worlds.

Who are your influences?

For fantasy illustration: William Bouguereau, Larry Elmore (and all D&D art), Luis Royo, Donato Giancola, Prince Valiant by Hal Foster…

For comics and cartooning: Calvin and Hobbes’ Bill Waterson, Bones by Jeff Smith, Asterix, Turma da Monica by Mauricio de Sousa, Hagar the Horrible by Chris Browne, W.I.T.C.H fantasy series, Naoko Takeuchi (Sailor Moon), Akihiro Yamada (Junni Kokki - The Twelve Kingdoms artist), all Disney, many manga, anime and fantasy books.

And for the surreal humor with a lot of nonsense: Mortadelo & Filemon by Francisco Ibanez Talavera, Guillermo Mordillo, Janguru wa Itsumo Hare Nochi Guu manga.

If you could, what in your career would you do-over or change?

Sometimes I want to go back and retouch finished work. In the beginning, I wished I had more time to finish a cover or a project, but to get the commission we have to go with the publisher's schedule.

What work are you best-known for?

Notfrombrazil, because for the past two years I’ve been uploading thrice a week online, on the usual social media and in platforms such as tapastic and LINE Webtoon.

What work are you most proud of?

Polly and the Black Ink. I am really happy that I was able to create a compelling world, story and characters with a lot of adventure, action, mystery and fantasy parallel worlds that children, teens and adults feel compelled to read and discover. Also, the new art for the Heir of Scars book series.

What would you like to do or work on in the future?

Continue to get as many commissions as possible so I can make my dreams come true. HaHa!
I will focus on finishing my epic novels so there’s not a gap between publishing Polly’s 5th volume and my next project. I will continue to work on the next covers for the Heir of Scars book also. My husband and I decided to agglomerate our projects under the same name, Violet West Entertainment, as we build our brand together.

I want to be proud of my projects, control the outcome as much as possible and be sure it's something memorable. I might return to Polly and the Black Ink for a second arc too later.

What do you do when you're in a rut or have writer's block?

Because I work in so many different projects and styles I got used to having an escape, but there are times that I can't work at all and I need to watch animation, movies, read, learn a new technique, go to a museum or a park, do something completely different from my daily routine and refill my batteries.

What do you think will be the future of your field? 

Things change so quickly now. Everything has an up and down side. The system or the rules change without notice, and we're forced to go with the flow or stay behind. Artists and authors will always create and try to reach their audience.

The Internet allows us to publish our books, to see people engage daily with our process and become part of the process. What we do is starting to be seen more as a job. We are professionals.

Also, the audience is starting to learn how to give back. It balances all the free entertainment or work they've been having access to. That's why it's important to support artists. Kickstarter and Patreon are good examples of making it possible for an artist to work full time on their craft and support themselves.

What local cons do you attend? The Small Press Expo, Intervention, or others? Any comments about attending them?

I attended Katsucon last February as an artist with Polly and the Black Ink debut. I got a table and it was a great experience. The audience reacted very well to the books. We'll be attending Awesome Con DC again in June with Polly and the Black Ink and the Heir of Scars books and art. I will have book III available at our table.

Next event will be Small Press Expo. We've attended it as visitors before, but this time in September we will be managing a table with our books, including Polly and the Black Ink volume IV. The downside of having a table is to be stuck behind it and miss the panels, the contests, etc.

I also attend local events as much as possible, from bookstores to street art festivals when schedule allows. I had a great opportunity to publish one comic page on the Magic Bullet #14 and I intend to keep going.

I also have an invitation from Alexandria's Duncan Branch Library, where I taught a comic book workshop last year. I will be drawing people's portrait in my cartoonish style on the street and raise money for the library during the Del Ray Street Art Festival next September 7th, 2017.

Polly and I are available to attend schools, libraries and other events to share my experience as an independent author, but also to share my process and give some tips (ages 5 up). You can reach me on my official website or contact me at

What's your favorite thing about DC?

I love the free museums and the food diversity.

Least favorite?

The business, political stiffness and mood of the city.

What monument or museum do you like to take visitors to?

The Lincoln Memorial. The size of the sculpture helps, but the entire area has soul. There are many good museums. The National Museum of Natural History is my favorite to visit over and over. I get so much inspiration from it to draw and come up with new storylines. And I have to visit the Zoo. I haven't had the chance.

How about a favorite local restaurant?

I love food. It's hard to pick. Each day is a different mood. From Asian to Americana. There are good seafood places in Old Town, but being Portuguese, I also miss some of the fresh and diverse seafood that we don’t have here.

Do you have a website or blog?

I keep two websites. One as an artist and another for the free webcomic series notfrombrazil.
My website has a blog where I share news of my creative process, tutorials, articles with events and book releases.

People are free to subscribe to get news of the next events or book releases.

For those who wish to get a weekly reminder of subscribe to the website I add new episodes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

You can also find the following pages on Facebook: @pollyandtheblackink, @notfrombrazil, @vanessabettencourtart and @heirofscars up to date.

On Instagram: @vanessabettencourtart where I host giveaways.