Episode 141: Scott Fagan

1Dec

By all rights, the story of South Atlantic Blues should have ended in 1968. Released the same week as Van Morrison’s masterpiece of pastoral angst, Astral Weeks, the record failed to garner any notice, in spite of promises that its young singer-songwriter would soon become “bigger than Elvis.” A masterpiece of a soulfully sung, lush psychedelic folk, the record vanished into obscurity, thanks to a perfect storm of record company failure. Not even a chance encounter with acclaimed painter and fan Jasper Johns could rescue the album from the remainder bin. Thankfully, the story of the album and its creator don’t end there. Nearly 50 years after its release, South Atlantic Blues is finally getting the recognition it deserved — and unlike so many of these story, which recapture public consciousness posthumously, Scott Fagan is still alive, well, and singing at 70. In the intervening 47 years, Fagan has led a fascinating life, achieving some fame as a calypso singer, struggling with addiction and reuniting with his long, lost son, Magnetics Fields frontman Stephin Merritt. Fagan was already seated when I arrived a few minutes early to set up for our interview. What transpired was one of the most fascinating conversations I’ve had in some time.

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Episode 140: Jim Starlin and Brian Stelfreeze

28Nov

Two conversations with extremely talented — and patient — artists conducted at Baltimore Comic Con. Both were also prefaced by waiting quietly for their signing lines to slow down before taking time out of their signing schedules for a chat. In the case of the legendary Marvel artists Jim Starlin, it was a long, unbroken line of autograph seekers carrying armfuls of Silver Surfer and Warlock comics to sign. With most, Starlin simply signed and small talked, tossing off a few notes about each. On occasions, however, a fan would present a copy of Captain Marvel and discuss the book’s impact on a personal level, how the story of the hero’s battle with cancer impacted them as a young reader — a testament to the power of important stories filtered through the pages of superhero books. As I waited for Brian Stelfreeze, meanwhile, the Gaijin Studios artist walked a young fan through the drawing process, critiquing his portfolio and demonstrating how to draw without focusing too heavily on the details — a method he discussed with me, before giving some insight into the eagerly awaited Black Panther miniseries he’s working on with journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates.

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Episode 139: Luc Sante

25Nov

I’ve been wanting to have Luc Sante on the show for some time now, and a recently appearance at the Brooklyn Book Fair finally afforded the opportunity to sit down with the author. Immediately after a panel with Vivian Gornick and David Ulin on the topic of writing about cities, Sante and I sat down in a courtyard on a windy Sunday. Published the same year I moved to New York, the author’s book Low Life might well be my favorite book I’ve ever read about the city, peering into the crime dens and slums often whitewashed out of portraits of Gotham’s golden age. Sante was at the show promoting his most recent work, The Other Paris, which offers similar insight into the city of light. He happily agreed to discuss the two vastly different, yet eternally link metropolises, while giving candid look into what keeps him writing.

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Episode 138: Sara Varon

21Nov

It had been a while since I’d last spoken with Sara Varon. At the time, the artist had a handle of comics and kids books under her belt, including most notably — and recently — Robot Dreams, a delightful wordless buddy comic about a relationship between a robot and a dog. Since then, Varon’s been plenty busy, adding several more titles to her bibliography and teaching printmaking at her alma mater, the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. She also has a trio of books already planned for publication over the next two years, including a reissue of her 2003 short story Sweater Weather, a book about an anthropomorphic donkey for First Second and President Squid, the tale of a giant squid who runs for president. Varon and I sat down at her studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn surrounded by shelves of children’s books to discuss quitting her day job, writing for kids, and a failed TV pitch about unicorns.

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Episode 137: Stan Sakai

17Nov

Like many of roughly my age bracket, my first exposure to Usagi Yojimbo was as an action figure — a badass samurai rabbit that fit in perfectly in world where Ninja Turtles roam the streets of New York at night. It’s one of those perfect sorts of synergy, anthropomorphic superheroes trained in Eastern forms of combat born out of the small press black and white comics revolution of the mid-80s. But Usagi’s roots are far deeper than his gritted toothed action figure implies. Stan Sakai has been telling the samurai rabbit’s story for 30 years now, writing and drawing one of the most complex works in all of comics. It’s a work deeply tied to the cartoonist’s early obsessions with his heritage, bits and piece of Japanese culture he poured over in his formative years in Hawaii. Conducted on the show floor of this year’s Baltimore Comic Con, Sakai and I discuss the roots of his beloved creation and how he manages to keep Usagi’s story fresh three decades in.

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Episode 136: Jennifer Hayden

12Nov

“The head space for a lot of people post-any kind of cancer is ‘I gotta get going,’” Jennifer Hayden explains with the positive energy of an all-star slugger holding a World Series trophy aloft. Whatever it is, I’m gonna jump on it. Everything is doable, everything is wonderful, thank God I’m still here.” When she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 43, the struggling artist turned to comics for the first time in her adult and found a medium that had changed dramatically from the Archie Digests she grew up on. In comics Hayden discovered the perfect form in which to tell her memoir. Released last month by Top Shelf, The Story of My Tits is a book ever bit as bare as its title implies, forming her biography through the titular body parts into a work that is, in turns, both serious and silly, much like Hayden herself. What follows is a mediation on cancer, creativity and the healing power of comics.

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Episode 135: Dylan Horrocks

10Nov

This one gets pretty raw. No surprise, really, given the nature of Sam Zabel And The Magic Pen, a semi-autobiographicalish comic that deals with the nature of and relationship between creativity and depression, kicking things off with a chapter titled “Anhedonia,” an inability to experience pleasure that arises from melancholy states. Of course, it’s not all gloom and doom. When New Zealand cartoonist Dylan Horrocks stopped by my office in lower-Manhattan, we conducted a long and wide ranging conversation that hit upon pieces from throughout his career, from the beloved 1998 graphic novel Hicksville, to his sometimes controversial run on the DC comics series Bat Girl.

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Episode 134: (Bonus) Joe Biel

5Nov

“It's a good story,” Joe Biel wrote in an email from a few weeks back. “It’s our 20th anniversary book and my big reveal is that I have Asperger’s.” When Good Trouble comes out from Microcosm in March, it’s bound to cause a stir in the company in which Biel’s publishing has played such a central role over the past couple of decades. It’s deeply personal to a fault, exploring Biel’s work, relationships and the role his diagnosis has played in both.  Not that the deeply personal is anything new in the small press world, but the writer takes care to offer as much insight into his own development as possible, learning important lessons about himself in the process. It’s a fascinating look at self-publishing, punk ethos, and the nature of autism.  In a followup to our wide ranging conversation from earlier this year, Biel and I hopped on Skype for a bonus conversation about his diagnosis, the process of writing the book and where he goes from here.

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Episode 133: Kinky Friedman

3Nov

He calls it “the curse of being multi-talented” and insists that it is, in fact, a curse. Musician, author, politician, comedian, and all around gadfly, Kinky Friedman is one of the those rare multi-faceted artists who is arguably equally well-known for several of different endeavors. Reflecting upon his singular career at 70, Friedman hesitates for a moment, invoking the curse with the suggestion that he may have found more fame, had he simply buckled down and focused on aspect at the expense of all others. But in 2006, for example, the call for public service trumped the rest, as the self-proclaimed Original Texas Jewboy threw his 10-gallon hat in the ring, challenging incumbent Republican candidate Rick Perry for the role of governor of the lone star state. Two decades prior, he penned a long string of hard-boiled detective books inspired by the likes of Raymond Chandler. This year Friedman returned to music with The Loneliest Man I Ever Met, his first studio album in 35 years, a set of songs that caught critics completely off-guard, trading acerbic standards like “Asshole From El Paso” and “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” for restrained and musically minimalist covers of arts like Tom Waits and Dylan. Though, as our half-hour together can happily attest, all the reflection in the world can’t stop Kinky from being Kinky.

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Episode 132: Olivier Schrauwen

28Oct

When I asked for interview suggestions for my five day work trip to Berlin, Comics Reporter Tom Spurgeon suggested Olivier Schrauwen, heaping praise upon the Belgian expat and categorizing him among the top living cartoonists.And indeed, the trip halfway around the world afforded a rare opportunity to speak with the Arsene Schrauwen cartoonist, who, in spite of growing acclaim within the comics literati, hasn’t granted all that many interviews over the years — particularly with the English speaking press. Schrauwen agreed, meeting me at Modern Graphics, a wonderful independent comics shop located in the German city’s Kreuzberg district. He arrived on his bicycle after I’d just finished spending some ungodly number of Euros purchasing an armful of comics and minis. We found a sidewalk cafe on the corner and drank beers as trendy Berliners passed by on their way to do some afternoon shopping. An ideal setting for an utterly fascinating conversation with a singular cartoonist.

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