The Elsewhere: Part-time zinester Charles Mingus will toilet train your cat

The entirety of Reddit’s NottheOnion cannot hold a candle to this gem of an unbelievable news story: Charles Mingus wrote a mail-order zine in 1954 on toilet-training cats. You read that correctly: Charles Mingus, arguably the greatest bassist and composer and bandleader and overall musician in all of jazz history trained his cat to poop in a human toilet. He called it “The Charles Mingus CAT-alog for Toilet Training Your Cat,” naturally.

Print copies of this ridiculous zine (again, authored by one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time) must be mighty hard to come by, so Studio360 did us all a favor and got the Reg E. Cathy to orate a brief audiobook. It’s no secret Mingus loved him some cats—if you squint, you can see a couple on the cover art of Mingus Ah Um, and the same album pays its dues to pussy cats with “Pussy Cat Dues”—but this fantastic piece of history really is something else.

I… I just don’t know what else to say. Cat got my tongue.

Over the Garden Wall – “The Old Grist Mill”: But where have we come?

gristmill2

Screencaps, wistfulness property of Cartoon Network.

“Welcome to the Unknown, boys. You’re more lost than you realize!”

-The Woodsman

There’s a strange land somewhere out there, a land of folktales and myths come to life under the veil of imagination. Where frogs play ancient ballads on pianos, lost souls fill the roots of trees, and placid pumpkin people greet you at the harvest festival. There’s a land, somewhere out there, where smart storytelling, without a hint of condescension, coexists peacefully with spooky, naturalistic imagery, and where pathos can be wrung from the briefest moments like stream water from a soaked rag. This land is called the Unknown.

To reach the Unknown, you must simply hop Over the Garden Wall.

This Cartoon Network miniseries, which I reviewed in full over here, boasts one of the richest fictional universes to be explored this decade in the Unknown. This universe is also one of the strangest, a qualifier earned by its incredibly bold pilot, a dark and obscure chapter that holds all its cards close to the chest, soaring on the strengths of mood and character while boldy delaying the plot. It’s conceptually daring, an in medias res opening that barely introduces the central characters, offers the smallest taste of a mythology, and obscures the tapestry of its autumnal setting in a heart of darkness.

It’s a neat analogy to the plight of our heroes: like Wirt and young Greg (bearing no resemblance to Old Gregg), we are lost in the Unknown. By structuring the first episode, “The Old Grist Mill, like a puzzle box that can only be fully understood by viewers who completed the whole series, creators Pat McHale, Tom Herpich (an Adventure Time storyboarding stalwart with some hilarious deadpan chops), and Amalia Levari are forced to lay the groundwork of the show’s universe by showing, not telling. We are without a compass, but we are encouraged to soak in our surroundings rather than fuss over the details.

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Over the Garden Wall: A Glorious Grimoire

From Over the Garden Wall wiki

Images courtesy of Over the Garden Wall wiki, 17th century American fashion, and a supremely creepy riff on Hayao Miyazaki

Chaos took over The AV Club, a site I regularly follow, after reviewer Kevin Johnson accidentally awarded Cartoon Network miniseries Over the Garden Wall the forbidden A+. grade. The AV Club system caps at a vanilla A, despite their technology going the extra +, so occasionally these mistakes happen and the editors course-correct.

Here’s the thing, though: accident or not, Johnson’s original score was spot-on. From the first installment to the last, Over the Garden Wall is remarkable. If you’re going to make one exception to the A+ rule this year, this might have to be it.

Over the Garden Wall, helmed by Adventure Time and Flapjack veteran Pat McHale, pits everykid stepbrothers Wirt and Greg in the middle of a dark forested world (un)known as The Unknown. Wirt, voiced to angsty perfection Elijah Wood, is the elder brother, full of hemming feelings, hawing poetics, and a latent talent for the bassoon. Greg, voiced by actual child Collin Deen, is the embodiment of joy, curiosity, gumption, and plain old ridiculousness, using buffoonery to counter Wirt’s self-serious bassoonery (I am so sorry). Accompanying the pair is the bluebird Beatrice, affable and smart-mouthed, who promises to help guide the kids home, away from The Unknown. Also, there’s a frog.

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Won’t superhero comics PLEASE think of the children?!

Mainstream superhero comics are imbued with a permanent asterisk, a stigma born from a number of stereotypes perfectly embodied by The Simpsons’s Comic Book Guy. The basement-dweller, the neckbeard, the casual misogynist who relishes sex, violence, and exaggerated musculature in his (always “his”) art. Of course, stereotypes are just stereotypes, and there are plenty more superhero enthusiasts than this subset of readers.

Such as children!

Hell, I remember when I was just a children, I was all about the superheroes. Every Saturday morning it would be Superman, Batman, Ninja Turtles, or Gargoyles, and I would head straight for the comic rack at the barbershop to pick up the new issue of X-Men, Spiderman, or whathaveyou. For a multitude of reasons, Young Horrible Paul was drawn to comics and superhero stories.

Just over a week ago, Comics Alliance’s Janette Asselin articulated the myriad reasons children dig superhero stories better than my cheap nostalgia ever can. In this fantastic read that cites psychologists, Supergirl writers and editors, librarians, and comic store owners, Asselin demonstrates why mainstream comic creators need to do more than just cater to the Comic Book Guys of the English-speaking world:

“Parents want to be able to give their kids inspiring superhero comics that are based on the heroes they know and love, or even just the ones that their kids are asking about. Currently, the companies that own those superheroes are not providing comics material that offers evergreen, accessible, kid-friendly storytelling.”

“It’s true; it’s not just “bam! pow!” (insert your own comics cliché of choice here); comics can be a wonderful developmental tool for children. Regardless of the genre, comics of any kind that are created for a young audience offer something that words alone do not. For new readers, pictures can help a great deal with making a story understandable.”

“If the comics industry is to thrive in the future, it needs to appeal to not just a wider variety of ages in its demographics, but also a broader diversity in terms of race and gender. [Psychologist Dr. Andrea] Letamendi has noted the effect diversity has on young comics readers. ‘When children read literature, they ask themselves, “How is this character like me?” and “What do I see in this character that I see in myself?” This is where gender can be important: Children notice differences at surprisingly young ages.'”

The article, and its many sources, damn a system that has polluted established properties–the kind of comics parents read as kids, and can no longer recommend to their own children due to inappropriate content–while failing to produce enough suitable alternatives. If a kid these days, let alone a kid who is not a straight white cis male, wants a superhero they can understand and relate to, their options are barren.

Three days ago, author of American-Born Chinese and all-around superstar Gene Yang wrote something of an addendum, arguing that comics as a general medium have richer opportunities for children’s literature, even though the slate of kid-friendly superheroes is relatively bare. To quote:

“Kids are reading lots and lots and lots of comics these days. They’re just not reading the same kinds of comics that their nerd parents did.”

While Asselin’s article takes a more elegiac tone about the death of the superhero mainstream, lamenting that today’s children won’t grow up to draw the superheroes of tomorrow, Yang isn’t quite as mournful. He rattles off half a dozen graphic novels outside of the superhero genre that have pushed their way into the mainstream. He assures us that his daughter loves the heck out of those books, and that’s just enough. You can get the same childhood joy and psychological, educational boons out of a comic, no matter what it’s about.

Basically: superheroes: who needs ’em? Even if the majority of current industry brass doesn’t want to greenlight diverse, accessible graphic literature, who cares about them when there’s tons of great stuff from the fringes going public? If children want it, parents will come. In addition to the titles Yang rattles off in his blog post (and Yang’s own kid-to-teen friendly books), there’s a healthy influx of quality comics coming in from independent publishers.

Françoise Mouly, best known for handpicking every New Yorker cover for the past twenty-one years, is one such publisher planting seeds for the next generation of children and cartoonists. With her line of TOON Books, Mouly is cultivating an armory of comics for kids as young as three-years-old, including one aimed at second-graders that unabashedly wears the superspandex. In her article, Asselin mentions that there are few genuine comic books, not just picture books, out there for very young children. If Mouly’s TOON vanguard breeds more success, then perhaps parents will find it easier to pick up a copy of Mo and Jo instead of wading through Wonder Woman’s troubled history to find a saga appropriate for their little one.

Mouly’s TOON comics remind me not of the old-guard, “nerd parents” comic properties, but of a relatively newer superhero who graced the inside of my third-grade classroom desk: Captain Underpants. When I am a nerd parent, maybe he will be the first superhero I introduce to my kids. Or maybe I’ll just pass down Bone, or Prime Baby, or even Rice Boy when they’re older. To paraphrase Megadeth, the world needs heroes. They might just look different from the ones from the last generation.

Too Much Coffee Man: My First Cup of Comic

When I was a wee lad of indeterminable age, I became accidentally exposed to my first non-mainstream comic, a satirical lark by the name of Too Much Coffee Man. My family was driving upstate to Ulster County, New York to see my grandparents up in the Catskills, and there was a comic shop we occasionally stopped at along the way in scenic New Paltz. My sister and I picked up a handful of Bongo’s Simpsons comics, or some of its many spinoffs, and my dad would venture into the back of the shop, the dank corner that smelled like ozone and overripe bananas, packed with alphabetized white crates three stacks high.

None of the comics I recognized. No Marvel, no DC, no Simpsons, so what could they be? I asked him, as he pulled a skinny issue from the crate. On the cover was a massive, steaming styrofoam cup, dwarfing a man clad in a woolly red jumpsuit. I had no idea what this unusual comic was, or why it would be buried so far in the back of the store, but the cover reassured me that it was, in fact, “The Lawsuit Issue.”

“Adult comics,” Horrible Dad said. “You probably wouldn’t get them.”

I was in shock.

My dad was buying pornography.

Naturally, I had to sneak a look.

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Speculative Relationships: Noodly appendages of pure love

Tyrell Cannon brought them together, but science fiction made them fall in love.

“Them,” in this case, refers to the cluster of likeminded cartoonists (and one illustrator, Michael Manomivibul, taking a first whack at this whole comics shindig) that dreamt up Speculative Relationships, a brand new, Kickstarter-certified anthology of science fiction/romance hybrid comics. “Dreamt up,” in this case, actually means “put in a shitton of hard, painstaking, deadline-missing, detail-inundating work,” as the authors explained last night at Quimby’s.

In a mirthful discussion panel—on average, every fourth sentence made the room LOL—authors Tyrell Cannon, Daniel Warren Johnson, Scott Kroll, and Isabella Rotman (Manomivibul and Rinko Endo couldn’t make it, because of distances) talked about why, and how, these stories of romantic science fiction came to be.  The origin story is mundane—basically, Cannon emailed everyone and they said “yes”—but the product is artistically diverse, beautifully-rendered, and unified by a pervading sense of clever warmth. I’ll get into Speculative Fiction in-depth later, possibly via Fox Hunting, so until then here’s the quick skinny on each contributing artist, what I learned about them at Quimby’s, and what else they offer to the world:

  • Tyrell Cannon knows how to use a computer. He likes to spend a lot of time on the details. He has started using smaller pens to put details on his details, and will eventually get even smaller pens and smaller pens until he becomes a detail. He’s got a book about the Green River Killer that sounds right up my alley.
  • Scott Kroll knows how to make a book and wear a suit. He has a kind of adorable thing for tentacles maybe. Related to Nick Kroll? Not impossible. Owlbear.
  • Daniel Warren Johnson is a veteran of romance comics, if you can count hacked limbs and bloodstrewn carcasses as romance (you very well can! love is strange!). He admits that his style tilts towards the mainstream, but he is trying to switch it up. Dark Horse is the daddy of Ghost Fleet, which he illustrates but doesn’t write. He adamantly refuses, REFUSES to hand letter, so his fiancee lettered for him. This confession led Tyrell and Scott to also come clean that their fiancees/wives also helped them in the publishing/drawing process.
  • Isabella Rotman was the only artist I knew about going in, from her line of educational sex comics. She looked visibly uncomfortable when everyone else talked about fiancees and wives. She’s got a knack for turning comics into musically-accompanied slideshows, a talent she showed earlier this year at Brain Frame, and would probably be a kickass animator. More than anything, though, she really just wants to draw lesbians… IN SPACE!
  • Because the Kickstarter couldn’t reach the $3.5 million dollar stretch bonus for a private jet, Michael Manomivibul and Rinko Endo couldn’t attend the donut-fueled presentation. Luckily, lots can be learned about them from their websites!

The Elsewhere: Hastings in in, North is out at Adventure Time comic. Gran 2017?

If you’re like me, you probably like Adventure Time, Dinosaur Comics, Dr. McNinja, chicken soup, and watching Adventure Time reruns while slurping chicken soup. If you’re like me, then you might find yesterday’s news bittersweet, too: ComicsAlliance reports that Ryan North, of Dinosaur Comics, has left as head writer of the KaBOOM Studios official Adventure Time comic series, to be replaced by Christopher Hastings, of McNinja.

Though I didn’t follow his tenure issue-to-issue, Ryan North, a bit of a renaissance man in the webcomic world, made some mighty, Eisner-validated product. I’ve got no doubt that a writer of Hastings’s caliber could continue putting out work at the same very, very, very high standard. In fact, I’m inclined to believe there’s a chance it might be even better! Hastings’s tone–which I would describe as “fifteen year old from 1994 by way of trickster demigod”–seems like a natural fit to the post-post-apocalyptic surreal magical learningscape of Ooo, and perhaps the ideal candidate to write for the preteen (and preteens of all ages) demographic that’s fallen in love with AT. It’s as natural a fit as KC Green is to the Regular Show comic–which, to this day, remains the most remarkable synergy between property and voice in entire comicsphere.

Which got me thinking: if not Hastings, then who? Who would be his dream replacement in another three years?

The easy answer is Meredith Gran, who tested her mettle with Marceline and the Scream Queens. She’s got the Midas Touch (which we should rebrand  the “Meredith Touch”) for the kind of character-driven pathos at the core of a great AT story, plus she knows her way around a goofy aesthetic like few others. It might mean I’d have to suffer reduced Octopus Pie updates for many more moons, but damn it would be worth it to see Gran get the full-time distinction she deserves.

So I know Hastings just got the job, and I’m excited to see the places he will take the comic down the line, but I’m gonna start making “GRAN 2017” banners and store them in the bike room.

An Age of License by Lucy Knisley: Food for Thought

Despite the improvisatory stream-of-comicness, lack of paneled styling, and curious traveler’s heart, An Age of License is a tethered book. Lucy Knisley makes this obvious from the half-title, shackling her floating body to the cursive “e” at the end of “License” like a ball-and-chain. We are warned, with this premonition, to recognize the limits of freedom, even when faced with a remarkable opportunity to momentarily cast aside our “normal” lives. Things that go up, must come down.

An Age of License: A Travelogue is the story of going up, but coming down never leaves its mind. For every idyllic moment author Lucy Knisley spends on Norway’s decadent cuisine or her Nordic lover’s chiseled face, there’s a sobering soliloquy on careers, marriage, or privilege. These doses of reality work greatly to the book’s advantage, lending weight–even profundity–to an already vivid and amusing tale of flights, sights, and romance. A trifle, this ain’t.

An Age of License by Lucy Knisley, from Fantagraphics

Plus, the cover is REALLY fun to touch. It’s got, like, three textures. (An Age of License by Lucy Knisley, from Fantagraphics)

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Panel Therapy: Tomboy and the Unknowable Horrors of Tweenhood

A great comic book, like any great art, sticks with us long after we’ve left it. A really great comic book burrows deep into our soul, leaving a lasting impression or a feeling we just can’t shake. For those occasions, I have started offering pro bono Panel Therapy.
Join me tonight, as I dig into the recesses of my psyche and analyze more closely one of my favorite sequences from Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by the inimitable Liz Prince. In this stunning sequence, Prince takes a step back from the narration driving her memoir to document a moment of youthful brutality. For some extra background, check out my full review of Tomboy for some sweet, sweet big picture.

Throughout Tomboy, Prince diagnoses, in no uncertain terms, the myriad torments she endured as a child who didn’t reflect gender norms. She narrates her journey through the He-Man Woman Haters of Little League, guides us through the perils of swimming with one’s shirt on, and candidly recalls the sucker punch she received for standing up for her brother to an intimidating sixth-grader. Girls tease her behind her back, boys openly mock her, other children’s parents just don’t understand her. Prince passes through each gauntlet in one piece, but each little brick thrown at her builds a Lego castle of confusion (insecurity knights and body issues catapult sold separately).

Despite the constant psychological assault from outside forces, Prince (both author and child) manages to press forward and keep Tomboy‘s narrative running smoothly. Even if young Prince cannot comprehend the full ramifications imposed on her by the gender binary, she still possesses a basic understanding of her aggressors’ motivations (or elder Prince, who I am now calling Liz to avoid confusion, at least imbues this understanding, as narrator, upon her younger self). She understands that she is perceived as neither girl nor boy, or understands that standing up for her brother earned a punch in the tummy. Cause and effect, at least, makes her misery and confusion marginally clearer, and the book is able to proceed at a steady, even confident clip.

That is, until Tyler gets all up in her business.

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Thunderpaw by Jen Lee: Surviving the Dogpocalypse

A GIF in the right hands is a powerful tool, as R.A. Villaneuva explained to AAWW the other day. Using, of course, naught but a series of GIFs, the award-winning poet delves into the versatile superpowers of the simple, soundless moving image format. However, the interview stretches to prove that GIFs can capture the whole range of human emotion by inherently limiting itself to reaction GIFs, the kind you find in emails or image boards.

MFW they could have just mentioned Thunderpaw: In The Ashes of Fire Mountain and dropped the mic:

Source: Tumblrpaw

Ollie’s like “whaaaaaaat” and I’m like “yah right” (credit: Jen Lee. Click for some sweet, sweet Thunderpaw)

Integrating GIF artwork into webcomics has been around for years (MS Paint Adventures is probably the most well-known example) and using the “infinite canvas” has been around for even longer (Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life turns eleven this November. Eleven!), but Thunderpaw, an in-progress webcomic from Jen Lee about two dogs navigating the end of the world, may be Exhibit A for devastating use of both innovations.

It starts out innocuously enough with some wobbly text on an ominous gradient: “It was the brightest night we ever saw…” Once those words sink in, Thunderpaw‘s apocalyptic hellscape dashes your throat and refuses to come out. Thunder crashes on a mountain. Birds swoop from the sky (a Hitchcockian motif that never fails to turn my stomach) behind the gnarled faces of a dog-like demigod (demidog?). The canine brothers Bruno and Ollie—“good dogs,” Ollie keeps reassuring—awake in an abandoned car with no masters, no signs of life besides themselves. Lightning flashes, fire rains from the sky, and the race against time begins.

As if the main plot weren’t enthralling and mysterious enough, Lee pulls back from the action at crucial moments for surreal flashbacks, abstract diversions, and one honest-to-demidog drug trip. These creative tangents pay off remarkably, keeping up the kinetic pace by ramping up the psychedelic visuals. In one such moment, a fever dream by Ollie turns into a nightmare when Bruno, flickering on a park bench in the distance, slowly turns around. His face is hollow; smoke plumes from his eye sockets. The effect is more than disorienting, more than just a window-dressing mood moment or a cheap piece of dark shock. Imbued by childhood fears, curdling brotherly love, dream logic, and Jen Lee’s superbly disturbing style, the panels are downright terrifying.

Try as I might, though, my words cannot do full justice to Lee’s incredible art. If cartooning were a seven layer cake, Thunderpaw is baking the eighth layer. Bruno and Ollie’s characterizations are packed into the way their eyes move in their introductory panels, how Bruno jumps between chairs while Ollie visibly shivers in a ball, the Squigglevision avatar of fear. By cloaking her birds in shadow, or rocketing them by at breakneck speeds, Lee turns an entire class of beings into angels of death. I could write treatises on the details that bring each panel to life, but that would be invariably way duller than just letting them soak, in all their gloryThunderpaw itself is still in its infancy—only one chapter is completed and, according to Lee’s Patreon, the story continues apace at four pages per month—but it manages to pack two frames of nuance into every panel.

These aren’t waterproof scientific measurements, but take my word for it that Thunderpaw rocks incredibly hard, despite the subtitle that sort of sounds like a family film starring Dwayne Johnson. But as far as nitpicks go, that’s about as small as they get. As it stands, itis one of the most breathless, engrossing works-in-progress on the web today. My heart was palpitating when I got current, and I look forward to it palpitating again in the coming months.