Thursday, June 14, 2012

Books Books & Books

In the past few weeks I've read three books that have nothing in common except they were all produced by friends of mine, they all have drawings in them, and their cover dimensions are similar. Oddly, it's that last quality--"Hey, the top three books on my stack are all about the same size!"--that inspired me to think about combining them in a blog post--proving, I guess, that I can judge a book by its cover. You won't find any of these books at your local bookstore, but if their subjects appeal to you I think they're worth seeking out.

Disrepute (100 pages) is a collection of comics by Thom Ferrier, the nom de plume of Ian Williams (I always wonder if it's all right to rat out his secret identity like that but he's not shy about revealing it himself). Ian is a physician, artist and cartoonist in the U.K. who invited me to speak at the first International Graphic Medicine Conference in London in 2010. We've since worked together organizing the 2011 conference in Chicago and next July's in Toronto. He also has the prettiest penmanship of anyone I've ever known. It's like getting a letter from Hogwarts.

Me and Ian in 2010.
The comics in Disrepute include fiction, nonfiction and cartoon fantasy drawn in a variety of styles, but all informed by his hands-on medical practice (with great pains taken to preserve patient confidentiality). Consequently, they deliver insights that no one but a doctor could--sometimes stark and startling, but always honest. His most affecting stories capture very human moments that laymen may not realize their physicians experience: a doctor called upon to dispassionately treat his hated boyhood bully decades later, or his own admission that he's squeamish at the sight of blood, which he hopefully regards as a residue of empathy. My favorite piece of his is a single panel that captures the anguish and self-doubt that anyone in a life-or-death job must confront from time to time:

Much of Ian's work, including some pieces collected in Disrepute, may be read at his website (under the tabs "Strips" and "More Strips"); the book is available at that site or Ian has a unique, wide-ranging, restless creative voice offering a perspective I've never seen before. Disrepute is very smart, often darkly funny storytelling.

In the best tradition of "Hey gang, let's put on a show in the barn," my cartooning pal Mike Lynch and three of his friends have self-published Raconteur (16 pages), billed as "true stories from cartoonists who don't usually do this type of thing." This mini-comic (i.e., 8.5 x 11-inch sheets folded over and stapled) gathers four four-page pieces by Lynch, David Jacobson, John Klossner and Jeff Pert, all successful single-panel magazine cartoonists. They created Raconteur to stretch their narrative muscles, as Mike actually describes in his tale:

It's an eclectic collection. David Jacobson's "The Perfect Game" tells a story about childhood, the National Pastime, and the fate of a baseball autographed by the 1961 Yankees that broke my heart. John Klossner's untitled story about his son, who is so hyperstimulated by visual and auditory media that he finds it impossible to sit through a movie, broke my heart in a deeper way, as an expression of unconditional parental love. Mike Lynch's "The Petty Indignities That Run My Life" is an observantly witty overview of his days as an artist, including a great anecdote about being rejected by The New Yorker. And Jeff Pert's "When I Was a Kid" captures the joys and terrors of childhood so specifically they achieve universality.

It's a nice little collection that I think anyone interested in supporting independent creative efforts would appreciate, especially if they'd like to see an Issue #2 someday. Preview and ordering information are available here.

Mike Lynch and I at the Overlook Lounge in NYC, where Mike arranged for me to draw on the wall in 2006 (geez, I need some newer photos). Photo stolen from Mike's blog.

Mike Peterson is a journalist, editor and freelance writer based in New England who was one of the first and strongest supporters of Mom's Cancer. Although we've never met in person, he's a friend whose opinions about writing and comics I value very highly, so much so that he was one of a very few people I asked for early feedback on a rough draft of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? (and I probably should have taken more of his advice).

One of Mike's vocations and avocations is using newspapers to educate via published serials accompanied by teacher's guides. Students read the stories and teachers offer depth and context that Mike also provides. He's produced several, on topics ranging from pioneering journalist Nellie Bly to Native American legends to the Greek myths and constellations (for which I provided some early feedback to him). His latest, Freehand (38 pages), illustrated by cartoonist Christopher Baldwin, is the story of young Caleb MacCrimmons, for whom the War of 1812 offers escape from a harsh home life and a unique outlet for his drawing talents.

Freehand illustration by Christopher Baldwin (this one cribbed from the web; illustrations in the book are black and white)

Freehand is a story for upper-elementary readers that packs a remarkable amount of plot and information into a brisk 10 chapters. Built around the real-life Battle of Sackets Harbor, which Mike researched exhaustively, the book creates a sympathetic hero in Caleb and gives him lively relatives, mentors, antagonists, and a satisfying character arc. I thought it achieved a tone similar to the classic Johnny Tremain, drawing kids into history via a character who thinks and reacts very much like they would. Freehand accomplishes a lot for its size.

A summary and some samples from the book are available here, and a look at Mike's interaction with his young readers and some of the teaching resources he provides (see especially the links in the left column) is available here. Finally, a catalog of all of Mike's serialized educational stories can be found here.

I don't reflect on it as much as I should, but I really like knowing creative people who are doing interesting things, even if they're a bit obscure. Maybe especially because they're a bit obscure.


Anonymous said...

Hi Brian,
Thanks for the kind words about Raconteur. I had a great time writing it. It was a whole new area for me, since I mainly do single-panel cartoons.
And we ARE planning a #2. I'm sure Mike will fill you in as we approach the impending deadline.
David jacobson

Mike said...

As a demonstration of your powers of perception, I had actually bought a copy of Johnny Tremane, which I haven't read in several decades, about a year ago, but decided I'd better not read it until I was finished with "Freehand" for fear of over-influence.

And the Fies giveth and the Fies taketh away. Very nice plug for MY book, but now you've pointed out some other books for ME to buy. Sigh. You have to run as fast as you can just to stay in one place around here ...