Monday, March 31, 2008

It's already April Fool's somewhere


It's March 31, and it be snowing! I didn't take this photo but someone in Minneapolis did to send to a friend in San Francisco, who sent it on to me. And this is nothing! It was an offroad drive to home down a little road called Broadway. The stoplights for southbound on Penn Avenue were so packed with ice that the only way to know whether it was green or red was to watch Northbound traffic and hope for the best.

And it would be Opening Day for that sunny sport called baseball. This photo was clearly taken well before the game started. Granted, the local news showed footage from 1962, pre-Metrodome, of ground crews digging snow off the baseball diamond in time for a game.

As I had to park in the slush, which will freeze in the night, I can only hope my little car can break out of its ice prison in the morning.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Story of Toon Books

I met Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman at Alternative Press Expo last year when they visited the Stone Bridge Press table to check out Japanese the Manga Way. They are so lovely! Here is a story published in Shelf Awareness the other day:

The Story of Toon Books

This is the story of Toon Books.
This is the story of a 19-year-old woman who, in 1974,
Arrived in New York speaking very limited English.
This is the story of a woman who grew up on comic books in her native France
And thought that comic books in America could teach her English.
There was just one problem:
There were no comic books.

Françoise Mouly had to find another way to learn the language.
One friend suggested the New York Times.
The New York Times is a fine paper,
But its strength is not teaching English.
Another friend handed her Arcade comics.
A man named Art Spiegelman was publishing them out of San Francisco.
She "fell in love" with Arcade comics.
"It was exactly what I was looking for," she says.
And when Art came to New York,
She fell in love with Art, too.
He moved into her fourth-floor walk-up loft in SoHo,
And they married and had two children, Nadje and Dashiell.
But that is not the end of the story.

Françoise was marked to follow in the footsteps of her father, a surgeon.
But as a teenager, she rebelled,
"Wait a minute, I didn't choose this, it was chosen for me."
And so she pursued architecture:
It was intellectually challenging and she could work with her hands.
Her plastic surgeon father shaped faces and bodies,
And she could form buildings and communities
As a student at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
But she soon learned that an architect's vision
Is rarely executed in the way she envisioned it.
So she came to New York.
She befriended filmmakers and painters,
All of whom needed grants or galleries to show their art.
Françoise was "in deep rebellion against the elitism of the art world."
Comics, she believed, was "an art form that was also accessible.
It had all the qualities of a literary novel or a painting
But it was in a popular culture format."

So Françoise bought a printing press
And hauled it up the four flights of stairs
To the SoHo loft she shared with Art.
She and Art agreed: "Nobody was publishing good high-quality comics."
With the printing press, they set out to fill in the gap--and started RAW.
"I could think of something and then, a few hours later,
Tch-tch-tch-tch-tch, tch-tch-tch-tch-tch,
I would be running it on the press,
And then folding it and stapling it, and I'd bring it to the store
And put it on a rack with a price tag on it."
There was an entire network of independent buyers, and she knew everybody.
"There were no chain stores in the 1970s.
Barnes & Noble was where you sold your used textbooks.
When I did RAW magazine, I packed the boxes myself and sent them UPS C.O.D."
The independent bookstores bought their 10 copies and sold their 10 copies.
There was no waste.

When Art began working on a comic-strip memoir involving the Holocaust,
No one knew what to do with it.
So Françoise and Art published it in RAW.
They serialized it and printed it exactly as Art had envisioned it.
Tch-tch-tch-tch-tch, tch-tch-tch-tch-tch.
Installment after installment came off the press.
He called it Maus: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History.
It won a "special" Pulitzer Prize in 1992
["The Pulitzer board members . . . found the cartoonist's depiction of Nazi Germany hard to classify," according to the New York Times].

Françoise received a call in 1993 from Tina Brown,
Who offered her the job of art editor at the New Yorker,
Based on her work at RAW.
Here, too, she worked closely with production.
Perhaps never more so than immediately following September 11, 2001.
After tracking down her children
(The family still lives in that fourth-floor walk-up in SoHo,
A stone's throw from the World Trade Center site),
The last thing Françoise wished to do was go into the office
And work on a cover.
"When I talked with the artists,
There was a shared sense from everybody, 'Let's do nothing.'
It was really hard to capture the sense of saying something and not saying it at the same time,
And being there and not being there."
What grew out of this "let's do nothing" feeling was Art Speigelman's image--
That black on black, ghosted imprint of the Twin Towers.
To produce that cover, Françoise worked directly
With the head of the New Yorker's imaging department.
He was in Chicago for a book of New Yorker covers.
He drove from Chicago back to New York, to meet with Françoise,
And then he drove the artwork to the plant.
There were no planes.
He had to be there, with the printer,
To oversee the subtle gradations of black and black.
And so, in millions of homes across the nation,
This work of art arrived:
The shadowy silhouette of Twin Towers that once stood
In what was now a vast hole at the bottom of Manhattan,
A vast hole in the country, in the heart of a nation--
An image of loss for a speechless citizenry.

Françoise turned to comics again
When her son had trouble learning to read.
"I had the perfect case study: two kids, both incredibly bright,
Surrounded by books, surrounded by comics, whose parents read to them."
Art read to them in English; Françoise read to them in French.
Nadje and Dash went to the same school, four years apart.
Their daughter, the oldest, started reading on schedule.
"There was a moment when the mechanics went 'boom,'
and from that point on, the progress was great."
But with their son, it wasn't clicking.
"It was the same exact environment, it's just that each kid was different."
The only thing that worked was the comics.
"The original Schtroumpfs strips are really wonderful [aka Smurfs in the U.S.].
Every other word was schtroumpf.
Most of the words they replaced were nouns and adjectives;
Very few verbs were replaced.
We read and read and read and then 'boom!'
It clicked. This was a magic bullet."

Françoise wanted other children to benefit from comics the way Dash had.
So she and Art created Little Lit with Joanna Cotler at HarperCollins,
Anthologies of comics, classic and new, aimed specifically at young people.
By arrangement, Françoise retained production of the project.
In 2003, when the third of the Little Lit volumes was published,
There was a day devoted to graphic novels at BEA.
Françoise thought she'd have to explain why comics are good for children.
A number of librarians were in attendance.
They had one question and one question only:
"Which comics?"
It was a giant field and they were just getting started.
God forbid they stock Rory Hayes instead of Geoffrey Hayes.
[Rory and Geoffrey are brothers: the late Rory was known for his underground comix--
Often pornographic--while many admire Geoffrey for his illustrations of children's books
by Margaret Wise Brown.]
Not to mention, "This is what teachers used to rip out of the hands of kids,
And now we're trying to put it into the hands of kids," Françoise points out.
People were becoming more receptive to comics,
But mostly graphic novels aimed at readers ages 8-12.
And mostly aimed at boys.
Françoise thought it was time to create comics
For boys and girls who were just learning to read, Toon Books.
Stand-alone books that children would cherish,
As she had done with her books as a child.

Françoise invited individual writers and artists to tell their stories,
Then worked on the dummies closely with teachers to figure out
What words children ages 4-6 would already know.
In French the same combination of letters always makes the same sound;
In English, the same sound may be made with six different letter combinations (eau, ough, etc.).
She took the dummies around to publishers.
"They said, 'It's marvelous and well-executed--
I wish we could do it but good luck with it.' Why?
Because it's not something that exists.
There's no way to distribute it, push it or sell it," says Françoise.
"I can't say I was exactly crushed to have the door slammed in my face at this stage in my life.
It almost felt invigorating!"
So she teamed with Diamond to distribute the books;
She chose them for their parallel vision about comics for children.
"There's a gap to fill and they're in it for the long run," Françoise says.
And so is she.

This is the story of Toon Books.
This is the story of a 19-year-old woman who
Arrived in New York speaking very limited English.
This is the story of a woman who grew up on comic books in her native France
And came to believe there should be high quality comic books in America,
For adults and for children.
So, with her husband, Art, she is making comic books again.
For everyone.--Jennifer M. Brown

Monday, March 3, 2008

Hey Kids, Do You Like the Rock n' Roll?

The lovely Smith brothers and their band, Heathrow, have a music video here for their cover of Pink Floyd's 'Time,' and they also have a show on March 7. Unfortunately, I'll be two time zones away and most likely asleep...