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Comic drama: Comic books on the rise in NOLA

Editor's Note: NolaVie presents this guest blog series from Neutrons Protons, a New Orleans-based literary publication that believes well-written stories -- and a good dose of humor -- have the power to change the world. Here, editor Sophie Johnson discusses the growth of New Orleans comics scene and the power of graphic narratives to transcend and arouse sentiments that language cannot convey. 

Ben Drawing. Sophie Johnson

Comic book artist Ben drawing. Sophie Johnson

A few years ago, I fell completely in love with a comic book artist. I remember the night it happened: I had just moved to New Orleans to start teaching and I was depressed. The thought of going out after work was reminiscent of medieval torture, so I spent most of my time between 4:30 PM and midnight looking at Internet memes, cloyed and hopeless. I can’t remember exactly how I stumbled across Ben’s work (I’m going to call him Ben; that’s not his real name), but when I found it, the world transformed. All of a sudden, there was light.

That sounds dramatic — and it WAS. It’s difficult to put into words what it feels like to be fundamentally altered by someone's art. In “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” poet Rilke describes the feeling, writing, “For here there is no place/ that does not see you. You must change your life.” There is an unspeakable power that seems to shine from inside a body of work that is impossible to express, but which single-handedly calls upon you — commands you — to change. For Rilke, this was an ancient Greek sculpture. For me, it was a gloomy Internet comic drawn by an obscure guy in Portland. To-may-toh, to-mah-toh.

Moved and newly alive, I wrote Ben — who was a stranger to me — a long fan letter, describing how his work had impacted my entire livelihood. He wrote back. At first we were just pen-pals, but when we met in person, our descent into rom-com territory was swift. A month after we met, we decided to call each other boyfriend and girlfriend, and so began the longest romantic relationship of my life.

Ben’s work was meticulous and lovely: he drew with thick, felt-tipped Micron pens and he was an expert at storytelling. He loved curves. He had mastered the shadow. He could draw a woman on a street corner in five quick lines so full of life and emotion that you could imagine every detail about her life with just a glance at the drawing. Once while Ben was drawing he said, “The thing I love about drawing is that you can sit down to draw a toilet and realize you have no idea what a toilet looks like.” Everything in Ben’s comics demanded that you let go of what you may have believed to be aesthetic fact, and give in to the world he had created on the page. Honestly, his work could only be described as magic.

Everyone who loves comics has a story sort of like this one. We can all remember the first comic that really did it for us and after that first taste, it’s love. For many who were raised on superhero comics, DC's Watchmen was the game-changer, with its dark antiheroes and alternative plot lines. I’ve heard many people say that after they read Y: The Last Man they couldn’t imagine ever wanting to read anything but graphic novels ever again for the rest of their lives.

Craig Thompson’s autobiographical epic, Blankets, redefined the graphic novel genre for readers who get queasy around explicit violence.

For Caesar Meadows, the love bloomed with comic strips in the newspaper in the '70s. Meadows has been on the forefront of cartooning and comic book-making in New Orleans for the past several decades. He creates self-described “micro-comics,” which are small enough to fit into clear plastic toy machine bubbles. He loads the micro-comics into gum ball machines and sells them cheap (usually 50 cents), which is just one of the ways in which Meadows stays committed to the adaptability of the comic book form.

Caesar Meadows drawing. Sophie Johnson

Comic book artist Caesar Meadows drawing. Sophie Johnson

“I’m interested in the whole medium,” said Meadows. "I’m trying to evoke the same sense of preciousness and joy that I had as child. These days, people aren’t reading physical comics as much, and I like the whole thing that my comics are physical. My aim is that they’ll give people this really great little feeling about comics.”

Anyone who has seen Meadows’ work can attest to its charm. His goofy, cartoon-eyed characters involve themselves in multi-panel gags that harken to Sunday mornings spend with “Hagar the Horrible” and “Mother Goose and Grimm.” Talking to Meadows, you get the impression that there isn’t a mean bone in his body, and that he genuinely just hopes to bring the magic of comics to everyone in the world. He publishes his work in Antigravity Magazine and Where Y’At, and puts out a comics anthology every year called Feast Yer Eyes. It’s not a particularly money-making career, per se, but then again, that’s not how Meadows measures his success.

“I love comics. The more comics you make, the more potential there is for someone to read a comic you made, and maybe they'll make a comic because of what they saw,” said Meadows. “I love seeing other peoples’ work.”

These days, there is more work in New Orleans for Meadows to see, which he’s very pleased about. Local comic book artists Ben Passmore and Erin Wilson have gained some eminence in the past few years. Wilson’s gorgeous first book, Snowbird — about her emotional journey through a traumatic year in New Orleans, among other things — was published last year, receiving great acclaim. Passmore’s comic series DAYGLOAYHOLE has similarly sparked conversation about the growing graphic talent in the city. Passmore and Wilson have teamed up with other local comics-makers, zinesters, and artists to put on the city's first comics and zine fest (NOCAZ Fest), which will take place November 14-16 at New Orleans Central Public Library.

In a lot of ways, NOCAZ Fest is a call to arms for comic-makers in the city. New Orleans has not traditionally had much of a comics scene, and NOCAZ Fest has the potential to change that. Submissions for tables are free, which is nearly unheard of for a comic and zine festival. "We want to encourage first timers to participate. And we're looking for volunteers for all levels of participation,” said Passmore. There are also $100 scholarships available for five people, which incentivize the swelling of a bigger comics-making movement.

Kate Lacour is hopeful about that. She came to New Orleans a few years ago via New York and laments that the comics scene here has been a little on the spare side. Lacour’s day job is as an arts therapist and behavior specialist for kids with special needs. By night, though, she creates uniquely grotesque science and horror comics that demand attention: beautiful, painstaking illustrations of body parts, two-headed swans and quartered creatures that are part-man, part-fish.

“The comics scene is a little like punk music or poetry, where it’s very self-supporting. The people who buy comics are the same people who make them and take comics classes,” said Lacour. “The beauty of that, though, is that people are very encouraging of one another. The main rhetoric you hear is that people tell you to keep doing it."

For whatever reason, good comics are uniquely suited to produce super-fans  (the type who write fan letters to strangers across the country, for example). I think it has something to do with the way comics allow the reader to move quickly and simultaneously, paradoxically, to take his or her time. Graphic novels give the reader permission to turn hundreds of pages over the course of a few minutes; they let the reader stop and take in particularly arresting imagery, or flip back and make sure she understood a critical plot twist.

I also believe there are certain things that writers can’t manage with words — we are visual creatures; sometimes we just need to see. Likewise, there are ideas that depend upon language to be expressed. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve left an experimental film which definitely intended on making some kind of point, but only the filmmaker could have possibly known what it was. Comics are the Trojan Horse. Comics give you everything: they give you something to see, something to read, something to interpret and something to hold in your hands. They’re the perfect art form, and someday, the secret will get out about that.

Leo McGovern sees that exact future unfolding right now. McGovern is the manager at Crescent City Comics, which celebrated its twentieth birthday last week. He has been involved the local comic scene since 1996 when he was going to school at the University of New Orleans, and Crescent City Comics was still on Elysian Fields near the campus. “Back then, my parents were paying for school, but I was really taking a graduate level course in comic books across the street,” he said.

McGovern also publishes Antigravity Magazine, which concentrates on alternative culture in New Orleans, and he curates the New Orleans Alternative Media Expo. He said that when he started the Expo social networking events for creative types were rare in the city. “Nowadays, though, I’m seeing more stuff like that. The monthly art markets on every corner; every weekend there is an art market in every part of the city. Part of that is New Orleans and more artists living here. But part of it is a little more acceptance of comics in general,” said McGovern.

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Crescent City Comic. Sophie Johnson

A wonderful local comics-writer invited me to go with him to the Crescent City Comics birthday party last week. I couldn’t imagine a better date — Crescent City Comics has a terrific selection of just the kind of beautiful, moody graphic novels I most enjoy. A lot of that is because of the work McGovern has done there. When Crescent City Comics re-opened at its current location on Freret Street in 2009, McGovern was intentional about turning it into the kind of store he would want to shop at. “I wanted to focus on creating more of a bookstore environment. I wanted to stock all the books I would hope to see if I walked into the comic book shop of my dreams,” he said.

I’ve spent hours there on Saturday afternoons, getting lost in an old Dan Clowes book, or re-reading Moomin for the seven millionth time. There is no place in New Orleans I’d rather celebrate. Just before we left to go to the party, my date told me he’d picked up a great book at Crescent City Comics last week and he let me read it while he got a few things together before we headed out. The book he handed me was Ben’s. I had intentionally not bought Ben’s book yet. As amicable as things are now between us, some ache still lingers there.

Ben and I broke up after two years because Ben just wasn’t in love with me anymore. He was nice about it, but there’s no easy way to say that, nor is there an easy way to hear it. Then he proceeded to get pretty famous. (Jerk.) When I drop his name in the comics community these days, people get stars in their eyes. It kind of sucks.

But here’s the truth: Ben’s book is amazing. It’s rich and gorgeously drawn. His shadows have only gotten better. The characters are deep and troubling and lonely and beautiful. Within a few pages, I was inside his world, hanging onto the frames, watching my actual life light up around the corners. Before I knew it, I was weeping like a little kid— not so much because my ex-boyfriend wrote this book, but because this book — regardless of its writer — demanded I weep. That’s what the best comics can do in a way no other art form really can: they punch you straight in the heart and refuse to let you go.