Margaret Treanor Frey

author . artist . singer

Category: Art (page 1 of 3)

New Graphic Novels You Should Be Reading

Graphic Novels

I love them. I’ve loved them since college. My roommate’s boyfriend would leave stacks of them when he came to visit. That’s how I first was introduced to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and it was all over after that. My roommate didn’t even read them, but I convinced her not to tell her boyfriend, so every time he came by, he would bring a fresh pile and remove the old.

That was over twenty years ago, but I still devour graphic novels hungrily.

I went to my first writer’s conference last month, World Fantasy in San Antonio, November 2-5. I went because that same roommate, Mary Anne Mohanraj, now an accomplished author, said, “You should go. It’ll be fun. I’ll show you around.” Which she did, and it was great. But we struggled with how she would introduce me. I’ve been writing for years, but in secret. I have five complete NaNoWriMo novels that maybe only two people have ever read. Nothing published. It was easier to show people my art. So I was introduced as her college roommate who has been writing in secret for years and is a fabulous artist, look at these pieces she has online. And then friends of hers would see me elsewhere in the conference and introduce me to their friends as a fabulous artist, really you should see her stuff. The writer part got dropped because there wasn’t a publication to hang it on.

Which is fine. It was great meeting editors and publishers and fellow writers. I wasn’t there so much to sell myself (yet) as to find out what kind of product I am.

One of the panels was ‘Artist/Authors’. These were people who had started out as artists illustrating other people’s books, but decided that they had their own stories to tell.

I had illustrated a children’s book with a fellow parent, Demery Matthews, whom I met through my kid’s school. It was something I offered for a school fundraiser: I would develop a character and do a few black-and-white images for someone’s story. Demery, an architect (whom I strongly recommend for all your building needs), had this story she had written for her boys years ago. So I did a few illustrations and we loved them and did a Kickstarter for it and distributed it in glorious full color to a bunch of family and friends. You can buy a copy on Amazon if you like, Captain Devin and His Little Red Boat. It’s fun.

I’m glad I did it. It’s cute, and now I know I can. It might never have happened if I didn’t have a partner. But I have my own drawer full of stories, and I felt a little bit as though I had betrayed them.

And it’s like panelist Jeffrey Alan Love said, “Illustrating other people’s work is like being in a cover band.” Not that there aren’t really good cover bands out there, but it’s not the same as being the sole author of your own work.

The Artist/Author: A New Wave of Storytellers panel was moderated by Irene Gallo, and populated by Kathleen Jennings, John Picacio Moteria, Jeffrey Alan Love, and Gregory Manchess.

John Picacio Moteria was doing a series of illustrations for a card game, the Loteria Grande, using fantasy characters, which was based on a Mexican game where you had to get so many in a row (and here I had a bit of a twinge over how much it sounded like a project I had just started with my own friends). His evolution toward author began when he realized he was weaving background stories in his head for all the characters in the illustrations, and that they were linked in a common world, a running narrative. So, instead of just a card game, it became a story, with a card game on the side. It’s very pretty. I plan on buying it when it comes out. My favorite line of his from the panel is about when he realized the images were becoming more nuanced and connected: they became “more eye protein than eye candy.”

Gregory Manchess, who does giant oil paintings with lots of palletknife-work, is not your typical graphic novel artist. But he too, after a career of being commissioned for numerous covers, decided he had his own stories to tell. I bought the book, Above the Timberline. It’s gorgeous. There’s text in it, but there’s so much story in the images themselves that the text is almost a distraction. Or the words serve to slow down the observer enough to appreciate the images more. When I started reading the book, after overcoming my initial awe of the style, I began to wonder if it was too ponderous. It wasn’t the clean pen-and-ink I was used to in a graphic novel. But then I remembered my own advice when approaching new art, to ditch my expectations and shut up. Look and listen first.

Then I was able to notice things. As ‘realistic’ as his subject matter and composition were, his use of broad strokes and the pallet knife frequently suggested details rather than explicitly representing them. I really appreciate that in art. It engages the observer’s brain to fill in the details and appeals to a subconscious curiosity. His snowy, windy backgrounds and stark, dark figures use extreme contrast to create drama. even in still scenes. The depth of his landscapes is cinematic.

Yep. It’s pretty.

If I were in a different emotional place, I might have been intimidated out of ever showing my art again, but next to him on the panel were Jeffrey Alan Love and Kathleen Jennings who were showing their monochromatic prints, or their silhouetted cutouts. And I admired them too.

I am not a masterful oil painter it’s true, but neither are the other artists on the panel, and they’re telling different kinds of stories. And at some point, all these people had to decide what they were, in a creative industry that struggled with finding a category for them. It was good to see bits of my own struggle reflected on the outside. The echo chamber in my head had been getting loud and crowded.

A related panel, New Graphic Novels You Should Be Reading, was similarly awesome. There was a retired staffer from DC Comics moderating, Bob Wayne. He coauthored Time Masters and has written some Wild Cards stuff. There were three panel members. Marta Murvosh is a librarian by day, and contributor to Tales of the Sunrise Lands and Legends of the Mountain State. Carol Burrell (aka Klio) is a writer and editor for Workman Publishing. Finally, Leo Vladimirsky has stories on Boing Boing and in F&SF. They recommended examples of everything from children’s graphic novels to the almost pornographically intense adult tomes. All of which I enjoy, so when I list them below, be warned that they might not all be appropriate for your kids. (After I’ve been through them all, I’ll write up a list that is good for kids, since I’ll be curating for my own 8 year old.)

On the subject of graphic novels for kids, Marta, the librarian, made some good points. Some teachers don’t like their students reading graphic novels, because it’s ‘cheating’, and it keeps them from reading ‘real’ books which could be helping them develop their reading skills. I’ve never understood this. Graphic novels have plenty of text, and the stories aren’t necessarily even all fiction, another prejudice some teachers have. Some of the titles which were recommended are even historical or political nonfiction. Important stories well told. But all these illustrated stories help people develop empathy, just like un-illustrated novels do. They also help students develop visual literacy.

The panel was about new works, but the panelists did mention a few that they credit as the first visual stories they read that got them started down this path. Sandman was mentioned of course, but also Elfquest, the collected Prince Valiant, Wonder Woman (those molemen, amiright?), Dark Knight, and Chandler.

But on to the recommendations. I know my librarian friend (Danica, this is for you) will be interested, but others of you may also want to know what new graphic novels have been generating buzz. Saga, Bitch Planet, and Lumberjanes were all mentioned, of course, but considered maybe not new enough for this panel. (I would recommend all three of those, although only Lumberjanes for kids.)

The List:

Heathen – Natasha Alterici

March – a history of civil rights – Congressman John Lewis

World Without Fish

Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb

Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur

Malice in Ovenland

Princess Princess (manga)

The Tea Dragon Society

Nathan Nails Hazardous Tales

Lowriders in Space – Cathy Camper

The Nameless City Series – Faith Erin Hicks

M. F. K. -Nilah Magruder

Spill Zone

Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science

Tetris: The Games People Play – Box Brown

Becoming Andy Warhol – Nick Bertozzi

The Midas Flesh – Ryan North

California Dreamin’ – Pénélope Bagieu

Sing No Evil – JP Ahonen

Multiple Warheads – S Clay Wilson

O. M. W. O. T. Terror Assaulter

Genetic Sequencing and Art

Still cancer free. (Woo.)

I had the scan before I went to World Fantasy Con in San Antonio, but since I was out of town the next day I had to delay my followup meeting with my oncologist, Dr. Hu, until today, two weeks later. I didn’t think about the scan during the conference. I didn’t think about the scan the following week when I was tromping around San Antonio with Jody and Yo. I didn’t think about the scan while I was waiting at the hospital this morning.

The scan is fine, as I was pretty sure it would be. I didn’t even bother looking at it or taking a picture this time.

Is it possible that I’ve already become that blasé about it?

Dr. Hu asked if I was interested in participating in a study on rare cancers in a project that was part of Joe Biden’s Moonshot initiative. I was very excited about having my tumor sent into space until he explained that no, they just wanted to sequence the genetics of the tumor, then sequence my genetics from a normal tissue sample, and compare the two to isolate any mutations that were associated with the malignancy. The study included a lot of rare tumors, and sounds like a good way of finding targets in cancers that are otherwise too rare on their own to attract much research attention individually.

It also means that there will be a database somewhere with all my genetic info, prime for plundering and abusing in the near dystopian future where our human rights are suborned to actuarial tables of risk and inherent, inescapable fallibilities. This gave me a moment of pause, naturally, until I remembered Mark had recently done 23 & Me and our family was already screwed vis a vis genetic privacy.

Man. How cool would it be to have your tumor on the moon though?

Kristi, the resident working with my oncologist thanked me again for sending the link to the cancer art series I did. She really enjoyed going through it. (As a side note, I also sent the link to my surgeon’s office, but they didn’t even acknowledge that they had received it.) She had emailed me back right away at the time, saying how much she liked it, and did I know they sometimes had patients’ art exhibits in the patient information section in the hospital. She would forward the link to them. Maybe they would be interested in hanging the show.

My visit there today reminded me that I hadn’t heard anything from the office of patient information services, so I asked at the front desk where I might find them, and if anyone was available to talk about my art. Then I whipped out my phone and showed the series to the woman at the front desk.

She got all excited and called the patient information office downstairs, and even walked me down there to introduce me to the woman in charge, Mary, who was a Stage IV breast cancer survivor who never expected to survive, but has been in remission now for five years. She runs the whole thing as a volunteer. They have exhibit space and seating, and a garden outside.

I never knew any of it was there. When I was in the thick of treatment, all my focus was on me, my body. I had to sit just right. I had to breathe just right. I had to concentrate on holding my arm on.

But there it was. It’s kind of nice. We walked in past the current exhibit – small oil paintings, scenes of everyday life, children holding their parents’ hands, guys looking at antique cars, etc.

When I showed Mary my cancer series she said, “Oh. Your work is disease-based. You know it doesn’t have to be. Most of these shows are just the artists’ work. It doesn’t have to be related to your treatment.”

“It is,” I agreed. “Well, it’s kind of a story arc, about the whole treatment experience. The last piece is about me being done with treatment and deciding what kind of person I want to be now.” I showed her Human Again.

“Oh. That’s nice. That’s very powerful.”

“I’m wondering now if you might not want to put it up, though, since, although it’s not graphic per se, it is very focused on the tumor and the treatment. It might be upsetting to people who are still in the middle of it.”

Mary looked thoughtful and said, “You know it’s funny. My mother had breast cancer, too, and because I was next to her through the whole experience, I thought I had the inside track on what patients would like to be exposed to. Then I went through it myself, and I had been completely wrong. No one can tell us what we want to see or think about our own experience. I would like to offer you a show next fall.”

So. It looks like I have a show at Norris Cancer Institute next fall. They have a lot of wall space, so maybe the cancer series will go in one area, and the rest of it will be something else entirely. Like a series of story illustrations. Or a series of illustrated game tiles. Who knows what I’ll have generated in the next ten months?

The thing is, before cancer, I never would have gone downstairs to show them my art. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a bother. Why would I waste some other person’s valuable attention on my stuff?

After cancer, it’s more like, why wouldn’t I? What else were they going to do with that time? Talk about the weather? They might as well look at my art.

Life is short. Whatever hangup I’ve been living with about not wanting to ‘bother’ people – with my art, my music, or my writing, was burned out of me by the chemo. I’m going to create. I’m going to make good things and be unapologetic about them.

And if they turn out not so good on any given attempt, I’m going to be unapologetic about that too.

I’m over it.

The Art of Human Appreciation

Art is scary. A lot of people don’t know what to do with it, so they avoid it. I’ve created art my whole life, and worked in galleries, too, although mostly in charge of the funding. Still, the only formal art appreciation training I had was in a high school art class. I retain only vague recollections of which artists did what, or what their styles are called or influenced by, or which are historically implicated in which revolutions. But the thing is, you don’t need a formal education to look at art. It’s not a rarified skill reserved only for the few. I’ve outlined a few steps for anyone who’s ever felt they couldn’t relate to art because they didn’t know how. We’ll get into the useful parallels for relating to people further on.

Step 1. Find some art. You could go to a museum, or stop by a mural on the outside of a building, or go to the library, or surf somebody’s sketches online, or visit your neighbor’s garage where they’ve converted the back room to a gallery.

Step 2. Shut up. I don’t just mean to stop talking. You need to stop all the noise in your head. It keeps other things from getting in, and it’s not about you, not yet. Shut up and look. Approach the work without expectations or judgement. Hang out with it. If it’s a complex work, leave it for a bit, days even, and come back later to hang out some more.

Step 3. Listen. Some works are dripping with deliberate and obvious symbolism. Some are subtle. Some are literal renderings of everyday things. Some are amorphous colors and shapes. You’ve been waiting patiently, what do you think it is? Do you hear it telling you anything?

Step 4. Respond. (Please wait until this step to do this. So often people respond first, and it will derail the process.) This is not necessarily separate from the previous step. Whatever you heard when you were listening is a big clue to your response. Do you feel something? Irritation? Anger? Amusement? Curiosity? Joy? Kinship? Did you learn something? What do you know now that you didn’t before? That bone structure looks a lot like sponge candy close up? That smears of bright red always remind you of violence, but you think it’s beautiful anyway?

Good job. You’ve just appreciated art.

Why bother?

Well, you might learn something about the artist. The human on the other side of this tenuous, mystical thread of communication might be trying to say something worth hearing. Regardless of whether you know more about the artist, though, you will always know more about yourself. All of that response came from you. Did any of it surprise you?

Also, it may not look like it, but this is skill-building. Being able to observe the signals around you without making yourself the center will help you evaluate situations and resources, make decisions, and yes, communicate with other humans.

What? Looking at art will help me not be an abrasive jerk?

Yes. Follow the steps.

Now let’s say the art is a person. This person is in your space, but they are not like you. You have no idea how to relate. You’ve found the art.

Remember step 2? Shut up. Again, not literally, but do keep oral communication neutral. ‘Hey, I’ve got that report for you.’ ‘It’s supposed to be really hot this weekend.’ ‘Do you want fries with that?’ Whatever expectations or judgement you brought with you to the interaction, the ones clamoring in your head for expression, should be quietly decanted out the back. Again, they will only get in the way of observing the actual person in front of you. (Also, you should never, ever touch this art/person uninvited. The oils from your fingers will indelibly mark the art, and what are you doing anyway? That’s not your art. Were you raised by wolves? If you can’t keep your hands to yourself, don’t be surprised when you’re banned from the gallery.)

Next, listen. But what if you are listening, and the person/art won’t talk to you? The thing is, your understanding of it is ultimately not actually the art’s responsibility. It is doing its thing, living its separate existence. You would look a damn fool standing in front of a painting demanding that it explain itself. Yes. You would. The metaphor stretches a little here, since, obviously, humans can usually talk, but you’re still no more entitled to that person’s time than you are to an explanation from a painting. Even if they took the precious time and effort, if you aren’t ready to listen, you’ve just wasted that much of their energy in a truly ungrateful way.

And if you were really listening, you would have learned something already by now. Things like, ‘That person likes cream in their tea,’ ‘That person is really good at logistics,’ ‘That persons stops smiling and talking every time someone comments on their outfit,’ ‘That person is working three jobs because they’re taking care of their mother and two kids on their own.’ It doesn’t matter if the things you learn directly pertain to your own agenda. They will inform and change you in subtle ways regardless.

It’s hard work, but like any skill, gets easier and more enjoyable with practice. It will change the way you think and open up a whole new dimension of cognitive resources. Not kidding.

So remember, appreciating art, or humans, is not just for people with lots of formal training. You can do it and benefit from it right away. With practice, it will really add to your quality of life. For the sake of easy remembering later, either when faced with a complicated piece of art, or a person you don’t know how to relate to, we’ll boil this down to the two most important steps.

1. Shut up.

2. Listen.

Good luck.

Captain Devin and His Little Red Boat

Captain Devin and His Little Red Boat is now available on Amazon! Do you already have a copy because you were a supporter on Kickstarter? Consider leaving a review on Amazon. Thanks!

You can also see the original black-and-white sketches over in the gallery.







New Pentel brush pen from and adorable Stillman & Birn sketch pad from Ben.

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