A group of New York City inspired comics creators descended on the Soho Gallery for Digital Art on the 17th of April to discuss the good, the bad, and the strange elements of the city that have influenced their lives and works, including Al Jaffee of MAD Magazine fame, Peter Kuper of Spy vs. Spy and the upcoming DRAWN TO NEW YORK, Dean Haspiel of CUBA: MY REVOLUTION and BILLY DOGMA, R. Sikoryak of MASTERPIECE COMICS, Bob Fingerman who created MAXIMUM MINIMUM WAGE, and Miriam Katin of WE ARE ON OUR OWN and LETTING IT GO. The evening was hosted and moderated by former Marvel editor, author, and educator Danny Fingeroth, who, like Haspiel, is a Manhattan native.
The event’s first “victim” was godfather of New York comics Al Jaffee, who conversed with Fingeroth about his life in comics accompanied by slides, many of which were biographical illustrations Jaffee created as original content for his biography Al Jaffee’s Mad Life. Jaffee described his wanderings, from early life in New York, followed by several years with his mother’s family in a Jewish enclave in Lithuania, to his all-American return to the city at age 12, before taking up his place in the first graduating class of New York’s High School of Music and Art. “The only thing that I had going for me throughout my life”, he said spryly, was, “the ability to draw funny pictures”. His “constant competition” with childhood friend and classmate Will Elder kept him on his toes, Jaffee narrated, often relating very humorous anecdotes about their antics.
From his time drawing PATSY WALKER comics for Stan Lee, to the folding of the venture HUMBUG which led to his immediate hire as a writer, and later an artist, at MAD MAGAZINE, Jaffee has seen it all, and the story of his comics life is very much a story of a comics life in New York City. When Fingeroth asked Jaffee what kind of influence he feels that New York has had on his work, Jaffee replied that “New York, whether we know it or not, creeps into our subconscious”, but also that the collegial environment in New York played a significant role for him, stating, “We inspired each other”. Regarding MAD Magazine, he commented that “New York has had its fair share of satirists”, amounting to a tradition, but that the atmosphere of “helping each other” among cartoonists contributed greatly to their successes.
Peter Kuper introduced the performance aspect of the evening’s entertainment by narrating his panel-by-panel slides of his work, but prefaced this with the context of his arrival in New York in 1977, the year of garbage strikes, Son of Sam, and a black out. Warnings of things to come, no doubt, in the restless city. His images contrasted the lyrics of Sinatra’s upbeat performance of “New York, New York”, showing the increasingly disheveled and desperate denizens of the city. He commented that years later he still “feels like a tourist” in the city in terms of noticing its nuances and spends his time “wandering around and drawing”, as well as fixating on films that spotlight the city that’s “always changing”. Many of his comics images pointed out the cyclical role of change, such as the constant movement of money from hand to hand, themes which also feature in his graphic novel with DC Comics, THE SYSTEM. Some of his more sobering images handled reactions to 9/11 and more recently, Hurricane Sandy, finding in the cityscape “ongoing inspiration in both its colors and the darker moments”. He concluded with what would be another major thread of conversation throughout the evening, the omnipresence of sexuality in the city, asking, “How many people are having sex right now?”, from a panel with a figure looking out on the many lights of the metropolis.
Eisner-nominated Miriam Katin, creator of LETTING IT GO, and formerly a background artist for Disney Studios, presented a few photographs of her family’s early history in and around Budapest before the second World War, an even that would define her future, and stand as an artistic presence in her later work. She only “started comics” in 2000-2001, expressing her own stories through the medium. Her comics, she explained, were prompted by the internal struggle she faced when her son, aged 40, asked her to help him apply for German citizenship so he could reside in Berlin. Katin, who spent a year wandering the countryside around Budapest fleeing from Nazi persecution, found it impossible to allow this for her son. “This is where the story begins”, she said, and added that when facing such an overwhelming dilemma, “you draw and try to draw yourself out of it”. Katin’s comics handled a number of challenges, including the representation of Hungarian dialogue when visiting her aged mother in Queens and encountering the many holocaust “survivors” in the community there. Her comics explained that discussing the citizenship with her Argentinian cousin made her reconsider her embargo and allow her son the choice of where to live, helping her “let go”.
Dean Haspiel, also a graduate of the High School of Music and Art, but part of the first graduating class after it had been renamed LaGuardia High School of Music, Art & the Performing Arts, performed his autobiographical comic from STREET CODE, which, he informed the audience, dealt with events that happened only a “few blocks” from the Soho Gallery in the late 80’s. Living across from a hair salon curiously named “Boy Loves Girl Hair”, he witnessed a couple having oral sex on a bench in the wee hours of the morning. Since no one would have believed his tale of the nonchalant act, he recorded it on camera, and later became acquainted with the “female exhibitionist” in the video who, in fact, lived above the salon. Her public performances grew increasingly daring and lured Haspiel into competition, giving him pause to reflect on his father’s sage words, “There are things you never ever consider doing before midnight”. Haspiel’s active, bold art style conveyed the vivacious and the bizarre in his real-life experiences of the city, and also the potential to lose connections in the vastness of its human population, concluding that, after a time, he lost touch with his exhibitionist friend and “never saw her again”.
R. Sikoryak, known for his Carousel events which bring together comics and various performing arts, produced a double-bill of narrated comics which, like Kuper’s, worked with the surprise element of revealing narrative panel-by-panel to raucous effect. A native of New Jersey, he described New York as the “media center for everything” and the “comics center of everything”. “There’s a real community of alternative cartoonists in New York and I’m proud to be a part of this”, he said. Sikoryak has always been inspired by the “performance scene” in New York, a reminder that the blending and overlap of the arts in New York may be a well-spring for the New York energy that invades its comics. His own personal philosophy has been to “let all of comics into my comics”, including elements from landmark creators throughout the medium’s history.
Sikoryak read from his 1998 comic, CARTOONIST MUGGED, replete with witty comments on the ratio of violence to sensible behavior in the city. One of his characters wryly commented, “Who comes here for the safety?”. Most surprising, perhaps, was Sikoryak’s reminder that “these are all true” about his increasingly bizarre experiences of city life from a masturbator on the subway to being punched by a mugger who came charging toward him late one night demanding 5 dollars, but settling for a 20, not one to quibble about change. His second performance comic, TWELVE SUPER-ANGRY MEN played off the intrinsically strange personalities of super heroes when interacting as “public avengers”, and one couldn’t help but feel that superheroes, too, are based on the eccentricities of a New York mentality.
Bob Fingerman was introduced by Fingeroth with the humorous caveat that there would be “large amounts of profanity and vulgarity in his presentation”, to a round of applause from the audience, who expected no less from a panel delving into the personality of New York City. “All of my work is set here”, Fingerman explained, listing the varied genres he’s explored over time from vampire to zombie novels and the long-running semi-autobiographical comics, recently collected in a deluxe edition as MAXIMUM MINIMUM WAGE. His chosen vignette dealt with a trip to a “titty bar” of the kind that “don’t exist anymore”, this particular one known as the Baby Doll Lounge in Tribeca. This was the “dude” part of his book, he added, featuring “dude behavior”, that’s not all that characteristic of the book as a whole, but it’s themes, sex and multiculturalism, spoke to the New York setting in classic style. It’s finale included a long, rambling conversation with a Muslim taxi driver who informed Fingerman’s friend that sex would be more “clean” in paradise with no need for such indulgences, which only led his friend to appreciate the less pristine aspects of real life experiences.
Getting all the presenters to gather at one table to discuss their personal connections to New York really accentuated the similar subject matter in their works, albeit conceived and executed in a wide range of styles and through even more varied lenses of perception. Fingerman felt that growing up in Queens still allowed him to be “shocked and horrified by stuff” he encountered in Manhattan as a teen. Haspiel noted that it’s all part of the inundation of narrative detail the city contains, constantly draining its inhabitants of money, leaving them “broker, but richer with stories”. In the 80’s, Haspiel was constantly “confronted with death and murder” to the extent that walking out the door became frightening, including being hit with debris from a car accident at close quarters, while Fingerman countered this with the observation that “most people don’t notice anything” that’s going on around them in a city, but if they did, they’d be “shocked”. Even Jaffee observed that looking out the window, he sees “people lying in the street”.
Kuper’s enthusiasm for the city, however, seems undiminished, since after returning from trips, he’s always relieved by the nightlife, finding the quiet evenings in other towns unnerving. His love for film depictions of New York prompted Haspiel to supply his favorite examples, such as The Taking of Pelham 123. Woody Allen movies, of course, remain a staple for many of the panellists. “New York spoils you for other places”, Sikoryak commented. Having spent some rewarding time teaching at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, he nevertheless found small-town life like “living in the witness protection program”. Katin felt the same kind of contrast when, after living in New York for 18 years, she spent 9 years living in “the desert” in Israel and consuming as many New York set movies as possible. Jaffee, who still considers himself as from “out of town” despite living for many decades in New York, still feels that there’s a “great deal of excitement in the air in New York at all times”, something that no doubt contributes to his own vast productivity.
In a final conversation, the gathered cartoonists reminisced about elements of the “lost city” they recalled, things that have changed over the years but still feature heavily in their memory. Haspiel and Fingerman told tales of wandering in dangerous, deserted areas and challenging their fears, from abandoned subway tunnels to disused rail yards. Fingerman’s experiences “spelunking in the city”, he said, reminded him that there once was a “certain wildness to the city, not nostalgic, but interesting”. Sikoryak added that “performance spaces in homes and lofts” have disappeared, many of which he remembers fondly, but most panellists agreed, finally, that it’s now much harder to simply show up in New York City and find a way to become part of it due to skyrocketing real estate prices. If you do somehow manage to transplant yourself into city life, “always working”, Haspiel said, may prevent you from taking part in the social interactions that so defined comics creativity in the past.
From the omnipresent reality of sex, to the insistent role of violence, and the constant undercurrent of change, these comics creators presented a visual and spoken collage of identity in New York through the decades, creating a conversation out of shared experience. Their upbeat attitude in the face of struggle gave the impression that, deep down, they are still fascinated by the city they call home, for better or for worse, and that they feel their work springs from the raw energy and also the darker undertones of the lives they lead in New York.
[“Blame it on New York” was the 3rd part of a 5 part series of Comic Book Round Table events held at the Soho Gallery of Digital Art this Spring under the auspices of Danny Fingeroth and gallery owner John Ordover. Upcoming on April 24th is "Old Comics, Old Freaks, Old Jews: Drew Friedman in conversation with Danny Fingeroth".]
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.