Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Ink, Sweat & Tears

Wow, is it this Wednesday already? I haven't even had a chance to data dump about last Wednesday, let alone this one. Nothing much to say about this one except that I wore a dress to work and half the office flipped out. It was good, clean fun I guess, but I really didn't expect it to be such a big deal. I've only been there since February; it's not like I've been there for five years and then suddenly decided to wear a dress. But enough about that already. I'm writing this in my skivvies and wrapped in my swaddling sleeping bag on the couch.

Last Wednesday evening was definitely more blob worthy. Last Wednesday, I paid three dollars to sit in on Ink, Sweat & Tears: A D.I.Y Cartoon Concert and Book Tour, featuring Eric Drooker, Keith Knight and Jon Longhi delivering 15-minute sets of spoken word accompanied by slides images of their work.

Drooker was the draw for me, no pun intended. A nationally known painter and graphic novelist, Dooker's work is among my favorite in the graphic novel realm. I first stumbled upon his stuff a couple years ago at an open house at AK Press, "a worker-run book publisher and distributor organized around anarchist principles."

Drooker has perfected the art of telling moving, spiritual stories solely through pictures. Flood!, winner of the American Book Award, has been described by Art Spiegelman (Maus I & II) as "a picture of a soulless civilization headed toward the apocalypse. The page acts as a curtain to be raised, each page offering up new visual surprises... Drooker has discovered the magic of pulling light and life out of an inky sea of darkness." Equally stunning, Blood Song follows the journey of a young woman who inadvertantly becomes the sole survior of a brutal military invasion in her once idyllic home. Deemed "more optimistic and accessible than Flood!, this volume celebrates the perseverance of the human spirit in the face of repression," according to a Library Journal review. Drooker has done numerous covers for New Yorker and collaborated with Allen Ginsberg to create Illustrated Poems, in which Ginsberg commented: "Drooker's old Poe vision of beauteous deathly reality transcend political hang-up and fix our present American Dreams."

In other words, Drooker is a bad ass in the classic New York style, and I was psyched to see him. While I wouldn't say he was a disappointment, I will say that he seemed very much in his own microcosm. His images included "excerpts" from the aforementioned books, some cover art and other drawings I'd never seen, and most interesting, photos from his recent trip to the Gaza Strip, which he recounted for CounterPunch. It is obvious that the trip to "Israel's Apartheid Wall," separating the Palestinean rif from Israeli raf, has left Drooker's mind an occupied territory not unlike the one he visited. He did a little rap in the dark for us at Artist's Television Access as his images flashed on screen, though I'm slightly ashamed to admit I can't remember what it was about. I think it was about "the Man." Ultimately everything is.

I was prepared to leave after Drooker's portion, but the rain kept me in my seat. Longhi was next. Billed as an "urban humorist" and the author of graphic books Flashbacks and Premonitions and Wake Up and Smell the Beer, his work didn't resonate with me at all. He read three short stories that made the rest of the small but appreciative audience cackle, but I felt like I was enduring his 15 minutes rather than enjoying it. He did tell one slightly amusing story. The narrator reminisced about a dry spell during which his best friend was the only person in Portland who had access to any weed. However, this meant that whenever they brought it out—say at a party—they'd instantly become surrounded by "high school jocks and rednecks." Somebody would bogart their joint, and they'd never see it again. The problem was solved when the best friend decided to make a bong out of a "lifelike" dildo. After that, they couldn't get anybody to toke with them, even when they tried to force it on people. Like I said, the story was slightly amusing.

Then, it turned out they'd saved best for last. I didn't have particularly high hopes for Keith Knight and for no good reason. I'd already sat through this Longhi fella's moment, Drooker's demeanor had left me feeling oddly placid, and I was losing my patience with the guy sitting behind me who kept bumping my seat. It was in this moment of pure vulnerability, when Knight took front and center and won himself a new fan. I really liked his work and what he had to say and how he said it. Keith Knight's got it goin' on.

In addition creating and drawing two syndicated comic strips, The K-Chronicles and (th)ink, Knight is a member of the "semi-conscious" hip hop group, the Marginal Prophets. He's also the unofficial MC of the Ink, Sweat & Tears tour. Clad in an "I'd Rather Be Masturbating" t-shirt, Knight had no trouble bringing the house to life. He narrated strips and panels from his strips and collections and told a few annecdotes from his childhood (corroborated by his sister who was visiting from Seattle), shared a hilarious rejection letter from a newspaper to whom he'd submitted his work ("IN A FAMILY NEWSPAPER?!! ARE YOU NUTS?!!"), and talked about how at comix conventions he's always confused with the other black comic stripper, Aaron MacGruder who draws Boondocks.

I'm not into Knight's drawing style, per se, but it works with his humor, which is dead-on. For example, he showed one featuring "Sadaam" and "Osama," who turn out to be Dubya's drunken daughters who’ve chosen their respective disguises because then their father is guaranteed to be able to find them. I like that one a lot ; ) In addition to politics, his strips are also about gender and family issues (e.g. a man who has no problem buying a cure for crabs but is mortified when the sales clerk has to get a price check on the seaweed facial scrub he’s pretending to buy for his wife) and every day life through the eyes of a young African-American guy.

One anecdote he told was about getting harassed by police in the Haight because he loosely fit the description of someone who had committed a crime in the area. His roommate, who happened to be on a bus that was passing by, jumped out and ran over to his defense. The roommate harangued the cops until they apologized. As Knight recounted the story, he shook his head with a glint in his eye and laughingly said “White people get away with anything. I appreciated it and everything, but could you imagine if another brother had jumped off the bus and started badgering the cops to let me go?”

Knight also showed us a copy of some flyers he had once posted around the city, advertising a phony business that offered to rent black people for parties or to lend “legitimacy” to business events. (In fine print, the flyers boasted: “We can provide Latinos, too”). Now aside from the results of his “experiment” or “protest” or whatever it was, I found this story highly entertaining because it’s something I’ve threatened to do myself. Anyway, he said he posted some bills around town with a real phone number connected to an answering machine. He got several messages from people who were simply curious and wanted to know if it was a legitimate business. He also got a responses from bona fide racists who got a kick out of their ability to request some watermelon-eatin’, big lipped, %&*@# for private use. Some callers left angry messages accusing him of being the racist. All of these were expected, but the ones he didn’t expect were the handful from some blacks who wanted jobs. He seemed a bit dismayed by this last, but I found the entire stunt to be brilliant. Reminds me of, still one of my favorite, subversive websites. Anyway, Knight's collections, including “the fourth K-Chronicles compendium, The Passion of the Keef ... with an introduction by that "other black cartoonist", Aaron McGruder!!, are worth a look.


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