Sunday, November 12, 2006

Lucca Report 2006

In most ways this years’ comics festival in Lucca was a huge improvement over the one I attended last year. By moving the festival inside the walls, which surround of the city, the business of comics festivals (the meetings, the networking, and the commerce) improved dramatically. Also improved was the fun of comics festivals (the collecting, the trading, and the hemorrhaging of the credit card). But many would agree that the biggest improvement of all was only having to walk one minute out of any of the dozen or so massive tents to find a great cappuccino.

In past years the festival has been held outside the city walls, inconveniently located in a run- down parking lot a good 30-minute walk to the center of cappuccino. Hence people were always running late for luncheon meetings, lectures, and staged reenactments of the battle of Zxon 5 from the 2nd volume of the “Worlds and Galaxies Untred Upon” trilogy: “Barf’s Revenge”. Hey, it’s hard to stage a faithful reenactment of a pivotal battle when your head Squatsch Sergeant is on the other side of town and he’s the guy with the enchanted crystal Burpon.

For the underinformed, the official title of this festival is “Lucca Comics and Games”. The Games part is big. All the major video game designers are present hawking their wares along with all of the fantasy card games, board games, and action figure games. I even saw a few guys squatting in semi-hiding behind one of the tents playing a craps game. I suppose they were embarrassed ‘cause their game is so old fashioned and has only two moving parts.

Along with the games territory comes the opportunity to get oneself dressed up as a favorite game character, especially if oneself is a girl between the ages of 15 and 20. There is even an entire area of the pavilion devoted to this activity called CosPlay, a clever and catchy combination of the words Costume and Platypus.

As I understand this (and remember I am a 50 year old American male, not exactly the informed audience for this particular activity), in CosPlay you and your buddies get dressed up in your favorites fantasy figures and put on small skits. I saw some robots and Stormtroopers go at it with black painted papertowel rolls.

But in many CosPlay plays the play is merely a vamp. Mostly I saw adolescent girls dressed in skimpy outfits posing with each other, pausing in tableaux, and then changing poses and pausing again. As far as I could tell the poses were not slides in an ongoing storyline, but just cool poses. It seemed merely odd to me until I looked around and saw a bunch of old guys drooling with cameras waiting for the next tableaux. I got the hell out of there, pronto.

A woman explained to me that CosPlay is actually a very creative activity for girls because a lot of them make their own costumes and write their own skits. It was described as a healthy alternative to the kinds of mischief many teenagers get mixed up in. Maybe so, but as far as I could tell the Vampirella and baby doll outfits that these girls poured themselves into outnumbered the Amazons, Valkeries and Presidents of Germany as role models by 10 to 1.

Not all costumed festival-goers indulge in the regimen of formal CosPlay. They simply get dressed up and wander around. Mostly it is long black robes and painted faces, but I noted an interesting fad: The Big Object trend. Lots of Big Swords and I mean BIG. Big Guns, Big Lightning Bolts, Big Shields, and Big Carpet Tubes Painted Black also known as Big Things. Why the Big Objects? Well, holding your symbolic icon lets others know immediately who you are just like those ancient frescoes of the Saints that pepper the interiors of Italian churches. So, on the very same day in Lucca, I saw two guys with Big Keys. One was peeling on the church wall: St. Peter. The other was peeing on the alley wall: Sargon the Magnificent.

In the States I do not think that you would get very far from the parking lot without someone making a big stink if you came dressed up as a girl in a black bikini scrambling around on all fours attached to a leash held by your black-faced boyfriend wearing black paper mache ram’s horns. I later learned that the boyfriend was one of my cartooning students from the Scuola di Comics in Florence. I am going to look at his work a bit differently from now on.

I guess the weirdest costume, though, was the guy in torn jeans and a tee-shirt who had a large metallic pyramid for a head. When I mockingly described this to my students they looked at me like an idiot and solemnly explained that he was dressed as a magic talisman from a game that everyone knows about a duh.

The antics of these dolts prancing around are all so silly and ridiculous. Look, I generally let my fellow man live his or her own life. I am tolerant if someone wants to spend their time and money participating in events like Nascar racing or Pet Shows. But Gaming?! I just don’t get it. Why don’t they devote themselves to something really important like, say Comics?

There were several huge white tents filled with comics vendors. I sat in the Coconino Press table because I am lucky enough to have my book, City of Glass (co-created by the great David Mazucchelli), printed by an outfit called Coconino Press. Coconino Press is an oasis of decent comics in Italy (meaning: they print stuff I like). The best thing that can be said about most Italian comics is that they are called ‘Fumetti’, or “little puffs of smoke” based on the design of word balloons, I suppose, but maybe it was someone’s idea that they should all be burned. (Hmmm…I think I may lose some friends, here.) Anyhow, let’s just say that of all of the 9 or 10 editions of ‘City of Glass’ the best and most beautiful by far is the one published by Coconino Press. (Oops, there go a few more friends). Plus I get to say the word “Coconino” a lot and it’s a fun word to say.

The Coconino boys sold a hell of a lot of books at Lucca. Foremost among these books was one that debuted at Lucca called “S” by the cartoonist, Gipi. As I have said elsewhere in this blog, two of Gipi’s short books are available in English from Fantagraphics ) and I won’t invite you to my birthday party if you do not buy these books right now and read them. I wondered why the seat next to Gipi was always vacant whenever I came back to the booth from my regular cappuccino breaks but after a while I realized how demoralizing a location it was for another author. It was not merely that everyone on the planet seemed to want this book (while I had to bribe several students to even come by to even say hello to me). No, the painful part was watching him, out of the corner of my eye, dash off one beautiful watercolor illustration after another with such ease. If I didn’t love this guy so much I would hate him.

Coconino invited another American, R. Kikuo Johnson to Lucca to sign copies of his swell debut book, “The Night Fisher”. Kikuo is a smart and good-humored fella who also draws well. We snuck out at sunset to climb one of the two towers remaining inside the city to look at the other tower. People in the other tower were doing the same. It felt like one of those surreal wordless French gag cartoons from the 60’s. Kikuo likes the Jack Kirby of the Big Ant era while I prefer Jack Kirby of the late Captain Victory era, and if you know what that means God have mercy on your sorry soul.

On the train headed back to Florence I was getting ready for a very important nap (what the Italians call a ‘pizzolino’, another word I love to say), an activity that Italian train seats are ergonomically designed to discourage, when a couple got into the seats across from me still buzzing from their thrilling day at the festival and anxious to talk to someone about it, even if that someone only understood about 12% of the Italian they were speaking.

For them, it was the best festival, ever in the universe. And I think they really meant it, too. You see, he was Kaloo from Kabu (or Kabu from Kaloo, I never quite got which) and she was his mortal enemy, Cassandra, from Plowman’s Planet. They were usually mortal enemies, but they had buried the hatchet for the Lucca Festival to demonstrate that interplanetary brotherhood was possible. After a while they gave up trying to talk to me and cuddled shamelessly. She caressed his spiked tail as he whispered sweet nothings into one of her six ears.

Where’s that guy with the Big Key? Lock me up, Scotty.

Who watches the Watchmen? R. Kikuo and me, that's who.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Barcelona Blog

It is Sunday afternoon and I am sitting in the Barcelona airport taking a little time to think and write about the past two days. Actually, I am taking plenty of time to do this due to my ongoing inability to tell the difference between 14:00 and 16:00.

I arrived in Barcelona two days ago and the first thing that raised my curiosity about this town were the directional signs in the airport. The arrow icons were in Spanish, Catalan, French and English. Rather that saying the usual, “EXIT”, the sign in English read, “WAY OUT”.

I have been here as a guest of Kosmopolis, what the promoters dub a “literary feast”. Well, it was literary, I’ll give ‘em that, but the feast amounted to an all-you-can eat supply of warm water, bottled juice, bad coffee and a bowl of tiny graham crackers in the guests’ lounge. To be honest, they also fed us a fine lunch that I skipped out on ‘cause I was afraid someone would ask me exactly what I thought I was doing there, a question that I would be hard put to answer. Kosmopolis, which roughly translates from Catalan as “Cosmic Metropolis”, is an annual contemporary arts exposition heavily funded by the City of Barcelona and the Cosmos. It includes things like speakers (me), workshop leaders (also, me), live music, installations, performance artists, technogeeks, and major gallery shows (all not me). I saw some super-cool stuff, and some fairly weird shit.

Let’s dispense with the super-cool stuff since it is less fun to write and read about. There were two monster exhibits. Bamako is the annual collection of the best photography from Africa. The other show was a bone chilling visual history of the Chernobyl disaster. Both great.

As to the weird shit; I sat in on a lecture about the future of computer game programming which sounded to me like a strategy session for alienating future generations from the bothersome and smelly business of human contact. Another workshop was about the future of high-speed information sharing where the information was shared slowly and, to me, largely incomprehensibly. A poetry slam in Catalan consisted of two heavy amplified bald guys yelling nouns at each other.

I suppose that my talk would fall somewhere in between “super-cool stuff” and “weird shit” depending on which side of the stage one sat. I spoke and showed slides describing the process of co-adapting (with David Mazzucchelli) Paul Auster’s novel, ‘City of Glass’ into a comic. I did this in English while two people sat in a booth to the right of the orchestra seats and tried to translate my comments into Catalan via little earsets worn by the audience. This was a bit disconcerting at first as I am used to having my speech translated simultaneously in class by the amazingly effective Italian translator, Vanessa Petrucci. Unfamiliar with both comics and my vague attempts at humor, the two translators struggled in the booth to make me sound coherent to the audience of Barcelonans. The windows of the booth began to fog up after about 15 minutes.

It might have seemed like weird shit to the audience of 500, but to me it was super-cool. From my viewpoint on stage I watched the audience stare at me blankfaced, turn their heads to the translation booth, then turn back to me with further mystification. Like watching people watch a tennis match.

Many events occurred simultaneously because Kosmopolis is housed in an enormous four-sided building with an open courtyard that was once the Barcelona orphanage. The building was in poor condition when the city gave it to the Cultural Council who proceeded to completely rebuild the interior and give it a 21st Century sheen. One of the four sides was a hopeless mess when bequeathed, so they just tore down that side and replaced it with chrome and glass and escalators.

Most of the other guests were high-minded literary types or future-thinkers. There seemed to be about a dozen Russian writers who traveled in a group with a fog of gray smoke resting on their shoulders. This was all good, ‘cause I didn’t have anyone to talk to and could come and go as I please.

I did a lot of walking around Barcelona. I walked to the Gaudi gardens, the Gaudi museum, and the Gaudi cathedral. I saw a lot of Gaudi. I strolled around in the old part of town, which is very easy to discern as all of the streets in the new part of town are built on a grid. The old town is a snarl of teeny streets opening onto courtyards. One snaking road led me to the Saturday morning market. It is a lot like the Centro Market in Florence except that in Barcelona they gaily display their dead rabbits hung by the feet with their appetizing fur still on.

The tiny streets, designed for pedestrian and horses but not SUV’s, reminded me of Florence, where I am now living and teaching, but with a few significant differences. Although Barcelonans talk on their cellphones plenty, it is not with the same fanaticism, as do the Italians. In Florence people look at you funny if you are walking down the street not talking on your cellphone. In Barcelona I saw many people walking down the street talking to each other as well as people walking down the street >gasp< silently.

I also deduced in my fact-finding in-depth tour of exactly three churches that Jesus and Mary appear to have switched roles from their Italian counterparts. In Italy Jesus is generally seen either peacefully alive or peacefully dead. Mary is generally seen suffering. In Barcelona every Jesus I ran into was twisted in agony while Mary had just returned from the hairdressers. In fact I went into one church and saw a local good churchlady up on the pedestal fixing the hem of Mary’s dress. It would take a better sociologist than I (like, say, a real sociologist, or perhaps my sister, Judy) to divine the divine meaning here, but in the U.S. we have both the peaceful Jesus and the peaceful Mary and look at the mess we are in.

The best part of my visit to Barcelona was not the stroll through the charming old streets, or the Gaudi, or the poetry slam. No the best thing by far was my hotel room. The apartment on Via San Gallo in Florence where I have been staying is clean and modern but it is also teeny. To take a shower I have to rotate in-place in the coffin-like shower stall and strategize my ablutions so that I do not run out of the four minutes of allotted hot water. In the modern and spacious hotel room in Barcelona I took the kind of shower I have been yelling at my daughters for years not to take and what is referred to in my house as a Hollywood shower. I meditated in the rain forest.

The other aspect of my Florence apartment that really has me looking for another place is the fact that I cannot seem to get a completely solid night of sleep without being woken up. And the cause is always some different. In the past three weeks I have been roused from slumber by: the baker across the street loading and unloading baked goods from his little truck, the mysterious guy down the block who comes and goes throughout the night, but instead of having a door he has one of those roll-up and roll-down metal store-front protectors that he loudly rolls-up and slams-down whenever he enters or leaves his place which is quite often throughout the night, people throwing stuff into the dumpster directly below my window (a favorite thing to throw out in the middle of the night appears to be brittle plastic objects), and let’s not forget (will I ever?) the guy who I thought had been stabbed but turned out only to have stomach problems that he wanted the entire block to know about as he vomited virtually non-stop for 20 minutes, pausing briefly from time to time to gasp for air and to curse the city of Florence, in front of the dumpster and then laid down right there.

I had not realized how starved I was for uninterrupted sleep until my first night in my three star Barcelona flat in a large bed with crisp sheets and triple-glazed, modern, sound-proof windows so that no intruding noise from the street below could wake me up. That was the first night.

The second night I stayed out late and staggered home in anticipation of Little Paulo In Slumberland. I laid me down to sleep and those triple-glazed windows did their magic. Unfortunately I did not have a triple-glazed door at around 3 AM. Bone rattling raw mega-decibels sawed through the wood. Evidently the British couple next door was having a bit of a tiff. I could not get the salient details, even though I stood shamelessly in my underwear in the dark with the water glass from the bathroom pressed against the door as I have seen in the movies. The gist of the spat appeared to have had something to do with her walking into the room while he was having sexual intercourse with another woman. “You said you fookin’ loved me, you fook!!!”

He landed out in the hall while she yelled, no, really screamed at him. He tried to pretend that everyone else up and down the hall was not also listening with their water glasses pressed to their doors. Almost shyly he repeatedly asked her to: “C’mon, the door.”. Eventually he gave up that nice-guy tactic in favor of, “Open the fookin’ door you fookin’ fook!!!”

Eventually she let him back in. This turn of events was shortly followed by the sound of scuffling, thrown objects hitting the wall and breaking, and what I think was the sound of spraying water. The management let this go on for a half hour or until they were certain that nobody was actually being murdered and that every other guest in the joint was awake (Management has principles, after all) and eventually some guys came in and pulled them apart. I wish I could give you a detailed account of the dénouement and describe the black eyes and torn clothing, but a hard-hitting crackerjack crime reporter I ain’t. I cowered behind my door and creeped back into bed to try to make up for lost zzz’s. But I couldn’t go back to sleep.

I don’t think that I have every heard such a fight in my sheltered life. When my parents fought it was with multi-syllabic words through clenched teeth over strategy for enacting public policy for the disabled. When my wife and I fight we generally choose stone cold silence (although I am prone to mutter what is really on my mind under my breathe like a steam valve on a pressure cooker). I tell you, I was rattled.

In the morning at the remarkably taste-free free breakfast (how do they do that?) I scanned the couples to see if I could detect the guilty, but everyone else was doing the same. The place was filled with more fake ear-to-ear grinning than ever witnessed before in the dining hall of the Gran Ronda Hotel, Barcelona. It was WAY OUT.

Former orphanage

Thoughtfully placed signs everywhere in case I lost myself.

Saints and Sinners for sale.

3 Wise Men and 3 Wise Guys for sale, too.


This just in from one of my sharp-eyed students, Corrado, from the Scuola di Comics Internazionale in Roma. More Sacred and Profane combinations viewed through a plate glass window. Mussolini, Che, and the Pope. Anyone else have a contribution?