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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

I became Shenandoah‘s first comics editor last fall, and the second issue under new editor Beth Staples just went live. It’s as amazing as her first issue last November, and I’m thrilled and grateful to be a part of it.

The idea that the not-yet-reborn journal might include comics occurred to me a year ago while Leigh Ann Beavers and I were teaching our spring term course Creating Comics. Artist Miriam Libicki visited the art studio and showed us the opening chapters of her current graphic-novel-in-progress. As soon as Beth gave me a thumbs up in August, I asked Miriam if we could feature Glastnost Kids on Shenandoah. I also asked Maggie Shapiro, the person who brought Miriam to campus, to write an introduction. They both said yes.

Meanwhile, Beth added “Comics” to Shenandoah‘s Submittable portal, and submissions started flowing. The stand-out was by far Rainie Oet and Alice Blank’s “Wanting to Erase her Share of the Darkness.” I asked Beth if I could also interview them about their collaborative process, and she gave the thumbs up for that too.

Finally, I’ve also been serving as a fiction reader, and asked Beth if I could solicit one of my favorite authors, Stephen Graham Jones. Another thumbs up. The piece he sent though wasn’t the right fit–but for very complicated reasons. So I asked Beth if I could interview him about that, too. Amazingly, they both said yes.

So here are excerpts of all of the above:

1.

from “Animating Questions: An Introduction to Miriam Libicki’s Glastnost Kids

by Maggie Shapiro Haskett

The experience of having one’s expectations violated can take a lot of directions, but I’ve only ever been delighted when, time and again, Libicki’s work surprises, confuses, and challenges me—while also offering unexpected moments of comfort and self-recognition. Starting in 2014, and just as much now, I am captivated by the parallel challenges she poses to both form and content in her work. Graphic novel as memoir? Sure, but as a format for scholarly interrogations or the presentation of rigorous academic research—that was something new and rare. When I found myself installed in the cozy director’s office at Washington and Lee University Hillel, the campus organization for Jewish Life, I was eager to introduce my students to Libicki’s beautiful boundary-busting work. As fate would have it, Chris Gavaler, W&L English professor and Shenandoah’s soon-to-be comics editor, was preparing to co-teach his Creating Comics course during my first spring in Virginia, and his enthusiasm for Libicki’s work was the final push I needed to bring her to campus.

“So what is a Jew?” Miriam Libicki’s narrator character asks in this excerpt from Glasnost Kids. “What is Jewish community?” I’d argue that those are two of the animating questions of the book as well as two of the questions that provoke and enliven Jewish communities everywhere, and especially on college campuses.

I’d also argue that Libicki’s work is at its most successful and provocative when we readers are forced to ask ourselves, “So what is a comic?” Libicki’s genre-bending work enlivens communities of readers, comics fans, and even scholars. For anyone with more than a glancing familiarity with the world of comics, it is a given that the genre is diverse and expansive. Libicki, though, dwells and works within formal questions that echo the identity questions articulated in Glasnost Kids. Can an academic paper include the use of the first person? What about the author’s personal experiences and connections to the subject? How about visual depictions of the author, cleavage and all? And comics? Can they really be explicitly about contemporary sociological questions? Are they a vehicle for sharing rigorous scholarly research? Given the depth and integrity of Libicki’s research and her mastery of both narrative and graphic, the answer can only be a resounding yes, and thank goodness. We need her stories, but most of all we need her questions and her provocations.

[Read all of Maggie’s Introduction here, and the opening pages of Miriam’s Glastnost Kids here.]

2.

from “Unveiling her Glorious Share: An Interview with Rainie Oet and Alice Blank”

Chris: So you’ve referred to “poems,” “sections,” “narrative,” and “the book.” It’s interesting how those are synonyms and how they’re not. I would probably call “Wanting to Erase Her Share of the Darkness” a poetry comic, a term I find to be a wonderfully and intentionally under-defined category that encompasses a range of image–text sequences, including formally traditional comics with gridded panels and word containers, but that explore untraditional content in untraditional ways. Do you have a preferred category for you work—comic, poetry comic, sequential art, etc.—and to what degree do you consciously engage with traditions and genres as you collaborate?

Rainie: It’s a funny bunch of classifications. Poetry comic and graphic narrative are interchangeable to me for this work because I see the writing as simultaneously poetry and fiction. The book, Glorious Veils of Diane, as a whole, is a novel-in-verse or a book of poems. The in-progress illustrated counterpart is a graphic novel or a graphic poetry book. The way I think of the project as a whole is like my favorite card from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies: “What are the sections sections of? (Imagine a caterpillar moving).” “Wanting to Erase Her Share of the Darkness” is one such section. In both my noncollaborative writing and my collaborative work, I try consciously to disengage traditions and genres. It’s an interesting and tricky thing, the idea of unlearning, of being free from. I think the best way to do this is to become as aware as possible of the traditions and genres that we absorb just by being in the world, and then to try to hold that awareness while writing. When I do that I feel like I’m able to bring new ideas to a project.

Alice: I could definitely see talking about this work as a “poetry” comic, but I traditionally just describe my work as comics. I worry about differentiating distinct kinds of writing as different kinds of comics—there are plenty of abstract narratives that I think would blur the line between poetry and prose (and indeed the poem from which this is derived is an example), and I wonder at the sort of comics that get left behind when labels like “poetry” are added to the name. American comics are still burdened with the image crisis brought on by the Comics Code Authority. Bringing in the poetry label might differentiate this work from a colloquially understood superhero punch-fest, but I want to abstain from adopting terms that suggest my work is in any way separate from or superior to those forbearers. I want to play a part in the ongoing cultural project to elevate “comics” as a label past its Marvel-or-DC connotations, so I try to eschew words that shift my work away from the base term.

[Read the rest of the Interview here, and Rainie and Alice’s “Wanting to Erase her Share of the Darkness” here.]

3.

Gutting the Chicken: A Conversation with Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones submitted “Chicken” to Shenandoah last October after we solicited him. We rejected it—for complicated reasons. Like any horror story should be, it was uncomfortable to read. But did it go too far? Where does fictional uncomfortable become real-world offensive? That dividing line may be hazy, but a literary magazine doesn’t have the luxury of ambiguity: either you publish a story or you don’t. And we decided not to.
Rejections are a necessarily massive, behind-the-scenes part of any magazine, and usually after a nice, thanks-but-no-thanks note to a contributor (an especially difficult proposition after a solicitation), the scene ends. But this time we thought: It’s such a powerful piece, hard to forget. Wouldn’t it be interesting to talk to Stephen about our reasons for saying no to “Chicken” and hear his thoughts about writing it? Though that is pretty much the opposite premise for an author interview, we reached out to Stephen anyway and were delighted when he was game. Afterward we realized for readers to make sense of any of this, they would need to be able to read the story themselves. So we are publishing “Chicken” after all, only now in the context of this broader, why-we-rejected-it-before-we-didn’t conversation.

[Read Stephen’s story and the interview here.]

 

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