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Alex Toth at Edge

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Photo by Greg Preston

Alex Toth was another artist whose name was a household word at Continuity of the 70’s.  With a so much seasoned and young talent alike referencing comics art masters, to better evaluate the quality of new work, Toth’s subtle line and mesmerizing imagery were spoken of and shown around frequently. Platitudes for his art covered storytelling intricacies, an almost abstract use of black shapes, delicate drawing and stunning visual clarity. Everyone had something to learn from Alex Toth’s work. In a tribute, upon his passing away in 2006, Tom Spurgeon took note of Toth’s artistic achievement.

People will say he was a great craftsman, and they’ll be right, but what Toth did was a little further along than that. Toth reached that scary point where it felt dangerous to look at some of his best work; you ran the risk of being pierced by a force that practically shimmered on the page, that inhabited every image, like a master chef’s dessert so rich it made your eyes water in protest, or a singer’s voice so pitch-perfect it made you want to leave the concert hall, if only to catch your breath. His handwriting exuded an element of purity in cartooning that could outclass other artists’ fully-rendered sequential art. Toth’s black and white work in particular displayed an almost transcendent understanding of drawn art as a visual story component. When we as readers come to a greater understanding of the effect that great art has on the reading of comics, Toth’s reputation is likely to grow even larger than it is today.

Alex Toth was also known to have a short fuse, especially for young artists seeking advice or criticism of their work. Still, he often extended himself above and beyond the norm.  His informative critiques are considered as gold to the craft. But they also came with a price of  being a target for the master’s angst.

The late Dylan Williams suffered it happily. He eventually thanked Toth with a touching story about their friendship, struck over correspondences that also revolved around their common love for comics art.

I’d take breaks for a month or two. I would eventually dig up some new old art and we’d write back and forth. It was around that time I found out I had leukemia. I never told Alex… I don’t think this comic is much of a tribute to Alex but it is the only way I know of telling him thank you.

Steve Rude suffered a famous encounter after sending a Johnny Quest story to Toth for appraisal. It ended a little less friendly than the affair with Dylan, as Rude elaborated in respones to Toth posted by David Marshall.

Oh, when I did receive Alex’s letter, I called him. It started out nicely enough, but when I attempted to explain the things I felt him in error about, he let out a few curse words and hung up. That’s what I recall of this situation. If it helps people to learn from my mistakes, then all the better.

Some years later, Warren Ellis pulled no punches commenting on the story between Toth and Rude, in his Do Anything column at Bleeding Cool, where he also criticized Toth’s career as being somewhat of an unfulfilled destiny.

Toth was another angry man of comics, a world-class artist who knew everything about storytelling except what made a good story. He was famous for his handwritten critiques of other artists: his destruction of comics artist Steve Rude (who spent a lot of time in the 80s doing Kirby pastiche work) got out into the wild a few years ago, and you can find it on the web fairly easily. It is at once a masterclass in storytelling intelligence — Rude is a wonderfully gifted illustrator, but storytelling isn’t his strong suit — and an appalling portrait of Alex Toth as an embittered intellectual sadist. Nothing he said was wrong, but he nonetheless manages to paint a picture of a man who would argue with his own breakfast over betrayals real or imagined. A man who hated “mature content” in modern comics, he is perhaps best known today for his original design of SPACE GHOST, who survives into the present as a parody show host.

I’m not sure that Ellis’ comment can be considered as entertaining as that it’s delivered by a writer who spares little arsenic and laughs for things that might crawl up his own sleeve.

Only a minor sampling of turbulence that raged within, and around, a giant and master of the comics craft. Like Spurgeon said, recognition of Alex Toth’s influence will only escalate in time. Analysis of his cumulative body of work will become a pursuit of comics readers, creators, critics and historians, for generations to come.

New addition to Portraits of the Creators.

Alex Toth

 

Mike Friedrich

Mike Friedrich Reaches for Stars

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I first met Mike Friedrich in early 1977 at Continuity Studios. He came in to New York from his home base in the San Francisco Bay area to make arrangements with writers and artists for production for the 12th issue of his black & white independent comic book anthology, Star*Reach. I had barely finished my first year as a professional artist at that point. The comics scene outside of the current DC and Marvel universes was still new to me – and also a bit overwhelming to absorb in such a short time.

I had seen a few issues of Star*Reach at the studio by then, but the influence it would eventually become was an elusive notion to most everyone in the industry at the time.  There were a few other such attempts that rose on its heels, like Sal Quartuccio’s Hot Stuff, though none came close to matching Star*Reach for talent and content. So, when Mike came into the back room I shared with Marshall Rogers, and asked if I’d like to write and draw his first 8-page color installment for the 12th issue, my overwhelmed mode kicked into overdrive. Still, I took it in stride and accepted the offer.

Some time later, Mike called from California to ask about progress on his story. Being buried in work from DC and Continuity, I had to stall him a bit until I could come up with a premise. When it became difficult to stall, I finally outlined an idea on the phone. It was a sci-fi short about an alien fugitive being hunted by an inter-galactic law man. The two would fight it out on Earth in the best tradition of bang-pow-boom action. It was easy to tell that Mike wasn’t thrilled about the direction. But I had been immersed into a skyrocketing pop-comics career at that point, and along with my lack of familiarity with the other-than-mainstream content that Star*Reach preferred, it precluded my ability to step out of that mode for a more substantive story. I tried to console myself that I’d draw it so well that no one would notice that aside from the flashy action, there wasn’t much of a tale there.  Last time I talked to Mike on the phone was in mid-October. Deadline was getting close and I still had nothing to show him. No script, no art, no character designs. The entire affair seemed to be heading towards an inevitable train-wreck.

In hindsight of years and history, I sometimes wondered what got into Mike to offer this story to me. I was a rising popular mainstream talent at the time, that’s true. But I was also an inexperienced rookie, certainly not known for the type of work he liked to publish in Star*Reach. And there were countless other candidates more suitable to adorn the color debut for such a watched and followed publication. I was certainly not on par with the likes of Frank Brunner, Howard Chaykin, Steve Englehart, Gray Morrow, P. Craig Russell, Dave Sim, Walt Simonson, Steve Skeates, Mary Skrenes, Jim Starlin, Mike Vosburg, Len Wein, Barry Windsor-Smith or Roger Zelazny, and others who’d all graced Star*Reach with the type of work that made it distinctive. There was a definitive air of excellence to the publication, which rose above the norm, where the intellectual narrative was no less significant than the art. The stories did not hinge on action-adventure as a primary plot vehicle. Star*Reach had set the tone for a more mature comic book that was a breath of fresh air for the medium.  And here, in this most critical junction, after 11 issues of an outstanding black & white journey of distinguished graphic storytelling, and for its first installment of an 8-page interior color story, Mike does a seeming about-face and goes for the a relatively inexperienced pop-mainstream artist, who’d not yet shown signs of writing skills that would measure up to the challenge, and who was mostly considered a clone of the DC Comics house-style that Star*Reach aspired to stand in contrast of.  Now, in hindsight of years and history, it all seems somewhat odd and inexplicable.

Events that followed our last conversation in October were also an about-face for myself. By mid-November, I had declined previous work I was scheduled to do for DC and Marvel, and left New York in pursuit of a new chapter in life. It all inadvertently led to producing something entirely different for the first color installment of Star*Reach, than the story we’d agreed to. Part of the events that led to it are in the links below, which give a rough enough idea, when read with a grain of salt.

A more comprehensive overview of my career, that led to this incident, is in this two-part interview with comics chronicler Bryan D. Stroud, the Silver Age Sage.

Comics historian Richard J. Arndt wrote an in-depth analysis of the impact Star*Reach has had on the comics medium. He considers it the first truly successful grass-roots predecessor to the graphic novel. Arndt bestows on Star*Reach the honor of having opened the door to the burgeoning independent comics market we enjoy today. His interviews with Mike Friedrich reveal a vision held by the consummate writer and pioneer, who pushed the comics medium forward in a way that perhaps no other single independent publisher could boast.

In one of those interviews, Mike mentions that my first color installment is the only one of the Star*Reach stories that hasn’t been reprinted in later collections. Beyond the fact that the vignette artwork had no text, it was actually much more of a mission statement than a story, though a story does certainly weave through it, between-the-lines, as Mike said in the issue’s editorial.  The wider issue of why this work carries an air of tense silence about it, is perhaps that it does not truly fit into, or match the excellence or intricacy that Star*Reach became known for. It doesn’t really belong next to such works as Howard Chaykin’s Cody Starbuck, P. Craig Russell’s Parsifal, Frank Brunner’s Elric Of Melnibone – or the myriad other more plot intense stories that saw print in Star*Reach. It is mainly a thing onto itself, spawned in a time of personal upheaval and extraordinary transition. A bump in the timeline of comics history that was perhaps better left in its own corner of solitude.

The decision Mike made to publish the offbeat piece, did not seem to be logically contrived, or made with other reasonable options on the table. But I would venture that he would not have published it, had it not somehow complimented his own aspiration and vision for Star*Reach and the comics medium. Mike was in a situation where he could either decline the story altogether, and wait until the next issue for the debut of a more suitable color work – or he could reach for the stars like the 8-page story itself did, in its offbeat way.  Like in so many other junctures in his career, Mike decided to go for it and publish The Old, New and Final Testament. He took a considerable chance on the fallout that could come from it. The thrust of the work was sure to irritate many raw nerves in a diverse comics readership, not to mention the oddity of breaking the fourth wall in the personal way the story alluded to.

In deciding to publish it, Mike preserved a small piece of comics history that continues to roll on today, as evident by this website complex. It might never be suitable for collection or reprint next to other stories it shared a space with. It will remain an item unto its own, that’s perhaps best left to be what it is. A bastard child of a tumultuous time, but also inspired by Mike’s own vision for the comics industry in its reach for integration into the world it thrives in. A vision that’s become verified now, decades after Star*Reach debuted, with the flourishing independent comics market and the profound proliferation of the medium into modern culture.  Mike Friedrich, pioneer and visionary, reached for the stars  – and brought the comics heaven a little closer to the Earth.

New addition to Portraits of the Creators Sketchbook.

Mike Friedrich

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Gus Heinze Abstract Realism

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I happened to glimpse the interesting abstract realism art of painter Gus Heinze, while editing around Wikipedia recently. His niece also edits there and created the article on him. His art made an impression on me, enough to take some time and produce a portrait that would enhance his biography. So, enjoy enlarging the thumbnails of his work below, as we add a hailed creator from the world of fine art (first time for an outside-of-the-comics-world-entry) into Portraits of the Creators Sketchbook.

     

Images from Magnolia Editions fine art print gallery.

Eduardo Barreta

Have Peace Eduardo Barreto

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Eduardo Barretto, talented Uruguayan artist, has been around the comics periphery since my early days in the medium during the late 1970’s. First inking for Marvel and later, after I moved to Israel, he went to DC and gained recognition for his run on Teen Titans. When I returned to comics in the early 1990’s, he’d established a strong presence as a Batman artist, one of the characters I drew most then. He produced a few more well remembered projects like Speeding Bullets and Under a Yellow Sun before expanding towards other publishers including Archie,  IDW, Boom!, Crossgen, Dark Horse and others before returning to Marvel on Marvel Knights.

In 2006 he landed at King Features Syndicate and drew the Judge Parker strip.  His tenure there was disrupted once after a serious injury from a car accident and again while contracting meningitis in 2010, which left him unable to continue drawing. He returned to draw the Phantom strip for King Features last July, but the illness took its toll on the consumate professional creator a few days ago, on 15 December, at age 57.  We never met nor had any internet encounters but Eduardo’s been like a close colleague, perhaps if only by virtue of the recognizable feel for humanity that his work exuded, and the personal respect that fellow creators who knew him expressed for him. Godspeed Eduardo, your untimely departure is big loss for us all and for the medium you helped make better. Heartfelt condolences to grieving family and friends.

Eduardo Barreto in Portraits of the Creator’s Sketchbook and the biographical portrait on Wikipedia.

Happy 43rd Birthday Tom Spurgeon

Happy 43rd Birthday Tom Spurgeon

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Have Peace Jerry Robinson

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I had barely missed his visit to Continuity just before I started working there in late 1975, when Jerry Robinson joined Neal Adams in the drive to convince Warner Bros. to help the creators of Superman in their later years. He became a mediator between the creators and DC Comics, and procured the appearance of their credit on the Superman titles. I barely missed him but the giant shadow that Jerry Robinson cast couldn’t escape my attention. I hadn’t met him on the few occasions I’ve attended comics conventions, but I did receive a friend request from him on Facebook last year and was surprised to discover he even knew of me. After a few warm conversations there, I came to know wonderful simplicity in him, and a passionate activism on behalf of the creator community and the comics medium, that also exuded a humbling concern for the world we live in.

Aside from his seminal role in the creation of the Batman mythos, especially the Joker and Robin, Jerry Robinson remained an active ambassador for the medium from behind the scenes, putting forward the best that comics stood for, even if his work wasn’t visible on the pages themselves. The comics community is beginning to pour its affection for him after news of his departure from us surfaced; Bleeding Cool; NewsaramaComics Reporter and io9 are an early start. True to his site format, Tom Spurgeon is compiling sentiments from across the web into a collective memory post, which is always of the better places to get an impression of the impact that the likes of Mr. Robinson have on us. Godspeed Jerry and thanks for the bright light you shine on us, and the comics.

Neal Adams (2nd from left) and Jerry Robinson (far right) launch the campaign for Jerry Siegel (2nd from right) and Joe Shuster (far left) from Continuity Studios in 1975. (Photo from Kris' World at NealAdams.com)

joegiella

Giella and Colan Victimized By Con

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By Henry Justice
 

Nassau County detectives are investigating the recent disappearance of artwork from the home of Joe Giella (84), an artist best known for his work at Marvel and DC Comics. The main suspect is Neal Cino of Brooklyn, NY.  

Cino had allegedly been barred in 2010 from visiting the home and hospital room of artist Gene Colan after artwork went missing. Cino was warned repeatedly by Colan family members to leave the ailing artist alone but allegedly did not comply until law enforcers became involved. 

Cino approached Giella as a fan, then began bringing him small gifts and taking the elderly comic artist to lunch. Once he gained the artist’s confidence, he was invited into the Giella home and then began visiting frequently.

The artwork that was stolen from the Giella home includes:
  • “Menace of the Man Missile”, pages 1 and 9. Pencils by Carmine Infantino, inks by Joe Giella
  • “Castle with Wall to Wall Danger” pages 7 and 8. Pencils by Carmine Infantino, inks by Joe Giella
  • “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” #107 cover. Pencils by Joe Staton, , inks by Joe Giella

The artwork stolen from the Colan home included large, poster-sized drawings of Star Wars characters.

If you have any information, contact Detective John O’Connor, Nassau County Police Dept.,
at 516-573-6353.

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Lou Fine

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Lou Fine was one of the more influential artists of the Golden Age, especially considering his relatively short lived career before moving on to newspaper strips and commercial art. His work exuded a realism and grace that were rare in his time, and became an inspiration to many masters who followed, including from the school of art I trained in.  His name was a household word at Continuity of the late ’70s. His exquisite compositions and sensitive drawing were a delight to study and become lost in. Aside from our short lived careers in comics, Fine and I also shared a slight polio affliction. Newest addition to Portraits of the Creators Sketchbook.

Lou Fine in Portraits of the Creators

Asaf Hanuka

New Portraits

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Asaf & Tomer Hanuka for Portraits of the Creators Sketchbook and Wikipedia biographies.

 

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Ferzat in the Lion’s Den

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Syrian Cartoonist Ali Ferzat

Ali Ferzat is the award winning and outspoken Syrian cartoonist chipping away, through his political cartoons, at the iron curtain protecting the totalitarian oppression of his homeland by Bashar Al-Assad‘s Ba’ath Party regime. A former incarnation of our site, Flaming Sword Productions, highlighted a Tom Spurgeon item on him in 2005. His criticism of Al-Assad and other government officials since the Arab Spring uprisings hit Syria last May, led to his brutal beating by regime thugs, apparently to warn him against further critical cartooning. The Comics Reporter has been covering the story since, wondering how to raise a little solidarity activism from the comics community on his behalf.

Skirmishes with the Syrian Military

Before getting into that, a little background on some skirmishes I had with the Syrian military/intelligence, circa 1981/82, during my 2 year stop over in Lebanon, before I crossed the border into Israel.

The look that enraged the Syrians. 1984.

The Beirut I found in September 1981 was not the Paris of the Middle East, as it was known, when I left it in the 60’s. Lebanon became plunged into a civil war aggravated by violent tensions between its fractured populations. It was one of the more stable and neutral mid-East countries and a bridge between the Arab world and the west. In 1970 the PLO was driven from Jordan into Lebanon by King Hussain in the Black September assault. By 1975 Arafat and his military succeeded with a hostile takeover of parts of Lebanon, imposing a militia authority over sections of the country and taking much of the peoples’ land and assets in the process. The takeover met the resistance of Maronite Christian and Druze communities, who even though they’d been locked in armed struggles over Lebanese territory in the past, both tried separately to defend their areas from the PLO intrusion, which set the ball in motion for sectorial armed conflicts. Syria was called in by an Islamic coalition to send in a massive military force for the purpose of keeping the peace in its neighbor’s back yard. The Syrians, however, quickly became themselves another aggressor and brought the collapse of the Lebanese government and military. By 1981, Lebanon had become a powder keg of conflict, divided into areas of militia control with massacres, bombings and gun battles erupting everywhere. An all out civil war and a nightmare for the citizens. Anarchy was everywhere as even a new generation of youth solved their rivalries with fire arms, and small conflicts often erupted into machine gun battles on the streets.

From the moment I landed in Beirut, I became a suspect of the Syrian security forces at the airport. Not having a Lebanese citizenship, I entered my father’s home country as an American citizen. Not a friendly basis to begin a relationship with Syrians or Muslim backed militias who controlled the airport. I was met by my father and relatives, to head out for a Druze/Christian town just southeast of Beirut. The town had successfully repelled a Syrian/PLO attempt to impose a military governing outpost in it some years before. The battle was won from the Syrians and PLO around when president Hafez Al-Assad (Bashar’s father) assassinated the Druze leader Kamal Jumblat for speaking out on Syria’s aggression. Kamal’s son, Walid, took over leadership of the Lebanese Druze community, exercising a little more care not to ruffle Al-Assad’s feathers, while trying to keep the Syrians at arm’s length from the Druze towns. When I arrived I began hearing stories of Syrian forces plundering anything they wanted from villagers taking cars and truck loads of television sets, sound systems, refrigerators, machinery, or anything they got their hands on. But stories of atrocities told in more closed circles, such as the common rape and murder of Lebanese women found in nearby dumpsters and forests, or the inexplicable disappearance of people who spoke out against the Syrian occupation, indicated that Syrian intelligence elements, “Mukhabarat”, were everywhere, and that everyone needed to be careful what they said publicly about Syria.

Trouble at a Syrian Checkpoint

Another thing to my disadvantage was the long hair and beard I brought along from New York, after years of making trouble for myself and the comics community with it. The look apparently antagonized the Syrians as they detained us at the airport for several hours, checking if I was an American spy or some such…or at least that’s the excuse they gave. But I was released in the end and took some advise by trimming down a bit. It didn’t help much as I wasn’t in a very compromising mood about my look at the time. As a result, I wound up suffering a few uncomfortable incidents, along with a physical assault, over the next several months. Incidents that recurred nearly every time I crossed a Syrian checkpoint.

Detainment at checkpoints was to be expected though some passages went smoothly and without incident. For the most part, if there wasn’t a long line of cars waiting for clearance, Syrian soldiers took a little more time to scrutinize the strange looking long haired and bearded youth trying to get through their barrier. Sometimes the security check would take less than 10-15 minutes but there were times that soldiers took advantage of having an American citizen in their grasp and extended the detainment over several hours. After one such ordeal, having spent nearly an entire day waiting with a few relatives to be cleared by soldiers who had no declared reason for preventing us from continuing, I arrived home and quickly made a drawing of what the harassment felt like at the time (Thanks Yisrael for the scan – click image above and then right-click>>open image in new tab/window for high-rez version).  The drawing tried to get across how it felt every time I approached a checkpoint and how my look irked the Syrians. But it also had a dangerous statement about the Lebanese/Syrian situation. A “Stop: Checkpoint” sign showing the Syrian national symbol, an eagle, kicking and tearing down the Lebanese cedar icon. The drawing never left my portfolio because my father and few relatives who saw it pleaded and warned that there were Syrian intelligence personnel in our town, or at least snitches who kept them informed, and that if the drawing was to become known, it would threaten my security and the well being of the family. So I resigned to keep it from view at the time, though I eventually brought it with me to Israel, and gave it to a friend on a Kibutz.

The look that enraged the Syrians. 1982.

On one occasion while driving through Beirut on my way to pick up a friend from work, I lost my way and found myself navigating an alley, from which the only exit was to defy a one-way street sign and hope not to be noticed. I didn’t know the street would lead straight to a Syrian checkpoint that guarded a diplomatic home. I realized that the offense of traveling the wrong way on this street, added to my look and nationality would lead to trouble in this heavily secured area, so I tried to approach the checkpoint carefully. When I was stopped, the soldier aggressively asked me to step out of the car and show my identification. I handed him my American passport, he became enraged, held it upside down, asked what it meant as he waved it around and threw it back in my face. I’m almost certain he handled the passport this way in sarcasm and that he knew he was holding it upside down, but I may never know.  He suddenly lashed out with a violent backhand across my face and came back with a clapping smack from the other side that dropped me to the ground. He then delivered two staunch kicks to my midsection as I tried to protect myself. He said to get out of there and never return for him see me again. I was alive, at least, and nothing seemed broken, I thought to myself, as I drove away trying to console the bruises.

Syrian eagle assaults Lebanese cedar.

A month or so later the Israel invasion of Lebanon started, scattering many of the Syrian forces for cover. The siege of Beirut lasted about 3 months before the PLO agreed to withdraw to Tunis. During the fighting, I sometimes found myself with friends sitting on balconies watching the artillery exchanges around Beirut. The capital city, nearby airport and surrounding topography were visible to us from the mountain-top village as if we were watching an open field below us from a two story building. Towards the end of the fighting, after Israel captured the airport in a fierce artillery battle that we watched from a friend’s house, about 10 Syrian soldiers appeared at the end of the winding road below us, making their way back to Syria. They stopped by my friend’s car, which was the only one parked on the road at the time, and tried to break into it. We rushed down to explain to them that the car is grounded, needs repair, and wouldn’t take them more than a 100 meters before it stalled. The soldiers were torn, beaten, bleeding and charred, much like Sgt. Rock and Easy Company after a brutal battle. Our instinct told us that they didn’t have the energy to fight over the car and we were fortunately right about it. At this point one soldier asked if we had any cigarettes. Aside from the hash that my friend and I smoked earlier on the balcony, cigarettes became rare in our town around that time because supplies that weren’t as basic as bread and water had a difficult time making it through the fighting. But I did have a box of cigars in my jacket, that I saved for moments of low supplies. I quickly pulled them out and gave the box to the soldier.  He snatched it away and told his buddies to get walking. The car was salvaged and the soldiers disappeared over the hilltop on their way home. The incident seemed to aptly close the circle of harassment.

On Behalf of Ali Ferzat

Ferzat was born in the city of Hama in Syria but gravitated towards Damascus at an early age to study art. Still young, he launched a career of political cartoons for government run newspapers. As was the way of state-run media in the Arab world, Ferzat became known for his anti-Israel cartoons, such as the one to the right depicting an Israeli war plane dropping a bomb on a child while the pilot says “drop it gently”. By 1980, Ferzat won his first international award for his work from Intergraphic International Festival in Berlin, one of many European institutes quick to embrace his defamatory distortions of Israel while turning a blind eye to the atrocities of the regime he worked for in Syria. And it’s not that Israel was above criticism, but directly targeting children has never been one of its crimes, unlike the regime Ferzat worked for. To drive home the irony of his situation, in the same year that Ferzat won this first award, Syrian president Hafez Al-Asad, “the lion” as his name translates, besieged Ferzat’s home town of Hama and slaughtered around 25,000 men, women and children (some estimates say about 40,000) to crush an uprising by the Syrian majority Suni faction, in what’s been internationally dubbed the Hama massacre.

Demonstration in Syrian Hama, 2011

To Ali Ferzat’s credit, the Hama massacre apparently jarred something in him as he started producing more independent political cartoons that targeted corruption and oppression in the Arab world. By 1989 he’d received a death threat from Saddam Hussein and was banned in Iraq, Jordan and Lybia. With the passing of Hafez Al-Assad and the unopposed election of his son Bashar in 2000, who promised political reform in Syria, Ferzat found a friend in the new president who lifted the ban on independent journalism and allowed him to publish Syria’s first non-state run publication Al-Domari (The Lamplighter). The venture was short lived, however, due to Ferzat’s growing criticism of the Ba’ath Party’s refusal to follow through on its reform promises. The paper was shut down in 2003 after repeated government censorship, and state-manipulated drying-out of its funds.

Ferzat after the beating by Syrian regime thugs.

By 2005, when Tom Spurgeon cited the BBC article on Ferzat, his work had all but disappeared from the local press as no publisher in Syria was willing to carry it anymore, even as international acclaim of his work grew. This brings us to the ongoing Syrian Arab Spring uprising, where many of the demonstrations are again launched and led from Ferzat’s beleaguered home city of Hama. In that no foreign press has been allowed into Syria since, estimates of casualties vary but are mostly over 3000 civilians killed by direct fire from government forces, even though the demonstrators were unarmed and peaceful. Stories of plunder and rape leak out out from time to time on the web. To this background, Ali Ferzat returned to a more staunch series of recent cartoons, criticizing his former friend and patron Bashar Al-Assad, all of which led to his brutal beating and fracture of his hands by regime thugs last August.

The incident drew world-wide condemnation also in the Arab world that had been reluctant to criticize internal affairs of its constituent nations. A good sign of progress towards an airing out of the problems under some leaders there. Problems that have largely colored the cultures’ outlook on the rest of the world, mainly due to nationalistic solidarity and an overboding fear of straying from regime lines. These are maybe even a major influence on the general view of the Arab-Israeli conflict, exacerbated by the regimes’ hold on public opinion. And though many indications point to the Arab Spring possibly opening a Pandora’s box of extremist aggression, as visible in Egypt today, it still seems like a necessary step towards change there.

For the moment, however, Al-Assad’s hold on Syria shows little signs of teetering and Ali Ferzat remains at Bashar’s mercy. It’s very likely that their former friendship is the only reason he’s still alive today. It’s also likely that he’ll consider his moves more carefully since the beating. To my mind, Ferzat needs to get out of Syria right now, and continue his work from the outside where he can be free to say what he wants without fear of repercussion. I also think he’d have a much more attentive world audience that could put considerably more pressure on Al-Assad by doing so. I’m just not sure that his sense of national responsibility would allow him to leave Syria now, even in the face of suffering more harm by pursuing his cause from inside the lion’s den.

In spite of the wide international condemnation of Ferzat’s beating, there aren’t many signs of efforts with concrete steps planned to help him, nor for that matter to seriously intervene in what’s going on in Syria. Indeed, while we saw swift European involvement in Lybia, the international community has been reluctant to offer anything nearly comparable with Syria. Aside from calls for economic sanctions, it seems that Bashar Al-Assad is holding steadfastly in his brutal subversion of the people’s attempt to take the government away from his minority Alawi rule. One reason, it would seem, is that the threat of an extremist takeover in Egypt and a similar possibility in Lybia have curbed international enthusiasm for the Arab Spring, as if to say the world might be better off with the present totalitarian regime in Syria, than a possible takeover by a more volatile elements creeping into power after the fall of Bashar Al-Assad.

Ferzat and the Comics

A few Facebook pages have sprung up for moral support of Ali Ferzat as would be expected, but none seem to have come from comics related sources. The community has been mostly silent about it, and maybe that’s somewhat understandable due to the distance of the issues Ferzat tackles with his work. Our arena seems to have more of an entertainment nature that doesn’t like to get too serious with international intrigue, and the summer was strongly driven by DC’s reboot. Maybe that’s a good reason the story hasn’t been visible much, at least not to any degree that reflects the international coverage it’s received in wider media. As an entertainment medium, we can often be inattentive to such stories, not only in this case where a fellow creator/cartoonist suffers political harassment, foreign as his case may be to many of us, but also for other issues much closer to home, that we may not always raise to any effective volume, or bring to the forefront of concern.

In a summer that saw some reflections on the treatment of creators by major publishers, such as with the Jack Kirby Estate litigation against Marvel, the Siegel Estate litigation against DC, along with some insight into the plight of creators such as Gene Colan in their final years, a certain phrase reverberated through many of them saying that these cases should be bothering us a little more than they seem to. I believe there’s a straight line that can be drawn from this sentiment towards the need we have to keep up with the product driven news ticker most of us and fandom are caught up into. And I wouldn’t belittle the good curve that comics content is going through right now, nor some of the inspiring old and new work that’s flooding the comics web. But it does seem that we tend to agree to a consensus of what’s worthy of putting on our front pages, which also inadvertently defines what’s less suitable for them. We are a content driven medium, I understand, but I can’t help wonder if as creators, reporters and fan advocates of the medium, we’re striking a good enough balance of our needs relative to the non-content driven issues affecting the industry.

If a general feeling of something needing to bother us a little more, such as was repeated this summer, continues to nag at the background of the music we dance to, then we might need to pay a little more heed to the nagging voices if we hope to be able to enjoy the music more fully. Or maybe it’s that the music is ultimately made of a collection of nagging voices, mixed together in such a way to conceal their nature. Either way, there seem to be issues and stories popping up at the periphery of the medium that we’re not always able to air out thoroughly enough to address and act on them with some satisfaction.

I honestly don’t know what can be done through the comics community to help Ali Ferzat. I think we have many dire issues at home that we’re not facing or addressing any more effectively than pointing a fire extinguisher at a burning building. I’ve tried in the past, ineffectively, to push for more creator involvement in the world we swim in, and I’m first to admit I’m not the best voice for it. But I think we’re not yet collectively ready, neither at the group level, nor at personal individual level, for a serious change in this regard. Populist agitation is growing everywhere and scenarios of public unrest I’ve talked about before, are now rising to the surface of events at a hefty pace. Yet the comics community seems to remain relatively indifferent, as if we’re not yet grasping that we have a powerful instrument of influence on the world around us. I don’t think it’s a lack of knowing what specific steps we can take in order to have a more effective role or say in any particular issue. I rather tend to think it’s more of a button or switch that needs to be touched within us, igniting a necessity or urge to nudge us from a feeling of impotence that’s been imposed, or that we’ve self-imposed on ourselves, regarding everything outside our contained periphery. And in spite of this condition, I’m perfectly hopeful about our ability to make the switch at any point down the line, even as the trouble around us escalates.

I’m also not sure whether a fund-raising effort for Ali Ferzat is what he needs most right now. And as Tom said, it’s not clear how such funds, if raised, could be delivered to him through the iron curtain that Al-Assad has locked tightly shut since the uprisings. Trying to manage such a thing may be more efficient done through people closer to him. More than anything else, I think it’s we that need to feel this story bothering us a little more. In that sense, Ferzat may be in a better state than we are. He feels the problems around him and uses his art to address them and help others feel them. It might even sound somewhat presumptuous to think we’re the ones who can do anything to help him, instead of maybe realizing we’re the ones who might need to learn something from him.  But I’ll admit that I can’t for the life of me understand what it’s going to take to get us off our duffs so that a story like this, and other ones as well, become as important to us as Wonder Woman’s pants or Hawkeye’s reflections on the internet. There are a lot of possibilities for what we can do that would emerge from a desire or need to do something. But I don’t know, really. I’ve not been too keen in the past on figuring out what’s making us tick in this department. We have an enormous voice on the world stage as creators, journalists, fans and publishers, that we can enlist to become more engaged, given we can begin to nurture a collective need for it.

When asked in an interview about being a political dissident, Ferzat answered in classic comics creator form:

That’s belittling my importance as an artist. An artist and creator is more important than a politician.

A new drawing of Ali Ferzat to cover a missing copyright free image in his Wikipedia biography. Also a new addition to Portraits of the Creators Sketchbook.

Ali Ferzat in Portraits of the Creators Sketchbook

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