Month: September 2017

APE 2017 reflections

I first exhibited at the Alternative Press Expo (APE) in 1998. I had been photocopying issues of my comics work for about two years at that point and had never been to a con, much less exhibited at one. I made 50 copies each of Litmus Test 4 and because I had read an article about the APE in which the author claimed that she had moved over 100 copies of her magazine. I ended up selling 3 copies of Litmus Test 4, and 2 of Litmus Test 5 (I still have plenty of copies of both). I sat at my half table between Richard Becker (Bloodthirsty Pirate Tales) and Keith Knight. I saw how Becker looked middle aged and yet was sitting behind a table watching the crowds like I was. I felt sorry for him (little did I know…). I saw Johnen Vasquez parade around the floor followed by a gaggle of goth girls. Keith Knight rolled his eyes at the scene, but encouraged me to give copies of my comic to Dan Clowes (and he actually wrote me back and praised my work). And I made a total of $15. It was a blunt welcome to the world of comics. But I met a lot of nice people, like Jesse Hamm, Lark Pien, Derek Kirk Kim, and Gene Yang. And through them I was invited to a comics creators meeting where I met Jimmie Robinson, who was at the APE this year.

Except for 2006 and 2011, I went to every APE from 1998 to 2013. I saw it move from San Jose to San Francisco, saw it change hands from Slave Labor to Comic-Con, saw my sales gradually improve, saw familiar faces start to disappear, saw the art students take over and the photocopied books go away. But it was always basically the same two-day marathon of sitting behind a table watching people walk by.

So though it had been awhile, I decided to do it all again. I had new books and it felt like a way to come full circle. I was worried though. Reviews of 2016 said attendance was low. And up to a week before the APE, the “Panels” page on the con website was blank and the blog hadn’t been updated since February. That didn’t really inspire confidence that this thing was in good hands. But I decided to try it anyway. And so this weekend I ventured back to the APE one last time.

The San Jose Convention Center tent was more than half empty.


First off, this APE was much smaller than any other. It was comprised of three aisles of about thirty booths per aisle. Besides Slave Labor and Last Gasp, there weren’t any publishers. And, oddly, many of the booths remained empty all weekend. Sometimes the place reminded me of a dying downtown with stores boarded up and empty. The attendance was also pretty sparse. There were never more than a few people in front of any one table, and usually no people. Though the attendees that did come seemed nice and because the con was so small, they could really take in every booth.

It also seemed to me that there weren’t many booths dedicated to comics that focused on fiction. And there weren’t any art comics. Most of the stuff there were prints of superhero, video game, fantasy, and sci-fi art work, and when there were comics they were often adventure stuff that looked similar to other corporate work. Like one guy behind me kept comparing the main character in his comic to Harry Potter.

Except for a few hours on Saturday, the booth next to mine remained empty.

As with any con, there were weird interactions. Like one guy took issue with the fact that I was calling my old 5 1/2 x 8 1/2″ copies of Litmus Test minis. Another guy made a big deal about comparing me with Fellini. A cartoonist whom I will not name, but who used to always show up at cons or in anthologies I was in, bought Holiday Funeral from me, which I’m pretty sure he bought years ago. And a guy that I had a summer job with in high school bought Kit Kaleidoscope and Carnivale.

While I talked with other exhibitors, I didn’t make a connection with anyone new. That may say more about me than them, but I didn’t feel like I was a part of something, which I’ve felt at other cons. The only connection I felt was that we were all putting in our time under the flourescent lights. There was no new movement and no real excitement about a work or artist.

But in keeping with coming full circle, Johnen Vasquez walked by once. He looked the same, though his goth girlfriend was gone, replaced by a cell phone. And I eventually said hi to Jimmie Robinson. We only chatted for a minute, but he admitted that he still didn’t know what he was doing in comics, but he was still stumbling ahead. “It’s a strange kind of love.,” he said.

On Sunday, an older man who had bought some individual issues of Carnivale from me back in 2013 came up and bought the new collected edition. He told me work like mine made coming to the APE worthwhile.

And I sold the last copies of the first comic I ever put together, Jack Face.

Are you ready for the irony?

I made more money at the APE this year than I’ve ever made at a con.

Now that’s not saying much, since I never make much. Still, the fact that such a slow con not only met but exceeded my previous levels shows that the people who showed up were dedicated comics people.

But… I don’t think I’ll be going back next year.

new second edition of Carnivale

Straight from the printer today, the new second editions of Carnivale are here!

A post shared by Nick Mullins (@nijomu) on

The changes from the previous edition are slight, but make it a better looking book. One, it’s bigger: 6×9 versus 5×8. The images fill out the pages more (I’m learning about book layout). And it finally has a spine. The difference that took a long time, though hardly anyone will notice, is that I swapped out the flat tones with scanned ink washes. It just gives the images a bit more texture. I was toying with this idea a long time ago and people advised me not to do it. But, slowly in spare moments, I did it anyway. I like the way it looks, even if it’s subtle.

A post shared by Nick Mullins (@nijomu) on

I’m taking the new editions to the APE, but they’ll also be available to buy from me here. Click on “Books” above.

I’ll be at the APE this weekend!

As I mentioned before, I’m going to be exhibiting at the APE this weekend, September 23-24. If you plan on being there, definitely some by and say hi at table 133. I’ll have my copies of Sink and recent printings of Holiday Funeral.

Here’s where my table will be located:

Nick Mullins at table 133

We’ll see how this all goes. Looking at blogs after last year’s show, attendance was pretty small. And seeing as the “panels” page on the APE website was absolutely blank until this week, I don’t have a lot of faith in how well this is being promoted. But hopefully there will be some dedicated people and the energy will be good.

The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories by Bruno Schulz

I was lead to Bruno Schulz by the Brothers Quay. Their version of Street of Crocodiles is one of my favorites of their films. Now having read the source material, I can see a connection in the dream reality and empty city streets of both. But the Brothers Quay have a cruelty in their work that Schulz’s work lacks. In its place, Schulz has a Romanticism that lies in contrast with the Modernist settings and conflicts of his writing.

Schulz was born in 1892 in a small town in Poland, Drohobycz, where he basically stayed his entire life. He was a writer as well as an artist. In fact, he taught art to high school students as a way to support himself. Personally, these details draw me to him since they are a fun house mirror of my own biography and I must admit I hoped that Schulz’s drawing and writing may have merged at some point. Yet if there is a Schulz comic, it is locked in the lighthouse in Hicksville. As far as I can tell, the only melding of his writing and drawing came in the form of illustrations for his stories.

From the accounts, Schulz was a modest man who focused on the development of his art more than the grooming of his image. Yet he did begin to acquire a small amount of fame in his early forties. Unfortunately, and tragically, this fame coincided with the start of the Second World War. The Nazis came to power. And Schulz was a Jew. His artistic abilities got him noticed and a gestapo officer ordered Schulz to paint murals on the walls of his child’s playroom. Yet another officer had a grudge against Schulz’s officer and so used Schulz as a means of exacting his revenge. Schulz was shot dead in the street.

Apparently, Schulz had been working on his masterpiece, entitled The Messiah. The manuscript of this work didn’t survive the war. The murals did however, as did his two collections of stories, Cinnamon Shops (known in the U.S. as the Street of Crocodiles) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. These are collected in the book I read.

One cannot read these stories as one reads most stories. Schulz’s work has less in common with the plotting of traditional narrative and is closer to the lush metaphors of Romantic poetry or the thick movements of oil on canvas. His stories are dream-like and surreal. He is often compared to Kafka, but where Kafka stays focused on one image and takes it to its conclusion, like in The Metamorphosis, Schulz offers us image after image. His writing is like a decaying bouquet, heavy with perfume and hinting at a vigor fading. I see Borges and Márquez as echoes of Schulz. Yet, as I mentioned, there is a strong Romantic element to Schulz’s writing. One aspect of this is the emphasis on the emotional and the personal over the universal. The pieces barely hint at plot and instead hinge on the expression and changes of mood. Furthermore, there are many odes to nature in these stories, such as an entire chapter to spring dusk in The Street of Crocodiles and a long description of the end of summer in the short story “Autumn.” Yet, in the end Schulz is a recorder of the city. We see dark streets, bustling shops, and haunting city parks.

But my attempts to explain his work do not do justice to Schulz’s inventiveness. For in the midst of his hallucinatory descriptions we also come upon strangely humorous narratives. For instance, “My Father Joins the Fire Brigade” starts with a journey through the darkness by the narrator and his mother:

We entered the wilted boredom of an enormous plain, an area of faded pale breezes that enveloped dully and lazily the yellow distance. A feeling of forlornness rose from the windswept space.

Such drowsiness and lethargy give way to the image of the narrator’s father in a full suit of armor, gleaming like an avenging angel. He is engaged in an argument with the housekeeper about the lack of raspberry syrup in the house. As it turns out, the father is captain of the fire brigade and lets the men under him stay at his house. And they love raspberry syrup. The housekeeper thinks they are a bunch of free loaders, but the father sees them as noble heroes. He tells the housekeeper: “Unable to experience noble flights of fancy, you bear an unconscious grudge against everything that rises above the commonplace.” The story goes on to end with an organized display of acrobatics by the father and his men, but this quotation gets at the Modernist concerns of Schulz’s writing. The city deadens colors and takes the romance away from people’s lives. Yet in this story the father, like Don Quixote, refuses to give in to the status quo of commonness. He wishes to rebel with his adherence to “noble flights of fancy.” This is echoed in the chapter “Tailors’ Dummies” in The Street of Crocodiles:

Only now do I understand the lonely hero who alone had waged war against the fathomless, elemental boredom that strangled the city. Without any support, without recognition on our part, the strangest of men was defending the lost cause of poetry.

And perhaps Schulz’s own art serves a similar function. There is something beautiful and fantastic to be found even in the most gray and base of city scenes. One only has to be sensitive enough to perceive it.

In all honesty, these stories sometimes made me sleepy as I read them. I was lulled by their dreaminess to fall into my own dreams. This says more about my lifestyle than it does about Schulz’s art. Yet it does point to the concentration needed to engage with his stories. This concentration is rewarded with images and worlds that seem of an older time and yet like nothing else you’ve read before. Let Bruno Schulz live on in your imagination.

** My biographical information about Schulz comes from the book, specifically the foreward by Jonathan Safran Foer. Schulz’s writing was translated from Polish by Celina Wieniewska.

There is a long discussion of Bruno Schulz at The New Yorker.


(written August 25, 2012)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

When I read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, I was pleasantly surprised by the deftness of its writing. So I decided to try Jackson’s final, and some say her best, novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

In some ways it is Jackson’s infamous story “The Lottery” and her quintessential haunted house story The Haunting of Hill House put together. But this is not simply a remixing of former stories, but instead a reworking of former themes in a tale that is its own fully realized world. The strength of voice in this book comes from the narrator, Mary Katherine Blackwood, or Merricat. She is at once an adult and a child. She is the only one of her remaining family able to venture out into the world and yet is the most in a world of her own making. The fact that we quickly get the information that she hates dogs and taking baths right next to the fact that most of her family is dead lets us know that this is a character whose moral compass may be off, whose view of the world is unsettlingly childlike.

Basically, Merricat lives with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian in the family house, which is isolated from the rest of the town. This isolation is both due to the class pride of the family and the hatred of the townspeople. The rest of the Blackwood family is dead, except for an estranged uncle, due to a poisoning at the dinner table. Someone put arsenic in the sugar bowl. Constance was accused because she had been the cook and didn’t touch the sugar bowl. The mystery of who is responsible for the arsenic isn’t much of a mystery and isn’t the point of the book. It’s not a detective story. Instead it is an exploration of character, mood, and sisterly love.

The tense but static existence of the sisters and Uncle Julian is broken by the arrival of a cousin, Charles. He begins to drive a wedge between Merricat and Constance, or at least Merricat fears he will. And it is here that Jackson’s writing is at its most economical and evocative. For while Charles seems obsessed about money, what also becomes apparent about his manner is his unconscious male privilege. He disturbs the pattern of the female run Blackwood house, but never asks permission or pardon. He doesn’t even seem to acknowledge he’s disturbing anything at all. That ability not to have to notice is the hallmark of privilege. Jackson captures this perfectly without having to name it or even call much attention to it.

So this is a novel that lends itself to many interpretive strategies. For instance, you could see it as being about female space constantly being invaded by male forces. The world of Merricat and Constance first has to survive cousin Charles and later the male firefighters. This is helpful, but it doesn’t capture the whole complexity of the book. No one interpretive strategy acts, as Lethem calls it in his introduction, as a key to unlocking the book. Instead, the various possible critical angles from which you can approach this book demonstrate its complexity and subtlety.

Nothing in this book is simple. It is a story about family homicide and societal intolerance, but also sisterly love. Yet that love is both heart warming and claustrophobic. It counterbalances the darkness in the book, but also compounds it in the end. Likewise, Merricat is an entertaining narrator with a wicked sense of humor, but also a disturbing and disturbed person. Likewise, one could see the ending as a both a victory and a chilling tragedy.

Overall, this is an amazingly written book. I think Merricat Blackwood should be considered one of the classic unreliable narrators of American literature. So why isn’t Jackson’s novel part of the canon? It may be a case of genre bias; her work is classified as horror and horror is not seen as being serious. It could also be a case of sexism. Henry James is called a genius for his unreliable narrator in Turn of the Screw, but not Jackson. Also, the reviewers in Jackson’s day were mostly men and male writers who explored the kind of darkness Jackson does were called brave. Jackson was called “neurotic.” Also, at that time critics were looking for art that made big statements and had epic scopes in terms of plot and stylistic exploration. Jackson instead is narrowly focused. She has small casts of characters and never claims to be the voice of her generation. But her focus is scalpel-like. When she cuts, she cuts deep. And it’s disturbing.

As a final note, in the novel the Blackwood house is not compared to a castle until near the end of the book. Yet the title is We Have Always Lived in the Castle. “Always” implies a long period of time. So the title then implies that the state we find Merricat and her sister in at the end of the book will persist for quite some time. So this book becomes the origin story of the haunted house tale the locals tell each other for years to come. They don’t know where the story began, but they are still troubled by it. Much as we are with Jackson. Everyone remembers “The Lottery,” but most people have forgotten who wrote it and probably never knew that the author wrote many other works. Let me assure you that Jackson is not a one-hit wonder. She is a powerful and fearless American writer.


(written August 21, 2015)

G Nibs: a comparison

The G nib is probably the most fabled nib among people interested in the creation of manga. So what is a “G nib” exactly? Basically, it’s a Japanese-made pen nib that has cuts in its shoulders that make a “g” shape. This nib is large, but capable of creating fine lines for its size. It is also slightly flexible, making line modulation possible, but at the same time it’s stable and so feels solid and capable of lasting a long time.

As of this writing, three makes of G nibs can be obtained in the U.S.: the Nikko, the Zebra, and the Tachikawa. So which is the best? As with anything, it comes down to personal taste. But let me run through the three versions and tell you what I think.


Nikko G

The first G nib I ever purchased was the Nikko G. The metal of the Nikko feels a bit tinny and is the lightest of the three G nibs. When drawing, it feels a bit stiff and tends to be capable of less line modulation than the other makes. If you are new to dip pens, this may be a good thing because that stiffness would make it easier to control. However, it’s a tad scratchy. I personally love a nib with a smooth feel on the page. Overall, this may be an okay G nib if you are a complete beginner, but I wouldn’t recommend it for a more experienced pen-and-ink artist.

Zebra G

This is the second G nib I tried. Straight away, I noticed that it offered a much thinner line than the Nikko. Its line is even slightly thinner than the Tachikawa’s line. It is more flexible than the Nikko, but shares its scratchiness. Overall, I think the Zebra is better than the Nikko. Still, I don’t like the feel of it on the page.

Tachikawa G
I don’t know if these only recently became available, but I only got a pack of the Tachikawa nibs a little while ago. The Tachikawa is closer in color to the Nikko, but looks more like brushed steel than tin. While its line may not be quite as thin as the Zebra’s, this is the most elastic nib of the three. It swells much more easily, which I like. Overall, the Tachikawa feels much smoother than the other two G nibs. It’s simply the easiest to draw with. So if you’ve got a firm hand with pen-and-ink, this is definitely the one I’d recommend.

Final thoughts

While all these nibs are flexible, and the JetPens guide even warns people that they may be too flexible for some people, I find all the G pens to be pretty stiff. Yes, they offer some line modulation, but for years I used the Hunt 100, which is the squirrelliest nib out there. So I’m used to the other end of the flexibility spectrum. These days, I tend to use Brause nibs, especially the 511. These nibs tend to be more flexible and just flow better. So while the G nibs are perfectly fine and are pretty easy nibs to use in terms of skill, I find them limiting. I just feel cramped and stiff when I use them. Again, this is a matter of personal taste and my own nib using history. I just don’t want people to think they have to use G nibs just because their favorite manga artist does. They are not necessarily the best nibs out there.

Buying the nibs

These nibs are now easy to buy on-line. Both JetPens and Paper & Ink Arts have all three makes.
JetPens: Nikko, Zebra, Tachikawa. Paper & Ink Arts: Nikko, Zebra, Tachikawa.

If you buy these in a store, let me offer a warning about the packaging. Not only is it in Japanese, it can be a bit misleading. For instance, the Zebra G nibs can come in a package that says “IC Comic.” The Tachikawa package doesn’t have any English on it at all besides the letter G. Still, in both cases you can just look at the nibs themselves. All three makes have their names embossed on them in English.


Lastly, here’s a similar comparison of the nibs, but with a focus on using them for calligraphy (spoiler: the author agrees with me about the Tachikawa).

Thoughts on Line: Edmund Sullivan’s Line: An Art Study

I didn’t read Edmund J. Sullivan’s Line: An Art Study all at once, but piece by piece over a few months. Besides just life getting in the way, I took this book slowly because it isn’t the kind of book you get lost in. It’s written in an older style and it references people and ideas that are not around anymore. That makes a lot of the book nonsensical. So you have to wade through that to find the parts that are still helpful. Sullivan also has the attitudes of a man of his time, including the casually racist ones (he has no trouble tossing around the word “nigger,” for example). For all that, Sullivan was an incredible pen-and-ink artist and his thoughtful observations about the craft come from years of experience.

So because of these two things- Sullivan’s insights and Sullivan’s attitudes- I feel the need to recontextualize what he says. Also, his insights are rooted in a pen-and-ink style that is not popular anymore and he of course wasn’t considering comics. So again, I feel the need to put his ideas into my own context. So here we go…

Line weight
One thing using a dip pen gives you is the ability to modulate line weight. Often, the rationale for this is that heavy lines are used to depict areas of shade. Sullivan makes an interesting observation about this; he calls it “doubly wrong” (74). He thinks that the heavier lines should be on the side of the object nearest the light source. This is for two reasons. One, if the heavier line is on the shaded side, then that side tends to come forward rather than recede. As in painting, darker shapes seem near, while lighter shapes seem distant. He shows a drawing of a head with the far side in shade outlined with a heavy line and it makes the head seem odd, because the dark side, which is supposed to be receding, actually comes forward. His second reason is for contrast. The light side will seem lighter if set off with a darker line. I can also think of a third reason: the thick line will get lost in the shading and so lose its power.

So here, the egg on the left has the weighted line on the shaded side and the egg on the right has the weighted line on the light side. Notice how for the egg on the left, all your attention sinks to the bottom right. The egg on the right has a fuller form. The line weight and the shading balance each other. And as a result, the center comes forward and the whole thing seems more three-dimensional.

Still, if one doesn’t use any shading, which is much more common in drawings these days, then putting the heavier line towards the light source looks odd. The egg on the right looks a bit like it’s floating, while the one on the left seems more grounded.

The other useful thing line weight is used for is the relative distance of objects in your drawing. As I said, darker objects come forward while lighter objects move backward. In the drawing below, the guy on the right seems farther away. This is partly due to him being overlapped by the person on the left, but it’s also due to his lighter line weight. The person on the left has a heavier line weight, so comes forward. There is also more line and tone variety in how she’s drawn. That also makes her command our attention more.

However, Sullivan doesn’t talk much about balancing line weight against itself. For him, it is always balanced based on some external rationale, like light source or relative distance. While he does say that varying line weights makes for a more visually interesting picture, he doesn’t abstract line from what it is supposed to represent. This is probably a result of his time period and tradition, but it limits his insights into line weight. Again, he only thinks of it representationally. Recently, I have been playing around with alternating line weight by putting a heavy line next to a thin one. So I change line weight not based on any claim on realism, but simply based on the lines themselves. I’m not saying that this is the best way to do things, but I present it as an option that Sullivan doesn’t consider.

Speaking of which, I of course think about this in relation to comics. Personally, I find really thick panel lines to be distracting. If the lines in the border are bolder than the lines in the drawing contained within, then the panel comes forward and takes attention away from the drawing you are supposed to be reading. Likewise, a panel composed on lines all of equal weight can be difficult to read. In my early comics, I didn’t vary line weight but used a lot of shading. That resulted in a lot of muddy panels.

Line harmony
I found this part of Sullivan’s book to be very interesting. Yet again, I wish he had gone even further with this topic. Basically, he says that you should have a rationale for how to do your shading. He offers three possibilities: the shading running across or perpendicular to the light rays (A), the shading running parallel to the light rays (B), and the shading being molded to the form of the subject (C).

While Sullivan seems to prefer the third, his point is not that one approach is better than the others, but that if you mix approaches then the drawing will become muddied. I realize now that I tended to use A before and now I am much more drawn to C, but honestly, before reading this book I didn’t consciously categorize these different methods. And when I first started with pen-and-ink, I didn’t consider my approach at all; I was just scribbling down lines. So Sullivan entreats us to stop a second and consider what we’re doing.

As before, Sullivan’s rationale is based on representing reality. Here, line harmony has to do with how one shades in relation to the light source. But of course, you could approach line harmony in other ways. You could gather your lines to a certain focal point or to convey a certain emotion. For instance, I once noticed that in a lot of his portraits, Van Gogh radiates his brush strokes away from the eyes. The result is that the eyes of his subjects have a particular intensity.

You could also arrange your lines to make your image more readable. This is something many cartoonists consider. In the example below, John Adkins Richardson shows how the lines in this George Price cartoon help draw the reader’s attention to the speaker (The Complete Book of Cartooning 128-9).

When you’re dealing with multiple panels, the lines from one panel can relate to the lines in another. Again, this can help readability. I did this in Carnivale on a few occasions. In these three panels from page seventy-two, I used the background shading lines to guide the reader’s eyes to the correct reading order. I was also hoping that the strong vertical lines of panel one would take the reader’s eyes down to panel two. And notice how the lines that compose the tree in the second panel swoop from the panel above to the panel on the right.

Sullivan says many more things in his book. He discusses perspective, anatomy, and beauty. But the ideas above are the ones specifically about line, not drawing in general. They are also the ones that stuck out to me the most and made me think. So while Line is an odd book in many ways, it still manages to teach after all these years.

Dover publishes the book.

(written October 26, 2016)