We have finally completed the story and art for Dark Matter, the fourth volume in our graphic novel series The Silent Invasion. For those new to the series, Dark Matter continues the mis-adventures of the Sinkage family (in this volume, Walter Sinkage and his wife, Katie) as they get entangled with flying saucer sightings, UFO-based religious cults and a clandestine network of deep state agencies.
To whet your appetite for more here is the final cover to Dark Matter.
Next time we’ll have sketches, layouts, pencils and final art to preview.
Stay tuned and watch out for the little grey aliens! They’re coming to steal our minds if they haven’t already!
Love Me Please is a biography in comics of the amazing rock singer Janis Joplin, which recalls, respecting the chronology, the highlights of her journey from childhood, after the Second World War, to her abrupt death in late 1970.
It is one of the most fabulous musical adventures in America of the second half of the twentieth century. Yet it lasted only five years.
How did a very young messed up woman, a drug addict filled with doubt, become in a few years a planetary icon of rock music? She went from the shadows to the blinding light of fame in only four records (the last one issued a month and a half after her tragic death). Thanks to a worldwide movement of emancipation which would consecrate for a long time the ideals and modes of alternative lifestyles from counterculture to the flower power generation, Janis, the ugly duckling, gave free rein to her impulses.
Fed by the thirst for freedom of the Beat Generation and the desire for emancipation expressed by American youth in the early 1960s, Janis Joplin left for San Francisco, the epicenter of cultural innovation. She will live there a freedom of which she would hardly have dared to dream, abandoning herself to all impulses, overcoming without hesitation all the taboos of the time: bisexuality, alcohol, drugs, doing so not only with delight, but with the taste for excess which came naturally from her spontaneous character.
A lively, fascinating story of a woman ahead of her time.
7 ½ x 10, 160pp. full color HC, $24.99, ISBN 978168112276252499; Diamond Code: MAY211583; Pub Date: July 14th, 2021
In the middle of a depressing youth in a ghetto of Kingston, Jamaica, Robert Nesta Marley sees only one way out: music. And that music will be what Jamaica made of rock and pop locally that had hardly been heard anywhere else: reggae!
It is Marley who brings the unmistakable beat of reggae to the entire world.
From small stages in Jamaica, his partners of the Wailers accompany him all the way to the most fabulous world tours and adulation. Beyond a rocketing musical career, the most famous rasta wants to shake things up and proclaim all over his humanitarian and egalitarian values.
7 ½ x10,176pp., full color HC: US $27.99HC ISBN: 9781681122449652799; DIAMOND CODE: MAY211585
When the Rolling Stones hit the scene in the 60’s, it was to play Rhythm & Blues, nothing more. They are far from imagining that they are not just going to change music but also become the mouthpiece of a changing world. Sticking their tongue out at the establishment with their brilliant music and hard-hitting lyrics, they achieve planetary-wide success.
With Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in the lead, these rebels have become, over fifty years, not just music, but a whole attitude! Through twenty-one stories in comics accompanied by biographical texts and a rich iconography, this book makes you relive, in a totally new way, the incredible epic of one of the biggest rock bands ever.
7×10,192pp., full color Hardcover: US $26.99, ISBN: 978168112198752699; DIAMOND CODE: MAY211587
Here’s the complete illustrated story of the Beatles from their formation, through the Beatlemania phenom all the way through their breakup.
We see how they evolved along with and amplifying the uproar of the sixties, became politically and socially active and have achieved a lasting impact unparalleled in pop music. Chapters combine text and comics for complete information presented in a fun way.
7 ½ x 10, 232pp., full color HC, $29.99; HC ISBN: 978168112187152999; DIAMOND CODE: MAY211584
Well beyond his passing in 2009, Michael Jackson remains one of the most adulated and mysterious stars in the world. Incredible singer, brilliant musician, amazing performer, he was just as talented as he was eccentric, adored as well as reviled with sordid accusations, sadly caught between a stolen childhood and a suffocating star system.
Discover in this biography mixing comics and documentary chapters, how the youngest of the Jackson 5 was propelled to the front of the stage and then onto one of the most extraordinary solo careers in music.T 7.5” x10”, 192pp., full color HC, US $26.99HC ISBN 978168112228152699; DIAMOND CODE: MAY211586
Haunted by loss and made resentful by years of under-appreciation, a once-idealistic journalist dedicated to finding and telling the truth turns against his ethical basis. Shunning the quest for objectivity and reportorial remove, veteran print and broadcast war correspondent Mark Scribner, lead character of my new graphic novel THE STRINGER, yields to his darkest temptations in exchange for fame and fortune.
That’s what the book, with illustrations by Pablo Callejo, is about. But is it possible? It’s one thing for a journalist to make a mistake. That’s inevitable. But can they throw out basic morality altogether? Absolutely.
Journalism does its best to circle the wagons when one of its own goes rogue, which is why the reading and watching public isn’t always aware that the reason that what they see on the news isn’t always true is sometimes due to personal corruption. Journalists keep each other’s secrets.
Scribner doesn’t succumb, at least I don’t think he does, and I probably should know since I invented him, to drug or alcohol abuse. But drugs were and are a big part of the coping mechanism for some conflict reporters. One very well-known television war correspondent – if you watch the news, I guarantee you have seen him — is widely known in the business as a junkie. His beat takes him to countries where heroin is cheap and widely available, and he partakes regularly. And he’s hardly alone.
One correspondent assigned to the Middle East found that she couldn’t handle the stress of traveling to exceptionally dangerous areas without getting her fix first. “I would never get into that car to go to a place like that unless I was zonked out of my mind,” she told me. I’m not a particularly judgemental person, but even if I were, I have to concede that she had a point.
One threat to journalistic integrity is laziness. Jayson Blair, The New York Times reporter who infamously made up quotes and stories from his apartment in Brooklyn, seems simple enough to have had the drive to get off his ass and report. I knew another reporter from the same newspaper who had every opportunity to legitimately go out into the field and collect quotes, but unlike young Mark Scribner at the fire in Cincinnati, he preferred to fabricate them and kick off for beers early. As far as I know, he’s still there.
You might ask, since I knew about such rascals, did I speak up? The answer is no, typically because I’m not a rat and also because I knew nothing would really change as a result. When the Times published a long article shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks about the strategic importance of the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, I was drawn to a detailed description of the strategic border between the country and neighboring Afghanistan, then governed by the Taliban. I called a friend who was an editor there about it to point out the fact that the countries don’t have a border. A couple of days later, the paper ran a brief retraction about the absentee border, but the reporter remained even though he had clearly made up the story wholesale and had never been to this fictional place.
Then there was the colorful account of riding the new train line between Turkmenistan and Iran that appeared in a travel magazine. I was really interested in the story because I wanted to take that train myself the next time I went to Central Asia. Problem was, it didn’t exist yet. According to the authorities, it should’ve been finished years earlier. But it wasn’t.
Journalists sometimes succumb to the grandiose desire to break a big story even though they haven’t actually come across one. Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for her obviously ridiculous 1980 portrait of an eight year old heroin addict. Sabrina Erdeley‘s 2014 “A Rape on Campus” in Rolling Stone had to be retracted after it turned out that her sourcing was a mess and that the horrific events described within may not have happened at all.
Then there’s the oldest motivation of all: money. In 2005 the George W. Bush administration used public funds to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to three conservative commentators in order to promote White House policy.
Probably the closest any reporter has come to Mark’s rock-bottom morality was Judith Miller of The New York Times. Miller broke one rule after another during the Bush administration’s propaganda campaign to gin up support for invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, completely subverting the most basic ethical guidelines regarding objectivity and conflicts of interest, to hobnob with the right wing proponents of invading Iraq and run their lives as fact in the Paper of Record. It is true, as she has since argued, that we didn’t invade the country because of her. But she played a large role in the murder of over 1 million people, serving as a brazen propagandist in the nation’s most influential newspaper for a completely baseless military attack on a country that had done nothing wrong to the United States and had no intention or ability to do so.
While Mark goes further than these examples, even than Judith Miller, it’s not such a radical stretch. After all, journalists are only human. And humans sometimes do awful things.
Mark Scribner, the antihero protagonist of my graphic novel THE STRINGER, “employs his battle-zone-honed knowledge to stir up trouble by faking a Twitter fight between two Afghan warlords that sends the rockets flying,” as the book critic for the Publishers Weekly trade magazine put it.
That’s the moment when the grizzled washed-up war reporter breaks bad. It happens after a conversation with a young, hipper, Millennial colleague sparks a moment of bleak inspiration that sets everything that follows into motion. In a world of online anonymity, the dark web, bitcoin, no one really knows who anyone else really is. That is, as an arbitrage expert on Wall Street once told me, an inefficiency in the marketplace that someone will figure out how to exploit.
THE STRINGER relies on a host of technologies to unleash mayhem around the world. Here’s a look at some of them, all of them real, all of them around right now.
Fake Email Generators are marketed as a way to protect your precious email account from nefarious spammers, and who can argue with that? But it doesn’t take a genius – although Mark Scribner is a genius — to fathom the potential downside for society. If I can send you an email that looks in every way shape and form as though it came from someone legitimate, I can really mess you up. I can certainly mess them up.
I have some experience with that. Back in 1999 a man I didn’t know decided he didn’t like my politics, my writing, the general cut of my jib, I don’t really know what his real problem was. He used a primitive listserv to send emails under my name to a bunch of my colleagues and editors. It could’ve been worse, though it was pretty bad. The emails were pompous and self-congratulatory and annoying, or seemingly so since they weren’t really sent from me, and it annoyed my editor at the New York Times enough for him to fire me. He seems to have stopped, which is a good thing because fake email generators would have made him even more dangerous.
Misleading Social Media Accounts are as easy as pie to create. Many people, famous and not famous, don’t have Twitter or Facebook or other social media account at all. It’s incredibly easy to go online, as Mark does, and create real-sounding accounts for them. It’s slightly more challenging to spoof someone with a well-established online presence, but hardly impossible. Because Silicon Valley doesn’t bother to check the identities of people who create these accounts, you can create an alternative account under someone else’s name that sounds legitimate.
While I was finalizing the script, and Pablo was drawing his amazing illustrations, I read an article about Deep Fakes, in which existing video and audio archives are mined and fed into AI algorithms in order to build a vocabulary of gestures and speech and verbal tics so that a subject target can be made to appear to be saying anything you want. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that these are an important part of the plot line.
And there’s no end in sight. For example, it is already possible to create fake three-dimensional representations of you and me that have nothing to do with you and me. It all happens inside the VR/AR virtual world.
It’s my nature to dwell on the downside risk of new technologies, but as my father, a notable aeronautical engineer told me once, technology is neutral. There are plus sides and downsides. Splitting the atom led to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; nuclear power keeps the lights on all over the world. Whether technology is a net positive or a negative depends on how it is applied in the aggregate. In the dark world of THE STRINGER, fakery becomes a tool for the most nefarious possible actors. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
My new graphic novel THE STRINGER drops next month in April. A tale of journalistic corruption in an age of high-tech warfare, THE STRINGER is a collaboration between me, as writer, and the Spanish artist Pablo Callejo. I couldn’t possibly be more excited that I’m about to hold the book, printed on old-fashioned paper, in my hands any day now.
Probably the first question that comes to mind is: I’m a cartoonist. Why not draw it myself? The answer is the same as when I worked with Pablo on “The Year of Loving Dangerously” (2009), a gorgeous, unconventional book that came out ahead of its time in the middle of the Great Recession. (Don’t tell anyone, but Important People in Hollywood are trying to figure out how to turn it into a movie.) I have a highly stylized, economic drawing style. Some people might even call it primitive. Some stories call for a lot more detail, and THE STRINGER’s globetrotting narrative with settings and flashbacks and heavy characterization certainly was one of those.
I knew from working with Pablo before that he could pretty much read my mind and put on the page exactly what I was thinking based on my scripts. For “Year” this guy, who had never been to New York, stunningly evoked the wild and crazy New York City of the 1980s. So I was incredibly grateful when he agreed to work on THE STRINGER despite our disappointment with the original sales of YEAR. (Fortunately, NBM later graced us with an expanded edition in paperback that really does the artwork justice.)
In a future blog post here I will describe my collaboration process with Pablo. He has already posted about that here as well.
99% of the work that I do, whether it’s editorial cartoons or essays for the Wall Street Journal or graphic biographies, by necessity are required to work within formatic and editorial constraints. Editorial cartoons have to run fairly small. Anything that runs in a “family newspaper” can’t include cursing or obscenity. There are a number of conventions in working within the political longform format. And of course that’s true about this graphic novel as well.
But, like a lot of artists, I’m sensitive to criticism and I often think that my most “Ted Rall” work is least popular with readers, and vice versa. I’m sure this is something that I should work out with a psychologist, but in the meantime, I struggle with self-censorship, with trying to tone down my internal voice and my real personality when I write scripts for a story.
THE STRINGER is a rare exception to that.
Mark Scribner, a classic antihero protagonist if there ever was one, is basically me as all Id, no ego or superego. He’s an experiment. What if I drowned myself in my deepest moments of cynicism? What if bitterness and ambition became my personal religions?
Like Mark, I’m disgusted and angry at what has happened to old-fashioned journalism, and I don’t mean the disruption caused by the Internet but rather the atrocious short-term profit orientation and mismanagement that has destroyed the newspaper industry responsible for generating over 90% of news. Also like Mark, I have done some war correspondency. NBM published my most well received example, TO AFGHANISTAN AND BACK (2002), which was the first book about the US invasion of Afghanistan published in any form.
I was sitting at a journalist guest house in Kabul, Afghanistan, a compound once owned by Osama bin Laden himself, in 2010 when the germ of THE STRINGER occurred to me. In addition to reporters from all over the world, guests included NGO workers and what were euphemistically called “contractors” — mercenary soldiers employed by the US and its allies in the war zone to do the dirty business countries pretended that they weren’t responsible for. As I watched the contractors pick up the NGO do-gooders, I thought to myself, what a bizarre mix of people. They have unique skill sets. And when I ventured out into the countryside, it all came together. I was meeting local commanders, warlords and arms runners. A war reporter, I realized, knows everyone. Obviously, they know members of the press. They know people who fight wars, often on multiple sides. They know who supplies them. And they know all the intermediaries, like those mercenaries. It’s kind of like Malcolm Gladwell’s theory about connectors on speed: a war reporter knows everyone and everything needed to start and maintain and grow a war.
Anyone who has that much knowledge is dangerous. Take away everything that they love and care about, and who knows what they might do? That was the theoretical construct behind Mark Scribner.
There was never any doubt in my mind about what kind of voice he would have. I love film noir. One of my favorite films, one that AMC described as the most cynical film ever released in the United States, is Billy Wilder’s 1951 “Ace in the Hole” (also sometimes called “The Big Carnival”), starring Kirk Douglas and Jan Sterling at the peak of their formidable powers. Douglas plays a washed-up Manhattan reporter who finds and exploits the story of a lifetime in New Mexico, to viciously cynical ends. I knew that Mark had to have the most noir, utterly hard-boiled, unapologetically masculine verbiage of any fictional character in any form ever. And that’s exactly how I wrote him, although there were many times when I questioned myself, tempted by the desire to make him more likable.
Yet I resisted. Mark is as close to irredeemable any character I can think of ever, and that’s just the way I like him. Because after all, that’s the way the system made him. He wasn’t always like that. As you’ll see when you read it. For better and for worse, mostly, he’s a totally Ted Rall character.
The grand theory of THE STRINGER is that you can’t destroy one of the most fundamental societal needs, the documentation of history in real time by journalism and the retroactive analysis of what it means, without grave implications both personally and structurally on the world stage.
“I have an idea for a new graphic novel (…). Any interest?”
And with these two simple questions, Ted put the poison back in me.
After publishing “The Year of Loving Dangerously” with Ted Rall in 2009, I fell in my usual state of “feeling-void-after-finishing-a-book”. “YOLD” had been a colossal effort -although a rewarding one- in terms of searching references and creating an appropriate graphic atmosphere. Being myself a maniac of documentation and historical coherence in the silliest details – a car seen in such and such a scene, a magazine cover, the inside of a subway car of NYC in 1984… – and with the level of detail with which Ted elaborates his scripts, the work was simply exhausting.
This “I have lost all my energies and skills” lasts usually for some months for me. But in this case, aggravated by personal trouble, it took around three years until, in February 2013, I received a message from Ted that rang a bell in my brain.
“I have an idea for a new graphic novel.
The book is about a washed up reporter/war correspondent who is largely out of work because newspapers and magazines are all going under and slashing their budgets and closing their foreign bureaus. (…) A wicked take on the state of the media, the collapse of the economy, the Internet, the nature of warfare, etc.
Of course I was interested!!! So I climbed aboard, never imagining that I was embarking on a 6-year-152-pages-task.
First discussions were about what style would match better the story. I am always experimenting with new things, changes of style, attempts at evolution. At that time I was trying out a style that was not as realistic as “The Year of Loving Dangerously”…
… nor as dark as “Bluesman”.
I was looking for something more schematic, that synthesised reality in order to, without losing realism, give it a more “cartoonish” touch that would fit better with Ted’s satirical-cynical writing.
Ok, so we have the style… What about the main character? How should Mark look? He was a guy in his late 40s/early 50s, a little rattled by life but still in the mood, a bit cynical but still confident in himself and his ability. Someone just like Robert Redford in “All the President’s Men” or maybe Nick Nolte in “Under Fire”.
But there was something that didn’t fit the “schematic” style I was looking for. Also, it was necessary to reflect the passage of time – decades – as we told Mark’s story. An obvious recourse would be to make the protagonist’s hair greyer, so he needed to be dark-haired.
So I switched to a most modern look, dark hair and gray temples. Got it!
Discussing with Ted a cast if “The Stringer” were a movie, I see Ben Affleck as Mark. Ted’s betting more on George Clooney, who’s not bad either.
Anyway, Ben or George: if you’re reading this, know that we’re counting on you for the role of a lifetime 🙂
Thank you for reading. More to come on the creative process of “The Stringer” in the next days.
On Wednesday, October 7, 2020 at 6:30 PM, WILLIE NELSON: A GRAPHIC HISTORY writer T.J. Kirsch will be doing a live video Q&A with the fine people from Fantom Comics. Mark your calendars, and be ready with your questions!
Here is more info from Fantom Comics…
“We’re doing another comic creator event for your enjoyment. We’ll be talking to cartoonist T.J. Kirsch about his work; in particular about his newest project Willie Nelson: A Graphic History, in which he teams up with several other artists to tell the story of this country music icon from Hill County, Texas.
T.J. Kirsch is also the creator of Pride Of The Decent Man, a story with an episodic plot about a man from an abusive household who tries to lead a straight and narrow path, and his friend who always pulls him in the opposite direction and into significant trouble.
If you would like either of these books, please contact us at FantomHQ@fantomcomics.com or call during business hours at (202)-241-6498.“