Chris Schweizer’s Paper Nativity Informational Notes: Part 2

Over the next month, Chris Schweizer will be offering thoughts on the Nativity set model (a large papercraft crèche) mentioned last week that you can find and download here:

https://gumroad.com/l/ThkR

Rather than run it everyday Chris has given us permission to run it every few days.

Advent Calendar Day 5: Shepherds

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Shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night, tell us something important:

Christ’s birth, according to the story told in the Bible, WASN’T in December.

Or, at least, that was the reasoning used by the early Church when they attempted to peg down the likeliest date for Christ’s birth, with most of the notables pushing for a March, April, or May birthday: the lambing season.

So why the later move to December 25? The popular theory is that it was a deliberate attempt by the church to co-opt the many pagan festivals that occurred during this time, as many cultures had solstice celebrations when the day was at its shortest. But while the church DID appropriate those festivals, and while the church would certainly do this on later occasions – Valentine’s Day, for instance – that wasn’t the motive with Christmas, just a happy byproduct. Many of Christmas’s trappings (Trees and greenery, ec) stem from pagan celebratory practices, but the Dec 25 date precedes the Gregorian method of conversion by cultural appropriation, and is rooted in the idea that Jesus’s conception was the same date as his crucifixion, the latter erroneously calculated by the second/third century Christian author Quintus Tertullianus as March 25th.

I’d usually be wary of this theory of the Christmas date motive because when it is proffered it’s mostly by Christians intent on trying to dissociate Christmas from any pagan roots, or, worse, December 25th literalists, and almost any time Christian apologists latch on to a school of thought that supports a theologically rigid but fragile position it’s an immediate red flag on its academic validity (just ‘cause of a terrible, terrible track record). But the annunciation (conception) argument has one REALLY big thing going for it:

The split in dating between the Eastern and Western churches.

Eastern churches, at least as far back as the mid-300s, have their annunciation and crucifixion dates set not at March 25 but on April 6th/7th, thereby putting their Christmas at January 6th.

I’d lay money that the Eastern crucifixion date precedes the annunciation one, since the crucifixion date has a deductive starting point in the Gospel of John, whereas the annunciation/birth dates are 100% guesswork. If the Easterners ran the same place-the-annunciation-at-the-crucifixion-date play that the Westerners did, and that seems to be the case, then that offers the simple motive of dating Christmas nine months later, rather than assigning it to coincide with pagan festivals.

That said, Christmas as a religious holiday certainly benefitted from its alignment with existing festivals, using them as a back door for doctrine and worship in the public sphere.

Anyway, back to the shepherds. Watching their flocks in springtime, probably.

When Penny was two, we got her a Fisher-Price “Little People” Nativity set and I was astounded that it came with no shepherd. Multiple animals, three kings, an angel, and the Holy Family, but no shepherd. And that really rubbed me the wrong way. I can’t imagine that the folks at FP are pushing a theological agenda, but I didn’t care for the message created by the absence. The only folks on hand in the set to pay liege to the Christ child are kings and an angel of God, the cream of the social crop. Four “haves”, no “have nots.”

The shepherds, the first to be alerted to lil’ Yesu’s presence, are, to me, an extremely important symbolic element of the Christmas story. They showcase that Christ’s kingdom is first and foremost for the downtrodden, the meek, the poor, all those folks mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount. Though there are plenty who jump through theological hurdles to try and disenfranchise the disenfranchised (even with shepherds, I’ve seen suggestions that the shepherds in the story were extra special fancy super-shepherds, in charge of temple sheep intended for sacrifice and therefore of high station in their field and community, not common rabble), populism is central to the Christ narrative and, in my view, the Christian faith. That shepherds and kings (we’ll get into the kings later) are both humbled and awed by the presence of Jesus puts them on the same footing. They are made equals (right here in the corporeal world, no less!) by the God-child’s arrival.

As someone who’s placed a lot of emotional stock in fairness since I was a wee one, I love the equalization that the shepherds represent in the narrative.

Advent Calendar Day 6: Stable Boy

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Though I’ve never seen it played this way, I would expect that Mary and Joseph wouldn’t be the only out-of-towners in for the census, and surely not the only ones for whom the inn had no room. Were I to tackle a Nativity story, I’d make the stable a crowded, dirty, and possibly dangerous place, with lots of folks from all over huddled in against the elements and the dangers presented by sleeping outdoors in an urban environment. Part of this would be thematic, but it would also be a logical bend to swing.

A small town might be a trusting town when it comes to known neighbors, but with a big influx of strangers even the most welcoming sorts would likely take precautions against the troubles that might accompany anonymity – a stranger who knows not to whom an ox belongs might feel no guilt were he to contemplate stealing that ox from its nameless owner, or so might the owner assume. To that end, it seems likely that whomever owned or managed the stable might’ve employed a rough-and-tumble teenager to sit watch at night as deterrent to anyone who might make use of Bethlehem’s sudden and temporary population surplus.

I’ve never encountered a stable boy in a Nativity narrative, but that doesn’t mean there oughtn’t be one. Mine isn’t much moved by the events going on; he just wants his shift to be up so he can blow his wages on some rad sandals.

Advent Calendar Day 7: The Heavenly Host

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I wrote up my reasoning behind the design of the archangels back on day 4, but I ought to elaborate on why I picked four (three of whom are shown together here):

It’s because I’m lazy.

I’ve heard the four-archangel number thrown around since I first became interested in this stuff back in college. Four is an absolutely fantastic number when it comes to an ensemble, especially if the personalities vary drastically, which I expect they would here. Three is great if you have a protagonist and side characters, but if you want narrative equality amongst your group with the lean efficiency of a minimal group dynamic, four is the ideal; it’s why I use a gang of four in the Creeps books.

The Catholic Church only recognizes three (the ones pictured in the middle here): Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, the only ones mentioned by name in the canonical scriptures. But Raphael’s mention, in the Book of Tobit (recognized in orthodox Christian traditions but not officially in Judaic ones), says “I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand ready and enter before the glory of the Lord.” So where does four come from?

Angel stuff is all over the place in the Bible, and extra-Biblical sources. These four come from our earliest (and richest source) of angelography, the Book of Enoch. Enoch wasn’t canonized as part of the old testament/Tanakh (the primary conflict in its inclusion probably the then-radical notion that angels might rebel against God), though it WAS widely read and oft-cited (it’s quoted in Jude and mentioned in the non-canonical Epistle of Barnabus), and has informed much of the theology and myth that surround angels.

So you could go with four, or seven, or ten, or one (the generally accepted possibilities), but like I said, four has the best and most convenient narrative possibility, and that’s where I like to set my tent. Uriel, of course, isn’t on hand; he’s spiriting John away.

Seraphim

Seraphim are a class of angel mentioned in Enoch (surprise!), Isaiah, and Revelation, and their name means “burning ones,” so I drew ‘em as angels by way of the Human Torch. They’re described as having six wings (one pair to cover their face in the presence of God, the other their feet, ‘cause feet are dirty).

Art note – I drew the angels in pen, but did color holds on the seraphim in the computer to turn the line art red for the first row and orange for those in the back. I then watercolored the color-printed line art. I’m happy with the results and will likely employ them in the future.

Cherubim

The blue cherubim (the plural form of cherub, culturally recognized as chubby nude babies with feathery wings) are described in Ezekiel. Six-winged again, though since “feet” is sometimes a biblical euphemism for private parts I hedged my bet and threw their middle pair at crotch-level. The four animal faces (ox, eagle, lion, and man) come from a popular assumption that the four cherubs seen by Ezekiel are the four “living creatures” described by John R in Revelations are the same quartet.

Now, these may seem like unusual angel drawings, but I’m actually playing it pretty conservatively; I’m leaving out the whole covered-in-eyes thing and I’m not making hands grow out of anyone’s armpits. There’s only so much one can do design-wise before you completely sever the connection between subject and audience, and I feel like I pushed these as far as I could go without doing so.

Advent Calendar Day 8: The Ox and Ass

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onnThe Ox and the Ass are staples of art and song, but if we stick to the Biblical birth stories, we find them noticeably absent.

We could argue the chicken/egg thing with a lot of the Nativity characters so far as whether their narrative presence was interpreted symbolically, or if they were a part of the narrative BECAUSE they served a symbolic purpose, but with these two barnstormers it’s clear: their presence is entirely symbolic.

The ox and the ass (I know the cutout says “donkey”; that’s a concession for any beleaguered Sunday School teachers who would otherwise have to contend with the continual readings of rapscallious eight year-olds eager for a language loophole) represent Jews and Gentiles, respectively. The Ox, a cloven-hoofed creature that chews cud, is clean by the legal standards, a Jewish animal, good for eatin’ and sacrificin’. The ass, with its equid hoof, is not, and thus represents the Gentiles.

The push on the part of early Christians Peter and Paul to unexpectedly promulgate Christianity outside the confines of Judaism was a HUGE deal for the religion and for history (by permitting cultures to maintain their existing cultural practices, the belief system became hyperdisseminatable). So backdating that move symbolically to the time of Christ’s birth allows for a later staple of the Christ narrative to find presence at its beginning (there will be a couple of other examples of that exact same thing with other characters)*.

In any case, this symbolic representation of these two groups, worshipping baby Jesus in miniature, also gives us a very creative interpretation of Isaiah 1:3. The Book of Isaiah (part of the Old Testament/Tanakh) is viewed through a Christian lens primarily as it relates to Messianic Christ via prophecy, but 1:3 (“The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib, but Israel doesn’t know me; my people don’t comprehend”) isn’t prophetic in the least, it’s just a flowery gripe, UNLESS you assign prophecy to it after the fact once the symbols (probably purloined from the verse in the first place for art dating back as far as the 300s) are part of the story. There’s a long tradition of people of faith reinterpreting existing scripture to meet the spiritual needs of their time and the changes that their world has necessitated, and the ox and ass serve as a reminder not only of the embrace of cultural pluralism by the early church but of how sacred texts are ever-evolving things, not in their content but in how that content is perceived.

*In that tying-later-stuff-to-the-beginning vein, I’m actually really bugged that there’s not a non-canonical infant gospel in which baby Jesus spits a seed from whence grows the tree that will be used to make the cross. Come on, Gnostics, you really dropped the ball with that one. Or maybe they didn’t. Does that one exist? I hope so.

Advent Calendar Day 9: The Retinue of the Magi

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We Three Kings, right? The Gospel of Matthew neither gives them number or royal status. This is one of the most widespread examples of cultural tradition taking hard root in the religious consciousness. Most folks who have studied the Bible know this, but still have no problem with the kings being a standard part of the Christmas narrative. Which (if you haven’t caught on to my leanings over the past few days) is a great thing, in my book. It’s important, I think, that religious folk recognize that much of the narrative we associate with the Bible stems from a long tradition of interpretation and addition (not even a post-Biblical thing; folks in the Bible itself do this throughout when addressing earlier scripture) rather than cold reading. The acceptance of the three kings shows that even those who subscribe to strict literalism (itself, despite protestations, built on codified interpretation) are willing to concede to scriptural divergence when properly acclimated (I’ve never known a literalist who protested the inclusion of three kings in a Nativity scene unless he or she was a hardnosed iconoclast across the board, objecting to crèches in their entirety).

So why three? Well, three gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) are mentioned by name, so associating each with a specific giver is as good as theory as any other, and the only one whose genesis is scripture-specific, leading to widespread acceptance in Christian circles. But there are plenty of traditions dating back to the early days of the Church that give different numbers, the most popular being twelve, accompanied by a small army of attendants, students, and guards, their movement being notable enough to require royal permission to travel through Judea, hence the court with its king, Herod the Great.

Had I not been lazy, AND unwilling to outnumber the lowly with the high-born out of concerns mentioned in the shepherds write-up, I’d have opted to make nine additional magi to accompany the kings; as it is now, I offer four, totaling the number of Magi at seven, an unpopular but existing grouping probably rooted in a misreading by 12th century college professor/theologian Peter Comestor of the histories of Josephus in which seven nobles are said to rule in a sort of loose parliamentary system in conjunction with Darius of Persia, interpreted by Comestor as wise advisors, ostensibly setting precedent for a standing council of seven magi. Since the general consensus of early theologians was that the magi were Persian, this is better reasoning than some theories, and it lets me get away with drawing five fewer magi.

Over the centuries, the assumed regional origin of the magi has slowly spread from Persia to Yemen and Babylon to ever-reaching expanses southward and eastward, encompassing Arabia, Central Africa, India, and, most recently, the Far East. Depictions of Caspar as a Southeast Asian have skyrocketed over the last decade or two, part of a longstanding tradition of using the magi to insert more ethnic diversity into the Christ narrative. Those who think that shoehorned diversity in existing narrative franchises is a recent movement are clearly ill-informed, as nativity art has been doing it for centuries upon centuries as the “world” has expanded outward.

The four here are from India, Ethiopia, China, and Persia, attempts on my part to round out the more specific regional origins sometimes assigned the magi but less in keeping with traditional representation of the three popular named kings of western tradition. Also a gifts-and-studies-laden camel, and a camel driver with a mount.

Smash Pages Q&A: John Arcudi on Country Blues

The other night I discovered that John Arcudi had a great love of country blues, dating back several years. As a result I decided to interview him about the topic. Please enjoy.

Tim O’Shea: What made you initially attracted to country blues as opposed to other musical genres?

J0hn Arcudi: Well, obviously I listen to all kinds of music, but my intro to the country blues was R. Crumb’s card set from the 80’s. I was working at a comic shop and it was difficult to ignore the amazing portraits. That led me to seek out the Yazoo CD’s and I fell in love with the music. It wasn’t until a few later that I really went nuts and sought out some of the more obscure artists (Sylvester Weaver, Blind Blake, Washington Phillips, etc) and really put together a collection.

Can you name some of your favorite musicians?

fff3Charley Patton, Barbecue Bob Hicks, Gus Cannon, Blind Willie McTell (anybody who reads Lobster Johnson may have already figured that out), Frank Stokes, and — while he’s not exactly a blues musician — Blind Willie Johnson is pretty incredible! Oh, and there’s something wrong with you if you don’t like Leadbelly. But that’s a just a few.

Do you listen to music as you write?

Nah. Can’t do it. When I listen to music, I listen to it, y’know?

What about Sylvester Weaver, Blind Blake, Washington Phillips, appeal to your musical sensibilities?

Well, Blind Blake and especially Sylvester Weaver were virtuoso musicians, so I’d like to think anybody would be helpless before them, but Washington Phillips is another story. Not to say he couldn’t play, because he could, but it’s his voice! That odd and almost sweetly haunting singing. And the songs he sang are equally magnetic. Phillips performed Sacred Music, which is frequently inspiring and uplifting, but Phillips wasn’t that exactly. It sounds almost like an injured angel singing.

Please enlighten us about the Lobster Johnson connection

I gave the “Harry” character (who previously had no last name) the surname “McTell.”

Do you ever go to venues to see music.

Not as much as I used to, which was all the time, but I get out when I can because there is NOTHING in the world like live music!

Lovern Kindzierski Looks Back at P. Craig Russell 2002 Spectre Colored Covers

You cannot be more understated than what colorist Lovern Kindzierski said the other day.

And then there were the Craig Russell Spectre covers I coloured.

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One of my favourite Craig Russell covers! I love playing my colours off of a stark white.

 

 

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Craig Russell, orange and me!

 

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Craig Russell and me-self muddling about with that Spectre fellow.

 

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I hope this Craig Russell / Lovern Kindzierski piece doesn’t bug you.

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Colorist Elizabeth Dismang Breitweiser Reflects on Her Work

I recently had the good fortune to catch colorist Elizabeth Dismang Breitweiser as she was reflecting upon recent work while on Facebook.

Continue reading “Colorist Elizabeth Dismang Breitweiser Reflects on Her Work”

Health Status Update for Roger McKenzie

Comics industry veteran Roger McKenzie gave a health update this morning.

So here’s the thing, Peepsters: I’m off to the hospital in a few minutes for Procedure 2 (of 3!) Vascular surgeon will be working on my left leg today. The triple by-pass (as yet unscheduled) will be Procedure 3!

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Update December 8

So here’s the thing, Peepsters: I’M FREE! I gave the nurses my “evil scowl” and they cut me loose about 5 pm! Got home had supper, petted the dawgies, and laid around feeling very tired. Now it’s almost 8 here and I’m ready for bed!

The doc said my leg artery lading to my left foot was 90% blocked! Yeesh! No wonder my foot wouldn’t heal! But the procedure went fine, and I expect to be back here pestering everybody tomorrow! But I did want to pop on here and, very sincerely, thank you, one and all, for the thoughts, prayers, well wishes, and humorous remarks. They make a big difference, believe me. Besides, like I ALWAYS say, Peepsters are the BEST!

Latest update

So here’s the thing, Peepsters: Sometimes things happen. And you hit an unexpected bump in the road. It has become obvious my right foot wound is getting worse. And now we know why. Some of the hardware put in–screws and pins and plates–which held together my broken ankle bone are now rubbing the sore spot from the inside out. In fact, part of the metal plate is visible now.

Soooooo…it’s back to the hospital for me…maybe as early as this Friday…for another operation. This time to remove the hardware in my ankle.

And so it goes.

December 11 update

I’m back home…cyborg hardware removal went very well! Back in a cast for the immediate future with limited mobility as foot/ankle heal up.

But doing A-OK! No pain. But plenty of gain. I can’t thank you all enough for your kindness, prayers, and best wishes! They mean a lot to me! Now I’m gonna go lie down…

David Chelsea’s ‘Are You Being Watched?’ on Tumblr

Earlier today David Chelsea announced he was putting Are You Being Watched? on Tumblr.

It’s the same story I’ve been serializing on Patreon since July, but in an archive that you can click straight through without having to go back to the home page after each installment.

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Chris Schweizer’s Paper Nativity Informational Notes

Over the next month, Chris Schweizer will be offering thoughts on the Nativity set model (a large papercraft crèche) mentioned last week that you can find and download here:

https://gumroad.com/l/ThkR

Rather than run it everyday Chris has given us permission to run it every few days.

Day 1: Marymar

My version of Mary is influenced by The Gospel of the Origin of the Blessed Version and the Childhood of the Savior, now generally known as The Gospel of Psuedo-Matthew, written in the early 7th century for a Christian community clamoring for Jesus prequels, and from the Protevangelium, written about fifty years after the Gospel of Luke was laid down. Both were important sources for medieval sacred art.

Mary is was the only daughter of Joachim and Anna, two extremely righteous people who found themselves childless in middle age. Despite his piety and charity, Joachim (much like Job) was suspected of wickedness by his neighbors, here because God had opted to refuse them children. We see echoes of the many other late-in-life-miraculous pregnancies in the Bible here, as their prayers are answered, and Anna becomes pregnant with Mary.

They dedicate Mary to the temple where she goes to live and serve, but as she nears menstrual age the temple priests start to fret. She has to leave before she gets her period, which would defile the holy place. So, with much ceremony to determine a match suitable for such a miraculous child, the priests arrange an engagement between twelve-year-old Mary and Joseph, at whose home she goes to live until she reaches fourteen, at which point their marriage will be consummated.

Now we get to the canonical Gospels, and Mary receives word from the angel Gabriel that she will be with child from the Holy Spirit.

Her soul doth magnify the Lord, yeah, but she’s also barely a teenager and I expect that the attention of the visitors is a little overwhelming, so I drew her curled up, trying to process the magnitude of the whole thing.

Advent Calendar Day 2: Josephjoey

This version of Joseph is influenced by the Gospel of James, or the Protevangelium, written about 60 years after the Gospel of Matthew, and he was probably created/developed in order to support the pet theory on the part of some early Christians that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life. There are a few bits of scripture that run afoul of this concept, but outside of semantic wording there’s still a really big obstacles on this notion: Jesus’s brothers and sisters.

Centuries later there have been plenty of other explanations proffered, but the easiest one (and the one latched on to by early adherents) was that Joseph had been married before he was engaged to Mary, and that the six siblings of Jesus mentioned in the New Testament –Simon, Joseph Jr, Judas (a different one), James, and two unnamed sisters (do they number two in the gospels? I can’t remember, but the plural “sisters” means at least two) – are technically Mary’s stepchildren.

So here’s the story: The priests at the Temple know Mary needs to get married off, but because of the special circumstances surrounding her birth they want to make sure that whatever match occurs is good in the eyes of God. So they summon all of the bachelors in good standing (Joseph, at this point, is a widower), and perform a ceremony to try and discern who God would wish to be Mary’s husband. Joseph goes out of religious obligation, but doesn’t really want to be there. He’s old in his own eyes. He’s had a happy marriage and he misses his wife and he has a bunch of kids, some of whom are already grown, and he doesn’t want to be an old dad with a wife not much older than his youngest child. So he just pays lip service to the ceremony and when all the men are supposed to present their staffs he keeps his at his side. Nothing happens, and the priests do the ceremony again (“we’re not leaving here ‘til God gives us a sign”). One notices that Joseph is basically lip-synching, and they insist he participates. When he does, a dove flies over and lands on his staff.

So Joseph is stuck. He doesn’t want to marry this kid, but the priests insist that it’s his religious obligation.

In some later versions of this story, Mary comes to live at Joseph’s home during the engagement (not unlikely; she wouldn’t have been able to continue living at the temple), learning to run the household and helping to raise (babysit) James, a few years her junior.

Now we get to the Gospel version, which I think finds greater depth via the prequel-reluctant-husband story.

Joseph is engaged to Mary and discovers that she’s pregnant. And he chooses to quietly divorce her (the marriage is pretty much in play once the engagement is solidified; it’s the consummation that finalizes it, held off in this instance because of Mary’s youth) rather than make public her condition or insist on punishment.

Joseph has always been my favorite character in the Bible, and it’s because of this. Even before the story has him learning of the divinity of her pregnancy, he harbors no ill will to her, no desire to reclaim honor by vengeance, no chastisement, nothing of the social barbarity (by our/my standards) that speaks to the time and place and culture from whence he sprung. And from the time I was a kid, I found more nobility in that than near on anything else in the whole book.

The version of Joseph espoused by the early church may have been crafted to explain this calm and measured and merciful side, much at odds with his legalistic predecessors. Joseph is older, so he has the wisdom of experience to recognize and forgive youthful mistakes. He has children, so the usurpation of his bride’s babymaker by another sire doesn’t threaten his bloodline. From a pragmatic fatherly standpoint, his teen biological sons may be at risk of fatal punishment were they suspected of the adulterous union, the most likely paramours given household proximity. And Joseph was a reluctant bridegroom in the first place, so he would likely see Mary’s pregnancy as a blessing, a means by which to remove himself from the engagement through no abandonment of responsibility on his part.

In The Gospel of Matthew Joseph is told in a dream that Mary’s pregnancy is divine, and that God wishes him to wed her.

Though some dogma insists that Joseph was wholeheartedly faithful in his belief of this (there’s even a school of thought championed by St. Thomas Aquinas in which Joseph never suspected any hanky panky and knew that Mary could only have conceived divinely and that the divorce was because he thought himself unworthy, which is such a stretch as to boggle my noggin), but I like reflecting on the perpetual doubt that Joseph must have felt. I prefer my religious figures humanized, and Joseph is at his most admirably human when he discards suspicion, and it doesn’t matter whether that acceptance is rooted in fervent belief or simply the possibility of that belief. That he opts to wed, that he chooses to raise the child as his own, this is the first example we get of the direction that the New Testament will take, this sense of throwing off the legalism of the previous generations for the love and mercy that will be at the heart of Christianity.

My version here has a super fancy staff, much grander than his station would suggest, that I figure he might have made himself as a hobby project, because, you know, carpenter.

Advent Calendar Day 3: James

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James, as depicted here, is Joseph’s youngest biological son, still part of his household, and, as such, likely to have traveled with them to Bethlehem. I have him gathering firewood, as I assume he’d have been the one to run errands, get food, etc, as Joseph stayed near Mary for the sake of both safety and propriety.

In church and narrative tradition, James serves as a counter to Paul in the early church, treating Christianity not as a new religion but as a sect within Judaism. He and Paul are at odds over whether Christ’s message is for the Jews or for the entire world. The apostle Peter serves as their negotiator, espousing a middle path of compromise. James, in a dual role a high priest of the temple AND a bishop of the early Christian church (not, at the time, conflicting stations) serves as a kind of Chief Justice for early church decisions, and accepts Paul’s dogma-shattering recommendation that gentile converts needn’t behave according to Jewish social contract, but with the caveat that certain other behavioral law be implemented.

It’s James, I think, from whom we get the legalistic tradition of Christianity, at least symbolically. Sure, any religion is going to codify behavioral principles over time, but James’ influence directly steers the notion of distinct cultures maintaining their practices in full while still converting to this new faith into what we instead eventually get, which is the desire on the part of the church that the faithful homogenize into the existing Christian culture. I don’t know if this is a widely-held view, or if it’s held at all, but it’s my take on the fella.

Advent Calendar Day 4: Uriel and Lil’ John the Baptist

day 4Jesus’s cousin John, who will later grow up to be the wild-eyed desert mystic and prophet of the Gospels, is probably about six months older than Jesus, and thus presented a problem for theologians who accepted the version of events in which Herod ordered the slaughter of all Hebrew children under the age of two (a deliberate echo by the writer of the Gospel of Matthew to Pharaoh’s edict thirteen hundred years earlier). Why wasn’t John killed?

The story that evolved was that he was spirited away to join the Holy Family whence they had fled in Egypt, and the vehicle of his deliverance was the angel Uriel. You can see a version of this story in the DaVinci painting “Virgin of the Rocks.”

Uriel is, according to Rabbinic tradition, one of the four archangels (the four that we’ve culturally come to accept are Uriel, Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael, listed by name in the Book of Enoch, composed between 100 and 300 BCE).

Angels are tricky. We often take “Messenger of God” mentions as being angels, though context makes it unlikely that they looked inhuman, and rarely is there anything contextual (though theologically there is opposition to this idea) to conflict with the idea that the messengers ARE men, used by God for His purpose. When angels are identified as angels and described, often in the apocalyptic genre with books like Daniel and Revelations, man, they are out there.

Uriel here takes his design partially from Daniel 10 (dressed in linen, belt of gold, eyes like torches, face like lightning, skin like burnished bronze) and partially from Ezekiel, where I pulled the four-faces thing (though this springs up in plenty of other books and in other forms). I gave him human feet instead of calf hooves, though.

Lil’ John here hints at his future in the wilderness, with his filthy matted hair and casual feral nudity.

Smash Pages Q&A: Alex Robinson on Top Shelf’s ‘Our Expanding Universe’

cvrThis week marks the release of Alex Robinson’s Our Expanding Universe. The master cartoonist behind Box Office Poison, Tricked, and Too Cool to Be Forgottenis back! Our Expanding Universe, the new graphic novel from Alex Robinson, is available now. Click here for a preview by Top Shelf, to mark the release I interviewed him.

Tim O’Shea: Box Office Poison is a classic; that being said do you ever tire of people measuring your work against BOP.

Alex Robinson: I’ve come to accept the fact that if anything is going to be on my tombstone it will be that book. Of course it’s a mixed bag having your oldest work be the one people are most familiar with but I’m going with the more positive interpretation that I’m fortunate that something I created stuck a chord with readers.

In many ways it feels like Box Office Poison was done by a different guy, which, in a way, it was since it’s been 15 years since I completed it. When I look at it now one thing I appreciate is my enthusiasm. It was like I said “I finally got a comic book of my very own and this might be my only shot at it so I’m going to squeeze in as much stuff and try as many storytelling tricks as I can.” I’m amazed at the ambitiousness of it but I guess that’s the nature of being young.

What inspired the development of Our Expanding Universe?

The new book is about three guys and how various adult concerns–whether to have children, being in long term relationships (or being an adult who is very much not in a relationship), etc–affect their friendship. It’s not autobiography but it’s definitely inspired by events in my own life, much in the same way Box Office Poison was inspired by stuff I was going through when I was in my 20s.

Prior to this I’d been working on a few projects that, for various reasons, didn’t work out so my confidence was a little rattled. I was really wrestling with what to do next–I even briefly entertained the idea of putting comics aside and writing a proper novel–when the story pretty much came to me fully formed. I remember because I was walking my dog and rushed home to write down the ideas before they disappeared into the ether.

Would you say dialogue is your greatest storytelling asset or is it something else?

It’s definitely one of the stronger tools in my box of comics tricks. I always say I think of myself as a writer who draws, as opposed to an artist who writes and characterization tends to drive the story (as it does in real life, I think). It’s something I’ve really been struggling with because the stuff I like to write–relationships, the give and take of conversation and so on–isn’t neccessarily the stuff I like to draw. If I had my druthers I’d be drawing stuff like my Lower Regions book: pretty lady barbarian fighting monsters, but when I’ve tried writing fantasy stories it’s never worked.

There are definitely some sections of the new book where I tried to accommodate both halves of my brain. I’m toying with the idea of radically our expanchanging my working method and going more “Marvel” style–plotting and drawing the book before I do the dialogue. We’ll see if I have the guts to go through with it or if the results are any good. Would a book not driven by dialogue still have that patented “Alex Robinson feeling?”

Who designed the great cover?

I kicked around some ideas with Chris Ross at Top Shelf. I think I gave him a crude rendering of what I had in mind and he spun it into gold. He did a great job with this and the new cover to Box Office Poison.

full uivDid you ever consider doing this book in full color?

It hadn’t really occurred to me, since I’ve always worked in black and white but you’re actually the second person to ask me that which makes me wonder if there’s been a shift in the industry. In olden times the economics made it pretty much impossible to do an indy color book but that seems to have changed. I can see I’m out of step with today’s comics industry–I still do all my books in old fashioned pen and ink on paper and I think in terms of graphic novels as opposed to the web comics the kids love. If it helps the next story I’m working on would be well-suited to color so maybe I’ll finally make the transition.

I’m not a good colorist but I do love seeing my stuff in color, particularly on a computer screen.

Seeing as you want to draw different material would you ever consider collaborating with someone else?

I’ve collaborated on short stories, usually with someone else writing and me drawing, but the idea of a more serious, long term commitment hasn’t really come up. For one thing, the money in comics is so bad that the idea of splitting what little you do get with someone becomes a practical concern. I also think I might just be too controlling and selfish to really make it viable. I think one of the big appeals of working in the comics medium, especially when I first started, was that one person really could do everything if they wanted or needed to. You could tell the story you wanted to tell and explore ideas you wanted to examine without having to run it by some boss. But who knows, if the right offer came along I would consider it.

SmashPages Q&A: Tim O’Shea on Interviewing Comics Creators

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I first got to know Tim O’Shea in 2008, when he interviewed me about a new blog I had started, Good Comics for Kids. Later on, when I joined the Robot 6 team, he welcomed me warmly and was always quick with a kind word.

Tim blogs here at SmashPages now, but you can find his older comics interviews, as well as his music and other pop-culture writing, at his blog Talking with Tim. When he was diagnosed with brain cancer earlier this year, he asked me if I would be interested in interviewing him, and we spent a lot of time on the phone talking about comics and other matters, including his struggle with depression. This Q&A is edited from those transcripts.

I came to know you as a comics blogger. When did you start reading comics?

The first comic I read was in 1975. It was a Fred Flintstone comic. It was a piece of shit. I hated that I read it and I didn’t read another till 1977. I have read comics ever since on a daily basis.

When did you start writing about comics, and what made you make that transition?

Jennifer M. Contino [the writer for the early comics site The Pulse] had no time to interview Geoff Johns about Stars and Stripes so she said “Could you?” I had never done it, but she said “Give it a try!” David LeBlanc of CBEM [Comic Book Electronic Magazine, a now-defunct website] ran it.

When I realized I was good at writing I started doing it.

Did you ever aspire to make your own comics?

No, because I enjoy comics and I enjoy helping people succeed in comics and I enjoy reading comics. I don’t aspire to do my own comic book, I aspire to help promote people and for people to succeed. All I want is for Jeff Parker to write two titles that can make sure he pays his bills and has time to spend time with his family. I want every single person who wants to be active in comics to be active in comics. I don’t want to be the guy who Tom DeFalco can’t get a job because I am competing with him.

You are particularly known for your interviews. How do you approach an interview? How do you prepare for it? Is there a particular balance of questions you are looking for?

I always go back to past interviews I have done, and I look at Tweets where they have talked about aspects of things. I prepare by doing 10 questions. I say “Once I get you the questions, ignore or revise them to satisfy your needs, because if I am asking you about shit that doesn’t matter to you you are going to talk shit and we are both going to be pissed off.”

The way I do an interview that is balanced is I engage the person in a way that gets them to consider something they hadn’t been thinking of before I told them that. I had an interview with Scott Allie about a Dark Horse issue where Kevin Nowlan was drawing 20 different Murder She Wrote-type characters in this book because that was amusing the hell out of Scott, the writer. All of a sudden I said, “Take out Jerry Orbach, who were the best guest stars on Murder She Wrote?” And Scott said “Well, fuck! Thanks for taking out Jerry. Now we can talk about the others.” The number of people in Murder She Wrote who got blacklisted and couldn’t work for years was astounding.

The way I do an interview that is balanced is I engage the person in a way that gets them to consider something they hadn’t been thinking of before I told them that.

What’s the hardest part?

I didn’t do phone interviews until the past year because my depression made it that I thought I was always going to get facts wrong. When I first started doing email interviews, so many people wouldn’t do them. Then there were a lot of years when nobody wanted to do a phone interview. I have gone through waves of never being able to interview anybody, then everybody wanting to interview me, and now I have a balance. If I can figure out a way to auto-transcribe stuff I will probably go to phone interviews by 2016.

The hardest part is people who will not do an interview with me. Gail Simone. [Tom] Spurgeon has been reluctant to be interviewed by me. Kurt Busiek I would interview every week if I could, but he will interview with me once every blue moon.

Is there an interview, or maybe more than one, that you are particularly proud of?

There are numerous ones, but for now the one that will stand out is the one with Joshua Cotter several years ago where he point blank discussed in detail his depression, because of the number of people that recognize themselves in Josh and because of the number of people that reached out to him. The fact that he took that risk, he changed people’s lives—how can you not be proud of that interview?