Award-winning Village Voice cartoonist M. Wartella has just published a book of his work, Wartella's Strip Show. I picked one up recently at the Comic Arts Brooklyn fest and was impressed, especially by his giddily incendiary "Runnin Scared" pieces, many of which chronicle moments of extreme gentrification in the city.
You'll be able to find the book in stores January 14. Until then, you can view an excerpt here and buy it online here--or get a signed edition on ebay.
I asked Wartella a few questions about his work.
What made you decide to publish a collection of your work and why now?
I needed to unload all this crap! I've been cartooning professionally since I was ten years old, so that's 25 years worth of printed matter that was filling my closets. It was time to set it all free and the amazing guys at Burger Records, an awesome little record label outta L.A., they believed in it and made it happen!
I'm most interested in your Runnin Scared cartoons, since they deal so much with gentrification in the city. They have a busy, jam-packed quality, such a departure from your previous work. How did you decide to go with that style for the themes of Runnin Scared?
I just wanted to do something different! I talk about this a little bit in the book, I was inspired mostly by super-old-school political cartoons like Charles Nast or the original Puck. Most cartoonists nowadays are doing either topical 4-panel strips (like Sutton, Sorensen, or Rall) or those obnoxious one-panel political cartoons like you read in USAtoday or something. But those are drawn so simply, I wanted to draw a complex cartoon with no beginning, middle, or end. Something that felt like a real New York street scene! I even based the drawings on how the locations actually looked at the time, right down to the street signs and characters I saw. Those are real New York Freaks in there!
"Bowery Booms: Whole Foods Grand Opening on the Bowery"
Detail: "There goes the neighborhood!"
Cartoons like Bowery Booms and others are amazing, fully loaded snapshots of moments in time when certain neighborhoods--the Bowery, the High Line--went over the edge into hypergentrification. What are your feelings about what happened to those neighborhoods at that time?
Well, gentrification is a double-edged sword. We all love the gritty city we first fell in love with. But change is inevitable. It's part of life. Some of the conveniences improve a neighborhood, but we definitely don't need more 7-11s. That's SO un-New York!!! Yeccch!
In many of the Runnin Scared cartoons, you've got an old New York character, usually down and out, a bum, wino, or bag lady, sort of caught surprised in the middle of it all. I wondered if that person represented some aspect of yourself?
Yeah, I think you're honing in on something. I do imagine myself as some of the characters. Or I did when I drew them, just watching the scene unfold, brown-bagging it from the sidelines!
"The Great Rock N Roll Swindle: The Gentrification of the High Line Area"
Detail: Lou dreams of luxury
In the Great Rock N Roll Swindle, you depicted Lou Reed as an aged sell-out dreaming of Starbucks and Chanel. Did this represent your feelings about him at the time, or a vision of the future?
A little of both, actually. I felt really bad about that cartoon after I drew it because it really painted Lou as a sell out. I decided after that not to draw mean cartoons ever again. Ha-ha... At the time, we didn't really know what the HighLine Park was going to be like yet, and I kind of feared it might be like an outdoor Chelsea Market. But the HighLine turned out really amazing... I love it! I actually ran into Lou Reed early on during Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti Park, and I chatted with him a bit. He said he saw the cartoon and thought it was funny. He was actually a really nice guy, very loving, beautiful energy.
"Bowery Booms II: Transformation of the Bowery"
Detail: Iggy gets a deal from John Varvatos
The Runnin Scared series is over, but do you ever think of doing more of them? What neighborhoods or scenes do you think deserve the Runnin Scared treatment today?
Well, the series isn't *totally* over, but we're not doing them regularly anymore either. I just haven't had time. But I'm still a VOICE contributor off and on, and I keep a list of potential cartoons in the back of my mind so a never know! There are tons of "Only In New York" scenes constantly unfolding. I already mentioned the Occupy movement, and I could do a whole book just on that. I was actually there on the very first day. What a trip, but no news outlets would cover it for over a month! Can you believe that?
Other scenes I'd love to draw: those kids who dance in the L train subway cars and swing on the poles and shit. They're insane, but great! The annual SantaCon is ripe for the picking, and I remember its origins over a decade ago as the original "Santarchy."
It's New York--there's ALWAYS something interesting going on. That's why I love it.