Take a Road Trip Across America with Cartoonist Lynda Barry in the 90s Documentary, Grandma’s Way Out Party

Who wouldn’t love to take a road trip with beloved cartoonist and educator Lynda Barry? As evidenced by Grandma’s Way Out Party, above, an early-90s documentary made for Twin Cities Public Television, Barry not only finds the humor in every situation, she’s always up for a detour, whether to a time honored destination like Mount Rushmore or Old Faithful, or a more impulsive pitstop, like a Washington state car repair shop decorated with sculptures made from cast off mufflers or the Montana State Prison Hobby Store.

Alternating in the driver’s seat with then-boyfriend, storyteller Kevin Kling, she makes up songs on her accordion, clowns around in a cheap cowgirl hat, samples an oversized gas station donut, and chats up everyone she encounters.

At the World’s Only Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, she breaks the ice by asking a bearded local guy in official Corn Palace cap and t-shirt if his job is the fulfillment of a long held dream.

“Nah,” he says. “I thought it was a joke … in Fargo, they call it the world’s biggest bird feeder. We do have the biggest birds in South Dakota. They get fed good.”

He leads them to Cal Schultz, the art teacher who designed over 25 years worth of murals festooning the exterior walls. Nudged by Barry to pick a favorite, Schultz chooses one that his 9th grade students worked on.

“I would have loved to have been in his class,” Barry, a teacher now herself, says emphatically. “I would have given anything to have worked on a Corn Palace when I was 14-years-old.”

This point is driven home with a quick view of her best known creation, the pigtailed, bespectacled Marlys, ostensibly rendered in corn—an honor Marlys would no doubt appreciate.

Barry has long been lauded for her understanding of and respect for children’s inner lives, and we see this natural affinity in action when she befriends Desmond and Jake, two young participants in the Crow Fair Pow Wowjust south of Billings, Montana.

Frustrated by her inability to get a handle on the proceedings (“Why didn’t I learn it in school!? Why wasn’t it part of our curriculum?”), Barry retreats to the comfort of her sketchbook, which attracts the curious boys. Eventually, she draws their portraits to give them as keepsakes, getting to know them better in the process.

The drawings they make in return are treasured by the recipient, not least for the window they provide on the culture with which they are so casually familiar.

Barry and Kling also chance upon the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and after a bite at the Road Kill Cafe (“from your grill to ours”), Barry waxes philosophical about the then-unusual sight of so much tattooed flesh:

There’s something about the fact that they want something on them that they can’t wash off, that even on days when they don’t want people to know they’re a biker, it’s still there. And I have always loved that about people, like …drag queens who will shave off their eyebrows so they can draw perfect eyebrows on, or anybody who knows they’re different and does something to themselves physically so that even on their bad days, they can’t deny it. Because I think that in the end, that’s sort of what saves your life, that you wear your colors. You can’t help it.

The aforementioned muffler store prompts some musings that will be very familiar to anyone who has immersed themselves in Making ComicsPicture This, or any other of Barry’s instructional books containing her wonderfully loopy, intuitive creative exercises:

I think this urge to create is actually our animal instinct. And what’s sad is if we don’t let that come through us, I don’t think we have a full life on this earth. And I think we get sick because of it. I mean, it’s weird that it’s an instinct, but it’s an option, just like you can take a wild animal, a beautiful, wild animal and put him in a zoo. They live, they’re fine in their cage, but you don’t get to see them do the thing that a cheetah does best, which is, you know, just run like the wind and be able to jump and do the things… I mean, it’s our instinct, it’s instinctual, it’s our beautiful, beautiful, magical, poetic, mysterious instinct. And every once in a while, you see the flower of it come right up out of a gas station. 

After 1653 miles and one squabble after overshooting a scheduled stop (“You don’t want me to go to Butte!”), the two arrive at their final destination, Barry’s childhood home in Seattle. The occasion? Barry’s Filipino grandmother’s 83rd birthday, and plans are afoot for a potluck bash at the local VFW hall. Fans will swoon to meet this venerated lady and the rest of Barry’s extended clan, and hear Barry’s reflections on what it was like to grow up in a working class neighborhood where most of the families were multi-racial.

“I walked in and it was everything Lynda said,” Kling marvels.


The journey is everything we could have hoped for, too.

Listen to a post-trip interview with Kling on Minnesota Public Radio.

H/t to reader Charlotte Booker

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine – current issue: #63 Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A New Yorker Cartoonist Explains How to Draw Literary Cartoons

“I enjoy poking fun at anything educated people do and civilized society perpetuates that is odd, frustrating, wacky, or hypocritical,” cartoonist Amy Kurzweil, above, recently told the New York Public Library’s Margo Moore.

Unsurprisingly, she’s been getting published in The New Yorker a lot of late.

The process for getting cartoons accepted there is the stuff of legend, though reportedly less grueling since Emma Allen, the magazine’s youngest and first-ever female cartoon editor, took over. Allen has made a point of seeking out fresh voices, and working with them to help mold their submissions into something in The New Yorker vein, rather than “this endless game of presenting work and then hearing ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

Kurzweil has a fondness for literary themes (and the same brand of pencils that John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, and Vladimir Nabokov preferred—Blackwings—whether in her hand or, conversing with Allen on Zoom, above, in her ears.)

Getting the joke of a New Yorker cartoon often depends on getting the reference, and while both women seem tickled at the first example, Kurzweil’s mash-up of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and the picture book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, it may go over many readers’ heads.

The thing that holds it all together?

Madeleines, of course, though outside France, not every Proust lover is able to identify an inked representation of this evocative cookie by shape.

Kurzweil states that she has never actually read the children’s book that supplies half the context.

(It’s okay. Like the idea that memories can be triggered by certain nostalgic scents, its concept is pretty easy to grasp.)

Nor has she read philosopher Derek Parfit’s whopping 1,928-page On What Matters. Her inspiration for using it in a cartoon is her personal connection to the massive, unread three-volume set in her family’s library. Because both the size and the title are part of the joke, she directs the viewer’s eye to the unwieldy tome with a light watercolor wash.

She also has a good tip for anyone drawing a library scene—go figurative, rather than literal, varying sizes and shapes until the eye is tricked into seeing what is merely suggested.

A all-too-true literary experience informs her second example at the 4:30 mark—that of a little known author giving a reading in a bookstore. Despite a preference for drawing “fleshy things like people and animals” she forgoes depicting the author or those in attendance, giving the punchline instead to the event posters in the store’s window.

As she told the NYPL’s Moore:

A cartoon is always an opportunity to showcase a contemporary phenomenon by exaggerating it or placing it in a different context.

Over the last year, a huge number of New Yorker cartoons have concerned themselves with the domestic dullness of the pandemic, but when Allen asked if she has a favorite New Yorker cartoon cliché, Kurzweil went with “the Moby Dick trope, because whales are easy to draw, and I like a good metaphor for the unattainable.”

Related Content:

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

In 1896, a French Cartoonist Predicted Our Socially-Distanced Zoom Holiday Gatherings

Imagine that, this time last year, you’d heard that your family’s holiday gatherings in 2020 would happen on the internet. Even if you believed such a future would one day come, would you have credited for a moment that kind of imminence? Yet our videoconference toasts this season were predicted — even rendered in clear and reasonably accurate detail — more than 120 years ago. “My wife is visiting her aunt in Budapest, my older daughter is studying dentistry in Melbourne, my younger daughter is a mining engineer in the Urals, my son raises ostriches in Batavia, my nephew is on his plantations in Batavia,” says the caption of the 1896 cartoon above. “But this does not prevent us from celebrating Christmas on the telephonoscope.”

This panel ran in Belle Époque humor magazine Le rire (available to read at the Internet Archive), drawn by the hand and produced by the imagination of Albert Robida. A novelist as well as an artist, Robida drew acclaim in his day for the series Le Vingtième Siècle, whose stories offered visions of the technology to come in that century.

“Next to Zoom Christmas,” tweets philosophy professor Helen de Cruz, Robida also imagined a future in which this “telephonoscope” would “give us education, movies, teleconferencing.” As early as the 1860s, says the Public Domain Review, Robida had “published an illustration depicting a man watching a ‘televised’ performance of Faust from the comfort of his own home.” See image above.

Though Robida seems to have coined the word “telephonoscope,” he wasn’t the first to publish the kind of idea to which it referred. “The concept of the device first appeared not long after the telephone was patented in 1876,” writes Verity Hunt in a Literature and Science article quoted by the Public Domain Review. “The term ‘telectroscope’ was used by the French scientist and publisher Louis Figuier in L’Année Scientifique et Industrielle in 1878 to popularize the invention, which he incorrectly interpreted as real and ascribed to Alexander Graham Bell.” The goal was to “do for the eye what the telephone had done for the ear,” though it wouldn’t be fully realized for well over a century. When you raise a glass to a webcam this week, consider toasting Albert Robida, to whom the year 2021 would have sounded impossibly distant — but who has proven more prescient about it than many of us alive today.

via Helen De Cruz

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Dune Graphic Novel: Experience Frank Herbert’s Epic Sci-Fi Saga as You’ve Never Seen It Before

Like so many major motion pictures slated for a 2020 release, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune has been bumped into 2021. But fans of Frank Herbert’s epic science-fiction saga haven’t had to go entirely without adaptations this year, since last month saw the release of the first Dune graphic novel. Written by Kevin J. Anderson and Frank Herbert’s son Brian Herbert, co-authors of twelve Dune prequel and sequel novels, this 160-page volume constitutes just the first part of a trilogy intended to visually retell the story of the first Dune book. This tripartite breakdown seems to have been a wise move: the many adaptors (and would-be) adaptors of the linguistically, mythologically, and technologically complex novel have found out over the decades, it’s easy to bite off more Dune than you can chew.

Audiences, too, can only digest so much Dune at a sitting themselves. “The particular challenge to adapting Dune, especially the early part, is that there is so much information to be conveyed — and in the novel it is done in prose and dialog, rather than action — we found it challenging to portray visually,” says Anderson in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter.

“Fortunately, the landscape is so sweeping, we could show breathtaking images as a way to convey that background.” This is the landscape of the desert planet Arrakis, source of a substance known as “spice.” Used as a fuel for space travel, spice has become the most precious substance in the galaxy, and its control is bitterly struggled over by numerous royal houses. (Any resemblance to Earth’s petroleum is, of course, entirely coincidental.)

The main narrative thread of the many running through Dune follows Paul Atreides, scion of the House Atreides. With his family sent to run Arrakis, Paul finds himself at the center of political intrigue, planetary revolution, and even a clandestine scheme to create a superhuman savior. Though Herbert and Anderson have produced a faithful adaptation, the graphic novel “trims the story down to its most iconic touchstone scenes,” as Thom Dunn puts it in his Boing Boing review (adding that it happens to focus in “a lot of the same scenes as David Lynch did with his gloriously messy film adaptation”). This streamlining also employs techniques unique to graphic novels: to retain the book‘s shifting omniscient narration, for example, “differently colored caption boxes present inner monologues from different characters like voiceovers so as not to interrupt the scene.”

As if telling the story of Dune at a graphic novel’s pace wasn’t task enough, Anderson, Herbert and their collaborators also have to convey its unusual and richly imagined world — in not just words, of course, but images. “Dune has had a lot of visual interpretations over the years, from Lynch’s bizarre pseudo-period piece treatment to the modern televised mini-series’ more gritty interpretation,” writes Polygon’s Charlie Hall. While “Villeneuve’s vibe appears to take its inspiration from more futuristic science fiction — all angles and chunky armor,” the graphic novel’s artists Raúl Allén and Patricia Martín “opt for something a bit more steampunk.” These choices all further what Brian Herbert describes as a mission to “bring a young demographic to Frank Herbert’s incredible series.” Such readers have shown great enthusiasm for stories of teenage protagonists who grow to assume a central role in the struggle between good and evil — not that, in the world of Dune, any conflict is quite so simple.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Comic Book Writer Fred Van Lente Touts “Comic Supremacy” on Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #72

Fred Van Lente has written for more than 15 years for his own Evil Twin Comics, Marvel and other outlets. In this episode of Pretty Much Pop, he joins your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt to discuss comics as an idiosyncratic form of literature.

In the realm of non-fiction, Ryan started with the beloved Action Philosophers! series in 2004 with illustrator Ryan Dunlavey, and this team has gone on to create the very successful Comic Book History of Comics, plus more recently Action Presidents, Action Activists (available free in association with the NYC Department of Education’s Civics for All program), and have just begun releasing The Comic Book History of Animation. While the non-fiction comics format is common in places like Japan, and has a storied history in America, having been used to train soldiers in World War II, this is still something of a novelty in America as comics still struggle to overcome their reputation in (as Ryan puts it) “trash for morons.” Given that visual content is well known to help people learn as compared to text alone, the use of tools like Action Presidents in classrooms shouldn’t be surprising.

The interview also gets into Ryan’s fiction work, from Cowboys & Aliens, which was turned into a 2011 Jon Favreau/Steven Spielberg film entirely without Ryan’s involvement, to titles like Marvel Zombies and X-Men Noir which use alternate dimension versions of popular characters to tell stories too dark and/or whimsical to have much possibility of ever being transferred to the screen. Despite comics’ reputation as being basically like elaborate film story-boards, their low overhead is exactly what distinguishes them so strongly from film: Their creativity is unlimited by budget, and creators can take tremendous risks. Whatever the mainstream palatability of (alternate dimension) Peter Parker eating Aunt May’s brain, this has been one of the most popular things that Ryan’s been involved with among comic book readers.

Learn more about Fred’s work at fredvanlente.com. You can read there about how Fred constructs scripts; the one Mark refers to with the mysteriously changed coat is right there highlighted at the top of this page, and there are also several sample scripts including the one for Action Philosophers: Immanuel Kant that demonstrates Fred’s methods for vividly explaining a complex idea.

Hear more of this podcast at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion you can access by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

An Animated Stan Lee Explains Why the F-Word Is “the Most Useful Word in the English Language” (NSFW)

FYI. The language in this video is not safe for work. And, now, on with the show.

In the last couple years of his life, Stan Lee was ill, his health failing, but he stayed engaged and remained his old wisecracking self. His handpicked successor for editor-in-chief at Marvel, Roy Thomas, tells the story of the last time he saw Lee and showed him his then-new biography of the comics legend, The Stan Lee Story. They talked about the Spider-Man comic strip they’d written together for two decades until a couple years back. Other familiar subjects came and went. Lee “was ready to go” and seemed at peace, Thomas says.

“But he was still talking about doing more cameos. As long as he had the energy for it and didn’t have to travel, Stan was always up to do some more cameos.” Lee’s cameos continue after his death in 2018, as is the way now with deceased icons. He has made three live-action appearances posthumously, in footage shot before his death, one posthumous appearance in an animated superhero film, and another in a Spider-Man video game. Soon, these vignettes may be all popular audiences know of him.

Who knows how much footage–or willingness to create CGI Stan Lees—Disney has in store for future Marvel films. But a memorial in scripted one-liners seems to miss out on a whole lot of Stan Lee. The man could be counted on to make the set on time. (According to Jason Mewes, Lee had dinner with his wife every single night without fail at 6:00 pm sharp.) But he could also be unpredictable in some very delightful ways.

Thomas tells a story, for example, of visiting Lee in the 80s in a California house with marble floors. “At one point he excused himself, and he came back on roller skates…. I’d never seen anyone roller-skating on a marble floor.” The short film above animates another of these unscripted moments, when Lee literally went off-script to deliver an extemporaneous monologue on the f-word. Of course, “I don’t say it, ‘cause I don’t say dirty words,” he begins, before letting it rip in an argument for the f-word as “the most useful word in the English language.”

Lee’s off-the-cuff George Carlin routine rolls right into his reason for being in the recording booth: getting a take of his signature exclamation, “Excelsior!”—the word the creator or co-creator of Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, Ant Man, Black Widow, Black Panther (and most the rest of the Marvel Universe) reserved for emphasis in his heartfelt, wholesome letters to fans over the decades. After he says his catchphrase, James Whitbrook writes at io9, he goes “right back into having a laugh with everyone around him. It’s a lovely, if profane, remembrance of an icon,” and, unfortunately, not the kind of thing likely to make it in future cameo appearances.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Before Creating the Moomins, Tove Jansson Drew Satirical Art Mocking Hitler & Stalin

Much of the world has only recently discovered the Moomins, those lovable hippopotamus-like figures — given, it must be said, to moments of startling brusqueness and complexity — created in the 1940s by Finnish artist Tove Jansson. In forms ranging from dolls and school supplies to neck pillows and cellphone cases, they’ve lately become a full-blown craze in South Korea, where I live. Like any massively successful (and highly merchandisable) characters, the Moomins overshadow the rest of Jansson’s oeuvre. Hence exhibitions like Tove Jansson (1914-2001) at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, which “aims to rectify the fact that less attention has generally been paid to her range as a visual artist.”

That description comes from Simon Willis’ review of the show in the New York Review of Books. “In October 1944, Tove Jansson drew a cover for Garm, a Finnish satirical magazine, showing a brigade of Adolf Hitlers as pudgy little thieves,” Willis writes. These drawer-rifling, house-burning caricatures “were not unusual for Jansson, who had been belittling Stalin and Hitler in the magazine since the early days of World War II.” But “peeking out at the chaos from behind the magazine’s title,” there was also a “tiny pale figure with a long nose”: a proto-Moomin making an appearance the year before the publication of the first Moomin book. (And even he was forged in mockery, having first been drawn by Jansson, so the story goes, as a caricature of Immanuel Kant.)

Having started contributing to Garm, according to the official Moomin web site, “in 1929 at the young age of 15 (her mother Signe Hammarsten-Jansson had worked for the publication since it started),” she kept on doing so until the magazine folded in 1953.

“During that period she drew more than 500 caricatures, a hundred cover images and countless other illustrations for the magazine.” In them, writes Glasstire’s Caleb Mathern, “angels appear on battlefields. Reindeer prepare to rain TNT. An effete, undersized Hitler cries instead of eating slices of cake. Jansson even impugns Stalin’s manhood with an oversized scabbard/undersized sword joke.” To the young Jansson, the best part was the chance, as she later put it, “to be beastly to Stalin and Hitler.”

Even after the success of the Moomins, Jansson continued to draw on the imagery and emotions of war: “The first time we meet young Moomintroll and his Moominmamma in The Moomins and the Great Flood (1945), they are refugees, crossing a strange and threatening landscape in search of shelter. Moominpappa, meanwhile, is absent, as fathers often were during the war,” writes Aeon’s Richard W. Orange. In the next book “the world is threatened by a comet that sucks the water out of the sea, leaving an apocalyptic landscape in its wake.” With the Cold War heating up, the allegory would hardly have gone unnoticed. Like all master satirists, Jansson went on to transcend the solely topical — and indeed, so the increasingly Moomin-crazed world has demonstrated, the boundaries of time and culture.

via Aeon/Moomin

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

What Can Superhero Media Teach Us About Ethics: A Pretty Much Pop Culture Podcast (#63) Discussion with Philosophy Professor Travis Smith

Is there no end to the seemingly endless fascination with superhero media? Your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt are joined by Travis Smith, who teaches political philosophy at Concordia University, to discuss. Travis sees their resonance as a matter of metaphor: How can we do more with the abilities we have? His book Superhero Ethics: 10 Comic Book Heroes, 10 Ways to Save the World, Which One Do We Need Now? matches up heroes like Batman vs. Spider-Man for ethical comparison: Both “act locally,” but Batman would like to actually rule over Gotham, while Spider-Man engages in a more “friendly neighborhood” patrol.  What philosophy should govern the way we try to do good in the world?

Lurking in the background is the current release of season two of the Amazon series The Boys, based on Garth Ennis’ graphic novels, which assumes that power corrupts and asks what regular folks might do in the face of corporate-backed invulnerability. This cynical take is part of a long tradition of asking “what if super-heroes were literally real?” that goes through Watchmen all the way back to Spider-Man himself, who faces financial and other mundane problems that Superman was immune to.

Given Travis’ book, we didn’t really need supplementary articles for this episode, but you can take a look at this interview with him to learn more about his comic book loves and the Canadian heritage that led him to start fighting crime (you know, indirectly, through ethical teaching).

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts

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