Artist Dave Ortega came to comics and graphic novels relatively late but quickly made up for lost time. The Somerville resident’s work has appeared in several comics anthologies and his “Abuela y Los Dead Mexican” was named a notable comic by Best American Comics. He is currently working on a graphic novel about his Mexican grandmother. You will find Ortega at the Institute of Contemporary Art, where he is creating a life-sized comic, from 2 to 4 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 19 and Friday, Apr. 22. Ortega will be talking about how pictures and stories come together in a narrative.
BOOKS: How would you describe yourself as a reader?
ORTEGA: I would say a sporadic reader. If I look at my shelves there are a lot of bookmarks halfway through books. I really like to absorb a book, and I often read three or four books at a time. I’ll have one for my commute, one for right before bed, and one for reference.
BOOKS: What kind of books do you like to read on your commute?
ORTEGA: It has to have a certain rhythm that matches how long you have to commute. Books that move along at a quick pace are usually better suited, but my last one was an anti-commuter book, Cervantes’s “Don Quixote.” Still I was sad to finish it. I can’t remember the last time that happened, maybe when I was a kid with “Charlotte’s Web.”
BOOKS: What are you reading for research?
ORTEGA: I was turned on to Eduardo Galeano by a friend who is a Chilean national and grew up reading his stuff. I’m in the middle of his book “Open Veins of Latin America.” He traces the history of Spanish conquests and their ramifications to today.
BOOKS: Are you drawn to that part of the world in your reading?
ORTEGA: It’s a fairly recent curiosity that came about because of my research into my grandmother’s life. I grew up with stories about my grandmother escaping the Mexican Revolution. As a kid I envisioned something like “The Sound of Music,” with my grandmother running through the Alps. This reading is a corrective. Frank McLynn wrote a book called “Villa and Zappata,” which is a great introduction to the revolution. I’m still trying to get through the exhaustive Pancho Villa biography by Frederich Katz.
BOOKS: Do you read a lot of graphic novels?
ORTEGA: I’m currently reading “The Incal” by the film director Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius, which is the non de plume of Jean Giraud. It’s just a really nice science-fiction escape for me now. I got a ton of stuff like that around Christmas. A friend of mine in Brooklyn, Michel Fiffe, does a series called Copra. He is one of those lucky guys who grew up reading comics, which I didn’t. I just picked up Jordan Crane’s “Uptight.” It’s collected stories about modern day anxiety with some sci-fi mixed in. I love a good sci-fi story. Sci-fi often has allegories about social injustice. It isn’t just an escape.
BOOKS: Are there graphic novelists you wish were better known?
ORTEGA: The graphic novel is enjoying a good moment right now. There’s so much excellent work. Dash Shaw does interesting stuff with color and is a good storyteller. His last was “Doctors.” Kate Beaton’s “Step Aside Pops” is really funny. She draws from pop culture and literary history. She’ll have a four-paneled comic about Jane Austen and then a story about Beyoncé. Some early comic strips are wild with originality, like George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. It’s a testament to Herriman’s genius that stuff he wrote 100 years ago is still fresh today.
BOOKS: Do you have to learn to read a graphic novel?
ORTEGA: I didn’t read my first graphic novel until after I was in college. I made a conscious effort to read Frank Miller’s “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” from beginning to end. It’s gritty, a real critique of the Reagan ’80s. The stumbling block for me was the word balloons. You need to learn to make these relationships between panels and dialogue. My recommendation to anyone is to just sit down and read an entire graphic novel. There’s no shortage of subject matter. Or you can pick up a collection of Krazy Kat strips.
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