Welcome back. Chris Mautner is here today with an excellent, in-depth interview with Bill Griffith about his new graphic memoir, Invisible Ink. This discussion took place at this year’s SPX in Bethesda. Here’s an excerpt:
Chris Mautner: So to start with, this is an image you sent me from a 1974 issue of Young Lust with a page you did where you’re portraying an affair between a cartoonist and a woman. Obviously this is something that had been percolating in your head since you first learned of it. But what was the point where you said, “I have to tell this story, not just come at obliquely, but I have to directly tell my mother’s story?
Bill Griffith: Well the trigger for it was a visit to my uncle. My uncle is my mother’s brother and still alive at 91. Three and a half years ago – this is in the book, this is how the whole thing started – he sent me a letter hinting that he would like me to come visit. And I did. I thought, “He’s getting old, I’m not going to see him a lot in the future and this is a good time to visit.”
In the course of the visit one evening, his wife, my aunt, said, “Do you think your mother ever had an affair with—” … she said a name. And I said, “Not too likely, he was our neighbor. But of course she did have a long affair with Lawrence Lariar.” And both my uncle and my aunt said, “Who? What?” And I explained, and they were kind of OK with it. And I thought, “Wow, I thought they were going to be outraged.” These are conservative people. But underneath all conservative people is a not-so-conservative person and that came out.
I was staying at a hotel nearby. My aunt was very sick, so I didn’t want to stay with them and bother her. So I went back to my hotel that night with this conversation in my head and the book was born in about a four-hour frenzy. I was up ’til three in the morning just scribbling notes, going online, looking up this guy who I had never researched at all. I knew when I was a kid that my mother worked for him as a secretary. And I knew he was a famous cartoonist. But I only had one meeting with him, which is in the book also. So my relationship to him was very slight.
But when I did the research I said, “Oh my god, this guy has done everything in comics”. He worked for the very first comic book, New Fun, in 1934. He had four daily strips. He wrote three how-to-draw cartoon books. He wrote gag cartoons for every magazine from the 1920s to the 1970s – a huge career that’s been completely forgotten. [To audience:] Anybody every heard of Lawrence Lariar? Anybody? [A few people raise their hands.] OK, If this was 1953, you would have said, “Oh yeah, that guy.” He was in Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Look. He was primarily a gag cartoonist. So this book just sort of blossomed out of that meeting with my uncle and aunt.
MOK: Curveball is set in the future, and its protagonist Avery is pining over Christophe, this sailor boy that they like and used to have some kind of a relationship with. Everyone around Avery is kind of nurse-maiding them. When you talk about this age… it seemed strange to me that everyone was catering to Avery and really checking in on them about their heartbreak, because Avery’s pining. I was like, oh, what age is Avery? Their friends, housemates and coworkers are a little older than them, and they’re concerned that Avery is making a mess of theirself. Can you talk about that place in your life, or in Avery’s life?
SORESE: It’s the first attachment in life, where you don’t have the skill set yet that you build up over time from other relationships to rationalize what you’re going through and what you’re feeling. It’s not teenagery, because it’s a first taste that is more substantial than teenagery, the phase where people are like, “This is my soulmate, this is where we’re going to get married, we’re so lucky, I found someone.” And you’re a tiny baby, but you just have to go through that time in your life, and everybody can tell you that it’s going to get better or easier or you’ll meet someone better, and you won’t even care about this person in five or six years. You can’t know that until you actually do it. Avery knows better, and they’re very aware that that they know better, but they can’t emotionally feel that yet, and they have to go through the paces. So the book is a lesson in that, seeing someone have to painfully drag it out of them and then move on.
Soon it was after 11am and I noticed people were shopping now so I had to get out of the way and Connor Willumsen take center field. I’ll tell ya, that kid can draw. Holy smokes. He can draw circles around just about everyone in the game. A natural if I ever saw one. He had his Breakdown Press published, Treasure Island for sale. Both volumes. The green one and the red one. No more rounded corners though on the reprint of issue one. Only collectors like me care or even know what I’m talking about. Sorry. Apparently, number three will be done toute suite. Connor showed me the new stuff he has been working on and suffice to say it is some next level shit. He’s a monster. A very handsome and at times cute and cuddly monster. But a monster all the same. Go find out more about his work here.
I had the pleasure of catching up with the also monstrously talented Aidan Koch. She had original pages from her fantastic book The Blonde Woman for sale as well as alternative versions of her Paris Review cover. “The made me redo it a bunch of times,” she laughed. I bought one of the alternate versions for Nicole Rudick who needs a parade down Fifth Avenue for managing to get stuffy literary types to take a good long look at Aidan’s work. I hear the summer Paris Review issue with Aidan’s cover and portfolio inside was a popular smash hit. Hopefully, Aidan will be the vertical invader we art comics people have all been waiting for. She can invade the literary comics world and teach them comics poetry. If anyone can storm the castle, it’s Aidan. She and Connor made handsome tablemates.
Today on the site: Anne Ishii brings us a valuable conversation with Adrian Tomine about his authorial voice, where he is now in his life and work, and all other things Killing and Dying. Here’s a bit:
Would you say there’s any particularly poignant or frequent criticism you’ve received through consumer-readers (as opposed to say, editors) that has influenced you more profoundly than others?
Oh, where do I begin? I think the first big criticism was the clarity of my influences. Or more specifically, that I was “ripping off” certain artists. And then something that came up later in my career was the sense that I was treading the same path a little too much, writing within too narrow of a scope in terms of tone, characters, settings, etc.Those were probably the most significant ones, and they were points that, on some level, I knew to be valid. And I don’t want to make it sound like I’m patting myself on the back and saying “mission accomplished” or whatever. I know these are ongoing struggles, but it’s definitely helped to at least try to address them head-on.
You’ve written different facsimiles of yourself in the past, so I wonder what you think of the relationship between artist and art, artwork and audience. Killing and Dying is so interesting from the perspective of your oeuvre, because it’s not scenes from a world the reader might ascribe as yours personally, but can you extrapolate on where/when/how did that shift happen, and how you engage yourself with readers as an artist versus as a subject?
A lot of what I was doing with Killing and Dying was a direct response to Shortcomings, and one of the things that I kind of regret about that book was the way I intentionally blurred the line between my own life and the fictional story. Of course for most readers it didn’t even cross their mind, but I know that at least a few people who had been following my work over the years were very interested in how much of that story was autobiographical and how much I was like the main character. And they weren’t curious because they loved that character so much! I ended up feeling like it was a distraction. So withKilling and Dying, I made a conscious decision to write about characters and situations that, at least on the surface, were very different from myself and my life.
I had gotten the impression that, after Jaakko Pallasvuo’s English-language debutSome Approaching End was published in 2011 by Landfill Editions, the artist had abandoned comics to focus on net art. A piece then appeared in Mould Map 2, a text story about browsing the Facebook pictures of an object of fascination. It was easy to view this as a transitional piece: It appeared in a comics anthology, but was not a comic, and it took as its subject the internet’s increasingly primary place in the world, maybe to the detriment of the human, in a way that seemed to cry out to be addressed and worked through further. In the way it only incidentally used that book’s incredibly striking color palette, as a series of overlapping textures to frame a plain-speaking direct address, it paralleled Blaise Larmee’s piece in the same anthology, in which an author stand-in spoke of wanting to quit comics for art, where the critical context would appreciate him more.
Countless comic-book fans, critics, and historians tell the same story about the moment when “everything changed” for the superhero:
Comics finally grew up in the mid-1980s with groundbreaking grim and gritty works like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, two comics that, for the first time, portrayed complex and realistic superheroes.
I’m not convinced, though, that the emergence of psychotic superheroes ushered in an age of psychological realism. While these graphic novels and their offspring deliver a darker vision of heroism and “the hero’s motivation,” they frequently rely on familiar moral dilemmas, stale genre conventions, and worn-out tropes of “superhero grandiosity”: Our metropolis is overrun by villains! The end of the multiverse is near! What great man will rise to save us? While the world of superhero fantasy may be grimmer and grittier than it was in the early ’80s, in many ways it hasn’t changed at all.
A recent Daniel Clowes faux-Batman cover offers a genuinely new version of an old superhero that I find more disturbing and enlightening than the genre’s revisionary classics. Clowes created the drawing for genius designer and mega-Batman fan Chip Kidd, who asked artists to draw the Dark Knight on a page with the Batman: Black ’n White logo.
Good morning, friends. Today we present the final installment of Jeremy Sorese’s five-day tenure at the helm of our Cartoonist’s Diary feature. This one takes place at a relative’s 95th birthday party. Thanks, Jeremy!
We also have two review for you. First, Greg Hunter is back to wrestle with the first issue of Citizen Jack, Image’s new “political satire” from Sam Humphries and Tommy Patterson:
…By the time Jack announces his nominal campaign, the comic has not shared any real indication of his politics. The closest it gets is Jack’s charge that, “Political elites are killing this country,” one of the few things members of both party bases might agree on. Armando Iannucci (Veep, The Thick of It) has included similar ambiguities in his work, and like the comic’s resemblances to some much-loved earlier antihero stories, this would put Humphries and Patterson in good company. Even so, throughout Citizen Jack, the choice plays not like a bucking of politics-as-usual but like an unwillingness to alienate any reader too soon.
Later, via a bland burlesque of cable news, the first issue introduces Jack’s competition, the presumptive nominees of … the Patriot Party and the Freedom Party. Humphries may well have an extensive rationale for this choice, but it reads like still more fence straddling—another feature of a story that services the impulse to say, “Boo! Politics” while seeking to challenge no one.
We also have another debut reviewer (the third this week!), Monica Johnson, who is here to tell us about Maggie Thrash’s Honor Girl, a YA lesbian summer-camp story.
Thrash, a staff writer for Rookie Magazine, is clearly no SVA graduate. But that’s not a dig on her drawing skills. It is just to say that whether she lacks or doesn’t give a crap about slick art-school-style drafting techniques, she’s really a storyteller, and a strong one. Thrash certainly has drawing skills, but they’re her own, and they’re specifically savvy for the story she is telling. Her bare-bones line drawings colored with watercolor pencils seem to be channeled directly from her 15-year-old self. The drawings have the rawness and bright-eyed directness of the teenager depicted in them, who can’t hide behind a catalog of romantic experience and mastery. This is part of the brilliance of the comic medium itself—the way images work in concert with the literal to tell a deeper, much richer story—and Thrash really hits the mark with it. The drawings are so believably vulnerable, which is maybe why her story feels so devastating.
Also, I hope you noticed that Joe McCulloch sneakily returned to his Tuesday Week in Comics! post to add a significant piece on a comic he picked up at CAB, Lilin, an underground Mexican “internet sex” comic from an artist named Mou.
Lilin, notably, is a sex comic in which nobody is ever seen engaging in sex acts with another person; it is very contemporary, then, in its explicit depictions of male and female masturbation, and Lilin, the demon — because who really believed talk of the Grail would be the only pertinent bit of religious lore? — is equally modern in spreading sexually-transmitted diseases over the internet. Her squirt videos somersault into ejaculations of living tar, while the boys develop similar fat pustules on their fapping hands. Everybody is giving birth, and it is these transformations that Mou indulges with his most texture-heavy drawing, dominated by shiny contrasts of solid black against blank white. Eventually, these values come to dominate his pages as Lilin zips up a vinyl bondage uniform and takes to the night to summon her legion, her transcended rank, her animal slaves, unleashed for the symbolic destruction of a convenience store and the murder of everybody present.