Features – The Comics Journal http://www.tcj.com Tue, 27 Jun 2017 19:45:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8 Copyright © The Comics Journal 2011 editorial@tcj.com (Mike Dawson) editorial@tcj.com (Mike Dawson) 1440 http://images.tcj.com/2011/04/tcj_talkies.jpg The Comics Journal http://www.tcj.com 144 144 http://www.tcj.com/feed/podcast/ The Comics Journal podcast TCJ Talkies is a biweekly creator interview podcast hosted by Mike Dawson at The Comics Journal. Cartoonists and other comic book luminaries will stop by the Talkie-Hut and chat about their creative process, motivation, and careers. Comics, cartoonists, The, Comics, Journal, graphic, novels, sequential Mike Dawson Mike Dawson editorial@tcj.com no no A Chat Noir with Graham Chaffee http://www.tcj.com/a-chat-noir-with-graham-chaffee/ http://www.tcj.com/a-chat-noir-with-graham-chaffee/#respond Thu, 15 Jun 2017 12:00:19 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=101202 Continue reading ]]> “I’m a terrible writer, is what it is,” Graham Chaffee tells me—but I don’t believe him. The cartoonist, who spends his days working as a tattoo artist in his Hollywood studio, is being too modest. His fourth graphic novel, To Have and To Hold, is a gut-punch thriller that argues otherwise, proving that Chaffee’s a storyteller who knows how to make the most of his medium. Whether he’s using spoken dialog or intimating a narrative through his character’s gestures, facial expressions, or body language, his work is consistently engrossing.

Set in the early 1960s at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, To Have and to Hold centers on Lonnie, a disgraced ex-cop forced to eke out a living as a night watchman, and his beleaguered wife Kate, whose marriage never served up any of the bliss promised by all those TV commercials and glossy magazine ads. Now the Ross’s life together is etched by petty bickering and smothering resentment. When Lonnie discovers that Kate has been stepping out on him, he reacts in a way that brings their world into chaos and threatens to destroy more than just their lives.

Over the course of 200 chiaroscuro pages, Chaffee puts his spin on the classic heist story through deeply-articulated characters and a black-and-white style perfectly matched to the subject matter. On the one hand, his work captures the visual élan and narrative smack of some of the best classic Hollywood B crime pictures—think 1950’s Armored Car Robbery or 1953’s Crime Wave, while on the other hand it recalls the melancholy bleakness and sophisticated relationship politics of noir writer David Goodis, rather than the cardboard rat-a-tat of Mickey Spillane.

Over the course of several emails, Chaffee and I discussed, among other things, his creative process, the influence of cinema on his work, and the dark side of the promise of prosperity in postwar America. -Mark Fertig

You’re a full-time tattoo artist in Los Angeles. I’m curious about how that job overlaps with your work as a cartoonist. Does your work in one area inform or influence your work in the other, and do you ever struggle to avoid burnout?

Tattooing is restrictive to my work as a comics artist. I am so used to crafting these clean designs with recognized protocols for outline, shading, and color, that it’s hard to switch gears and loosen up as a draughtsman. I fear my comics are more controlled and uptight than I’d like them to be. I’m no Ware or Burns, but I’d like to be even less so: looser, more expressive, more Julie Doucet!

You once described your graphic novels as “paper movies.” The narrative sensibilities in To Have and To Hold are often unmistakably cinematic—even the cover is reminiscent of a vintage movie poster. In what ways do films and filmmaking inform your process?

It’s more that I see the story like a movie in my head. I’m trying to draw the scenes the way I’d shoot them if I had a camera. I watch a lot of movies, but I don’t study specific scenes or shots or anything. This also means I don’t use a lot of narrative boxes or thought balloons—I’m a “show it, don’t say it” kind of guy. My characters run around and do stuff, and you gotta infer their motives and desires from their words and actions, because we’re not going inside their heads. This means a lot of the weight is carried by the actors—their gestures, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and whatnot.

To Have and To Hold is a noir crime story in the classic sense. Does your fascination with noir come just from movies, or are there other sources—pulp fiction, true crime, or other comics and graphic novels?

Hmmm…Well, I read a ton of pulp fiction and detective stories. I love Cain and Thompson and Hammett and Chandler and all that crew—Christie, Sayers, Greene, Highsmith, Doyle—not to mention the Scandinavians… 

But Noir seems more a product of postwar cinema—and I think my noirish influences are more movie-oriented than bookish. I’m never thinking about books or authors when I’m trying to write or draw a scene; I’m definitely moving a camera around in my head.

The Cold War, specifically the Cuban Missile Crisis, is a constant presence in the story. Why did you choose to situate the story in that specific moment in history?

To date, all my stories have taken place in the same imaginary east-coast metropolis and the time is vaguely 60s—that’s a paradigm that just sort of evolved through the various graphic novels. You’ll see the same people and buildings recur throughout my work.

Anyhow, for To Have and To Hold, I needed a realistic news broadcast that could play on the radio or television in various scenes. I found one from October of 1962 and the Missile Crisis was the main story—so I thought, okay: October ‘62—that’s when all this happens. As the plot developed, the Crisis seemed more and more appropriate as a paranoid backdrop for a story with so many tense and unhappy people. So, to be honest, it was a serendipitous sort of accident.

I couldn’t help but grin when I saw your nod to the poster for The French Connection. It’s just one of many cultural references that are peppered throughout To Have and To Hold. What’s behind them? Do you ever worry that they might yank your readers out of the story?  

I’ve been pulling that shit since Big Wheels—I can’t help myself!  Sometimes, I see an image that’s just too good not to include—too inspiring. Like this painting by Millard Sheets:

…or this one by Norman Price, from Treasure Island, which has haunted me since childhood—my French Connection image is my way of giving it a 60s update, while also paying homage to the Friedkin film.

While we’re here, I’d like to point out the closing reference to the closing shot in Psycho:

So, yeah—it’s childish, but whatevs—I look at it this way: anyone who would get these references is likely the sort of person who would enjoy spotting them more than they mind being briefly taken out of the story…at least I hope so.

Your drawings capture the dark moodiness (or is it the moody darkness) that goes hand in hand with noir, while retaining a confident, economical quality that lends itself to this kind of storytelling. Is that something that comes naturally, or did you need to tweak your technique for this project?

It comes naturally. I have always wanted to tackle noir—love the dramatic imagery—my favorite panels are the nighttime shots. It’s a challenge to compose using only black and white. I have become reasonably adept at it, but I’m still far behind masters such as Alex Toth and/or [Epileptic author] David B. In fact, I have recently branched out into gray—which you’ll see in my next book.

Your action sequences are especially vivid, yet so much of the story is told through smaller, often silent panels that rely on facial expression or body language instead of dialog. I’d like to learn more about your process here. Do you work from a tight outline? Are there moments, for example, when you realize a page needs an additional panel, or that a panel is unnecessary?

Good Dog had a typed script, then a fully finished sketchbook layout with lights and darks, before I started the finish art. So I did the whole book three times, which was exhausting and slowed me down a lot. And then Gary [Fantagraphics publisher Groth] told me it was too short for a graphic novel and I had to go back through it and add 30 more pages somehow…

So for TH&TH, I decided to just get into finish art as soon as I could. I plotted the story—the main bits of it—and then wrote the first scene, sketched a layout or two, and jumped into finish art right away.

I kept on that way, writing a page or two ahead of the art and finishing as I went along. I definitely went back and rewrote and redrew stuff as the story evolved—sometimes gluing a new panel over an old one, sometimes replacing the whole page. Sometimes it’s just finding a better image, like here:

…and other times, it was about writing a better scene. Mostly this involved the evolution of Kate, from “cheating wife” to actual person. There’s a scene at the beginning of the book, after Lonnie has learned that he’s been deceived, and he wakes her up to fish for clues. There’s a conversation that amounts to a struggle for moral advantage, which Kate wins by means of a grumpy handjob. I rewrote that sequence twice—and redrew four pages trying to get it right.

The plot of To Have and To Hold is more urgent and straightforward than that of Good Dog or The Big Wheels, with an ending that offers readers plenty of closure. And at 200 pages it’s also a good bit longer. How has working this way been different for you, and is it a direction you think you’ll carry on in the future?

I’m a terrible writer; is what it is. Big Wheels and Good Dog are just sort of: “Okay, it’s 6:00 AM and we wake up…now what?” To Have and To Hold is the first story with a real plot—it was way more work, but now I feel sort of committed to the idea of beginning/middle/end, so I’ll probably keep trying to do it…

The marriage at the center of the story is in awful shape. Lonnie and Kate are bored, bitter, barely getting by, and without children to soften life’s hard edges (though you give us a few glimpses of what their life together was like in younger, happier years). What does their story say about the postwar American Dream?  

Well, it’s the promise of prosperity that fuels Kate’s dissatisfaction, isn’t it? We can see in the flashback panels that she thinks she’s backed a winner. When Lonnie threw his career away, dealing impounded dope with his beatnik friend, she felt gypped. Now they have to watch their expenses; she’s gotta go back to secretarial work to help pay the bills—hardly the fulfillment of the American dream. Tucker, on the other hand, seems like a pretty safe bet: good job, swell dresser, looks a little like Kennedy. If she can’t have the American dream, she can fake it with Tuck, and she’s realistic enough to know that’s about as good as it gets for her.

 

I really enjoyed getting to know Kate; she’s a wonderful character, easily the story’s most subtle and—awful pun completely unintended—fully developed. Was she difficult to write? Is she a femme fatale?

She wrote herself.  Kate started this story as “cheating wife” but I knew as soon as I gave her a line of dialog, that she wasn’t gonna stay there.  Her real breakout came in this scene:

 

Lonnie thinks he’s got her number. He thinks that he’s gonna toy with her and learn the truth, but she shuts him down while still half-asleep and then, when he pushes it, reverses the moral advantage he feels he has and leaves him in no position to question her about anything. Their dialog in this scene told me what my heist story was really about: the slow dissolve of a marriage. Fictional characters (at least my characters) exert a level of independent agency, outside the writer’s control. Once you introduce them, they take on their own personalities and insist on being heard. Kate moved herself out of the fairly insulting role of “protagonist’s object of desire or revenge” to “real person who has her own desires.” The final story is as much about her as it is about him. She has the best lines, too…

 She is not a femme fatale, for all the reasons outlined above. A fatale exists only as an object for the hero to desire/pursue/whatever. They aren’t real people; you have no idea what they like or dislike or want or anything. They’re just there to reflect the hero’s own desires. 

This never happens to a femme fatale:

 

 

To Have and To Hold is dedicated to Eddie Coyle and Popeye Doyle—a worn-out crook and an obsessed cop—two of the early 1970s cinema’s grittiest anti-heroes. Lonnie is cut from the same cloth. What is it about these guys that appeals to you?

Lonnie is one of those guys who is just smart enough to underestimate the people around him—to think he’s got an edge. Feeling like he’s a little smarter than everyone else has given him this frustrated sense of entitlement; he’s his own worst enemy, perpetually biting off more than he can chew.  If he didn’t, there wouldn’t be a story, naturally, so perhaps that’s the appeal.

“The consequences of hubris” is a pretty well established theme, going back past Popeye Doyle to…Oedipus, maybe? Lotta antiheroes in between. Lonnie’s got plenty of company there, wherever he is…

He’s also an ex-soldier and an ex-cop forced into “early retirement,” both of which are familiar noir beats. Nevertheless, To Have and To Hold breaks from that tradition in some fascinating ways. Unlike heist films such as The Asphalt Jungle or even Ocean’s Eleven, it doesn’t waste page after page scouting out the perfect crew or glorifying the details of the plan. Was it important for you to update (or upend) certain noir tropes?

It’s less about upending noir tropes and more about telling a story I like. While I love noir and have always wanted to do a noir story, I wasn’t too concerned with sticking to the rules of the genre. I am not the world’s most original writer, and I knew I was gonna lean on some archetypes and clichés—but I wanted to keep ‘em to a minimum—to make my characters as real as they could be in this absurd situation I created for them to run around in. I wanted it to feel grounded in reality. I didn’t want to romanticize any of it. I knew To Have and To Hold was gonna end hard for somebody—that doom was inevitable—but that’s about it.

There’s a bleak, understated quality to some of these crime films of the 60s and 70s (Get Carter, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Taking of Pelham 123, etc., etc.) that appeals to me as a writer. I don’t think I could have escaped the lurid, hammy, melodrama of classic black and white noir. I wanted to play with atmospheric lighting and whatnot, but all those weary gumshoes and sexy dames are too entrenched in their iconography for a guy like me to break ‘em out. But these little 70s noir flicks—I could get in there and push my story around without feeling like I was gonna break the genre.

I follow you on Instagram, where you post a lot of in-progress panels and pages. Howzabout telling us what we can expect from you in the future?

I’m working on another noir, this time in 1970s Hollywood. It’s about some low-budget filmmakers who fun afoul of the mob. There’s arson and insurance fraud and general mayhem in the valley.

Here’s that gray I was talking about:

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An Interview with Geoffrey Hayes http://www.tcj.com/101111-2/ http://www.tcj.com/101111-2/#comments Wed, 07 Jun 2017 12:00:22 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=101111 Continue reading ]]> Like many I was surprised and saddened to learn of the death of children’s book author and cartoonist Geoffrey Hayes. I didn’t know Geoffrey well, but I had the good fortune to spend some time with him and with his work. In 2007 and 2008 I did production and other work on the first two seasons of TOON Books, Françoise Mouly’s line of comics for early readers. Hayes’s Benny and Penny in Just Pretend was among the publisher’s three launch books. We lavished a lot of care and attention on those books to really get them right and make a strong first impression.

In the middle of all this activity — and occasionally since then — I had the chance to interact with Geoffrey, and was pleased to meet a truly warm and gracious person who was never less than totally enthusiastic about his creative work. When I first met him, I didn’t realize how prolific he’d been as a children’s book author, and I was certainly intrigued to learn that the artist who produced such sweet and gentle work for children was the brother of the late Rory Hayes, whose bleak underground comix I was much more familiar with. I had a chance to fill in some of these gaps when Françoise asked me to conduct a brief Q+A with Geoffrey for the TOON Books blog to support the launch of his book. Françoise wanted something short and concise that could be read and understood fairly quickly by a casual reader, but I took the opportunity to try to get a broad overview of Geoffrey’s life and career so that I could understand it better. A greatly edited version of the piece was posted to an early version of the TOON Books blog, and is still online. The unfortunate circumstance of Geoffrey’s passing reminded me that I still had the full version of the interview, and I’m grateful for the chance to share it now.

This interview ends on an unresolved note, with Geoffrey hoping he’ll have a chance to write and draw more “Benny and Penny” books for TOON Books. In fact, he would become the publisher’s most prolific author, with eight books in their catalog (six in the “Benny and Penny” series). His second book for the publisher, Benny and Penny in The Big No-No!, was the first comic to win the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award from the American Library Association. At the time of his death Geoffrey was working on a graphic novel titled Lovo and the Firewolf, which was due to be published by Fantagraphics and the production of which he was supporting with a Patreon drive launched earlier this year.

I hope that readers who haven’t already caught up with Geoffrey’s work will take note of the substantial body of high quality children’s comics he produced over the past ten years. They are well-crafted, full of lovely colored-pencil drawings, and are emotionally authentic. In addition to the interview published here, I’d recommend reading his in-depth account of life growing up with his brother Rory for the Virginia Quarterly Review. TOON Books has also posted a remembrance of Geoffrey with commentary from Mouly and links to other interviews. These are all worth your attention.

BK: Would you be willing to tell me a little bit about what your childhood was like?

GH: Sure, sure. I had a happy childhood. I had some unusual, I guess I would say, phobias when I was a kid. I was terrified of being stung by a bee, I was terrified of injections, and since I was a small boy, dogs used to scare me. But those went away, of course, as I got older. Other than that I had a very nice childhood. It was just my two parents and my brother and me, so we had a small family. And we were close, we were close. My parents created a very loving environment for us to grow up in. And Rory and I, since we were just two years apart, always played together, we were friends, and so I was never lonely as a kid because I always had my brother. Plus I had friends as well.

BK: What town were you living in?

GH: In San Francisco.

BK: And what was that area like at the time you were a kid?

GH: Well, San Francisco I would say, when I was a kid in the fifties, it was more of a small town in a way than a city. It was a little more provincial than it is now. It wasn’t as sophisticated as New York. Nowadays with globalization and everything most cities are pretty similar. I would say it was smaller, even though it was a city. It had a slower pace, certainly, than it does today. My family moved a lot, but we always moved within the city, so we were always changing neighborhoods. And I grew up in quite a number of different neighborhoods within the city.

BK: Were you into comics or art or anything like that when you were a kid?

GH: Oh yes, oh yes, absolutely. Rory and I started drawing I guess when we were… I know I’d been drawing since I was five. And I think we started drawing together when Rory was maybe seven and I was nine, and we used to draw books for each other and write stories for one another. And of course I had tons of comic books. This was the nineteen-fifties, and there were so many comic books available then, so I grew up reading not just comics, I read other books as well, but I’ve always had comic books in my life.

BK: Do you remember what comic books you would have been reading at the time?

GH: Mostly they were the four-color comics, the Dell Four Color. So they would be the Walt Disney characters, or Little Lulu, or, oh, anything of that ilk, those sort of funny characters. And then as we got a little older we started reading the DC Comics, and we always liked horror comics, anything scary we liked. And then as well we were young teenagers and Marvel came out, we started reading Marvel. But we started with the funny animal characters.

BK: Do you know if you would have been reading like Carl Barks comics when those were available?

GH: Oh, yes, absolutely, definitely Carl Barks, a lot of the Carl Barks. And when we used to buy comics, oh, I would say we probably bought, between us, maybe four to six a week. So we read a lot.

BK: You mentioned horror comics. Were you the right age for EC Comics when those were coming out?

GH: Yeah, we were a little young when they were popular, and we were aware of them, but I don’t think we had too many. And then later on we were able to find some in second-hand bookstores, second-hand comics, so we had a few of those. Not, I would say, a huge amount, but we definitely did have some EC.

BK: In addition to comics were you into any particular kinds of movies or books or anything like that?

GH: Oh, yes, we also used to go to the movies, I would say, twice a week. And so we saw a lot of films. In fact one of the theaters at the time, in San Francisco, every Saturday they would have matinees for kids. And they would have three movies in a row. And so we would go to see those. We were into mainly science fiction and horror movies, but we saw anything: comedies, adventures, westerns. We loved science fiction, we loved monsters, and things like that. Anything that was a little out of the ordinary.

BK: And drawing was something that you kept up even into high school and beyond, I assume?

GH: Yeah, yeah we did. I knew all along I wanted to be an artist. Well, I guess I would say when I was maybe 14 I decided that that’s what I wanted to do professionally when I grew up. And with my brother, I don’t think he ever thought of that in terms of a career. He just drew because I drew and because he liked to draw, and then it wasn’t until later when he got into underground comix that he started getting published. I think then he started thinking of himself more as an artist. But we did continue to draw.

BK: Did you go to art school after high school?

GH: I actually went to art school during high school. I was studying commercial art, so yeah, I did. Rory didn’t, but I did.

BK: Around what year would that have been when you went to school after high school?

GH: Oh I would say, around… this was around maybe mid-sixties, sixty-five or so. I moved to New York after high school and I went to college in New York. I went to Hunter College, and I was also trying to get published. Because I knew that’s where the publishing was. And it took me about ten years. I didn’t get published right away. I was really not ready yet. But I knew that’s where I wanted to be, and then Rory followed me a little later and we lived together in New York for about a year, maybe a year and a half, and then he didn’t really fit in with New York. He didn’t care for it that much. So he ended up going back to San Francisco, and that’s when he got involved in the underground comic scene.

BK: Now at the time, when you were looking for work after school, were you already set on doing children’s book work?

GH: Yes, yes, I knew I wanted to do children’s books.

BK: What were the kinds of children’s books at the time in the sixties that would have served as some kind of model?

GH: Well, it started out, I think, when we were kids. The books that we had that I think really inspired me the most were the Little Golden Books. Even though I had read a lot of other things. I read the classics like Charlotte’s Web and Doctor Doolittle and all of those kinds of books. The ones, I would say, because they had such bright illustrations, were the Golden Books that were the most inspiring.

And then as I got into high school I became aware of Maurice Sendak, and I’m trying to think who else at that time I really liked. I had always liked Garth Williams and… I think those were the two main illustrators, but there were other illustrators that I gravitated toward and liked.

BK: Thinking about Williams and Sendak, that’s kind of two models in the sense that, from what I know of Williams’s work, he was mainly illustrating text by other people, whereas Sendak, although he started out drawing books written by others he quickly moved over to writing and drawing his own picture books. Did you think that one or the other was going to be a more likely career or path for you?

GH: Even at that time I think Sendak illustrated more books by other authors than he wrote himself. I would say that how I differed from the two of them is I definitely knew I had a lot of stories to tell and the writing became as important to me as the art. So in that sense I would probably say somebody like Carl Barks was more of an influence in the sense of someone who just had a very fertile imagination, and who told his own stories as well as illustrated them.

BK: Now, I assume that while you were looking for work and while Rory was starting to get published, you were keeping tabs on what he was doing and what was happening in San Francisco in the underground comix?

GH: Yes, yes, definitely. Especially in those days… When he went right back to San Francisco and he had his first comic published, yes, I was very aware. And then I actually ended up coming back to San Francisco myself for a couple of years, so I was with him. Not necessarily living with him, but we were together right when his career was really starting to take off.

BK: Were you interested in the underground comix that were coming out?

GH: To a degree. Not that much. They didn’t excite me because they didn’t really sit with the kind of stories I wanted to tell. But I did actually have some work in several of the underground comix of the time. I did a handful of stories for various publications. One of the series that Rory had done was a series of books called “Bogeyman Comics,” and I did a few stories for those issues as well as a few for some others. But not too much. I would say my participation in the underground world was rather limited.

BK: And so did you spend a full ten years in New York looking for an opening…?

GH: Well, no, I was in New York and then I, of course was working at the same time I was going to school. I was working for a publisher, which was Harcourt – at the time it was called Harcourt Brace World – and I was working for them. I worked in the photocopying room there. And then I went back to San Francisco for a couple of years and then moved back to New York, and it just sort of took me a while for my work to develop to the point where it was professional enough for people to be interested and also to the point where I had stories that were viable.

And it wasn’t until… well, I was 26 or 27 and I had been working at a Japanese architect’s firm doing drafting and interior design, and I got laid off with a lot of other people. It wasn’t just me, but they had really cut their work force. And it was the first time in my life, actually the only time in my life, where I was receiving unemployment. So I just thought that would be a good time to beef up my portfolio, which I did and then I started taking it around to various publishers. And a lot of editors or art directors were very interested, but nobody was really giving me a concrete response until I went to Harper and I met Edite Kroll who’s now become my agent, so Edite has been with me from the very beginning. And the thing that was different about her is that she not only liked my work, but she was determined to get a book out of me. So we worked together until I did my first book, which was called Bear by Himself.

BK: And that was published in 1976? Is that right?

GH: Right, that’s correct, yeah.

BK: And how was the reception to that book?

GH: Actually quite good for a first book. It was in print for about thirteen years, which I think is very good, and it got good reviews. It was actually a decent beginning.

BK: And what did you follow that up with?

GH: My second one, which actually got better reviews than my first one, was a novel called The Alligator and His Uncle Tooth. And that got quite good reviews, that sold well too. And at that time I also illustrated a book by Margaret Wise Brown called When the Wind Blew, and that got a prize from the New York Times, one of the ten best illustrated books of the year.

BK: So at the time did you feel like there were a lot of good opportunities for you to function as a writer/artist doing picture books for kids?

GH: Yeah, yeah, there was. I would say that from what I’ve been able to assess from the children’s book field, that in the fifties and sixties was probably the ideal time for an illustrator like Sendak to come up from the ranks, because the libraries at the time had tremendous funding, so people didn’t really worry about the commercial sales of books because they knew that they’d sell enough library copies to make up for it if the trade books did not do well. Of course now the whole thing’s turned the opposite way, you know. So I would say when I started which was in the seventies, it was still a pretty fertile time, and there were a lot of good illustrators, but the market wasn’t as saturated as it is today. So I would say I had a lot of opportunities.

BK: So there was a moment in the late seventies then when you and your brother would have had work in print at around the same time. Were you responding to one another’s work?

GH: Oh yeah, definitely, he would always send me copies of the magazines he was getting published in, and I certainly sent him copies of my books. He was very aware of that. In fact my first book, Bear by Himself, was based on a drawing that Rory had done of a teddy bear sitting on a hill which he named “Bear by Himself.” So there was a lot of interchange between us. I actually, when I was writing my second book, The Alligator and His Uncle Tooth, I actually asked Rory for some input in that, he gave me his ideas, so, even though it’s primarily my book, there’s elements of his work in there as well.

BK: Now the two kinds of drawing that you and he were doing at the time were obviously quite different. Was that a logical extension of the stuff you might each have been doing in high school, or was there a kind of divergence on the part of one or the other after a certain point?

GH: Well, it’s funny, some of my work… maybe around 1970, this is before I was published, some of the work I would do, it’s almost indistinguishable from Rory’s. There were times when pieces I’ve had that for years I assumed were Rory’s work, and then when I looked at them more closely I realized, “Oh my god, I did that!” We started out I think being a little similar, but then, yes, I would say that a lot of the books that I did were sort of off-shoots of some of the stories that we created when we were kids together. And then Rory sort of veered off in a different direction. In some ways he kept some of the elements, but they just got much more strange, and more unique, more how Rory – I think what it was is when we worked together, in a way we were sort of merging our styles to a certain degree, and then we sort of separated that way. Rory was allowed to just become more 100% his stuff rather than influenced by mine, and vice versa.

BK: And I assume that you’re a big fan of his work.

GH: Well, I was… a lot of his underground work, I’ll tell you the truth, when it first came out, it was kind of shocking and disturbing to me because it was so different in a way than the work that we did growing up. And certainly I’ve always been a fan of Rory’s work and the stuff that we did together.  But I don’t love all of his underground work, but I certainly admit that it’s very audacious, and in the intervening years I’ve seen how it has influenced other artists, whereas some of his stuff I think today is not quite as disturbing as it was when it was originally published because you’ve seen similar kind of things, whereas at the time it was very innovative and sort of raw.

BK: To go back to children’s books you were doing at the time, you did Bear By Himself, and the first Uncle Tooth you said was a novel, that was prose, for what age group?

GH: I would guess maybe 7 to 9. At that time they didn’t call them “chapter books.” This was a longer novel kind of book, maybe 128 pages, still for a young kid, but I would say still closer to Charlotte’s Web than to what a modern chapter book would be.

BK: And what were your next few books after that?

GH: Let me see… well, I started doing a few books where I would just illustrate from other authors’ texts, none of which I was that fond of. I think When the Wind Blew is my favorite collaboration. I did some more follow-ups with my main character Patrick who was in Bear By Himself. I had done a series of four little books with Patrick that I’m very proud of, and they were originally done for Four Winds Press. Those were hardcover trade books.

And then a few years after that I signed a ten book contract with Random House, and it was an exclusive contract, so for a while I was only doing books for Random House. I did a lot of books with my own characters, but in series that they had initiated themselves. My Otto and Uncle Tooth books I did as a series of Easy Readers, and those have done tremendously well, those have sold more than any of my other books, and I did five of those in that series. And I did some Patrick books with them, but I don’t think they were very successful. Part of that was because I was trying to adhere to what worked in their series and they were mass market, so it wasn’t the same as doing something more personal.

BK: One question I wanted to ask you is about the media that you use. It looks like you work a lot in colored pencil.

GH: Well that’s new. For years I would say my primary medium was watercolor, or pen and ink, sometimes pen and ink and watercolor, because that and acrylics are standard children’s book kind of tools most people work in – although now I know it’s different today because a lot of people are doing work in computers and all kinds of things, but for a while it seemed to be what the publishers wanted.

It took me a long time to realize that I just didn’t do my best work that way, even though I loved watercolors, but drawing on watercolor paper is just never comfortable to me. It just always sort of, I would tighten up and I was not really happy with that. So it’s only in the last, I would say, four years that I went back to pencil, and I realized because of copy machines these days I could do pencil, photocopy it, and have it look like inks. So I could add color on top of it. My problem in the past was I could do pencil, but it would still be on watercolor paper and I could put, you know, watercolor on top of it, but I was back to that same old thing. Whereas now I can work on any type of paper I want and photocopy it, and add the colored pencils. So this is sort of a new thing for me.

BK: Now you’re doing the TOON book, but had you ever had any impulse prior to this to doing something that was in more of a comics format?

GH: Oh, absolutely. Actually one of my earlier books that I did when I was at Harper and Rowe, now HarperCollins but it was Harper and Rowe at the time, was a comic book, it was called Elroy and the Witch’s Child. And it didn’t do very well. I think at that time there was a lot of prejudice against comics. And although it was starting, you were starting to see some influence because of Maurice Sendak and some other people, into the children’s book field, because there certainly weren’t graphic novels and I think the public just didn’t have that awareness of graphic fiction the way they do these days. So it didn’t do too well, but I was pleased with it and in those days I had to, because color books were still expensive to do, so I separated all the colors. I did each color individually, it’s the way they used to do old comic books…

BK: The hand-cut color separations…

GH: Yeah, yeah, and so it was quite tedious because I had all these little panels, and then I did all of the line-work and the text on a separate overlay, so I think I had like six overlays, five or six per page counting the original art. But I enjoyed it, I definitely enjoyed that. And then some of my children’s book after that, like those four little Patrick books that I did for Knopf, those had balloons. I wouldn’t say they were really comic books, but they had balloons to them. The art was watercolor so they looked like traditional children’s books with balloons.

BK: So how did you get involved with the TOON Books originally?

GH: Well Françoise contacted me. I guess she just must have Googled me.

BK: And when you first started talking about ideas for the TOON Books, was Benny and Penny something you had already thought of?

GH: Yes, actually, because I think when we were just talking, before this was even formed, you know, it was just the very beginning, I had sent Francoise some of my portfolio pieces. And one of them was the story of these two little mice, although they weren’t called Benny and Penny, but they were similar characters. And when we decided on what the first book would be I thought, “Well, maybe it would just be simpler to do them,” and she thought that was a good idea. Basically it’s the same story as in the first Benny and Penny. I just reworked it, certainly with Françoise’s input, and giving her what she needed for the series as well, so it changed slightly, but it’s basically the same plot.

BK: But the way you had it was in comics form originally?

GH: Yeah, it was. It was a comic.

BK: So even if the TOON Books hadn’t started as a project, is that something you had thought about publishing in some kind of comics format?

GH: Actually, I hadn’t thought about publishing it. For the last few years I had just been, for myself, just doing a lot of stories, but, like, I said, “Well, if I didn’t have the imprint of a publisher, what would I just do? Just for myself? What kind of stories would I want to do?” So I’ve been working quite steadily, just getting down a lot of ideas that have been rumbling in my brain for years, and most of them are comic stories. And this was just a stand-alone story I had done. I hadn’t planned to do it even as a series, it was just this one story about these two little mice. Almost none of the stuff I’m doing now I’m doing with the thought of publication in mind. I’m just doing it how I want to do it. And then seeing what happens from that.

BK: So it’s recently when you’ve been doing this private stuff that you’ve gone back to something like the comics form?

GH: Yes, exactly, I realized a few years ago that comics has always been my first love, and now of course it’s starting, where there are comics for kids again. Because even though I love comics I didn’t really want to draw superheroes. That’s just not my kind of style of drawing. And so my stuff has always skewed younger. And there just really wasn’t any place for that. I mean, they’re not really doing…

BK: Dell comics…

GH: Yeah, like the Four Colors for kids these days. And then I just said, “Oh, the hell with it, this is what I like to do.” So I’ve been doing a lot of stories, comics stories.

BK: What kind of editorial guidance did you get when turning the original Benny and Penny story into the TOON Book?

GH: One thing that Françoise wanted, she suggested, was to keep it on the kids, not have any parental characters, or if they are, just have them very much on the periphery. And that wasn’t too different from the original story I had but that was something that Françoise stressed. And also in the original story when Penny had sort of disappeared at one point and Benny couldn’t find her, I had shown what had happened to her so that the reader knew where she was, it’s just that Benny didn’t know, and Françoise suggested she thought it would be better if the reader was kept in the dark as well as Benny, so that it was more of a surprise at the end of the story.

BK: And in terms of the story of Benny and Penny, was there some basic idea that you thought was important to communicate to the kids who’d be reading it, in that particular story?

GH: Not really, I don’t think too much like that. I just was trying to be true to their relationship and whatever kids would get from that, they would get. Because you can never really know what children are going to take away from your work. In all my relationships between characters I try to make that there’s some sort of love there even though there may be conflict. So in this one I just basically wanted the characters to have an affection for each other even though they at times would drive each other crazy.

BK: Did you find that your storytelling works any differently in doing comics pages than it does in the picture books?

GH: Well, in a way only because comics are sequential and I think I’ve always just had a love of sequential art. I’ve always been a big fan of animation for that same reason. But when you’re doing something sequential you’re showing almost every action, or you actually are showing every action, where when you’re doing a regular book you wouldn’t necessarily show everything. Again, if something was in the text it wouldn’t necessarily have to be in the art. I’m almost thinking like with Benny and Penny that the way you could look at it you could almost read the story without even reading the text, because there’s a flow throughout the art of where they are and what they’re doing.

BK: Are you planning to do more Benny and Penny books?

GH: Mm-hm! Well, that’s up to Françoise. I just did a dummy for a Benny book, just Benny…

BK: “Benny By Himself…”

GH: Yeah, which is what Françoise had asked for. If she wants more, I’ll do more.

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A Conversation with Jillian Tamaki http://www.tcj.com/a-conversation-with-jillian-tamaki/ http://www.tcj.com/a-conversation-with-jillian-tamaki/#comments Mon, 05 Jun 2017 12:00:26 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=100860 Continue reading ]]> Jillian Tamaki’s new book, Boundless, has just come out from Drawn & Quarterly. It’s a collection of her short comics done over several years: a calm, whipping, crackling body of work.

To talk about Jillian Tamaki’s artwork, for me, means talking about myself. For most of my life I felt like being a woman meant I was worth less as a human being. I felt like I could never make art as good as I could have if I were a man.

I first learned about Jillian Tamaki’s work around 2007. After several years of seeing the images she created, I knew that there was no artist who was better than her. There are artists who may be as good, but there is no one who is better. It was the first time – but not the last – that I was able to recognize this in a woman artist.

After that, a long and awful lie broke apart inside me and began to melt away.

– Eleanor Davis, May 17th, 2017.

ED: What story of yours have you found people respond to the most strongly? And what was your response to their response?

JT: Well, obviously the strongest reaction I have had to A Book has been This One Summer, which is a collaboration. [This One Summer, by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, was the ALA’s most challenged book of 2016 – ED]. It’s interesting, for the interviews for Boundless thus far, people have wanted to discuss “The ClairFree System.” Which is slightly surprising.

ED: I experience the clearest emotional arc reading it. Not intellectual clarity, but emotional, with the conditional intimacy of the final moment.

JT: I’m trying to think of their “reaction” though. I feel like they want to hear me talk about it. It feels very mysterious and strange to them, I guess? It’s not a typical image-text pairing. I mean, it’s about The Economy, which I think about constantly.

ED: I read that comic as both a feminist critique, and defense, of Capitalism. I LOVED it, obviously.

JT: I had forgotten: that story was sparked by learning that some of my friends in my hometown had gotten into what they called a “Skin cult.” Which is maybe a pyramid scheme? You made commissions off of selling to your friends. But on the other hand, it just seemed like Mary Kay or Avon for the millennial set. And it was bizarre because I was like, oh, I remember Avon and these suburban selling-parties when I was a kid. But now I’m on the flip, the adult, and the moms needed CASH.

ED: It’s so fucking empathetic to the need for both beauty – a healthy, smooth exterior – and money. It’s so empathetic to what those two things can mean, in this case for women.

JT: I am constantly bewildered by the juxtapositions of city-life. Like, businesses closing left, right, and center, but then so many empty storefronts. No one can afford to rent, and yet we can bid $500K over asking price on teardowns. So there was an attempt at that in that story. Human needs and desires with cold hard, figures. Friendship and manipulation. Hopes and realities.

ED: I’ve noticed you think about environment a lot. Your first comic in Boundless, “World Class City,” is one of my favorites. That comic is so loving, and scared, and hopeful, and sheepish? I don’t know if I’m projecting too much.

JT: Cities. I feel like it’s a real relationship. With longing and dreams and disappointments. Beautiful bits and really ugly bits. That comic is about NY, but can be about any big city. People project so much onto NY, it is still seen as a place to go make your dreams come true, put yourself to the test, be the best version of yourself, possibly even make yourself over. I think this thing can happen where the city gets folded into your identity. It’s a song, by the way! The words in “World Class City” are song lyrics

ED: Oh! Like, an existing song?

JT: No! The one and only song I have ever written. I was briefly in a punk band with a few other women in their 30s.

ED: Oh my God! Your band Shebola? Have you recorded it? Why doesn’t Boundless come with a flexidisk insert?

JT: It always ended up very shoegaze-y or angry songs about pussies. Literally, we could have put out an album of pussy songs. Anne Ishii and Chelsea Cardinal are the other members.

ED: FLEXIDISK INSERT!

JT: Oh God, I would like to be much better! I am very enthusiastic, though. Screaming is great.

ED: Jillian! That’s so cool! I want to hear this song‼

JT: This is so embarrassing, but here is “World Class City,” the song, sort of.

[JT sends ED the song]

[ED listens to the song]

ED: Holy shit! I love this so much! What instrument are you playing? This is just hugely satisfying.

JT: We switched all the time! Guitar, keyboard, drums. Punk as fuck.

ED: Did you write “World Class City” after you realized you were gonna leave New York?

JT: Oh yes. Definitely. I had always had a very weird, uncomfortable relationship with New York, but it was my home and leaving was very melancholy despite being 100% the right decision.

ED: I read it in the voice of someone who is in love with a thing, but is aware of being in denial about its flaws. A keening sort of mournful love.

JT: Oh, I never fell in love with the place. But, I’m glad. I prefer that, instead of it seeming sarcastic.

ED: How did you decide the images for it?

JT: To be honest, I can feel increasingly confined by the image part of comics. Perhaps because often, for more commercial works, the images need be a lot more literal? I feel like images can “lock” an idea. To depict someone specific can be nice sometimes – the books I do with Mariko are always about specificity of time and place and character. But sometimes it’s nice, when reading prose, to have the ideas and concepts more open. They can feel more universal or possibly even symbolic. So I guess this comic was about trying to stretch that word-image relationship. I don’t want to show you what kind of person thinks this way, acts this way, etc.

ED: “World Class City,” and another story in Boundless, “The ClairFree System,” are doing an odd trick that I’m not super familiar with in comics. With both of them the divide between the words and the images is very stark. The dreaminess of the images makes real life feel muffled. Then, in “ClairFree,” when you come out of the beautiful dreamlike images and into a sequence depicting reality, reality is this scruffy, itchy thing.

JT: The images in ClairFree system are a combination of found photos I had kicking around and pictures I took of various artworks at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Both were sort of adapted to a sort of universality, which is what that comic ends up being about.

ED: It feels hypnotic.

JT: Most of the artworks were statuary. Universality is the wrong word. Perhaps more like, the line between hope and survival, future and present?

ED: The images have a sense of purity and solidity, and grandeur.

JT: I dunno, I just feel like, how to recapture some of the feeling of prose? Where ideas are so much more free-floating. It’s cool to create juxtaposition between dialogue and body language, I do that all the time, and we have our tricks as to how to create ambiguity, but what if you are given NO “clues” as to how the words are intended? Sometimes comics can feel like seeding clues.

ED: Yes! I think you did that!

JT: Ideas, dialogue, environment.

ED: One of the things that makes me feel crazy about comics is that they’re so distant, inherently.

JT: How so?

ED: Prose feels like it’s happening inside your head, because you’re building the images of the text yourself. Comics does that work for you, about fourteen inches in front of your face, so you’re less engaged. With “ClairFree” and “World-Class,” you’re allowing the world-creating prose-response, but then folding additional images on top of that. I had a sense that both comics existed inside my own mind in a way that other comics do not.

JT: Perhaps some people will feel the image-word relationship will have been stretched too far.

ED: Yeah, dude, it’s going to really bug a lot of people!

JT: Well, whatever [Laughs].

ED: Just to give you a heads-up. [Laughs] I know this is kind of a shitty attitude, but I feel so comfy in people not getting my stuff. I just roll around in it.

JT: I wonder if having a kid would change this equation entirely. If you’re suddenly all, ok, cool, time to flesh out the SuperMutant Magic Academy universe and call up Cartoon Network. Instead at this point it’s like, what am I going to do… NOT try to push myself? I’ve been making some choices that are, “ok, well, you’re in a position to do this.”

ED: I’ve been there lately too. It feels good, and bad, and scary.

JT: It’s really scary. I don’t think we’re supposed to talk about being scared.

ED: Yeah.

JT: Mid-career is a trip, man. I have seen so many ppl around me flip that switch, where it’s like, “time to get real.”

ED: Time to get real, like, make that money?

JT: Yeah, or the innovation stops.

ED: “This look is selling.”

 JT: This sounds weird but it can almost seem childish or selfish to keep on pushing in this way.

ED: Well, art directors and audiences don’t tend to ask for it. It IS for oneself.

JT: Yeah. It’s true. Feels increasingly like a choice.

ED: I am trying to think of anyone I know who has pushed their style so much or as successfully as you have.

JT: What choice do I have but to try to aim for the highest heights? I simultaneously HATE this way of thinking, because it strikes me as so masculine, and phallic and horrible.

ED: Don’t you think we’re both masculine ladies though, in that regard? I am OK with that. When I’m not being my best self I’m proud of it. Wanting to succeed, fuck it, that’s my feminist act of resistance.

JT: I’m really lucky though. It does feel like a very charmed life.

ED: Oh my God, I say I’m lucky all the time but I HATE hearing you say you’re lucky! Guys don’t say they’re lucky!! They say they WON!!!

JT: I work hard but…. right time, right place, etc. etc… THAT kind of luck! Like, COSMIC luck!

ED: Jillian, that’s what I say! But it’s infuriating to hear you say it! It’s LUCKY that God came down and pressed his finger into your nog and gave you fight mixed with skill!

JT: WELL! I mean! I coulda had shitty parents who forbade me from drawing and forced me to be an accountant like my dad!

ED: OK, that part is “lucky.” That part was lucky for all of us. [Laughs]

Final question: what do you think an artist owes their audience?

JT: I accept various answers. If someone were to respond, “NOTHING!”, I totally accept that! I’m even OK with a level of cynicism from an artist. I guess for me I have found the most powerful and meaningful outcomes have arisen from people connecting with characters or stories, and relating them to their own lives or situations. I feel I owe my audience honesty so we can make that connection.

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“I Wanted the Reader to Really Suffocate with Him”: A Guy Delisle Interview http://www.tcj.com/a-guy-delisle-interview/ http://www.tcj.com/a-guy-delisle-interview/#respond Fri, 02 Jun 2017 12:00:00 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=101045 Hostage. Continue reading ]]> In 1997, Doctors Without Borders administrator Christophe André was kidnapped in the middle of the night by armed men and taken to an unknown destination in the Caucasus region. This is how Guy Delisle’s Hostage opens, and for 436 pages, we get a first person account of André’s three months in solitary confinement as he grapples with hopelessness, and more importantly, tries his very best to make the time go by without going insane. Delisle, whose previous work includes Pyongyang, Jerusalem, Shenzhen, and Burma Chronicles, takes a departure from his first-person travelogue style to tell André’s story as it was told to Delisle. The graphic novel was 15 years in the making. At the 2017 Toronto Comic Arts Festival, we talked to Delisle about Hostage.

I read that this graphic novel was in fact a 15-year process.

Yeah. I heard Christophe’s story in the newspaper and it was such an incredible story. I had a chance to meet him because I had a friend who works in Doctors Without Borders. We all went to lunch together, and I started asking him questions. I was thinking he probably didn’t want to talk about it because it was a traumatic experience for him. But he was super open, he gave me all the details and the whole story from beginning to end. I remember going, ‘Wow, this is fantastic. I do stories, and it would be nice to make a comic book about this.’ And he said, ‘Yeah sure.’

From that conversation, how did it take another decade and a half for this project to reach its conclusion?

I did a first version actually a while back of 12 pages which I showed my editor. He was very excited, but then I had work, and I was only working on comic books on the side at the time. A few years later, I came back to it and I didn’t like the first version of the book anymore. I kept postponing it. I went to North Korea. I had a kid in 2003. We went to Burma. I was always postponing it, and I needed to travel to France to talk to Christophe. I think I must have been afraid to work on this book because it was something else who had to talk about their story. It was a different process. And then, suddenly, I wasn’t traveling anymore and I realized it had been 15 years. I still had the recordings I did with him in 2002, and I worked with that. I’d phone Christophe once in awhile for small details. He would read the pages as I was doing them. I didn’t want any surprises, bad surprises, for him when the book finally came out. I wanted him involved in the process so it could be as close to the real story as possible.

What did Christophe think about the book?

He was very happy. His family, who had been through the experience in a very traumatic way because they didn’t know what would happen to Christophe. For his brothers and sisters and for the family to see the story that he’s told so many times but in a graphic novel, it was much closer to the experience that Christophe had than what they could imagine. So for the family, it was really good for them to read and see that.

I thought it was interesting that you told the story from a very one-sided point of view. The narrative stays with Christophe while he’s in isolation, and the outside world is essentially shut off for the readers the same way it was for Christophe in real life. This absence of information provides so much drama to the story. How did you decide on that?

I decided on it right from the beginning because as I was listening to Christophe, and he was giving his perspective, I knew I had to do an immersive type of book. I wanted the reader to really suffocate with him, to stay with him and just show how you survive in that situation where you have no control of your life. He thought he was going to be there for a weekend, then a week goes by, then two weeks, and you go crazy and think am I going to stay there for months? Then Christmas is coming, and you start thinking about people who’ve been kidnapped and been in situations for years. I wanted to show that process of time. That’s why it’s 400+ pages. I could have said three weeks later and shown Christophe with a beard, skinner and more tired. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted people to turn the page and see the routine and go crazy with him. The plan was to make it as close to his experience as possible.

With a 436-page book, how much trust does it take in your own storytelling that you can keep the reader will engaged and interested throughout the process?

I have an exact answer for this one. After finishing 300 pages, Christophe was still in that room, and I thought, this is going to be boring. I had doubts, so I passed it around to friends who I trust because they’re good readers, and my publisher, and I waited for their reaction. They told me that it was good, and asked for the rest of the pages [laughs]. I thought, “Okay, cool.” I kept going. They reassured me. After 300 pages, I needed that.

The illustrations and colors are very muted, and you really went out of your way to illustrate the monotony of being trapped in that room.

The whole thing is very minimalistic. It was a bit more realistic than what I usually do, which is usually a bit cartoony. This story just demanded the style to be a bit more sketchy and realistic, so I worked on a process where I was doing all my drawings on paper and scanned all of it to have that sketchy feeling. Just very thin lines, no black and white, very simple, one color, that was enough to do my shadow. I didn’t want to use effects. Just very simple drawings, very simple colors, very simple text and a long, long story. It was a process. Since I knew it was going to be a long book, I couldn’t do watercolors. It had to be fast, like one page a day type of story, otherwise I’d still be working on it [laughs].

What reference material did you consult in putting together this book?

I read a few stories of people being kidnapped, but they were all very different stories. Christophe was on his own, and he managed to escape, which is different from most stories. I was actually influenced by my reading of comic books. When you’re doing comic books, it’s nice to read a lot of comics, so you know you can do this as well, and there’s always someone who’s going to come up with something new. I remember I was reading Louis Riel by Chester Brown, and there’s these action scenes in there where the suspense is very strong even though the drawings are very small and very far away. It’s almost the opposite of action, but it worked perfectly. That was an influence. On my first version of the book, I did a lot of action scenes on the kidnapping– shadows, walking, closeups, all of that. It looked nice, but it defeated the purpose. Because the more special effects you put, the more far away it is from a real life story. So reading Chester Brown, I realized I had to keep it simple to make the readers feel like they’re there. So the kidnapping at the start of the story happens in one place, and boom, boom, they’re outside. The treatment was much more subdued than the first version, the colors were simple as well. When it’s a real life story, it’s better to forget about the special effects.

What did your wife, who also works with Doctors Without Borders, think about the book?

She really liked it. I was talking to some of her friends, who are administrators at Doctors Without Borders, and there’s the scene where Christophe finally gets a contact with the outside world after two months, they put him on the phone in the car, he talks to them, and it’s a request for a million dollars for his escape, and he tells them not to give the captors the money, that he can hang on longer, which is very heroic. I was talking to these administrators, and they were saying, “Fuck, I would never say that. I would say pay whatever you have to pay, get me out of here as fast as possible.”

He was genuinely upset that they were going to give up a million dollars for him. He was very upset. Upset, depressed. It’s hard to understand in a situation like that. He was working with the numbers for DWB and the money they’re trying to save, especially since they’re privately funded. He was just going crazy because of that.

And he needed to keep himself sane the only way he could, which in this case was to alphabetically recall all the famous military battles in his head since he was such a history buff.

Every kidnapped person goes to his imagination in order to hang on. Christophe plays these board games where he re-does famous battles. He’s really into that. He reads a lot of books about Napoleon. I did a tour with him in Germany, we went to Leipzig, and he was on the field trying to see where the Battle of the Nation happened. But yeah, this happens to all the kidnapped people. There was one Frenchman I read about who spent all day going through the Bordeaux wine in his region. In a way, it’s nice to know, as someone like me who draws and writes stories, that imagination can save your life somehow. You have your regular thoughts as well aside from your imagination but those thoughts can be problematic because you start thinking about stuff that you want to do that you can’t. Christophe starts thinking about his sister, her marriage and whether they would cancel the wedding because of him, and that’s not good, you can get depressed. He was trying not to collapse, and decided he would go into his imagination as a way to escape.

You’ve done several first-person travelogues. After Hostage, are you looking to do more stories like this where you can tell other people’s perspectives?

Every week I have new ideas, where I think this might work, but I just wait and see to see which ones keep coming back to me that I want to work on. I don’t have a big book that I’m waiting for. People send me their incredible life stories now, but a lot of them don’t really interest me. It just so happens that I read Christophe’s story in the newspaper, and the story struck me as something incredible, that someone succeeded on escaping from a kidnapping. I got to meet him. We got along well. We did the book. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen again.

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Poetic Self-Destruction: An Interview with Eric Haven http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-eric-haven/ http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-eric-haven/#comments Wed, 31 May 2017 12:00:16 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=100750 Tales to Demolish and the new collection, Vague Tales. Continue reading ]]> Eric Haven continues the tradition of Bay Area comic artists pushing the envelope with their own unique brand of storytelling. I first became a fan of Eric’s work when I discovered his comic series, Tales to Demolish, published by Sparkplug Comic Books. To read an Eric Haven comic is to be transported to another dimension ruled by other-worldly heroes, and where vivid, jarring imagery combine with unassuming, deadpan humor to turn the traditional science fiction narrative on its head. This is evident in Eric’s upcoming book, Vague Tales, where he chronicles a dizzying, mind-bending exploit inside a dream realm.

Eric and I chatted on the phone to talk about his beginnings in comics, 70s TV pop culture, how the Bay Area comics community has influenced his approach to comics and what a cartoonist’s role can be in politically-charged times such as these.

Rina Ayuyang: Eric, were you interested in comics as a kid?

Eric Haven: Yes. Some of my earliest memories are of comic books, of certain comic covers I saw on a newsstand or specific panels from a Jack Kirby monster story. But cartoons held an early fascination for me as well.

You grew up in the ’70s, so what cartoons were you watching in particular? 

I watched the classic Warner Bros. cartoons every Saturday morning. Also Tom & Jerry, Droopy, Scooby Doo… all the normal kid stuff. But the Hanna-Barbera superhero cartoons were particularly memorable. The Herculoids, Space Ghost, and Bird Man were really weird but strikingly designed characters and they made a strong impression on me.

I can see that in your comics. Your characters have a superhero comic influence, but there is a quirkiness, something humorous and human about them. The Hanna-Barbera characters like in Johnny Quest are serious men on a mission, but also melodramatic and comical. Do you see that quality in your own comic characters? 

Wow, awesome, I’m glad you think that. I try to keep the earnestness and the ridiculousness in balance in my comics, and sometimes it results in comedy. When it does, I’m happy. But I’m also happy to just draw weird stuff. I love the weirdness of the Herculoids – not only the visuals but also the music and the way it’s edited. Weird sequences of cavemen throwing molten lava balls into the mouth of a dragon. It’s just very strange!

Do you find that your comics are nostalgic, like a look back at these characters from comics or cartoons that you enjoyed as a kid?

Completely. Although I don’t have any desire to return to those simpler days, nor do I think those days were better than now. Ultimately, I want my comics to be clearly understood both visually and narratively. Those comics and cartoons from my early childhood seem to best encapsulate that desire: simple designs, easily-grasped story.

When did you start working on your own comics?

long time ago. I’ve always drawn comics, as long as I can remember, but they were almost never full stories. Usually it was just a splash page with the character’s name in bold letters hanging over an awkwardly-posed rendition of a superhero. I might get a few more pages into the story, maybe a bit of an origin, but I’d always abandon it and start a new one.

My first real comic was published in 1992. It was Angryman, published by Iconographix, which was an imprint of Caliber Press. They also published Ed Brubaker’s Lowlife, Dame Darcy’s Meat Cake, and Jason Lutes’ Catch Penny Tales.

What was Angryman about? 

It was about a 20-something guy trying to make his way through the world, but weird things kept happening to him. He was connected in an unexplained way to a psychotic superhero, and interacted with a tiny, flying Tiki monster. I wrote out full scripts and drew thumbnails for six issues. It was fun, it was exactly what I wanted to be doing.

How did you feel about your comics-making after that? Did you feel like you could make this a profession? 

I hated it. Hated it!

Why?

After three issues of Angryman, I learned the hard truth: I’d never make a living in the comic business. I gave it everything I had, even quit my day job at the sake factory in order to fully commit to the art. But when I received the royalty check for the first issue – the princely sum of $100 – I realized my folly. In addition, seeing my comics out in the world started to fill me with dread. All I could see were the mistakes and the awfulness.

I stopped trying to produce comics for publishers at that point. Instead, I made mini-comics. That way I could still make terrible comics, and nobody but a few friends would see them. I could spend time flailing around and experimenting without fear of judgment. It was almost 10 years of mini-comics making before Tales to Demolish came out.

Did that start as a mini, or did Dylan Williams and Sparkplug Press publish it right away?

I designed it as a regular-sized comic and sent it out to a few different comics publishers, but never got a response. Some cartoonist friends suggested that I show it to Dylan, and when I did he said he’d like to publish it.

Did you know Dylan before you worked with him?

Yeah, he worked at Comic Relief in Berkeley. We hung out there. Before it was published by Iconografix, Angryman was a Xeroxed mini-comic. Comic Relief bought some copies and sold them in the back of the store with lots of other mini-comics. Dylan was great at pushing those hand-made comics, he truly loved the art form.

There was a strong indie comics community in the Bay Area then. Were you involved in any of that or were you a “loner” cartoonist? 

More of a loner. You’re right about the comics community in Berkeley, but I didn’t really feel like I was a part of it. I had a circle of non-cartoonist friends I hung out with socially, and foolishly didn’t recognize the benefits of networking with other cartoonists. Even so, it was comforting to know there was a group of artists around town that would regularly meet and share work.

How was your experience with Dylan and the various other publishers you’ve worked with? How have they affected how you do your comics?

I’ve had the great fortune to work with great publishers. Dylan was a very unique person. He understood comics from a variety of different angles; he was a historian, a teacher, a publisher, and an artist. Most importantly to my comics-making, Dylan was my introduction to some of the great cartoonists of the 1940s and 1950s. I had of course read books on comics, like the Smithsonian volumes of comics and newspaper strips, and whatever other books on the subject I could find at libraries. But Dylan used to make these mini-comics/zines of cartoonists like Bernard Krigstein, Mort Meskin, Ogden Whitney, Fred Guardineer, and lots of others. You can find any of these guys and unlimited examples of their work on the Internet now, but in the early ’90s it was rare to come across it. Plus, seeing a bunch of complete stories from one artist bundled together so you can track their development or thematic idiosyncrasies was extremely educational. Fantagraphics is doing that now with all of their EC artist volumes, but Dylan did basically the same thing more than 25 years ago.

I can say the same for Alvin Buenaventura as well. Alvin had incredible taste in comic art and would show me work outside my normal comfort zone in comics. A lot of European stuff, some southeast Asian stuff that I’d never come across on my own and never even knew existed. Like Dylan, Alvin just wanted to share the work that excited him as a publisher and printmaker.

Since he had such a discerning eye, it was always good work and it’d always be very inspiring. I spent many hours in his warehouse flipping through pages of books and comics and prints, sometimes to the point of visual exhaustion.  

And you worked with Eric Reynolds with Vague Tales 

I pitched Vague Tales to Eric a couple years ago and described it as “Cowboy Henk meets Void Indigo”. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure what the book was going to be about at that time, but those two esoteric reference points seemed to best explain the mix of weird humor and 1980s-era sci-fi fantasy horror I was going for.

In Vague Tales, you introduce an assortment of very strong iconic characters who could be lead characters for their own comic. How do you come up with them? 

Well, it was mostly a visual process. I’d start with a drawing of the character, with no idea about the character’s backstory or how he or she fits into the narrative. I just wanted to experience the joy of drawing a cool-looking character. Their backstory and narrative purpose developed as I drew it. The intent was to create something formed from my unconscious mind, or whatever part of my brain that pushes the pencil around on the paper. It was very much like the experience of drawing comics when I was little, starting with a heroic-looking splash page and then building the story around it.

Going back to the Herculoids, there’s a feeling of epic excitement in the intro sequence of the cartoon. The characters are flying through space, smashing things, screaming. As a kid, that was enough for me! It didn’t matter what the story was about, my proto-cartoonist mind was triggered and locked in to enjoying the visual and audial experience. I think the characters and narrative in Vague Tales are an attempt to replicate that feeling. 

In Tales to Demolish and in Kramers 7, you depict yourself as a character. How personal are these stories? There’s a glimpse of autobio, though your character is thrown into these faraway sci-fi worlds.

Yeah, sure. It’s autobio in that these stories feature myself and sometimes my surroundings. Always easier to draw what you know! But the stories quickly veer into absurdity with very little semblance to my actual life experience. I never named myself in those comics – the character looks like me, but he is never mentioned by name. That was probably enough to separate my true self from my comic self, or to keep myself from having a psychotic break or something.

In 2009, Alvin asked me to do a continuing strip for The Believer magazine and it was then I decided to give the “Eric” character a name different than my own: “Race Murdock”. But I have no desire to portray myself in comics anymore, or at least not right now in this period of my life. Especially stories where it’s all about me getting destroyed in some way!


Yeah, what’s that about?

I don’t know! For some reason, I thought it was always funnier to place myself into stories where the end result is death or dismemberment. It’s fun to see Wile E. Coyote get crushed or flattened or exploded, and then keep coming back for more. To me, those cartoons are the epitome of poetic self-destruction. So minimal! So hilarious! In Race Murdock, I decided to explore that idea of self-destruction, whittle it down, minimize it to such an extent that I could destroy myself within the constraint of a 4-panel strip. But after four years of Race Murdock, I think I got whatever it was out of my system. 

In Vague Tales, the reader is looking into a world, especially with this first character we see, who is pulled out of current times into another world.

It’s an experimental piece. I was trying to describe what it may be like to have a hallucination or to experience altered consciousness. There isn’t any real plot to the story other than the character moves through time and space, perhaps in his own mind or maybe utilizing some form of mental telepathy, and at the end the book he’s back where he started, only changed in some mysterious way.

It feels like there’s a huge backstory that’s going on between them all these iconic characters in the story, like in TV sci-fi serials or soap operas, but the reader doesn’t know what the story or connection is thus the title Vague Tales. I don’t know if that was what you were thinking about when you were coming up with these characters, but do they have a connection? 

I’ve always been interested in dream states and altered forms of consciousness. In this book, I’m trying to simulate those states of mind where strange connections or epiphanies are common. There is a connection between what all the characters are going through, but that connection is never specifically or technically explained. It’s purely visual or metaphorical. Dreams are so powerful because they are operating on our own individual, highly personal symbolic system. I’m trying to replicate that by repeating symbols that hold special meaning. The front cover of the book mirrors the back cover and then you peel back skins, layers, as you turn the pages through the story, each one relating to the last, sometimes purely visually. For example: one of the characters, a silicon-based creature, has his head explode into multiple fragments, and then you turn the page and there is a full sized drawing of someone else’s face. It cuts from one image to another, suggesting a connection between the two. I know I’m not explaining this clearly (and yep, that’s indicated by the title of Vague Tales) but I was trying to make this thing that is very much a dream, a hallucination, and to make an artifact of it and bring it out of that realm of dream and into the physical world. This book is that artifact.

It’s very weird. I don’t know if Vague Tales is going to have an effect on anyone else, but it is very personal to me. These images seem to make sense to me, and I wanted to string them along in a sequence that hopefully elicits a reaction in the reader. I don’t know if that’s going to be the case; it’s an experiment. I have no idea what the reaction is going to be. I’m very happy that Eric took a chance to publish this thing; it’s a very personal work that I felt compelled to create. 

I understand that — the need to share and express as an artist no matter who gets it. And I can also see the progression from you portraying yourself in your earlier comics as an obvious way to show that the story is personal to you now being totally comfortable just throwing your entire self, mind and body, into this world that you’ve created that makes the story ALL you in a sense.

Yeah, that’s right. Instead of having the story being ABOUT me, the story actually IS me. Maybe the experience of reading the book is like spending time in my subconscious. Being a cartoonist is a weird thing as I’m sure you’re aware. Feeling this need to put these images out there…I don’t know why. I haven’t really questioned why these images are resonant within me. I just put it all out there. It may mean nothing…[laughs], but…

…Or does it have to mean anything to anyone else 

Right! Does it? [laughs] I don’t know. My answer to that question might change year to year, project to project. Why have I taken time out of my life to do this thing? Why am I compelled to make these images? This book doesn’t answer any of those questions. In fact, just the opposite: I opened my mind and just let whatever was in there to spill out. It may be ridiculous imagery, it may be infantile or lurid, but I felt the compulsion to get it out. And it’s come at great cost, actually.

How?

Taking great chunks of time off from work, for example, time that was, purely from a financial point of view, perhaps better spent being gainfully employed.

And why are you compelled to do this in a comics form? Why comics, why not painting or something else? Painting would be the first medium that comes to my mind as way to express what one is feeling as opposed to comics. 

Comics, for me, is how you just described painting. Comics, for me, are the ultimate art form, one that allows the artist to express himself or herself through words and pictures equally. The human brain is hard-wired for language and for visual symbols, so comics are actually the most efficient way to communicate. Putting words and pictures together, and then putting them in a sequence on a series of pages, is highly evocative and possibly even more descriptive than either painting or writing on their own.

Seems more accessible too.

Accessible, yes, but also more accurate. If the intent of the artist is to communicate his thoughts and ideas as efficiently and truthfully as possible, I think using words in combination with pictures would be the best method.

Speaking about how this medium for you is a way to just get everything within you “out there”, I want to talk about The Resister. Many artists are responding to the election and the current political climate here in America through various ways like sharing articles and viewpoints on social media, but what prompted you to go further and draw a comic specifically about this?

That was rage. Pure, unadulterated RAGE. I’ve never felt so angry about our political situation, not even during the Bush years. I think anyone with a shred of rationality should be working to resist 45 and his administration. It’s abhorrent what has happened; I literally can’t believe it. I’d like to think that Americans are at least semi-educated and reasonable, but this election showed that a significant portion of our population is backwards, bigoted, misogynistic, and hateful. I’m really concerned about this. 

When did you start working on it? Was it right after the election, and also was it a purely therapeutic thing, dealing with what’s going on politically or a call to arms? 

It was not purely therapeutic because I still feel the rage. It’s ongoing. It didn’t work. [laughs] 

So there are more Resister comics to come. [laughs] 

Maybe. The social media echo chamber seemed to enjoy it! I started drawing the comic the week he took office, after realizing I couldn’t even think about anything else, “How did this happen?! This is insane! A new, terrible reality has usurped our entire existence!” I just couldn’t understand it or believe it, so the comic was a way to direct all the rage outwards.

How much do you think that artists should be focusing their time now on making more political art as a part of The Resistance? What’s your take on artists’ contributions to the whole cause? 

That’s a good question, and it’s a question I continually ask myself as well. Is it more important for me to go to a science march, or stay indoors and do more Resister comics? Just for me personally, funneling the rage into comics may have a longer-lasting effect. But I’m not advocating drawing comics over marching and demonstrating and calling representatives. Everyone should be resisting, but everyone should do it in their own way. Resist!

From your on-going experience of not making any money from comics [laughs], what can you say to those young artists and students attending comic schools and different comics programs in colleges?

I wouldn’t know what to tell them. Maybe I’d suggest they read “Art School Confidential” if they haven’t already.

In 1989 when I graduated, I had a degree in Illustration from Syracuse University and thought, “okay, I’ll be an illustrator”, but getting started in the field of freelance illustration is really, really challenging. I would say to people who are studying comics to just try to do the best work you can while recognizing that your work might never get published, let alone make any money. Just do it because you like it. Enjoy it as means of self-expression. 

That’s true, I mean where else, I guess besides film maybe, can you show off something so graphically charged like a maimed corpse or something. 

Yeah, you can do whatever you want and the only limit is your own imagination. And making comics can be infinitely more satisfying than filmmaking if you prefer complete artistic control over collaboration. Just one lone cartoonist, transmitting their thoughts through words and pictures directly from their brain to yours over time and space — It’s a very pure art form.

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An Interview with Noah Van Sciver http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-noah-van-sciver/ http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-noah-van-sciver/#respond Wed, 24 May 2017 12:00:47 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=100741 Continue reading ]]> Noah Van Sciver’s Fante Bukowski Two (Fantagraphics Books) is an extensive follow-up to the Eisner-nominated first installment of Fante Bukowski, published in 2015. In the sequel, Fante’s epic search for praise and promise continues, landing him in Columbus, Ohio – conveniently at the same time that the author relocated. Due to our busy and exciting lives in this shared bustling metropolis, Noah and I caught up over email to talk about the new book, his experience so far in Ohio, and more. Readers can anticipate more of the love-hate experience that comes with cringing along at Fante’s exploits once again as he stumbles through a new town, discovers zines, alienates his peers, burns down a motel, and somehow still manages to capture a sympathetic piece of Audrey’s heart. Van Sciver’s gifts of well-crafted humor and comedic timing shine stronger than ever in Fante Two, while still incorporating some of the wistfulness for which much of his other work is known.

Hey Noah. Congratulations on your recent Eisner nomination (Best Single Issue) for Blammo no. 9, and on the DINKY award for Best Work from a Small Press! You’ve been kinda killin’ it lately, and now Fante Bukowski Two is officially out there. How are you feeling about this point in your career?

Thanks! I feel good. I’m just glad that anyone reads my comics.

One of the highlights of Blammo no. 9 is the White River Junction, Vermont story. Having lived there myself for a year, I got a special kick out of that one. Can you tell me a little about your experience out there?

I’m glad that I did it, and I learned a lot while over there, mainly by hanging out in Stephen Bissette’s class. It was my first time doing work around so many other people who were also working their asses off. It’s kind of a boot camp for cartoonists. I watched how hard the students had to push themselves and I kept thinking, “man, I don’t think I could graduate from here!”

I took advantage of being out east, and did all of the comics shows that I have always wanted to do. So, I was out of town frequently and when I was back I hid and drew my comics. Truthfully, I don’t feel like I interacted with the school as much as I should have, and I have some guilt about that.

Stephen Bissette told me you were one of the hardest working people he’s seen up there. How do you feel about the CCS program, if you’re willing to share that? I know they have more and more competition these days, with comics programs popping up all over the country.

It can be a good, helpful experience for people. If you’re serious about being a cartoonist and learning as much as you can, you’ll get a lot out of it. But you’ll also see people who get caught up in the drama that’s created in such a small community. That’s what you have to avoid.  Artists arrive to find that they’re no longer the best in their town, and others become more excited about being around other weirdos that working on their comics takes a back seat to hanging out and having parties. 

In Fante Bukowski Two, our man lands in Columbus. This conveniently coincides with your relocation to, as Fante says, “the artistic GALAXY that is Columbus Ohio”. My question is basically, “why here, why now” for both you and Fante. What brought you to Columbus, how has it been for you this past year, and was bringing Fante here a creative decision out of sheer convenience of familiarity, or something more?  

When I moved to Columbus last summer I came with about 20 finished pages for Fante Bukowski Two, and I didn’t really have a story in mind other than Fante has spent a year traveling around the country and has decided to try his luck in Columbus, OH, as I was about to. It worked well because as I was figuring out the city I could have him do it right along with me. Maybe it was a way of helping me feel more comfortable. My past year here has had it’s ups and downs, but a lot of that comes with trying to create a life in a new city alone and the anxieties that come with that.

Has it lived up to your expectations? What have you been doing with your time here? 

Yeah, it’s been good. I mostly keep my head down and work on my comics during the day and then go hang out with my neighbor Bryan Moss, visiting all the Half-Priced Books stores and drinking at night. Our tastes in comics are just different enough that we aren’t searching for the same comics and we can turn each other on to different artists.

What is it about Columbus that makes it an ideal setting for Fante?

Having the setting be in Columbus was an inside joke because I realized that nobody knows anything about this city, and so I could claim it as a hive of literary greatness, where every writer you love lives. Hopefully somebody far away will passively accept it as a fact. Nobody has a mental reference or familiarity with Columbus the way they do for Cleveland or Cincinnati and so I felt free to create my own for the reader.

Yeah, that lack of identity that Columbus has is one of the things it seems to be most insecure about. This is definitely a city that has attempted (and failed) at branding itself in different ways over the years. And it has demolished a lot of its own history, which doesn’t help. That has always kinda bothered me, but what’s funny is that your reinvention of it as a city where every “great” writer lives would probably bother me a thousand times more. I guess at least the way that it currently is makes it a best-kept secret. I’ve started to take a sick pleasure in outsider’s assumptions that Ohio is a totally boring, cultureless wasteland. I hope it keeps them away from ever finding out it’s cool and ruining it.

Yeah, and driving up the rents! Good, stay away everyone!

What do you find you like about it here, and what do you dislike?

I live in a historic part of the city, which is right up my alley, taste-wise. I love walking around my neighborhood. Columbus isn’t very far from a lot of cities so going to shows in Chicago or New York is easy. Living in Denver, it felt like going anywhere required a 5-hour flight. It felt very remote out there and that was annoying and isolating. Columbus is also a comics hub, with the Billy Ireland comics collection and museum and the frequent events and all that. I appreciate those. I don’t like Midwestern sweaty summers and all the insects. That’s my complaint. Ha ha.

There are some real places in Columbus that I recognize in the book, like Forno, Bob’s Bar, the Leveque tower, and Tommy’s Diner – are there many others? There are certainly some beautiful city street scenes in there. I don’t think we have a White Pride Tavern, but nothing surprises me anymore.

No, it’s a very fictionalized version of the city. Kilgore books, for example, is a Denver bookstore, but I couldn’t help myself including it in Fante’s Columbus since it’s an establishment so dear to my heart.

A bookstore like Kilgore is one thing that Columbus is sorely missing. I wish we had something similar.

God, me too. It was my clubhouse.

Considering the timing of both of your moves, how much of a comparison should people draw between you and Fante? You’ve also drawn “yourself” into this book, though Noah Van Sciver the character is almost as unlikable Fante – which seems intentional. Are they both the worst of you, or not you at all? What experiences of Fante’s OR “Noah Van Sciver’s” do you relate to? Like, oh, living in a hotel… (I’m thinking of when you were up at CCS). 

A lot of Fante Bukowski’s experiences are based off of my own. I was a “struggling, unappreciated” cartoonist in my early 20s and did and thought a lot of things that I’m deeply ashamed of now. I did actually go to a Dave Eggers reading once just to introduce myself and give him my mini comics, hoping he would publish me in Mcsweeney’s and I did walk around Denver with a backpack full of my latest mini comics trying to sell them. I drank shitty wine and drew all night. In those early years I thought I was going to be a great cartoonist one day and everyone would be sorry for how they were dismissing me. I couldn’t see that actually I was just a bad cartoonist. I’m older and more self-possessed these days, which helps me examine my 20s objectively and skewer the delusions I labored under in those embarrassing days.

I’ve never thought it was necessary to write main characters that were likable people, and in humor the more unlikable the better I think.

If you and Fante share a lot of the same experience, can you talk a little about your decision to include yourself as a character in the book?

That was just for a joke. I wanted Audrey to be involved with somebody awful and I felt that awful person should be a fictionalized version of me.

How has Fante Bukowski been received by your readers?

They must like him enough, although I do occasionally get an email from somebody unsure of whether or not I like him personally.

Is he a sympathetic character to you?

To me he is, yes. I really like him.

What was and is your actual relationship with Charles Bukowski and John Fante’s work? In your 2015 interview with PASTE you mention having gone through a phase of it, which is certainly common – especially for American men, it seems. Can you talk more about that though? What does their work represent to you, and how do you feel about it now? 

Oh yeah, well, I love Bukowski and John Fante very much. They’re easy to read, passionate books about being a struggling, sensitive (but still masculine) outsider and I think there’s a romanticism to that that a lot of men get into and are protective over. I’ve read almost every Charles Bukowski book and most of John Fante’s output as well. I’m not making fun of either of those authors. I’m making fun of the 20 something writer who’s more into being the cliché of the unappreciated genius, than actually learning how to write well.

This book is so genuinely funny – there are sequences on almost every page that had me actually laughing out loud. You’ve gotten very good at comedic timing. While I’ve found humor in all of your work in one way or another, most of your other long-form books have been much more directly reflective or downright sad. Do you feel like one tone is calling you more than the other these days, and why?

I’m conscious of learning to be a proficient comedy and drama storyteller. I don’t want to be a single note cartoonist. If I learn to blend it all together then I’ll draw comics that readers can’t just passively read. I want people to feel satisfied after reading my stories if it’s possible.

You’re doing a great job at it. When you say learning, I assume you mean by way of studying other works. Who are you reading and what are you watching that you learn the most from?  

For a long time I was buying and reading alternative comics from the 90s and early 2000s. Drawn & Quarterly magazines and issues of Zero Zero, stuff like that. There are a bunch of artists from that era that I get inspired by that you don’t hear about much these days. Someone like Pentti Otsamo, for example, did a little book called The Fall Of Homunculus that I really love. Just straight storytelling. I don’t dig very deep with film, but I pay attention to story structure and look up to the Coen Brothers who are perfect at weaving humor into an otherwise dramatic story.

A page from One Dirty Tree.

It seems like you are always working on multiple projects at a time, and from talking to you I assume your memoir One Dirty Tree your the main focus at the moment. Is there one style of storytelling that you enjoy more than another?  

I do bounce around from story to story. That’s just how I work, and I chock it up to artistic A.D.D. Lately I’ve been getting so tired of drawing that memoir book, but it’s getting close to the finish line. Or at least it’s in sight so I have to keep going. I don’t have a preference for styles. It just depends on how I’m feeling at them moment. 

A page from All Time Comics by Noah Van Sciver.

Speaking of the different notes and tones, are there any new styles you’ve wanted to experiment with – like horror or science fiction? I remember feeling suspicious when I heard that Dan Clowes was going to be experimenting with sci-fi stuff (The Death-Ray, Patience) but in the end it worked really well.  

The closest I ever came to something like that was the issue of All Time Comics I drew for Josh Bayer last year, and it was really challenging for me because I haven’t read enough superhero comics to internalize that style. But I wound up enjoying it because it was new for me. My regret is that the learning curve is very evident in the comic…

Had there always been plans for a sequel to Fante Bukowski? Is this the end of the line for Fante?

The first book was the easiest and quickest comic I ever drew. I just had so much fun working on it and drawing everyone, that by the time the book was published I knew I wasn’t finished with the character yet. As I worked on this book I felt like it was the middle story of a trilogy where everything has to go wrong. I do have a plot I’m proud of worked out for a third book that will end the story. I’ll get to it eventually, and that will be the final Fante Bukowski comic. 

I would love for you to put out a book of poetry by Fante Bukowski. Just saying. I’d buy it.

 Ha ha! My buddy Bruce Simon said I should do that too.

Audrey’s book gets optioned for a film directed by Michael Bay, and we’re seeing lots of your contemporaries get their comics and graphic novels optioned these days. Have you had any offers? If you could choose, which of your books would you want to see as a movie the most? If it were Fante Bukowski, who would play him? Audrey? Who would direct?

No, I’ve had no offers ever. I always wanted The Hypo to be a stage play, Saint Cole to be a Focus features film and Fante Bukowski to be a Netflix series. The easiest casting for Fante is Zach Galifianakis, though he’d have to pretend to be 24. And Audrey would be Nora Zehetner. Fante’s dad would be Jeffrey Tambor in my mind.

Sounds like you’ve put some thought into this. I hope some rich film person reading this takes a hint. How do you feel about some of the recent or upcoming film adaptations of graphic novels and comics? It seems like people find film to be the terminal degree for any art form, but a lot of times when I see a film adaptation of a book or comic, it replaces the original thing in my mind, and not in a good way. 

Yeah it’s risky. It can go either way I guess. I don’t think the Ghost World movie hurt the graphic novel sales though. It depends on the comic you’re going to option and how close they are to you. I read that the Simpsons as characters came about because Matt Groening didn’t want to give away his Life In Hell bunnies.

How much input did you have on the book design? It’s phenomenal. And I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me a long time to realize that the penciled “1st Ed. RARE” on the inside cover wasn’t real, heh.

I am a terrible designer and I have no problem turning over the files to Fantagraphics to put together. Luckily I’ve worked mostly with Keeli McCarthy (who was one of the inspirations for Audrey) and she hasn’t failed me yet. I get really excited to see what she’ll come up with. It’s my favorite part.

She does an incredible job. What about the pin-ups? Your idea? Are there any you hope to get for Fante 3? 

I just took the pin-up section idea from Ed Piskor and Hip Hop Family Tree. I have a list of some artists I’d love to get a drawing from. Like Nick Drnaso for example. I’m a big fan of his.

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Comics Vs. Hitler: An Interview with Mark Fertig http://www.tcj.com/the-comics-industrys-battle-against-hitler-an-interview-with-mark-fertig/ http://www.tcj.com/the-comics-industrys-battle-against-hitler-an-interview-with-mark-fertig/#respond Wed, 17 May 2017 12:00:43 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=100805 Take That, Adolf! about the anti-Hitler comics of the WWII era. Continue reading ]]> Arguing over who the greatest comic book superhero is, an argument that often takes the form of who-could-beat-up-who, remains a school yard ritual to this day. But there’s no point in arguing over who the greatest comic book supervillain is: It’s Adolf Hitler.

During the Second World War, the real-world dictator appeared on more comic book covers and in more comic book stories than any of the top ten, twenty or fifty villains of that era combined. Everyone fought Hitler, the Nazis, the Axis Powers, their allies and sympathizers, and, for a time, analogues of them. Not just every superhero of the early 1940s, from the household names to obscure, forgotten heroes, but even the likes of Little Orphan Annie, Andy Panda, and Donald Duck. Sometimes that fighting was abstract, like pitching war bonds or leading paper drives, but more often than not it was in punching Hitler and his cronies in the face, kicking him in the crotch and otherwise visiting cathartic comic book violence upon his caricatured avatar.

In his new book Take That, Adolf!: The Fighting Comics of the Second World War, Mark Fertig chronicles the greatest comic book conflict of all time, when the burgeoning American medium went to war against Hitler. His work is part art book, containing over 500 restored comic book covers from the era, many presented full-sized, and part history, containing a heavily-illustrated 43-page essay about the era that not only offers context to the medium’s boom years and patriotic politics, but also reveals details rarely if ever divulged in such histories.

Whether one’s interest is in the art or the history, the characters or the creators (or any combination thereof), Take That, Adolf! offers a thorough and compelling take on how the Second World War was depicted–and partially fought–at the newsstands of the Golden Age.

I recently spoke with Fertig, whose previous book for publisher Fantagraphics was Film Noir 101: The 101 Best Film Noir Posters of the 1940s-1950s, about the scope of his book, the ugliness of war-era propaganda and the immortality of the pop culture Nazis.

J. CALEB MOZZOCCO: In the terms of the sheer number of covers included, the one cited on the back cover is “more than 500.” Just how many of the World War II-era covers does that entail? Does your work here include every example of Hitler-punching and swastika-smashing, or 90% of it, or half of it? 

And can you tell us a little bit about the criteria you employed when choosing what to include and what not to? I admit that when I first heard about the book, I imagine a collection of covers that mimicked 1941’s Captain America Comics #1, only with different heroes delivering the blow to Hitler.

MARK FERTIG: Perhaps the best way to get at the answer to these questions is to talk a bit about how the project got started.

Before I decided to write this book, I tried to buy it and came up empty. I’ve nurtured life-long fascinations with comic books and the Second World War; I learned to read from comics and have been avidly collecting them ever since, and my fascination with war goes back nearly as far. As a college professor, I’ve taken groups of students to places such as the Normandy beaches, Anzio, and Monte Cassino, to Dachau and Auschwitz. Given the key role the war played in the early development of the comic business, I imagined that there would be at least a half-dozen books already out there. Some routine internet searching turned up next to nothing—just a chapter here and there in Golden Age histories that I already had on my shelf.

I’d previously written a book about movie posters for Fantagraphics, so I put together a gallery of a dozen or so WWII cover images and emailed them to Gary Groth with a general outline of what I thought the book ought to be about. He responded immediately and told me to get to work on it. The only question he asked was when I thought I could have it finished. It’s great to work with a publisher who trusts.

I began by trying to get a sense of just how many covers might be in play. I did countless more internet searches, then dusted off my copies of Gerber’s Photo-Journal Guide to Comic Books and examined each page with a magnifying glass, building a spreadsheet of titles and issue numbers as I went. I started to believe that the list was comprehensive when it surpassed 1,250 entries, but throughout the project I continued to discover new covers. As a matter of fact, one of the best images in the book, L.B. Cole’s outrageous cover for Taffy Comics #2, was first brought to my attention by the book’s designer, Jacob Covey, well after I had submitted everything and thought my part was finished. No one can be sure exactly how many covers directly or indirectly addressed the war, but I’m convinced that at least 1,500 and possibly as many as 2,000 deal with it in one way or another.

Narrowing the possibilities down to a manageable round number of 500 or so wasn’t difficult. As I collected images numerous organizing themes emerged, and these became the spine of the essay: pre-war covers, patriotic heroes, kid gangs, changing depictions of Hitler and other Axis leaders, racist images, war bond drives, funny animal books and so forth. There were so many different things happening on the covers for so many different reasons that after choosing the best examples of each I easily had a book’s worth of covers to set about restoring.

L.B. Cole, 1945



On the subject of that famous Captain America cover, given its prominence in the genre, I was curious why it doesn’t adorn the cover of the book, which instead features a collage of various lesser-known star-spangled heroes manhandling caricatures and symbols of the Axis powers. 

In the book I describe the cover for Captain America Comics #1 as the comic book equivalent of Joe Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima flag-raising photograph. It’s just everywhere — I’ve even seen it printed on canvas and sold at Target. Along with the covers of Action Comics #1 and Detective Comics #27, it’s one of the most recognizable and iconic images in the history of comics. That’s why it didn’t belong on the cover of this book. My fear was that by using the Simon and Kirby cover, potential readers might assume that the book contained nothing more than familiar content. Hopefully by showcasing lesser-known or forgotten heroes like The Shield, Captain Freedom, and Uncle Sam, along with a range of iterations of Adolf himself, readers might understand that there was a lot more going on in the comic books of the war years than they previously realized.

Most American comics fans will be familiar with the idea of Jewish-American comics artists, writers and editors using their medium to act out wish-fulfillment or revenge fantasies against Hitler and the Nazis, but I found your phrasing in the “Building Toward War” section interesting. You wrote that, “They began to understand that their creations might be used to warn the public about Hitler and make a dent in America’s pervasive isolationism.” The idea of pre-War comics warning American youth about the war in Europe seems fascinating; do you have any sense of how effective that warning was? Did the comics of 1940 and ’41 convince many readers that U.S. involvement was inevitable, or desirable?

It’s difficult to say to what extent pre-war comics swayed public opinion or actually convinced anyone that American involvement in the war was inevitable, in spite of how much an agenda-driven publisher such as Timely’s Martin Goodman wanted to do so, because the larger domestic zeitgeist of the late 1930s and early 1940s was already all about war. Life magazine covers from 1939 showed images of Japanese soldiers, German naval vessels, and British ack-ack gunners. The United States began drafting young men into the service in September of 1940, the Lend-Lease Act followed soon after.

Naturally there was significant opposition to this rising tide of nationalism from a large segment of the public who didn’t want to see America involved in another catastrophic foreign war, including many on the political right who denounced FDR as a warmonger. It would have been easy for an ostensibly children’s medium such as comic books to simply avoid the war altogether, but given that by and large it didn’t, it’s apparent just how motivated the predominantly Jewish-American creators were in getting the word out about the threat posed by Hitler and Nazi Germany. Who knows how far they actually moved the needle? I think it’s enough to recognize how hard they were trying.

Irv Novick, 1940


I think we also tend to imagine that the comics industry was all-in from the get-go, but you note that superhero comics sort of eased in to direct engagement with Nazi Germany, using swastika-like symbols, being coy with unnamed foreign dictators and countries, or giving them pseudonyms. What accounts for that reluctance—was it political sensitivity, or the relative newness of the medium and the genre, or both? And where would you identify the turning point between drawing weird X-symbols on covers vs. swastikas? Was it the success of Captain America, or the attack on Pearl Harbor, or was it more gradual?

Given the lens of history and what we now know about the Nazi regime it’s easy to assume that comic books would have jumped right in and started pounding on Germany from the get-go, but the typical superhero stories of the late 1930s featured domestic villains who instead reflected the dreary realities of life in depression era America: racketeers, slumlords, and crooked politicians. But soon enough the looming war in Europe and tensions with the Japanese replaced the Great Depression as the central preoccupation of American life, and comic book villains quickly embodied the change.

And yet, despite creators’ desire to spread the word about Nazism, it wasn’t a forgone conclusion in the years and months leading up to Pearl Harbor that we would go to war with Germany, or that we would even go to war at all. This period of uncertainty led all of those pseudo swastikas, imaginary countries and dictators with names that only sounded like Hitler. Readers were gobbling up war stories, but publishers had to be cautious. What would happen if we didn’t go to war after all? In one oft-told industry anecdote, Martin Goodman swapped Hitler’s name out of a story at the eleventh hour because he somehow imagined the German dictator would take him to court.

Any skittishness that publishers felt vanished in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland and the war in Europe officially got going. Even if the United States never got into the actual fighting, Nazis were fair game because they were at war with our allies, Great Britain and France. Creators rushed to get swastikas onto their covers and real Nazis into their stories. MLJ’s Top Notch Comics #2 was first, followed a month later by Timely’s Marvel Mystery Comics #4. By the end of 1940 the kids of America were learning all about the Battle of Britain through their comic books, and Martin Goodman couldn’t get Captain America Comics #1 out fast enough, because by then he was terrified that Hitler would be dead before the issue reached newsstands.

Edd Ashe, 1940

How difficult is it in 2017 to engage with the art collected herein? You repeatedly mention the racism prevalent in the comics at the time, not only in the depiction of demonized, dehumanized Japanese, but also of African-Americans. I imagine many modern readers will need to do a bit of mental gymnastics when it comes to decoupling the racism of many of the images from the rest of it in order to find value.

The value in these comics lies in the truth they tell about the America of the war years, a truth that is sometimes overshadowed in our pop culture reverence for the American fighting man and the “greatest generation.” The racism found in the comics, movies and radio programs of the period is as ugly as it is ever-present, so it couldn’t be ignored.

Artist unknown, 1942

I guess it would have been possible to make a book about these covers and stories while minimizing the topic in the text and being extra careful about which images to include and which ones to leave out, but I would have felt like a fraud if I’d done so. And while the book is undoubtedly a celebration of the comic book’s contribution to the war effort, my goal was also to tell the whole story, warts and all.

I doubt anyone would have noticed if I’d omitted something as obscure as Dell’s The Funnies #64, but it was on newsstands in 1942 and so I needed it in the book. And if I’d not mentioned Fawcett’s Steamboat, then I couldn’t tell about the schoolkids who were horrified by the way the he was depicted and actually managed to do something about it. That’s a story worth knowing, particularly because we seem to have made so little progress on race in the seven decades since the war ended.

I really hope that readers don’t try to decouple the racism from the images or just look past artwork that offends, but are instead reminded how glaringly badly the country treated groups of Americans who, ironically by means of the war, proved that their work ethic, courage in battle and love of country was unsurpassed by anyone.

Another thing I learned in your book that surprised me was that in 1943 the Writers’ War Board started trying to influence the comics of the period, and they pushed publishers to work even harder to further dehumanize the enemy through their depictions. That would make the line between government propaganda and a more innocent, or at least diffuse, advocacy on the part of creators awfully blurry. It’s also a little bizarre to think people reviewing the comics covers featuring bestial Japanese and essentially saying, “Well, this is a good start, but could you maybe make this more racist?”

And yet that’s how it actually happened!

The WWB was one of the big surprises of my research—I’d never heard of it before I began the project. If we take a step back and look at the First World War, many Americans believed that they had been lured into fighting by government propaganda. A generation later, FDR needed the full support of an already suspicious public, so he avoided overt propaganda in favor of a “strategy of truth,” while relying on unofficial volunteer groups like the WWB to craft and disseminate the kinds of messages that the government couldn’t.

When Hitler put London under the Blitz, Americans were first in line to condemn the indiscriminate strategic bombing of civilians. But as the war ground on and on and the Allies came to believe that strategic bombing (and ultimately the atomic bomb) was needed to hasten the end of the war, Americans had to be convinced that regular Germans were as responsible as Nazis for starting the war, and that the Japanese were little more than insects. Comic books were blunt, crude, and lowbrow enough to dodge serious scrutiny or criticism. And because practically everyone in the country was reading them, the WWB saw them as an ideal propaganda tool.

Artist unknown, 1944

We talked a little about that famous Captain America cover, and I did want to ask you about the good Captain, as he’s an exemplar of this era and this type of cover. As you noted, he wasn’t the first patriotic superhero, and he was followed by scores of imitators. What made him different, to the degree that he’s starring in movies today instead of The Shield or The Fighting Yank or whoever? I think we tend to assume it was simply that Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were just so much better at the game than so many other guys; is that it, or are there other factors that lead to Captain America’s lightning-in-a-bottle quality?

I’m sure there are a lot of reasons why Captain America has managed to stand the test time, but my cynical self wonders if it’s just because he’s a Marvel property. It was Captain America who reemerged in Avengers #4, not The Shield or Captain Freedom. If those characters belonged to Marvel, we might be talking about them instead. In spite of that landmark first cover, the amazing Simon and Kirby pages that followed, and the chart-busting sales figures, Cap was put on ice in 1949. Had he not been resurrected by Lee and Kirby fifteen years later, it’s possible he’d be forgotten today.

Still though, that origin story makes me think otherwise. Captain America is, without a doubt, the most appealing, most wish-fulfilling character to come out of the war. I’ll quote Steranko once again, “He was the American truth. The face unrevealed behind the mask was ours.”

Superheroes were around for a few years before the United States entered the war, and they are obviously still around now, but could you imagine the comic book superhero without World War II? The war obviously played a huge role in the development of the genre, but is that role inextricable?

It’s definitely not inextricable. After all, only a handful of superheroes survived the war. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman managed to carry on for DC, though The Shield had been shoved off the pages of MLJ comics by Archie Andrews; Stan Lee and Martin Goodman threw in the towel on Captain America in 1949. Fawcett determined that Captain Marvel’s lagging sales no longer warranted defending their copyrights against DC, so they agreed on a settlement and got out of comics altogether. Other superheroes went into an extended hiatus; most of them simply vanished forever.

Audiences were jaded by all that death, the atomic bomb, and news of what had been done to Europe’s Jews—guys in tights suddenly seemed childish and silly. The rise of the superhero comic had been so bound up in the war that once the fighting ended, nobody knew what else to do with the characters. Wartime comics were almost exclusively plot-driven, with minimal character development. Superman and Batman had once been New Deal ass-kickers; now they were uptight squares. The world at the end of the war had grown up; superheroes comics needed to grow up too, but the writers and artists who had been banging out the stories as fast as they could since the late 1930s weren’t ready to do it. So, readers moved on. Many developed a grim fascination with lurid crime and horror comics; others gravitated to Archie and romance titles; still more went for westerns. Only Donald Duck was as bulletproof as ever. For a while it looked like superheroes would be remembered as a fad of the 1940s.

Then the generation that fought the war started having kids—tons of kids—and remembered how important the superhero comics had once been to them. Their nostalgia for comics, coupled with a surging youth-oriented consumer culture, reignited an interest in superheroes. Superman got his own television show. DC brought back the Flash then launched the Justice League. Marvel dove in shortly thereafter with a healthy dose of angst—you know the rest. In the end it wasn’t the superheroes who saved themselves; it was the generation who fought and won the war, and read a lot of comic books while doing it. They may have moved on from comics, but they didn’t hesitate to encourage their children to start reading them.

One of the fascinating things about this era of comic book history is that it is unique; we would never again see comic book superheroes taking a side like this in any of the many wars that followed, and, in fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine comic book covers going to war now like they did then. Do you have a sense of why that is? Was the nature of the war, the new-ness of the comic book, the absence of television, the mores of the 1940s?

The scope of the war and the many ways in which it dominated American life is almost impossible for anyone who wasn’t alive at the time to imagine. Blackouts, air raid drills, rationing and scrap drives defined daily life from coast to coast. Women entered the workforce to replace the men who left to fight. Kids practiced identifying enemy aircraft, planted victory gardens, and donated their comic books to paper drives that they organized themselves. No family was left untouched by the fighting; every heart skipped a beat at the sight of a Western Union uniform.

When General Eisenhower told the servicemen who land at Normandy that “the eyes of the world are upon you,” he wasn’t kidding. As news of the invasion reached home the country literally shut down. Banks, schools, and shops all closed as Americans went looking for the nearest radio. Movies, songs, radio shows, and comic books all focused on winning the war. That such a global conflagration could happen again in the era of nuclear weapons is unthinkable.

It’s also important to recognize that comic books now occupy a markedly different place in world popular culture; comic book movies, television shows and merchandise generate billions and billions of dollars each year for conglomerates like Time Warner and Disney. It’s difficult to imagine that in this day and age they’d be allowed to take a side.

In your research and work in making this book, did you encounter a particular artist you were previously unfamiliar with whose work you appreciated, or perhaps appreciated in a new light? Personally, I was only vaguely familiar with the name Alex Schomburg before reading Take That, Adolf! and now I could stare at his drawings of The Flaming Torch and Toro all day.

It wasn’t any one artist that got to me –though Mac Raboy, who did wonderful Captain Marvel Jr. and Master Comics covers, has skyrocketed in my esteem)–it was the way the comics were made.

Like many others, I grew up believing in the Marvel bullpen—artists hunched over drawing boards in a big room, typewriters clacking away in the background. As a kid I thought that if I could make it to New York City I could sneak into the Marvel offices and see it all happening in one place. Comics may not have been made that way, but the packagers of the Golden Age came closest. Of course most of the packaging shops had more in common with a factory assembly line or even sweatshops than they did with my imaginary Marvel bullpen, but they were where most of the greats got started.

There’s something magical about being young, broke, full of dreams and there at the beginning of something. My favorite comic book story of all time is the one about how Charlie Biro, Jerry Robinson, Bob Wood, Mort Meskin and a bunch of their pals spent an entire weekend hurriedly banging out the 64 pages of Daredevil Battles Hitler, with nothing to eat and a blizzard raging outside, just so publisher Lev Gleason could get his hands on a bumper crop of newsprint. While working on Take That, Adolf! I must have stumbled across that story in a half-dozen places, and was floored by it every time.

Charles Biro, 1941

I was wondering if you had any thoughts about why Hitler and Nazis in general became such pervasive comic book villains, to the point that heroes are still fighting Nazis in various forms today, and, in a sense, never stopped fighting Nazis. There’s the obvious reason, of course, with Hitler perpetrating the greatest crimes of the 20th century, but characters as diverse as Captain America and Hellboy are still fighting Nazis today, and much of Marvel’s multi-media franchise is built around the fight against the crypto-Nazi organization “Hydra,” which use elements of Nazi iconography.

Nazis are great fodder for pop culture entertainments because they offer such narrative economy. As soon as we see that swastika we know everything we need to know—no wasted panels, paragraphs or minutes of running time. There’s also no risk of readers or viewers gaining sympathy for the Nazis and switching over to their side; it’s one less thing writers have to worry about. What’s the best thing about the movie Die Hard? It’s Hans Gruber. Alan Rickman is so good in that part you wish he’d escaped and come back for the sequel. Half the audience was cheering for him. But nobody ever watched Raiders of the Lost Ark and whispered to the guy in the next seat, “I hope the Nazis win…”

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The 2017 Doug Wright Award Winners http://www.tcj.com/the-2017-doug-wright-award-winners/ http://www.tcj.com/the-2017-doug-wright-award-winners/#respond Sun, 14 May 2017 03:24:50 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=100727 Continue reading ]]> [Press release follows]

The winners of the 13th annual Doug Wright Awards, recognizing the best work and most promising talent in Canadian comics, were announced this evening at a ceremony in Toronto. One of this year’s winners was a first-time Doug Wright Award nominee, and all three are first-time winners.

Doug Wright Best Book Award

(For the best English-language book published in Canada)

Bird in a Cage, by Rebecca Roher (Conundrum Press)

Doug Wright Spotlight Award (a.k.a. The Nipper)

(For a Canadian cartoonist deserving of wider recognition)

Steve Wolfhard, for Cat Rackham (Koyama Press)

Pigskin Peters Award

(For the best experimental, unconventional or avant-garde comic)

The Palace of Champions by Henriette Valium (Conundrum Press)

Giants of the North

This year’s inductee to the Giants of the North Canadian cartoonist hall of fame, which celebrates creators who have made a life-long contribution to the field, is pioneering cartoonist and comics journalist Katherine Collins, formerly known as Arn Saba before transitioning in 1993.

Saba’s character Neil the Horse made his first appearance in Canadian newspapers in 1975 before starring in a 15-issue run of his own comic from 1982 to 1988. Neil the Horse Comics and Stories (Aardvark-Vanaheim, Renegade Press) is often referred to as the world’s first (and last) singing-and-dancing comic book, in reference to Saba’s inclusion of intricately choreographed dance numbers and original sheet music written to act as a soundtrack to Neil’s adventures.

Saba spent several years contributing to Morningside, CBC Radio’s popular national morning show, where he carved out a niche as a commentator on comics and cartoonists. In 1979 he produced and hosted The Continuous Art, a five-part documentary series that explored the cultural ghettoization of comics via interviews with cartoonists Will Eisner, Jules Feiffer, Milton Caniff, Walt Kelly, and Gil Kane, among others.

Collins was on hand to accept her induction.

The 2017 Doug Wright Awards ceremony was a feature event of this year’s Toronto Comics Arts Festival (TCAF) and was held at the Marriott Bloor Yorkville Hotel Forest Hill ballroom in downtown Toronto. This year’s awards were hosted by Dustin Harbin, a cartoonist and illustrator from North Carolina, and a regular attendee of both TCAF and the Doug Wright Awards.

This year’s winners were chosen by a jury consisting of Sue Carter, editor of Quill & Quire, Canada’s magazine of book news and reviews, and the books columnist for Metro; Alison Lang, editor of Broken Pencil, a magazine focusing on alternative culture in Canada; and Dakota McFadzean, comic artist and author, and 2016 Doug Wright Award winner.

The Doug Wright Awards are a non-profit organization formed in 2004 to honour the lasting legacy of the late, great Canadian cartoonist Doug Wright (1917–1983), whose strip, Doug Wright’s Family, ran in newspapers in Canada and around the world from the late 1940s to the early 1980s. The Doug Wright Awards recognize comics and graphic novels published in the previous calendar year.

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Talking TCAF with Christopher Butcher http://www.tcj.com/talking-tcaf-with-christopher-butcher/ http://www.tcj.com/talking-tcaf-with-christopher-butcher/#respond Fri, 12 May 2017 12:00:54 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=100696 Continue reading ]]> Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) has changed the North American comics scene profoundly. Ditching the prevalent for-profit comic show model, TCAF aimed to promote the work of comics to the public. It is free for the public to attend, takes place in the largest library in the city, offers childrens’ and librarian and educator programming, and invites top-notch artists from all over the world, while only charging exhibitors a reasonable amount. Even though every major city now has an indie comic show, many of them following TCAF’s footsteps in various ways, TCAF is still exceptional in its breadth of programming, guests, and support for exhibitors.

TCAF takes place this weekend at the Toronto Reference Library. I spoke with Christopher Butcher, Festival Director at TCAF & manager of The Beguiling, which is the main sponsor of TCAF.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Kim Jooha: What do you do at The Beguiling, TCAF, and Page & Panel?

Christopher Butcher: My name’s Christopher Butcher, I am the festival director of TCAF, and I co-founded it in 2002 with Peter Birkemoe, who owns The Beguiling. I’d been a customer of the store and I’d been living downtown for a while with my roommate Bryan O’Malley. He was making comics, but there was not really any comic conventions that a creator like him could go to, and I had a lot of friends who were in the same boat.They weren’t quite Canzine, but they weren’t also quite like the big FanExpo.

They wanted to go down to SPX. I think they had Joe Matt in the car, and he was a guest, but no one could drive. Peter asked, “Are you going to SPX? Can you drive a car?” I was like, “Yeah, I’ll drive down for the group.” I’d always taken van or car loads of my friends down to SPX. We would go every year, because that was the kind of show.

On the way, I was like, “Why are we driving to Maryland to go to a show? Why isn’t there a show like SPX in Toronto?” And he’s like, “Because it’s too much work and I don’t want to do it.” I’m like, “But you’re the only one who could do it. The Beguiling is the center of indie comics and making comics in the city.” And he’s like, “No, that’s stupid.” I was like, “Well, it’s going to be a long car ride, then.” I just badgered him for ten hours. Then, by about three quarters of the way through, he was like, “Ah, fine, I’ll do it, but you have to do it.” So, the deal was that I would mostly put together the show and he would mostly pay for it.

We both had very different Rolodexes of people that we worked with, cartoonists. He was part of the late ’80s, early ’90s alternative scene in Toronto: Seth, Chester [Brown], Joe Matt, and the D & Q guys. I was more contemporary, up-and-coming cartoonists: Oni Press, Image, and that kind of thing. So we started putting together the show. The first one was in March 2003. It was really under the radar for the comics community.

A lot of people don’t know what the first show was. They think it was the one in 2005 where we had the tents behind The Beguiling and in the Honest Ed’s parking lot, but it was actually on Trinity-St. Paul’s on Bloor. It was a little church. We chose that space because Toronto had done an independent book publishers’ fair there, the Toronto Small Press Book Fair, which also didn’t really fit the comics community in Toronto. We only had 600 people show up in the first year.

That’s a lot, though.

That’s a lot for the first year, but The Beguiling had done their 15th anniversary party and they had filled the Bloor. They had 7 or 800 people just to come out to see Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Seth, Chester, Joe, and I think somebody else on stage.

It was okay, it was a good start, and it grew from there. We started adding people along the way, because I think a lot of people realized that it is a really important thing to have a show like this in your city but it also is a tremendous amount of work and I think people don’t realize that from the outside all the time. A lot of people would come and then leave after a year or two. To be honest, Peter and I are not the easiest people to work with sometimes, so that contributed a lot [laughs]. But yeah, we had a vision and we just had to keep doing it. We just had to keep pushing for the show to exist.

It really changed in 2007, because Toronto’s public library system approached us and they were like, “Could you do something like TCAF in Toronto Reference Library?”

So the library approached you guys first?

Yeah. We were like, “Well, we’re already locked in at Victoria College, but why don’t you come and send some people out to see what we do, and if you think that that’s cool, maybe we could talk about 2009?” Because we were doing it every two years. Peter was adamant that we didn’t go more than every two years, because it was so much work that it took away from The Beguiling.

They came and checked it out and they loved it. They said, “You can come to Toronto Reference Library, that would be great.” The library now is very different than it was then. The central atrium has pretty much remained the same, but everything around it has changed. There was no Appel Salon, the Browsery was very different, there was no space there, really. It was really cut off, lots of little hide-y corners and nooks. But, we still did it the first year, and it was successful. But it’s been a learning curve, learning how to use the building and work with the Toronto Public Library staff, who we really disrupt what they do for three or four days. The two days of the weekend, but also in the preparations and things like that.

The Toronto Public Library’s like, “You have to do this every year, because it’s too hard for us to do it every other year.” And we did. We started doing it every year, and that meant bringing in people that could be more available, year round. I think in the second year we brought in Miles, and in the second and a half year we brought in Andrew T.

So second year —

At the library, I mean, sorry. So, in 2010 or 2011, we brought in Andrew T and Miles to work it, and they’ve been with the festival very consistently ever since, and we’ve kept adding … Beguiling staffers have stepped up and added more time, we’ve added more people. Some of our exhibitors had actually become staffers, because they also, in their worlds, organize little groups of people, for conventions or they act as mentors for younger generations of cartoonists. They’re like, “We know what you guys do is really hard. We want to step up, we want to help out,” and that’s really awesome.

We’ve just had some great people join the festival, so now we get to do it year round. Then, adding Page & Panel store was good, because we just got an office out of it. The store is great, I love Page & Panel, but oh my God, I’m so happy to have an office to actually work in.

TCAF until 2014 was mostly run out of a computer on the second floor of The Beguiling. I just was there 70 hours a week in that chair. You know the one behind the counter on the second floor was my computer? We added that computer because I was doing so much TCAF work that it was hard to ring people through. All of TCAF was done at that computer until 2013, and then we finally got an office so I could have a computer behind a door that closed, which was good. I can just come here and work on TCAF stuff uninterrupted. I get twice as much done in a day. It’s kind of crazy, the amount of work that we actually put out.

Before 2010, it was only you working on TCAF?

Yeah, no, we had a lot of people that stepped up for specific roles. We’re very fortunate.

So you came to The Beguiling in 2002?

I was a customer at the store for a few years before that and I just became friends with Peter. I didn’t work at The Beguiling at the beginning, and one of the employees got a job. I was there a lot, setting up TCAF stuff —

When you started working with TCAF, you didn’t work at The Beguiling?

I was just like, “I’m just a guy who’s got this crazy idea, and I just need a computer to work on it with you.” Peter’s like, “Fine,” so I stole one of the computers upstairs to work on. I got to know all the staff, because I was in there all the time, and they asked me to like, “Can you cover the register?” “Can you cover a day?” “I got another job, can you work five days a week?” I was like, “Great.” I didn’t like the job I had at the time and I wasn’t great at it, so it worked out. I started working at The Beguiling in June or something like that, of 2003, but for the first seven or eight months I was just working on TCAF.

Was TCAF the first comic show that didn’t ask public to pay?

We did ask people to pay in the first year. It was five dollars, or pay what you can, because everything in Toronto for the 1980s and 1990s and early 2000s was five dollars/pay-what-you-can. And we made probably a thousand dollars or something like that at the door. Almost nothing. Because it was dumb. A lot of people were like, “Oh, I’m going to check this out, I’m not going to pay.” Or like, “I would have given you a hundred dollars.” Well, spend that money with the creators.

We decided in 2005, because it was going to be tents and it was going to be outside, to make it free and to attract as many people as we can. Treat it like everything else that happened behind Honest Ed’s.

And that became the philosophy for the festival. It was determined by where we chose the venue one year, and we just went from there. And we went from 600 people in the first year to 6000. We were taking photographs of the area and counting people. As soon as there’s no barriers to entry, people who were on the fence will be like “Oh, I’ll go check it out then.”

Now our success is a barrier to entry. People like you, who thought “Oh, it’s not going to have the things I like.” No, we’ve totally got exactly, we’ve got more space than ever for people who are doing the art comics, the most alternative artists in that field are coming every year. But it’s also— there’s all this other stuff.

The festival started because I liked a certain type of comics. Peter liked a certain type of comics with a little bit of overlap and we both respected each other’s ideas, and that’s what the first show was. It was people from this spectrum, and as the show has gone forward and we’ve added more people and they bring their own tastes and we get more credibility, internationally, so we’re able to attract different creators who might not have come or might not come to North America at all, that spectrum gets wider and wider and wider every year.

It means that we can cover more of what we think are the best comics in the world, and that’s the point of TCAF. It is to create a platform and to make space for people who are doing good work. Charge the creators as little as we can get away with, charge the public nothing, and create a space where people can buy and take home these pieces of art work and creators can pay their rent that month. That’s what TCAF is.

How does TCAF choose its international guests? It’s very hard to see international — especially Japanese — guests in alternative or indie comic shows.

What we’ve done for the last couple years is, at our annual meeting, our wrap-up meeting after the festival’s over, everyone who had any kind of position of authority with the festival comes to the meeting and we get their feedback. One of the things we say is, “Who is your dream guest for next year? International, local, whomever. Come with a list of names.”

And then we take that list and start talking to publishers and we ask, “Does this creator have any work coming from you in spring of next year, when TCAf is?” Because we’ve found that when we bring an international creator who doesn’t have a new work out in English, the attendance for their participation in the festival is low. Lower than we would like. When a creator does have a new work out, in English, their participation is much, much higher.

And ultimately, we have passed on certain guests because they don’t have a new work in English. And they’re superstar cartoonists and we feel bad about it. But the only thing worse than feeling bad about missing out on an opportunity to bring a good cartoonist to Toronto, for me, is bringing a great cartoonist to Toronto and having no one fucking show up. That has happened a couple of times in the past, both for TCAF and Beguiling events. It is gut-wrenching. It feels terrible.

We also work with a lot of international funders, consulates and cultural agencies from countries. They love comics. If you’re working in the book or the arts department of a cultural agency, you like comics. Everywhere else in the world but North America. People who work for the French book office are huge BD fans. The people who work in the Spain arts and culture understand comics. They maybe don’t dig super deep into the history of comics, but they have five or six favorite comics. People who work at consulates always try to get their favorites in the city that they work in.

And a lot of it is who’s available, and we’re trying to plan further and further in advance. It’s always tough. But we have actually, successfully, had a couple of books come out in English because we were willing to bring the creators over. Or had those books come out around TCAF because we were willing to bring a creator over.

That makes me feel really good, it’s getting more works from translation into print.

Translated works are rare in English.

Yeah. North Americans don’t like to read works in translation.

I was surprised to see the “Image 25 Years” event in this year’s TCAF. It’s super-mainstream, even compared to First Second. Last year there was Brian K. Vaughan. But there has been no Marvel or DC at TCAF. How do you decide that boundary?

There’s actually Marvel and DC work at TCAF every year.

I didn’t see them!

It just doesn’t get the same spotlight. TCAF has a politics to it, and that politics is … so irrelevant outside of the comic book industry, but it is creator ownership. If you make the work and then you own the work after you make it, then we will support you. Again, as long as the work’s any good. We don’t work with a couple of smaller publishers that don’t have good creator ownership contracts. Image isn’t like that, and we’ve always been welcoming to Image creators. I think a thing about Image in general, Brian K. Vaughan specifically, is that they’ve been very vocal and very critical of Marvel and DC and the practices of Marvel and DC owning all of your work after you do them.

If I can take a bunch of people that would never come to TCAF and get them to come to TCAF and to see the message that creators who make a book should own that book entirely, then I’m winning hearts and minds. That means that we’re creating more freedom for people to create the work they want to create.

More importantly, Image is a model that has real financial success attached to it. I don’t believe that comics necessarily have to be a thing that you create and never make any money from. I think that’s a broken idea. It plays into the fantasy of the poor artist starving for their artwork. Life doesn’t have to be like that. It is, for a lot of people, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Image is one of the many models where if you’ve got a good idea that will resonate with people and you’re willing to put the work in, you can win the lion’s share of the rewards from the sales of that work.

Now, a lot of the work ends up looking like Marvel and DC work, but a lot of it doesn’t. I think that the fact that Image can publish something like Sex Criminals—which is legitimately a good comic book, but more importantly has ideas in it that are about sex and relationships and just existing in the world as a human being—is important, and I think the fact that it’s wrapped up in something that looks more commercial and less what we think of as artistic, is not a fault of the work at all. I think it’s absolutely a strength.

I knew Image would be a weird thing for a lot of people to accept, but for me it’s always been, even Image didn’t realize it, but more in our family than they have been in the mainstream comics family. Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond? I think the deal they’re giving people is good. I think the production quality is above average, but obviously not as nice as a really nice Fantagraphics book.

I think that the more people that are making work at Image, the more people will eventually go on and make work elsewhere too, because there are things that you can’t do at Image, stories that you can’t tell there. They’re a publisher with an identity and an ideology, and not every work fits there, but the fact that they were able to relax things up to the point to have Island come out with Brandon Graham and Emma Rios editing it, that included, Michael DeForge doing what Michael DeForge does, is incredible. I think that they put 15 issues of that out, is also incredible. I think that there’s more space for that at Image than maybe even Image realizes. So, I’m hoping they have a good year. I’m hoping they see what the rest of the industry could look like at something like TCAF, and I hope that changes things for the better.

What do you think about other shows that follow TCAF’s lead?

Ultimately, as long as they’re free to the public to attend, we’re strongly in favor. We really want the model of comics show that we’ve come up with that, through trial and error, through finding the best way to serve the public, to serve the creators, and to serve the medium to become the dominant model.

The Comic-Con model of $40, $50 admission is bullshit. It has to stop. It won’t stop, there’s too much money in it, but if I can work with the team to present a different model and then that model is adopted and then spread far and wide, then Comic-Con model starts to look stupider and stupider to people. And that’s a win.

Americans say that one thing that makes it harder for them to start a comic show is the lack of government funding.

Yeah. That’s real. That’s one of the discussions that’s happening online right now, about how it’s easier to make comics in Canada, because you can devote more time to it because you don’t have to work another job to get health insurance. That’s a really basic thing. I am not working 40 hours a week to provide healthcare before I can start working on my comics. That is totally legitimate.

When you get beyond that, when you get to, “Oh, I can get grants for my work, I can get touring money for my work. My publisher can get grants for my work.” That’s a whole different model. I think by and large we are tremendously lucky to live in Canada and to make comics in Canada. TCAF is tremendously lucky to be a festival in Canada. It does make it hard for shows that want to follow in our footsteps. No lie. It absolutely does.

But we didn’t get government funding I think until 2012 or 2013, for the festival itself. It was privately funded by The Beguiling, and we were still able to offer a free show.

But as soon as the government funding came in, we were able to offer a better program, and have more exhibitors and more international guests. I think all of the things that I said stick, but there’s a scale that you can operate a show that we do with private funding that does sustain itself, and I hope people find that. I hope people in the States find that. It means you’ve got to find as many like-minded people as you can, and some of them have to have some money to start.

I also want to talk about Page & Panel, because it’s the TCAF shop. Why is it different from The Beguiling? Page & Panel even has food and drinks!

\Page & Panel was conceived as halfway between a comic book store and the official library gift shop. Basically TCAF doesn’t look like The Beguiling. A lot of the stuff that you find at TCAF you’ll find at The Beguiling, but things like prints or enamel pens aren’t at The Beguiling every year. Page & Panel hopefully represents a fuller idea of what TCAF actually brings to the library year-round, whereas The Beguiling keeps its focus very firmly on comics.

Every store does react and adapt to its neighborhood. Having a drink fridge is because 4,000 people walk through the library everyday, some of them are thirsty and it earns at its space, having little snacks.

The product mix is always evolving too, we want to stay fresh and we want to do different stuff, so we’ll bring in new lines, some of them work, some of them don’t. We want to have it be a cool retail shop that’s curated and that doesn’t always easily exist anymore, because online shopping has made it easier to hunt, pick, and find the thing for the cheapest discount. It’s working great. I think it’s because it has the TCAF name behind it, that lets people expect a little bit when they walk through the door. The store is contributing to the overall bottom line of TCAF, which is really amazing.

Would you recommend others to do the job you have: starting comics show or comics retailing?

It’s hard to build anything. Starting from scratch is the hardest thing. It’s not impossible, but it takes much more work and effort. I have a very firm belief that putting something into the world that is not well thought out can hurt the chances for the people that follow.

When you say, “Should people start a comic book store?” I don’t know that they should, unless they’ve got a strong brand, unless they’ve got a lot of experience already working in comic book stores, unless they’ve already got a lot of experience working in real retail stores, because fully half of comic book store ordering now should be through real book store channels. Ordering through Diamond is done, like you still have to order through Diamond to get certain things, but not everything, and anything you cannot get through Diamond is usually better to get it from a different distributor. Finding the kind of person who has all of those abilities or finding the team that has all of those abilities is tough, so to the average person if they were like, “Should I start a comic book store?” I’d say, “No, unless you have all of these things. You can still try, and I’m not going to stop you, but I’m going to be aware that if you fuck this up.”

Every time a comic book store closes, if they’ve got 100 customers, it’s not like those 100 customers go to the next store up the street. Half of them have stopped collecting comics. We don’t want comic book stores to close, unless they’re bad, unless they’re toxic, because you lose comic book readers, and every comic book reader is a possible customer for your store, and a possible occasional customer once a year, once every couple of years, but everything helps. When that comic book store closes you lose those readers, and that doesn’t help us. I would rather have a successful competitor than a competitor who aren’t in business.

Running a comic book show doesn’t require as much specialized knowledge as running a bookstore does. It does require very specialized knowledge in smaller doses, things like how to deal with hotels and if you fuck that up your show is over. If you forgot to order a book or you didn’t set up an account up, your store doesn’t close, you just like don’t get that book. If you don’t understand how hotel bookings work and guaranteed room rates and having that money and things like that, then they just cancel your hotel on Friday night and none of your guests have anywhere to stay and all of your room bookings are blocked and everyone’s pissed at you and the show stops. I’ve seen that happen literally three times. Once in Toronto.

If people want to approach me about starting anything, I just say, “Start small and within your means. Find somebody who’s got money, or if you’re the person who has money, find somebody that’s going to put the work in. Split everything fairly with them and just do your best. Start small and grow.” A couple of people that have actually approached us before starting shows and they’ve had great shows and they’ve continued to grow and that’s awesome. Some people try to start with the biggest show in the world and either end up catastrophically failing or just wasting like a $100,000 on nothing.

I think there’s lots of space for people to create things, and I think that people are finding new ways to create more space for other people everyday. I would never say don’t do a thing that you want to do. I would say, “Really think it through and try to do the best job that you can, and find the people that are doing the work and ask them the questions, and ask them for things that they might even not know to ask as well.”

Should someone start a comic book show? Well, like I said, it’s very hard. You will work a crazy amount of hours, and you will definitely trade parts of your health, because we’re all sitting in a chair 16 to 18 hours a day. Think about what you want to do it and what you’re willing to give up for it, because there’s always a trade. If you can do something cool and you know you can do a good job of it and you can put good work into the world, then that’s like the best thing. You should totally do it.

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“Supreme Optimism in the Face of Actual Reality”: An Interview with Sammy Harkham (Part II) http://www.tcj.com/supreme-optimism-in-the-face-of-actual-reality-an-interview-with-sammy-harkham-part-ii/ http://www.tcj.com/supreme-optimism-in-the-face-of-actual-reality-an-interview-with-sammy-harkham-part-ii/#comments Wed, 10 May 2017 12:00:18 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=100548 Continue reading ]]> (Continued from Part One)

INFLUENCES

Blood of the Virgin feels like a very unusual comic in some ways, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how. Maybe it’s partly the way you use a lot of classic comics symbols and body language and apply them to a serious realistic story.

Dave McKean wasn’t available to draw it for me.

The Hernandez brothers do something similar, especially Jaime, and I’m sure there are others I’m not thinking of…

Chester Brown.

Oh yeah, of course he does that.

I was reading Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus, and I was struck all over again by his drawing. He has this cartoon style that’s like Frank King silhouettes, very nice, billowy, simple silhouettes, and then he goes in with that didactic shading. There’s are a couple people whose work is cartoony but grounded, but also the stories have very complex characters and relationships. Those are people I look up to and aspire to.

Mostly though, it is still looking at old comics. There’s two big oversized Tintin volumes that came out when the movie came out. I’ve never really read Tintin, I can’t really read it, but at that size I can really look at it. That, looking at Gasoline Alley, and looking at Roy Crane. I don’t hold the books open to study when I work, but it stays with me, it’s a guiding principle. To this day, that is still the biggest inspiration. If I look at a Frank King Sunday page, I am floored by the tone of it, the language of the lines. You can’t put it into words with great comics like that. There’s something that’s undefinable, but in my mind, and I think other people feel this, it feels humble, it feels modest. The lines are very thin and uniform, so it feels almost casual and considered all at once. He’s putting all this detail and care into how someone’s coat will flap open when they’re walking and it’s just right.

It makes you really think of those details about lived experience. I think Chris Ware is really interested in that, and he’s really good at that. He’ll play with scale to make you realize how really weird something is. Frank King is doing the same thing by just drawing a fence being smashed and having each fencepost spread a certain way. It’s very deeply felt. These characters, the emotion of it is so strong, you just think, god, he has mastered this and it’s 1919. There are pages in Gasoline Alley where he’s drawing water and the way he’s mastered the spray of water … That’s something artists today haven’t figured out, how to draw water [laughs] spraying outwards or how to draw a beach. It’s so hard, and he figured it out a hundred years ago and so if I could just harness that and take some of that energy and bring that into another kind of story, I feel that would be cool. Obviously, of course, there’s something very disturbing about being so enamored by something that almost nobody cares about.

How so? Why is that disturbing?

Because who wants that? [Hodler laughs] Besides you, who wants that? How many people know about that stuff? I guess Russ Cochran and people on his mailing list, but they’re not going to read Blood of the Virgin. I’m not even as good as Frank King [laughs] so there is no point. and so this is just how deep you can go into this well of thinking, where you go, this is a bad idea! What is this impulse to spend years and years on something like this?


Well, there’s the commercial element, but artistically, if it works it works, whether or not people know who Frank King is. If you’re able to tap into what he’s doing on any level, then people will respond to that when they read it, whether they know Gasoline Alley or not.

Right. Fair enough. Hopefully, you end up with a good comic. In 2014, I started realizing that drawing is not so much about drawing realistically or right, it’s just design. It’s purely this shape which is conveyed as a hand and this shape which is conveyed as a head. Just make it look nice, so when something is not working in a drawing, it’s not because it’s not “right,” it’s just that the design is wrong. The line needs to be thicker or thinner or whatever it is. I started looking at a lot of Gil Kane in that way and it was very inspiring. The guy who drew Hägar the Horrible, I forget his name. Dik—

Dik Browne.

Dik Browne! I got some issues of Nemo in Australia. There was some article in Nemo about early Dik Browne stuff, and I thought it was similar to Gahan Wilson. It kind of opened my eyes a little bit to drawing as form, as shape. All that sort of stuff. When you don’t have any distractions, you can just think about drawing, like what is it that you’re doing? I’d never really thought about it. You’re just intuitively working when you’re younger, you’re intuitively just trying to figure it out, and you just know when it’s right. You don’t know whats causing it to be right, but when something’s wrong, you don’t know what’s making it wrong, you just know it’s not right. With writing, I started being able to see what was wrong, and i would know how to fix it, and it would just be a matter of finding the solution. I would just need to go for a walk and I’ll solve it. Drawing was more difficult. It is only in the last two years that I started realizing what drawing is, and it’s become easier.

 


KRAMERS 9


I should ask about Kramers 9 because I’m taking up so much of your time. Is this the first issue that doesn’t include any of your own drawings?

I think so. Yes. I’m not in it at all, which is great.

Does it feel as personal a book to you despite that, or does it feel different?

I don’t even think about it. This is the first issue I’m really proud of.

Really?

I had done two issues in a row where the format was decided beforehand, where I had a thematic idea and i wanted stuff to fit within that. With the big book, it’s large, things have to work at this size, but what happens is that as you work on it the book evolves inevitably, and you can either roll with that and course correct or you can be stubborn and you end up with a book that isn’t what you wanted. Kramers 8 was small, and I wanted a certain kind of tone and certain kinds of stories so that was difficult, too. I like the book. I like them all fine, but with 9 I didn’t set the dimensions from the outset, I didn’t decide if it would be a hardcover or a softcover. I let the work dictate everything. I would tell artists to submit but I don’t know the exact size. I wanted it to be a size where I can look at the art as artwork, where you can study it as drawings, but I also want it to be a good reading size. If it’s only 90 pages, then 11 by 15 is fine. That’s a nice size, because it’s thin, but if it ends up being a big book, then you’ll have to shrink it down because it would be too heavy to read in bed or on the bathroom toilet. So I basically slowly just started asking people to send me stuff with little info. “I’m not sure about the size but it’s going to roughly be somewhere between here and here.”

The other thing was I decided I would tell people if I wanted changes to their strip. I learned from previous issues where I thought, “I don’t love this thing, but it will be fine when the book comes out. I will forget about my problems with it and it will be fine.” But it never is. [Hodler laughs] Five years, ten years go by, you look through the book and go why the fuck is that in there? So I told people to submit, I’m not sure what the format is, and also there’s no guarantee of inclusion. I think that’s good because i think it puts a bit of a fire in people, it puts a bit of a competitive spirit in people. And it gave me the opportunity to take more chances on asking people. There are artists in Kramers 9 who I maybe wouldn’t ask if I was definitely giving them a spot, because I’d only want stuff to be great. With this I could take more chances. And some people were rejected and they would submit again or other people would submit and I’d say I really like it, but the ending doesn’t feel like an ending, so that conversation might lead to me thumbnailing something for them, and then them either feeling it or not. With other people, it was just talking to them about the story itself, if they wanted to. Some people like sending you stuff as they’re working on it and getting feedback and some people want to send you finished stuff. Regardless I tried to treat it like it was my own work, which I think is a good way of treating stuff when you are an editor. You want to run stuff that you can stand behind like it’s your own. I think they know that I respect them, so it was all good.

Did anyone turn in a story that needed nothing? That was just perfect?

Yes, of course. Kim Deitch. Noel Freibert’s one-pagers. There were a bunch of stuff that came in and didn’t need anything from me. Most of my input was small stuff: a story not having a title and sending a list of potential titles to the artist, or suggesting a story that was sent to me in color story run in black and white. In the past I would not even suggest that to an artist. This time I did and it went fine. It was a fun project because I started working on it in 2013, and I made sure to only work on it at home. I had rented a room in an apartment to draw comics and there was no computer there, so I couldn’t work on Kramers during the day. I wouldn’t even work at it much at all on the weekend when I was at home. I would flip through the layout when stuff arrived and I would email people when an idea struck, but it was more like a nice hobby. Like tending a garden. It kept me really engaged with comics in a nice way while working on Blood of the Virgin. And then when it was due, I took the InDesign doc of the whole book that I had been building piece by piece and I opened up a completely new document and only put my favorites in there first, thinking I’ll add my second favorites after. But with only my favorites included, we were at 290 pages, and I was like, that’s it. That’s the book.

How many pages were in the other folder?

Maybe another forty? Fifty?

That’s a pretty good percentage.

Yeah, and it’s not like those stories wouldn’t appear elsewhere. What happens is it’s not that the material is bad, because like I said I was involved in all of it. I told people upfront if I could include it or not, but what happens is at some point you start getting a sense of what the tone of the book is and that idea of course-correcting was very much a part of this, not having a preconceived notion of what it should be, and from there you start seeing that some stories don’t fit. There was one story—I won’t say who the artist was but this poor person had sent me a story and I loved it. I told him it would go in Kramers 8. I took it out of Kramers 8 because tonally it didn’t fit. Kramers 9 comes around, and I ask if I can use the story. Okay, great, it’s still available. Doesn’t get included. So maybe it will be in volume 10. Sometimes stories just don’t fit. Sometimes you’re at the mercy of the book itself.

You said this particular story didn’t fit and you probably can’t go into specifics about why, but is it something that you can articulate to yourself, or is it all intuitive?

At the end of the day, it’s intuitive. Because it’s not like there’s a theme. It’s intuitively going I like this and it fits well next to this thing, if you go in order. They’re designed to be read in order. Obviously most people don’t read it in order, but you’re just going this fits here, this fits here. And then I’m getting into this habit, I don’t know whether it’s good or bad, but there are older comics that I like that I feel like nobody knows about, that I just want to include because no one seems to knows about it. You know Andrew Jeffrey Wright’s graffiti comic? Did you read that?

I read it in the book. I hadn’t read it before this.

Right. I read that comic while on tour with Kramer’s 4 in 2003. It was in a little art book zine with Andrew, Barry McGee, Ara Peterson, and Leif Goldberg. It was the only comic included and I loved it. It’s been a favorite comic of mine for ten years, and I’m wondering if I can include it in Kramers. I figure I can, because for the majority of people reading it, it’s going to be new, but that opens up your mind and possibilities and there’s other stuff like that.

That Trevor Alixopulos strip, that’s an old comic too, right? I felt like I read that somewhere before.

It ran on his website. Kevin Huizenga sent me a link and said you should read this. I was really taken with it. I didn’t mind that it ran online. i just want the book to exist on its own terms. I think nowadays a lot of the stuff you’re going to get, cartoonists are going to put in minicomics, they’re going to put online. You can’t control that too much unless you can offer them a really good page rate. So I have to be flexible when it comes to that and just think of the overall book.

Trevor Alixopulos’s strip from Kramers 9.

I don’t think it matters very much anyway, at least to a reader. So many things don’t last online. They disappear.

And there’s so much good material out there. Mack White is one of those guys I’ve been thinking a lot about. He’s done such weird great comics. That reminds me of something Tom Devlin said to me many years ago, that if cartoonists don’t release something on a regular basis, they kind of get forgotten. Comics readers are kind of fickle that way. Mack White is one of those guys.

Does White still draw or is he retired?

He does. He has a website that’s really weird, that doesn’t look like it’s been redesigned since 1997. There’s comics on there that are really really small, hard to read. I would absolutely run one of those comics.

Yeah, I’ve been to that site. There was a lot of conspiracy theory stuff when I went there.

It’s true that he got more interested in prose and then the comics got very bogged down in text, but then I think of all these great stories he did that were just weird and really idiosyncratic. He would do these other comics besides the conspiracy theory stuff. Remember the homunculus comics with the little guy with the huge dick? Those were so funny. And there’s other stuff. I was thinking about trying to run an entire issue of Dirty Plotte, from the cover to the back cover, running it with the cover on a cover stock, and with the insides on a regular stock, and just run it in Kramers. Maybe I’m entering into Russ Cochran territory, I don’t know, but in my mind, she’s one of the best cartoonists ever and that stuff doesn’t exist in that form.

Does Drawn & Quarterly not keep those in print? Probably not…

I think they want to do it. I think they probably saw The Complete Eightball and were like, what the fuck? We should do that! Certainly the series is good enough for that kind of treatment.

They did Optic Nerve in that box set.

Yeah, they did that with the minis. I don’t think she has good memories of working in comics. I think the comics world was very different then. And there could be a bunch of things involved in a project like that, having to scan and put together this book. It’s a lot of work, and not a lot of pay.

Most cartoonists don’t have a sense of people’s interest in their work or even what makes their work good. She may not think that’s the best way of reading My New York Diary or her dream comics. I’m always blown away by how cartoonists—not Julie—organize their work in collections. everything is so compartmentalized. Like the dream comics are in one section, the autobio is one section, the sketchbook is in one section, it kills me. It’s like The Art of Tim Sale by TwoMorrows or something. It’s these weird ways of putting together a book that often has none of the enthusiasm or problem-solving of their individual comics.

Sometimes it seems like there not a lot of thought put into it. It’s just this is the way it’s done. I think that something people respond to in Kramers is that it’s clear you’re thinking about every aspect of it.

I was talking to a friend of mine about Chris Ware. Chris Ware’s work has evolved a lot. His work is constantly changing. and your feelings toward his work can change, and my friend made the point that Ware gets a free pass because literally every single comic that’s released by an alternative publisher looks the way it looks because of Chris Ware. When Chris Ware started publishing, it made everyone rethink the spine, the endpapers, the indicia. With that in mind, I think it’s crazy for an artist not to think about all that stuff when they’re working on a book. Once that door opened, it changed everyone’s perception of the mass produced book. Highwater played into that as well, the comic as an object, and D&Q is also a part of that too, but really it’s Chris Ware. every aspect of the product can be an aspect of the art itself. It can further your ideas. I think thats even true of good fiction books. I’ve been reading these two Stephen Millhauser collections, these short stories, and they’re so beautiful just as objects.

Have you ever read Alasdair Gray?

No.

He’s this great Scottish writer, and he’s also an artist. He does all his own covers and does all kinds of typography and design in the books too.

Is it successful?

He’s a cult figure, but he’s a major cult figure.

I mean visually, as an artwork? Do the covers look good, or do they look self-published?

He’s weird. It’s hard for me to say if it is successful or not. I don’t exactly like his drawing style but I kind of love the overall vibe at the same time.

Yeah, I know what you mean. Hugh Nissenson’s a really good novelist and in one of his books, the main characters is a sculptor. So he taught himself to sculpt. [laughs] He included the sculptures in the book and you’re like, i don’t know if this is working as sculpture, but it definitely adds something to have it included in the book.

Also, with what you were talking about, if you go back far enough, Harvey Kurtzman was thinking about a lot of that stuff. In The Jungle Book, he was hand-lettering all the indicia…

Yeah. I can do it with an anthology, no problem, but doing it with my own work is trickier. because when you’ve worked on a project for so long you don’t understand how to create a context for it. You don’t know how to pigeonhole it as a thing, what the tone of it is. There’s a couple people who can do it, but one weird thing that’s happened over the last twenty years is that artists feel like they have to be their own designer for their own books, and i think it’s led to a lot of terrible-looking books. But the guys who do it well, certainly do it really well.

Are there any books you’re willing to call out?

No, are you crazy? [Hodler laughs] All these guys are struggling, they just want to sell books. but all these publishers have designers on staff. use them. Or force your publisher to hire a designer that you like. Grab a book that you like, find out who designed it and hire them! Designers are working artists. They’ll work on your book.

I had to ask.

No. Poor guys. Come on. I feel so bad for them.

Let me ask you about a couple stories in the new Kramers. You talked a little bit before about how you put a lot of thought into the sequencing. What made you decide to start with the Weissmann story “Silver Medicine Horse”?

Because I think in many ways it has all the elements of a great story. The pathos of the story is built in to the plot itself, so that nothing needs to be explicitly said. The forward momentum of the story has all these themes and ideas and elements that are very strong. It’s also visually dynamic. I like that Weissman is an artist who has been drawing and publishing comics for over twenty years, but it feels almost like seeing him for the first time at that size. It feels new. It’s got a little bit of a genre thing running through it. It’s fun. I love that story.

Dan suggested one other question for you. I don’t really agree with him on this, but I’m curious to see what you’ll think. He wanted me to ask you why in this issue there’s such an emphasis on black humor, and particularly black humor pieces with punchlines?

Oh, that’s funny. I didn’t realize that. You start seeing themes arise naturally. Stories start coming in, and you start seeing there’s something in the air. There’s a weird military vibe throughout the book. it’s very violent, but there’s a certain irreverence as well. I think the Noel Freibert stuff, when he sent me a handful of those strips, I thought these are kind of like the Greek chorus that you could scatter throughout the book. They’re really dark, but they’re visually playful, they’re verbally playful, they’re light on their feet, they’re sophisticated. His drawing is very, very rich, and that was kind of a rallying cry in my mind of tone. Because it’s not guided. I don’t think gave people a theme. Often I’ll give people little signifiers. I’ll go, “Do something scary.” Obviously if you’re a good cartoonist, you’re not going to do a stupid Creepy comic. By scary, i mean something deeply felt. That’s not really a question for me, but for the artists. That’s the material they gave me. But you’ve got to embrace that element once the tone of it is felt. That’s going to decide the cover image, that’s going to describe the paper stock and the format.

I thought the segues between the stories for the most part worked really well, but one that threw me—and maybe it was intentionally jarring—was the segue between the Julia Gfrörer story, “Four Thieves”, which is really dark, and then you go to “A New Cruel World”, where the guy commits suicide by jumping off a cliff, and these goofy birds fly out and grab his feet… [laughter]

Probably what I’m bringing to it as an editor is foregrounding the innate irreverence of the form itself. There’s a bit of a playfulness and that’s just a good example of that idea maybe. Sequencing is also all about what you have to work with. You just go, this here, this here… You want the story to end on a spread, or you want the story end on the left or the right. All these things come into play.

It’s a very varied book. There are so many different kinds of stories, and some you might not think at first would work well together.

The story that I keep going back to and every time I read it, I read it differently, is the Dash Shaw excerpt.

Yeah! I was going to mention that.

From Dash Shaw’s story in Kramers 9.

That’s an amazing comic. The narration I assume is from a letter that he found, because he’s doing all this research for a larger Civil War book. You can read it and reread it and really think about what he’s talking about.

Yeah, he’s gotten so much better as he’s gone on. Lately, he just kind of astounds me every time I read him.

His interests lie all over the place. His interests lie in formal things, but then at the sam time, when he wants to just focus on telling straightforward narrative, he’s really, really good at it. I was totally blown away by Cosplay 1 and 2, especially the second one. Issue 2 is such an amazing melding of form and content. I don’t read all his work, because he does so many different types of things—I don’t know if he’s even interested in having readers necessarily follow him everywhere. When he sent that I think the only suggestion I gave him was to add his name, to sign it at the end, so it feels like an ending. [Hodler laughs] It’s just so good. His drawing looks great at that size. I don’t know if his final book will be that size. It probably won’t be, but it scaled well.

Another one I was really impressed by was Gabrielle Bell’s.

Beautiful story. That’s an excerpt as well. So for the table of contents I suggested giving it a title of some kind. The title that we went with was “Windows”. That’s the one she wanted to go with, but I gave her all these other suggestions, and all of them were much more on the nose, trying to take something out of the dialogue that I felt if you separate this phrase out of the dialogue and you made it the title, it gives it this rich context to understand the story. She went with the most simple one, “Windows”, and I thought, wow, she’s got confidence. She’s a confident artist, where she can tell a story where the emotional high point of the story is someone talking about light coming in through a window, or the potential opportunity of her daughter being able to drive her pickup around the back, and it’s so emotionally felt when her mother says that. To be able to work within that subtle range and to have confidence in that is incredible.

She does so much with so little.

She really does. And she has such faith in the material and the reader. I think that’s incredible. It’s interesting because, with a story like that I get nervous that it’s going to get lost in a book that’s loud and goofy, with the layout all over the place and the sequencing all over the place, but at the end of the day, it’s strong. Kevin Huizenga colored that story. It’s so impressionistic, that color, but it’s a nice touch.

There was one story that baffled me to the point where I just didn’t understand [Harkham laughs] what happened in it.

Which one?

The Adam Buttrick one.

I don’t think we’ll be hurting his feelings to say it’s initially confusing. When he sent me that story, I thought it might be out order. [Hodler laughs] Is this all of it? I was unsure, but the thing is that you read it once—and i may have hurt it because the green might be a little too dark, if you’re not reading it under a bright light, but hopefully it’s okay. Anyway, I find that when you read it once, you’re like oh what the fuck? Then you go back and it’s what we were talking about earlier, about not connecting all the dots for the reader, and being a little bit opaque in a good way, and then you read it again and you start finding these visual connections and you go, okay, I’m following this character, in like your third reading, just this guy. [Hodler laughs] Okay, he’s in jail, he comes out of jail, there’s this guy selling pencils, he gets to the dock, this thing happens. You go back. You read it again from another character’s perspective. There are repeating phrases.

Yes, “Can I kiss your mother?” Variations on that, kissing mothers.

Yeah, what a phrase. and you start thinking about the form itself, which to me reminds me of Mel Lazarus.

Yeah, sure.

I keep thinking of Mel Lazarus. I keep thinking of these very innocent easy forms, and his compositions are very complex. Any single panel is a very interesting complex image. He’s doing great stuff compositionally. Like I was saying earlier, I wouldn’t have run it if I didn’t like it, and the more I read it, the more I felt like it was speaking to me in a very deep way, in a very emotional way. But you know, I think, what’s an anthology if there aren’t one or two stories that you literally wish weren’t in the book and you want to cut out with an Xacto knife? [laughter] That’s kind of a given.

A story that I really liked but that I can easily imagine other people not liking is somewhat similar, “All Our Fucking Dead”.

Oh, that’s so good, though. I feel like that one gives you all the things you think you want when you go to comic shop and then totally explodes them. They’re talking in these weird cliches. The way it’s typeset, it feels like it’s very naive. You don’t know the context it’s created in, if it’s ironic, if it’s not. You can see it’s very smart in how he chooses his buddy-cop-movie cliches, and the drawing is gorgeous, how he he goes all the way with it. I feel like he’s turning that whole indie genre stuff inside out. I like it a lot.

Do you have any strategies for finding artists to include, or does it just happen organically?

No, it’s just the usual thing, just reading comics and looking around. all the usual things you do in your daily life as a comics fan. The only other thing is driving down the street and getting an fan boy sort of idea, like I would love to see a full-color Tim Hensley sex comic, you know? Can I make that happen? Is that possible?

Can you make that happen?

No, I cannot make that happen. [Hodler laughs] But these are the things that get you thinking. They get your mind going. I’ve been trying to get Shary Flenniken. The idea of running a Trots and Bonnie section in an issue of Kramers is still an idea that motivates every new issue. but things always fall through.

Have you spoken to her about it? Has it gotten that far?

Yes, she’s great. She’s really nice. I think she rather wait till she gets an offer for a proper collection, because it’s a lot of work getting that material back in print. I read her strip thanks to Dan. He told me about this complete National Lampoon CD-Rom set. I’ve never bought a CD-Rom in my life, but I bought this set, and I went through every single issue and read every single Trots and Bonnie, and I made a list of all my favorites. [laughs] I got her email from someone, and I got her phone number and we talked a lot. She’s really nice, but she’s got like a whole other career after cartooning. I think she became a nurse, and then made comics having to do with the health industry. I think her life is just so different that it’s … it’s tricky. But you know i think that stuff is so necessary. I think it’s great, and it hits that sweet spot for me of that classic cartooning style where it’s really weirdly personal inappropriate material. It’s so good but I’m still working on it. Debbie Dreschler is another one.

Have you spoken to her? Do you know why she stopped cartooning, or has she stopped?

I think if you read the interview in The Comics Journal you get the sense that she got everything that she wanted out of her system and now she really enjoys nature drawing and doing drawings for illustration for pay. And maybe her relationship with comics was purely exorcising her demons. That stuff is so dark. I think Nowhere is one of the best teenage strips ever. it’s right up there with I Never Liked You, it’s so good … and it’s rough, man.

Yeah, I couldn’t imagine making something like her comics. It would be very hard.

It’s heartbreaking stuff. And I think in Nowhere, there’s no sexual abuse, but just the way the teenagers treat each other, it’s rough. Tough stuff. I don’t know how got on this tangent, how did we start talking about this?

I was asking about how you find artists for Kramers.

Oh yeah. A lot of it is getting excited about an idea. That goes all over the place and some of that may not fit. I’d love to get Sergio Aragones to do something. He lived in Spain in a very interesting time. He’s been involved in comics for so long in the American market and he’s a very gregarious guy, I feel he would be down to do something for a small anthology where he has free rein.

I really loved that you ended on that Tux Dog strip, actually that spread of the Johnny Negron and the Tux Dog. [Harkham laughs] That was a funny way to end an anthology.

Well, you know the funny thing is I kind of put that in the back because after going to shows for years you realize that when people pick up a book on the table and flip through it they go from the back.

Ben Jones

Oh.

I realized that will be the first thing people will see. But it’s not as aggressive as it would be if it literally was the first thing people would see across from the title page. The Ben Jones comic is so nice because Ben has such a crazy career and he’s a good friend of mine so I forget that he even draws. I forget that he’s good at that. That comic was in a pile in his office, drawn with a Uniball on shitty paper and it was a goof. He just does it. He’s got those natural skills. He’s very good at comics. Johnny Ryan’s another one. They’re just naturally so built for comics, and yet they have no nostalgic affinity. They don’t care. If they never drew another comic in their life ever again, they’re kind of okay with that. [laughs]

Oh wait, I thought that was the last story, but there’s actually a Sof’ Boy story right after that. Is that a new Archer Prewitt?

Yeah, it’s new. I was putting the finishing touches on the book, and I thought wouldn’t it be nice if there was a Sof’ Boy comic that ends this book. Because it’s such a dark, nutty book, and Sof’ Boy is the epitome of that. Every single Sof’ Boy story runs that line. I hadn’t emailed Archer in many, many years, but I found his email and I asked him, do you want to do a Sof’ Boy comic? He said, “Yeah, sure, great!” Wow, that was easy. For some people, that’s all it takes. Just ask and they’ll do it. Because these guys aren’t lifers for comics, but it’s fun for them every once in a while. Ben, Johnny, Archer—and he’s so good. You look at his skill set and it’s just super impressive. He’s one of those guys who sends you the file, and it’s perfect. You don’t need to nudge it. It literally sits on the page perfectly. a lot of the younger artists are the opposite-they send you 200 dpi art, and the line art and the color are in one file. They have no idea how to prep their work for print. I sent Jordan Crane’s reproduction guide from 2001 to a bunch of the contributors. Have you ever seen that guide?

No.

This is in the Highwater days, and they were all living in Massachusetts. They released a pdf on Xeroxing written by Ron Regé, how to make a minicomic and steal your copies from Kinko’s. Brian Ralph did a chapter on silkscreening, and Jordan did this guide to offset printing. I send that guide to so many people. Because so so many people are just used to printing online.

Archer Prewitt is an interesting artist to me, because he kind of hits the same note all of the time, or a lot of the time, but it always works somehow.

It’s just so charming. It’s like the Ramones. You know what you’re going to get, but it’s good.

 


THE BLOOD OF THE VIRGIN

So let’s talk some more about Crickets 5. One thing I noticed in the three installments so far is that the first two each start with one of two different members of the marriage masturbating, and in this issue, near the end, they have sex, though they seem to be mostly asleep, if I’m reading that right.

Yeah, you’re reading that right. I hadn’t noticed it was a triptych of sexual experience.

It felt very intentionally structured that way to me. Earlier you talked about how you didn’t want to story to be cinematic, and I know what you mean, but at the same time when I read the initial two-page spread in this issue, it reminds me of a movie.

One of the things I’m always struggling with is, I don’t use narration, and my stories are very much like people in a room talking, so you can end up falling back on cinematic qualities. I don’t necessarily think that they’re exclusively cinematic. Cinema doesn’t have to own them. Then there’s cartooning techniques that you can sort of play with subtly that are distinctly cartoony. I don’t actively try to make it cinematic, a lot of that to me is more rhythmic.

It reminds me a little of Eric Rohmer. I’m not even talking about their cinematic qualities. Some people don’t even consider his movies to be cinematic, because so much of them is just people talking, but in a way, by keeping things that ostensibly simple, he’s spotlighting what cinema does at its essence in ways that other people aren’t.

Absolutely. It makes me think of Powr Mastrs and how CF will go from the most elaborate beautiful drawing to a panel of two crude heads in profile talking. It’s a beautiful use of the form. That’s always the challenge. If you do a comic where 99% of it is people talking, it’s a matter of coming up with visual ways of making that dynamic and play to the form’s strengths. So for me, it’s pleasurable to watch a character light a cigar off a candle in the center of a table, and watch him smoke the entire thing, and ash it. I figure that’s a pleasurable thing to read. Those are the things that are nice in a comic, that you can break down a sequence. I think in Jimmy Corrigan, you have that great sequence of the dad playing with a lid of a can of soda. That’s a really nice sort of move. Just things like that. I remember as a teenager reading Yummy Fur, where there would be whole issues of Chester waking up, putting on the radio, picking his nose and eating it. [laughs] These are the simple pleasures of the form to me.

It also puts an emphasis on things you might not notice—like the character flipping down the mirror above the dashboard—in a way that’s kind of subtle and doesn’t draw attention to itself.

It’s up to you where you put the emphasis. It’s a nice thing, because you make everything sort of meaningful in some sort of way, just by the act of drawing someone opening up a mirror in a car, checking their eyes, closing it, opening a window, her hair moving. You’re calling attention to all these small minor details that hopefully creates something that feels alive. but hopefully you are not honing in on those sort of emotional details, they are just happening peripherally.

How do you approach composition? Is it intuitive or is there more of a considered method?

It starts for me with the tone of a scene and trying to find the right composition that conveys that tone. I don’t think of my art as being very expressive, so if I want something that feels oppressive or sympathetic, it’s all about where we’re seeing it from, and the number of panels, how large the image is. I have a lot of pages where if you flip the originals over, it’s the exact same page penciled a little differently, where it wasn’t feeling right. One that comes to mind is in issue 4, after the whole Palm Springs sequence. Seymour goes to his boss’s house and his boss is by the pool. It was such a subtle thing in my mind of wanting Seymour to feel like he’s not really welcome in this situation. Where he’s slightly not at ease, and it’s almost by design of his boss. His boss is trying to put him in the position of insecurity. So besides dialogue and story, you try to do that literally in the framing. I’m not going to do anything dramatic like put a spotlight on him or have like giant letters over his head. I’m not going to do anything formal, because I don’t want to get in the way of the storytelling. But it should just read a certain way.

It’s funny that you don’t think of yourself as an expressive artist, because that’s not what I would have said about your work. I mean, this is the most reductive level, but your characters often have very intense facial expressions.

They do, but how they communicate, their body language, all that stuff, I try to suggest things their body language or words are betraying. It’s that Bressonian method of casting. [Robert] Bresson never called his actors actors; he called them models. The idea being that the way someone looks and the way they deliver a line, that’s what they are, and you’re not trying to bend them into something else. and that becomes the springboard for anything else that character does. I don’t know how much this comes through, but there’s an element of trying to play with this idea of typecasting, where a certain kind of disposition and manner will imbue everything with a subtext. So even if they’re saying stuff thats totally in opposition to how they look or how they honestly feel, it creates a nice sort of tension.

Are there any panels or pages you can think of that do that?

Well, I’m thinking of the scene where they’re at the hot dog stand and Seymour’s with his wife and then Joy shows up. Bresson never wanted his actors even to emote, just say the line and the emotion of it will create a good tension with the acting style so its not overblown. So with character acting in comics, so much of it is literally if they’re saying their lines in their natural way, one of those girls is more happy-go-lucky and easy-going, so even if she’s being threatened, you don’t have her show that on her face or start clenching her fists… It’s basically like life. When I’m lying to you, I’m not making all these grimaces on the side. I’m keeping things completely straight and lying to you. That’s how it is. Somebody like Seymour is always frowning, his natural face is always frowning, so even if he’s saying to his wife, “I love you, I’m going to miss you,” his expression is the same if he tells someone he hates them or that he’s upset. To me, that was kind of a breakthrough in how characters work. That’s how cinema is useful, because you see how someone like Stanley Kubrick was totally committed to that in regards to character, even if all his characters are over the top in other ways. He liked the James Cagney school of acting. Think of Jack Torrance in The Shining. You can just sort of stay there physically, and emotionally play with it in the content. Does that make sense?

Yeah, totally.

The other big influence on this is Gabrielle Bell.

I was just thinking of her work.

Gabrielle has totally mastered that. She doesn’t need her characters to flail their arms around. Blood of the Virgin has a lot of slapstick, and a lot of falling and silly stuff, but usually it’s never emotional histrionics, unless it calls for that level of exposed, embarrassing naked emotion. I feel like everyone is always holding their cards close to their chest most of the time.

A couple of days ago—I can’t remember who it was but I read an interview with a filmmaker, and they were discussing screenwriting, and he said that one of the ways to build an emotional response in an audience is to have something really devastating happen to a character, but have the character not cry when they should be crying.

Yes. That was written about by Alexander MacKendrick. The cartoonist turned filmmaker. I was reading a good interview with Bertrand Tavernier and he was talking about the first screenwriter he worked with, a screenwriter who worked on all these great classic french films, and he said, if you want to show a lonely person, show him in the middle of a party—and he’s the most gregarious person, and counterpoint that with him at home. What happens with comics is that you think to make something emotionally complex it has to be conveyed in the face, but the language of cartooning, it’s like two dots for eyes, a mouth, maybe the eyebrows, and certain codified things that we all understand. And when you’re younger, you try to break that, because you’re trying to do something complex without any understanding of the medium, because really the best thing you can do is keep it simple, and the complexity comes in the accumulation of simple easy-to-read images in relation to each other. I think any great comics show that, if you really study them. It’s not any one panel that shows an emotional complexity. This goes back to Kubrick and Bresson; it’s very simple, clear, easy-to-read actions but they’re placed in an order that fucks with your mind. The complexity comes with the accumulation of the images.

Another thing struck me about The Blood of the Virgin so far, and this may be related to what you said earlier about how you don’t plan too much. There are a lot of gaps that the reader has to fill in, about who people are talking about, why things happened, etc. I think that works really well in involving the reader.

I know what you mean. I basically realized while working on the first part of the story that regardless of what I felt the story needed in regards to exposition, I couldn’t draw a scene if I wasn’t invested in it. So I would fold the exposition in to the scenes I was interested in. I don’t want any scene to feel better than any other. Ideally it’s all good. I don’t want the reader to think I drew a whole chapter because there was only one scene I really wanted to do. I think it’s more fun for the reader because they can sense you’re into it and its all working equally well.

I think by leaving things out, it sort of expands the story in a way, too.

Yeah for sure. It’s like that classic Charles Schulz thing. Everyone sees themselves in Charlie Brown. Characters need to be specific enough and they need to be opaque enough. I think from the writer’s perspective, they always feel too opaque. It’s very gratifying if somebody says “I really felt that” or “I really understood that character, that was a really good detail,” because those are the things where you always feel you are being too subtle. The whole nature of doing creative work is that you’re doing something that no one has done. There’s an element of not knowing if something is going to work, because you’ve never seen it. [laughs] I don’t know if this is going to work. It’s a constant thing. It’s like fuck—is this readable? Literally, can you read it?

There are moments in the story — and this might be leading to something later so it’s possible this is actually not a good example– like when Joy has that scar that she doesn’t want to talk about it. So much is implied by that, or could be implied by that.

Yeah, thanks. And no, it’s not a plot point. I’ve actually forgotten to draw her scar. I don’t know if i’ve even drawn her wrist again. I’ve completely forgotten about that.

Well, I reminded you.

Hopefully, you’re working on a story and it just comes alive. It starts breathing. I think in the first chapter when she’s doing cartwheels and she says, “Go Reds!” or something. I cant remember where she’s from, but I knew she was from a certain place, and I looked up all the local high school teams. The characters start becoming very real. Once that happens, it starts informing itself. You’re on a roll and the characters just start breathing and hopefully the scar thing doesn’t feel fake, it feels real.

Jaime Hernandez does something similar often, too. He’ll start a story and even though I’ll have read every previous issue, I’ll feel like I’ve missed an issue, because he won’t have said how something happened, and there’s some new lead character in the middle of some situation.

It’s amazing. He’s so good. I did a pinup for the Love and Rockets Free Comic Book Day comic, so i was looking at how to draw the characters and really looking at it. This guy, he’ll do a scene where it’s a bunch of characters in a car just driving together and the dynamics between all these people are so well worked out, it’s incredible. That guy just really knows how to tap into it. That stuff you’re talking about kept me away from reading his work for so long, because i would try to pick something up and I would go fuck, I don’t know what’s going on. Eventually you realize that’s part of the pleasure. Every time you’re going to be dropped in and wonder who’s that guy? What’s their relationship? And then realize it doesn’t really matter. It’s nice if you can piece out this person slept with this person, that one is this guy’s cousin, but it’s not necessary because you kind of get swept up in it.

I don’t know if Jaime is trying to replicate this experience, but it’s somewhat like if you read Spider-Man #232, and you’ve never read any other Spider-Mans. There are all these things and past events that are referenced, and they have these little editorial notes that say see issue #131. Just take those boxes out and it makes you feel like there’s this whole world that you don’t know about. A whole universe.

Yeah, and he doesn’t even have to make that joke, because he’s now living it. He’s now done enough Love and Rockets that you’re always going to feel like there’s some sort of gap. He’s really incredible. I’m so thankful that I didn’t read his work so much in my twenties, because now when I read his stories i think this is exactly the sort of thing i want to do. There are so many great stories of his that work as standalone short stories, where there’s such a great balance of cartooniness and specific detail. It’s very offhand the way he gives information and the way the emotion is felt. He never hits you over the head with anything. I still don’t know if anybody ever has made a comic as emotionally satisfying as the end of Love Bunglers. Literally that comic made me tear up, and that had never happened to me before while reading a comic. it was like a new high-it felt like everybody was talking about it.

That is not the first Jaime comic that my wife had read, but it was close to it, and it had that effect on her too.

It’s incredible. And then there’s other stuff in the issue. There’s that great story where all the narration is letters from Maggie’s friend and then it ends with her getting into a car crash. It’s so deeply felt. It doesn’t feel manipulative at all. Thats where years and years of drawing comics can make you so good. It’s the equivalent in my mind of like how Schulz doing Peanuts every day, and they’re all good and then every once in an while he comes out with such a whopper. You only get there by doing it so much.

Have you ever been tempted to do something like that, where you just keep the same characters going for the rest of your career?

Well, it looks like Blood of the Virgin is never going to fucking end. [laughter] Without realizing it, I am just going to draw this one book. No, usually the thing that excites me about a story is the setting. I get excited about a time and place, like doing a World War I comic or drawing a Western, because it’s exciting to learn to draw that stuff and do the research and study it. What’s nice in comics is there’s all this untaped material in terms of genres, and I say genres not in terms of story structures, because I don’t really care about that but just settings. I don’t know if I’ve read a great comic book Western.

I don’t know if they’re great, but the Blueberry—

I can’t even read those. I love Moebius, but for one, his art style is a little bit hacky when he’s Jean Girard. Occasionally he’ll draw a great panel, but it’s so dense and wordy. I want twenty pages of a showdown and a chase. Why can’t it be that?

I love the way Jack Davis draws Western comics, but most of those stories aren’t really that great.

There’s a lot of great stuff to look at visually. There’s Tex. Tex is drawn by Joe Kubert or a guy who draws like Kubert, I can’t remember. There’s a lot of the EC stuff. There’s Jack Jackson.

Oh yeah, that’s good.

That stuff’s really interesting, but I feel like there’s space there to explore.

You could always have the characters from Blood of the Virgin pull a Dick Tracy and go to the moon. [Harkham laughs] They could get a time machine and go to the Wild West. There’s all kinds of things.

Well, I’ve had them act in movies that I wanted to draw. I’ve gotten to put a lot of melting heads in Blood of the Virgin. So that itch always gets scratched. But in Blood of the Virgin so far there aren’t many instances of violence, and comics are fun for violence. It’s very pleasurable.

Oh yeah, I was going to mention this earlier. A friend of ours came over earlier. She’s a poet and she’s very literarily sophisticated, but she doesn’t know much about comics. And she picked up Kramers 9 and [Harkham laughs] and I was curious about what her reaction would be. She said, “There’s a lot of gore and sex in this. I guess more people are interested in this kind of comic than I realized.” [Harkham laughs]

That’s disheartening on a certain level because the work I am most attracted to are comics that feel like they are using the medium in way distinct to the medium. It’s not illustration or animation, it feels like comics. The language of it, the vernacular of the cartooning feels like the medium is being used to get a mainline connection to the inside of a cartoonist’s brain. That’s something comics can do better than any medium. That’s what attracted me to alternative comics. You get a very intense vision. And those are the best comics. And so while Kramers may be full of work that doesn’t have the veneer of sophistication, I think the work is incredibly sophisticated-they use the medium like masters. If people can’t get past the cartoony vulgar veneer, it’s on them, and in fact it’s something to embrace, as its something that creates a context connecting new work to the history of the medium. I think Clowes has talked about this, how he’s always loved the idea of making a comic that he’d put all his heart and soul into it and he liked that it was embarrassing to read on the bus. I absolutely relate to that idea.

Do you read comics on the bus?

Yeah, always. I always have, but I’m not trying to get laid on the bus. I’m not trying to make friends on the bus.

I know this comic is not really autobiographical, but there’s the part where they have movie night and Seymour projects all the movies.

Oh yeah.

For some reason, that seemed to me like something you might have experienced.

Are you insane? [Hodler laughs] Like 8mm twenty-minute versions of Bride of Frankenstein? No! Again, you’re trying to know what a scene needs. What’s what is in 1971.

I don’t believe you. I still think that’s something you do.

[Harkham laughs] The equivalent is me putting on TCM and just not turning it off as much as my wife wants to watch something else-no, we’re finishing this terrible Jimmy Durante movie.

At the end of the issue, Seymour goes to a strip club. Is that —

That was real place called the Onyx Club. In the ’70s they didn’t have what we’d consider today strip clubs. What was cool about the Onyx Club, and I couldn’t convey this, because my original pages aren’t big enough for these details, but you could see in reference pictures that there’s a lot of framed artwork on the walls. All the art is reproductions of famous erotic art. It’s like a classy place exotic club. I think I showed one painting behind Carl Barks’s head—

[Hodler laughs] Is that Carl Barks? I didn’t realize that.

Carl Barks is in the comic. Seymour gets dissed by the stripper because she’s hanging out with Carl Barks and Gil Kane.

Whoa! I did not make that connection, but now it’s unmistakable.

Are you looking at it right now? Doesn’t it look like Carl Barks?

Carl Barks and Gil Kane make cameo appearances in Crickets 5.


Nice amulet, too.

They’re in town for a comic book convention. They had a meeting at Ruby-Spears earlier in the day. Some of the best things for research in the early ’70s are French filmmakers making movies in Los Angeles. Just unbelievable, because these guys would come to L.A. to make a movie, and they would get into making everything geographical correct. Like someone gets in a car on Wilshire, they’re going to turn right on La Cienaga, they’re gonna hit Sunset. There’s this really good Roy Scheider movie called Straight Man.

I haven’t heard of that.

I couldn’t even find a copy of it in English. It’s about a French hitman who goes to LA. It’s amazing, because of all these real unadorned locations shot in 1971. Beautiful. There’s a movie called Model Shop by Jacques Demy, and in this movie the character is driving his car, and I recognized the street. He turns on another street and he pulls up in front of this house and I liked the house. That would make a great house for Val, the boss, because it was in the neo-French retro style, it’s a very specific style of Napoleonic and Modern that exists in LA at that time. I thought it was perfect. And I watched the movie and I drove around and I found the house.

Wow.

I followed the directions in the movie and I found the house and I used it for the house in the comic. Luckily so many old movies are made in Los Angeles, and shows like Adam-12 are really good. Columbo is really good. There’s all this stuff to pull from. I would say 99% of the time every background in the comic, every setting is a real setting. That makes it more fun to work on. We were talking earlier about the talking heads. One of the ways to make it dynamic, part of that is going like, oh, there’s dinner. Well, where? And what is something that will infuse it with history or connect to the theme, something real.

Do you ever do it the other way around, where there’s a setting you want to use so much that you think of an excuse to have the story go there?

There’s stuff I want to use, and I just have it in the back of my mind, waiting for the right scene for that location. The story takes place in 1971. America was in a very interesting spot in 1971. In many ways I think that our decline as a country started at the end of the ’60s. I like that Seymour is trying to make his way in a world that in my mind has already passed. Everything that he wants is already over. Trying to find locations and spaces that can play that up in subtle ways is ideal.

 

 

That was the end of the 2016 interview. A few weeks ago, Sammy and I updated our conversation with a brief question-and-answer session via email.

Obviously, a lot of things have changed in the year since we last spoke, not least the political situation. I don’t know what your politics are, or even if you’re a political person, but I was wondering what it is like to be in the middle of such a long-term artistic project during a time like this. You said you don’t want to make any other comics until you’ve finished Blood of the Virgin. Is it a comfort or a burden or something else to be working on a major project unrelated to the Trump era right now? (Obviously there are a few political signs in the comic: the illustration on the letters page, the upside down flag on the back cover.)

Blood of the Virgin takes place in a very tumultuous time in America, so if I want to talk politics in the strip I have the thematic room to do so. Nixon getting elected after the liberal gains made by Johnson was a huge blow to the left, and reading about that time in America has been useful for the comic and a kind of salve for dealing with today. I hate art that pats its readers on the back, that serves to soothe and confirm their most generic self satisfied opinions about themselves-I genuinely don’t see the point-so while I don’t ignore politics creeping into the work, if they do, my aim is to dig deeper into the issues, making whatever I have to say maybe less topical, but still relevant.

As to my politics, as I get older and get to know more and more successful and rich people, I believe less and less in free market capitalism. I believe less and less in the nobility of humanity-people will demand blood and destruction and strive for power despite their liberal educations or religion, or desire for social justice. everything can be bent to suit whatever feeling is in the air. Since the election, I am trying to focus my attention on the local, the community around me. Fifty states, if you really think about it, is too many for a country. America, since its founding, has always been in a state of violent tension between multiple interests. The last eight years made a lot of people feel like things were turning, evolving to a new normal, which made the Trump victory so much more painful, but I think if we think about america with any honesty, it’s always been a well-intentioned, at one point necessary, democratic idea that has never sailed smoothly (and in fact, has likely done more harm than good to the world). Again, reading more and more american history after the election was and is a great way for me to wrap my head around today.

In our previous interview, you mentioned never using narration in your comics. Why not?

I don’t have a stance against narration, it simply hasn’t organically jumped up at me as an element to incorporate.

You have some personal experience with filmmaking (“Hang Loose” is available for viewing online). How, if at all, did those experiences influence Blood of the Virgin?

The short film was made while working on Blood of the Virgin and no matter what regrets I have with the film I can always look at it as, at the very least, useful research for the comic. It gave me insight and help with every single element of the comic strip.

You said you wished there was more room for violence in Blood of the Virgin because comics are so good a medium for depicting it. In this issue, we get a real fight scene, but it’s short, quick, and, uh, unspectacular. Any reason for that besides realism?

I should clarify that it is not that I want more violence in the strip-the strip is what it is and I am committed to seeing it through on its own terms. I meant merely that violence plays well in comics, generally. The fight scene in the comic, if it is a fight scene, is what it is for that specific context.

Action scene from Crickets 6


Sex, too, continues to be a joyless affair in this story, as does alcohol and debauchery in general, almost a reversal of the way such things (including violence, of course) are typically depicted in ’70s genre films. Are you pushing conservative family values? Ha ha.

I disagree. I think there are numerous instances of people enjoying fucking and drinking and having a good time. Maybe on the periphery, but it’s there.

You open this issue with a dream sequence, notoriously tricky material to handle convincingly. Do you have any particular philosophy regarding dreams in art?

Dreams in stories feel incredibly wrong to me until you are literally working on a story and you realize a dream is exactly right. The reason they feel wrong conceptually, just from the stance of armchair pontification, is because a story already works like a dream, both in its emotional structure and the willful ignorance a reader brings when they open a book up. They know the whole thing is a construct, a space to temporarily live in another person’s shoes, so a dream sequence can feel doubly redundant-until it actually makes sense to do it!

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“Supreme Optimism in the Face of Actual Reality”: An Interview with Sammy Harkham http://www.tcj.com/the-sammy-harkham-interview/ http://www.tcj.com/the-sammy-harkham-interview/#comments Mon, 08 May 2017 12:00:52 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=100394 Continue reading ]]> Sammy Harkham is one of the most vital and influential figures in comics of the last fifteen years. When the fourth issue of his anthology, Kramer’s Ergot, came out in 2003, it introduced the wider world of unsuspecting readers to a burgeoning quasi-underground scene of exciting young artists (Mat Brinkman, C.F., Geneviève Castrée, Leif Goldberg, Anders Nilsen, Harkham himself, etc.) and seemed to herald a new era in comics, one entirely free from previous models of serious comics, which had always seemed in one way or another shackled to the medium’s long and tacky past. Succeeding issues of Kramers maintained and strengthened the anthology’s reputation, and turned the title into the most editorially consistent and consequential ongoing comics anthology since Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s Raw. A new issue of Kramers may no longer deliver the shock of the new, but to readers who have come to trust Harkham’s editorial intelligence, integrity, and restlessness, it is still an event.

Even without Kramer’s, Harkham’s work as a cartoonist would mark him as a major talent. From The Poor Sailor (published in KE4) on, his stories have combined carefully observed moments of subtle realism and an almost classical sense of comics language, all set against an overriding atmosphere of hostility and horror. To indulge in reviewer’s reductionism, it’s as if Roy Crane were illustrating a story by Raymond Carver, in a project overseen by David Lynch in a darker mood. Most of Harkham’s work has been gathered in the no-longer-appropriately titled Everything Together, and much of the rest appears in his ongoing solo anthology, Crickets. For the last four issues, Crickets has been the home of Harkham’s most ambitious and accomplished story to day, The Blood of the Virgin, a bitingly funny yet melancholy serialized portrait of Los Angeles in the early 1970s, told from the viewpoint of an aspiring movie director (and failing father and husband) working for a Roger Corman-esque film company. The story is an ideal outlet for Harkham’s strengths and interests: the depiction of setting, artistic struggle, and the human capacity for self-deception.

Most of this interview took place via Skype around a year ago, revolving around the then-impending release of Crickets 5 and Kramer’s Ergot 9 (a sixth issue of Crickets is newly available), with a short update via email. The conversation has been condensed and slightly revised.

 

GETTING STARTED

Sammy Harkham: How does this work? You’re calling me through Skype?

Tim Hodler: Yeah.

That’s cool.

That way I can just record it.

That’s amazing.

Yeah, I guess so.

I guess so. [laughs] Right. I remember having the zine back in the ’90s and tape recorders and transcribing and turning over the tape and forgetting to turn over the tape. All that stuff.

I forgot that you did that. How long did you do that zine?

We—me and my friend David Kramer—worked on one for like three years. We were accruing all this material, but you’re stoned all the time and you’re dumb. You know, you’re young and you don’t know how to do anything. I interviewed Will Oldham. That’s how I met him, when I was fifteen. And when I sent him the finished zine, he asked me to do art for the first Bonnie Prince Billy record. I don’t know if you know his work or his music?

Yeah, yeah.

I’m trying to think who else? A lot of local Australian bands. How many were there? I think like two or three issues.

This was when you were in high school.

This was when I was in high school, yeah.

Do you still have any copies?

No. When I think back on that I forget that there was a whole part of my life when I was in high school and I was really serious about trying to make fanzines. I was getting work drawing posters for all-ages shows. I think back on it with awe a little bit. I got stuff done and it was good for me to have to turn in artwork and have people criticize it. And do everything wrong. You know, all the things that you do when you’re starting out.

That’s kind of a traditional underground cartoonist thing to do when you’re starting out, too.

You’re right. I think it’s just that people want to draw. It’s not necessarily that they feel an affinity to a scene but it can be where you discover comics. I think the first Clowes thing I probably ever saw was the cover to a record, Las Vegas Grind?

Sure.

Great cover. And you know, when you would see copies of Hate being sold at a record store, it put it in a context that made it feel relevant. Which if you’re me, you’re fading out of superheroes in ’93, ’94, and there was this whole world of comics that were cool. I think Fantagraphics was publishing Your Flesh. Do you remember Your Flesh?

I read a few issues, but not many. It was like a rock magazine or their version of it.

Right. And there’d be articles on William Burroughs and Harry Crews.

Very ’90s.

[Laughs] It’s true. What from that period has aged really well? I mean, we know which comics have. Any magazines of the ’90s?

I don’t know. There’s some stuff I liked back then that I’m sure I’d think was terrible if I revisited it now, like Film Threat? I loved Film Threat.

I’ve been meaning to pull out Film Threat.

I thought it was great then. I don’t think I would think so now.`

It’s interesting. It makes you realize that things that are necessary while they’re there, and it’s kind of like that’s it. And it’s fine. It doesn’t negate the worth of Film Threat, in my mind, if it is absolutely terrible, because it was exciting at that time. Gosh.

 

THE KRAMER’S ERA


That’s funny. Since you and Dan are good friends, I asked him if there were any questions he thought I should ask you.

Oh, Dan. [laughs]

The cover of Kramer’s Ergot 4.

He wanted me to ask you: Is Kramers still relevant? Does it still matter, or was it just a mid-2000s thing? Is it like Film Threat, or does it still matter? I mean, obviously you still think it matters—

I don’t think it matters! I never thought in terms of it mattering. so it has never mattered in a large sense. It’s only in hindsight that I get a sense that it had any sort of impact, and I can’t do anything with that knowledge. It mattering to people isn’t a reason to do something or not do something. Continuing with Kramers is solely based on my enthusiasm, not others’. If it means something to some people, that’s cool but that’s outside my experience. Sometimes I think people got excited about Kramers because there was, and remains, so little to get excited about. You should answer this question, not me. You could tell me what you think.

What do I think? I think it matters, but I’m one person who has my tastes. I don’t know if it’s relevant. I hardly ever even talk to people about comics anymore. Besides…

Yeah, I never get the sense that anybody reads anything, or that anything that’s in the past is ever re-read. The truth is that when I read a comic and I love it, I think, did anyone read this? I hope so. I get hung up on that-I hate the idea of good work being ignored. You and I are connected in that we work in the industry, but we’re not on Facebook discussing new work.

No, I don’t discuss anything on Facebook. I have a page that I never go on. But the thing I was saying before was that…

[laughs] We can keep talking about Facebook pages if you want, that’s okay.

I really have exhausted my opinions about them. [Harkham laughs] But you are saying there’s nothing around to get excited about in comics…

There’s not a lot of great books, so we get excited about interesting books. By the time Kramer’s 4 came out [2003], Mat Brinkman had a solo book, Marc Bell had a solo book, C.F. had been doing minis. To me, it didn’t feel like I was showing anything new. I think the only thing it had going for it was that it was in color. A lot of those artists had not been published in offset and so that was the edge the book had. I did think that the majority of people who were going to buy it were familiar with those artists. I don’t know if Teratoid Heights was out, but it was definitely around that year. And when you look at it now, you can see it’s a very Highwater-inspired book, you know, so it felt very different. Think about that time. You had done The Ganzfeld and you were familiar with all those artists. I’m sure Dan was. I think I heard from Renée French at the time that he was talking shit about it. I know what that is, because I’m very ambitious, and Dan’s very ambitious, and it’s a little bit like jealousy and it’s a little bit threatening, and it’s a little close. It’s what Kevin [Huizenga] calls a near-enemy. I mean the Venn diagram of Dan’s interests and mine are very deep. He’s just got a little more Alex Raymond in him. [Hodler laughs]

It wouldn’t shock me if that is true, but I don’t remember.

No, it’s fine, because I understand it. It’s so close. Same thing with [Tom] Devlin. Devlin saw Kramer’s 4—and he was such a snide prick to me all through my teen years, just as a customer at shows, and he’s such a prick in general—but he wrote me a nice email after that book came out saying this really nicely encapsulates what’s happening. But to go back to the main point it felt like all those people were out there doing their thing.

I think that if you were really in the know, you would know some or most of those artists, but Kramer’s gathered all of them together for maximum impact. So that if someone picked it up who was just curious, a whole new world would be open to them that they hadn’t seen before. I think that’s why it made such a big impact.

There’s also the accumulative effect. The lesser strips fall away and individual pieces fall away because it becomes this whole thing. Everyone picks everyone else up with a book like that.

You said that was a good issue. Were there any issues of Kramer’s that in hindsight you aren’t as happy about?

Just this last summer I was in Minneapolis for this French/American drawing club thing. and in the work room there was a table of everyone’s books so we could get familiar with each other and a copy of Kramers 7, the big one, was there. I don’t think I’d looked at that book since I sent in the files. Looking at that again was interesting because of how fucking dumb some of my decisions were. Some of it worked very well. When I picked that up, I thought, ah, if I’d cut twenty pages, and I was a much more hands-on editor, I think it would have made it a better book.

Are there any bad decisions you feel okay sharing?

What comes to mind are simple things, like artists not using the dimensions of the book properly, and I should have just asked them to re-letter their titles to fill the empty space better. Little things like that would have helped a lot, since each page really mattered.

Was that because that was an issue where you were working with a lot of very established artists?

Not at all. I think it’s feeling timid. Asking people to make changes or being anything more than a cheerleader is difficult, or was for me at the time. After Kramers 7, I realized that I wanted to spend most of my time doing my own work. I enjoy doing Kramers but if I’m going to do it, I should make the stories as good as possible. And then I realized that there’s a certain amount of mutual respect between me and the contributors. I’m not asking them to contribute if I don’t already think they’re great, so surely I can tell them, thanks for the story but I think you should tweak this. I think most artists are open to that and so the new issue has a lot of editorial input.

The cover to the oversized Kramer’s Ergot 7.


Is that just revision or are you requesting the actual themes of the stories?

Mostly revisions. Some artists if they ask about a theme or a direction and I would talk generally about what I am looking for. I have certain things I’m interested in reading. I always tell everybody [I’m looking for] a strong narrative. Of course, that means different things to different people. Also, treat the visuals seriously. Because the page is fairly large. It’s almost 9 by 12, so it’s a good size for reading as well as looking. You want the pages to be very visually dynamic. It doesn’t have to be showy, but you want it to be strong, so that when you flip through the pages, it’s really something. And then narratively that conversation is a little different. I will tell some people, you know, why don’t you do a wordless story? Especially when I’ve been working on the book for a while, and I can see what the book needs and there are artist friends of mine who I can push around [Hodler laughs] and say, I need this kind of story right here. And often, they come through. But when I look through previous issues, that’s something that pops out at me, that I could have brought a more critical eye to the work and the artists would have been receptive to more editorial input. There was no need to keep my concerns to myself.

How old were you when you did Kramer’s Ergot 1?

I was 18.

Was that the first time your comics were published?

Yeah. I think I’ve told this story before, but there were those ads in the Journal for co-op publishing. You could print 500 copies, or a thousand copies, and they would tell you you have this option for paper stock, you have this option for interior, two options for covers, and it was really cheap. It was like 500 bucks, 700. So I did it that way. And that was a good experience, because the book comes out and it was mortifying. It’s so bad. Like paralyzingly bad. I mean everything is kind of like this, you finish a project and you think, I have to make something now to make up for this. [Hodler laughs] That’s what every project often is. You’re trying to course correct from the last thing.

What made you want to edit an anthology, rather than just publishing your own comics, or submitting to other publishers?

Well at the time, it felt impossible to get published and I didn’t have the patience to wait for that to happen. And I felt by including other people it could only be stronger, a power in numbers sort of thing. I was going to end the anthology after issue 3 but it was right around that time that I started discovering so much great self published stuff, probably because I was now going to conventions to sell Kramer’s and meeting more and more people. And with the exception of Highwater, most of them were not being published. It felt like a gap there. And around the same time, Paul Hornschemeier was working for a printer in Canada and he really sold me on the idea of doing a color book, that that was a possible thing. All of that accumulated into issue 4.

 


FAMILY LIFE

I was looking through old interviews with you about your background and I found the basic outline of your career, but it was kind of surprising how little is actually out there, at least that I could find quickly, about your personal life. I know you moved to Australia when you were a teenager—

Uh-huh.

But that’s about it! [Harkham laughs] And that you live in Los Angeles.

What else is needed?

I don’t know.

He moved to Australia. That’s it. That’s the bio.

I don’t know. I know that Dan Clowes used to march around to John Philip Sousa records and his mother was a mechanic, and Chris Ware was extremely close to his grandparents…

Right.

And Robert Crumb, we know everything there is to know about him. Do you have siblings?

I have five siblings. I have four brothers and a sister and I’m in the middle. I have two older brothers, but the next one above me is five years apart, so I’m the oldest of the four that came after the initial two. So it’s kind of like the weird thing of being the middle child but there are elements of being the oldest, too. Because until you’re about 25, that five years is a huge gap. I got a lot from my older brothers, but they didn’t feel like my peers in any way. My brother just below me felt like a peer.

Because they were never in the same school, probably.

One was, but he was always way above, where it didn’t matter. And all his friends scared me, and I was picked on [laughs] because I was so stupid. I still think I am very slow to learn anything. Once I learn something, I’m okay, but it takes me so long to learn anything. I think of how my brother would— I was such a dumb— My memory is that every day my brother would take off his sneakers, after having them on for fifteen hours, and he would say, “My socks smell like strawberries.” And every day, I would sniff them. Every day. [Hodler laughs] Isn’t that crazy? That is mean. I never did that to my siblings. And my older brothers told me that the world could end at any moment—that there was a button on the presidents desk that would launch an atomic bomb. So I lay in bed each night thanking God for not destroying the world yet. But yeah, there were six of us in the house. My oldest brother was into comics, and really into music and underground movies. Both of my brothers were really into movies, and that was the mid to late ’80s, so that was the age when everyone was recording every movie that they would rent for some reason.

VCRs.

Yeah, when I think of that time, VCRs are a huge part of my childhood. But I got exposed to a lot of good stuff because of my two brothers.

 

HORROR


What was the first horror movie that made a big impression on you?

Probably Toxic Avenger or The Omen. I was watching the The Omen with my brothers and they made me turn my head at a certain grisly part. It was Omen II. I haven’t seen the movie since, but I know there was something with an elevator or an elevator shaft and somebody gets stuck. And they forced me to look away. And then you hear the sound of something happening, and even at that age, whatever you visualize will be worse than what’s on screen. Have you seen The Toxic Avenger?


Close your eyes to replicate a young Sammy Harkham’s experience with this scene from Damien: Omen II.

Yeah. It’s been probably 15 years, but I’ve seen it.

I saw it as a kid, and it traumatized me. Years later at CalArts they were playing it in the lunchroom and at first I was appalled, like, how can they play it in the lunchroom? This is fucked up! But then you watch it, and it is so obviously just ridiculous. It’s a parody of a horror movie. There’s a scene where he runs over a kid with a bike and then reverses and runs over the kid’s head [Hodler laughs] — do you remember that scene?

No. It’s been a while.

A group of teenage maniacs are driving around and they see a kid. It’s night time, it’s pitch black, and the kid’s out for a bike ride. his sister has just told him to wear his helmet, its all very sweet. Then they cut to these evil teenagers maniacally laughing drinking beer and making out cruising around. They see this kid, they hit him with their car, and they’re laughing hysterically. And then they reverse and run over his head as he’s crawling to the sidewalk, and then they stamp their car with another kill logo like they’ve hit a person. I think the other logo is an old lady with a walker. Another one’s a baby carriage, and the new one is like a little icon of a guy on a bike. As a kid I just thought that was real.

My mom grew up on a farm in New Zealand. My dad was born in Baghdad, moved to Israel as a refugee, and ended up in Australia as a teenager. He didn’t finish elementary school. They’re just working people. They weren’t keeping track of any of this stuff. They don’t know what’s going on downstairs in the basement. I think that stuff definitely affected me. When people say, oh, horror movies, they don’t really affect people … [laughs] they totally do. I don’t believe in censorship obviously, but gosh. Aiyiyi.



Well, it’s like you read those Grimm Brothers stories. They are incredibly gory sometimes. I read them to my daughter, and sometimes I feel like, why did I just read that? I should not have read that.

Oh my god. Do you change the words? Sometimes, I’ll be in the middle of reading to my daughter—my daughter’s four—I’ll be in the middle of the story and I’ll just change it as I’m reading it.

Oh, totally.

Because I can see it’s just too fucking dark. Especially if you’re reading an original or where they’re trying to adhere to the original version of Little Red Riding Hood.

There’s a lot of anti-Semitism that I have to gloss over.

Are you serious?

Oh yeah, in the woods, there’s often an evil Jew…

Which ones are you reading with the anti-Semitism?

I’m not thinking of the Grimm Brothers now, but the ones from Andrew Lang, like The Red Fairy Book, The Blue Fairy Book, etc.

I haven’t seen those.

They’re good! But you have to be careful.

Oh my god.

There’s other stuff in those fairy tales, too, where, you know, parents agree for their kids to be slaughtered in exchange for some kind of magic reward [Harkham laughs] and things like that.

Yeah, and a lot of the happy endings are like, Hansel and Gretel got back to the house. Their evil stepmother had died. [Hodler laughs] Not that she was forced to leave. She just died.

And their dad loved them. He didn’t want to go along with the whole leaving them in the woods thing. He loved them for real.

I know. Just trying to explain that concept. Not even explaining, because you’re kind of just going with the story. Because there’s no food in the house, they decided it would be better to get rid of the kids so that there was food for the adults. It’s like they never even thought of this idea. They don’t live in a world where there isn’t enough food for everyone and decisions have to be made like that.

I think that might be one of the things those stories are for, like horror movies. They’re a way to safely introduce you to —

To experience trauma.

And to learn about some of the less pleasant realities of the world.

I mean, Little Red Riding Hood. For a year, I was telling my daughter that story every night. She loved it. She liked how scary it got, and I think it’s really cathartic in that way, but I don’t think watching Toxic Avenger at 6 years old— [Hodler laughs] That’s bad. That’s so bad.

You might be right.

It’s not the same. So there’s a lot of that stuff, and I did discover a lot of comics at that age. My oldest brother, he’s a guy who draws and paints, so there was all kinds of alternative comics lying around his room. Now he doesn’t really read them, but it was amazing to just to look at issues of Zap or stare at those comic book covers like Cheech Wizard and try to understand them.

I don’t understand it now.

[Laughs] Yeah, it’s so weird, but you know when you’re little, you’re like, where are his eyes? Where are his hands? [Hodler laughs] How does he walk? Because it looks like Disney. The culture always has nostalgia for twenty years before so in the ’80s there was nostalgia for ’60s stuff, in the ’60s there was nostalgia for pre-WWII stuff. So there was all that in early underground comics. All the stuff looked really polished. Theres this issue of Zap with this really goofy-looking guy on the cover. It looks like a Disney comic. When you’re young, you don’t understand the context. I remember reading that comic and I think “Joe Blow” is in there and I thought it was so evil. So my whole perception of alternative comics is that they were sick and confusing. Looking at a Jim Woodring cover at 12 years old is just confusing in a great way. And I related them to punk rock because my brother would have Reagan Youth and Agnostic Front records side by side with the comics, and all those images were just confusing to me. I would stare at them and just try to make sense of them. Comics were just folded into that for me.

What did your parents do when you were a kid?

My mom was taking care of all of us, and my dad was in garment manufacturing from the age of 13. That whole industry has completely changed. He was working for a dressmaker as a kid at 13. I think the revolution in Baghdad happened in the early ’50s and there was a lot of antisemitism when that happened. This was after the formation of Israel. This is stuff I only learned while researching stuff for Blood of the Virgin. In the last issue, I had some Sephardic Jews talking, so I actually went and researched this. My dad’s not a great communicator, so I couldn’t get facts out him. Basically in the early ’50s, after Israel is formed and Zionism is kind of a popular thing, any time there’s hardship in any of these Arab countries, they blame it on Jews. And then there were people trying to overthrow the government, and they blame that on Jews. Both factions who were trying to get control of Iraq at that time would blame the problems on Jews. There was a lot of stuff like that. And so a coup happens in the early ’50s, and Jews basically get kicked out of the country. It became very unsafe for Jews to live there. My dad’s family—he’s about three or four—they all move to Israel but Israel isn’t really prepared to accept refugees properly-these people all had to leave everything in Baghdad, so they came with nothing.

If you talk to Sephardic Jews, you hear these stories, it’s like a regular thing, and it’s still raw for them. They got put in refugee camps. So my dad lived in a refugee camp for a couple years. He had seven siblings and his parents in a tent. I think that’s all the drive you need to try and get something going. And then some family member lived in Australia and so they saved money and they sent him. He’s 14, they sew $4000 into his pants so he won’t lose it, they put him on an airplane—never been on a fucking airplane—he goes to Australia where even today it’s a pretty racist country. There’s definitely a sense he’s the Other. I think he tried to go to school but I don’t think he ever really went to school. He doesn’t like to say it because I think his goal in life was to be like a normal white person. So he married a white girl from New Zealand who had never met a Jew until she met my dad.



Did your mother convert?

She converted because he wanted her to, and she didn’t know what that was at all. … my dad doesn’t know this story but he’s not going to read this interview, and this is funny. He asked the local rabbi in Sydney, Australia: “My girlfriend’s going to convert. How do you do it?” “Well, she should live with a Jewish family for six months, and she should learn all the customs and the lifestyle and the ways it’s done.” And she’s like, okay, and moves in with this family. and right away when I hear this, I’m like what’s the story there? that doesn’t sound right to me. and she at the time would have no idea what was normal or not, and neither would my father. She was very young, she was 17 years old. So she moves in with this family that had other girls going through the conversion process as well also living there, and she said the rabbi who lived in the house tried to get into bed with her.

Whoa.

At like eleven o’clock at night. And she yells, “Get the fuck out of my bed!” And I asked her, did you really say that to him? Did you really? And she was like, yes, what are you crazy? [Hodler laughs] So I’m like okay, fine. Did you tell dad? No, I did not tell your father because he probably would’ve driven his car through the front of this guy’s house.

Yeah.

He would have been super upset. And the guy had been helping convert non-Jewish people into the religion for the last ten years. he eventually got caught doing something and they kicked him out of the community. but that was her first experience in a Jewish community.


Was she Christian before that or something else?

Not really. They would go to church for the social aspect in the tiny town she lived in. My mom grew up on a dairy farm, where her mother was the housekeeper of a farmer who was a widower with a bunch of his own kids. So he let this divorced woman, my grandmother, live there with her kids, and they all worked and live on the farm as a form of payment. They weren’t really religious, but in a small town in New Zealand, Christian values would have been the norm, it would have permeated everything. The Mormons were nice to them. They would come to the farm and give them chocolate and would try to take them to church and stuff like that but there wasn’t a big religious culture for them— or my dad. On my father’s side it was just traditional, so they were about equal.

So then they moved to California before you were born?

They were living in Australia. They had one kid in the mid ’70s and then they moved to L.A. because he thought he could get some work there. They had been to L.A. briefly the year before and that led him to believe he could find work if they moved there. He thought they’d go to L.A. and get something going. His brother owed him some money so he arrived with nothing and kept expecting some money to be wired to him, but his brother never sent him the money. He was totally broke. Someone from the synagogue lent him $200. To this day he’s still friends with that guy.

It’s a good reason.

Yeah, right. And then me and then the others … everyone just starts coming out.

Is your dad still working in L.A.?

Yeah, he is.

What do your older brothers do?

They work with my father. Nothing exciting.

And your younger brothers and sister?

One works in education. Another in real estate. That’s basically it.

Are you guys close?

Yeah. I suppose. We’re all pretty much in Los Angeles. With Jewish holidays as you know you alway have an excuse to see each other all the time. If anything you have to make excuses to not go to things.

It sounds like your older brother was into art when he was younger, but otherwise you are kind of unusual in your family in that regard. Is that right?

Well my older brother is a painter. He doesn’t have a fine arts career, but he’s serious about painting, and when I was younger that was a big influence on me. Because my dad was working all the time and I didn’t see him very much, my oldest brother, who is eight years older than me, was very much the father figure. So in that regard I must have realized that it’s a natural thing. I’m seeing comics, I’m seeing art, I’m seeing all kinds of cultural stuff. His room was a kind of guiding light. I put importance on that because he was important to me. It doesn’t come out of nowhere. That’s probably a big part of it.

When you go home and you’re visiting with your family do you talk about Kramers 9 coming out or the new Crickets or whatever? Do they understand it?

I don’t think my parents have read it. Any of my work.

Really?

Yeah, my identity is not formed by my work in their eyes. They just go, oh, he draws, he makes stuff. [Hodler laughs] Why doesn’t he make more money? Can you sell comics? There was a New York Times review of Kramers at one point. They pay attention to that. There was an L.A. Times article, they pay attention to that. They don’t really read the work. But I don’t send them links, I don’t give them copies. I try to sort of keep my parents in the loop, but it’s more self-serving than having a desire for them to read my work. There’s that element in myself that I’m trying to kill that needs to be validated by my parents. I really hate that part of me. You can’t really impress your parents that much with this stuff because all they want to know is, did you get a good advance? [Hodler laughs] I’ve been saying about Blood of the Virgin for eight years, that when the book’s done, it will come out, it will be a book, but my dad just thinks I must be doing something wrong. Because he’s like, you should get an agent and you should sell someone this as an idea. He looks at The Simpsons and he’s like, “Just do that. Can’t you do that?” And I’m like, well, it doesn’t really work that way [laughter] and also I have no inclination to do that. But you know, it’s fine. It doesn’t bother me. I talk to other cartoonists and I am always surprised to learn they are holding something back, or even the idea that they are encouraged by their parents.

You said you had no interest in doing The Simpsons, but you went to CalArts to study animation, right?

I did, but you know, it’s logical when you’re in high school, you’re making zines, you’re drawing comics, you apply to art school. And I was somebody who was interested in so much when i was a teenager. I was dabbling in every form except for music. I was trying to do everything. I was doing school plays and I was doing gig posters like I said before. I was interested in so many different fields. And the experimental animation department wasn’t just filmmaking, it wasn’t just animation, it wasn’t just drawing, it was everything. They didn’t have a comics program but they had all these different things I could explore. But I very quickly realized that everyone who made these beautiful short animated films could only really show them at festivals and then use their film as a business card to get jobs applying their style to doing insurance commercials or Red Bull commercials, and that was really unappealing to me. I really didn’t want to do that and I naturally doubled down on comics. I think at one point I was working on Poor Sailor and I showed it to my mentor, the person they put in charge of you, and she thought the strip was really nice and that I should animate it and that’s when I realized this isn’t a good fit any more. But it was a good school. It was useful, I guess.

 


AUSTRALIA

So when you were 14 you moved to Australia… Was there a reason for that? [laughs] I mean, obviously there was a reason…

No, you know, I never understood it, because when you’re young you just do what your parents tell you to do. Supposedly, and this may not be true, my dad was really keen to move back to Australia so he asked my mother—who he’d already been divorced for five years from at that point—to move the family back to Australia. And she said, “Okay.” [laughs] Very weird. And then he didn’t go. She had somehow organized a house to rent and he said, “I’ll be there. You set it up. I’ll be there in the middle of the school year.” And then basically we didn’t see him for two years. He visited every five or six months and was completely freaked out by his kids going through puberty. My two older brothers didn’t go. They stayed in the U.S. After two years, I think, he came to visit. I think he caught my younger bother smoking pot. I was sixteen, my brother was 14 and my dad was like, all right, this is done. Forget this. But it was very good for me.

In what way?

Because in Los Angeles I was very much alone, socially. I had my older brothers, and I could go through their tape collections and I could go through my brother’s comics and there was a lot stuff in the house, but I never had friends who who dug any deeper than the most generic pop culture. At that time I was reading Image comics and segueing out. So going to Australia … I remember being shown to my locker and the guy with the locker above mine had a picture of Jimi Hendrix in his locker, and that would have blown my mind a little bit. he became one of my best friends. And through him I met other people my age who read books and were interested in Monty Python and reading books.

It’s funny you had to go to Australia to find kids who shared your interests.

Yes. But it was less shared interests and more that they pushed me intellectually, they were into unpopular stuff for weird reasons… What’s the name of the Peter Sellers radio show?

The Goon Show?

Yeah, The Goon Show. Fourteen-year-olds listening to The Goon Show and talking about post-War English humor. Or to learn about Carlos Castaneda. That was the right age for the next level of that. And we all did it together. We were trying to reach beyond our intellectual means. half the music we listened to was jazz, and the books were old Mervyn Peake hardcovers and Dylan Thomas poetry books, and that’s good at that age, to be pushed to that kind of level. So Australia was great for me at the moment. Because if one of your friends is really smart, it ups everyone’s mental game. Did you see that amazing Noah Van Sciver comic? About when he’s a teenager? My Hot Date?

Not yet.

The comic is great, but one thing I really took away from it, he’s trying to fit in with his friends. They are all listening to Korn and Limp Bizkit [Hodler laughs], wannabe white skater kids trying to get dreads and silver beaded necklaces. This whole scene that I would see peripherally as a teenager and was happening concurrently but I never had to ever try and be a part of, thank god. I mean literally the most embarrassing thing I was probably into at that age was really loving Bukowski.

Right.

Like really loving Bukowski. [laughs]

You know, it’s a phase to go through.

Yeah, it’s a phase. I was in eighth grade reading Ham on Rye. I mean think about what that looks like. That is ridiculous. I was saying to my mom the other day the only book in our house and in every other house I ever walked into growing up was Leon Uris.

[Hodler laughs] I had a feeling you were going to say that!

Remember that book with the dagger on the cover? That book was in everybody’s house. Every Jew had that book in their house. Just that one. I don’t know why. That guy Leon Uris had the market cornered for people who don’t read but need one book to place on a side table. Anyway, the Bukowski stuff was ridiculous, because it’s all very romantic at 14.

Yeah, but if you see a kid who’s 14 years old reading Ham on Rye, you know that kid is probably going to turn out to be at least … engaged with things.

Yeah. And I had good friends, and for the most part I think it was pretty good. The only stuff I look back on with horror is the LSD.

What do you mean?

Taking LSD at 16, wandering around downtown at 3 in the morning without any shoes on—that’s fucking crazy. But besides that it was all pretty wholesome, because me and my friends, we wanted to have moral fortitude. We didn’t want to be creeps. Like if anyone talked about masturbation, we were like, oh my god! [Hodler laughs] We weren’t gross. We wanted to be upstanding people. Which is funny at 15 to want to be an upstanding person, whatever that means. I think we all hated school and getting on a school bus and kids yelling at us and grabbing our books and knocking them out of our hands [laughs] or ripping up our comics. But it was good. It is funny, a lot of cartoonists I talk to have had very similar circumstances. I was talking to Kevin Huizenga and I just assumed Kevin was surrounded by weird Dutch Christians [Hodler laughs] his whole life until like 2008. I swear to you I always assumed that until he met Ted May and Dan Zettwoch in Saint Louis that he was just surrounded by Christians. But then he was telling me recently that in high school he had six people, and they had their own newspaper. I’m sure it’s like that for a lot of people. Australia was good in that regard.


Do you miss Australia at all? Do you go back?

We go back a lot because my wife’s from there and I have a couple friends there. I like it fine. I can see moving back there. It’s nice and quiet.

 

FATHERHOOD


You got married pretty young, is that right?

I did. I was religious at the time. My wife wasn’t [laughs] but I convinced her to marry me. It’s insane. I think it’s connected to being a cartoonist: supreme optimism in the face of actual reality. You just think everything will be fine, I can do it all. Being married at 24 was very much like that, and also it felt like the real thing to do. Because it was uncool. Who gets married at 24? It’s fucking stupid. I do that. I don’t need other things, I know what I’m doing, and now in hindsight, I literally can’t think of my twenties without cringing.

But it worked out, right? I mean, I don’t know… [laughs nervously] I assume?

My marriage is doing good and I love my kids and everything is cool, but at the same time I look back and I see a lot of lost opportunity. Because you get married that young and you have kids that young and it puts a financial burden on you when really, if I didn’t have children, especially in my mid-twenties, I could’ve just been drawing comics.

Did you read Joe Ollmann’s Mid-Life?

No. Is that the one were the guy gets picked up by the UFO?

No, this one is semi-autobiographical, I think. It’s funny. The main character had a kid when he was really young, like 19 or something.

Right. He’s got a full-grown daughter.

Yeah, and then he got divorced and remarried, and then in his early forties right after his kid finally left home to go to college, he had a new kid and started all over again.

Oh my god. That’s like my nightmare. [Hodler laughs] I mean, the thing I pine for is emptiness. I pine for no phone calls, no one asking for me, no one needing me. Because I locked myself in. And obviously you have … two kids?

Just one. [Two now.]

Just one. But you know, you’re locked in. People rely on you and it’s very difficult. they need you. which is vaguely heartbreaking to me. Raymond Carver was tasked to write an essay about what inspired his work and he remembers being 33 on a Sunday at 2 pm in a laundromat watching his clothes go round and round, and having one kid at a party and another kid who had to get picked up from somewhere else and thinking what the fuck has happened? [Hodler laughs] I’m stuck and I can’t get out and he said he’d never felt more defeated in his life. He also had kids very young, and he and his wife yearned to be free from the life that they lived. They moved every six months to a year for twenty years, he was just all over the place, trying to keep his head above water, and he talks about how because of the kids, short stories were the only form that made sense. Because of kids he had all these pent-up emotions, either feeling resentful or lost opportunity or ambitions, basically all these things. So his kids were his inspiration. Not in a cheesy way but in a real way. And I thought that was amazing. I think it’s really true for most people with kids who are trying to make work.

How did having kids affect your work, do you think?

I think I’m always like ten years behind whats actually happening to me, as far as it coming into my work. When I started doing Blood of the Virgin, my oldest son was ten months old, so I made the baby ten months old. And now he’s ten, and the baby in the comic is still ten months [laughter] and so enough time has passed where I can sort of look at that relationship in the comic with distance. Those scenes are a little different now, the scenes at home.

You might have heard this before but Peter Bagge (I think) once said that his Buddy Bradley stories were usually about things that had happened ten years earlier. He had to wait a decade before he could write about them.

Yeah, because you don’t really know it when you’re in it. How can you? You’re just following impulses. I guess Crumb was always good about writing about his life as it was happening. Maybe that’s not true, maybe he was always writing about the past too? Now that I think about it.

It depends on the story.

It makes sense. How can you write about the present moment with any distance when you’re having kids, living your life? It’s such a whirlwind. With a long-form story you start working on something because you have these impulses towards things, and then as time passes you start seeing with a little more clarity whats behind those impulses and how to further those ideas, hopefully without killing it by knowing exactly what it is. You start seeing these connections that you didn’t notice initially and your own life plays a big part in that.

Are there any connections you could think of off the top of your head like that? That you noticed later?

[Pause] I can’t go into it.

That’s fair.

All I can say is that Blood of the Virgin is not written out as a script. It’s worked on scene by scene, so it can stay fresh. Old ideas can be tossed for new ideas. For whatever reason, the broad strokes of what constitutes the plot came easy so I have a framework with which I can follow my interests without losing sight of the whole, but without limiting it or knowing what the book is in total. At some point I realized the story should diverge a little and go in this other direction for a little bit and for the longest time, I didn’t know what the connection was between the two strands. I don’t know and it might ruin the book. [Hodler laughs] As time passes you start thinking about your own life in relation to the strip and you can see what’s working under the hood about these ideas, whereas before it was all just following what felt right. I try not to know too much. I think it’s bad to know too much, because then you sort of just end up slotting in ideas. For example you could be working on a scene, not sure what the specifics of the dialogue should be, and if you know the major theme of your book is “fatherhood,” you logically think, “They should talk about fatherhood.” In a bad book, you finish it and it’s like a perfect train track with no gaps, and it’s just perfectly filled in, and ideally you want to have some element of tension and mystery from which you can’t piece it all together so neatly. So when you’re making something, you can’t know all of it. You can’t because then you’re just answering questions.

Do you know how long it’s going to be?

I’m in the second half.

Do you have a vague idea of where it might end or not even that?

I know the overall plot and thats been there from the beginning. I could tell you over dinner the entire story in broad strokes, but the meat and potatoes of each of those ideas can end up being anywhere from a panel to twenty pages. Elaborate scenes I hold in my head for five years can end up not working once I finally get to them, and they end up being one panel. And on the flip side, something I think will be a page can grow and grow into its own chapter. Blood of the Virgin was originally conceived as a short story. Then I thought it would be three chapters total. What is currently issues 4 to 6 of Crickets was thought of initially as one 24-page chapter. And I still feel like I am doing it as economically as possible-I try not to waste space. So while it’s taken many years to get the first half done, I am hopeful I can finish it soon. What it all comes down to is turning off all the noise and having the financial stability for a couple months to just think straight for a minute and get into a rhythm. I’ve gotten into a pretty good system where a page that used to take twenty hours to do can be done in less than half that without cutting corners. Going to Australia for 2014 and only working on this comic was such a good thing because it made me really break through my own process. I had nowhere else to go, I had no distractions, I couldn’t do anything. I had to just buckle down and do it. So now when I sit down, I know how to do it. 2014 was all about learning how to draw comics. Most of that material is in Crickets 4 and part of Crickets 5 because it’s drawn out of order. I talk to Kevin Huizenga fairly regularly. We’ve been talking for over ten years, and the issues we had when we were in our mid twenties were literally the mechanics of cartooning were impossible to figure out. And then what happens is if you keep doing it you develop what Kevin calls “systems.” You start understanding how it works, how to do it, and your struggles aren’t “I don’t know how to draw a page of comics.” You can do that. The writing remains the difficult part, and is the thing that holds everything else up. It’s a matter of doing a page that’s deeply felt, so it’s not just tossing off material. That’s a long answer to say that I think I want to get the strip done in the next two years.

Oh, I didn’t realize. That’s pretty fast!

Ideally what I would like to do is two more issues. There isn’t that much left, but they’re big chapters, so each one ends up being about fifty pages.

Yeah, you could do it!

Yeah, you could do it. [laughter] It’s almost over, you could do it. Ten hours a page means that if there is nothing else that you have to deal with, you can do two to three pages a week, and the thing is that when you’re working on comics, that part of your brain gets strong, so it becomes easier the more you do. I never think of the whole book beyond its most basic shape, because if I think of the whole, I get overwhelmed and i start questioning the scene at hand. It got difficult in the middle of Crickets 5. I started thinking, shit, we’re in the middle of this now—I have to start connecting the dots. And you know, the first half of the story is all expanding—in dramatic storytelling, not necessarily in literature. A lot of dramatic storytelling is building, and you’re sort of expanding out, and the second half you’re mirroring or going back in on what you’ve already established. Blood of the Virgin is designed more like prose fiction—it’s not a movie in comics form—but still you do start thinking, what does the book look like?

What I learned was that while it’s good to know where I’m heading on the macro level, and to have those anxiety attacks every once in awhile, it’s best to focus on whatever single page is in front of me and nothing else. And put all my attention on to that single page like my life depends on it. Not in the Wally Wood or Jack Kirby way of the splashiest page, but just the best version of that page. So if you need a scene of somebody waking up and going to the bathroom and brushing their teeth, you try to give it everything. And then it starts helping the overall rhythm. There’s the internal rhythm of reading, of writing a story, of working on a story in order, so when you have a slow silent sequence that goes for five pages of him driving his friend home at dawn, you know what needs to come right after that tonally and rhythmically. You go, oh we’ve just done this whole thing over months and months, I want to have a vulgar joke right after. I don’t know what it’ll be, and I don’t know who will say it, but I want the word “butthole.”

How is serialization affecting all this? Are the chapters that have already been published—the ones from Crickets 3, 4, and 5—locked in? Do you plan to go back and change them when you put together the book?

I may add standalone things between chapters. as to whats already been published, I’m not going to change them drastically. I will try to just fix the things that are too terrible to ignore-some lettering for instance, a terribly drawn car or an expression on someones face. I had to look at Crickets 3 while working on Crickets 6 to see how certain characters and rooms looked and it was physically painful to look at. As to serialization, I initially wasn’t going to serialize Blood of the Virgin. After issue 3, the plan was to finish it and release it as a book. But it just kept growing and it kept getting longer and I felt like I couldn’t not exist as a cartoonist for the next however long i need to release this. I had to release it in some way as it might take years. And so then you realize that there’s two paths for what you can do. You can make a great overall packaged thing where it’s like Rubber Blanket or Eightball, where the chapter is perfect, there’s a short story, there’s a gag, the letters page is solid. Dirty Plotte was always that. Doucet serialized My New York Diary; there’d be a dream comic, a one-pager.

I think New York Diary works better serialized.

Well, there you go. Jim Woodring, obviously. Frank. There’s that model. If you haven’t released anything in two or three years, you want the next comic to be really good. you figure, it’s been a long time, but l will try to make it great. And it’s also expensive, they aren’t cheap. It’s going to be 7 or 8 dollars. That’s one way. But then on the other side of it, there’s the Underwater/Yummy Fur model, the Louis Riel model, like, okay, we’ve hit 22 pages, I don’t care if we’re in the middle of a fucking scene, the issue’s done. Which is great too, but what you’re saying is this issue may not stand on its own but hopefully you’ll be doing it every three or four months.

I’m trying to do something between those two models. I don’t want to draw any other comics till this strip is done, certainly nothing substantial, so I can’t make what I think is the ideal comics package. the best thing about serialization, is that it puts your feet to the fire with every single chapter. I feel like I have to make each issue as good as I possibly can, because its being judged on its own merits and not as a whole. I don’t know if the chapters would be the same if they only came out as one larger book. Plus, and this is a big one for me, I love single-issue comics because comics are quick to read so you can really absorb and cherish a chapter while waiting for the next one to come out. David Boring chapters 1 and 2 immediately spring to mind, but there are a lot of comics like that for me, strips that benefitted from a lot of re-reading. I really love the format.


The story is set set in the ’70s in a kind kind of Roger Corman-esque filmmaking milieu, but it seems like it mixes stuff about your family transmogrified into other characters. Is that right?

Yeah, thats true. I’m trying to just bring my interests into this thing and that’s why it keeps growing. The strip was initially inspired by my parents and their lives in very sort of hollow way. A lot of that’s evolved, but that was the initial spark. This strip was meant to be short but the framework of the plot kind of invites all this other stuff to glom onto it.

I mean, basically one of the things that sparked the story — I’m a little hesitant to talk about it, because it’s a work in progress, but my dad would talk about coming to L.A. with his wife and young son, and just struggling to get something going. he would tell me these stories about going to a meeting and pretending he had a driver to make it sound like he had a successful business—when he really he had taken the bus. And they would walk him out of the building after the meeting, and there was no car waiting for him, and he’d bluff, “Oh, my driver must gone around the block. I’ll wait.” Stuff like that, which I thought was so funny, and then at the same time my mother would tell me, “Yeah, I tried to leave your dad. I tried to escape.” [laughs]

So it’s an interesting thing—the guy’s professional life was expanding out, but his personal life was so bad, and I thought that was really funny, and I thought there was enough tension there that I could really dig into this. I’d never done a story set in Los Angeles so that become another interesting element, visually and narratively. The only thing that didn’t make sense to me is what the character did, because my dad didn’t work in film, and I didn’t want to make it the clothing industry because I couldn’t get a sense of what it would add. Movies is such an LA thing, and it sucks how much Los Angeles culture lives in the shadow of movies, but that setting worked for this. I know there’s a lot of fiction and a lot of movies about making movies, but—I know you and I both read Video Watchdog

Sure.

I was discovering Video Watchdog around this time. They would run these old bulletin reviews for a regional exhibitors newsletter written by Joe Dante before he was a filmmaker. First of all, I’d never heard of almost any of these movies. And I thought what a weird subculture, where all these movies and all this stuff is happening in the fringes of this industry. It’s charming for all the obvious reasons. You watch a movie like Eegah! You know Eegah!?

Sure.

With Jaws [Richard Kiel]. You look at that movie, the guy who made it put his son in it because he wanted him to be the next Ricky Nelson, and it’s about a cave man in Palm Springs. It’s great on many levels. You read these stories of these people and I can’t get enough of it. The strip is not love letter to that stuff. I’m not trying to make something that’s reverential. I just think it’s a really good setting. Probably this is where it gets a little tricky for me to think about. I come from a big family. I’ve been locked in a family world my whole life. And movies are very much about families, these big networks of people that you cant escape from. So it just seemed like a natural thing, and it didn’t feel like I was stepping on well-worn territory.

Right.

Now I do, because I didn’t even know how much fucking stuff is out there.

Did you ever see The Stunt Man?

No.

The Richard Rush movie? You should watch that, it’s good. He worked with Roger Corman.

Oh yeah, I know of it. It played last week at the New Beverly but I missed it. I need to see it.

Something occurred to me which might not be what you were thinking at all: during that Roger Corman era, all these people like Joe Dante and Peter Bogdanovich and Francis Ford Coppola were doing these schlocky things with him, but they had the ambition to be great artists and make personal movies …

Absolutely. The rise of the monster kids. They call them monster kids. It’s a whole culture of people who grew up watching these movies late at night on tv, because the monster movies were packaged and sold by Universal and whoever owned RKO, pre-sold as packages. They would have a local host, and all those kids who grew up loving that stuff in late ’50s, early ’60s, in the ’70s they grow up to be the first filmmakers who don’t feel like they’re slumming it making a horror movie. When Joe Dante makes Piranha, he’s excited to make Piranha. Whereas you look at Byron Haskin, the guy who made Robinson Crusoe on Mars, that’s like the end of your career. In the ’50s and ’60s, if you’re making a horror movie or a science fiction movie, unless it’s the occasional marquee movie A-list movie like Forbidden Planet, you’re slumming it. You’re at the end of your career. that’s a little simplistic, but you know what I mean. Their goals were to make “respectable” Hollywood movies. But these guys in the ’70s, they were all into it. I think that’s interesting. They’re like a generation of people who don’t see this as trash. And there was another idea, these people, what are they escaping from anyway, where they have to stay locked into their childhood. What is that? Where they’re constantly trying to escape into the past.

Do you think that’s true of just those kinds of artists, or all artists?

Well, I don’t think it’s true of filmmakers for the most part. but with those filmmakers, you have guys who are unabashedly into genre movies. Really, that’s a first, so that’s interesting to me. Beyond that, we now have a culture where superhero movies, Star Wars, fan fic, it’s all taken over. I mean, Game of Thrones gets recapped in the New York Times. A show about a fucking dragon. [Hodler laughs] A bad show about a dragon. It’s so stupid, the culture. I was reading Cannery Row and at the end of Cannery Row, a hobo recites a poem to a room full of hoboes, and they all know the words to the poem. That is so far-fetched in today’s world …

They’d do the Green Lantern oath and they would all know it.

Exactly right! And it’s not that I am disgusted by mainstream culture. I genuinely haven’t cared about popular culture since I was probably 13. But look at what these guys have wrought upon the world. People are just so obsessed with their own monuments to, like, He-Man. [Hodler laughs] It’s insane. Modern man is a boob. So in that regard that’s another reason why Blood of the Virgin is not a love letter. As to the idea of specifically artists trying to escape into their work, well, I think I started Blood of a Virgin interestingly enough when the first Walt and Skeezix book came out. Jeet Heer has an essay in that book where he talks about Frank King’s life while doing the strip. His son at the time had been sent to a boarding school, he didn’t get on well with his wife, and you can just see this guy used his strip to live in an alternate universe. Certainly a thing that happens with cartoonists. I have experienced it myself. So that’s an element in the strip. Every Kim Deitch book ends with the main character realizing that this whole world that they’re obsessed with can’t go on existing any more, that the pygmy village has to be destroyed. This is a thing for cartoonists, and I think it’s likely true for novelists. I don’t think it’s true for filmmakers and musicians because their work is so much more collaborative.

I think too for a cartoonist, it takes so much time, and if you’re going to spend years with the same characters in the same place, especially if you’re doing a strip that lasts for decades, at some level it’s going to either start to be appealing to you or it will change to become a setting that’s appealing to visit for you.

For sure. I always want to ask Jaime Hernandez, does it bum you out that Maggie’s not real? Does that freak you out that she’s not here?

[Continued here.]

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“A Shared Universe, with the Camera Slowly Panning Outwards”: An Interview with Eric Kostiuk Williams http://www.tcj.com/a-shared-universe-with-the-camera-slowly-panning-outwards-an-interview-with-eric-kostiuk-williams/ http://www.tcj.com/a-shared-universe-with-the-camera-slowly-panning-outwards-an-interview-with-eric-kostiuk-williams/#respond Fri, 05 May 2017 12:00:09 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=100244 Continue reading ]]>

Eric Kostiuk Williams is a 26-year-old Canadian artist, originally hailing from Ottawa, who now calls Toronto home. He has received acclaim for the three issues of his self-published Hungry Bottom Comics (2012-2014), including being nominated for the prestigious Doug Wright Spotlight Award in 2013. In recent months Eric has amped up his productivity, releasing three new titles with three different, well-regarded comics presses, including his first graphic novel, Condo Heartbreak Disco (Koyama Press). Condo is a strikingly original work examining the devastating effects of urban renewal on working class and artist neighborhoods in Toronto, as seen through the eyes of two immortal, super-fabulous entities known as Komio and the Braid. Though Condo veers wildly away from the autobiographical terrain of Hungry Bottom into all-new realms in terms of subject matter and scope, it still feels like a logical expansion of Eric’s earlier work. I’ve maintained all along that Eric is a major, visionary talent in both the queer comics scene and larger alternative comics world, and he is certainly living up to that estimation.

Full disclosure: I’ve had a friendly working relationship with Eric for several years now. He has contributed original comics to a couple of my anthologies, and I wrote the introduction to his Collected Hungry Bottom Comics (2013), and blurbed for Condo Heartbreak Disco. I’d originally planned to conduct this entire interview with Eric in person at the second Queers & Comics conference in San Francisco that just wrapped in mid-April, but we both agreed that might prove difficult and distracting to pull off (true), so a big portion was done via email.

Rob Kirby: I wanted to give readers the full Eric Kostiuk Williams experience, so would you kindly give us a brief summary of Hungry Bottom Comics? You know, your impetus in starting it, the autobiographical aspects, etc. 

Eric Kostiuk Williams: Hungry Bottom Comics was my means of processing the experience of coming into my own as a young gay guy in Toronto. The prospect of moving to a big city with a vibrant gay community felt like some utopian happy-place I’d been working towards — a place I deserved, having put up with so much shit as a fey, sissy kid.

I quickly realized, however, that the sissy disposition didn’t fare much better in the gay world than in the straight world — especially in the late 2000s, when hookup apps were on the rise, along with their encouragement of a straight-acting “masc4masc” criteria. I was briefly dating a guy, and when we were getting ready to go out somewhere, he noticed I was applying eyeliner. He said, in the most derogatory tone, “Wow…you are a hungry bottom.” The cumulative impact of internally-homophobic, body-fascist dudes made me want to take a big step back, reflect, vent, and figure out why we were in this place as a culture… and comics presented themselves as the perfect means for that.

I’d made a ton of comics growing up (mostly weird superhero stories, cribbing off X-Men and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as a means of escape. So it felt very intense and potent coming back to comics, but for kind of the opposite purpose. I thought about the “hungry bottom” jibe and seized on the power of reclaiming it for my own purposes. There’s a real magic in taking something hurtful, and twisting it into something subversive, funny, and without shame. You take away its power… you invert it for yourself.

As I got going, a few comic strips turned into a few pages, which eventually turned into three whole issues. While the series was technically autobio, each issue also incorporated elements of fantasy and cultural criticism. Man, they were hella fun, and healing, to work on. And as I self-published each issue and they made their way around Toronto, I was really happy to hear that the comics were healing for other folks, and that they could see themselves in the stories — even if they were straight, or not male-identifying.

So where do you see yourself on the masculine/feminine spectrum? Do you identify any particular way?

I see myself as carrying a bit of both, and I think it’d do folks a world of good to realize most people do.

Sometimes I cringe at the prospect of identifying as male, because in our time we’re becoming subject to the most brittle, poisonous mutations of masculinity, whether it’s misogynistic “men’s rights activists” on campuses, or politicians whose tiny hands are within horrifying proximity to nuclear buttons.

I was just on a panel about masculinity at the Queers & Comics Conference in San Francisco, and when asked for my definition of masculinity, I half-joked that it’s something I’ve always failed at. But even though I’m failing at certain standards, I’m still in there, if that makes sense. Ultimately, I think it’s our responsibility to live by example, to show that being male-identified can mean so many different things.

I’m curious about the genesis of Condo Heartbreak Disco, and wondered if you might tell me how it all came about, how it evolved?

In a pivotal scene from my Hungry Bottom Comics, lil’ illustrated, autobiographical-me was visited by a mythological, curvaceous braid creature…A spirit guide, of sorts— saucy, but wise—who helped put me on a path to self-acceptance, and self-love. She didn’t solve all my problems, per se, but she did give me the right tools to start (it really happened that way! Fact!). I wrapped up that comic series a few years ago, but I felt there was more to be explored with the Braid herself. Had she helped others through their growing pains? How long had she been around? How would she fare when faced with farther-reaching problems, larger than any one person?

From there, the pieces started coming together for Condo Heartbreak Disco. I made the Braid a resident of my home turf—Toronto’s west end—along with her sardonic, vengeance-driven, andro-queer partner, Komio. I forced the two of them to contend with the struggles of living and making it in a big city, and dealt them the ultimate blow, in the form of the dreaded eviction notice, which would lead them onto something even more sinister, and apocalyptic.

It seems like all my comics exist in something like a shared universe, with the camera slowly panning outwards. My earlier stuff was concerned with gay culture at that moment, and its relationship to technology, masculinity, and shame—as well as my own coming-of-age as I was moving to Toronto. Now that I’ve been here for almost a decade, and have spent pretty much all my time here, it feels impossible not to create work engaging with the ways in which the city is changing. I see it happening monthly, even weekly: beloved businesses and venues shutting down, friends suffering insane rent-hikes and having to relocate, new condo skyscrapers mutating the city skyline at an exponential pace.

Gentrification is an issue facing most cities, but in Toronto, it has an especially unregulated, Wild West vibe. There’s a huge concentration of corporate influence here, and since Toronto doesn’t really have the same regard for its own cultural heritage as other big cities do, these corporate entities get free reign to shape the city’s landscape and identity to their own liking. It’s happened periodically over time, only now it feels especially accelerated and surreal.

When I started working on this book, my first thought was, “Yes! Fiction! My big step away from autobiographical work!” Of course, it ended up being as autobiographical as anything I’ve done, as it often goes. Komio and the Braid have the witty sensibility of the gay subcultures I’ve participated in during my twenties, fantastical abilities straight out of the superhero comics I grew up on, and the dilemmas all of us face, living through late capitalism. I kept trying to make the version of Toronto they live in extra-exaggerated and cartoonishly sinister, but in the end, it could never outdo how fucking weird real life is, at this moment.

 

Do you think of the book as mainly political in thrust then? Was that your major motivation in creating it? In some ways it seems like such a departure from Hungry Bottom Comics, but your thoughtful-yet-funky-and-fabulous vibe is still very evident. I know several cartoonists & artists who have gotten edged out of their apartments who I hope will read this book.

I definitely started with a political focus. I wanted to look more outwards, and think bigger, working through frustrations about the state of the city, and The State of Things more broadly, through the feats and struggles of these loopy, Leigh Bowery-tinted goddess-heroes.

I never fully script things out when I’m working on comics. I prefer to leave possibilities open, and to have new elements reveal themselves as I go. So, Condo Heartbreak Disco became a whole lot more intimate and multi-layered as I continued working away. While on a mission to get to the bottom of the condopocalypse conspiracy, I also had the Braid and Komio struggle with their relationship to each other, and the existential dread of being two immortals in an era where things really could come to an end.

They’re ageless and cosmic, but also kind of detached and naive about the real nature of the world, because they’ve thought of themselves as being above it all. It’s like when you’re in your early twenties, and you think you’re this invincible badass who’s got it all figured out. And then you start figuring out how the world really works, you start seeing that life trajectories aren’t linear, you stumble more, and you realize that the whole setup of things is really corrupt, merciless, and unfair (not to be too glum, or anything!). So, in a way, Condo Heartbreak Disco really is as much of a coming-of-age story as Hungry Bottom Comics was.

It got me thinking about a conversation I had a few years ago with Steve MacIsaac, where I was feeling intimidated at the prospect of writing fiction, and he basically said I shouldn’t think of things as so separate — there’s fiction in autobiographical work, and autobiography in fictional work. Seems like an obvious statement now, but at the time, it was really helpful and revelatory.

Eric (at right) with Steve MacIsaac on the Redefining Masculinity Through Queer Comics panel at the Queers & Comics conference at CCA, 4/14/17. Photo © by Rob Kirby

(The following portion was recorded during the Queers & Comics Conference at the California College of Arts on April 14th, 2017)

What hopes do you have for the book specifically in Toronto—do you think about the impact it might have with audiences there?

It’s trippy, as I finished the book a couple of years ago. I worried, as things have changed so quickly in the city, that the story would somehow be less relevant in this moment, but it seems more so than ever. Things have changed rapidly in the last few months, with Mirvish village–this historical block that had The Beguiling and Honest Ed’s and a bunch of other stores–all being shut down to be turned into condos and new housing. Everyone’s talking about it amongst themselves, the state of things. On my way to work I’ll usually hear at least a couple of conversations. It’s on everyone’s minds but nothing has crystallized yet to truly capture the moment. I don’t expect Condo Heartbreak Disco to be a definitive narrative on the subject…

Well, it is so fantastical in nature, you know: magical realism.

 

Yeah. And it’s an issue that touches people in many different ways. I wouldn’t expect anyone to see me as the authoritative voice on what’s happening.

So are these condos that are to go up going to be high rises, and be half-empty (or even worse)?

Well, it’s possible. There’s this gorgeous historic theatre down on King Street called the Princess of Wales Theater. They’re going to keep the façade but they’re going to build a 50-story building on top of it. In Mirvish Village there might be some zoning laws that’ll keep things in check but there will certainly be a different, sort of glassy vibe there. I doubt I’ll be going down there anymore: my reasons for doing so will be gone or moved.

Do you think non-Toronto residents will understand the situation described in the comic? Or do you think that it is all-too understandable?

I talked with Annie (Koyama) about this. The book is very specific to the city, with references to cherished neighborhood institutions and whatnot, but I think that it raises housing and livability issues that anyone living in a big city faces, especially in places like New York and here in San Francisco. This stuff is evident in a lot of places and to a lot of people.

Do you see Komio and the Braid having further adventures down the ride? They seem to be part of a sort of self-mythology for you.

 

I would love to do more with them, to explore their history, where they’ve been throughout time, and to get into their relationship more. With the way I work, I spend a lot of time on the technical aspects of pages, and having them be quite detailed. As a result, I compressed a lot into a 50-page narrative; if I were to do more with them I would like to pace things out a bit more, take some time to get into it. I would love to do a sequel someday that’s even further into an exaggerated future, and having them now…well, ugh, I don’t want to give away the ending! But maybe see about them repairing their relationship, if possible.

They seem sort of superhero-y to me. You said earlier on your panel that you used to read superheroes.

Yeah, they are a weird convergence of a few things that I love: like, they have the superhero spirit and the drag queen spirit and the Leigh Bowery spirit. It’s just kind of–I’ve always just been kind of obsessed with people transforming themselves or becoming something higher. I think of the transformation of scenes in Sailor Moon.

Komio & The Braid, in the flesh (so to speak). Photo © by Greg Wong, used w/ permission by Broken Pencil Magazine

To me this comic is also about transforming your own body of work into something different. It’s downright transmogrifying.

[Laughs] I could see that. I think the next thing I do will go even further along in that way: maybe even weirder, or more abstract. Yeah, I don’t know…

Do you have anything else that you are working on right now?

It’s been a bit of a marathon the past year and a half: when I finished Condo Heartbreak Disco I was so nervous about that slump, you know, that post-project ennui, so I said, “I’m going to do two more projects, right after!” [Laughs] So, I jumped right into Babybel Wax Bodysuit with Retrofit, which is a remedy from working on a longer book; it’s a collection of short comics that really jump around in terms of style and content, kind of like dessert or something; me shaking it off and trying different things.
After I finished that I did this short comic for Czap Books and Grindstone’s Ley Lines series, “How Does It Feel in My Arms?”. All my books have been fun, but this is fun in a different way. I wanted it to be purely joyful. All three books can be read as thematic sisters, and the Ley Lines book is kind of like the happy antidote to the cynicism and heartbreak throughout Condo Heartbreak Disco. It’s really dreamlike and the panel layouts are very simple, but as a result what’s in the panels is extra crazy and weird. It’s lyrical: it’s taking a lot from Kylie Minogue’s musical catalog and applying that to utopian dreams—kind of a blissful state and sensation. I applied those lyrics to this early Russian anarchist philosopher, Peter Kropotkin–a lot of his work went against ideas of selfishness as being an innate human feature. He actually believed that people are inherently altruistic and want to cooperate, much the way animals and plants do. He was saying that it is actually societal constructs that have pitted us against each other and made for the negative aspects that we see in humanity. So, I always joke with friends: “If everyone listened to five Kylie Minogue songs everyday, there would be no war.” (Laughter)

So you’re pro-humanity then?

Trying to be! I thought I should give it a shot because there are so many reasons not to be. It felt like the most radical thing for me was to make something positive. Like, I started working on it in the fall, right after the elections. I was dreading it at first: “I don’t want to want to do this, I’m fucking miserable!!” But doing it felt good in the end. The book is funny; it’s in a different tone than a lot of the things I’ve done. So I’m curious to see what people will think.

Eric Kostiuk Williams as Komio–photo © by Giles Monette

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He Never Understood Why I Was Drawing Fred Mertz http://www.tcj.com/drew-friedman-exhibit-to-open-at-soi/ http://www.tcj.com/drew-friedman-exhibit-to-open-at-soi/#respond Tue, 02 May 2017 12:00:49 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=100438 Continue reading ]]>

The amazing Myron Fass, as captured by Drew Friedman

More than 80 of the gorgeous color portraits of the pioneers of the early days of comics, as illustrated by Drew Friedman, will be on display at the Society of Illustrators starting this month.  The portraits are the original paintings for the images that appeared in Friedman’s two volume Heroes of the Comics collections (Fantagraphics). “There are 82 original pieces, about 40 of my choice from each book,” said Friedman.  “Mainly it’s what I felt were the most essential creators and to my mind the strongest pieces.” 

Both of Friedman’s most recent books–Heroes of the Comics and More Heroes of the Comics–capture the likenesses and one-page biographies of many of the great comic book creators who entered into the comics business between its early peak years of 1935–1955.

Drew Does Ditko

Among the portraits–and biographies–in the exhibit are Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Marie Severin, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Orrin C. Evans, Harvey Kurtzman, Alvin Hollingsworth.Wally Wood, William M. Gaines, C.C. Beck, Matt Baker, Jack Cole, Steve Ditko, Al Jaffee, Patricia Highsmith, Jules Feiffer, and many more. Some of the figures are quite obscure, like the Vigoda brothers. “I knew that the actor Abe Vigoda had a brother–Bill–who drew for Archie comics for decades, but had no idea until I began working on More Heroes that he also had another brother–Hy– who also wrote for comic books,” said Friedman. “Some guys were so obscure I had no idea what they even looked like. Gus Ricca was one. My pal John Wendler found a 1940s local newspaper diaper ad he posed for as a sheik, which is what I based his face on.”  

To create the portraits, Friedman first does a rough drawing, then a tight pencil, and then finishes the work by painting directly onto the Strathmore 500 series paper–usually 8″ x 11″ in size–using “various inks, watercolors, Dr. Marten, Pelikan, Higgins, etc, I’m open to whatever works.” Each piece takes about 3-5 days to complete. “I get photo references of faces from various sources, sometimes the internet, books–I own a lot of comic history books–sometimes from friends who send me rare images,” he said.  “And occasionally I get stuff from the subject’s family members…Abe Vigoda’s daughter and Hy Vigoda’s granddaughter gave me photos.”

Friedman captures his former teacher, Will Eisner

Interestingly–and perhaps a bit ironically–Heroes of the Comics is running concurrently with the SOI’s massive Will Eisner 100th birthday retrospective, Will Eisner: The Centennial Celebration 1917-2017.  In addition, Friedman, who studied under (and goofed-on) Eisner while at New York’s School of Visual Arts, is a 2017 Eisner Award-nominee for the “Best Comics-Related Book” for More Heroes of the Comics.  

Friedman said the timing of the two events–and his Eisner Award nomination announcement–was a bit amusing as “years ago, when Will was my teacher, he never understood why I was drawing Fred Mertz.”

Friedman’s Muddy Waters on the cover of his forthcoming book Drew Friedman’s Chosen People

Friedman’s Elaine May from Chosen People

Friedman said there is no planned third volume in the Heroes series, “but I never say never. It could possibly happen. My next book coming out in the fall is called Drew Friedman’s Chosen People.  It’s a book of recent portraits, with a foreword by Merrill Markoe.”  The opening reception for Drew Friedman’s Heroes of the Comics is set for Thursday, May 4th at 6 pm at the Society of Illustrators, located at 128 E 63rd St, New York, NY 10065.  The exhibit runs from May 2nd until June 3rd, 2017. 

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An Interview with David Wiesner http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-david-wiesner/ http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-david-wiesner/#respond Mon, 01 May 2017 12:00:16 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=100059 Continue reading ]]> Fish Girl, which has just been released by Clarion Books, but writer/artist David Wiesner is not just any debut graphic novelist. He comes to comics as one of the most acclaimed storytellers of his generation. Wiesner has been awarded the Caldecott Medal three times – one of only two artists to ever do so – for his books Tuesday, The Three Pigs, and Flotsam. He has also received three Caldecott Honors among his mnay other awards. Earlier in his career he illustrated books by Avi, Jane Yolen, Laurence Yep, Allan W. Eckert and others. Wiesner even created an app called Spot which was an interactive exploration of worlds within worlds.

Over the course of his career, Wiesner has cited and paid tribute to comics and many of the artists who influenced him. Jack Kirby was one of the people that Wiesner thanked when he accepted his second Caldecott. The exhibition David Wiesner & The Art of Wordless Storytelling is currently at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art through May and then opens at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in June. The exhibition catalog has just been published by Yale University Press.

Throughout his career Wiesner has been interested in wordless storytelling and so it seems natural in some way that he would eventually create a graphic novel with a character who almost never speaks. He was kind enough to talk about how making a graphic novel was different from making a picture book, the way he works, and how he’s already thinking about making another.

I know that you attended art school. What were you reading and what interested you and inspired you when you were starting out?

Every time I saw an example of wordless storytelling, I had a very strong reaction. The first place I encountered a wordless sequence was in Jim Steranko’s Nick Fury comics. Later I saw the wordless Azrach comics by Moebius. Once I found Lynd Ward’s wordless woodcut novels from the 1930’s, I knew this was a direction I wanted to explore. I did this in my student assignments whenever I got the chance.

By my senior year I knew I wanted to continue with sequential work when I graduated. I didn’t want to go into comics. I didn’t want to be a superhero person and comics weren’t what they later became. While I was there I studied with David Macaulay quite a bit and he introduced me to the world of picture books, which quite honestly I wasn’t all that familiar with. I didn’t grow up reading a lot of the classic stuff, but once I started to see what Leo and Diane Dillon and others were doing this incredible range of stuff stylistically and the stories they were doing, it kind of felt like it might be a place where the things I was thinking about might fit. It turned out it was. [laughs] That’s where I started and never looked back. Along the way I clearly wanted to bring other influences to the work I was doing in picture books, specifically comics storytelling techniques.

Of all your picture books I really love The Three Pigs. Could you just explain what you did with the story?

There are all these different threads that have been floating in and out of my work since I was a kid. The idea of alternate realities, the multiverse, is one of those motifs. The first place I encountered this idea was in a Droopy Dog cartoon – for the longest time I thought it was a Bugs Bunny cartoon – where the character is running running running and then skids right out of the film. You see the sprockets on the edge of the film frames and the white space behind it. The character then runs back into the cartoon and keeps running. I loved that there was a world, a seemingly blank world, outside the reality of the cartoon. Duck Amuck is another classic where the hand of the animator comes in and is messing with the actual cartoon. There are of this idea examples in MC Escher and Magritte. I was always drawn to that visual representation of looking behind what seems to be reality.

I thought about how I could do that in a book form. I had all these cool ideas about things that could happen visually, but I needed a story. I began thinking that I’d have the characters come out of the story. I began by trying to write that story, but that didn’t work, because no one – including myself – would know what that story was and who the characters were. It was very confusing. At some point when I was drawing in my sketchbook I drew a few well known characters, and I thought, what if I start with a story that as many people as possible would know. That way you can just forget about it because you already know the characters and what happens.

Pigs have been a recurring image in my drawings ever since I was in high school. I just love drawing them. They’ve turned up in smaller roles in some of my other books. I thought this is great, pigs can be my main characters. The motivation was certainly there. They’d love to get out of that story because the first two get eaten up every time the story is read.  I didn’t want it to be just a lot of winking at the adult audience and look how clever I am. It had to be a story that was understandable and accessible to an audience of kids. From a story standpoint, hopefully it was funny, but I wanted the reader to care about the characters and to have a satisfying resolution.

You needed characters who had a reason to escape their story.

Exactly. You have to legitimately create a story that kids are going to want to read. That said, all of my picture books seem to have this huge age range from the very young to practically to adult. The book absolutely has to be accessible to a young child. I’m not going to dumb it down – kids are very visually sophisticated. 

So as far as Fish Girl, had you been thinking about making a graphic novel for a while?

Yes. As with anything that I do, when I have a story, I have to find a solution to it. The app that I did – Spot – was a story idea that up to that point I hadn’t been able to make work in book form. It turned out that a tablet was a really great way to explore it. Fish Girl grew out of a long standing idea that I’d been making drawings for and tried several times, unsuccessfully, to turn into a picture book. It was centered around the image of a house full of water that fish lived in. It was just a visual image, which is how most of my books tend to start, for which I had to discover the story.

I was writing pages of notes and drawings in my sketchbook. During that time I was seeing how the graphic novel was really beginning to take off. I looked at Alison Bechdel and Chris Ware and these really beautiful visual books and I wanted to be part of that. I began to look at my story as the place where I could make my entrance into that longer form storytelling. It took a while mostly because I wasn’t sure technically how I was going to do the work. I didn’t want to spend ten years doing it. I had to work somewhat simpler than my picture books. Finally I said to myself, I have to do this now or I’ll never do it. I decided to ask an author friend, Donna Jo Napoli, if she would collaborate on the writing with me.

The first draft was about 300 pages. It was too long for the story. Also, as I was going to do it in full color, the retail price would have been too much at that length. I had to find the price point and the page count where it can work. We ended up at about 200 pages. The reality of the story that developed dictated the way that it looked. I had a whole backlog of visual ideas. I was finally doing this longer book and I’m was going to try everything I ever wanted to do – which of course was just too much. It ended up being quite simple. I didn’t get crazy with the layouts. I worked my like I do in a picture book, using double page spreads and single pages and multi panel pages and mixing them. I had drawn floor plans and diagrams of the house that I thought I could intersperse throughout the story. I had newspaper accounts that filled in backstory and a whole lot of other information. Ultimately all that material just slowed down the narrative. The drama builds and it felt extraneous –  so I just left all that stuff out.

Ultimately the story drove how I approached the art. In the end I was fighting for every page. I had to take each scene and ask what the essence of it was. How can I get all this information in and have it be readable and convey everything that it needs to. I would have loved to have gone off on wandering tangents of cool visual stuff, but ultimately I didn’t have the space to do that.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about it in that way because of course in picture books the dimensions may change but you have this page limit and here where you could do anything you needed to go, okay, what are the limitations I’m going to establish.

If I had made the choice to do the book in one color – like This One Summer, by Jillian Tamaki – I could have gotten more pages. That book is 320 pages. But I need color. That’s just the way I work. I really need that complete palette. For this audience, a middle grade audience, there’s a price point where it becomes too expensive. I want it to be accessible to families who aren’t prepared to shell out fifty bucks for a book. Coming out of picture books where I’m always acutely aware of space, it wasn’t hard for me to think that way.

With the app Spot, I went into that thinking, it’s digital, so it’s limitless. I was doing all these drawings and the developer said, you know, we can’t fit all that stuff in. They said, there’s a limited amount of space for the assets before we use up the digital space. We can’t have these worlds take thirty seconds or a minute to load. A viewer would just walk away. Once I understood form and the limitations, I could design things to fit in it. Even in the digital realm, there are parameters.

For that project, all the environments were done piecemeal. Everything was a separate drawing that was digitally combined. A lot of things could be repeated. You make one piece of seaweed for example and it can be replicated any number of times without adding more space. That was great. I made to make things modularly whenever I could. Then there were the unique elements, but again, with limits. I loved doing big things, playing with scale. But one gigantic character would eat up too much space, so out went all the really large characters.

So even though you’re not printing and binding the book, you’re very conscious of the process and the technical requirements of making a book.

I’ve done all the books that I’ve written with the same publisher and the same person, Donna McCarthy, was the head of production. I’ve been on press with her with all my books. It’s great to watch the book being printed and the how the press men adjust color and all the factors that go into that and understand that. If, for example, the trim size of the book goes over a certain dimension in one direction they may have to move the book to a larger press and that alone could add a dollar to the cost of the book. At the start of a project we would sit down and talk about things like where it is going to be printed and how big the presses are. If the trim size I chose is, say, an eighth of an inch too big for the press, I’m happy to reconsider this small adjustment to help keep the price of the book down. Learning that sort of stuff was great. Understanding how a book is produced was really interesting and useful for me.

For most of Fish Girl, Mira never speaks.

Until the end when she realizes she has a voice and uses it. Visually that meant keeping her thoughts within the square thought box. When she finally speaks, that dialogue appears in a classic word balloon. It was a nice visual touch.


What’s the dramatic challenge of telling a story where the main character is silent?

It becomes about facial expressions and gestures and body language. How big she is in the frame to reflect what’s happening. To emphasize the feeling, whether it’s one of happiness or sadness or fear. Trying to use those visual elements to heighten the emotions. She is expressing them in her thoughts, to some degree, but I have to really try to visually accentuate what’s going on. In the same way in a silent film where it’s often a little more theatrically expressed because we’re getting the impact of that emotional state through the images.

Initially the character of Neptune lived in the house and it was driving me crazy because Mira comes out of the tank on a regular basis. She exercising to build up the strength in her legs and I couldn’t have her continually sneaking around so he didn’t hear. If you set that up you need to have a close call or two where he hears something and goes to see that she’s in the tank so it couldn’t have been her, but why is the floor wet? There just wasn’t room for that. I thought, what if he doesn’t live there? Get him out of the house and then it became a place where it was the only time when she had that space to herself. Otherwise she’s always on display, always this specimen. But now, at night, she is free to just swim around the house unencumbered without anyone observing her. Visually that was really nice – the night sky, the darkened rooms, her swimming around. I would have loved ten pages of nothing but that. [laughs] At the end I could only get a few pages of that in there.

In the spread on pages 108-109, you made this decision when she finally sees the ocean not to show her face, to depict this moment from behind. Why?

That came very early in my sketching. She’s always been in that house looking through the filmy windows at the ocean, but now she’s confronted with the enormity of it. The thrusting the arms out and embracing the waves, the standing back, catching the moon in that vista, was immediately what I saw. Not her face and the potential rapture on her face, but the whole body gesture of it. The arms spread, the embrace. If I was showing it from the front and if we were seeing her face, we wouldn’t be seeing the ocean. To me it needed that double page spread of the water and her in front of the water and the enormity of what that must feel like. I wanted to make the viewer feel a part of what she’s experiencing.

You mentioned that you had been kicking this idea around for a while. Was the process different from making a picture book? Or was it just longer?

In some sense it was just an expanded version of how I work. The nice thing was we didn’t sit down and write out a finished text. We had a first draft and then I drew out a complete rough version. We then modified the story based on our reaction to that. I drew it again. And again. It was a nice back and forth where the art and the text were able to inform each other throughout the process, which is something that I wanted. Eventually I had a complete rough version in pencil with all the dialogue dropped in-  not even word balloons, I just cut and pasted text – and I had pretty much defined what was happening on every page. It was pretty close to the way it ended up. Of course, then it was, oh my god I’ve got to make this thing! [laughs]

I met Chris Ware a couple of months ago for the first time and he asked, how long did it take you to do this? I said I don’t know, three years? He said, gee that’s pretty quick! [laughs] Then it was just doing it for months and months. I drew them all in pencil on vellum. I scanned those drawings and got this nice dark line.  I reduce them to print size and printed them out onto watercolor paper. Then I did the painting. The drawings took about five months. And then it was back to page one and I’ve got to paint them all! I gave myself a goal of doing at least two pages of color a day. I got close to three a day as I got into it, but it was making that choice of I’m going to paint this in a way that I can achieve that goal.

Unlike in the picture books where I work on a painting until I’m done with the painting. A double page spread might take me two weeks. I don’t use an ink line – or any line – in my picture books. But here, that black line was going to hold the shapes and the forms. I felt good about the color, but clearly it isn’t painted in the same way that I do a picture book. I’m sure anybody who does graphic novels must go through the same sort of investment in time and debate over speed and ability. It’s an enormous amount of work. I had thought about doing the color digitally because I love digital color, but while I know the process, I’m not fluent with it. I could paint faster than I could do it digitally. Plus, in the end I’m glad I painted it because it has a different look and it feels more like my work. If I were doing another one I’d love to get a colorist involved. I would be happy to be the overseer and director.

At the beginning when you were writing with Donna Jo what kind of drawing were you doing in the early stages as you were working out the story?

The first version had the most detail in it because both Donna Jo and my editor had never done graphic novels before. I had a reasonable idea of what it was going to look like, but they had to be able to get a sense of it. So the first three hundred page draft that I mentioned had a fair amount of detail in it. I didn’t labor over the drawings, but they’re refined enough that someone could fully read what’s happening. They got looser later on, because I did that first version more for their benefit than my own. The last rough version was quite loose. Then I went out and found models to use. I found a young girl on a local swim team and the coach shot footage on an underwater video camera so I could get that swimming posture correct.

You’re used to doing a few drafts of rough pencils to work out the story?

Right. The picture books have many versions, too. I still do it the old fashioned way because I like the physical materials as opposed to working on the screen.

You mentioned that you got a model for Mira. Do you use a lot of models?

It goes back and forth depending on what I’m doing. For this I wanted a more representational approach to the characters rather than something cartoony, for lack of a better word. I get enough reference for what I need. I don’t pose everything for every panel. They have to look like the same character all the time so I’m getting coverage of profiles and frontal views and from a higher angle or lower angle. For this book, Neptune was my kid’s Latin teacher. Livia is the daughter of a friend. She just had the personality of that character, she was perfect.

I also built an eighteen inch high model of the house that I could take apart to see the spaces. I didn’t use it all that much. The act of building it was kind of enough for me to mentally imprint the space in my mind. I didn’t have to go back and refer to it a whole lot, but I do that kind of thing all the time. I almost always make models of my non-human characters. Crayola makes model magic a really lightweight modeling compound. The models are fairly rudimentary, but I can draw the mass and the volume and the feel of it very quickly. I can make a rough drawing and then put away the model and refine the drawing.

Having made picture books, now having made a graphic novel, do you think there’s a big difference between the grammar of how a picture book works and how a comic works?

There’s a lot of overlap. I guess that somebody’s studied this. I don’t know where the dividing lines are at the very young ages because kids are so visually literate now, I’m wondering how complex a set of panels can be understood at what age. Maybe I’m not giving kids enough credit, but I tend to simplify it because I want to really make sure there’s no misunderstanding. The way I look at the picture books is that I’m doing a streamlined version of that language – although my kids were reading comics pretty young so maybe there’s no need to do that. That’s a good question.

It’s funny because I do know that confusion can come in at the adult level – particularly for people who don’t know comics and how to read them. Which direction am I going? Left or right or up and down? It’s usually adults who look at my picture books and say, “What is this? I don’t get it! Where are the words?”

Having made Fish Girl and I don’t know where you are with your next project or thinking about what’s next but has it changed your thinking about what you want to do?

I really enjoyed working on a longer form story. I have a couple things in mind that, now that I’ve done a graphic novel, look to possibly be in that format. I think having done one the way I did it, I would definitely be open for different approaches. Maybe working in a more line-based, looser style. Doing something different would be interesting.

It always starts with the story. I think this experience totally unlocked my ability to think in terms of a bigger canvas. I am currently finishing a picture book right now and I’m going to have another one to start when it’s over with, but I have a couple of ideas that feel to me like they would be some sort of visual novel. We’ll see what happens.

My last question for people doing this is usually, has this made you want to make another or never again?

[laughs] It has in fact whetted my appetite for it. It just takes real planning, knowing the time commitment. I’m not one who cranks out picture books. I’ve never done one that takes less than a year. I just have to factor that in. Prior to this, it’s always felt it just so daunting. And while it was a lot of work, I now know what it takes. I can now think of stories in a broader way than I might have before.

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A Talk with Gabrielle Bell http://www.tcj.com/gabrielle-bell-interview/ http://www.tcj.com/gabrielle-bell-interview/#comments Thu, 20 Apr 2017 12:00:51 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=100063 Continue reading ]]> Everything Is Flammable, cartoonist Gabrielle Bell’s latest graphic novel for the Minneapolis publisher Uncivilized Books, follows Bell as she helps her mother rebuild a life and a support system after losing her Northern California home to a fire. Bell treks from her house in upstate New York to the California woods, encountering many human and animal characters along the way. I spoke to Gabrielle about diaries, metacognition, and more, over the phone from her apartment in Brooklyn.

Interview edited and transcribed by A.M.

ANNIE MOK: When you were getting started putting this book together, what was the organization of the material like? How did you decide to start and finish where you did?

GABRIELLE BELL: I have to admit there was not a lot of organization. It started from… the event…

MOK: With your mom’s house burning down.

BELL: My mom goes through a lot of things and this was pretty terrible. It kind of woke me up out of the self-absorbed tunnel of my life. So I had to go and help her out a bit, or even just be there with her. But I wasn’t so self-involved [laughs] that I wasn’t going to make comics about it. I just started sort of keeping a diary, but more just collecting stories. At some point I collected enough that it would make a book.

MOK: At least one of your minis for Uncivilized consists of roughly drawn diary comics. What’s the difference between the diaries and the finished product for you?

BELL: Mostly I keep a diary every day. Then I’ll take one of those entries and turn it into a more refined story. I’ll stop keeping a diary while working on a story. And I would sort of lose the connection to the source of the story. I always have to break it down and go back to the roughest version, which is the diary. I go through cycles. Sometimes I don’t keep diaries at all because I get so absorbed in the one part of it. Or I’ll get this standard in my head where I think the diary has to be a refined story, to look like a the finished product. I always get to some point where it doesn’t have any spontaneity anymore, [laughs] so I have to let myself be bad at it again. Let it be boring and awkward and have no point again, to get back to the raw data of it.

MOK: With this book or with your books in general, is there an idea or feeling or intent you’re trying to convey to the reader?

BELL: I just want them to be engaged. My ultimate goal is just to make people feel good. I suffer from all kinds of depression and anxiety and a lot of people do. I just want to give a good feeling to the reader. But I want to work out my own issues too [laughs].

MOK: Self-talk and metacognition play a big role in your comics. In one part [of Everything Is Flammable] you’re like, “One night I got the shame attacks. ‘I’m such a jerk. Stop calling yourself a jerk, you jerk!’” How does this kind of self-talk find its way into your comics?

BELL: It’s just a learned behavior. In that particular story, it was me and my mother trying to deal with things that is really a kind of man’s world, dealing with negotiations and business and planning to build this home. Both of us have relied on men in the past and it’s kind of gotten both of us in trouble. It’s put us in this sort of helpless situation. So we were out of our element. And I think, being women too, there’s a husband or the father in our heads saying we’re doing it all wrong. In the story, my way of coping was to sort of flirt with the guy, and manipulate him in my way, while he’s sort of manipulating me. I am trying to play up this vulnerable female role with him and my mother, putting on this image of “We’re just helpless females, we don’t have any money.” “We don’t have these skills of being assertive and manly [laughs] and the art of the deal. So we work with what we have.” The shame attacks at the end just came from feeling ashamed of myself for being manipulative and also just relying on other people, like my friend Sadie, to stay at their houses. I mean, this is all normal stuff. People rely on each other and help each other out. But in this story we were both being forced to get out of our comfort zones.

MOK: There’s a lot in the story about men, and you talk about how in films mothers are portrayed in a negative light. You say, “Mine exists outside of that continuum.” You talk about navigating those kind of liminal spaces.

BELL: I’m very sensitive to mother-blaming. I think the most liberal among us… And father-blaming to. I did that too when I was younger, thinking “I didn’t get what I deserved” and stuff, and now… I’m very sensitive to people complaining about their moms not doing enough for them. Because of the difficulties that any mother has, we should be grateful that they were there at all. I mean, I know some people who had really abusive mothers, that’s sort of different.

MOK: Yeah.

BELL: But even in that case, our parents are really just children. There is this thing of motherhood, just the very word… I don’t see her as my mother. I mean, she is my mother, but I just see her as a person who comes from Michigan, travels in Europe for a while, and then settled down in California, where had some really bad boyfriends [laughs], and then had some kids, and then the kids moved away, and then she made a life of her own in California. I don’t see her in relation to me, like what she owes me or what I owe her.

MOK: It’s interesting that you’re back in Brooklyn ‘cause there’s so much about your relationship to the city, you mention that you could feel like Lou Reed living in a run-down apartment; and then there’s this contrast between that and the woods, and all the plants and the animals you encounter out there. What does your relationship to the woods and animals bring to your work?

BELL: I do really miss living up north, I had a nice yard and I could garden in the summer, and the air was so much more pleasant, more breathable. Even in the winter, when it snowed, it was so beautiful. When it snowed in the city it’s so ugly. I needed the artistic community, to be around other cartoonists. Everyone I knew up there was married and with kids; I mean, they were artists, but I was like this weird single lady up there [laughs]. And I was restless, I wasn’t ready to settle down. I am definitely happier to be back in Brooklyn. I live in a building with some cartoonist friends and I live down the street from [cartoonist] Ariel Schrag…. Turns out you can’t have everything. I mean, if you were rich, I guess. I’m happy to be back in the city, even though I’m depressed here [laughs].

MOK: Aw!… You talk in this book about intergenerational storytelling. You talked earlier about how our parents are just kids, and you have this conversation in the book with your grandmother about her mother. How do you see your place in this link of intergenerational storytelling? You’re now the person telling these stories.

BELL: First of all, I don’t think it was right that I was so hard on her that night. I think I was angry at my mom and then I took it out on her mom. In the story, I’m like, “No more children, I’m not having children,” but I think that’s just because I didn’t want to have children. Not because of the damage done, I guess. I think if I wanted to have kids, it would be, “My kid, I’m gonna raise my kid differently!” But I think it’s just that I’m more of an artist, and I want to do my art and focus exclusively on that. Also, I think that my grandmother and my mother—this is really jumping to conclusions and making assumptions—I think they, probably, it wasn’t their first choice to have kids. It was just a generation, it was expected of you. It wasn’t, “Maybe I don’t wanna have kids, maybe I wanna go to the sea and be an artist or something.” I think I sort of inherited this disposition of not wanting to have kids. Which is kind of interesting, because this disposition resolved itself by ending that generation.

MOK: Speaking of your art, as always you make a few fantastical leaps in your comics. There’s one page where you show your mother living as a mermaid because of this Marilynne Robinson line. Can you talk about making those leaps and what those bring to your comics, those fantastical jumping-off points.

BELL: I don’t think there’s quite so many in this book…

MOK: Yes, there’s much less, which I was curious about.

BELL: The other one [in the book], there’s one where I had this fantasy that I married this guy who lives on my my mom’s property. Then I changed my mind and imagined her marrying him! That was kind of practical fantasy, in a way [laughs]. It didn’t have to do with love, “If I married him I could stick around, and be there for my mom, but if she married him that would even be better because I wouldn’t have to stick around and she’d have somebody to take care of her.” Sometimes I worry about getting boring and just want to dabble it up a little and have a flight of fancy. Sometimes if things get heavy, I wanna make a little fun.

MOK: There’s even some fun ways you visualize anxiety, you show it as a creeping vine, and then there’s the ghost cats.

BELL: That’s also the beauty of comics. That’s one thing that comics can do very easy. It makes the whimsical solid and concrete.

MOK: I’m curious how you negotiate what goes in the comics. Obviously, there’s very personal details about everybody. Do you have conversations to negotiate what stays or what goes?

BELL: Not necessarily. The one interview I did with the guy who was in prison for some time, I was specific with him. I changed his name and ran it by him to make sure there’s nothing that would make him uncomfortable. I didn’t want to incriminate him or anything. There’s a real serious drug culture up there, but that wasn’t what I was interested in, and… It’s pretty legal now, marijuana cultivation, but there is a paranoia still. Having grown up there, it was extreme and very justified paranoia—a lot of fear and secrecy. Even though it’s getting more lax now, there’s the habit of paranoia and secrecy. As far as personal things, I was pretty liberal with my storytelling. For the most part, I was like, “Can I put that in a comic?” I felt like I was being pretty kind to everybody. I wasn’t maligning everyone, so I just hoped that people would be okay with it and would understand that I was celebrating them. Though I don’t know about that crazy guy on the bus. There was a few people that I don’t know what they’ll think of it.

MOK: What’s it like putting out books with Uncivilized? You’ve put out several books with them now and it seems like you have a good publisher relationship.

BELL: Yeah, it’s really good. Really good line of communication. I’ve never been able to communicate so well. Maybe it’s because we were friends before. It’s always been really great with [publisher Tom Kaczynski], I’ll tell him how I want the book to look like, and then he’ll say “How about this?” and then we’ll compromise… I feel really part of the process. I feel like I’m being helped along and at the same time I get a lot of say.

MOK: Speaking of the design, how did the chapter headers come about?

BELL: I think I just wanted to fatten it up a little [laughs], have some filler. I think it helps the story breathe a bit.

MOK: You draw people and places really vividly. Are you doing life drawing at all, or is it straight on the page?

BELL: I took a lot of photos. I do it the way I always do, which is half photographs, and half memory or impression. I did a lot of photographing because I knew this would be a story, like I’d go on a walk and run into this dog barking at me, and think, this seems like a story. It’s more to remember what they look like, not really to draw from life.

MOK: I was like, “God these dogs are all really specific!”

BELL: That was a lot of work [laughs]! That kind of drove me nuts. But I felt like they needed to have specific personalities.

MOK: I really like how the book ends. You end with “Have you seen this dog?” with this dog that’s walking around, and then there’s a short bit about Gus having built a bathroom onto this new house, and you taking a bath. How did you decide to end the book this way?

BELL: I don’t know if anyone would notice, but it felt to me like he was building this thing that I had dreamed about, him putting a big extension on the house. So it was a realization of a fantasy in a way. I was so happy he’d did that. It seemed to me that it showed he really cared for [my mother], saying “I don’t want her to bump her head on the ceiling,” so he went the extra mile and manipulated the boards and did some fancy carpentry so she wouldn’t have to duck her head. So that was really striking. It really was a nice bathroom, it was really luxurious [laughs]. Like a classic sort of hippie bathroom, homemade. So I wanted to end on a good note. Incidentally, he built another room onto it and a porch. I haven’t seen it since it’s been built up. I didn’t really know how to end it. I knew there was sort of a catharsis, and all this emotional stuff with my mother and my grandmother, and the story was sort of over, you know? There’s like in a story, there’s a climax, and the stuff that happens after that where it fully comes to an end.

MOK: You bring up care, it reminds me of what you said earlier about what you wanted to leave the reader with. There’s so much about care and vulnerability in all your books”—there’s the scene with the woman having a seizure and you’re trying to help her, and there’s the scene with your mother’s dog who’s having a panic attack. I’m curious about the role of care and vulnerability in your stories, and also how you’re depicting it, because you depict it very subtly.

BELL: There’s one thing, I just have this weird urge to help older ladies. When I see an older woman who’s vulnerable… maybe because I see my old mother in them or something. I have not always been as caring as I am now. I used to be pretty callous I think. Growing older, you get more sensitive to other people. And when you have anxiety problems and depression problems, it’s easy to not care about other people because you’re wrapped up in your own pain. But I sort of, I guess, made more of an effort to be aware of other people’s pain. Not always successfully. That’s where I get shame attacks too, maybe I was insensitive to someone else’s pain. I used to get anxiety wondering what other people thought of me, now I get anxiety worrying that I might have hurt somebody. So there’s a little progress [laughs].

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Talking to Pénélope Bagieu http://www.tcj.com/talking-to-penelope-bagieu/ http://www.tcj.com/talking-to-penelope-bagieu/#respond Mon, 17 Apr 2017 12:00:00 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=100042 Continue reading ]]> Before Cass Elliot became a world-renowned name as one of four band members on The Mamas & The Papas, she was a young kid growing up in Baltimore with her two siblings, Joseph and Leah. Her mother Bess was a singer in a swing jazz group at a younger age. Elliot’s father Philip always had dreams of becoming a singer himself, and would take her daughter to watch La bohème, an opera composed by Giacomo Puccini and tell her bedtime stories about Florence Foster Jenkins. These vignettes serve as the opening scenes to Pénélope Bagieu’s California Dreamin’, a unique biographical take on Elliot’s career, which was released by First Second Books last month, two years after the graphic novel made its debut in Europe.

California Dreamin’ is not a rags-to-riches story, but an unapologetic look at Elliot’s foray into music, and the roadblocks she had to deal with along the way. Elliot was blessed with a wonderful voice and vibrant personality, but people in the industry often chose to focus on her large-sized frame, which made her the butt of people’s jokes and made other musicians — including some of her own band members — skeptical about whether she would be the right fit. When her father passed away at the age of 42, Elliot decided to pursue her musical dreams in New York, and later formed a folk music group called The Big Three with Jim Hendricks and Tim Rose.

If the music was satisfying Elliot on a personal level, very little else was. The graphic novel — illustrated in black-and-white with short chapters told in different narrative voices, including Elliot’s dad, her high school mate, fellow band members, and others — slowly unravels the frustrations that lingered beneath the surface throughout Elliot’s career. Bagieu wanted to to create a juxtaposition between Elliot’s constant zest for life and a sense of brokenness. “It was like the everyday joke that she was fat,” Bagieu says. “She had to fight her way to get to where she was without losing who she was. She never thought, “Okay, I’ll be the fat girl.” That’s what I like about her.”

Bagieu grew up listening to tapes of The Mamas & the Papas at her parent’s place, and was immediately fascinated by Elliot and her larger-than-life personality and smile. “I remember always loving these songs and always noticing this pretty voice,” Bagieu says. “I was totally fascinated by her. Ellen and I, we go way back. I always wondered what kind of life she would have had. I thought she had an amazing life. I started to look for anything about her.” The research process for the graphic novel only heightened Bagieu’s fascination. “She had this specific idea of what she wanted to be,” Bagieu says. “She never lost weight. She never changed the way she sang. She was a role model no one really cared about.”

The neglect and disrespect Elliot dealt with throughout her career is something that Bagieu can tangentially relate to. Bagieu, who was born in Paris and now resides in Brooklyn, New York, remembers a decade ago when she, along with a fellow writer, pitched a female superhero story idea to a major publisher. Bagieu remembers the male publisher suggesting that their superheroes could have superpowers that would allow them to get the cheapest clothing at sale time, and to always have the perfect shoe even if there was one size left. “I really wanted to slap him in the face,” Bagieu says. “I was so humiliated.”

The comic book industry has presented its own sets of challenges for Bagieu. “For female cartoonists, you have to be quiet,” Bagieu says. “You have to either do girl stuff. In France, we call it the The Smurfette Syndrome. You’re a token. It’s not neutral, we don’t make up half of the cartoonists. You’re just the girl. You have science fiction comic book writers, action comic book writers, and, oh, here’s the girl.”

When California Dreamin’ was first released in France, Bagieu was perplexed by some of the reaction and feedback about the book. “I had a lot of questions from journalists saying it was very bold to have a fat female character, and it really made me angry,” Bagieu says. “There’s not a moment in the book where she mentions [her weight]. The rest of the world wanted her to be slim. And she basically says fuck it. It’s not even a topic for her. She was only there for the music. She didn’t want to be the example. She was so self confident.”

The graphic novel was released last month on International Women’s Day, which was no coincidence for Bagieu. “In these times, everything for women becomes political,” Bagieu says. “Everything becomes a strong statement. You have to scream all the time, and to speak louder. I think it’s a good opportunity [for people to read] a book about a woman who kept doing what she wanted to do, who never listened to people telling her that she should do this or do that. She was so iconic. I’m really proud it’s coming out that day.”

Elliot passed away at the age of 32 from a heart failure. The Mamas & the Papas released five albums and sold over 40 million records worldwide, and Elliot had a brief solo career after the group broke up. The second half of the graphic novel hones on the often times disruptive dynamic between the band members in the group, and closes with the “California Dreamin’” tune that is synonymous with the band.

When asked whether she would have wanted Elliot to read her graphic novel, Bagieu said no, claiming this was her version of Elliot, and she’d be too nervous if Elliot was alive to read it. “It would be like having a secret crush and one day he finds out,” Bagieu says. “I would be so embarrassed.”

“To me it’s a love letter,” Bagieu explains. “I want to explain to people it’s not that she was the best singer, it’s just that I love her so much and I just want people to listen to her and love her too.”

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Curating the Metrograph Bookstore http://www.tcj.com/curating-the-metrograph-bookstore/ http://www.tcj.com/curating-the-metrograph-bookstore/#respond Fri, 14 Apr 2017 12:00:24 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=99885 Continue reading ]]> The animated movie I wrote and directed, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, opens this weekend in New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto. The Metrograph theater in New York let me decorate their walls with original artwork from the film, and I also curated their small upstairs bookstore, which carries rare DVDs, film-related books, and issues of Cahiers du Cinéma. They asked me to pick books and DVDs that felt related to my movie, or that a cinema-going audience would be interested in. Here are some of the things I selected, and why.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a German animated film by Lotte Reiniger done in cut-out silhouettes against color fields. Made in 1926, it’s likely the first feature-length animated film. Although it’s well known, I’m always surprised how few people have actually seen it. Reiniger’s silhouette work was a key inspiration for Kara Walker. This movie is the perfect embodiment of “independent cinema”—the means/budget is tied to the aesthetic. It’s more powerful because it’s minimal. This is truly an “auteur” movie, much more so than the larger-scale collaborative films of the French New Wave that defined the term. The silhouette sequence in High School Sinking is an homage to this movie.

Another perfect example of limited animation, and more specifically limited animation derived from comics, is A Charlie Brown Christmas. So much has been written about this canonized Christmas special and its unusual holiday message. Something I haven’t heard discussed about these Peanuts television specials is their odd, idle pace. Some of the lesser-known Peanuts specials, like the Thanksgiving one, have an episodic pace that’s based on a series of the comic strips strung together. By adhering so closely to the original comic strips, they arrive at something unusual in cinema. Also, unlike almost every kids’ cartoon, the voice acting is relatively naturalistic. These kid characters, who act neither like children nor adults, don’t have the over-the-top high-pitched voice acting you hear in contemporary cartoons. (Many of the side characters were voiced by non-actors.) Their dry delivery coupled with the slow pacing magically equals something that is unusual, gentle, and somehow outside of time.

Another DVD I had to include was Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Mystery of Picasso, because I’d never seen this film placed under the umbrella of “animation.” This is a filmed record of Picasso painting live. Picasso knows he’s being watched, so he chooses his strokes and arrangements to make dramatic reveals and changes to the “story” as it’s being unveiled. This is dramatic drawing, and Picasso has perfect comic timing! There are lots of goofy jokes in this movie, as marks come together in unexpected ways. Most of the paintings were destroyed after the movie, another sign that their sole purpose was to been seen as they were brought to life, animated.

For obvious reasons, The Drifting Classroom is often brought up in relation to High School Sinking, although I don’t remember thinking that much about it. Drifting Classroom is about a school that drifts through a portal into another dimension where it’s attacked by monsters. The first High School Sinking comic (which appeared in Mome) was clearly inspired by Titanic, but a surprising number of manga are about schools in danger. For example, almost every episode of Sailor Moon has a monster attacking a school. Even many of the adult cartoons, like Urotsukidoji, are about creatures, usually demons, attacking schools. The study period prior to college in Japan translates to “Study Hell.” All of these monsters must be a literalization or dramatization of the pain and turmoil of that age. It’s hard to think of a comic comparable to Drifting Classroom in terms of visceral power and masterful cartooning. It’s relentless. It’s a comic that’s best when you’re inside of it, before it’s over and after it’s begun, racing through its panels. My favorite school-in-danger anime is the 1970’s cartoon based on the  Devil Man comic series created by Go Nagai. These cartoons, like the Bakshi Spider-Man cartoons, are so brutal and demented that it’s scary to imagine them being aired on television and innocent children subjected to them. The Devil Man series recently came out as a box set that includes all of the episodes.

Also active in 1970s Japan was King Terry, who created the 30-minute limited-animation curiosity 100 Channels. King Terry is the godfather of the “heta-uma” illustration movement, which translates as “unskilled use of skill.” Terry subverted many of the conventions of illustrations. Instead of drawing larger and reducing drawings in print so that they’d be tighter and more detailed, he’d draw small and then blow them up, resulting in bold, thick-line drawings, maybe inspired by the thick lines seen in Roy Lichtenstein paintings, which are often referenced in Terry’s work. Terry wrote playful manifestos about “heta-uma” that declared “draw however you like,” but there was obviously an anti-establishment (or at least contrarian) sensibility to his work. It asked, “Why would you judge a drawing? What do we consider beautiful? Why?” etc. Sadly, the “heta-uma” movement was appropriated by people who just weren’t very skilled at drawing to begin with. But we have this gem of animation, funky music behind cut-out figures by Terry. This was reissued by PictureBox not too long ago, so it is easier to find than the limited animations of Seiichi Hayashi, which you have to buy an expensive box set to see.

The closest link to 100 Channels, in my mind, is Pee-wee’s Playhouse, so I included the box set of Season 1 and 2 at the Metrograph bookstore. When I watched episodes of this again recently, what stood out to me is their manic pace. Playhouse predicted YouTube and short-attention-span internet blips. I tried to think of it as a possible precursor to all of the “quirky” and “twee” characters we see in contemporary television and cartoons, or the man-children of Judd Apatow comedies, but the Pee-wee characters are more severe. Imagine placing artwork from Pee-wee into a Cartoon Network show, or having Pee-wee walk into a Sundance comedy– they would be out of place. Pee-wee’s Playhouse is much more abrasive in its pace and characterization. If it was done today, I believe it would be softer in some way.

I wrote a piece for the Metrograph program book about watching cartoons on psilocybin mushrooms, describing the effects of the opening title sequence of Speed Racer, so I wanted to include in the bookstore Incanto by Frank Santoro, who also painted the key exterior background paintings in High School Sinking. This particular zine by Santoro is lovely and poetic, and also, to me, utterly hilarious, because a section of it comes from a Speed Racer episode. Santoro told me that this was drawn after working as Francesco Clemente’s assistant. Clemente would often interpret preexisting old drawings, so that inspired Santoro to adapt a two-second Speed Racer moment. It’s perfect– like seeing something you’ve seen before for the first time. He captures the stillness of those Speed Racer cartoons with their minimal background paintings.

Like comics, limited animation says, “Look at what you can do with so little.” Like magic lanterns from the 1700s, which used still images in a very similar way to Speed Racer and limited animation, a whole universe is created with only still images sliding across a screen.

I also wanted to pick a couple of newer comics that you could hand to a stranger and they would enjoy without any explanation. Lovers in the Garden by Anya Davidson and Mowgli’s Mirror by Olivier Schrauwen are two books from Retrofit Comics that are perfect to display to a non-comics-reading audience. For one thing, they have a low price point. This printing of Mowgli’s Mirror is the best version of it in the world. Also, both books have strong stories and crystal clear cartooning coupled with unusual aesthetics. And they’re perfect for Metrograph because Lovers in the Garden recalls ’70s crime movies and Mowgli’s Mirror echoes silent film, puppet theater, and even, in one sequence, Lotte Reiniger.

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“I’m an Outsider Person”: The Carel Moiseiwitsch Interview http://www.tcj.com/im-an-outsider-person-the-carel-moiseiwitsch-interview/ http://www.tcj.com/im-an-outsider-person-the-carel-moiseiwitsch-interview/#comments Wed, 12 Apr 2017 12:00:58 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=99964 Continue reading ]]> Carel Moiseiwitsch drew dangerous comics. Prominently featuring murderous cops, third-world refugees, and war crimes hopscotching their way to our front door, her works were dangerous because they gave us the raw truth, seemingly drawn in dense black sauce. Moiseiwitch had a period in the mid-to-late 1980s where her comics about punch-drunk authority figures taking turns making a mess of our lives were printed in all the important publications of the time: Rip Off Comix, Wimmen’s Comix, Weirdo, Real Stuff, and Twisted Sisters. As Moiseiwitsch drifted away from comics, like many of the singularly eccentric greats of that era did, she became more involved in fine art and world-wide activism. I spent more than an hour on the phone with the 76-year-old cartoonist and painter recently; we discussed a life full of art and advocacy.


RJ CASEY: How are you today?

CAREL MOISEIWITSCH: I’m good. The weather has been very unpredictable. Sometimes very hot or very cold. Very windy. Things have been polarizing and surprising since moving to the country, that’s for sure.

When did you move out to the country?

A few years ago, to get out of the city. We moved to Fraser Canyon. It’s been interesting.

You’re originally from England?

London, yes.

What was your first exposure to art?

My first exposure to art? Oh, I don’t know.

Do you remember a certain drawing or painting or something that really struck you when you were a child?

Where I grew up there wasn’t very much art. It was drab and desolate most of the time.

How so?

It was like a boarding school. I remember liking some children’s books with dark stories and dark illustrations. I was already attracted to that at a young age.

This was around World War II, right? Do you remember it at all?

I was born during the Blitz, but I don’t remember war. I was too young. But I remember the aftermath.

What do you remember?

I remember playing around the rubble. We used to look at bombsites and find wood and stuff. There were lots of bomb shelters and things like that during the ’50s and ’60s.

So that was a common site for you when you were a child? Places that were bombed out and bomb shelters?

Yes, yes. Everyone had that experience, especially if you lived in or around London. My grandmother lived in a place like that in London. After that, my parents just sort of split up and left me at school. I never saw them again. So the war had a direct impact…

Did you say you never saw them again?

I saw my father very, very scarcely and I didn’t see my mother again until I was eighteen.

Whoa … what were they doing during that time? Do you know anything about their lives?

Getting married again, to other people. Having more children, as people do. Yeah, they weren’t a part of my life.

Then you eventually found your way to the Saint Martin’s School of Art.

I did, yeah. In London.

Were you mainly focused on fine art there? Or illustration?

Fine art. I took painting. They do printmaking and fashion design now. Probably animation too. But at the time, they didn’t even have illustration. I did painting. Or my interpretation of painting. [Laughs]

Was it oil painting?

We did all kinds of painting. Gouache. Oil. Whatever you wanted.

OK. Going off on a tangent for a second because we’re talking about Saint Martin’s — I talked with Peter Bagge yesterday …

Oh Pete! How is he?

He’s good. We live in the same city now, so we see each other occasionally. After I told him that I would be talking with you, he said you had good Rolling Stones stories. He said to mention the Rolling Stones because you knew them when they were teenagers at Saint Martin’s?

Yeah, they used to come around and play at the art events at Saint Martin’s and the school dances and things like that. David Haughton used to come around and he tried to organize a painter’s guild. My friend, who I lived with and would see these guys at poetry readings, he was an electrician and wired up Jimi Hendrix for a local concert. I mean, how do you wire up Jimi Hendrix? I think he had to kind of make it up on the fly. There was all that stuff going on around me. All that early rock ’n’ roll.

After you graduated Saint Martin’s, was the next stop Vancouver?

After I left school, you know, I got pregnant and did all those things that you do. All of my friends became very boring and I thought that my life at that point was just mapped out ahead of me.

What do you mean mapped out? What did you picture?

It just seemed like there was going to be no deviation. I could see what was going to happen to me, and it seemed terrible. I just knew how predictable my life was going to be. A middle-class nobody in London. Just daft.

What did you think was going to happen?

That I would buy a house and decorate it nicely. Have more children. It just seemed horrible. I didn’t want that. So, the West Coast of America seemed like the place to go.



Why that destination?

All the pop songs were about that, right? The Mamas & the Papas, The Beach Boys, even Dylan. You got the impression that it would be good to go to the West Coast of America. But anywhere in America would have been good.

Did you make it to California then?

I went to Canada first because it was easy. I had planned to make it down the coast, but I didn’t. Vancouver was the farthest I got.

What was Vancouver like when you got there?

was a small, provincial town basically. I was coming from London, so … it was very slow. Shops still closed on Sundays. It was in the early ’70s. There was a real sense, though, that if you were a single mom of three, you could get by rather comfortably just with one income. There were some art grants and you could get this, that, and the other. Something relaxed about it.

You went from London to Vancouver with three children with you?

I went to a few other places briefly, but didn’t like them. I tried to go back to London too, but didn’t like that either. So, yes, Vancouver with my kids.

Was that difficult?

[Laughs] I think it probably was! But I didn’t know any better. It beat being stuck in a middle-class nothing life in London.

When you got to Vancouver, were you still painting or creating art in some capacity?

I was struggling and I used to make excuses — the kids were always in the way or something like that. But one day I remember setting up and completing a painting that I really liked. It was a real breakthrough for me. After that, I realized that the kids didn’t really bother me if I was actually concentrating. They left me alone. They were smart.

[Away from phone] Get down. Hey! Get down. Thank you.

I’ve got a puppy that I’m trying to train not to chew on the end of the couch.

[Laughs] You’ve got a puppy?

Yeah. It’s almost not a puppy anymore — one and a half. But still has some residual chewing issues, so we’re in training.

Are you an animal person? Have you always had pets?

No, I haven’t always had pets. I had children. That’s enough animals. [Laughter] But they had pets, yeah.

In your bio at the end of your collection Flash Marks, you mention that punk rock was a gateway into other types of art for you.

Oh, yes. When I got to Vancouver, the general function of art seemed to be comforting, decorative, pretty, beautiful … basically consoling. Things that would fit in nice in your office or next to a sofa or whatever it was, you know? That was still the idea. There was a certain amount of class. Then suddenly there were these punk posters up and zines around. I thought, “Wow! This is it!” Just fantastic.

Do you remember the first poster or zine that you came in contact with?

I don’t actually, but they were always in the street. I was working for sort of an anarchist newspaper called Open Road. It didn’t pay me any money, but I was doing art and comics for them. Those flyers were in there too and I just — I don’t know where I first saw them. I just don’t know. I might have gone down to Seattle and seen The Rocket. That’s the newspaper where I saw an ad for a comic contest. I had started making comics, but they weren’t the kind that you could put in the Sunday newspapers. I sent one in though, and the prize was selecting a tape of your choice. I won and got a tape of the Amadeus soundtrack.

So you had already started making comics by this time in the early ’80s?

Yes.

Did you make a transition from painting to comics?

I was still doing them both. I’ve always done both. And I was getting more involved with the newspaper and those people. I was also originally very involved with the women’s movement. I was doing a lot. I was a punk rock anarchist feminist. Very … out there.

A few of your shorter comics are about modeling. Are those autobiographical at all?

No, not at all. I used to look at the old magazines and sometimes they had these sort of photograph comics in there. They were very cheesy and looked so dumb. They weren’t about, or they didn’t include, any women I was interested in, so I think that’s why I wanted to make a joke about those. But I’m not sure what I’m talking about because I haven’t seen Flash Marks in ages. [Laughs] Maybe I’m still right.

After Open Road and The Rocket, where did you start getting comics published? Was your next one in Rip Off Comix?

Well, I also did some for The Stranger as well, when it was just a struggling little newspaper. But The Rocket used to get me to do more comics and illustrations and things like that. Then, the guy that ran The Rocket [Bob Newman] moved to New York and started working for the Village Voice. He started getting me gigs over there.

Oh, OK.

I also moved back to London at some point in there. And I was already doing some work for a newspaper here — a very mainstream newspaper called the Vancouver Sun. They used to give me work almost once a week.

You were doing editorial illustrations for them? Ones that accompanied articles?

Yeah, and sometimes they were humorous articles and sometimes they were very straight articles. I was always trying to come up with unique angles. Eventually I was fired.

Why were you fired?

The new editor did not want “that woman” in his newspaper. [Laughs] I was proud of that because he was a wretch. Very rightwing.

I can’t imagine your art accompanying normal everyday newspaper articles.

The guy who gave me the job was always trying to hustle for me and give me work, but I didn’t always respond well. He finally left, so I didn’t have anyone in my corner. And the new editor, I loathed him. But I think I did some work for them for about ten years.

Stopping by Seattle to do work for The Rocket and The Stranger, is that where you met Pete Bagge and got into Weirdo?

Yeah, that’s where I met Pete and all those guys. Dennis Eichhorn would sleep on the couch in the office at The Rocket. I met him and that’s when I first started with him too.

How did you get involved with Wimmen’s Comix?

That’s a good question because I’m not sure about that. I guess I was doing Twisted Sisters, so they asked me to do it too. A lot of the people in Twisted Sisters had a show in L.A. at La Luz De Jesus … is that right?

Yeah. The art gallery.

That’s where I met Aline and Robert Crumb. All sorts of people. The guy who does Zippy the Pinhead and his wife, Diane. That was really cool and it all snowballed. I don’t know how it all happened really. [Laughs] I remember that I worked with Fantagraphics and they were amazing to me. Very supportive.

Were you working with Gary or Kim?

Gary — who I think I met at Pete Bagge’s. We mostly talked on the phone and I would send him work. I don’t … mmmh … I don’t really remember a lot about this time …

Why’s that?

Around this time, I have to admit, I have an older son who became very ill with paranoid schizophrenia. He was living on the streets and going quite crazy. So I was kind of sidelined by that for a few years and lost a lot of my … direction. It was all very sad.

This was in the mid-’80s?

Yeah, early and mid-’80s. That’s when he was getting very, very ill. So that became my main preoccupation, as you could imagine. I used to go around looking for him on the streets and things like that.

Was this in Seattle or Vancouver?

Vancouver. My art took a backseat, but I was still doing some work for the Village Voice at that time. I was doing a little of my own work. I went back to England and then lived there for about five years. In England, they were much more accepting of my style in the regular magazines.

Why do you think that is?

Why? Well, I think Vancouver was still a provincial town. But the English have a wider, more diverse taste for drawings and paintings. They like all kinds of stuff and aren’t so snobbish. The Vancouverites were all descending into conceptual art. I feel like it’s been in that tight little box for several decades now. Very little of the stuff has any impact unless it somehow makes it into a mainstream gallery.

When you were doing work for Wimmen’s Comix and Twisted Sisters, did you ever feel the tension between the two? There was a decent amount of bad blood between them.

No, I wasn’t aware of that at all. [Laughs] I carried on regardless … from my icy post in the far, frozen north.

In Twisted Sisters 2, you have a story called “Impasse”. The story is set in Morocco …

Yes, I spent quite a long time in Morocco. I was very influenced by the French bande dessinée after I spent some time in Paris. I loved the French cartoonists’ work and thought their drawings were so incredible. I was very influenced by the French graphic artists. Someone said to me, “Why don’t you just do an autobiographical piece, since you never do that.” I used to just find stories and newspapers and things like that. But I thought, OK then, so I did that one.

Was that story done with etching or some sort of stamp-making?

I was using scratchboard with razors.

That style seemed to be way more popular amongst artist in the ’80s and ‘90s than it is now. You did it so well, and Penny Van Horn, but you don’t see it too much anymore.

Right. It’s seemed to have fallen out of style. One of the reasons I don’t use that style anymore is because I can’t get the good scratchboard anymore. I used to get that from England and it was really good. I can’t get the right ink because it’s all acrylic based now. It just doesn’t look right, so I had to give it up and I was really good at it. I tried looking for all the materials in England. I tried ordering it. It never worked, so I just gave up. It needs to come back! It’s a good medium.

In “Impasse”, the story’s all about anxiety and issues regarding commitment. Are these things that you still deal with or suffer from?

Good question. That certainly is true of me. I finally met the guy who is able to withstand my anxiety and I’m still with him. [Laughs] He’s a very brave man.

Does this anxiety stem from art or …

Just life in general. The art scene has contributed to it though, especially in Vancouver. I just couldn’t stand it. And I’m also always involved politically, so sometimes I get a lot of harassment for that. I still do my own work, but I stopped trying to show it and just stopped … just stopped.

Did you ever feel like you were part of an art scene? Or always outside those scenes?

I was somewhat involved. Not that involved, but somewhat. I really liked that I was welcomed to comics. And those women and guys, I liked them. It was really fun to get involved, because I felt a bit rejected after trying to make it in Vancouver. In London, when I lived there again, I started to get somewhere, but my son became ill, so I came back to help him. I lost that momentum. I’m really just a loner, though. An outsider.

Would you consider yourself an outsider artist?

No, I’ve had far too much art training for that. But I’m an outsider person. Apart from my partner, I live in solitude.

I want to circle back to Dennis Eichhorn. You met him while he was sleeping on the couch at The Rocket office?

Yup! At least I think so.

How was your relationship with him?

I just loved his stories. I would tease him about them and tell him that he was making them all up. He would say, “No! No, I’m not!” I would say that they were just male fantasies and he would say, “No they’re not!” We had a good relationship. We had fun with one another.



Your first story in Real Stuff was “Fatal Fellatio”. That story is just stunning. How did you go about designing those layouts? The pages are so strange.

It was just one of those things where the inspiration fell out of the sky. Dennis told me the story and I just drew it.

You definitely used your fine art background to layout and design that story, right?

Oh, absolutely. Once you’ve been trained to do something, you can’t not do it really. I had also read up on psychology and things like that, so I had some awareness of psychological relations. And then, of course, there was always the feminist analysis I brought to things. I just went in that direction when I was drawing for Real Stuff. I always gave Dennis a hard time whenever I drew stuff for him or when we talked about comics. He was always trying to pitch me a story then tell me what I should draw. That’s not the way I’m going to do it. I’m always going to do it my way. Sometimes he’d like that, sometimes he wouldn’t. More often not. I didn’t want to have to do his stories the way he perceived them.

He wanted panel-by-panel breakdowns?

In a way, he was more visually conventional. If I’m going to do a story, I’m going to go in with my view of it. I don’t just want the images to reiterate the text. I want to add something. Writers in comics often just see the illustrator as a decorator for their text. Most magazines treat illustrators that way too. I like when illustrators undermine the text or oppose it, not just reiterate what’s already in there like the readers are dumb or something.

Is that irritating?

Yes! It’s very boring. Go get a robot to do that.

The subtitle of Flash Marks is “Revolting Comix.” Do you think your artwork is revolting?

Yes, and more! I want my art to be revolting in terms of the verb and the adjective. Revolution and revulsion.

Most of your work is in stark black and whites. What attracts you to those colors?

I’m a very black-and-white person. I love the drama it creates. I am influenced by the German art that was made during and after the war. Those woodcuts and things, that were very expressionist. Very spare and expressive pieces of work — I like that. I’m not interested in highly-rendered art or high realism. I’m not really interested in that.

How about someone like Ralph Steadman?

Yes, I’ve met Ralph and I like his art very, very much. He’s a great guy and I absolutely love his work. He was influenced by Ronald Searle, who is my favorite illustrator ever.

When I view your work, Francis Bacon also comes to mind for me. That intensity …

Francis Bacon! I used to meet him in the pub when I was a student in London.

You knew him!?

Oh yes, he would buy drinks for everybody. He was kind of outrageous. He and I did a drawing together one time. I loved Francis and I loved his paintings. They were a huge influence.

Whatever happened to that drawing?

I don’t know that. We were quite drunk. [Laughter] Francis was a very generous and sweet man. He would buy us drinks and we were so broke. He’d come in and “drinks all around, Francis just sold a painting.”

In Flash Marks, there’s a story called “Coke’s Progress” about cocaine and its effects on people. Were drugs around you at that point when you drew that? Is that something you know about firsthand?

Yes, I used coke and a lot of my friends did as well. But I had enough of messing around with drugs. It made me too anxious. Incredibly anxious. But me and my friends knew that quite firsthand, unfortunately for some.

You saw a lot of people go down?

Yeah. They either went crazy, or died, or got horrible illnesses. Just terrible.

I was looking at your piece called “Strategies for Survival”, which is the women’s magazine cover parody …

Oh, right. The one about women artists.

Yes, yes. You have that line in it that goes, “Will she leave art or will art leave her?”

[Laughs] I always wonder that. That pretty much sums me up.

I was thinking about your era of comics and how many fantastic artists just drew for a couple years, then got out completely. Or ones that went into fine art and never made comics again. Why do you think that time period of the late ’80s to early ’90s had so many artists like that?

It’s not fruitful and it requires such hard work. Also everything became kind of corporate. It’s very hard to survive in that kind of atmosphere. Where I came from — London and Paris in the ’60s — you could go there and draw, record music, and create art, then shuffle around to the cafes and have a drink, meet up with friends, write poetry, or whatever it is you wanted to do. People took you seriously without you having to be famous or successful. You just had to be true to yourself. But now it’s like if you’re not famous or successful, you’re nothing.

Can you recall when that changed?

It’s when corporate values became dominant. And the internet doesn’t make it any better. It’s the same for music and television and all media. Now artists all have good teeth and good hair.

These cartoonists in Wimmen’s Comix and Twisted Sisters who never made comics again — do you think there was an issue with women too? That you weren’t as welcome?

I really don’t know. I really don’t. For me, I felt that comics became a dead end. You’re never going to make any money. I wasn’t sure I could commit my whole life to doing that. I just felt like exploding into the opposite direction, so I did huge installations. Massive ones. I found taking up entire gallery walls way more gratifying in a way. Can anyone do one thing for their entire life now?

I don’t know. [Laughter] Do you think there were more open doors in the fine art world than there were in the comics world for you?

It’s much easier to get sucked into the art world. It’s very seductive. People are a lot more reverential towards fine artists and really in a way they shouldn’t be. There are a lot of shitty people — very tiny, self-absorbed, and boring.

You’re talking about painters?

Artistes. It’s very serious, you know?

Right. Art with a capital “A.”

And with an “e” at the end. Artiste. Those people. Competitive snobs. So weird. It seems to me that in political activism — not comics, not fine art — people are much more friendly and real. I’m much more comfortable in a group of activists than I am in a group of artists.

When did you become active in political and social issues?

When I was a student in London. I got started with the CND — the campaign for nuclear disarmament. Massive marches against nuclear weapons. Huge marches in Hyde Park. I ended up doing a lot of traveling in the Middle East — North Africa and Palestine. I saw what was happening there and came back and started doing drawings, paintings, and photographs of what I saw there.

When did you start traveling like that?

When my kids left or went to university. I think somewhere around ’89.



What called you to the Middle East? Were you going as a tourist or an activist?

I wanted to know what the hell was going on in the world. Get out of my comfort zone and go and see everything.

Getting out of your comfort zone can be hard to do.

I think it should be mandatory for everyone to do it. Maybe even once a week, if not once a day. Don’t you think so?

Yeah, I do think so. Traveling seems like it may be more difficult now in terms of expense and other hassles.

Yeah, yeah. If you went to some of the places I went to now, they might not let you back in again.

Right.

It’s very strange now. You’re right, it is a lot harder to do that.

I saw on your website that you did some activism work in Mexico as well?

No, I don’t think so … oh, yes, I took some photographs in Oaxaca of street art when the uprising was going down. I took some photographs of the graffiti.

Have you ever made any street art or graffiti before?

Yes, I’ve done some stencil stuff and banners. Yeah, you do a small thing on a wall and off you go. I’ve made stencils for people.

Do you think street art is politically important?

I do. The streets, the walls, those are some of the last free places, aren’t they?

How do people react to your art when you’re traveling around the world? How did they react in the Middle East?

They hardly ever saw it. I would take sketches and then make the final pieces when I returned home. I’m sure some people thought I was a bit strange because I had very, very short and bleached hair. I was quite thin at the time too. Most people didn’t know what to make of me, this thin punk drifter traveling on my own and looking so strange. They didn’t know what to make of me at all.

Did you ever get in touch with other artists in the Middle East?

No, not really. Hardly ever. I went to museums and saw a lot of stuff that would influence my own work, but I didn’t meet any other artists. I didn’t know anybody. I was usually wandering around on my own and you can’t really initiate conversation, especially with guys or anything. The women wouldn’t talk to me and I couldn’t talk to the guys. When I approached men, I got the feeling that they thought I was trying to fuck them. It got lonely.

How did your work and activism for the Palestinians begin?

Just by being there. And coming back and thinking about it, drawing it, and reporting on it.

And people were receptive to your stories and what you witnessed when you got back to Vancouver?

Well, I don’t know if you know anything about this scuffle, but the press have been … colluded. They aren’t really writing all of the truth of what is happening between the Palestinians and the Israelis really. There was a young woman who came from Olympia, Washington named Rachel Corrie who was killed trying to protect some houses from being demolished. We were there at the same time. I was there when she was killed. Have you ever heard of her?

I have.

Yeah …

[Long silence.]

I was just remembering that. So, I just felt like I had to do this. I had to go back and say what was going on because there’s nowhere to read it. It almost gets completely deleted from the mainstream press.

Mmmh … news gets deleted altogether or diluted?

I’m not sure I should get into this conversation.

OK.

It might … offend you.

You made a sort of parody newspaper in Vancouver.

Yes, and that was exactly about the newspapers and especially the Vancouver Sun, who I used to work for. The person who owned them at the time had an actual editorial policy to not write anything negative about Israel and the issues surrounding it. So, me and some others made a parody newspaper and wrote negative things about Israel. We got clobbered and got sued.

Wouldn’t that be protected though? I’m sure it didn’t cut into their circulation numbers. It was a parody, right?

Well, yeah, but at the beginning all that stuff falls to the side and they can try to lay the law on you for anything. They didn’t care about the finer niceties of the law or how that power should be used. But that was argued in court. Anyway, the owner of the newspaper eventually went bankrupt and the case never got resolved … I guess it’s resolved now, but it’s kind of in a coma.

A coma?

That’s it. It’s in a coma. No one’s had their just desserts and the case isn’t resolved. So we were going to ask if so many thousands of dollars could be put aside during his bankruptcy, that if he wants to start it up again, we at least know he has the money to reward us. But they weren’t going to do that. They were just going to go bankrupt and refused our request for money. It’s in some strange legal limbo.



And you’ve done some activism at home in Vancouver as well?

I worked with people with mental health problems and drug issues and did some work at shelters. That’s because my son was ill and we had a very hard time getting him diagnosed and treated. At the time, it was very difficult. It’s much better now. I wanted to tell people about it. That these cruddy, stinky people they see on the street weren’t necessary lazy or anything, just very ill.

Do you think art is the best form of activism? Is art a form of activism at all?

It can be a form of activism, but there are many different forms. I went that route because I’m better at art than other things. I’m not very good at giving speeches, but I’m good with images and things like that. So I do that.

Do you think artists have a responsibility to speak out about issues that affect them or …

Yes! I do think that.

So you think that artists who aren’t involved socially or politically are wasting their time?

I don’t know if I would say that. I guess there’s a great need for some people to look at pretty, consoling pictures that they can put on their walls. There’s enough room for everybody. [Laughs] I don’t know if I actually believe that anymore. But you know what I mean, right? There’s a lot of people who do that kind of work and may they be successful. It would bore me.

Those people making pleasant paintings tend to be better known and make more money than the artists using their platform for activism.

Oh yes! [Laughs] But we don’t really need that much money, do we?

Well, I don’t know.

We just need enough to get by. Pay the bills. Pay the rent, hopefully.

You were teaching a while in Vancouver too, right?

Yeah, I was teaching at the Emily College of Art and Design. Yes, I was.

What courses did you teach?

I mostly did drawing courses. I also taught a comics class. Things like that. Mostly just drawing. I used to teach it to animators, sculptors, painters.

Did you enjoy it?

I did. I really liked it. I’m actually quite good at it, but I didn’t like the politics at the school. Most of the people teaching there were stuffy professionals, tenured, didn’t lead discussions at all. They just talked down to the students. I used to have waitlists for my classes.

Do you miss it?

No. [Laughter] Such a pain in the ass. But it was really interesting. It’s very interesting to have to explain drawing and break it down.

When looking over your art, I noticed that you signed a lot it with your name, of course, but other pieces with “Xero.” X-E-R-O.

Yeah, X-E-R-O.

Where does that come from?

It’s an old Chinese tradition to change your name every so often for artists and poets. It’s so you can’t ride along on your reputation.

So how many times have you changed your “art name?”

I’m on my third one. [Laughs]

I have never heard of anyone doing that before.

Haven’t you? Oh, OK.

I think a lot of artists want to ride on their name and reputation after a while.

But it’s bad for you though. You just start repeating yourself and doing what you’ve always done. It stops you taking risks. Galleries are the worst like this for artists, I think, unless the artist is really fucking brilliant.

Galleries are the worst?

A lot of them just want to sell. They want to create a reputation for themselves and they need pieces to sell to do this. So they get artists to just crank out shit and then they sell it. They just want something they can rely on.

How long does it take you to complete a piece? Sometimes your paintings and comic pages look like they’re done at a feverish pace.

Yeah.

Is that how you work?

Yes. I don’t do very much planning.

And it’s the same for your comic pages and your big paintings?

Right. It’s hard for me to sit down and plan. I’m impatient. And that’s something in art and comics that people really admire. People like art that looks very careful. They like when an artist seems like they worked very hard and took a long time.

That illusion that things are better if they look like they took a long time.

Yeah, that’s it. People want artists who try hard. Artists have been traditionally seen as people who get away with murder. So, at least if they worked hard on a piece and took a long time, people have something they can respect them for.

That’s all based in capitalism, isn’t it?

Could be. Good old work ethic.

The last comic you made was called “This is a True Story”. That was in a journal published by Duke University. How did that come about?

I really don’t know how that happened. They just asked if they could use it.



It’s a huge shift in style for you. It’s almost unrecognizable from your older work.

Yes.

It’s much cleaner and the pages are left white and wide open.

Yeah, there’s not very much black. Who can tell why I chose to do it like that or what the inspiration for it was?

Did you think that it would best fit the story?

I was just looking for something new, and by then I couldn’t find good scratchboard. I supposed it’s also supposed to look like a kid’s story.

Like a children’s book?

It does look like that.

I saw on your website the Abu Ghraib drawings that you did too. Those look like they’re done in colored pencil.

Cheap ballpoint pens on plain white paper. I wanted to use the cheapest material possible. I love ballpoint pen. It was a fun experiment, but the scenes are harrowing.

What do you make of the current political climate?

It’s awful. I mean, you read all this stuff about the destruction of the environment. It’s so mindless, so wretched, and so awful. I’m so ashamed that this is happening. But it’s happening all over. I live on a mountain and see the destruction and living creatures’ habitats getting destroyed. Ghastly. And just the number of living creatures on this planet is dropping. We’re just destroying our fucking planet. It’s dark.

Is environmentalism something that you’ve touched upon in your art before?

Somewhat. But it’s such a huge subject that I usually don’t know where to start. I’m kind of circling around it right now.

How about your art right now? Are you working on anything currently?

I am. I’ve got a very small space — I don’t have my lovely studio anymore since we moved — so I’m doing quite small pieces. I’m using gouache and doing images of extreme weather. I’ve experienced a lot of that here. I’m not sure what’s going to come from it, but that’s what I’m doing.

Any hope that you return to comics at all?

I’d like to. I have to say that Trump is very tempting.

Like doing an editorial cartoon?

Oh, I’d like to do a bit more than that! Everyone thinks people like … Stephen Colbert are so outrageous. [Laughs] He couldn’t even get in the kitchen with me and my art. Things need to be said, but in a slightly different way. And I might do it. The only problem is that I’m frightfully ancient now.

You’ve still got time to make more great art.

I hope so.

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When Wolverine met Hemingway: Part 3 http://www.tcj.com/when-wolverine-met-hemingway-part-3/ http://www.tcj.com/when-wolverine-met-hemingway-part-3/#respond Mon, 10 Apr 2017 12:00:20 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=99909 Continue reading ]]> When the Comics Journal ran the first two parts of this series (which you can read here and here), we asked for readers to help us find other appearances of Ernest Hemingway in comics history. They didn’t disappoint.

The first two parts chronicled the author’s colorful appearances in Superman, Shade: The Changing Man, Cerebus and 40+ other appearances. In the selections below, readers directed us to Hemingway references, adaptations and homages across the comics publishing landscape.

Samurai Crusader (1996)
Reader Phil Rippke pointed out Hemingway’s appearance as the sidekick in Samurai Crusader, a manga series by writer Hiroi Oji and artist Ryoichi Ikegami (Crying Freeman and Mai, The Psychic Girl).

“The titular character is visiting Europe and meets the burly, two-fisted adventurer Hemingway and together they try to foil a plot to start a World War. Viz translated it into English and published a three volume series from the 90s,” Rippke wrote. “It’s definitely worth tracking down.”

So, we did. The three volumes are:

Samurai Crusader: The Kumamaru Chronicles (reprinting Manga Vizion, Vol. 1, No. 1 through Vol. 1, No. 8)

Samurai Crusader: Way of the Dragon (reprinting Manga Vizion, Vol. 1, No. 8 through Vol. 2, No. 7)

Samurai Crusader: Sunrise Over Shanghai (1997, reprinting Manga Vizion, Vol. 2, No. 8 through Vol. 3, No. 5)

Rippke also directed us to a loving tribute to the series by Katherine Dacey (@manga_critic), published in Manga Bookshelf.

Dacey writes: “Whenever I see Ryoichi Ikegami’s name attached to a project, I know two things: first, that the manga will be beautifully illustrated, and second, that the plot will be completely nuts. Samurai Crusader, a globe-trotting, name-dropping adventure from the early 1990s, provides an instructive example.”

Here’s an image from Samurai Crusader that illustrates Dacey’s enthusiasm for the series.


Glory
#34 (2013)
When Joe Keatinge began writing Image Comics’ Glory, he gave the series’ warrior demoness a complex origin story that included a connection to the Lost Generation of Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein and a young Hemingway.

As covered in Part 2 of this series, Hemingway appeared in Glory #30, illustrated in a short story by Roman Muradov. But Sophie Campbell, the arc’s chief artist, reached out to say that Hemingway made an unnamed cameo in the final issue of the series.

“I actually didn’t want to draw that scene at all because I feel like I’m not great at capturing real people’s likenesses and I don’t ‘get’ the whole 1920s Paris/Stein’s salon thing, which is also why Roman Muradov drew the first Hemingway flashback,” Campbell says.


But issue 34 was the finale, so Campbell dug in—she knew how important it was to Keatinge. “Looking back on the issue now I think that part came out pretty good,” Campbell says. “I’m still proud of issue 34; it’s definitely my favorite one.”


Blanche Goes to Paris
#1 (2001)
A self-professed “big Hemingway fan,” Rick Geary included the author in two panels of Blanche Goes to Paris“I felt it only natural to include him in a story that takes place in Paris in 1921,” Geary says. At age 13, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was the first work of “serious” literature that Geary had ever read.

“Later on I read his other novels and came to appreciate what a revolutionary influence he was on American writing,” Geary says. “But the simple power of The Old Man has stayed with me over the years, and the Hemingway ‘style’ overall has given me lessons in the art of unadorned storytelling.”

Blanche Goes to Paris was later reprinted by Dark Horse in The Adventures of Blanche hardcover collection (2009). Geary also illustrated Hemingway in one panel of Steve Vance’s Big Book of Vice (1998), covered in Part 2 of this series, and he directed our attention to this later Hemingway appearance.

 

Puma Blues #3 (1986)
Edward Khanna pointed out a Hemingway reference in the beginning of Puma Blues, written by Stephen Murphy and illustrated in mind-boggling detail by Michael Zulli.

“A character, Jack, has a beard at the time and looks Hemingway-esq and is describing a nightmare he had to his class, which includes a scene with Death holding up a phone and saying ‘It’s for you,’ which I assume is a reference to For Whom The Bell Tolls,” wrote Khanna. He continued: “Rereading the part, I noticed that in the sequence just prior to it, there’s a robot named, ‘Ernest,’ who leaves his master to go find himself in nature.”

 

Generation X #5 (1995)
Comics writer/editor Danny Fingeroth also directed us to Generation X for a villain named Hemingway. As part of Gene Nation, the hulking, spiny Hemingway terrorized both humans and mutants, making appearances across several X-Men-related series until he ran afoul of Wolverine in 2004’s Weapon X #21 (Vol. 2). Here he is, first drawn by Chris Bachalo in 1995.


National Lampoon Magazine
(Vol. 2, Number 9, 1979)
Hemingway isn’t lampooned, oddly, in this April Fool’s issue of National Lampoon. Instead, he appears in caricature form for the magazine’s “Lives of the Great” column.

Among the true facts in the illustration: “In 1944, a jealous Hemingway destroyed the portrait of his lover with a submachine gun. A stray shot blew apart her toilet and flooded the apartment.”


Honorable mentions
Even when not directly featuring the author, the name Hemingway pops up in magazines and other comics. An “E. Hemingway” is listed as a contributor to Cracked #130 (January 1976), although there’s no corresponding story. Other references are less opaque.

In DC Comics’ New 52 line, the name of Deathstroke’s nurse is Hemingway—possibly a reference to Hemingway’s romance with nurse Agnes Von Kurowsky during World War I. She patches up the warrior assassin in Deathstroke #8 (Vol. 2, 2012).


In Milestone Comic’s Static, teen hero Virgil Hawkins attends Hemingway High School. “I’m not sure who on the creative team actually named the school Ernest Hemingway High,” remembers artist John Paul Leon. “…I distinctly remember drawing the first establishing shot of the school around page 10 of issue 1.”

Leon says it’s likely that co-creator Dwayne McDuffie or writer Robert Washington III named the high school, though Leon can’t swear to it. McDuffie died in 2011, and Washington in 2012. Via Twitter, Static co-creator Michael Davis (@mdworld) also wasn’t sure who the Hemingway fan was, writing, “I think it was Dwayne [McDuffie] BUT it may have been [writer Christopher] Priest.”

Below is an image from a Static / Black Lightning story from Brave and the Bold #24, (2007, 3rd Series).


Lastly, a cab driver / sidekick of Doctor Druid in Warren Ellis’ 1995 series
Druid is named Hemingway. He’s not treated very well.


If you know of a Hemingway appearance or reference that we didn’t feature, please email: info [at] hiddenhemingway.com, and we’ll update it in this article. Otherwise:

Click here to read Part 1. 

Click here to read PART 2

Robert K. Elder is the author of Hidden Hemingway: Inside the Ernest Hemingway Archives of Oak Park

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The Vanessa Davis Interview http://www.tcj.com/vanessa-davis-interview-naomi-fry/ http://www.tcj.com/vanessa-davis-interview-naomi-fry/#respond Wed, 05 Apr 2017 12:00:53 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=99830 Continue reading ]]>

Since the 2005 publication of her first book, Spaniel Rage, Vanessa Davis has established herself as one of contemporary comics’ most reliably satisfying storytellers. Beginning her career with minutely observed, highly episodic diary comics about her life as a young woman finding her way in New York, her work has, over the past decade, grown ever more ambitious and intricate, without losing its attention to small, telling interpersonal moments, its gorgeous use of color, and its carefully calibrated combination of humor and poignancy. (Full disclosure: we’re also been good friends for a number of years.) Now, with the reissuing of Spaniel Rage by Drawn and Quarterly, I spoke on the phone with Vanessa—who is this year’s recipient of the Paris Review’s Terry Southern Prize for humor writing—about how her comics have changed over time, her experiences as a cartoonist, and what she’s working on now. — Naomi Fry

“I Definitely Felt Like a Baby”

Naomi Fry: Spaniel Rage initially came out in 2005. You weren’t really a professional cartoonist yet when you were making the comics that became part of the book. How did you start out?

Vanessa Davis:
I definitely wouldn’t have called myself a cartoonist at that point. I studied art in all of the colleges that I went to and I had gone to this arts magnet school from seventh grade onward, so it had always been a really big part of my life and identity, but I hadn’t really settled on a niche; my niche had eluded me. At the point that I started making comics, I was working at the folk art museum in New York and I wasn’t making any art and so it was a moment where I was like, “Am I an artist? Do I do anything now that I’m not in school and don’t have to?”

And you were like 25 or something?

Yeah, I was like 23 or 24. I think Spaniel Rage itself came out when I was like 26.

That’s pretty young.

Yeah. [Laughs]

Now it seems like being a baby to me. To be 25.

Me too. I definitely felt like a baby, that’s for sure.

Did you really? Sometimes when you’re younger you feel like there’s this sort of false, or misdirected bravado of like, “I know everything, I know how things work.”

I think that there are 25-year-olds who do, or at least are like the kind of people that eventually do—I didn’t. I just felt like as much experience as I kept piling on, the thing didn’t happen where I was like, “I really know what’s going on in this world.”

Do you feel similarly now?

No, I feel—I mean I don’t feel like I really know what’s going on, but I’ve sort of reconciled myself to realizing that this is like my personality type. I’m a wide-open person [laughs].

Sometimes there are advantages to not knowing anything. When you were first starting to make these comics that ended up being collected in this book, you weren’t part of a community really, so did you know what you were up against? Did you know the kind of power structures that were in place? Because every community has its own kind of rules and limits and figureheads and all of that. Were you at all familiar with any of that at the time?

No. I knew of some cartoonists and I thought it would be cool to meet them, or for them to like my work, and I also knew that there was a wide world of exciting cartoonists that might become my peers. So I looked forward—but I didn’t know. That was just so far away from what I considered my goals were at that point. I just wanted to see if comics would work for me as a medium, and I wanted to see if it would be sort of socially satisfying.

You mean to meet with other people who are likeminded?

Yeah. You know, I grew up on ’80s movies and also I had gone to this really bohemian high school. So I just imagined that college would be more of that and it wasn’t. And so I was still waiting to meet all these exciting people.

Yeah, it’s like you think, “Oh, I’m an adult, I’ll have these strong friendships with these fascinating women, and like exciting love affairs with these mysterious men.” Then it’s like: Brad Goldstein? [Laughter] And you’re like, “oh.”

Exactly. It usually falls short of the fantasy that you have. Also, my college years were really interrupted because I transferred a lot and I went to three different kinds of school [Washington University in Saint Louis, MICA in Baltimore, and the University of Florida]. So that probably played a part in me not figuring out what my favorite medium was or what my artistic niche was. I loved painting, but it didn’t really fulfill everything that I wanted to do, and I was studying textile design and fibers, but that also kind of fell short somehow.

Why do you think they fell short?

With painting, what I saw was that the real painter’s painter is into the almost sculptural aspects of painting. And with textiles I had a good decorative aspect to my approach, but it definitely wasn’t masterful and I really wrestled with the precision of actual textile design. Then, when I was at MICA, I did this one piece where I learned how to do freehand machine embroidery and I did all these different kinds of chairs, and I remember my teacher, who in general seemed pretty unimpressed with me, was looking at them and she was like, “You know, all these different chairs seem very narrative. It seems like these chairs should be in a scene and there should be something happening around them.” And I think that’s where my substance lies — in the narration. So when I would try to do something that was merely stylish, it fell flat. Or when I tried to be a craftsperson, it kind of fell flat. But one thing that deterred me from ever thinking about comics was the verbal aspect. One thing I liked about painting and making these still images is that I could talk about my life and sort of elevate the stories, by merely portraying them as images. I could make them seem substantial and interesting without losing peoples’ attention, like I did when I would talk about my life. The literal narration in comics kept me away for a long time.  

“Learning What Works”

So you started making what ended up becoming the Spaniel Rage comics in notebooks, on the subway on the way to work, and at home.

Yes. I thought, ‘”I’ll draw something and I’ll write something, and I’ll teach myself how much to write. I’ll see if it becomes anything, and maybe it’ll evolve.”

It really sounds like a self-education in a way.

Well, everything kind of worked in my favor. I didn’t have this lifelong desire to even be a cartoonist, so it wasn’t like I could fall short of any of my own expectations. And there was no pressure, because I didn’t know any of the people, I didn’t know what I wanted it to look like, and there was no danger of money or fame. With the fine art world, coming out of college, it was clear that you had to schmooze, you had to present yourself a particular way, you had to get your artwork beautifully photographed in slides, and you had to know all the people you had to send them to. Just all of this high-pressure shit that I was completely alienated by. And with comics, what I imagined is that all of the people at the comic shows were like my age or middle-aged people with jobs that did this as a hobby, and they had their little side life that was fun and kind of humble, but worked with the rest of their lives. So it wasn’t intimidating in any way.

There’s something about these comics that’s winningly modest. It’s not really trying to impress anyone. Sometimes you have these moments where you’re like, “I didn’t draw this so good.”

It would be disingenuous to say that it was just for myself and I never imagined anyone seeing it, but I couldn’t imagine that that many people would see it. And the people who did see it, I wasn’t too worried about their judgment.

How did these comics make their way from your notebook to the world?

I worked at the publications department of the Folk Art Museum and it was a really supportive office. The guy who worked in the mailroom knew all about my comics and my boss knew all about it. My friend who was the production editor helped me lay them out in QuarkXPress. And then I printed it out on the Xerox machine and stapled it and brought it to shows. I started making some friends and we had this weekly get together, and so I started getting to know some cartoonists more and I would hear gossip and learn about other cartoonists and I would see other people’s comics. And I started going to some more shows, like SPX in Maryland, and then I started going to APE in San Francisco. And I just figured that I would keep self-publishing these comics and just keep living my life, and maybe if I kept doing it for several more years I’d approach a small publisher and be like, “Maybe you’d like to put together a Spaniel Rage collection.” But what happened is that I started to be in a couple of anthologies and so I just … comics is a pretty welcoming community. Sammy Harkham showed my comic to Alvin Buenaventura’s wife and she really liked it. And so then Alvin contacted me about publishing it. And I was just shocked, because at that point the only people who were published were established or famous cartoonists; like, being published itself was a mark of being established. And so I wasn’t sure if I was ready for it, but I just decided, like, you wouldn’t say no, so I did it.

How do you feel about Spaniel Rage now that it’s being reissued by Drawn and Quarterly, more than a decade after it was originally published?

The thing that I love most about Spaniel Rage is that it speaks to the wide-open possibilities of comics; that they’d publish something so inexperienced and raw. Both the fact that Alvin published it, that people liked it, and that now Drawn and Quarterly is rereleasing it, because I think in most other art forms what’s celebrated is being a master and knowing what you’re doing and doing it really well. For me what I think is really being revealed in Spaniel Rage is that process: the process of learning how to draw or learning what to write about or learning what works, and what’s funny and what’s not, and what’s deep and what’s shallow. Basically, what I was impressed by with comics in general was the wide-open possibilities of the forms they could take. And then Spaniel Rage being published kind of confirmed all of those impressions, because I was such a newbie.

“This Practical and Romantic Thing”

Did you have a fantasy that publication would change everything about your life?

I mean, sure I had that fantasy, but I also couldn’t imagine in what way it would. Nothing really changed. Well, that’s not true. I definitely had a lot more exposure to other cartoonists and I got a lot of really good feedback and I enjoyed being the new pony [laughter] and it was like a party. I got a lot of attention and that was really fun, and that was pretty much it. I didn’t really know how to parlay that into the next thing. And I started dating Trevor [the cartoonist Trevor Alixopulos], my boyfriend, right after the time that Spaniel Rage came out, and so that was also a big disruption, where I was like, “What am I going to do about that?” because he lived in California and I lived in New York. I wasn’t really making ends meet in New York, and I wanted to be more serious about comics, whatever that meant, and I was still so young that I could just see what unfolded. And when I visited Trevor he was living in Santa Rosa, which is—compared to New York—a smaller town, and you could work half-time. And it seemed like you could afford to be an artist there in a way that you couldn’t in New York. And so it was sort of this practical and romantic thing where I was embracing both Trevor and comics: like everything would become more serious by moving out there.

Did your work developed in different ways, because the pressures of making a living in New York and space and so on were now slightly eased?

Yeah, they were definitely eased, but then also moving and having a serious boyfriend and making friends in a new town took up some of the attention that I was giving to working. But then in comics, basically what I was OK with happening was Spaniel Rage got a little attention. And so I got to be in some anthologies; like, in Kramers Ergot they needed something in color, so I was like, “OK, that’s a challenge to attack, how will I do comics in color, in ink?” And then in another anthology I had to do a six-page story, and I had never done that before. So I felt like I was in a position where I was getting to do new projects that would stretch my abilities. So I spent a lot of time in that place. I knew that even though I had this book published, I was new to this form, and kind of didn’t really know what I was doing and was open to seeing where it went. But then, shortly after I moved to California, Alvin and I kind of fell out, and Alvin, to a large extent, was my conduit to fancier, more ambitious projects. And so even though I had a good reputation independently, I has living out in the boonies, publishing-wise, and I had lost my hip publisher contact, so I sort of languished in a really pleasant kind of slow, goalless development for a long time.

There’s something in your comics that has this combination of ambition on the one hand but also this coziness.

Yeah, I want to go at my own pace, I want to do things that I want to do, and I don’t want to succeed at the expense of feeling connected to my work.

When you were living Santa Rosa, you also had a column for Tablet, where did longer-form color comics.

I got really lucky with the Tablet assignment, because it was a column—they weren’t really that long, they were only like 3 pages, but getting to do a new comic every month for money—and they paid really well—was amazing. So I really wanted to meet the challenge, enjoy this gift that had been bestowed upon me. Because it was such an unusual kind of job to get to have. I got to write about myself, and I got to write about things in my own personality, but it was a weird mix, because on the one hand they were like, “Okay, let’s do something about Hanukkah,” and I don’t know that that necessarily was on the top of my mind, to make a comic about Hanukkah—

Why not. What do you mean? [Laughter.]

But then it turned out that there was a well of stuff that I had where I could talk about Hanukkah. So it was sort of interesting, because I definitely made a lot of commercial compromises and artistic compromises to fit the assignment, but it was worth it to me because it was such a great opportunity and I was being treated so respectfully as a columnist, compared to most of the other offerings out there. My father [the late Gerald Davis] was a commercial artist. He was a photojournalist, but he also was this amazing artist and he really balanced those two things in a really pragmatic way. And I think that really spoke to me as a burgeoning illustrator/cartoonist for hire. I was like, “I can still make this my own and also make it legible to my mom’s friends who are going to read it on Tablet.” I just didn’t see those as mutually exclusive. So it was a time when, all of a sudden—when it definitely hadn’t been before—it became maybe possible to have this be a job. And so I wanted to explore that as much as possible. I got to do it for about a year and a half.

Your second book, Make Me a Woman, which came out with Drawn and Quarterly in 2010, was mostly a collection of the Tablet things with some things in between, right?

Make Me a Woman captured that period in Santa Rosa where I was open to whatever came across my path. I didn’t know if I just wanted to put Spaniel Rage #2, but I also didn’t feel that I was ready to do a graphic novel. But then it was an interesting experience because working with Tom [Devlin, of Drawn and Quarterly] on the book—we both wanted to see if something emerged from the collection, something unintended. Certainly there were themes that ran throughout the book, but it was also kind of like “who’s making this a book, is it me? Did I intend for this to be my book, or am I going to let accidental threads determine that it’s a book”? In a way, I thought that was the most interesting thing about Make Me a Woman.

“I’m Not Going to Cannibalize Myself”

How do you think gender played into people’s perceptions of what you were doing?

I’ve read criticisms of all my comics from Spaniel Rage onwards: people who said that were told that “this is really raw and really honest, but it’s not even really deep”; like, “she just talks about her hair or she talks about shopping” or something. I think that femininity and masculinity definitely play into those things, but from my perspective, being in it, it’s kind of hard to see where it starts and stops, because I know it’s also a personality thing. Some people get inspired when they see vulnerability, and some people get inspired when they see mastery. And I think that’s an ingrained value system alongside these different cultural expectations we have of men and women.

And what was your reaction to people who complained that even within the realm of diary comics, your work was not giving the reader “the juice of womanhood”? [Laughter.]

Well, I have various reactions to that. On the one hand, those people had preconceived ideas about what they want, and so if I fell short of that I can’t really help it. And sometimes, in my crankier moments, I just feel like: how entitled are people, or how does that speak to what people want from a book? I’m an autobiographical cartoonist, I have to take a lot of effort when I portray other people not to exploit them, but just as much I don’t plan on exploiting myself. I am happy to be open and to be confessional and talk about personal things, but I’m not going to cannibalize myself so that some random person is going to be satisfied. That’s not my job.

So when you write about yourself, what are you aiming to get at?

Fundamentally, I write about myself to connect with other people. I just think there’s a range. There’s a range of what’s personal. And there are other ways to be revealing than to be literally revealing. I think that Spaniel Rage is clearly revealing in the sense that it’s someone’s first effort in a new medium, and so it’s not necessarily interpersonally raw but it’s artistically raw, and that can be revealing in its own way.

Is there something particular that you hope people might get out of your work?

Well, I always hope people will enjoy the view into another person’s mind, which is what I like about comics. Maybe they relate, or maybe it’s just another perspective. I do think that view changes. I was thinking about Spaniel Rage, looking at it again, and I realized that a lot of what I was drawing about was maybe to see if other people were thinking the same things as I was, or going through the same things. Sort of like, “Hey, am I doing this right? Is this familiar, or what?” It was a way to reveal what I was doing and see if it meshed with other people. But then I think that changed for me, because now I know that everyone leads these idiosyncratic lives—sometimes you connect with people, sometimes you don’t—but there are so many other motivations for me: like sometimes I want to remember things, or sometimes I have a beef that I want to work out. Like when I moved to L.A., I started observing these things about humanity, and you’re like, “Am I crazy? Is this really how people act?” I think my comics have always been a way for me to examine my observations and connect with other people.

“A Colorful-Sounding Job Opportunity”

After living in Santa Rosa for several years, you decided to move to Los Angeles with Trevor to become apartment managers.  

[Laughs] Yes, I did. It taught me a lot of things, like any horrible experience does. Living in Santa Rosa was amazing at first. It was like this permanent vacation and I had a part-time job as a secretary, and I just had so much time and freedom. But then after a while, it had been like years and I hadn’t made any decisions about what I was—and nothing seemed to be changing, and Trevor started to feel that way. We were like, “We’d like to make a decision about where we’re going to end up. So maybe we should try something different so that at least we had done that process where we’ve made a choice about where we’re going to be.” It was really hard to leave because it was so comfortable there, and Trevor’s job was really great. Then this colorful-sounding job opened up and we could split the work and get a free apartment. It was supposed to be like 20 hours a week, and we’d move to Hollywood and what an adventure that would be. You know, Santa Rosa’s a small town, we were staying in state, it didn’t seem like a big risk. So we figured we’d try it out, and it actually it was really challenging because—

So it was an apartment complex that was full of has-beens and never-weres?

Yes, not to be harsh. There were a handful of very nice people, but the overwhelming—it wasn’t like a corporate-run apartment building, it was sort of—I used to say to prospective tenants that it was sort of like an independent bookstore. Where they might not have the newest things, but they’ll cater to your—I don’t know how it was like an independent bookstore but it was like—[Laughter]—like on the one hand people were like, “The plumber might come and trash your apartment” but on the other hand—

“It’ll be like family” [Laughs]

But on the other hand if you wanted someone to help put up your curtain rods, like the entire painting team would come and do it on a Saturday. The landlords—the couple who owned the building—were this very nice couple who loved—this was like their retirement, owning this building, and they loved interacting with the tenants, and they loved being social. It was kind of their pet project. But ultimately they got to make all of the decisions, and Trevor and I were brought in to sort of enforce rules that no one was expected to follow. No one bothered following, or cared about following, and there were like no repercussions if they didn’t follow them. And I like being friendly to neighbors but I’m not a busybody, I don’t care, I’m not interested in it. So being all of a sudden put into this role—which we chose to do—but choosing to be in this role of “you did this wrong, or you need to blah blah blah,” sucked. It was really foreign and weird, and they didn’t like it either. It was clear that we sucked at it, so it was just like this really stupid choice that we made, to do this job.

So the people—except for a handful of very nice people—there were some challenging characters. But on the relative plus side, it gave you a lot of material to think about, didn’t it?

Yeah, it’s interesting because it comes back to that exploitation idea that I brought up. Where it sounds—certainly I thought that it would be great for material. I intended to try and turn it into material. One thing that was sort of interesting was that when we would go places people wanted us to dine out on our colorful tenants, and talk about what a horrible experience it was. While we would tell them about it I would see their expressions go from laughing and smiling to kind of checking out, to being a little bit disgusted.

Well, for the record, I was always into it. [Laughter]

It was an interesting lesson in attitude and perspective. Because some stories are inherently interesting, but then they can be ruined by not being able to see them in their full breadth of interestingness. When you’re oppressed by experiences it’s hard to see them clearly—that was an interesting lesson, though I haven’t figured out a way to tell that story yet.

“Little Things Make a Life”

Did the negative apartment managing experience change your perspective about what kind of comics you want to make?  

I know that when I started making comics, when I was drawing Spaniel Rage, I was becoming more well-read in comics, and I was seeing these themes of these ‘90s cartoonists with these hardened cynical viewpoints. Like telling dark stories, and really dark views of the world, and I got that. But I was also like, “I’m like this young girl who’s been pretty lucky.” I’ve had some bad things happen in my life, but overall, I would say that at the time I had this very sunny disposition and I was like, “where is the place in comics for that?” I think that also can sometimes work at odds with expectation of diary comics, because people want to read about the struggles, and the darkest experiences. I remember that it was deliberate that I wanted to bring this sort of like—not exactly basic suburban Jewish girl perspective—but I was like, “I don’t have to fit some mold of what a cartoonist looks like. I can be myself, I can talk about shopping. I also don’t necessarily want to be stuck making comics about the things that have the most plot necessarily. Maybe that was like this really amazingly colorful experience in my life, but I have this instinct to ignore the meaty stories, and try to find the meat in the fluff if that makes sense.

You also want to see if it resonates. And to say something about culture and about life.

Yeah. Or like, I remember when I started noticing that all the cars were shaped the same. And I would idly mention this to Trevor or to a friend; I’d be like, “Hey, have you noticed that everything looks like a Prius?” And it was not a very interesting observation, but it was nagging at me, and so I made a comic about it. So it forced people to contend with this small idea that I had. And so it satisfied that in me.

One of the only longer comics in Spaniel Rage is about how your parents’ cat would always bat around the paper your father’s dentures were wrapped in, and how after your father died, you discovered all of these old denture papers under the refrigerator. It’s very poignant.  

I feel sort of amazed that I did that comic at such an early stage in my comics-making effort, because I actually think that that comic is the kernel that contains my whole M.O. It’s like my dad said, “little things make a life,” and I recognized it when he said it and I have since adhered to it. I’ve held it up as a guiding principle. I think that big things happen, you have no control over it at all, but I do think that there is all of this power in these small things, and they’re the things that I use to connect with being alive. I feel this loyalty to them, to focus on them, rather than these big things, because they’re more personal and they’re more real in a way than the big things that have happened to me.

 

“Resist in Existence”

I’m interesting in the turn that your work has taken now that—not that many people have seen it—but you’ve been drawing larger-scale figures now.

For the past couple of years I’ve had this really long, really fun, really lucrative illustration assignment for a couple of years where I was happily a cog in a machine. I loved it and it paid really well, but that took up a lot of time, so I didn’t do any comics during that whole period. Then that ended and I had a bunch of money in savings, and I hadn’t done comics in a really long time, and I kind of had no idea where to start. So I was like, “Oh I should rent a studio.” Usually when I don’t know what I’m doing with comics I’ll do diary comics, but as I’ve gotten older and life has gotten more difficult, I have sort of like a fraught relationship with—and I almost sounded angry before when I was talking about people wanting things from me. I had a moment when I was feeling extra protective about my personal life, and so I thought that I’ve never had a studio before, and so hadn’t gotten to do anything big—I’d been sitting for like three years drawing these illustrations, and I was like “I want to move around.” Prince died and I wanted to dance to Prince and draw and just see what I would do. So I’ve been doing these big drawings. I don’t really know exactly what they’re about, but it feels really pure and good to be doing them.

And they’re mostly figures?

VD: Yeah. It took me a long time to figure out how to scale up. Like, what materials to use—usually I draw with a mechanical pencil—so like how do you cover ground in the same way that you cover ground small? So I went through a bunch of different materials to see what I liked, then I kind of settled on these. Then it was like “well what am I drawing?” When the election was happening, I felt this weird combination feeling of wanting to protect myself and hide myself from these horrible people, but then also kind of like resist in existence. So I just wanted to revel in the female body, and my sister was like “what’s up with these nudes?” and it’s not like I’m a nudist or anything, but putting clothes on them made them more visually complicated, and it became a visual exercise to figure out how to portray the nudity. So I’ve just been really into that at the moment.

Around the same time you started making these large drawings in the studio, you were asked to do a comics column by the Paris Review, as well.

It had been a long time since I’ve made comics with any regularity, and it was a combination of really hard, and then like not having the time to worry about it, because it was a really tight deadline. But I think a combination of luck, experience, and “fuckitness” kind of came together to work. But it was a difficult experience because I did not feel like I had any control over whether the comics came out good or not.

Like in a way that you hadn’t felt before?

I think that I was being a little more ambitious conceptually with what I was discussing, and I was trying to make connections between things that I felt made sense but I wasn’t able to articulate necessarily, in any kind of convincing way. So I really felt like I floundered—it was very harrowing while I was making them, but then it was extremely satisfying when I was done with them, which is a classic experience [Laughter].

Would you ever like to expand your breadth even further and do a really long-form comic?

It’s not that I’m against it in itself. But it’s like I said before, I’m really drawn to these small stories and small instances. That thinking about something that would take that long to explore—I haven’t felt drawn to something that big. It’s not that I don’t know that I ever will, but… I’m friends with Mimi Pond, and she’s been working on this story that’s so long that it’s over two books, two novels, and it’s like a story that she loves and has loved for such a long time and she has a script. Besides a lot of things that are admirable about Mimi, like one thing that just sounds so amazing is sitting down with a story that you know, and having the script, and chipping away at it—that just sounds amazing to me. So I’d love to be in that situation, or to put myself in that situation, but I just don’t know if I’m going to go that way.

You don’t have to. [laughter]

That’s the thing! I don’t. Obviously there are a lot of people in comics who write books, and that’s great, but like, if you don’t, you can kind of be either way. I don’t have to be a best seller to be allowed to be here, which I like.

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An Interview with Joe Ollmann http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-joe-ollmann/ http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-joe-ollmann/#respond Thu, 30 Mar 2017 12:00:23 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=99373 Continue reading ]]>

On the occasion of his new book, The Abominable Mr. Seabrook, Joe Ollman spoke with Brad Mackay about life, art, and cannibalism.

Brad Mackay: As I was prepping for this interview I realized that even though we’ve known each other for years now, I know very little about you. So, let’s try and fix this. Where were you born and when?

Joe Ollmann: I was born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1966 on a Christmas tree farm.

What? Really? Tell me the truth.

[Laughs] What do you mean tell you the truth!? It’s true…that’s the truth.

So your family lived on a tree farm, or …

They sold Christmas trees: that was what we did. I grew up in the country; I was a rural child.

But were you actually born on the farm? Like, a home birth?

No, I was born in a hospital, but I mean … okay, jeez. I was born in Hamilton Ontario, in a hospital.

So, you were raised on a Christmas tree farm.

Yes. I was raised on a Christmas tree farm Brad. [laughs] We’re off to a great start!

This interview is over! So, give me a better idea of your family situation. Did your dad and your mom run this tree farm?

Yeah, that was our part-time thing. My dad’s full-time gig was working at Stelco, as most people in Hamilton did at the time.

For the sake of our readers, Stelco was a major steel company in Hamilton which for many years was a heavily industrialized city.

Yeah. It’s a post-industrial city now, but it was an industrial city at the time. And Stelco was gigantic. It was one of the biggest steel manufacturers in Canada, and probably North America. And, y’know, that industry is mostly dead now. All the manufacturing jobs that surrounded it have dried up. But it was a very big part of my growing up, being in an industrial union town.

And for a long time, Hamilton was affectionately known as The Hammer, right?

Yeah, well it’s still called that, but back then it was called that because it was such a rough place, and because of the steel background. In the 1980s and 90s, when the steel industry was dying it became a pretty economically depressed town, so it was a rough place. It was a little bit scabby then.

I remember when I lived in Toronto I would travel to southern Ontario to visit Phyllis Wright or Seth, and the times I passed through Hamilton, I felt a little threatened. There was a sense that I might get mugged for the first time in my life. So, back to your dad: he worked at a steel factory and then also did this part-time tree-growing gig.

That was our summer vacation: harvesting Christmas trees.

And cue the Canadian stereotypes! [laughs]

I’m serious! Our summer vacation was trimming these trees with clippers, making them nice shapes.

This is starting to sound like a Laura Ingalls Wilder book.

It was pretty wholesome. I mean, y’know, we had access to axes and matches and we weren’t allowed to go walk on the road, but we were allowed to drive motorized vehicles and play with gasoline and powder and all that. It was like a normal rural childhood.

And you survived it, which is good.

I survived, yeah.

Because the dark side of rural life is that the chances of getting maimed or killed by farm equipment or in your case, axes, increases for country kids right?

Yeah, like that famous Dave Collier cartoon.

Yes! It all comes back to Dave. As they say in Canadian comics circles, “All roads lead to David Collier”. He’s been in Hamilton for a long time now right?

Yeah. We have a lot of cartoonists living in Hamilton now. Jesse Jacobs lives here, and Georgia Weber just moved here… Marc Bell lives here part-time. Even Seth, who lives nearby in Guelph, likes Hamilton, it’s like his home-away-from-home. He loves to come to Hamilton and take photos.

So, all this talk about Hamilton turning into a burgeoning arts community that’s not just real estate PR?

There’s truth to it, yeah. It’s one of those post-industrial towns that’s riding a kind of burgeoning wave of creativity right now. There’s a lot of cool stores, restaurants, and shops opening up. A lot of artists have moved here from Toronto which is an expensive city to live in, so they can afford to live here and they’ve brought cool things with them, so Hamilton is much cooler than it was when I left here.

It’s changed for the better, although the downside is the rent and property prices have skyrocketed, so it’s hard for everyone that lives here.

So, how would you classify your dad? He was a working guy, a union guy I take it, right?

He was not a union guy, he was a foreman…

Management…

Yeah, a management kind of guy, but he was a very strong … I don’t think he would have called himself a socialist, but he was… y’know he was… and… I am, and my family all are sort of of that [ilk?]. Yeah.

And your mom, what did she do?

She was always a housewife, mom-at-home kind of all of her life. I mean, she worked in a store before she got married, but then y’know she had six kids and she kind of stayed at home and took care of us.

And what about your siblings?

My siblings are all very nice, normal people. I’m the odd one in the family, but they all like me they’re very nice. They’re the most polite, kind-hearted people in the world. They’re very reliable.

So, very Canadian, is what you’re saying.

Yeah, yeah, basically.

What was the breakdown of brothers versus sisters?

I have one brother and four sisters. So, mostly women in my family. I’m the baby of the six, and it’s not that big a family really because my mother came from a family of 19 kids and my dad came from 11, so…

Jesus.

Irish Catholic, man!

I hear ya. I came from a family of two, but I have three kids now, so I’m kind of trying to change the script; the course of history.

You thinking of having more?

No, no! Good God, no! So, when did you eventually leave the Christmas tree farm?

I did, yeah, when I got married. I got married really young, when I was 17. And so I moved to Hamilton then. But yeah, I lived in Hamilton… I lived in the West End, which was the nice part of town, and then after I got divorced I rented a house in downtown Hamilton in, like, 2000. That was a rough part of town. I thought, “Ah, this’ll be grist for the mill, it’ll be hilarious.” I lived across the street from a crack house and I would get propositioned by hookers when I would go jogging, and I got robbed once, and, y’know, got beat up in an alley by like six teenagers.

I got the shit kicked out of me. I got like ten stitches, my lip was split up to my nose… but that was Hamilton then, and Hamilton now is vastly different than that—I don’t want to give people a bad impression.

Sure. Now you just have to deal with gangs of roaming cartoonists. So, when did you say that was, 2000?

That was like 2000. So, 16 years ago.

That would’ve been around the time I was cruising through.

You know, it’s like any city… you’ll have one street that’s a little rough, and then one street over it’s like paradise, nice people living there and everything. So I was just living in a bad part of town. It was just bad luck.

So, was there a point in your life when you realized you were going to pursue art?

I was always a person that was drawing. You know how in school there’s always the competition to see who the best drawer is? I was always in that competition. I wasn’t the first-place kid: I was like, the second- or third-place kid. There was one girl that was better or there was one guy that was better. But I was always a person that liked to draw, and write stories. And then there were comics.

I remember Mad and Jughead and that kind of stuff around, but I didn’t get fully into comics until I was probably like 9. I bought one at a store on a whim, it was a Spider-Man, and it was one of those lightning bolt moments y’know. From that moment on I was addicted to comics. Every cent I had I would spend on them. I could sit there and get my sisters to hold up a comic and I would name the writer, the editor, the inker, the colorist, just based on the cover. I had memorized everything about them, I was obsessed. I would draw a comic, I would copy things and pretend they were mine. I would rip-off people’s work. [Laughs] And I’d say “Oh yeah, I did this.” And it was just a crappy rip-off of other cartoonists.

That’s a noble tradition in comics. [Laughs] When did your obsession with Jim Aparo begin?

Jim Aparo! I love his stuff, he’s great! He’s so underrated! I think he’s not given enough credit. I think he’s the technical equal of Neal Adams, and Neal Adams was… y’know how they always put Adams on the covers because he would draw you in, and then there’d be some lesser artist on the interior. Obviously they thought Adams was a sell, and he was great, I mean he’s wonderful, a masterful drawer. But I think Aparo was his equal. I mean, if you can compare apples and oranges…

In addition to Aparo, you’ve said that Doug Wright was a big influence on your decision to pursue comics professionally. Can you explain Wright’s appeal? 

Wright was a cartoonist at The Hamilton Spectator, which was the local paper in town. I would read his strips and notice that he would show local things, and I knew that this guy was definitely not from America. This is an actual guy from Hamilton. I later discovered that he was from Burlington, which is close by so, same difference.

I remember thinking “You don’t have to be from America to do this?” Growing up Canadian, America’s influence was very big in our culture in television and everything else, and we kind of denigrated our own television because it looked cheap and crappy. And so anything that you recognized as being done well, you just assumed it came from America. So, I just assumed that comics were all done in America, I didn’t think there was any [done here]. So yeah, finding out that Doug Wright was from around here was very influential. It made me think “Oh, I could actually do that.” It made it real for me.

So what age were you?

About 10, 11, 12. I didn’t know I was going to be a cartoonist, but I was drawing comics all the time and in high school I was drawing comics. I can remember drawing like Peter Bagge, from Neat Stuff — drawing stuff that I saw in there for people in class, instead of doing work. It was probably after high school that I started… I would work at night and draw and do things. I tried to do super-hero comics, but they always turned into weird things, more rooted in reality and Kitchen Sink drama-type stuff. So I guess I realized at a certain point that it wasn’t really my thing and I didn’t have the drawing chops to do that kind of stuff well.

So you’re talking right after high school, so 17, right around the same time you got married.

Yeah, the same time I got married I was making comics in my spare time. I finished high school and then worked night-shifts in a box factory and had a kid. But in the spare moments that I had, I had a drafting table and I would draw comics. I still have some of that crap from those days.

So, night shifts in a box factory. I’m going to assume that wasn’t very lucrative.

No, not at all. It was like minimum wage, maybe $3.25 an hour. I guess it seems very David Copperfield-ish or Oliver Twist-ish now, but it didn’t seem bad at the time. I did that for years, then I worked in a machine shop and they were apprenticing me to be a machinist, but I didn’t wanna do it. Then I got a chance to go back to school through a government work program, and that was to study graphic arts. So I did that, and even though it had nothing to do with comics it was enough to get me into making art because I was working for different printers and things like that. And I got a chance to draw things for ads, like shoes or whatever, I had a chance to actually draw things for work, which was great.

I feel like this speaks to something essential to your voice as an artist. It seems to be powered by a blue-collar philosophy; a working-class sensibility. Like, in this case you’re just happy to be getting paid to make something with your talent, even if it’s just a shoe ad.

Yeah, I always feel that. I know a lot of people who are kind of pure, like real “artists,” like “Oh, I don’t wanna draw things that I don’t wanna draw.” If you told me as a 17-year-old kid working at a box factory that, y’know, I could draw a comic for a textbook and live on that for like two months that would’ve blown my mind. I just didn’t think it was possible, so I feel lucky to be drawing anything.

So when did you start publishing your own comics?

The first published thing was in the 1980s. I did a lot of newspaper strips and illustrations in local papers like The Spectator, and then I did a comic strip in there for five years in the 90s and then they changed editors and they ditched my comic, and then I did five years of a monthly in Exclaim! [a long-running Canadian alternative newspaper]

Yeah, they published a lot of alt-cartoonists. Marc Bell was published in there too, and Dave Cooper. It was probably the first place I saw your artwork.

Also, Fiona Smyth, and Alan Hunt.

Alan Hunt, yeah!

Yeah, he eventually got out of the whole thing, but he was a great cartoonist. I miss his work. I loved those little books…I reread them every now and then.

He also designed the first Doug Wright Awards logo. Obscure Canadian comics trivia! I’m curious about the Spectator stuff. What was the strip there? Was it slice-of-life or…?

They gave me complete freedom to do whatever I wanted. So sometimes it was politics: I was a very lefty political guy, so sometimes there would be just like ranting. Sometimes it would be like, y’know, just like stories, like the kind of stuff I do now, just stories about people. So it was just whatever I wanted to do. It was kind of freeing just to do whatever you wanted.

So this was around the same time that you started making your mini-comic/zine Wag, right? Can you talk about how that came to be?

Wag was just a series of little books that I did because I was working at a printing place and I would use the equipment there to print these little books. Then I would bind them myself, I would score the spines with a butter knife and glue them together myself. And they were just full of whatever I felt like, they were kinda like comics and drawings, and my kids’ drawings, and like poetry, whatever the hell I wanted. I sold tons of them at little zine fairs and things like that.

Then around 2000, a publisher in Toronto called Insomniac Press, saw my stuff in Wag and approached me about doing a book. They were looking to do a graphic novel, and I said I could do a book of short stories and they said okay sure, go ahead. But I had seven months to get it done, so I just sat down and did a book in seven months. Just wrote all the stories and drew them all at night.

That was Chewing on Tinfoil, right?

Yeah. It kinda set the tone of all my books: mildly depressing stories that have the relief of humor throughout to make them not unbearable. That was the first proper book, published by someone else. In the 80s I did one of those black-and-white comics called Dirty Nails Comix about a scientist. It was like science fiction but like weird, lefty politics science fiction about a helmet that this professor invents that gets stolen by this CIA type of agency. The helmet can take your thoughts and amplify them and kill people if you wanted.

 

Then next up was This Will All End in Tears, around 2006.

That’s the one I won The Doug Wright Award for.

Yeah — I think I met you for the first time at the ceremony that year. I remember having an expectation of what that book would be like, and being caught off guard by it. It was a real step up. The storylines were unexpectedly sweet and off-kilter and you end up sympathizing with characters you didn’t think you would.

Yeah, I heard that from a lot of people. I feel like I wish that I’d have spent more time back then building up a body of work in a similar vein to the stuff that I’ve done with those books. With Midlife and Science Fiction, the stories are character-driven and kind of depressing, but very (hopeful) and human. Hopefully not completely depressing because there’s some humanity in there.

Then you published Midlife, which dropped the connected short-story approach for a single longer-form story. Was that a conscious decision?

It’s different in that it’s a full-length story, but I think it’s in a similar vein to the others in terms of content. But yeah, it was a conscious decision to do a full-length book ‘cause I knew that short story collections are kind of a hard sell. Which is weird, ‘cause some of my favorite comics are short-stories: Adrian Tomine or Dan Clowes’s old Eightball stuff. I love those short pieces. I love that anthology kind of thing, where guys were just doing whatever they felt like doing, and at any length.

And now we have The Abominable Mr. Seabrook, a long-form graphic novel biography that focuses on a very complex and tragically human character that you sort of pulled from the dustbin of history, really. It seems like you’re playing outside of your sandbox here a little bit. Can you explain how you came to this project? 

It was just a thing I was researching in the background for years. Seabrook had this really weird, interesting life—he knew all these famous artists and writers—and I was surprised that I’d never heard of him before. So I just started researching him, then bought all his books and I thought he was a very good writer.

When did this happen?

I looked at my notes recently and the first ones I had about him were from 2006. So that’s 10 years that I had it kind of in the background, five years of those being committed to writing and drawing this thing nearly full-time. But it wasn’t much of a conscious decision. I toyed with the idea of doing it, and then I had a script written, and then all the research was done, so I was like “I guess there’s no excuse not to do it.” It was daunting though, because it was big. 300 pages, y’know. I discovered Seabrook in an anthology of zombie stories edited by Peter Haining called Zombie. The story was “Dead Men Working in a Cane Field”, a famous Seabrook story that’s an ostensibly true story of these zombies working cutting cane—it’s great. But what really interested me the bio of Seabrook in the book which gave me a glimpse of this guy; all the people that he knew and his life, plus he was an alcoholic, a cannibal, a bondage freak, and all this stuff.

Well, I can see why he caught your interest. He’s very interesting and engaging, but he’s also a refreshingly unlikable protagonist for a biography.

Yeah. I think he was probably a lot of fun to hang around with and that’s why I think all these famous writers befriended him and remembered him. A lot of them wrote about him in their own autobiographies or memoirs. But like any troubled person, I think he would have been super hard to live with. At the beginning of the book I think I liked him, because he’s a fun guy and a crazy adventurer, and he was very honest about his vices and that kind of stuff. But I think I liked him a lot less by the end of it.

There’s definitely a point in your narrative when his eccentric shenanigans lose their charm and stop being amusing—even to him, I think. It’s a very layered, complex portrait of the man—it feels rich, and true to life. It reminded me of that biography of Orson Welles written by that British actor.

Simon Callow? Yeah, that’s a great book.

Yeah, right? Callow does such a good job of confronting all aspects of Welles, who was a truly complex character, and the result feels very rich and completely human. It’s like the opposite of the standard Hollywood biopic film formula, where it’s just a set of arranged scenes designed to elicit sympathy, while omitting anything that runs counter to the rags-to-riches narrative. You avoid that in this book: you’re not afraid of tackling his darker sides. You confront his rampant womanizing, and even his cannibalism which he exploited in a very strange way.

But he was honest about that in his lifetime; by the time he wrote his autobiography at the end of his life, he told the truth about that cannibalism. But, I mean, yeah, in a book that’s non-fiction fudging with the truth is kind of like the worst thing you can do, and he did a bit of that.

The thing about that story is that, yes, he lied about eating human flesh in his book. But he felt guilty enough about it that he found a workaround that somehow manages to be more disturbing than the story he fudged in the first place.

Yeah. In the context he claimed to have done it in there’s a real cultural significance to it: with these guys who were actual cannibals, culturally. But that fact that he does it when he comes back to an urban center like Paris, and gets his friends into it as well…

Just to be clear, Seabrook gets duped in Africa by some guys who claim they’re feeding him human meat.

Yeah. It was like an ape, like a great ape, that’s what he described it as. He could tell by the finger bones, which he noticed were longer than a human’s.

But he writes about it in a best-selling book anyway, describing the taste of human meat. But he was bothered by this fib enough that he concocts an elaborate and highly illegal scheme and ropes in unwitting friends, to actually consume human meat. In short, he gets back to Paris and feels so bad about lying about being a cannibal that he reaches out to a mortician —

Through a friend, yeah. He acquires a pound of like, neck meat, I read in one place. From the neck! And then, yeah, his translator Gabriel D’Hons [?]let him use his chef and his kitchen, and his chef cooked it in three different dishes—three different ways—and then he served it to him and he ate it in front of his friends. BY doing this, Seabrook felt like he was being true to his lie. But the crazy thing was that Seabrook wasn’t going to tell his friends that it was meat from a human; he said it was from a rare African goat. Then one woman was like “I wanna try some!” and Margery Worthington, Seabrook’s second wife, was like, “No! Don’t touch it! It’s filthy!”

It’s one of the most compelling parts of the book to me, because it says so much about his personality and disposition.

Yeah, it’s a crazy story. But a part of me thinks it’s crazy, and then another part of me as a vegetarian of 28 years, doesn’t think it’s any weirder to eat human than it is to eat a dog or maybe a cow. So it’s not a big deal, if someone’s already dead. As long as, you know, you aren’t going out and consciously murdering them.

Stop pandering to your cannibal demographic.

I’m not pandering! But I just…I don’t think it’s that bad I suppose.

To me the story speaks to his twisted kind of integrity. You argue that he was insecure about his reputation as a kind of “yellow journalist”, a real exploitation artist. In this case he really leans into it: it’s like he figures “Well I told them I ate human flesh, then I better damn well make sure I do it.” 

Yeah, it’s a weird thing to do. And it’s weird to be so obsessive about making it true, y’know. Part of me doesn’t seem like it was about making it about editorial authenticity, I think it was more about him, like, he wanted to do that. He strikes me as one of those guys who would try anything once y’know. And so that’s why I think he wanted to do that. And then when he didn’t get the chance he felt kind of ripped off, and so he made it happen.

So, tell me about your research process with the book.

I have no experience writing this kind of thing; I’m not a researcher or an academic or anything. So I just kind of half-assed did things and tried to keep it organized and tried to keep my sources straight and all that. I relied heavily on Seabrook’s biography, No Hiding Place, which is a great book. Then his second wife Margery wrote a book called The Strange World of Willie Seabrook in 1966 which was her biography. They’d divorced in the 1940s, so this is years later and she was still thinking about him, you can see that she still felt fondly towards him. She didn’t write any (rancour) or anything but she was honest, she was very honest. And you would find very different versions of the same story in the two books.

I also read her papers at the University of Oregon. I went down there for four days and went through her papers, and her (diaries.) It was amazing and kind of depressing. You know, living with an alcoholic and putting up with his bondage stuff, which she wasn’t really into but she tolerated because she loved him. So there’d be all these diary entries of them drinking too much and then this half-hearted bondage… it was fascinating.

You also went to North Carolina for research right?

Yeah. I went to North Carolina—there’s a collector there who had a bunch of writing and unpublished stuff and paraphernalia, like photos and things. So that was a great thing too, I got a lot of info out of there, that was really helpful.

At some point in this 10-year process you decided to stop drinking alcohol, right? Can you talk about that a bit?

I quit drinking somewhere around the middle of the book. I think I’m going on four years of quitting booze now. I don’t think I stopped because of the book, but maybe it made me think about it, because I was constantly writing about someone who would y’know, drink til they puked. I wasn’t drinking til I puked or anything, but I drank a lot: all the time, like at night when I worked. This was the first book I drew sober. People have been telling me the artwork in this book is vastly improved compared to my other books, so maybe drawing without sipping bourbon all night has improved my artwork. I would suspect that that’s probably true.

We’ve talked about this before, and you’ve always stopped short of calling yourself an alcoholic.

Yes. I would say I was a person that drank a lot, but I was drinking a lot less than I used to after my divorce. And for me it was like, oh okay, I’m getting older…I was almost fifty at the time. And I was like, You’re not a kid anymore, you can’t just live rough like that all the time. So it was a conscious decision. It also happened right after my dear old Dad died. My Dad wasn’t a big drinker, but he was diabetic, and alcohol is just pure sugar so… I quit eating candy too, that was another thing, I was just trying to like—I have a young kid, I have grandkids, I’m trying to be healthier, y’know. I tried it for a year with no booze, and I felt better and I saved a ton of money. I wasn’t a cheap drunk, I was drinking good booze, I was drinking good bourbon at night, or good single malt.

Boozing ain’t cheap, that’s for sure.

There’s no real advantage to it. Like my wife says, I am the ultimate all or nothing: I’m either gonna drink everything, or I’m gonna drink nothing.

A total absolutist. So given this change of heart you had, was it difficult for you to have to depict Seabrook’s numerous failed attempts to sober up?

That was very depressing for me. Not as someone who drank a lot, but just like as a person. In his book Asylum he writes about checked himself into a mental hospital for rehab and to get dried out. He was dying at this point, he was drinking himself to death basically. So he spent seven months in Bloomingdale’s mental hospital in New York, and he gets and says “I’m cured, now I can take a drink or two and stop.”

I guess at the time not much was known about alcoholism, so he didn’t know that you really can’t do that. If you’re an alcoholic, you’re an alcoholic. You don’t get cured; you learn to not drink. So that was very sad for me, because he was completely dried out and doing good, and then he made a conscious decision to go out and buy booze and start drinking again, because he felt kind of emasculated by not drinking.

And as a tough guy, I can see that cause I sometimes feel like that. I feel like that about not smoking, because I was a very macho young guy. I was like “Ah, I smoke two packs a day, no filters,” and “Oh, I drink whiskey all night.” So you can see that if you don’t do those things, you just have to find something else to identify yourself with. That’s the secret, and I don’t think he could do that.

Yeah, there’s a strong pathos there in his eventual downfall. I think that was a real masterstroke that you shied away from romanticizing that aspect of his life. You disabused us of the notion of the stereotypical, old-school, happy-go-lucky drunk writer.

Yeah, in most movies and books, even ones with anti-drinking messages, they always make drinking look really good. It never looks as bad as it should; y’know, they don’t show people waking up in a pile of piss or something. That’s literally what was happening to him. In movies they show characters being unreliable and missing kid’ birthdays—

Buying a dog in the middle of the night…

Exactly, all the crazy things that people do when they’re not sober. But, I just tried to make it realistic and true to his experience as possible. It wasn’t pretty! It’s like Hunter S. Thompson, who is a similar character to Seabrook. I would love to know if Thompson was interested in Seabrook or admired him, because I think Seabrook is a progenitor of the Gonzo movement; of throwing yourself into the middle of the story. Because that was always Seabrook’s thing; he tried to throw himself into the middle story and make himself the story.

And Thompson was one of those guys who was all about taking all the booze and all the pills. I eventually heard an interview with his kid, and y’know he was a very hard person to live with, obviously.

Completely unreliable, yeah.

That’s how he described him. And in the end, Thompson ended up blowing his brains out. He couldn’t go on.

Exactly. That moment when Seabrook chooses to take that drink…he might as well have picking up a gun.

You wanna stop him. It’s like watching a horror movie, you’re just like, don’t do it man.

You talk about the fact that Seabrook always felt tied-down by his reputation as a gutter journalist; in reality he was kind of ahead of his time. There’s Thompson of course, but he also brings to mind George Plimpton, whose entire career was based on thrusting himself into new and unlikely situations, and then writing about it. I guess maybe Plimpton perfected the formula; he didn’t drink himself to death and didn’t alarm people by dining on human neck meat. Didn’t Seabrook manage to offend Aleister Crowley with his cannibalism?

Oh yeah that was interesting. After Seabrook died Crowley wrote in his diary “the swine-dog Seabrook is dead at last.” [Laughter] I don’t know if that was sarcastic or if he really hated him, it’s unclear—they seem to get along and they hung out together, like he came out to Seabrook’s farm in Georgia and stayed there for a couple of months I think and so yeah, I guess there must’ve been some falling out at some point.

Didn’t he despise Seabrook after he read about the cannibalism?

No. Crowley thought it was disgusting that Seabrook would let his pet dog lick his face. [Laughter] So Crowley, a guy who does black magic with Eucharist wafers and semen and blood, didn’t like him letting his dog lick his face.

It figures. Seabrook was probably waiting for Crowley to be shocked at his increasingly eccentric adventures, then this dark beast of a man comes to his farm and gets grossed out by a dog kiss. 

Yeah, Jesus Seabrook: don’t let your dog lick your face man! I guess he had his limits, you know. [laughter]

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An Interview with Yvan Guillo/Samplerman http://www.tcj.com/yvan-guillosamplerman-interview-by-frank-m-young/ http://www.tcj.com/yvan-guillosamplerman-interview-by-frank-m-young/#comments Thu, 23 Mar 2017 12:00:39 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=99309 Continue reading ]]>
A quiet revolution in comics—as relates to its connection with fine art and design—is staged on the tumblr of Yvan Guillo, under the pen name of Samplerman. Using castaway imagery from comics—much of it found at free websites like the Digital Comics Museum, and Comic Book Plus—Guillo creates breathtaking, playful kaleidoscopic images that have, until recently, been confined to the web.

With the self-publication of Street Fights Comics (2016, and one of my picks for the best comics work of that year.) and a new, self-titled 44-page art book of Samplerman images published by Los Angeles’ Secret Headquarters, the time seemed right to talk with Yvan Guillo about his delightful, dizzying and thought-provoking comics art and how it’s created. This interview was conducted via e-mail in January and February of 2016. Guillo has chosen a selection of some of his Samplerman favorites to illustrate this piece.

Do you consider yourself a cartoonist? What led you to creating your “Samplerman” persona?

I am a 46-year-old cartoonist. I’ve been writing and drawing comics for more than 25 years, without any popular success, I have to admit—perhaps because of a lack of self-confidence, not harassing publishers enough, taking no answer for a “no thanks,” and no longer posting my pages (lots of improvised and unfinished stories) on my obscure blogs.

I have always chosen the DIY way to make my fanzines and minicomics: it is affordable and it mostly requires commitment and time. Due to lack of feedback, I’ve felt discouraged from time to time. Sometimes I can’t believe that I’ve kept doing this for so long instead of finding a real job…

I’ve been obsessed with comics all my life. I would have liked to be a comic strip cartoonist, but that career doesn’t exist in France. The conventional formats here are the hardcover, annual 44-page book or the black and white, 300-page one-shot graphic novel. I’ve always been attracted to arts of all kinds: poetry, radio, cinema, animation, the avant-garde, experimentation and the borders of communication. I’m also drawn to abstraction, distortion, destruction, surrealism, sociology and politics. Most of my past comics are kind of absurd and meaningless (nonsensical, to say it nicely). At the end of the day, whatever I am doing, the path from a panel to another has become for me the ordinary way to explore this alternate reality (comics) where I feel at home. So yes, I think am a cartoonist; a weird cartoonist.

Hence the question could be: “Are the Samplerman pieces strictly comics?” I would answer: “Depends on how restrictive your definition of comics is.” If the reader considers certain of my “stories” just as a sequence of panels without any logical connection, I am fine with that, but my works are at least a failed attempt at doing a story from a cartoonist’s neurasthenic brain.

At the start, “Samplerman” was a side project. The first attempts sat on my hard drive for months before I posted them. These were very simple panels, in low resolution, that displayed samples of web-downloaded scans of “Superman” or “Fantastic Four” that I had duplicated and symmetrically joined: the most basic manipulation. The abstract visuals resulting from this treatment didn’t corrupt the seduction of the original drawings and colors, which were visually familiar though modified, like comics seen through a distorted mirror.

I thought that it would be fun to make a parody of a comics using this method—a 36-page kaleidoscopic comic—and then I would go back to my old hand-drawn comics. But when I posted these few pages on my tumblr la Zone de Non-Droit/the No-Go Zone, which I share with my friend, the cartoonist Léo Quiévreux, the feedback for these posts was quite strong. Soon a publisher asked me if I had plans to make a book. I decided to dig deeper.

The pseudonym (more than a persona in my opinion) is the term that I was putting as a hashtag (#samplerman project) each time I posted these things. I am doing various kinds of comics which attract different tastes and interests, so the pseudonym is a simple way to not confuse people. It has its issues, though. I haven’t figured out how to display my different universes on the home page of my website, and I still wonder if I should give up the part of my work that remains unpopular.

The “Samplerman” title refers to how my work has conscious musical connotation (by the way, a Spanish DJ used this same pseudonym before me). There is a fabric and pattern association as well, and it’s kind of a stupid superhero name: Superman with a patchwork outfit. The name came to me in one piece in my brain without too much thinking. And the people who contacted me about this work by referring to this word adopted it too.

How do you approach the anonymous vintage comic books that you use to achieve your collages? Have you taken advantage of the enormous body of digital scans available on Comic Book Plus, Digital Comics Library, etc.?

I approach these old comics with gluttony; and, yes, I visit these websites all the time. I am not a specialist of American comics. I didn’t read them as a kid, even though they were widely available here. I am constantly discovering and learning about the artists of these past eras of comics history. As my knowledge slowly and randomly increases on the subject, I no longer consider these comics anonymous. I am constantly amazed by the designs, the styles, the variety and the energy displayed there.

I want to download everything, but there are so many comics available that I wonder if I will be able to get everything. I find something interesting and usable in almost every comic I get from those websites. Without these incredible resources, I wouldn’t have been able to fill my pages with so many diverse graphic elements, and I wouldn’t have produced as much work.

I am like a kid surrounded by an infinite stack of comics, A kid who doesn’t really read, and can’t follow the stories, but immerses himself into the universes found in their pages. With gluttony and delight!

I didn’t know about these sites at the beginning, when I wondered if I’d be able to produce more Samplerman pieces… I encountered them at the right time. I also appreciate their principles of scanning only public domain material. It prevents me from using copyrighted works, and the risk of getting myself into legal trouble, which I can’t afford.

My only regret: Sometimes the definition and the quality of the scans aren’t good enough to be used. It’s too pixelated, or too compressed, but this remains a bottomless source for my pieces. I’ve started to buy some physical copies of old comics on eBay, so I can scan the pages myself and get the best quality, but I’m not rich. I have to make choices.

In “Street Fights Comics,” you obviously sought out images for the purposes of building a free-form comics narrative. In your regular “Samplerman” images, which you post on tumblr, you create stand-alone, poster-like images. Which approach is most artistically rewarding to you?

It seems like I make either right-brain or left-brain comics. Both are rewarding in their own way. I have a formal, pictorial approach which requires spontaneity and embraces randomness, open-mindedness and non-verbal communication. I put myself in a sort of trance and start working with no pre-existing plan. I start by choosing a template for a page (a six panel or a more unconventional template). This is my only constraint. Then I compose my page. This is a bi-dimensional visual reality. This kind of work is made for viewing rather than reading—it’s the side of Samplerman that no longer belongs to comics.

And there is the more intellectual approach, which involves more humor, sense/nonsense and collection/repetition. The idea of collecting the pages into a book was in my thoughts almost from the start. And, yes, Street Fights Comics belongs to this.

It requires preparatory work—collecting and gathering elements connected to a theme and a vague idea of a story. The balloons, dialogue and transitional signs (“meanwhile,” “after that,” “then” etc.) play a more significant role for this kind of comics. They are more linear and kind of realistic or surrealistic; the human figure is more present and more consistent, and there is a ground and a sky. But they are contaminated by the other approach. As long as I forbid myself to write my own text, they will fail to tell consistent, normal stories.

I work like I’m playing a game, with constraints, but I like to change the rules to avoid boredom, or becoming a living algorithm. I follow the paths that appear one after another. Sometimes I have a stupid idea like: “What if I made a hole in a page, or a panel, to see what happens?” I am interested in Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategy” cards, which I consider an exciting tool that helps push the boundaries of the creative process.

A sense of absurd humor informs all your work. Do you find some of this humor inherent in the 1940s and ’50s stories you dissect for your work?

The comics of all eras contain involuntary and voluntary humor. Reading them 70 years after their first publication inevitably leads the reader to find it at times laughable, stupid and ridiculous. The serious comics (romance, horror and war comics) contains a humor that comes from a propaganda-oriented way of telling stories. Commercial and advertising comics are especially funny and ridiculous. This is seriousness from a period when comics weren’t taken seriously including by their creators.

Some texts are pure genius. I have in mind the panel from by Fletcher Hanks where a bunch of evil characters say: “We must end democracy and civilization forever!” I find this funny and terrifying at the same time.  I also take my material from comics which are still actually funny: the newspaper comics from the 1920s and ‘30s, Herbie, Plastic Man, Abbott and Costello etc. My use of the source material isn’t always in contradiction with their initial meaning.

I’m always looking for a strangeness, a silliness in the juxtaposition of dialogue balloons I extract from these extraneous stories. What makes some of my panels funny is the misplacement, the décalage. It can be unexpectedly realistic: in real life we experience people talking without really listening to each other. The practice of collage prevents me from going where I wanted to go in the first place. With collage, you have to play with what you have and be open to unexpected results—a different meaning and many possible interpretations and reactions from the readers, including laughs.

Patterns and textures are a big part of your stand-alone images. You create these patterns from insignificant images within comics panels—hats, hands, shoes, even lettering. Do you see patterns emerge from the original comics sources as you examine them? Or do you isolate these elements and play around with them as you design a new page?

My method is flexible. As someone who make collages and draws comics, I might have the ability to notice, as I flip through the scanned pages, which element will produce a better effect and be magnified by duplication and the kaleidoscopic treatment.

I’m drawn to the primary bright colors mixed with halftone printing dots, overlapping and crossed lines—the organic melting of the ink with the paper. Some panels are likely to express the joy the artist had when he drew a specific element. It’s often half-abstract, half-figurative: women’s hair, cigarette smoke, sea waves, clouds and in animals like snakes, elephants or octopi. They were opportunities for the artist to escape the story and give some freedom to their hand and pencil.

I enjoy mannerism in art. I enjoy the variety of styles: some artist show their obsession for details (Basil Wolverton) and some are more gestural. The rounded “toon” style has its own very interesting energy.

I usually come across a comic where the components triggers a compelling desire to make a collage. I select, cut out and place the elements on my composition. At the same time, I try to keep them in an organized image bank. This process slows me down a little. Sometimes I don’t file the elements, which I regret later, because their large number makes it difficult to remember which comic I found them in. Sometimes I revisit my image bank to reuse the elements. The same element can be used on its own or transformed into a pattern. I also have a “pattern” section in my image bank.

I would imagine you use Adobe Photoshop, or a similar computer program, to assemble your images. Does your creative process occur within those programs? Or do you make sketches or do other pre-planning before each image is assembled? Some “Samplerman” images seem extremely composed, while others have a feeling of spontaneity. The blending of these two opposites is a compelling factor in your work.

The creative moment occurs mostly when I face the computer screen. I only make sketches when the computer is not on—when I take a walk with a paper and pen in my pocket, or when I have an idea related to structure or geometry for potential compositions. I am always thinking about some elementary geometrical manipulations, combined and applied to the samples. Squares, triangles and circles are everywhere. And I fear this is where my work could start being boring and repetitive—I could apply this to anything.

I try to keep a sense of movement in my work. Sometimes I feel the urge to break my composition, to destabilize the eye-scan and push it toward the next panel. I tend to use symmetry a lot when I start putting together a background and the elements. It’s somewhat satisfying but at the same time it paralyzes any feeling of movement. I usually end up distorting the symmetry I rely on. I try to give it a shake and extend the life of these unearthed objects in any way, like a mad scientist.

Your use of color adds a great deal to the Samplerman images. Do you ever alter the color of the material you source from old comics? Or do you use the found images as the basis for your color choices?

I make only the most minimal changes to the color. I may change the colors from parts of my samples for special effects, but I try to stay within the four-color spectrum of the letterpress printing technique that dominated comic books until the 1990s. It’s possible that I’ll break this rule in the future, and take the license to make more extreme adjustments.

I correct only the black and white balance. The scans are so different, with various dominant colors from one to another. I like the yellowish tone of the aging, low-quality paper. I want the general tone to remain moderate—not too saturated but bright. When my pages are selected to be printed, I convert them to the four-color process and inspect each channel. The colors have a great impact on my choices and they trigger my creativity. When I compose a panel, I often look for a particular color in whatever element I pick.

I assume you are aware of the work of 1950s comics collagist Jess Collins, whose “Tricky Cad” pieces are brilliant dissections of “Dick Tracy.” Though your work goes into far different places, has Collins been an influence on your Samplerman pieces? Are there other collagists who have inspired your work?

I must confess that I only heard about Jess after I started my project. I immediately looked for his pieces when someone compared my work to his. From the examples I’ve seen, there are definitely some similarities.

Other artists came to my attention after I began my collages, so I can’t say they influenced me, but I’m curious to see what they have been doing by using the same approach and material. Öyvind Fahlström (1928-1976) is another artist I recently discovered. Some of his pieces remind me of mine, except he made them four decades ago.

Other artists who have made a strong impression on me, not so long before doing this kind of collage myself, include Ray Yoshida (1930-2009), who systematically collected samples from comics during the 1960s; his pieces are very nicely composed. His work brought to me the idea of making collections of items that appear again and again from one comic to another. Some comics have influenced me for my collages even though they weren’t collage: I have seen a lot of character removal approaches in art, leaving background spaces empty.

I was quite impressed by the “Garfield Minus Garfield” project. This kind of intrusion into someone else’s work inspired me towards other kinds of manipulations in comics. In a similar vein, the French cartoonist Jochen Gerner has revisited Herge’s 1931 Tintin en Amérique album by highlighting, on a black background, its many symbols and signals in a half-comics/half-artbook untitled TNT en Amérique. I remember a story by Art Spiegelman (1976’s “The Malpractice Suite”) in which he drew extensions to panels of old comic strips.

Artists reading other artists’ work creatively have attracted my interest for a long time. My best friends are not cartoonists, but they have influenced me too. They make digital and “real” collages (with glue and scissors): Laetitia Brochier, Frédox and Jean Kristau. Their work is published mostly by Le Dernier Cri in Marseille. My friend the cartoonist/illustrator Léo Quievreux creates drawings that look like collages. He is influenced by William Burroughs’ cut ups and has managed to make visually similar experiments. Pakito Bolino, who runs Le dernier Cri, makes secret collages (in the sense that he rarely displays them) that blend manga, E.C. horror comic, old horror movies and pornographic photos, which he uses as a basis for his drawings.

I’m also fascinated with the meme phenomena on the Internet: the sprawling, unleashed creativity of an anonymous community of unconnected artists. And I must pay tribute to the collages by Max Ernst, based on 19th-century engraved illustrations. I’ve loved them for a long time. Twenty years ago, I went to a Kurt Schwitters retrospective, and I consider his work important, if not directly influential on me. A few more names: Chumy Chùmez for his book Una Biografìa, Roman Cieslevicz, John Heartfield and the Dada movement.

NOTE: A new printing of Street Fights Comics should be ready when this interview is published. The first run of 50 copies sold out quickly. With its republication and the Secret Headquarters art book, plus Miscomocs Comics, an existing compilation published by Le Dernier Cri, the “Samplerman” side of Yvan Guillo may be on the verge of wider global recognition.

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Bernie Wrightson, 1948-2017 http://www.tcj.com/bernie-wrightson-1948-2017/ http://www.tcj.com/bernie-wrightson-1948-2017/#comments Tue, 21 Mar 2017 12:00:07 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=99506 Continue reading ]]> Swamp Thing co-creator, comic book artist and illustrator Bernie Wrightson died March 18th following a long battle with cancer. Wrightson was a product of the second generation of comics fandom and began contributing to fanzines in the late 1960s, before breaking into the comics industry in 1969, with work for Web of Horror and DC’s Showcase, including two issues of the dark fantasy strip “Nightmaster”. Although his early work was raw, it was powerful, with lush inks, dynamic anatomy, and a knack for telling stories, especially dark, scary ones, as you’d expect from an artist whose favorite movie was James Whale’s 1931 masterpiece, Frankenstein. Although Wrightson’s métier was horror, he was too talented and too versatile to be easily pigeonholed, and drew beloved fantasy and sword and sorcery stories and illustrations early on in his career.

Born in 1948, to a working class Baltimore family, Wrightson didn’t recall receiving a great deal of encouragement for his early artistic endeavors from his parents, but as he observed in a 2015 interview in Comic Book Creator, “I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember.” Comic books and comic strips were early influences, with Wrightson citing Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, Flash Gordon, drawn by Mac Raboy and Buz Sawyer by Roy Crane as his favorite comic strips. Wrightson was only five or six when he began reading EC Comics, the most visceral of which, as drawn by Graham Ingels or Frank Frazetta, had a profound influence on his aesthetic. Another big influence on Wrightson was horror films: He was fortunate to be in the “Monster Kids” generation, when Famous Monsters of Filmland began publishing, and Universal released its “Shock Theater” package of old horror films for syndication, spawning a host of local late night horror movie hosts like Baltimore’s own Dr. Lucifer, played by faded movie idol Richard Dix.

Popular interest in dinosaurs had a resurgence in the late 1950s, providing another piece of Wrightson’s influences. While he remembered loving Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, other, more cheaply done dinosaur films failed to impress him. As he recalled in the same Comic Book Creator interview, “I saw that Lost World remake with Claude Rains (1960), and that was a huge disappointment…you couldn’t fool me with plastic horns on a big lizard…” Another great early influence was the Ace Books editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs featuring covers and frontispiece illustrations by Frazetta, which Wrightson credits with getting him to start reading novels cover to cover.

In addition to his influences from popular culture, Wrightson also learned about drawing by watching John Gnagy’s famous art instruction program on television, and taking the Famous Artists correspondence course. His first published drawing appeared on the letters page of Creepy #9 (June 1966), showing a man being dragged into an open grave, and a headstone bearing the inscription “Berni Wrightson, Dec. 15th, 1965”. 

Within the next few years, Wrightson made a stir in fanzine circles with his many Frazetta and Ingels- influenced illustrations. A meeting with his idol Frank Frazetta at a 1967 convention in New York further inspired Wrightson to begin creating his own stories. It was at that convention that Wrightson also met Al Williamson, Jeffrey Jones, Michael Kaluta, and Dick Giordano. He also met fanzine publishers Rich Hauser and Roger Hill and soon began contributing to both Spa Fon and Squa Tront. Years later, Michael Kaluta recalled that halcyon weekend like this: “And the next day, we four DID meet Frank Frazetta and Ellie right in their hotel room, three doors down the hall from the room we’d rented. We met Roy Krenkel in Frank’s room later that evening, after Frank and Robert Barrett had driven out to Frank’s place on Long Island and brought back a huge stack of Frank’s originals…Wrightson traded a drawing to Frank for a Johnny Comet Sunday page…that flawless original was with Bernie all the time we roomed together…from Nightmaster to Swamp Thing.

 In 1966, Wrightson secured a job at The Baltimore Sun as an illustrator, his first professional work as an artist. His first published work in comic books was “The Man Who Murdered Himself” in House of Mystery #179 (March-April 1969), a title with which he would have a long association. Wrightson is also credited with creating the illustrated splash pages that graced many issues of DC’s “mystery” comics as a way of getting a quick paycheck. Wrightson drew his first continuing character in 1969, Nightmaster for Showcase issues 82-84.

Wrightson contributed painted covers and interior stories to all three issues of Web of Horror, a Warren-esque horror mag published by owners of Cracked.  Writer Bruce Jones and Wrightson were scheduled to take over of as editors of WOH with the fourth issue only to find the offices empty after the publisher unceremoniously pulled the plug on the magazine.  Fortunately, he was getting plenty of work from DC’s mystery magazines, House of Mystery, House of Secrets, The Unexpected, Weird Mystery Tales, and The Witching Hour.

In 1971, working from a script by Len Wein, Wrightson illustrated “Swamp Thing” in House of Secrets #92 (July 1971). Reader reaction was instantaneous and overwhelmingly positive, and by fall of the following year, DC was publishing a Swamp Thing title with scripts by Wein and pencils and inks by Wrightson.

Comics fandom reacted enthusiastically to the new title and Wrightson was soon assigned the art chores on DC’s new Shadow title, based on the famous pulp character.  Despite doing a house ad featuring the character, Wrightson quickly realized he couldn’t handle doing two books simultaneously and The Shadow was assigned to his friend Michael Kaluta. Wrightson did keep his hand in, helping with the penciling and inking chores of issue three, and inking the splash page of issue four.

After ten issues of Swamp Thing, Wrightson departed for other assignments, though over the years, he did a number of Swamp Thing covers for various reprints and collections of his original stories. To this day, Swamp Thing remains one of his signature characters. During the mid-70s Wrightson also did covers and interior stories for Marvel’s slate of mystery comics, including a well-remembered adaptation of a King Kull story, “The Skull of Silence” (Creatures on the Loose #10).

One of the things Bernie Wrightson is best remembered for is being a founding member of The Studio, the loft space he shared with Michael Kaluta, Jeffrey Jones, and Barry Windsor-Smith, starting in 1975. This gathering of successful and popular artists eventually produced The Studio, a lavish art book containing sections on Wrightson’s illustrations, as well as those of his studio-mates.

It was during this period that Wrightson began work on what was widely regarded as his magnum opus, Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein (1983), a new volume of Mary Shelley’s horror classic with a frontispiece and 50 full-page illustrations by Wrightson. Dark Horse subsequently reprinted it in 1994. There was also a French portfolio of Wrightson’s Frankenstein illustrations.

In 1982, Wrightson illustrated the graphic novel adaptation of Stephen King’s Creepshow, itself an homage to EC horror comics.

This was the first of several collaborations between King and Wrightson, with Wrightson illustrating such King projects as The Cycle of the Werewolf and the extended publication of The Stand. He was the creator of the character Captain Sternn, who was also featured in a segment of the Heavy Metal film. From the ’80s to the present Wrightson continued to draw characters for Marvel, DC, including Batman, The Punisher and Spider-Man. More recently he enjoyed a feruitful relationship with IDW, drawing Dead She Said, the Ghoul and a new version of Frankenstein. Wrightson also had a prolific career as a concept artist for films including Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest, George Romero’s Land of the Dead, and Frank Darabont’s The Mist.

In January of 2017, following a series of health problems that included brain surgery, Wrightson announced his retirement from drawing and public appearances.

Bernie Wrightson was a fan favorite from the very beginning of his long and prolific career. Among the many awards he received over the course of his 40-plus years working as a cartoonist and illustrator were: Shazam Awards for Best Penciller (Dramatic Division), in addition to winning the 1972 Shazam Award for Best Individual Story (Dramatic Division) for Swamp Thing #1. Because of his work with Jim Starlin on the charitable comic Heroes for Hope, Wrightson shared a Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award. In 1975, Wrightson won the San Diego Comic Con’s Inkpot Award. The National Cartoonists Society recognized his work on Frankenstein, Alive, Alive! in 2012 in the Comic Book Category. The year 2015 brought Wrightson some final recognition for Swamp Thing, his Frankenstein illustrations, and indeed, his entire body of work when he received the Inkwell Special Recognition Award.

Perhaps the finest recognition Wrightson received was the almost universal adulation he received from his fans for his kind and generous nature to many people over the years.

Bernie Wrightson is survived by his wife, Liz Wrightson, his sons John and Jeffrey from his first marriage, and a stepson, Thomas. The family plans a celebration of his life and work for later in 2017.

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Skip Williamson, 1944-2017 http://www.tcj.com/skip-williamson-1944-2017/ http://www.tcj.com/skip-williamson-1944-2017/#comments Fri, 17 Mar 2017 12:00:05 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=99398 Continue reading ]]> Mervyn “Skip” Williamson became a fly in the ointment at an early age; a thorn in the side of polite society throughout his whole life. He left this mortal coil unbowed and unrepentant on Thursday from complications of organ failure and the frailty of all flesh. He was a cartoonist who became a painter and a writer, and a firebrand during the countercultural revolution of the 1960 and ’70s. He never grew up, he often said.

In his memoir Spontaneous Combustion, Williamson described early skirmishes with rules and expectations, like getting busted in third grade for drawing cartoons on his textbooks, and stealing copies of Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories from the local drugstore in Lynchburg, Virginia.

In 1952, when the Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson for their presidential candidate, 8-year-old Williamson chose to support him. “I was beaten up in the schoolyard that year for wearing a Stevenson for President button, and forced to wear an ‘I Like Ike’ button. It was my first visceral lesson regarding the unhealthy potential of unpopular ideas.” Neither incident deterred him from choosing his own path in life, though. “At the time it was just another thumping,” he wrote. “In the long run, it was a harbinger that foreshadowed my art’s unsteady relationship with Authority over the years.”

Williamson’s first published cartoon.

His comic career began in 1961 when he sold a gag cartoon to Harvey Kurtzman’s Help! magazine. He was an active participant in the network of small mimeographed comic fanzines that spewed out of garages and basement across suburban America in those years, including Wild! Blasé, and Williamson’s own amateur publication Squire. His teenage colleagues included future cartoonists Jay Lynch and Art Spiegelman.

Williamson with Jay Lynch, 1973.

He moved to Chicago in 1967 to join Jay Lynch to form the Bijou Publishing Empire and disseminate the gift of their art to the wider world. They both began contributing covers and cartoons to the Chicago Seed and the Old Town Underground Newspaper, and soon put out their own magazine, The Chicago Mirror, which morphed into Bijou Funnies after three issues. The underground comix movement was launched in 1968 with the appearance of Zap Comix #1 in San Francisco by Robert Crumb, who came to Chicago a few months later and helped them put together Bijou Funnies #1. Only half a dozen underground comic books were in existence by the end of that year, but within five years there were hundreds of titles, sold as “comix” to differentiate themselves from that dull nonsense put out by the “overground” comic publishers.

Williamson was aligned with radical politics and demonstrated in the streets during the 1968 Democratic Convention/Yippie riots and many other anti-war protests. He drew illustrations for Jerry Rubin’s Do It! and We Are Everywhere and Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. He also covered the trial of the Chicago Seven as a courtroom artist and edited the comic book Conspiracy Capers, a fundraiser for their legal fees.

His day jobs included stints at ad agencies, and as art director for various men’s magazine publishers, including Playboy, Gallery, and Hustler. He liked to say he got all the jobs that Robert Crumb turned down during the comix era.

His work appeared in various anthologies in the post-underground years, including Blab! Zero Zero, and Mineshaft. He self-published several paperback collections of his comics, including Naked Hostility, Class War Comix, and Smoot, a paean to his notorious creation Snappy Sammy Smoot.

He relocated to Atlanta, Georgia in 1994 and started painting full time, with exhibitions at the Eyedrum Art & Music Gallery and Vinson Gallery. He moved to Vermont in 2010.

He was married four times, to Cecilia Einhaus, Francy Stanford, Harriett Hiland, and finally to Adrienne Morales. He is survived by four children: Megan Williamson, Molly Hiland Parmer, Nikki Williamson-Weiner, and Rita Williamson. His remains will be cremated and no funeral service is scheduled, according to his widow.

He and she were total soul mates from the moment they exchanged comments on a poetry website in 2012, Morales said. Their first phone conversation lasted hours. “He had heart and soul and I was wishing he could be mine. I could love him the way he deserved to be loved.” They met in person a few months later and were married on June 11, 2015, in Vermont.

He died at Albany Medical Center at 12:30 pm on Thursday, March 16th. “We were both romantics,” she said in a phone call during her ride home to Vermont. “We are fucking yin and yang. We are that thing, and nobody knows. He was the bright light in my life.” The official cause of death was renal failure and complications from heart disease and diabetes, but it was an antibiotic that killed him, according to Adrienne, who declared, “He was in perfect health before he went into the hospital.” She described how Skip recently cut a toe while trimming his nails with his antique Confederate-era jackknife. It became infected and swollen and a local doctor prescribed Bactrin, which damaged his liver and kidneys. The doctors in Albany were trying to counter the effects of the medication when he died.

Williamson left for posterity hundreds of pages of comics, and a home full of large and small canvases that speak wordlessly of his passions and personal visions. He lived for the moment, and took many chances, but lived to a ripe age. He was a genuine revolutionary, a vital force in underground comix, a player in Playboy’s hedonistic heyday, a prolific painter, and eventually a Grand Old Man of Comic History. His life story was recently documented by filmmaker John Kinhart, in his feature-length biopic Pigheaded, which traces his personal life and career. The film played in two film festivals to date, in Washington, DC, and in Newburyport, Massachusetts, which Williamson attended. A DVD has not yet been released.

“He told me he was hard to kill,” said Kinhart. “He said he would soon be recovered from his heart failure last year and back to a full life. “I’m going to miss him. He was a lot of fun. He was very intelligent. He paid attention to the whole spectrum of society. I’m going to miss him a lot.”

Williamson always counseled his readers, “An’ when yer smashin’ th’ state, kids, don’t fergit t’ keep a smile on yer lips and a song in yer heart!”

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An Interview with R. Sikoryak http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-r-sikoryak/ http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-r-sikoryak/#comments Wed, 15 Mar 2017 12:00:18 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=99283 Continue reading ]]> R Sikoryak’s Terms and Conditions manages to compress half a century’s worth of required comics reading into the span of 104 pages, while simultaneously tethering it to this specific moment in time by using the newly infamous iTunes Terms and Conditions. When I prepare to talk to R. I am baffled—how does someone prepare to talk to a figure who is clearly so incredibly knowledgeable in his field? Not only in its history, but in the grunt work of what really makes a comic work, visually and textually? What is there to ask other than, How does my brain become precisely like yours?

In his career, R. Sikoryak has parodied just about every significant cultural figure or reference you can think of: Beavis and Butt-Head, Regis Philbin, 12 Angry Men, the list goes on, alongside working at Raw Magazine right out of college, and now teaching at Parsons. Sikoryak’s parodies aren’t merely notable because of his ability to so flawlessly replicate the style of another, but because—through these well-executed drawings and scripts based on the works of others—he manages to leave his mark on it all. There’s something so distinctly Sikoryak-ian about Crime and Punishment as a Dick Sprang Batman comic. Or a Win Mortimer-inspired comic cover that finds Trump, in the midst of a battle with a nurse, upon finding the “cure for Obamacare.” Or even his New Yorker covers, wordless as they may be. No matter which work of his you’re reading, you’ll always see his stylistic signature there, peering from the corner.

Intrigued by Sikoryak’s Terms and Conditions, I spoke to him on the phone about making a book that is somehow like browsing the internet, how work affects one’s creative output, and thinking about the way work is consumed as you are making it.

Rachel Davies: What was the initial spur for the book?

R Sikoryak: I was trying to find a new way to make comics without the editing and deconstructing side. You’ve probably seen my earlier stuff, it take long pieces of literature and boils them down into comics. so there’s lots of editing and consideration, and then combining it with the style and figuring out a way to replicate that style, and learning how to draw that way. So I just found that I had a very time-consuming approach to making comics and I was really interested, instead of spending a year on a ten page story, I was interested in seeing if I could do a longer graphic novel-length work. In casting about for what that would be (I always work with found text to one degree or another) I thought of a text that is famous for being long, and that’s the terms and conditions from iTunes. That seemed funny and silly enough for me to get behind doing.

Reading the book, I couldn’t help but think that it must have been such a daunting task to track down all these comics that were precisely right for what you were attempting to convey with the material at hand. Were you ever hesitant about the project because of this? 

Well, in some ways it was less daunting [than my previous works]. Because I try to adapt heavy, important works of literature, usually, like Crime and Punishment or Wuthering Heights, it sometimes gets daunting to struggle with a work that people are very familiar with, and that has characters that people really love. What was great about the Terms and Conditions for me was that there’s no narrative, and no one has an emotional attachment to it, at least not in the same way. I certainly don’t! It freed me up, it liberated me from having to worry about being faithful to it because there’s not a narrative to be faithful to. And it doesn’t lend itself to illustration in an overt way. I wasn’t interested in choosing a text that would be cinematic [laughs], I was interested in a text that didn’t have those concerns that I usually have when I’m doing a text. By choosing a text that had no narrative, it meant I could use the narratives of the comics that I was parodying to provide drama, or suspense, or humor. It was, in a way, a relief. I don’t know how I could do this again! [laughs] But for this project it was kind of a break from the way that I normally make comics. The length was daunting in a certain way, especially when the terms got longer as I was going, and I had to go back and revise them, and then add twenty more pages in the end. But that just gave me an opportunity to add more different styles, so in a way, ultimately I’m happy that they strung me along like that. In terms of me being daunted by it, it was a little overwhelming but I could see the end of it, I knew the end of the text. I knew there was an end. My only concern was that they were going to update them again, and I would have to update them again, but ultimately it was finite. It wasn’t as if I was writing an inter-generational family saga that took place on multiple planets or something—Oh, I have to take care of those people I introduced! So it was very different than something like that, you know, I wasn’t doing Dune.

When you were choosing comic pages to sample, were you trying to create a visual narrative from one page to the next or were you just worried about the narrative that was contained within each page?

Yeah, I was more concerned with the narrative that was contained within each page. I wanted there to be a character present throughout the page who I could sort of use as the protagonist, and he’s dressed in Steve Jobs’s outfit. Beyond that, it was very up for grabs. I mostly chose pages for the purpose of having some sort of visual interest or narrative. as well as, Is this a famous artist that Im parodying?, or Is this a famous character that Im parodying? or Is this a famous comic strip that Im parodying? So I was trying to kind of hit the points of interest in all of comics history, but I didn’t feel I needed to worry about the narrative from page to page, although you, as a reader, could make one out of it. I will say I chose the final page with text because I like the sunset as some acknowledgment that we’ve come to an end. Other than that, there’s very little in the book that has any connection, visually, to the text. Again, as a reader I think one would make that connection, but I didn’t feel like I needed to supply one more than was already provided by the great pages that I was working from.

Yeah, I found that reading it was a lot different than any other comic book because you do have to make a lot of those connections for yourself. Obviously when you’re reading a regular narrative comic book, it’ll show what they’re talking about and it’ll relate in some way, but reading Terms and Conditions was definitely a more intensive reading process. Were you thinking about what it would be like to read it at all when you were making it?

A little bit, I think I was just responding to—in a way, I wish I could read it. [laughs] I mean, I wish I could read it with fresh eyes, is what I’m saying. But in a way I was kind of responding to a trend that you sometimes see in educational comics where the visuals and the text really tell exactly the same story. Sometimes you can get a little impatient reading something like that because if someone’s talking about a chair, and then there’s a drawing of a person with a word balloon saying, This is a chair, and he’s pointing to a drawing of a chair–it gets a little tedious. I felt like the text let me step aside from that, and I didn’t get seduced by, Oh, thats a really beautiful chair! I want to draw that chair. Since they’re talking about things on a rather abstract level I was able to avoid that. I’ve done readings of the strips as slideshows–that’s something I do with a lot of my comics–and people seemed to get caught up in the narrative that’s sort of there. But I don’t know what it’s like to see it entirely fresh. I’m trying to think of other comics that have done things like this… There was a Mad comic in the ’50s where they took a comic and they rewrote all the dialogue, so that’s kind of happened before. Jason Little took an old romance comic, and completely rewrote the story. There’s probably an example very close to this, I don’t really believe in originality. [laughs] There’s probably something a lot like it, but I just don’t remember it. I certainly was inspired by Art Spiegelman’s early experimental comics in his book Breakdowns, and Breakdowns also has a parody in here, too. I felt like he was constantly trying to break the text away from the comics in interesting ways. Maybe not over so many pages, but I felt like he was making an effort to at least make you aware of that. Certain writers do it to a certain extent. I just can’t speak to how it reads. Like I said, I’ve reread it but there is an element of surprise that is lost on me.

With regard to your ability to replicate so many different drawing styles, what is your background in drawing? Have you always been doing parody drawings?

Oh, yeah! It’s funny, my brothers and I all collected comics and we would do parody comics even as kids. I was a big fan of Mad, so I was looking at humor comics from a really young age—I grew up in the ’60s. That was always an interest to me, trying to replicate styles. I mean, I think all people start there, but I think I ended up there. I used to always worry about being derivative, unconsciously, or being like a second rate version of someone because I felt like I was inclined to pick up cliches or habits from other artists. I thought I might as well make that overt. Since I was in college, I got started on working this way and I’ve just done it so long, I’m rather methodical about it. At this point, my style is to just pick up as much as I can from other people, but do it in an overt way. That’s why there’s an index in the book, I wanted people to be conscious that it’s coming from specific places.

For sure! When you were choosing what you were drawing from, were those all comics that you had in a personal collection, or were already aware of, or did you seek out different thing that were out of your personal interest?

It started out being more artists that I either had examples of personally, or just popped in my head initially, by the middle to the end of the book, I was more interested in making sure I represented people that weren’t in my collection. Though my collection is fairly eclectic, it probably leans more toward historical comics, and contemporary comics, but I really, really wanted to include people like Kate Beaton, and Allie Brosh because I wanted to make sure I was representing a newer part of the comics universe. I mean, I have a lot of Kate Beaton in my collection, but I wanted to make sure I was covering a lot of bases. At a certain point I remember looking in the iTunes store to see what was popular in graphic novels, I just thought, What have I not gotten to? I think from that I ended up including the Transformers and My Little Pony, which is interesting because they’re both licensed comics, and licensed comics have always been a big part of comics, so that seemed like a valuable to include. The Walking Dead struck me early on—I haven’t read a lot of those comics, nothing against them I just don’t read a lot of horror comics—but I wanted to get that in there early because it’s something that is instantly recognizable, very iconic. It was a real mix. I wanted it to feel like the internet.

Yeah, I was thinking about that. I definitely noticed that, it was interesting reading it, and kind of feeling surprised by how much I knew. Like The Walking Dead, I have no connection that at all, really, and I got the reference. It makes sense, with the internet you see so many things unintentionally and then they’re part of your reference bank without any effort.

Yeah, and I like being surprised! I didn’t want to choose favorites. I tried to be very open minded about comics that are coming out. Comics that are popular are always fascinating to me — like why did this connect to people? I don’t mean to judge why it’s popular, I just think it’s interesting what things really hit people, what strikes a nerve, and what connects. My work is in some ways really theoretical, and objective. I always kinda want to analyze what makes something work, and what makes something popular, which isn’t always the same thing but sometimes is absolutely the same thing.

What do you tend to read the most of, like historical stuff, older, or do you read more contemporary comics now?

It really depends on where I’m at. When I’m working on a project, I’m just reading the comic that I’m parodying. I did a Wonder Woman parody comic a couple years ago — a retelling of the Marquis De Sade’s Justine in the style of a Wonder Woman comic so I was just reading 1940s Wonder Woman issues. So I’ll just sort of glom onto an artist or an era of a character, and I’ll just read all of the stuff I can. But I do try to keep track of what’s happening now in graphic novels, I really liked Riad Sattouf’s last book, I really liked Ulli Lust’s last book. I have to say Comixology, not to put another shoutout to an internet corporation, but Comixology has increased what I’ve been reading just because so much is available, and I don’t have room on my bookshelves anymore. [laughs] I do still have some room, I still buy some books. But I also buy a lot of digital comics because they’re so plentiful, and lighter.

You teach at Parsons, right? What do you do there? How do you think it figures into what you publish?

That’s really interesting! I teach in the illustration department, so depending on the year I may be teaching a different class. I’ve taught comics classes there, which is really interesting because I have students who aren’t necessarily comics makers but they like the idea of making comics, or they just want to try out something new. It’s fascinating to see people come from a very different angle than I would, or to find people who were reading a lot of comics… I feel like I had the same approach, where it’s like, I read a lot so I know how these work, and I can just sort of jump in and do it. I see that in students, and that’s always exciting.

Right now I teach a class called Senior Thesis: Each student gets to work on their own project, and some of them are making comics, some of them are making a series of paintings, some of them are making animated films—it’s all over the place. They all sort of get to choose the approach they take. One reason I like that class is because I can talk to them about their conceptual reasons for doing a project. If I don’t know how to make an animated stop motion film, or know how to use a specific computer program, I can still talk to them about aesthetics, or I can talk to them about approach, or I can talk to them about how [their project] works as a viewer. I’m really interested in that, and I feel like I can give them advice from that standpoint. Also, having just done this book, I feel like I can relate to them on working on a project that nobody asked them to do, but they are compelled to do. I hope I can teach them something about keeping deadlines, and I hope they can teach me about keeping deadlines, because I always feel like managing time is super-hard when you’re working on something that’s self-motivated, and that maybe you have never made before. I really love talking to the students, partially because it’s fresh for them, and partially because it’s often fresh for me, and their experience of art making is so different than mine. What they’ve seen, and what they bring to it. There’s a generational, I don’t want to say divide, but difference that is really interesting.

Did you always know you wanted to make comics? When you went to school was that always your end game?

It was always my end game, but I went to school in the ’80s, and that was actually a point at which I realized, or at least I felt, that I could make a better living doing freelance art and illustration for magazines. I went to school in New York, actually at Parsons. where I teach now, and the world of freelance editorial illustration was pretty broad. I certainly knew I wanted to make comics, but I felt like I’d have to make them in my spare time, and do other kinds of commercial art for a living. I fluctuate back and forth because I do get to do a lot of comics for commercial publishers, but it’s always sort of juggling the different parts of my career, or my different abilities for different jobs. I was always interested in making comics, and I was lucky enough to be introduced to Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly when I was in school. That helped me a lot because I was already really into Raw, and Art’s earlier experimental comics, but getting to meet them sort of got my foot into the door of a world of comics that totally changed my life. [laughs] That I was actually able to work with them was incredible, and I got so much out of that. I think I would have been making comics in any case, but getting to meet and work with them was really life-changing, and I’m sure really affected the kind of comics I make today, in a good way. I think they made me be more critical and rigorous in the way that I approach what I do.

RD: You worked at Raw right out of college, right? Were you in editorial, or were you just making comics for them?

RS: Well, it was such a small company! It was only Art, Françoise, and a few other freelance helpers in the office, and me. So it was really tiny! I was doing production work for them, I was packing boxes, shipping out books, I was doing office stuff, I would coordinate with artists to get work turned in. A lot of production work, a lot of different things in that way. They weren’t publishing that much, although they did publish a couple of my early comics, and I certainly think that I worked really hard because I wanted to make an impression in Raw. [laughs] It was a big deal for me to get in that magazine. They didn’t publish a lot of my work, but they taught me so much about production, design, and editing. I helped out wherever I could, I pitched in as was needed. It was a really interesting job because it just involved so many facets. It would have made me a great self publisher if I had had the stamina to do that. They taught me a lot about how to make work, and juggle that with freelance work, too! At that point Art Spiegelman was still at Topps designing bubble gum cards, and things like that, Wacky Packs, and all those series—some series I grew up with, even. I feel like I’ve always been working, everything I’ve been doing, has been there to help me make comics, in a way. That’s the goal, to make more comics, and there’s lots of things, peripheral or very related to that, that have kept me busy.

RD: Both of your most recent projects—Terms and Conditions, and the Unquotable Trump—were first realized online. How does your attitude toward a work change when transitioning it from the internet to something tangible?

RS: It’s funny, they were first seen online, but the iTunes project started as a mini comic. I published the first two parts of the iTunes book in April 2015, and I published the second two parts, the finale of the iTunes book, in September 2015. I had been selling them at conventions, and I’d been distributing them a little bit online through a mini comics distributor called Birdcage Bottom, I had gotten them out a little bit and I showed the mini comics to Françoise Mouly, and she said, Oh, you should put these on Tumblr!  I did that, and then I sent out an email to everyone I knew in the world, and said, Im doing this thing! The minute I sent out that email, this was like 20 or 30 days after putting it on Tumblr, the day I sent that email, Boing Boing had done a story, NPR called me to do an interview, The Guardian, all these other places came in, and started writing about it. I tip my hat to Françoise for knowing enough about the internet to tell me to use it. I kind of like to know what my work is before I release it to the world, like the iTunes book, I put out the first mini comic after I’d finished the first half of it—I wanted to stake my claim to it, but I’d already done like 35 pages.

By the time I put it on Tumblr I was done, and I was really astounded by the response. I don’t know if it would have been more paralyzing to have seen all those people be very excited about it. It was a little startling to see how fast it clicked in with people. With the Trump book, again I made a mini comic, but this time I already knew I was going to start putting it on Tumblr. But I did make all of it, 16 pages, and I published the comic—published, I photocopied it, and then I put it on Tumblr. The response to that was so great that I was encouraged to make more. In this case, for Trump now [The Unquotable Trump], I’m making images, and posting them on Tumblr, and in some ways I’m certainly open to suggestions, people have [messaged me], Oh, you should do this or that! But most people don’t have it all thoroughly worked out, so you end up just having to do what you’re doing. I’m certainly keeping my ear open if anyone has any ideas. In the Trump case, I kind of have my approach, and I’ve mapped out where I’m going, but who knows what he’ll say tomorrow! He’s a different case because the iTunes thing is a living document, they do update it, but he’s a living human, and a volatile one, so I don’t know what he’s going to do next. I’m happy if he stops giving me material! I don’t need anymore, but we’ll see what happens. I have to admit, I’m really glad that Françoise suggested Tumblr to me, it’s definitely increased my visibility. I don’t know what I’ll do next online, but I might post my next project there. It is part of what comics are now, and I hadn’t embraced it before. I feel like the iTunes thing in a lot of ways has just made me think about how comics work, and how I can make comics in a new way. I also think that’s what I’m all about is thinking about comics, so it’s definitely achieved way more than I expected it would!

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The Julia Gfrörer Interview http://www.tcj.com/the-julia-gfrorer-interview/ http://www.tcj.com/the-julia-gfrorer-interview/#comments Fri, 10 Mar 2017 13:00:04 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=98857 Continue reading ]]> We asked Phoebe Gloeckner (The Diary of a Teenage Girl; A Child’s Life) to interview Julia Gfrörer (Black is the Color; Laid Waste; the forthcoming Mirror Mirror II) about her life and work. The two artists spoke on November 28, 2016 and edited the transcript in the weeks since. -eds.

JULIA GFRÖRER: Hi, how are you doing?  

PHOEBE GLOECKNER: You’re in New York, right?

Yeah.

How are you doing this morning? 

I’m good, pretty good. How about you?

Pretty good. I’m really nervous about doing this, because it’s not what I’ve done before so…

Yeah, me too.

Yeah. So I guess let’s do it. And also I’m nervous about recording.

And do you have your recording stuff all set up?

Yeah.

Yay!

So hopefully it will work.

I feel weird about this FaceTime. I feel like I look funny. I’m gonna have a cigarette. 

I have my fake cigarette.

Is that an e-cigarette or is that something else? 

Yeah, it’s an e-cigarette.

Whoa. I’ve never seen one that looks like that.

It’s really good because you don’t have to deal with the juice. You just pull this thing out and replace it.

That’s cool.

Yeah. And it’s totally made me not want cigarettes. I mean, it’s better than a cigarette for me. 

Oh, cool. 

Yeah.

[Shuffling about.] I’m just looking for my lighter. Okay so you have questions… 

I’ve got lots of questions but I’m trying to figure out a way to like… uhh, God I’m so bad at this, aren’t I? Okay, I’m trying to remember like the first time we met… Do you remember? 

Yeah, I remember. It was at CAKE [Chicago Alternative Comics Expo] and, if you remember I was friends with Sean [T. Collins] and he is just crazy about you and he’s like, “She’s amazing. I’m so excited for you to meet her…” And wait… I’m going to bring my whole pack of cigarettes with me…

Where are you going?

Just out in the backyard. 

Because you’re not allowed to smoke in your apartment… Okay. So you got to CAKE and saw that we were sitting next to each other and… was that Sean’s doing?

No… I don’t know how it ended up like that… I think the organizers do that.

Okay.

And then you got there, like late, and you seemed really freaked out, and you were like, “I don’t know how to display these. How much should I charge for these? Can you watch them? I have to go get something back at my hotel…” And then you left again and I was like, “Sean, what the hell, is she always so freaked out like this?”

My only excuse was that I’d never been more depressed in my life.

Really?

Yes. That year was like middle of like the four or five worst years of my life.

I’m sorry.

And I didn’t know why I was at CAKE or even why anyone had wanted me to be there. I needed to sell my work but I didn’t even fucking know how. At the time, my self-esteem was very low and I had no sense of who I was, not so much as an artist but as a living being. I felt so withdrawn that no matter what good things were said to me, they just didn’t sink in. I was so unhappy, I walked around like a ghost, wondering if and why I was alive.

You seemed kinda manic almost.

I wouldn’t have described it as manic, but I was unmoored. I was not navigating well through a terrible divorce. Life felt so tenuous. Most things that had seemed constant in my life had been taken away. I was lost. I was like a baby bird fallen from its nest and flailing on the ground, fighting for its life.

I guess that’s manic, you know, not in the sense of elevated mood but with a lot of nervous energy.

I’m sorry you had to meet me under those circumstances!

No, that was just my first impression and you weren’t around at the table much that day anyway. Later, I saw you at the party.

Right!

We were on the roof and we got caught in this rainstorm and had a really intense conversation and there was lightning all around us. It was a really big deal to me. I was thinking, “This is amazing. Phoebe’s amazing.”

I was thinking the same thing. “Julia’s amazing! Who is this creature?” That meeting in the rain gave me a chance to atone. It’s not easy meeting young cartoonists who seem like they might be interested in getting to know you when you’re at the lowest point in your life. All hopes of making a good impression are quickly dashed. Even worse, it’s even harder to inspire empathy when you present as a madwoman. But talking with you was a great distraction from my life. You were fascinating, and I hadn’t even read your work yet.    

You said, in one of your other interviews, that when a fan speaks to you about your art you sometimes find it hard to connect with them. There is something intrusive and vaguely threatening when a smiling stranger approaches you as if they know you. They do know you, in a way, through your work, and might be convinced of that whether you were dead or alive. This kind of “knowing” can be alienating. A reader understands works of literature in the context of their own experience. They see you as an extension of the work, and through the same filters, in the same contexts that they find meaning in the work. It’s overwhelming when their gaze shifts from the work to you, the author. You said that if you succeed in getting beyond this point and find that you have common interests beyond your own work, the fan-artist barrier melts and you’re able to relax and actually enjoy the interaction.

Yeah, totally. One thing that Sean said about you before I met you was that you were… I don’t know how to describe it… not open exactly, but as we’re talking now, I feel like there is the sense that there’s not much boundary, like you’re going to take the things that I say and internalize them. And I do that too when I talk to you, like everything really goes into me. Do you ever have that sense that you have just a thin skin between you and other people?

In a way, I guess. I feel so much a sense that I am everybody, but yet sometimes I feel totally alone, which I guess is an odd thing to say.  I find some comfort in recognizing connections with everything and everybody, because it does make you feel at one with the world. But paradoxically, communion with the other is not always possible. When attempted, it is not as always as satisfying as you imagine it will be, and in the end you realize that there will always be that skin, that separation between yourself and others.

Why are we talking about me, anyway? Let’s talk about you!

I don’t know, but I definitely relate to everything you’re saying.

I think we’re just finding the common ground between us. Anyway, I was reading the other, extended interviews with you, the one by Sean Collins and one by that other guy, what’s his name?

I want to say the first one is with Jason Leivian, the owner of Floating World Comics in Portland.

Yes, you’re right. After reading those interviews, which are both great, I was wondering what could I add? I guess maybe the fact that we’re both creators, we write and draw, is a difference. So how does that make the possibilities for this interview different?

I think that it can be hard for people to understand… you know, Sean writes comics so maybe it’s a little easier for him to understand. There’s like a weird magic that happens in between whatever is going on in your life that makes you make the thing, and then the finished product, which is the thing that people [your audience] interact with. The relationship between what caused it and what you did or what your process is in making it and then the final thing is obscure to people when they see the finished work. Maybe it seems kind of easy, like I don’t want to say it is overlooked, but you know, once it’s done there’s a sense that it feels like it was inevitable—of course this would be the finished product of what happened here, but you know it’s not really like that.

I can’t visualize a person that I’m talking to other than myself. I don’t know what that person would want. I don’t have a sense of what the book is going to do once it’s in the world. I make it because that’s what I do. What happens when I want to express myself, is that it comes out as stories. And then I like to draw, so I draw the stories. But I don’t have a sense of what my audience is, other than, maybe, if it’s me. If there’s something that I need to externalize — I need to get it out and put it down somewhere.

But when you think of yourself — well, when I work, I’m generally conscious that I am the sum total of every generation of human beings before me. And I’m connecting to people laterally as well. When I get to that point, I lose self-consciousness, because I’m very aware that anything that happened to me is not unique. I have no shame about it. And it isn’t me. Or it doesn’t matter.  This question of when — when people ask you about the sex scenes, and they kind of think, “Oh, my God, she must be a freak.”

[Laughs.] Right.

And that’s happened to me, too. People ask, “Did this really happen to you?” All this crap, which to me just seems like a non-question in a sense. But how do you respond to the confusion of the audience, fans? They look at you, and they look at your work, and they either make assumptions or have a picture of you that kind of smells like raw, creepy sex? [Laughter.]

Hmm. If people make assumptions about what I’m like because of my work, probably some of them are accurate. I don’t feel like it affects me. What people who don’t know me believe about me isn’t really my business, exactly. If it’s helping them to have a relationship with the work, then I feel like that’s good. That’s fine. Mostly the assumptions that people make about me are flattering, or maybe not accurate to how I see myself in other areas of my life, but good for my brand or whatever. A lot of people, when they meet me, assume that I’m a Satanist or a witch. Which, maybe, in an abstract, symbolic way, is accurate. But in a literal sense—of my beliefs and practice—is not accurate. When I was in college, I made a lot of work about — I was really interested in martyrs, and the saints. I still am, but I don’t make as much work about it now. I remember one time, being at a crit or something, and somebody saying a curse word, and then apologizing to me, and I was like, “What?” And I realized they had all assumed I was a very devout Catholic because of this work. That made me feel like the work was not interrogating the subject matter deeply enough. That it seemed like I was taking it at face value. I think that’s one of the reasons that I moved toward occult and supernatural. Stories about Christian miracles are still supernatural, but more fairy-taleish imagery that people wouldn’t take at face value so much. Or, that it would be easier to understand as something that I was trying to recontextualize, or understand, as a mythical entity.

Without the heavily charged Christian associations?

Yeah. What’s always been interesting to me about those stories is this narrative of physical suffering being redemptive. You enumerate these horrible, torturous experiences that this fictional person has had, and then that proves that they were really worthy, it proves their love for God or whatever. And in medieval romances and stuff, which are written in a similar way, where the trials that the lovers go through prove that their love is really special. And that’s such a beautiful, romantic, and seductive idea, that isn’t reflected in reality, I think. The suffering that you go through doesn’t necessarily mean much about the quality of the thing that is causing you to suffer. It’s probably not necessary. I don’t know if this is real, I’m sure that some people have the experience of — say, like marriage. You fall in love with somebody, you get married to them, and you have small disagreements, but you have a good partnership that lasts for a long time. That wouldn’t be more real if you had to be refugees together, move to other side of the world to be with this person, or if they died, and then you spent your life memorializing them. That wouldn’t make that relationship more real if suffering was a part of it.

You were quoting when you said that love is a trick on humans…

A discourse of suffering? [Laughs.]

No, you said it was something that had been intended to blind and cripple humans, so they didn’t realize how meaningless it was to attach those emotions to something else. I can’t remember the quote…

Oh, that’s in Flesh and Bone. I think that the witch talks to a demon, and the demon says something like, “Love is an illusion to distract humans from questioning God.”

Flannery O’Connor, in Wise Blood, says, “Jesus is a trick on n******s.”

[Exhales through teeth.] Yeah.

To give them this belief that, in a sense, controls them.

One of Jenny Holzer’s truisms is that romantic love was invented to manipulate women. [Gloeckner laughs.] I think those things are true. Religion is the opiate of the masses. All that stuff. But at the same time, I think something like the love you have for a romantic partner, for your children, those are the things that life meaning. I read a Carl Sagan book years and years ago, I think it was probably Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. One of the things he talks about is how love is an adaptive trait that animals have to insure the survival of the group. If you don’t love your children, then you don’t take care of them, and then the species dies out. So, it’s a survival mechanism, like a program that you run to make sure that your hardware stays intact.

Right. And there are plenty of humans who have no children and aren’t in any relationship, but still they feel love. Maybe it’s to their friends, maybe it’s to their animals, maybe it’s to their books. Maybe it’s to their own thoughts and adventures.

And there are people who feel no tendency towards, or need for, romantic love in their lives. But it’s something that I can’t relate to. I don’t address that in my work, because I can’t understand it.

But, on the other hand, what you do write about is about what you don’t understand. But I guess you were saying that —

Things in my own experience that I don’t understand. [Laughs.] When I’m doing something, and I’m like, “Why am I doing this? Why do I feel like this is the thing I need to do?”

Yeah, that’s often when you know that you have to do it, because you have to find that answer. Okay, good.

Well, I am changing the topic entirely now. As an artist, I can see clearly, we are two totally different generations. I could be your mom. That makes me think about people who really inspired me or mentored me, so to speak, in informal ways or accidental ways, when I was your age, younger, older, whatever. It’s a funny thing, because as an artist, I always felt like I was in this little bubble. Maybe people had influenced me, but I felt, totally, like I was my own little planet. Of course, it’s an illusion. Things inspire you, and make you do what you do. I was wondering: I haven’t seen a whole lot written about your early life, but maybe I missed it. What brought you to making comics? When did you do your first comic?

I drew comics when I was little, just because I was drawing all the time. When I was in high school, my best friend and I published a zine, so I would do comics in the zine. Or one of the things that I would do was make little finger puppets of different characters, and then write a little play that you were supposed to act out with them, and put that in the zine, and you were supposed to cut them out. But I wasn’t really thinking of that as being my art form. Up until I was in high school, what I really wanted to do was, I wanted to a be an Egyptologist, or to study languages, or something like that. When I was a teenager, when I was in high school, I was taking French and Latin. You were only supposed to do one language, but I signed up for both. And then, in my spare time, I was studying Japanese. One of my best friends was an exchange student from China, so she was teaching me Mandarin Chinese. I took a class over the summer to learn American Sign Language. I was really interested in philology. When I was younger, when I wanted to be an Egyptologist, I learned to read some Egyptian hieroglyphics. All that stuff was what I was really interested in.

But when I was in high school, I got really severely depressed, and I think — I didn’t really make this connection until just recently — I began to feel like going into academia, like, I wasn’t going to be smart enough, or it was going to be somehow like showing off, or something. I wanted to do something more modest. Art was the only other thing I felt like I was good at. I was like, well, I bet I can learn to be really good at drawing. So I went to art school, and I majored in illustration, because I loved to read and I loved to draw pictures of the things that I was reading about. But the illustration program in college was really commercial based, about designing logos, and I was like, this feels crummy.

I was raised Quaker, and there are conservative Quakers, but the type of Quakerism I was raised with was very liberal, very social-justice-focused, activist. A lot of ex-hippies became Quakers, it seems. I was really uncomfortable with [the illustration program’s] level of commercialism. Being involved in any type or marketing or advertising just seemed really dirty to me. It just seems manipulative and insincere, and then my art was going then be used to trick people into giving their money to people who already had a lot of money.

Then, because I was learning about art history and stuff, that was when I really became more aware of contemporary fine art. So I switched to a fine art major, and, I guess, conceived of myself as becoming a fine artist. I think that my plan was to have a day job, and hopefully have shows in galleries, so, whatever. My work was always really narrative, and my teachers and advisers were kind of like, well… I had an art school boyfriend, who, his big senior project was he cast in plaster little letters of the alphabet — every letter and number and punctuation mark in book of Genesis. And then he had this huge pile of plaster letters that were maybe two inches high, and that was all he did all day, was just make these letters.

Every letter in the Book of Genesis? That must have been a very heavy pile.

Yeah. It was massive. He moved it with a forklift. And then he displayed them all in a pile. One time I was talking to him, and I was like, “You don’t like my work, do you? You don’t like my art.” And he said, “Well, I think of it more as illustration.” I think he thought he was being diplomatic, but it felt very disdainful.

It’s funny that the word illustration, to me — and maybe, to many artists who are also writers, and combine these things — illustration is pejorative.

Yeah.

And also, in the real world, because typically, if you illustrate a children’s book that you haven’t written — if you’re working with an author — you will often get second billing. Some authors see illustrators as hired hands rather than as collaborators or interpreters of their work.

Yeah, I think maybe the idea, the thing that people at school were taking issue with, was that it seemed to them like I was just regurgitating other people’s stories, or the imagery was already there.

Right, so your interpretation was discounted.

Like it wasn’t original enough.

Right.

Maybe it wasn’t. I don’t know.

Let’s talk about your process. When I’m writing books, it takes me forever because I never, ever outline anything. And I resent it. I just can’t do it because I don’t want to know exactly what happens next, I don’t want to know how everything’s going to fit together until the very end. How do you generally work?

So you just do one finished page at a time?

Yeah, but then I’ll often discard pages. Well, now I’ve been working on a very long novel. I’ve made progress in several different directions and then abandoned them entirely. But, then maybe I’ll go back and pull stuff in. It’s a way of working which the process is my joy. And, I’m not going to tell myself where I’m going to end up, I’m going to find it. I know that in the end when I finish it I’ll have this other type of joy, but I will have abandoned that adventure. It’s almost something that I fear. [Laughs.]

It’s scary in between projects. That’s not a good feeling.

It can be really depressing. You can feel like you have no reason to live because you’ve devoted yourself to something for so long.

My first longer project — I don’t remember which one it was, maybe it was Black Is the Color. Greg Means [who does comics under the name Clutch, or did. He runs Tugboat Press, or did. He’s a Portland guy] was like: “Let me give you some advice. Before the book comes out, you need to have started your next book. Because if you haven’t started your next book, when the book comes out, you’re going to feel this horrible decline as the excitement of the book starts to wane. And you’re going to feel lost. So you’re going to have to already have something in motion.” And I did that. That was good advice. I try to always follow it.

Right. You know, I was also raised a Quaker.

Oh, you were?!

Yeah, I was.

How did I not know that?

I don’t know. We just never talked about it. But I was raised in Philadelphia until we moved to San Francisco before I was a teenager…

So, you were in Quaker territory.

One set of grandparents were Presbyterian but the others were Quaker. My grandmother was a doctor, and she was very devout and involved in the Quaker community. We went to Quaker schools all through elementary school. I think I always liked this idea of, God doesn’t need a vehicle through which to speak to you. That we all have the inner light. That was the most beautiful thing, whether religious or not. It feels so inclusive. It loses that hierarchy, which is so oppressive in many religions and governments and organizations.

I haven’t seen you talk about your father much in print. I’m wandering, again, about the young Julia. You talk about your mom, the Jungian psychologist. Was she an academic, by the way?

She was in private practice for a while. She doesn’t probably want me to talk a lot about her real life now, in public.

Why? Is she a criminal? [Laughter.]

She’s just very private.

Whatever that means. My mother says she’s very “private,” too, and I honestly don’t know what she’s talking about.

Really?

Yeah.

But my dad — my parents split up when I was really little, but they lived a block away from each other, so I saw my dad a couple times a week. My relationship with my mom — because I’m an only child, and because it was just the two of us in the house — was always really intense, and really my primary relationship in my life. So I didn’t get really close to my dad, because I felt like it was betraying my mom. My dad is a really cool guy in a lot of ways. He makes documentaries. For the last, I guess, 20 years or so, he’s been self-employed. He has his own documentary company in New Hampshire. He was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He did alternative service with the National Welfare Rights Organization in Washington, D.C.

When you say, he has a documentary company, do people come to him, saying, “I want to make a documentary about this?” Or, is it self-driven projects?

He does video production for hire, but also does his own projects. And sometimes they’re about history and stuff. Mostly they’re about different towns in New England. He’ll go there and stay for a while. Get to know people and then do a piece about the town. They’ve been shown on the History Channel, and they’ll sell them in gift shops and stuff.

Can you name a topic or a title?

He did one about Concord, the town I grew up in in New Hampshire. I’m not going to be able to think of one now. He did one about the Cold War that was called Rights & Reds. He did one about William Loeb, the publisher of the Manchester Union Leader.

So when you talk about how your parents made you intellectually, what were their contributions?

From my mom, I think, one of her most significant contributions to me as an artist is that she taught me a lot about analysis and symbolism when I was little. She taught me to interpret my dreams really young, which has been really valuable to me. About archetypes, and mythology, and all that Jungian stuff. Translating the drama of universal story into understanding it as a journey of the self.

With my dad, I think a lot of what I got from him was more practical. My dad has always been a real workaholic, and seeing him get absorbed into whatever project he was working on… He taught me, because he would give me little jobs to do. I did work for him, running camera or editing, up until I moved out of New Hampshire as a teenager. Learning about composing and image, or looking for the parts in the story that you want to interrogate further. When I was really little, he was working for the local cable station doing some news and current events, too. My stepmother is also a journalist. She was a TV news reporter. With them, any conversation about current events, or — not even current events, really, anything — it’s a lot about what’s the story, what’s the angle on the story, what are the things being discussed, what are the things not being discussed, and why? Considering how a narrative is a created thing that is separate from reality. You know?

Yeah. And yet directly related to reality, and has the power to create new perceptions of reality.

Aesthetically, my dad used to take me to go see the Bread and Puppet Theater. It’s a radical puppet theater in Glover, Vermont. They do — I don’t know the history of theater very well, but I’m sure Brecht is an influence — plays about history, socialism. Aesthetically, they do a lot of woodcut and letterpress art that you can buy for very cheap from them. They have a whole philosophy. They would publish what I would call zines, too. The idea being art should be accessible. It should be relevant to the lives of normal people. It should empower and honor everyday people. They would have performances that you could be a part of. You could sign up to be in this or that performance, and then they would give you a costume and be like, “OK, you walk in here, you say this, and then we all do that.”

On my 7th birthday, actually, they came to Concord. They just happened to be there, then, and they did a performance about a rebellion of rubber tappers in Brazil that had happened not that long ago — in the ’80s, I guess — lead by a man called Chico Mendes. I got to be in that, and that was a really exciting thing for me. I got to be a red rainforest bird. I think part of what was so valuable about that to me was the sense that the art was coming from people. People were making it; other people were participating in it. It was really accessible, and it wasn’t a thing that was handed down from on high; and it wasn’t in a museum. It was a manifestation of community and of real conversations.

Right. Just in the simple fact that you, a redhead, got cast as a red forest bird. It suspect it was a response, in part, to your appearance. “OK, Red. You’re the bird.” [Gfrörer laughs.]

So, both of your parents — your dad was talking about the significance of imagery, and creating stories out of facts or material that you’ve got in front of you. But your mom was talking story in a different way, accepting your own dreams as stories that your unconscious reveals to you, encouraging you to record and interpret them.

It seems like your background was heavily influenced by the thought of narrative. Obviously, you read quite a bit, too. You’ve always just been steeped in language and story and visual things.

My mom is a writer, too. She published in magazines and stuff. When I was growing up, we always used to write stories together. We’d go on a walk, and make up a story, and when we got home, we would write it down. We used to self-publish a little newspaper about stuff that was going on with us and people that we knew. Then we would give it out to all our friends. With her, too, that was a very valuable experience. That art is something you can make yourself, you don’t need permission, and you don’t need… In my case, as a child, I didn’t have any qualifications, I just had a desire to make it.

That’s great. This might seem immaterial, but I’m going to get back to the physical now, and to your red hair. [Gfrörer laughs.] Is it still very long?

I cut it a couple months ago to just past my collarbone, I guess. I never go to the salon, because I feel like I never know what to do. I don’t have a good sense of what I look like, or what I want to look like. I don’t know how to go to the salon and be like, “Oh, give me that haircut that some celebrity has, that will look good on me.” Like, I don’t know. I just let my hair grow out until it’s down to my butt, and then it’s just such a hassle I end up cutting it off, or I have some emotional issue where I’m like, “I have to get rid of all this,” and then I cut it off myself.

I feel that way, too. I have no idea what I look like.

It’s weird, right?

Yeah. It is weird. Because, you don’t — I guess you can see yourself in the mirrors, but it’s never exactly —

But it’s not the way you see other people, when you look at other people.

Exactly. You see them three-dimensionally. And you see them move, you see them express. And a mirror is a dead expression, generally.

If you don’t mind me saying so, you’re an extremely beautiful woman. I think that can fuck with your way of being in the world because that’s a thing that people deal with that they think is you, but that’s also outside of you. I think about this in old rock songs all the time. There’s this idea of this woman who’s so in control of her beauty and her seductive powers, and she uses it to get what she wants from men or whatever. And, I’m, like, “How is that a thing, though?” I heard a song on the radio, where they were like, “She’s got legs, and she knows how to use them.” How does anybody know how to use their legs? Is there really any woman who’s like, “My legs are so incredible, I’m going to use them to get a man buy me a car.” I guess people do? I wouldn’t know how.

Right. When you said whatever you said about my appearance, it’s so weird to me. I think of myself as so deformed.

Really?

Incredibly so. I have no love for my appearance. At this age, I can maybe accept it so I don’t feel embarrassed to leave the house. [Gfrörer laughs.] Because I have to teach, so I’ve learned to not even think about how I look after a certain point. I’ll put clothes on, and brush my hair, do whatever I’m going to do. But then I stop thinking about it. Because when I start thinking about it… awareness of appearance is so oppressive to me, the inside-outside thing… 

It’s hard to conceptualize yourself as you appear to other people.

I’m sure, ever since you were a child, people focused on your red hair.

That’s true.

I don’t have red hair. So, no one’s going to say, “Oh, you have brown hair! Amazing. Your brown hair… ” [Gfrörer laughs.] No. Never heard it. Right? But with you, it’s almost something magical. People are fascinated by it because it is so rare. You’re the classic redhead with freckles and everything. Perfect! What do think that means to people? What has it come to mean to you?

I think there’s definitely a mythical quality about it. When you think about redheads in art, there’s a lot of pre-Raphaelites. Who are some famous redheads in history? Eleanor of Aquitaine, or Boudicca, or Lilith: witches and queens. It seems kind of magical, and maybe like mermaids, too. And also, because my hair is long, I think I have a body type that’s —

Sylph-like, yeah.

— associated with mermaids, probably. People have compared me to a mermaid, often. Men.

Did that have any influence on your work? [Laughs.]

I’m sure that it did. For a while, when I was a younger adult, I think I was really suspicious of that — it was like internalized misogyny. It felt really “girly” to me, and therefore not serious.

And yet, you were just talking a minute ago about that song. “She’s got legs, and she knows how to use them.” But mermaids have no legs, and yet, they know how to use them. And in your stories, as well, they seduce and use —

That was a huge concern to me in Black Is the Color. The idea of mermaids—normally, you get it filtered through the experience of sailors. Men who are being seduced by these mermaids. The mermaids sing to them, they comb their hair, and try to get them to crash on the cliffs. I was thinking, “What is it like to be these mermaids?” The same idea of, you’re being yourself in the world, and then, if a man finds that attractive, he’ll be like, “Oh, you’re doing this thing to me. You’re doing this so that I will respond.” But you’re just doing it because you’re doing it. So, that’s what I had them doing. They’re making music because that’s their art form, and they’re watching the ships sink because it’s entertaining to them, and not really thinking about how it affects these men. It’s secondary to them.

Exactly. It does become oppressive. Someone looking at them, perceiving them as beautiful, and seductive. But it really is in the eye of the beholder. They fail to see the mermaids as human. Well, not human, but — [laughs].

Like I was talking about with being beautiful, it’s The Man’s — I’m saying The Man because I think this especially an issue between men and women — that idealized perception of them is getting in the way of his understanding them and what they want and who they are when the man is not around.

It can be dangerous, too, if someone has seen you as this ideal, and then if you do anything to call that into question, they get angry at you.

Yeah, they get angry. Especially if you’re an artist and you have any kind of recognition at all, people will see you as this Artist who has a power. They’re not seeing you as a person. You don’t get to know people naturally. In a way, before you’ve even met them, they feel like they know everything about you.

I imagine that’s especially true with you, because people read your work and they think, “Oh, this is Phoebe’s autobiography, and now I know Phoebe’s entire life story.”

Right. And they’ll even go and read interviews and things, and then I’ll meet them, and I won’t know anything about them.

That’s so weird, right? Strangers come to you, and they’re like, “Oh, well you did this, and you used to live here, and now you live there. And I know your kid’s name,” and all this stuff, and I’m like, “Who are you?”

And it so alienating. It makes you feel so strange. It makes you feel alone, like there’s no chance of — well, I guess I’m talking about myself. [Gfrörer laughs.] Here I am, single, and I’ve felt this aversion to meeting people, because it’s happened so many times. Because I have an unusual name, people look it up and know everything about me. And his name will be “Joe Smith.” [Gfrörer laughs.] There’s no way I can know who he is before I meet him, and it’s miserable. [Laughs.]

You have to date somebody else who’s famous.

Right. Where am I going to find those? Who cares! Back to your red hair.

I feel like there’s cultural baggage around redheads being very sexual, or hot tempered.

Is it baggage, or is there some truth to it?

It is just an association?

Yeah.

I don’t think of myself as an aggressive person, or a person with a temper.

But you’re intense.

As like, a virago? Am I intense?

Yeah, you’re intense. You’re very focused on what you’re speaking about.

I think that’s true. I also feel like a slow-moving person. I think slowly. I react slowly, which can be good in a crisis, because I will be someone who is not freaking out when something terrible is happening, and then the next day, I’m like, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God,” after the moment has passed.

That makes me feel bad. When we first met, and I was going all over the place. [Laughter.]

That’s okay. You shouldn’t feel bad about it.

I have a student in my comics class now who has really red hair — just like you — and freckles. Her very first story was about her red hair. I think it really did shape how people look at her. She’s the only one in her family with red hair.

Me too.

She was talking about Halloween, and she didn’t know what she wanted to be. And her impulse was to be something that had nothing to do with her red hair. She could wear a Hannah Montana wig or something. Anything. But she ended up being Pippi Longstocking.

[Laughs.] Pippi Longstocking is so interesting. I read those books when I was a kid, and I didn’t really relate to Pippi at all, because I wanted to be good and follow the rules.

Did you?! That’s interesting. See, I wouldn’t have imagined that, necessarily.

Well, I don’t know if that was adults’ experiences of me, but that was how I felt. So the idea of her being such a weirdo and really not giving a shit…

Or not even understanding the rules.

The thing about Pippi is that she’s very independent. I was thinking about this, because Anne of Green Gables is the other famous redhead girl. Anne, people don’t like her, they don’t think her hair is pretty, and she’s also like a weirdo. Her hair is a symbol how she is a weirdo and an outsider. But, because Anne is poor — Pippi’s rich, because her father is a pirate, and she’s also extremely strong. When people try to make her do things, she just tosses them out of her house, literally. Policemen come to try to take her to an orphanage, and she’s like, “Okay, I’m done with you now. You have to leave.” And she picks them up by the belt and dumps them on the sidewalk.

Right. And she is basically an orphan. Father or not.

Pippi’s father is on an island in the South Pacific.

What’s the name of her house again?

Villa Villekula. I’ve read these books over and over. My son and stepdaughter love them. I know them all by heart now.

I think I was scared, too. I didn’t want grownups to think I was rebellious. So, I would read stuff like that, and be like, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t tell people that I read this.” I was really concerned about that. You remember the show Jem and the Holograms? It was on when I was little, in the ’80s. It was about these rock stars that were really glam. I never wanted my parents to know I was watching it. I was like, they’re going to think I’m trying to be rebellious.

That’s funny. I was thinking of you when I was thinking about what I read when I was a child. One of those things was Edgar Allan Poe. I remember, I must have been 8 or 9, when I was reading “Annabel Lee.” I was memorizing it. My aunt, who was visiting, came in and saw that I was reading that, and flipped out and told me I shouldn’t be reading that, and to put it away until I was older. She took it away from me. No one had ever done that to me before. I think it did cause me to take my reading habits underground. I got far more curious about what actually was on my parents’ bookshelves.

I remember being a kid, and sneaking around, looking for the sex scenes in books — flipping through to find the sex scenes.

I remember seeing the book Naked Lunch on the shelf. “Whoa. I’ve got to read that!” Just because it said “naked.” But I remember I was disappointed, because I didn’t really get it. [Laughs.]

When I was little, I was into the Phantom of the Opera, when I was 9 or 10. I don’t remember how I first encountered it, but I read the book over and over again. Somebody wrote a sequel to it, like a pulpy book, that I think was called Phantom. I finally got my dad to buy it for me at the grocery store. I read about a third of it, and then he flipped through it, and he was like, “You can’t read this.” That’s the only book that I think was ever taken away from me.

Was it because it was trash, or because of the content?

I think at one point, one of the other circus performers —the Phantom, Erik, when he’s young, he joins the circus—he gets raped by one of the other circus performers. I think that may have been what did it. I never did finish it, so I don’t know.

That segues into the question of your own children — I’m counting them as two.

I don’t have that much influence over what [my stepdaughter] Helena does, but I have some.

Do they read your work?

No. They’ve never really expressed that much interest in it. Also, I would steer them away from it. Frank, because he’ll be around when I’m working sometimes, he’ll look over my shoulder, and be like, “What’s going on here?”

How old is he now?

He’s seven. There was this point when I was drawing a book that Sean [T. Collins] and I did, called In Pace Requiescat, which is about “The Cask of Amontillado”.

I love that story.

The guys, they have sex before he finishes the wall.

That was great.

Frank happened to come in, and I didn’t hear him come in, and he saw me working on this page where the guy is sucking the other guy’s dick. But you could really only see the dick sticking out of the wall. He was like, “What’s happening in that comic? What is that guy doing?” He was like, four or something. I just closed it. I was like, “Frank, I don’t want to talk about it right now.” [Gloeckner laughs.] He goes, “I know what he’s doing. He’s eating a hot dog.” I was like, “Yeah. Yeah, exactly.” I didn’t really discuss it. [Gloeckner laughs.]

There was one thing. In Black Is the Color, there’s a scene where the mermaid breastfeeds the sailor, and her milk is black, and he spits it out in his hand. I did show that to him, because somebody had read it, and been like, “I don’t understand what’s going on here.” So, I showed Frank that scene, and I was like, “Okay, Frank. Can you look at this, and tell me what’s going on here?” He was like, “Oh, she’s nursing him.” ’Cause he was just a baby, you know. I was like, “Okay, my baby son understood this, so adults should be able to understand it.”

Did you get to the part where he was spitting out the black milk?

Yeah.

And did he say, “What is she doing, what is he doing?”

I don’t remember what his response was to that. But I haven’t really talked about sex with him. He hasn’t interested, or he hasn’t asked me questions about it. I think he has a vague idea about it. And even if I did, I don’t think I’d show him my work and be like, “Oh, this is how people have sex.” [Gloeckner laughs.] The sex in my work is kind of pathological. That’s like a 201 class.

It is and it isn’t. The actual sex, oftentimes, seems incredibly regular. Right?

Yeah. Like in Laid Waste, I think the sex is really normal.

In a sense, yeah, you could show that to someone and say, “This is what sexual intercourse is.” It’s the psychological stuff that makes it complex and very real, in a sense.

I think the way I depict sex oftentimes is very normal, as a normal thing that people do, as an expression of emotion or because it’s fun or whatever. I think it’s better than if I were only thinking about it as porn, and what’s going to be the hottest thing.

Sex is a very powerful element in your stories. The sex feels like just as much an integral part of the story as psychological and magical elements. They all work together to give you this — I feel speechless, sometimes, at the end of reading a story by you. But it feels complete. Sometimes I don’t even remember everything that happened, but I’m remembering this feeling of both despair and elevation. It’s kind of addictive. You’re able to make me feel that again and again. I’m not a very articulate critic of “literacha,” comic or otherwise, but my response to it, is, I just feel like, “Wow,” after I read your work.

That’s good. [Laughter.] Sometimes when people write reviews, they say it’s like getting punched in the face or something. So, that’s good.

More the stomach. You don’t particularly exaggerate penis size. Just as your female characters are always very thin, and don’t have big boobs, the men also are very normal proportioned. Kind of on the wimpy side. But their parts are all functioning —

A big penis is not part of what’s interesting to me in sex. I’m interested in penises, for sure. Looking at penises is sexy to me. But, if I’m trying to visualize a scenario that’s sexy to me, a huge dick is not necessarily part of it. That just seems boring.

Why is a big dick more boring than a small dick?

I don’t think I made them abnormally small, either. The body is just the body. What’s interesting to me isn’t the physical qualities of the particular person, but the meta-narrative, emotionally, what’s happening. What do these acts mean as opposed to what does it mean to have this body shape? I’m interested in, what does it mean to behave this way, more than, what does it mean to look this way?

I think more about body variation with women than with men, because it’s important for women who don’t have whatever is the idealized type of body to be represented.

But you’re not drawing fat women.

I know. But I wish that I would.

And you’re not drawing fat men, which is something that both men and women have to deal with.

I should and I just don’t. It never comes out that way. I feel bad about it.

The bodies seem almost as neutral, sexually, as you can make them. [Gfrörer laughs.] The sex scenes are so graphic. I’m just wondering how those two things fit together. Well, it’s clear how they fit together [Gfrörer laughs], when they fit together.

Well, the thing goes in the thing, and —

That’s very clear. I think that maybe one day, you can show your illustrations, your comics, to your son.

[Laughs.] When he’s older.

The general neutrality of their appearance makes it seem all the more normal. You could project anything onto those people.

This gets back to what to what we were talking about earlier, about how you don’t have a perception of yourself as a unique individual. To you, you’re the default, and everyone else is some weird variation on that.

Right, and interesting, therefore.

The idea that the neutral body is a thin, white body. That’s very political.

It is.

There is no neutral default body.

There is none.

That’s culturally constructed as the default.

But it feels like, in your work, like you’re neutralizing those bodies, somehow.

Yeah. Because that’s my relationship to it. That’s the body that I have. It feels neutral to me. It’s not something that I have moved outside of, because I feel so consumed by the puzzle of my own body.

If it feels neutral to you because you’re housed in the same sort of casing as your characters, then does that subtract the political meaning from it? That’s what artists do. They project themselves —

I think the political action in my work is that I want to show women as actors, rather than a receptive or decorative object.

You do it in such a way that it’s not like that song you mentioned—“She’s got legs, and she knows how to use them.” You’re not saying, like, “Yeah! Some women have spunk, and they can do this, and we should all be like that.” You’re not saying that at all. Women do typically climb on top of men and have sex. All of those things. And it’s not because they’re sexual demons or succubi. It’s because that’s human nature.

What’s on your shirt?

This is the CAB [Comic Arts Brooklyn] T-shirt that Dame Darcy drew.

What do you think of Dame Darcy? Is she an inspiration at all?

I really like her work a lot. I was talking about this with my friend Hazel [Newlevant] this weekend. I’m glad that I don’t — I worry about setting myself up by having some kind of a persona. It seems like it’s really hard work to be Dame Darcy. Do you know what I mean?

You talked the other day about developing your brand, and how difficult that was. I’ve never thought too much of “branding” myself, honestly, but I can see that it is becoming more and more important… (Oh, you look lovely. I’m going to have to take a picture of you in good light.) Artistically, there are some stylistic similarities between you and Dame Darcy. I don’t think of you as having a persona that’s as tightly packaged as that at all.

I love her illustration style. I really love her drawings and I like — it feels like her work is very girly. Most of the men that I know who read comics haven’t read her work because there’s something about it that’s off-putting to them. Like there’s a lot of bows and sparkles and fancy dresses, and they’re like, “Oh, ew.” And I like that. I like that it’s really aggressively feminine.

But I’m just curious for my own purposes what you think of her stories? Are your connections to Dame Darcy’s work more than superficial? I guess I’m struggling to tie you to someone whose shirt you’re wearing…

No, I mean I haven’t really read that much of her work. I have a handful of Meat Cakes. I haven’t read everything. And I hadn’t really read it until I was older so I don’t know if I could say how much she’s an influence on my work, but probably some.

Are you saying that only works that you read at a certain time were bound to have influence on you? And what time was that?

I think that my illustration, or the aesthetics of my work, were pretty set before then, but I guess stuff still influences me.

When do you think your tastes were set? And what do you remember reading or seeing that —

I think when I was in college. I was really into German and Austrian Expressionism. I really loved Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, and Otto Dix a lot. And Kathe Kollwitz is still one of my favorites.

So, in college — that’s where you can recall all the influences bumping about, and influencing what was to become your style?

Yeah, I don’t think that my work ended up looking much like that, though.

No, but it definitely shares a spirit. When you say you’re influenced by those artists I’m not surprised at all.

I really liked pre-Raphaelite art, too. When I was younger, in high school, I did. And Victorian or Golden Age illustrators: I liked Maxfield Parrish. I loved Aubrey Beardsley. And Maurice Sendak — we always had a lot of Sendak books when I was a kid.

So there’s different stages in your life, where art of different sorts influenced you, somehow, or interested you.

Yeah. But I was never a big comics reader.

I wasn’t either, actually. That’s interesting. Do you remember: what was the first comics story that you ever published, yourself, or maybe someone else? What was that?

When I was in college, I took a comics class taught by Ellen Forney. So, for a project, I made a minicomic. It was an adaptation of a story from the Little Flowers of St. Francis. I don’t remember which one it was now. I probably still have a copy of it, but I have avoided reading it, because I think it’s really bad. The drawings look really bad and stupid to me. There’s something really earnest about it that’s embarrassing to me now. [Gloeckner laughs.] I still really value earnestness, but it’s un-self-aware.

That’s kind of sweet, actually. I would love to see it, the way you describe it.

Oh, God. It’s so embarrassing.

Julia’s young earnestness.

I made a bunch of copies of it, and I wanted to sell them, the way I had used to sell my zines when I was in high school. So, I went to this coffee shop called Joe Bar that everybody used to go to, that was right up the block from the school. They said they would consign it. I gave them all my copies to consign. The next time I went there, they were gone, and they were like, “We don’t know what you’re talking about.” [Laughs.]

[Sympathetically]: Oh, you’re kidding.

No.

So, you don’t know if they actually sold them, or just stuck them somewhere.

No. Maybe they lost them? I have no idea what happened to them.

That’s disappointing.

In retrospect, I can’t imagine why a coffee shop would want to consign thirty copies of my stupid St. Francis comic [laughs].

Hopefully they sold them, and they exist somewhere.

No. I think they’re bad. I think nobody should see them.

I think you should send me a copy.

If I find one, you can have it.

I know you know where it is. You must.

I’m pretty sure I have one in a box with my old stuff at my mother’s house. I might have a couple.

I really would like to see it. Whether for this or not.

Let’s just talk about the future, then. I actually wrote out these questions, where I didn’t before.

All right!

Your stories stand on their own, solidly. But collected, the effect is overwhelmingly dark, visceral, haunting. Collected, they’re amplified. They read together really well, but they can also stand on their own. I’m just trying to imagine what kind of longer work you might do? You’ve become kind of a master of the short form. I was wondering if you’ve entertained the idea of doing a long, novel-length book?

I really would like to. When I was younger, I did this book Flesh and Bone, in 2010. Dylan Williams, who published it, was like, “Okay. I need you to make it at least forty pages long.” I was like, “Oh, my God. That’s so long.” It was really a struggle for me. Since then, I’ve done a few things that are that long. It seems easy to me now, and my two longer books are about eighty pages long. I would like to be able to make still-longer work as I get older and more comfortable with my writing. I don’t want to push it or force it. I know my publisher would like to have something longer from me. [Gloeckner laughs.] I know that it can feel like a longer, more substantial book is taken more seriously.

Not necessarily. I think some authors have built bodies of work on shorter pieces — like Edgar Allan Poe, for example.

I agree with that. I guess I’m thinking more from a marketing perspective.

Even Robert Crumb — Genesis can be considered —

But that just came out.

His whole life, it’s a string of short things.

Yeah. But after finishing a story, I think about the story I could have done; different parts of the story I could have continued with. In Laid Waste, one of the last things that I wrote was the scene — the main male character, his name is Giles. He has a bunch of daughters and they’re hanging out together. Their mother has just died, and one of them is milking the cows. That was the last scene that I wrote. Afterward, I felt like I could have done a lot more with them. I would have been interested to write more about what they ended up doing.

I remember wondering about them at the end of that story.

That’s the only time you see them. You see the little one, Mariette, at the beginning, with her father — later, her father’s off doing some shit, and her sisters are looking after her. I would have liked to see more of them.

I don’t think the way you finished the book would prevent you from continuing it.

I could really add more and more minute scenes into the edges of the story. Right now, I’m working on a sequel to Flesh and Bone that’s already written. I’m in the process of inking it now. Originally, I hadn’t planned to make it a series, but I got to thinking about it, and more stuff that could happen with those characters.

How long is this book going to be?

It’s the same length as the first one. I’ll publish it in Island, probably — Brandon Graham’s magazine that he publishes through Image.

You’ll publish it as a book, not in the magazine?

I’m going to publish it in the magazine first.

Serialized, or all at once?

I’m not sure. I think he would let me do it either way. But I want to publish it in the magazine first, because I’ll get paid for it.

Oh, great. You just said that you’re working on the drawings; you have it all written. Is that your typical process? Do you write the whole thing out? Do you script it? What do you do?

I thumbnail and script it at the same time. And then pencil it and ink it, so it’s all penciled now, and I’m just inking.

You generally do it in different passes. It general, you have the whole thing worked out, and then you return to the beginning, and start inking, and so on?

Yeah. Usually I’ll kind of jump around. I won’t do it straight from beginning to end, but I’ll do whatever part I feel like doing. If I’m feeling not super into it, I’ll ink a page or draw a page that I feel like is going to be fun or easy — when there’s not a lot happening in it. In this Flesh and Bone sequel, yesterday, I was feeling unmotivated, and there’s a page where the witch is spinning with a drop spindle. And then the thread gets tangled, it does that thing where it twists in on itself and makes a tangle. That was really easy to draw, it was just several panels of thread spinning and then tangling up. It went really quick, and I was like, this is really motivational. It was like: BAM, I finished a page.

You got into the swing of things.

Another question I had is about collaboration. Amongst your collaborations — and I don’t know all of them — I’m thinking of the work you did with Sean, and they were adaptations of Poe stories. That was just something I would just expect you to do on your own. I would totally trust whatever you would come up with, your interpretation. I’m wondering: why the collaboration, and how did that change your work?

The porn adaptations of Poe, that was Sean’s idea. He sent me the script for the first one [In Pace Requiescat] before we really had a relationship. He just knew my work.

[Laughs.] That’s very seductive.

I know. [Laughter.] I read it, and when I realized what was going to happen in it — at first I was like, “Who does this guy think he is?” To try to improve on Poe seems like a gutsy move. When I finished reading it, I was like, “This is amazing.” I was really into it. I did end up drawing it. Then, it just became a thing we do for fun. I don’t usually collaborate with people. I drew some stuff for Anne Elizabeth Moore for a magazine but she hired me to do it. With Sean, I really like his writing, I think he has a good sense of what is going to be good for me to draw: what I’m going to enjoy drawing, and what’s going to look good drawn by me. We’ve done a couple Poe/porn books. We did a comic called Hiders, which was just a four-page one about these two young women who turn into werewolves together. But they don’t talk about it when they’re both human.

It’s almost like they don’t acknowledge it to each other?

Yeah. They just pretend like they don’t know what’s going on. They just see that some people got killed, and they’re like, “Huh. That’s weird.”

We did one called The Deep Ones that was about why water is scary, or why the ocean is scary. Why are there sea monsters? Is that trope —

I think I have that one as well.

That came out of some conversations we had had. The Deep Ones and Hiders, both of those, we ended up doing because I wanted to do a comic for a certain anthology, or something, but I didn’t have an idea. And I was like, “Do you have an idea? Can you write a script for me?” And so he did.

How much do you have to pay him?

He wouldn’t take any money for it. He was like, “No, no.”

It’s funny that you describe those stories as “porn.”

Yeah. They’re not exactly —

It never even occurred to me to classify them that way. Can you explain?

They are stories about fucking. I think they’re sexy. I get turned on when I read them. Maybe I’m used to them now, but, at some point, I did.

I’m asking this because the definition of porn is kind of mushy. Those stories seem so psychological and the sex seems like a natural expression of something. I felt such an empathy for the character [in The Hideous Dropping Off of the Veil, based on “The Fall of the House of Usher”], the dead girl who comes back and fucks a guy.

Madeline Usher is a very relatable character for a character that never speaks.

It never even occurred to me to call it “porn.” It seemed to be all of a piece. There was a reason for it, and it was all tied into the mind and everything else. It seemed quite complete and not sex for sex’s sake.

I think that we looked at the original story, and what the psychological and emotional state of the characters are. In both of those stories, and in a lot of horror stories, when the people are doing something awful, it’s because there’s some other, unaddressed thing that they’re trying to …

Resolve?

Get rid of. That was what we were working with. Where’s the tension in the story? What if that tension was addressed through sex? What if sex was part of the conversation that they have in the story? In the original story, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, Roderick Usher, his sister dies, and he gets his friend to help him bury her under the house. He admits to his friend — they hear her breaking out of the tomb — that she was alive when they buried her. Then she breaks into the room and pounces on him, and he dies of fright. She dies from the exertion. The friend runs out of the house as it spontaneously collapses. She’s furious about having been buried.

She comes back, in your version, as the angry virgin. The adolescent, or young woman, who was on the precipice of being able to express any libidinous feelings, but… And her brother, whatever relationship they had — that whole sexual energy and regret, and fear — it all comes and out is expressed sexually, but death is always just around the corner. It’s death and sex. It’s fantastic.When you said porn, it just startled me because it just didn’t occur to me. And, yeah, it is kind of sexy, but I don’t think that’s the definition of porn. If it turns you on, is it porn? I don’t know. That’s like saying, “Oh, she’s wearing a sexy outfit. She must want it.” You can react sexually to anything. If your cat is warm in your lap and you’re like, “Oooh, I feel warm down there…”

I don’t know if regular porn is that interesting to me. Sometimes it is. For me, if I’m making something to be turned on by, I want to create some kind of emotional stakes.

Yeah, tension.

In this case, it’s essentially fanfic. It’s the same thing people do when they write a story about what if these two characters from Game of Thrones had had sex in this scene.

That’s an interesting thought. I guess so. I think you only have about ten minutes, right? You have to leave soon. Two quick questions to wrap up.

Okay.

What do you think happens to us after we die? [Gfrörer laughs.] Seriously. Can you tell me please. So I know.

Yeah. What happens to us after we die? 

Our house falls down.

Yes. I don’t know what happens to us after we die. I don’t think about it. I think about the moment of death. I think that it must be a relief. I think that once you know that you’re doing to die, it probably feels good to just let go.

If you have a chance. If your head is squashed by a one-ton…

[Laughs.] If you don’t have a moment to think about it, I guess not. If you suddenly get blown up by an atom bomb, then probably that’s frightening. But maybe you don’t even notice.

But if you’re going down in a plane and have advance notice. That must be…

I think probably first you feel panic, but at some point you feel calm. Maybe? I don’t know.

After you’ve struggled with your phone, and turn it on to text “I love you” to your son, or whatever.

Oh, God. Yeah, I suppose so. I did a comic where I was killed by some malevolent spirit that I offended by accident. I become kind of a ghost or a wraith-like creature. One of the things that I say in the comic is, “This is great. I feel really good about myself right now.” I talk about all the things that I can do now that I’m dead and one of them is that I never have to pay my student loans back. Do you ever have that thing when someone cancels plans with you — like you’re supposed to go out, but then they can’t — and you’re like, “Yes!”

Yes! Yes! But you’re afraid to decline in the first place or cancel it yourself.

Yeah. Maybe there’s a part of you that’s like, “Now I don’t have to do that job interview on Monday,” or whatever.

Right. [Laughs.]

I think after you die — nothing. Your consciousness disappears into the whirling void. Or maybe becomes part of a larger consciousness.

Maybe.

I think that you forget your identity. I think you no longer have the identity that you had in your life. 

Okay. Good answer. [Laughter.] I guess on a lighter note, perhaps, I’m wondering about your relationship with your son. He’s 7?

Uh-huh.

Your parents were a psychologist and a filmmaker. How do you see him? Do you have any notions of what he might be good at or ideas of where you see him the future? And if you see him as someone creative, how do you encourage that?

He loves to draw. He draws constantly. He’s really smart and funny. He makes up a lot of stories and I can tell he makes up more stories that he doesn’t want to talk about that are private to him, that maybe have a lot of power that he doesn’t want to ruin by sharing. I’ll tell you a story about Frank. I hope he doesn’t find out later that I told you and get mad. A couple years ago — I guess he was in kindergarten — he had a crush on a little girl. She had red hair like me. Somehow he found out that she liked him too, so she was his “girlfriend” for a day or two. Then she broke up with him because she also liked this famous hockey player and she was going to marry this hockey player.

[Gloeckner laughs.] He was really devastated by this. And, of course, it was so awful to see his tiny heartbreak. Anyway, he drew a picture that day of a monster — kind of a terrible monster — and he told me he was going to bring it to her as a present. I was like, “Oh Frank, that’s really nice.” But then I was like, “Wait. Are you giving this to her because you want to make her happy by giving her a gift, or do you want to give it to her because you want to frighten her or upset her with this monster?” He was like, “I need to give her this so that she can understand how she made me feel.”

Mmm. The monster itself — did it have an emotion?

It looked angry.

So that’s how he felt? Angry. Or at least he wanted to express that to her.

I told him, you can’t give her a drawing because you want to upset her. That’s not okay. When he told me that, I was like, all right, he has the cartoonist’s instincts. The thing where I can’t talk about this, but I’m going to draw a picture that will make you feel like I feel.

That’s absolutely true and that’s oftentimes the power you feel in comics. It does give you a feeling that you have control over your life and your history. It’s amazing. And sometimes you do use it in that magical way … I’ve drawn characters that are reprehensible and then given them the names of people who have really pissed me off. [Laughter.] No one knows it except me.

Do you like it when people tell you that your comics have upset them? If someone says that your comic made them cry, it feels good, right?

Someone I don’t know?

Yeah.

Yeah! Yeah, it does. One time, this small-town politician who was running for some office in California — one of my books was banned because a kid had picked it up. A Child’s Life. In his stump speech, he held the book up and said that this book was a “handbook for pedophiles.” And he got it out of the library!

Nice. [Laughter.]

A handbook for pedophiles? I mean… [Laughter.] I was happy.

That’s great. I think that’s very cool. Fuck that guy, also.

Right, but still! It was so dramatic, that it made me feel very powerful. I pitied him for his misunderstanding of my work … and probably life in general.

Every time someone says something like, “Your book ruined my day.” I’m like, “That’s right.” 

Score! [Laughter.] 

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An Interview with Sophie Yanow http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-sophie-yanow/ http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-sophie-yanow/#comments Thu, 09 Mar 2017 13:00:40 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=99259 Continue reading ]]> Over the last several years, Sophie Yanow has proven herself to be a rare top talent in nonfiction cartooning: her autobiographical comics detailing anxiety-filled minutiae are just as interesting to read as her on-the-ground reporting on things like the Dakota Access Pipeline, HIV, and our current political system, and the bold yet minimal art choices Yanow makes are just as intriguing as the subject matter. These are tough tasks to pull off. She’s also made time to translate European works, study around the globe, and now teach at the Center for Cartoon Studies. I wanted to talk with Yanow about how she found her voice in comics journalism and the directions her art has taken her.

RJ CASEY: I want to create a little bit of a timeline before we get into your travels. You’re originally from California?

SOPHIE YANOW: Yes. I’m from West Marin County, which is the rural area just north of San Francisco. People also know it for being where very rich white liberals live. The part I’m from is known for being the valley where Jerry Garcia died, and for a world-renowned meditation center. Apparently Victor Moscoso lives there too, but I didn’t know it when I lived there. Anyway, it was pretty granola.

When I was first introduced to your autobio comics sometime around 2013 with In Situ and Sleepy Details, you were a French transplant. How did you go from San Francisco to Paris? Also there was time spent in Montreal somewhere along the way too?

When I was doing In Situ, I was living in Montreal. Sleepy Details was about leaving Montreal to spend some time away from Canada so that I could re-enter on a tourist visa without being turned away. That time, I went to Paris because I had an offer of an artist residency there and a place to stay in Angouleme. It’s all a little confusing. The only time I lived in Paris for a long while was when I was in college. I studied abroad there for a semester and that’s when I started studying French.

How was living in Angouleme? I’ve never been but always naively pictured this sparkling comics nerve center.

It was really nice. I had access to the Maison des Auteurs (which is where the fabled Angouleme residencies take place), and a desk at the place I was staying. I was finishing up War of Streets and Houses while I was there, and overall it was a good place to get work done. I would hesitate to call it a “sparkling comics nerve center” though; to me it was a sleepy town with a bunch of talented cartoonists. Jeremy Sorese was doing a residency while I was there and we became buddies. The festival itself is very fun and nonstop parties, but that’s a very different vibe than the rest of the year.

Do you consider traveling part of your creative process?

I do feel like travel gets me out of my daily routine and can create a sort of meditative space where a lot of good thinking gets done. As I’m traveling a little less now due to various obligations, I’m trying to cultivate those same feelings at home as well. And I would like to be able to make work from a more fixed point, to not feel like I have to be running around all the time. But my parents raised me to hold travel above most worldly possessions, so I’m not sure I can get rid of the travel bug.

In War of Streets and Houses you dive into political and social consciousness in your study of the history of urban development. Around the Seattle area, where I live, they’re putting up a lot of cheaply made “micro” apartments with humongous monthly rent prices. I don’t know what kind of affect that will have on the city itself in the long run, but they sure are prevalent. Are you still interested in architecture? What sorts of challenges do you think urban or city planners will have in the near future?

I am interested in architecture and economics and how those things affect livability. It seems to me that the obvious short term is that more and more people will be priced out of living in “major” cities. Seattle suffers from the same tech industry influx that San Francisco does, which for residents means so much energy spent on keeping your housing or just needing to move. The crazy capitalist endgame might be what we see in London, where entire neighborhoods are empty of people because the international super-rich have bought massive apartment buildings as places to park their capital rather than to house humans. While there are many great architects and urban planners out there, they can’t solve this stuff alone. Short term, people need to band together to strengthen things like rent control and renter protections. Long term… replace capitalism?

Speaking of banding together, Streets and Houses is also about organized protest. In 2012, you participated in the Montreal Student Strike. Are there any similarities from then that you’re noticing now in the US with protests like the Women’s March?

The student strike in Montreal had so much energy behind it in large part because they had been organizing behind the scenes for years in powerful student unions. It was very much the Labor model of organizing (this time as “students” rather than “workers”). By not going to class and delaying their own graduation, they were actually creating problems for the labor market. They were on strike for about 6 months, at times there were upwards of 150,000 striking students. On top of striking, the students were marching in the streets every night. So yes, there were big protests like the ones we saw around the Women’s March, but there was also a firm underpinning of economic disruption via the act of striking. I was a participant in that I was marching with them in the streets and making myself present as witness, but I was neither a student nor a member of a student union. So I think that the Women’s March was a wonderful thing, but it didn’t have the same leverage that those students did in 2012.

Do you think that leverage is attainable right now? What would need to happen to force real change?

It would be no easy task, but a mass general strike would create a similar kind of leverage. Actually, I heard that there are some strikes planned. I’ll be very curious to see how that goes.

OK, let’s get back to your art. Your early comics are straight up autobiographical. Then when you get into work like Streets and Houses, you pulled back a little bit and play more of a narrator role. Now, as a journalist, you yourself are not really featured in your comics at all. Does that progression sound accurate? Was that something that you were mindful of?

I really think of the autobio and the journalism stuff as two different practices. The former is primarily for myself and the latter is more outwardly directed (although I learn a lot from doing research around the different journalism topics). War of Streets and Houses still feels very personal to me, but it does explore “bigger picture ideas.” I made that book primarily with my friends and strikers in Montreal in mind. While the work I’ve been publishing in the last couple years has been less-personal journalism comics, I’ve been working on a memoiresque book that has yet to be published, as well as a short comic along the lines of War of Streets and Houses but thinking about climate change and grief, and I have tons of unfinished journal comics as well. I’m still doing them, but my priorities as to what I wanted out in the world right now shifted, along with my personal life becoming a little bit complicated and heavy. And I wanted to get paid upfront to make comics!

Do you have publishing plans for those projects?

What is a Glacier? will be coming out from Retrofit soon. I’m still figuring out what will happen with the memoir.

When did you become interested in comics journalism and reporting?

Joe Sacco was the obvious inspiration who made me go, “Wow, this is a thing someone could do!” Personally though it was Susie Cagle who really encouraged me to try out some comics journalism stuff. We met in the Bay Area around 2010 when she was still making mini comics and then she gradually transitioned into full time doing comics journalism. She’s an incredibly hard-working cartoonist with a journalism degree, but she was always like, “Dude, you don’t need a degree, you can do this, go for it, get paid, I will help you.” She gave me recommendations for what to read about ethics and reporting skills and pitching, but most importantly she gave me lots of encouragement.

When you started reporting, was it difficult to get out of your comfort zone and cold call or approach strangers with questions or leads?

Yes, interviewing folks was a skill I had to develop. It’s not so hard when they’re people that you’ve made arrangements with who know what’s going on, but walking up to people and asking for an interview has been hard. I think it was most difficult for me when I went to North Dakota to report on the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, because I needed to be respectful and I was aware of my role as a white journalist interviewing Native people, some of whom are rightfully wary of media.

Was that a difficult tightrope to walk in that instance?

Sure. The thing about journalism is that traditional ethical standards of journalism dictate that the journalist is not supposed to show the finished work to interview subjects before its publication. This is an ethical quandary for many. Harvard’s Nieman Foundation has a great book about ethical and practical dilemmas in journalism called Telling True Stories, in which some of the included journalists talk about times they have grappled with this particular ethical standard. There are more collaborative ways of creating work with a “subject,” but journalism sees itself as holding people accountable, which on the one hand I think is important. On the other hand, I think journalism is responsible for a decent amount of misrepresentation as a result of that, especially when it comes to marginalized peoples.



What are people’s reactions when you tell interview subjects or sources that you will be drawing them for your journalism comics? Do you tell them?

I do tell them. Usually I just say something like, “I draw portraits along with quotes” because it’s the quickest way to get an understanding across. Most people who object are more concerned with having a picture taken as reference than the actual drawing.

Your autobio work can get fairly abstract or minimal in terms of line work, but your comics for The Guardian and The Nib are much more representational. Is that a conscious shift in style?

Sometimes in my journal comics I want to keep things abstract enough that folks won’t be able to identify who the “characters” are, since I’m not always drawing those comics with explicit consent. They are more like a diary. When I’m doing journalism, I either have consent or the legal right to talk about someone doing something in public. The goal is totally different. I don’t make the autobio comics to inform the public about issues.

When reporting, how do you decide what you’re going to represent with drawings and what is going to be straight text?

I tend to draw the people I’m interviewing, and as much context as I can without bogging down the flow of things. I would often like to draw even more, but the turnaround time on many of the reportage pieces has been a day, two days, up to a week or so. With time as a constraint, I try to do the drawings that will situate the reader most efficiently. As far as what gets represented… well, I can’t help it; I’m a human and an artist. It’s all being processed, so of course some choices are being made with aesthetics in mind, which is sometimes subconscious and sometimes a trick to get people to read about something I think is important. That’s part of the power of images!

Many of your comics feature negative space prominently. What about negative space attracts you as an artist?

My aversion to the protestant work ethic! But, seriously… in graphic design, negative space is not something that people look sideways at, unless you’re using it in the wrong place. I feel like in comics, artists often feel insecure about negative space, or maybe they just love drawing so much they want to fill every nook. I approach comics from more of a design perspective than an illustrative one. I’m not the first person to say that… so why does negative space feature in my work? I don’t know, I just think it works.

Outside of reporting, you recently translated Pretending is Lying by Dominique Goblet for New York Review Comics. How did that opportunity come about?

Over the years of being obsessed with comics, I’ve cultivated friendships with folks who are on a similar bent. Lucas Adams of NYRC is one of those people. He went to college with a high school friend of mine and she introduced us years ago and was like, “Hey, you’re both really into comics.” We became friends and eventually he was working at NYRB and he and Gabriel Winslow-Yost decided to pitch the idea of starting a comics imprint to them. Lucas knew I was heavy into European comics and so he asked me for some ideas to include in his NYRC pitch. The Goblet book was one of them and NYRB went for it. I’d already done some translation work (I helped edit the translation of Julie Delporte’s Journal, for example) and Lucas and Gabe offered to let me have a crack at it. They had other folks doing translation tests but in the end they went with mine. In any case, I know someone would have published it eventually, but I’m proud to say that I pointed a publisher to that book and I’m honored that I got to translate it.

You were a fellow at the Center for Cartoon Studies a few years ago, but came back as a faculty member this past year. What is your position there? What classes do you teach?

My time at CCS has been all over the place! I was the Fellow for a year, sitting in on classes and doing some teaching. And then I decided to become a student, in order to get an MFA to further pursue teaching, and specifically to work more closely with Jason Lutes, whom I find to be an amazing teacher and mentor. I’m a part-time faculty member now. Last semester I taught the first portion of the second-year “thesis” class, where students begin work on their year-long thesis project, and this semester I’m teaching the second portion of the first-year “cartooning studio” class, where students develop a deeper understanding of cartooning fundamentals and skills and turn out an impressive amount of pages. I get to work with a lot of really dedicated teachers and meet blossoming cartoonists in a weird comics town. It’s pretty cool.

Has it affected your cartooning at all?

I think it’s made me more open to asking for feedback at earlier stages in my work. If I’m making my students do it, I think I’d better be willing to try it more myself.

What’s next for you in terms of reportage? Is there an issue that you’d like to tackle or a place you’d like to learn more about?

I want to let the ideas percolate for a little while. Right now, it’s easier to focus on bigger questions like the survival of humanity. I’m interested generally in climate change and how that’s going to affect communities worldwide, and what we can do to mitigate or prepare for that, but I’m not sure how I might further pursue that. It’s a politically confusing time and I think I haven’t figured out what questions I want to try to answer yet.

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Jay Lynch: The Final Interview http://www.tcj.com/jay-lynch-the-final-interview/ http://www.tcj.com/jay-lynch-the-final-interview/#comments Wed, 08 Mar 2017 13:00:59 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=99155 Continue reading ]]>

Photo by Patrick Rosenkranz, Chicago 1972.

I did not know Jay Lynch well. I spoke to him a few times on the phone, mostly in regard to his early 1987 Comics Journal interview. I was happy to reconnect with him, and contacted him last year, at the suggestion of Paul Krassner, and asked him if he’d like to draw the cover to Fantagraphics’ recent The Realist Cartoons, a collection of the best cartoons from Krassner’s legendary satirical magazine. Jay excitedly agreed to do it and turned in one of his best drawings — which he drew and colored. This may be the last drawing he published.

When I heard he had cancer, I called him and asked him if he was interested in sitting down for an interview. He was. Jay was dying when he gave this interview and knew he was dying. I hadn’t talked to Jay in a long time, but I could detect that although he was articulate and lucid, his speech was also uncharacteristically halting, and often interrupted by coughing fits. Nonetheless, he seemed eager to talk. He was, throughout, stoic, funny, and utterly un-self-pitying in the face of what he knew was his impending death. On full display here is his encyclopedic knowledge of counter- or minority-culture of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, his unsentimental description of his chaotic family life, and his fond reminiscences of his close friendships with Art Spiegelman and Skip Williamson.

My last conversation with him was on February 29, when I was fact checking the interview and filling in a few spots that were unintelligible. He was even more talkative on that occasion, albeit less lucid, and what I anticipated would be a 10-minute conversation turned into an hour-long one. My impression was that he did not want to say goodbye. Neither did I.

GARY GROTH, March 5, 2017

This interview was conducted on January 23 and February 5. It was transcribed and copyedited by Conrad Groth.

 

Growing Up

 

GARY GROTH: Can you tell me a little about your childhood and your growing up and your relationship to your parents? Can you tell me what your parents did?

JAY LYNCH: Well, we lived in a house in which lived my grandparents, their four daughters, the husbands of the daughters — for those who were married at the time — and my uncle. So my mother worked at an army base in Port Monmouth … so it’s more like … y’know, we called our grandmother “Ma.” The daughters weren’t that much older, though, actually. When I was born, Grace was 16 and all the daughters were under 25, except my mother was 26 when I was born. So I call my mother “Alice,” and I call my grandmother “Ma.”

GG: Now why did you call your mother by her first name?

JL: I don’t know. Because I guess that’s what everyone did. In the house, there were her sisters and her parents. And she had a job in the day at Port Monmouth, and the other daughters worked for the phone company.

GG: And how many siblings did you have?

JL: I had no brothers or sisters until 1957, when my mother remarried, and then I had a half brother and a half sister. But I left home in ’63. So they were like three years old or something.

GG: Well, one would’ve been about six years old, yeah.

JL: I wasn’t spending much time in my house when I was a teen.

GG: You did not.

JL: No.

“The Young Runaways” from Bijou.

GG: Is that because you found the environment unpalatable, or because you just wanted to go out and raise hell or what?

JL: I found it hard to get anything done. My stepfather was a drunk, would often get drunk, and I would go and stay in the city until it was over.

GG: You were in Florida at this time. You grew up in Florida?

JL: Well, I grew up in New Jersey and I moved to Florida when I was 12. So I was in Florida from when I was 12 to when I was 18.

GG: When you say you would stay in the city, what city?

JL: Miami.

GG: And where would you stay, with friends?

JL: We had a junior achievement company, and I just kept going there after the school year was over. It was an office. We always lived in offices. Like in Chicago I lived in the Diversey Arms Hotel, which didn’t have any air-conditioning or anything, so I had to sleep at the Aardvark magazine office.

GG: Did you not have a home of your own?

JL: When? When I moved to Chicago?

GG: Well, when you were living in offices.

JL: No. After high school, I moved to the city and I rented a little room in a hotel that was $80 a month for rent, a bed and a bathroom. And there was a room, but it wasn’t air-conditioned and it was not comfortable in the summer. It was a common practice for people to sleep in their offices, especially if they worked for small companies and had keys and stuff.

Mr. [Harlan] Ellison I believe slept at Rogue magazine for many years.

GG: [Laughs.] Did you witness this?

JL: No. By the time I arrived he’d left to write Burke’s Law. But he was writing for Joe Pilati’s fanzine at that time. We were all very excited, because Burke’s Law is very famous.

GG: Did the two of you ever cross paths?

JL: Not until the modern era. Well, I talked to him on the phone. I did stuff for a comic that he did. I did the drawing, I illustrated the thing in Dream Corridor.

GG: I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with that, was that an adaptation of a short story?

JL: Yeah, it was the thing about the genie and the can opener.

GG: How was that experience?

JL: It was good. He’d call me up and try to get me to work on “Djinn, No Chaser.” They did the script, so it’s a short story. It should’ve been three pages, but it was like six or eight. Kinda dragged out. He called up to see how I was doing. And he’s always been pleasant to me. So at the time I’d swallowed a bridgework for my teeth, I swallowed a bridge.

GG: Swallowed it?

JL: Yeah. Just two teeth. So he goes into this long thing about how to recover it [Groth laughs] by straining my shit through cheesecloth, which I did and eventually I recovered the bridge. But anyway, after he gives me the long … Oh, wait — there’s required reading for this — we should go back to the idea that I dated an actress who was on some TV show for a short time when I was in college, and once I mentioned it to Ellison, he says, “Ah, I went to the same college, and I dated Ann Margaret.” Or, I left home when I was 17, Ellison says, “Well, I left home when I was 13, and I joined the circus.” So there’s always like a one-up thing. So he gives me the instructions on how to recover the teeth and then when he finished, he says, “Oh, by the way, this happened to me and here’s what I did. And he gave me instructions. Then he says, by the way, how many teeth?” [Laughter.]

GG: As if it would be a different technique if there were more or fewer?

JL: No, it’s that when I say two, he says, “Ha! I swallowed four.” [Groth laughs.] But I don’t really remember.

GG: So the shit-straining technique was born out of experience.

JL: Well, I did it because it costs hundreds of dollars to get a new bridge.

GG: Well, it makes sense. Well now, skipping back to your teen years … Tell me about your family life in Miami. Were you in open conflict with your stepfather, or was it some other …

JL: I tried to avoid him.

GG: That’s primarily because he was an alcoholic, or were there other reasons?

JL: Well, he was kind of stupid as well.

GG: That’s a bad combination.

JL: But I think at the end, I said, “Well, look, I don’t like this and you don’t like this, so I’m going. Goodbye.”

GG: How did your mother feel about that?

JL: I don’t know. She was an enabler, she just accepted everything.

GG: What was your relationship with your mother like?

JL: I lived with her from 1956 to 1962. So it’s only six years. Before that, I lived with her in the context of my grandmother being the head of the house, so it was like … All of the girls were more like sisters than authority figures.

GG: It sounds like your grandmother was more the matriarch, and your mother’s sisters lived there. So you grew up with a lot of women. How do you think that affected your upbringing, your developing consciousness and view of the world?

JL: I dunno, what do you think? I don’t know, I never thought much about it.

“Child Martyr” from Bijou.

GG: What was your father doing when you were living in this house with your mother?

JL: I hadn’t seen him since I was three, but he eventually became a doorman in New Jersey.

GG: Why hadn’t you seen him from the age of three?

JL: Because he was kind of vilified.

GG: Did he leave?

JL: He didn’t like the idea of living in a house with all these people. And one day, he went with my mother to the movies to avoid the crowds, but her sisters were there and they were all in back of him. So this made him flip out.

GG: [Laughs.] It was just the last straw. And he left?

JL: Yeah.

GG: Do you remember that?

JL: No.

GG: So one day he was just gone?

JL: Yeah. There was a long, drawn-out legal battle where they dragged me into court and had me [testify], but it wasn’t like he did anything evil to me or anything like that.

GG: So there was litigation between your mother and he.

JL: Yeah.

GG: What did you have to testify to?

JL: She wanted to get child support.

GG: And you actually had to testify, as a child?

JL: I think so. I forget what the nature of it was, though.

GG: This was in a courtroom?

JL: Yeah. Well it was done in the Army-McCarthy hearings, I think. Or at least during some televised HUAC hearing. So I kind of thought of it as that.

GG: Sounds like you were maybe five or six, seven?

JL: I thought it was like three … Maybe the trial was a couple of years after he left, I dunno.

GG: And did he ever return? Or did he become a part of your life at some point?

JL: No.

GG: Never?

JL: Never. And he left me a dollar.

GG: [Laughs.] Did you say a dollar?

JL: Yeah.

GG: [Laughs.] Huh. And you never saw him again?

JL: No.

GG: The last time you saw your father was when you were three years old?

JL: Yeah.

GG: How old were you when your mother married your stepfather?

JL: I think that was in 1955 or 1956.

GG: You were ten.

JL: Eleven.

GG: And what did he do?

JL: What was his job? Oh, both were named Lynch.

GG: [In disbelief] What?

JL: Both had the last name of Lynch, and this has never been fully explained to me. [Groth laughs.] But I gave up caring about that. He worked for Esso, Standard Oil, he drove a truck. Yeah, a bunch of little jobs. He worked for Sears selling fences and …

GG: So what was your mother like? Obviously, not that great at picking husbands, but other than that what was she like?

JL: Kind of like … frustrating. You couldn’t ask her a question without asking her 12 times before she’d respond. Like she was paying attention to some other plane or something.

GG: Does not sound attentive.

JL: Well, I dunno. She had problems.

GG: Did you feel like you were on your own, at an early age?

JL: Yeah.

GG: And it sounds like you became independent at an early age and remained independent throughout your life. Is that accurate?

JL: Yes, I guess. Well, my parents were divorced when I was three, my mother remarried an alcoholic, and I spent a lot of time hiding. Staying in other places.

GG: Was this after you lived in a dressing room of a burlesque theater?

JL: I lived in a burlesque theater after the war [WWII]. They seized all public housing so this burlesque theater had more than one dressing room, and the extra dressing rooms became veteran’s housing. That was when I was a baby, that was with my biological father.

Illustration by “Ray Finch” in Turned on Cuties.

GG: So this was not an active burlesque theater?

JL: It was, but it had a separate entrance.

GG: I see. Unfortunately, you probably weren’t old enough to remember much of that.

JL: It was in Asbury Park. I remember those pictures of women dressed as ponies.

GG: That may have had a profound effect on your psyche.

JL: Later Jeff Rund did those Eric Stanton prints of that imagery. This was in Asbury park. Actually, there were fake guys like there was a fake Jackie Gleason, there was a fake Ray Bolger. Of course, there’s a fake Jerry Lewis. For every famous person,  there was a lower-level comedian who looked like them and did their act almost but wasn’t them.

GG: This was in the burlesque theater?

JL: Yeah.

GG: You must have only made the connection to the real comedian later in life, because you would’ve been too young to realize who they were, right?

JL: Well, I worked in a hotel in Miami Beach and there was a comedian there, and he never became famous but his brother became famous. Jackie Gayle? Marty Gayle? Yeah I think he was Marty Gayle, Jackie Gayle’s brother. So, you know, I worked in a newsstand there and I bought his record. He would work in the lounge and sell records that he made himself.

GG: Marty Gayle?

JL: Yeah Marty Gayle, Jackie Gayle’s brother.

GG: What was your job at the hotel?

JL: I sold newspapers and cigars and stuff.

GG: And you would’ve been a teenager.

JL: Yeah. Maybe sixth, seventh grade.

GG: That’s pretty young to be working.

JL: Well I needed pants.

 

Early Influences

 

GG: Well, let me skip back a little bit. When you were nine or 10 years old, you edited and published a fanzine called the Vulgarmental.

JL: Yeah. Let me explain that. That’s in [Patrick] Rosenkranz’s book [Rebel Visions]. When we were kids we’d just get newsprint paper and staple it to slick paper and make little comics. Just one-of-a-kind things. And mine were [just full of] jokes about urine and poop and shit. So this Vulgarmental thing was a parody of the TV show The Continental, which was a European … well, Mad did a parody of it, too. So, then we’d pass it around, and some kid had mine and his father found it. And his father was a cop, and his father confronted me in a lot next to their house and told me not to do such things.

GG: Such things being putting out the Vulgarmental? This little fanzine? He didn’t appreciate that.

JL: He didn’t appreciate its content.

GG: It sounds like you were doing something right then.

JL: Well, that’s what I was about. It’s not like we fronted the thing, it’s not like we did it regularly with any editorial deadline in mind or anything.

GG: But it still suggests the need to create something.

JL: There were things like eight-pagers but not eight-pagers. There was a thing called Night in the Tropics that was a little pocket-sized thing that was in color, and it was clean, like minstrel jokes or something. Then there were eight-pagers, and these were more valuable because they were rarer.

GG: These were eight-pagers that you drew?

JL: No.

GG: These were eight-pagers you bought or found.

JL: Yeah. I guess my uncle might’ve had them.

GG: I was gonna say, where would you find these.

JL: There was a trunk of old magazines and stuff in the garage. Lilliput magazine, the World War II British men’s pocked-sized magazine. And Esquire, from the ’30s.

There was my uncle Jack who was married to Gloria who also, much of the time, lived in the house with everybody else. Occasionally, he would have a job that would have him move to another city, but eventually he’d always be back. So at first he did circulation for Collier’s, and then he did circulation for Time/Life. So in the garage there were all these racks, for Life magazine racks and posters and oak tag display kiosks and stuff like that. And pencils, paperweights — y’know, promotional giveaways for Time/Life. So as a kid, half my furniture was Time/Life, almost.

GG: That seems appropriate.

JL: But he introduced me to Mad. Time was distributed by American News in New Jersey, and they did Dell and DC comics. But they didn’t do EC, and they didn’t do the smaller titles. But one day, my uncle came with a copy of Mad and showed me it and it changed my life.

GG: Do you remember what issue that was?

JL: The one with “Teddy and the Pirates” [Mad #6]. And then I mailed away for back issues.

Mad issue featuring “Teddy and the Pirates”.

GG: You were obviously attracted to satire and a satirical point of view at an incredibly early age; was there something about your upbringing that you would attribute that to? Or how do you think you gravitated to that anti-establishment point of view?

JL: I don’t know, just like Stan Freberg and Ernie Kovacs on the television, and Time for Beany — the puppet show with Stan Freberg.

GG: But not everybody did, I mean a distinct minority of people were attracted to that.

JL: We did see eight-pagers before. I did see eight-pagers before I saw Mad. So there was some kind of a forbidden thing about Mad because they were mocking comic strip characters, as were eight-pagers. But they did sell well.

GG: You also grew up in the ’50s which was really the beginning of and almost the heyday of satirical expression, starting with Mad and moving into Stan Freberg and Ernie Kovacs. And comedians like Jonathon Winters and Sid Caesar.

JL: Yes, Caesar’s show was a big thing.

GG: Did you embrace all of that?

JL: Yeah. Really though, and then there was Steve Allen, but Steve Allen was like … the main things were Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs, and when Freberg was on TV.

GG: Steve Allen had a kind of anarchic routine, which was very appealing.

JL: Steve Allen worked for The Independent, which was Lyle Stuart’s newspaper. And Lyle Stuart was a business manager in Mad, and kind of mentored [Paul] Krassner on The Realist. And I saw The Realist early on.

GG: You discovered The Realist in 1958, which means you would’ve been 13 years old, which is a pretty young age to discover The Realist.

JL: Well, I was in Miami beach. I worked in a newsstand and we sold publications and we sold what was called the Mercury Press, which isn’t the famous literary Mercury press but back then it was an insanely right-wing anti-immigration, anti-liberal, precursor to The National Review, only crazier. It was like a national magazine, it was like a digest-size thing. American Mercury, was it called? American Mercury, I think. And that was interesting because it was so crazy, so over-the-top.

GG: This had nothing to do with H.L. Mencken’s …

JL: Right, not Mencken. He did a magazine with the same name, but by ’59 it had devolved into this right-wing thing. And then there was the New Republic for the other side.

GG: So you were precocious.

JL: Well I don’t know. There was a comic [I did] called Unsane — “It’s Crazier than Insane.” And then I did a comic myself called Insane — “It’s Crazier than Unsane.” But no, I always do that. When Whack magazine came out I did a thing that was like Whack.

GG: Whack Magazine, what was that?

JL: Saint John’s [the publisher]. It was a 3-D imitation of Mad. It wasn’t until … Well, you know, we followed all the Mad guys and when they left Mad, some went to Cracked, and we followed the ones that went to Cracked, and then came Humbug and all this other stuff. So I was following [John] Severin which was Cracked, and [Jack] Davis was still with Mad, and [Harvey] Kurtzman had Help and before that Humbug, and Trump. But I guess I got the EC Fan-Addict Club newsletter when I was a kid, but nothing really clicked until the end of 1960. Paul Laiken was editor of Cracked, and he gave Joe Pilati a plug for his fanzine Smudge, and Smudge was news of — he would interview people who did the satire fanzines. It was a serious, interview type magazine. So I sent for Smudge, and Skip Williamson sent for Smudge, and [Art] Spiegelman sent for Smudge, Don Edwing sent for Smudge. A lot of people who then ultimately became cartoonists sent for Smudge, and many of us started drawing for Smudge. And in the back of Smudge, Pilati ran reviews of other fanzines: one was Wild and another was Jack High. We did cartoons for Wild and Jack High, me, Spiegelman, and Williamson, and Edwing.

GG: And these were all fanzines?

JL: Yeah, but they were printed. Smudge had a circulation of 80, it was dittoed. And Wild and Jack High were different than Smudge in that they were imitations of Mad. They actually attempted to do humorous stories rather than just running news of the satire business.

Jay Lynch cover.

 

GG: Did Smudge interview artists like Kurtzman?

JL: Smudge interviewed Kurtzman and [Will] Elder, and Don Martin, and Al Feldstein I think. But the ones they interviewed their photos went on the cover. Pilati was I think fourteen at the time, but his magazine was a very serious, very well done magazine. Now later, when we did underground comics, Joe Pilati wrote the introduction to Corporate Crime Comics and he worked on the Charles Stevens boycott, the thing that the Norma Ray movie, the Sally Field movie is about. And the same guy who did that — Ray Rodgers is his name — had a company called Corporate Campaign, and he would do these union things, and all of a sudden they wound up opposing Coca-Cola for their killing of union workers in Colombia. He’s been doing that for the last 20 years. But Pilati continued to work for Ray Rodgers, and I continued to do cartoons for Ray Rodgers’ organization so there’s a body of work of Coca-Cola. You know, “Don’t drink Coca-Cola” things that I did.

GG: What was Rodgers’ company? What did it actually do?

JL: Well it was like an ad agency for groups that were protesting the companies.

GG: So it sounds like an anti-ad agency.

JL: Yeah. It ran campaigns that were on the verge of being strikes. They’re still around. If you [search] “killer coke” it’ll take you to the corporate campaign pages on that topic.

GG: How old were you when you contributed to Smudge and Wild?

JL: 1960. So 15, 16, 17.

GG: During this period you were friends with Spiegelman and Williamson and can you tell me how you expanded that circle, and how that grew in the mid- to late-’60s?

JL: Well, I moved to Chicago in ’62, ’63 and I did stuff for a magazine called Aardvark, and I was in touch with Spiegelman and Williamson from the fanzines, so I sent some copies of Aardvark and they did stuff for Aardvark. In Florida, Bill Killeen, who was the guy who wrote the first Wonder Warthog for the Texas Ranger, had started a magazine called Charlatan. So I did cartoons for Charlatan and I think Williamson and Spiegelman also did Charlatan stuff. And Help reprinted Wonder Warthog from Charlatan. Their public gallery feature in the beginning was just reprints of college humor magazine cartoons. So we went from the fanzines to the college humor magazines, these beatnik-type magazines like Nexus in San Francisco, or The Idiot in San Francisco. Those were kind of like The Realist cartoons, shocking cartoons. Like I did a cover for The Idiot that’s a nativity scene except that one of the wise men says, “What do you mean it’s a girl?” Which in its day was shocking. And Skip, and I think Spiegelman did stuff for The Idiot.

Cartoons for The Idiot #4, December ’65.

GG: When you say you met Spiegelman and Skip Williamson through the fanzines, did you meet them through the mail? How did you actually meet them?

JL: I met them through the mail first, though I did meet Art in person. He came to Miami with his parents. They were on vacation and I met them in a hotel and it was the week that Little Annie Fanny came out in Playboy.

GG: The first one?

JL: Yeah, ’62 maybe. I met Skip after I moved to Chicago. I lived in the Diversey Hotel, and Skip came to town for some science fiction convention, so he stayed with me in the hotel and that’s how I met Skip. And then I would go up to Missouri and visit Skip, or I would go to New York and visit Art. I guess I was doing stuff … Topps fired Art pretty early. When I was still in school I think he did occasional things for Topps.

GG: How old were you guys? I mean you guys are roughly the same age, you might be a little younger than Art, I’m not sure.

JL: I’m 72, Art is 70. When I met Art he was 14 and I was 16.

GG: So tell me what Art was like then, at 14?

JL: Well he liked the Mad stuff, the Mad artists. We would write back and forth if we noticed an obscure crosshatching technique. We would discuss this at great length. Arnold Roth would do a line, and then do little lines inside of that line. There was a cartoon of the Trojan Horse that he did in Help and we went on and on about what that means, the line within a line.

GG: So you were both very analytical.

JL: Yeah. And wit and its relation to the unconscious — the Freud thing about writing jokes — was a big thing.

GG: You must have immediately taken to each other.

JL: Oh, yeah.

GG: How did that friendship evolve over the years?

JL: Well, I’m still friendly with Art. Art was up here a few weeks ago. Although humor is no longer his main thing, but he is a comedy genius, someday he must come back to this. Hmm, how did it evolve?

Well, one thing Spiegelman and I always wind up discussing is we did like a radio show, we just recorded for fun on tape — there was a time we’d be on the radio a lot in Chicago, but they wouldn’t play this because it wasn’t recorded by a union. And I sent it to a guy in Finland and I am told he played it, but I don’t know if he still has the tape. Whenever I ask him he never answers. But it was called “Dem Guys” — “On the Stoop with Dem Guys” — and it’s like two bums sitting on a stoop, and one wants to write a letter to his girlfriend but they don’t have a pencil, and they get a pencil but they don’t have paper, and they use a wine bottle label, and he says, “OK, take a letter: Veryl, Veryl, Veryl, my dearest of goils.” And then he writes it down and then, “What’s that?” And then he says, “Again, again. Veryl, Veryl, Verl … ” “What’s that?” And he says, “Chicken scratch?” And he says, “No they’re ditto marks, ditto marks. That means twice. Veryl, Veryl, Veryl. Twice.” I dunno. Maybe it’s bad, I dunno. I haven’t heard it for 50 years. I think it was funny. [Laughter.]

GG: Now you and Art recorded this yourselves and intended to sell it to a radio station, or try to get it aired?

JL: No, we just had a cordial relationship with the radio and TV people because I lived a block from the TV station and whenever a guest wouldn’t show up on Underground News they’d call me and I’d come over and plug the comic book. And same with the radio, we knew the radio people. So, you know, if we made something they probably would’ve played it, but in this case they didn’t.

GG: This was in Chicago?

JL: Yeah.

GG: And this was all improvisatory? It was not scripted?

JL: The “Dem Guys” show? Yeah. Right. And then Art did the leaflets.

GG: Now, explain the leaflets

JL: We wanted to meet women on the street, and we did the love leaflet, which was just the definition cut out of the dictionary of the word love and a surreal drawing. We’d give it to people and they’d say, “What’s this?” and we’d say, “A leaflet.” So that would perhaps lead to conversation … But after that, he did “Play with Yourself” and a comic on food, and a whole bunch of different leaflets. Once we did one that was just a picture of a leaf, people would say, “What’s this?” and we’d say, “A leaflet.”

GG: Did this lead to any successful romances?

JL: No. [Laughter.] Not that I recall.

GG: A complete failure. [Laughs.]

JL: Well, you know, it was fun. And we got to talk to strangers. They thought we were nuts.

Comic by Art Spiegelman for Gothic Blimp Works #7.

Well, then came the Hippies and the underground press, and we did stuff for the underground papers. So I go to New York to do stuff for Topps, and they would put me in the Hotel Earl which was eight dollars a night — it was the official Topps hotel. And people would bang on the door and say “Speed, Acid, Lids.” I didn’t know if they were buying or selling. We also did East village Other cartoons when we weren’t doing the Topps stuff at the Hotel Earl. And Art did an early book of quotes called Whole Grains. Like Eisenhower once said, “Things are more the way they are now than they ever were before.” And we knew of Crumb from Help. Real early on I remember visiting Art and Art said, “I don’t know if Robert Crumb has left his wife.” And that was shocking. But after that he’d leave his wife every year at the same time.

GG: [Laughs.] Until he no longer had to.

JL: Yeah.

GG: That’s when he left Cleveland to go to San Francisco? That’s what you’re referring to?

JL: He worked for Topps. I guess he moved to New York and Kurtzman gave him a job as assistant editor of Help. But the day he showed up for work they were moving the furniture out of the office. So Kurtzman got him several gigs, one was assisting Jack Davis. And Jack Davis said, “This guy is so slow, how can this be?”

GG: Yeah that lasted about three weeks.

JL: Yeah, but Crumb wound up doing stuff for Topps and Woody Gelman, who was the creative director at Topps, who also had all these side things going. He had Nostalgia Press, and he published a magazine called Nostalgia Magazine.

GG: And this would have been around ’65?

JL: ’65 or ’66, what was the bubblegum thing … I think Glenn Brown was doing Sonny and Cher cards at this time.

GG: And you would move in and out of New York.

JL: I would go to New York for two or three weeks and I would stay with Art if he was living there, or I would stay with whoever I knew that was there at the time. I used to stay with Don Lewis who was the art director of The [Chicago] Seed [who] then became the art director of The East Village Other.

 

Precursors to Cartooning

 

GG: Skip Williamson moved to Chicago in 1967 so you could start a humor magazine, and I think that was the Chicago Mirror.

JL: Yeah.

GG: And then that segued into Bijou [Funnies], if I remember correctly.

JL: Right.

GG: Can you tell me a little about that, how you and Skip got together to collaborate on that and how you decided that he would move there? It sounds like you were both planning on being entrepreneurs.

JL: Yeah. Well we just finished the banana story. In the papers then it said that people were smoking bananas to get high. And we made up this thing that they were smoking dog poop. [Laughter.] They were called “shitheads,” and the most popular variety was Lincoln Park Brown. We told readers how to cure dog poop. But it was basically satire. So we were selling the magazine on the street and a kid comes up and he says, “Hey, thanks for the tip on the dog poop. We’ve been smokin’ this stuff for a week, it’s great!” [Groth laughs.] And I said, “No, no, that’s humor, that’s satire. You’re not really supposed to do that.” [Groth laughs.] And he says, “Hell, it works.” And around that time Crumb sent me Zap #1. So I thought … We’ve been misjudging our audience. If they’re gonna believe the dog poop thing, maybe we should just do a comic book. And that’s what we did.

GG: So it was a combination of Zap #1 and the dog poop that inspired you.

JL: Well, I think the dog poop was the crucial factor.

GG: [Laughs.] Well, of course.

JL: We never thought to do a whole comic, and even in The Mirror what we did mostly was one-panel gag cartoons.

GG: Now what format was The Mirror in?

JL: Well, it was like a magazine. Mostly articles with one-panel gag cartoons breaking them up, and an occasional full-page comic strip.

GG: Was Zap #1 the first underground comic you actually saw? Did you not see God Nose or …

JL: I saw God Nose in ’64. Jackson sent me a bunch of them to put in the Roosevelt University bookstore back then. They were in the Roosevelt store and they were in Barbara’s Bookstore on Wells Street.

Charlatan cover by Jack Jackson.

 

GG: But that did not inspire you to do something similar?

JL: No. Charlatan magazine was running God Nose comic strips at the time. And Wonder Warthog was a regular feature in Charlatan.

GG: But the God Nose comics format didn’t inspire you to do something like it?

JL: Right. It did not.

GG: I guess the time was not right.

JL: There were other things. There was something … It was yellow, it was on legal-sized paper folded over and it came out of Austin and it was like your humor magazine that was comics plus writing. And I have it somewhere, but there was only one issue. Then there was the Austin Iconoclastic magazine, which was a newsletter then, kind of like … There was a thing called Monocle that was a political satire magazine. But no, we didn’t think to do a comic book like God Nose.

GG: Were you dead-set on becoming a cartoonist?

JL: Not so much a cartoonist, but a humorist. And not even a humorist. Some of us in Chicago used to speak at coffeehouses and it wasn’t like we were telling jokes or anything, we were saying things that made people nervous and they therefore would laugh.

GG: Not humor exactly though.

JL: Well I guess it was humor, but when you repeat it 50 years later it’s not funny any more.

GG: Would this have been beat inspired?

JL: In a way, although it wasn’t that we liked Allen Ginsberg or Kerouac or that. We liked Albert Ellis and [Alfred] Korzybski . Not the art part of the beatnik thing but the social sciences part of it, I think.

GG: You wanted to stir things up politically and socially.

JL: Yeah, we did a newspaper called The Old Town Newspaper. Madalyn Murray [O’Hair] was in all that stuff that we did.

GG: Now The Old Town Newspaper, where was this and when was this? And who was this?

JL: This was in ’64 in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago. It was a four-page paper published in letter press, without type. The first we had Nelson Algren writing about capital punishment.

GG: Let me just talk about this for a moment. First of all, who is we? You and who else?

JL: The Publisher was a guy named Karl Sonkin, who in recent years has been a news anchor in San Diego. Now he works for Kaiser, the insurance outfit in San Diego — he’s like a PR guy for Kaiser. Well, Carl was with Aardvark, he did stuff for Aardvark. And Skip [Williamson] was in The Old Town Newspaper. And Howard Shoemaker, who was a Playboy cartoonist and who at one point was in The Realist and all these alternate magazines.

Cartoon by Howard Shoemaker for The Realist.

 

GG: Now you would’ve been 19 years old at the time, how could you guys afford to do this?

JL: Afford?

GG: I mean how could you pay for the printing of this newspaper.

JL: It was 50 bucks.

GG: [Laughs.] Well, that was a lot of money back then.

JL: We sold ads. The first issue was good. There was a photographer in Springfield — the capital of Illinois — and at the back of the electric chair there was a no smoking sign. So I suggested that the photographer go up there and take a picture of that, and get the no smoking sign. So he goes up there and he takes pictures and they’re all these solarized, artsy-fartsy pictures, and you don’t see the no smoking sign. So that kind of pissed me off, so the caption I wrote was, “Here’s the electric chair in Springfield, not depicted is an ironic no smoking sign in the background.” Photo by whatever the guy’s name was. Just to embarrass him, you know. Ultimately, it got to where the paper was just trying to make money and they’d write reviews of restaurants and articles about people they sold ads to, and it just wasn’t of any merit. So I left, and it evolved into something called Skyline, which was a newspaper for high-rises. It’s the same corporation but last time I looked — maybe 20 years ago — it was called Skyline.

GG: So its gentrification was complete.

JL: Yeah.

GG: You said you were inspired by Zap when that came out, that would have been ’68, and then you started to form a community — Skip Williamson and Art Spiegelman and eventually Robert Crumb and so on—of underground comics and it became something — it was no longer an abstract idea, it was happening; did you then have a sense that you were changing comics, that you were no longer following in the traditions of mass market comics, with the exception of Mad, and that you were doing something —

JL: Yeah, we always wanted to change the [Comics] Code. That was our main goal.

GG: The Comics Code.

JL: Yeah. Chill the Code.

GG: Was there the conscious sense that you were pushing the medium in a different direction, or using the medium in a different way than it had been?

JL: Yeah. But I didn’t start doing comics as comics until the underground comics thing. Before that we did magazine gag cartoons, because we thought comics were killed by the Code and there was no place within it for us.

GG: And you were right.

JL: Yeah.

GG: Because you had to create your own place. It’s interesting, because without the historical moment being what it was, you couldn’t have done that. Without the counterculture, without the advent of head shops, without that distribution network, you couldn’t have done that. And I wonder what you would have done, but it might not have been comics.

JL: Did I tell you about the Pageant magazine article?

GG: No.

JL: In 1954-5, Pageant ran a piece on the Mad staff, of the comic book. So I bought Pageant. And in that issue of Pageant was an article called “Pills that Chase Away the Blues,” and this was about early LSD. And one thing it said in the article, it said that people who took this new drug reported seeing a Walt Disney black dwarf fighting with a white Walt Disney dwarf, and they spin around in a circle and turn into a yin and yang symbol. So of course when I took acid, twenty years later, that’s what I saw. Crumb did a strip in Underground Digest, a pocket-sized magazine, where there’s something like that, a dwarf spinning into a yin and yang thing. So I mention this to Crumb, and Crumb I guess also as a youth bought that issue of Pageant. So could it be that the suggestion of that influenced what he saw and maybe changed the course of comics? I don’t know. [Groth laughs.]

 

From Men’s Magazines to Underground Comics

 

GG: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it’s ZAP #1 that really galvanized the underground comics movement, but there was so much activity before that and you were very much a part of that. There were the college humor magazines that preceded underground comics. There were the fanzines you were referring to that also preceded them and that fueled, that inspired the work by you and artists like Spiegelman and Skip Williamson. I’d like you to talk a little bit about that pre-ZAP #1 period, and what led up to it.

Cover by R. Crumb.

 

JL: Well, when underground comics came, originally we were mostly doing one-panel gag cartoons for men’s magazines, and when underground comics came we did strips. So there were a lot of one-panel gag cartoon guys who just didn’t ever get into underground comics. There was a guy named Hank Hinton, who did a strip called Charlie Carrot Charisma for Cavalier, he was really good. He did Frat Man for Help magazine, Joel Siegel wrote it, I think. But he wound up getting a job at the LA Times, and he was like their caricaturist, he was like their David Levine guy. And he did that for 20 years. He did some stuff for Hot Rod Cartoons, the hot rod magazine that [Gilbert] Shelton did stuff for. And Howard Shoemaker was a one-panel gag cartoonist, he’s a great cartoonist.

GG: He did a lot of work for The Realist.

JL: But he was of a generation that was a little older than the hippie thing. But, you know, people began to show up who were good cartoonists and I tried to get them to do stuff for my books.

GG: It sounds like you were basically scrambling to work for whoever you could work for. Men’s magazines or college newspapers or …

JL: Well, men’s magazines then had to have a certain amount of sexually redeeming copy. And there was a lot of good stuff in them. Playboy in those days would interview Bertrand Russell. Now, they’ll interview Chris Rock.

GG: [Laughs.] It’s a sign of where we’re going, yeah.

JL: You seen the new Playboy?

GG: I have seen the new manifestation, yes. Pretty dismal.

JL: Yes.

GG: What’s your opinion of it?

JL: It’s like it’s not there. It’s like Maxim or something. They send me Maxim for free, but I always gave it away. There was one issue, though, that had Spiegelman and Molly Crabapple — they sent her to Iran. And there was article on Dan Clowes. And that was just the one issue, and before that and after that it’s just been boring.

GG: [In disbelief.] You’re talking about Maxim?

JL: No, Playboy. Maybe six months ago they did one good issue.

GG: Huh, I didn’t know that. Must’ve been a mistake.

JL: Well, Molly Crabapple’s in Vice. So they might’ve thought that Vice is good to be like.

GG: [Laughs.] This is sad.

JL: Eh, Vice is nice. Johnny Ryan is my favorite cartoonist. He’s a laugh getter. [Laughs.] That’s the only stuff I laugh at.

Cartoon from Back in Bleck.

 

GG: So you wanted to be a humorist and it sounds like the most efficacious way you could pursue this was through cartooning.

JL: Especially after the underground comics thing. Because there was a lot of that, a lot of underground comics. Before that, I would write for the college humor magazines just as much as I would draw.

GG: And these would be skits or stories?

JL: I did this thing, Money Talks, like, Walnuts, Jack Whal’s thing where he has small objects talking to each other.

I did a thing called Money Talks in Charlatan, where it’d be coins talking to each other. So it’d just be photos of coins, with captions. But I wrote … Oui magazine sent me to track down snuff movies and I wrote a thing about that, and Hustler sent me down to track down Howard Hughes’ urine and I wrote a thing about that. I did a profile of Paul Harvey for Chic magazine.

 

San Francisco and the Underground Scene

 

GG: Let me bring you back to the birth of the undergrounds. You met Skip Williamson and Art Spiegelman, I think you met Gilbert Shelton and Jack Jackson as well, part of the Texas contingent of underground cartoonists. Shelton was publishing in the Texas Ranger

JL: Jackson submitted stuff to Aardvark and he came to Chicago, and I didn’t really see him … I didn’t really hang out with him until after they all moved to San Francisco. Shelton was the same thing, I went to his house to help him bind Radical America Komiks

GG: In San Francisco?

JL: In San Francisco, to staple them, yeah.

GG: Did you meet Shelton in San Francisco?

JL: I think that might be the first time I met him. He was on the staff of Charlatan and other Texas humor magazines I contributed to.

GG: What year did you go to San Francisco?

JL: ’68 I guess, yeah.

GG: So that was very much near the beginning. So you met Shelton and Jackson; can you describe the beginning of the underground scene? I guess Crumb was there, Print Mint and Last Gasp were operating …

JL: It might have been before Last Gasp that there was the Print Mint.

GG: How about Rip Off? Had Rip Off started by then?

JL: Yeah. Gary Arlington had his company.

GG: Right, right. His store.

JL: But it was the same press. Rip Off Press, the printing machine printed Gary’s books. Oh, I guess ultimately they had the guts to print it elsewhere. Plymell lives up around here now, Charles Plymell lives in Cherry Valley, New York.

“A Typical Afternoon at Rip Off Press” by Gilbert Shelton.

GG: So when you landed in San Francisco, where’d you go and how did you go about …

JL: Well, Crumb would stay at my house in Chicago, so I stayed with Dana, but Crumb wasn’t in town the first time I went. And he had this cookie, like an Oreo cookie, from the 1940s that … relief on the cookie was really well sculpted, so for some reason he saved this cookie since his childhood.

GG: Crumb did?

JL: Yeah. And then Dana said, “I’m gonna get rid of this, I’m sick of this cookie” and she threw out the cookie. [Groth laughs.] Then [Rick] Griffin came over and I said, “Dana threw out Crumb’s cookie.” And so Griffin salvaged the cookie from the garbage, and then I guess he gave it back to Crumb when Crumb returned.

GG: [Laughs.] I wonder if Robert still has this.

JL: [Laughs.] I don’t know, maybe it was a reward for a spelling bee in kindergarten or something.

GG: This was a real cookie?

JL: Yeah, it was green — the middle of it, the icing turned green and yellow … [Laughs.]

GG: It’s probably still edible today. [Laughs.] It’s interesting what you remember, isn’t it?

JL: It’s always the top stuff. I don’t remember any job we did, but I do remember what everyone ate for lunch or where we went for lunch.

GG: Yeah, it’s fascinating what odd details one remembers and what larger things one doesn’t. Now, getting back to your trip to San Francisco, I assume the reason you went to San Francisco was to become part of underground comics.

JL: We printed the first printing of Bijou #2. It sold out pretty fast, so I went to give it to the Print Mint and they reprinted it.

GG: And how long did you stay in San Francisco?

JL: Maybe two weeks.

GG: Oh, is that all? OK. Can you give your impressions of the underground scene at that moment in history? I mean, who was there, and was there a sense of community?

JL: Kind of. Gary Arlington always wanted people to jam, and nobody wanted to. But it was Roger Brand and Jim Osborne, Art [Spiegelman], Rory Hayes … I dunno.

GG: What was your impression of Roger Brand?

JL: Well, I knew Roger in New York.

GG: He was quite knowledgeable about comics history, right?

JL: Right, he did fanzine type stuff in the beginning. I actually have a jam that we did where we all penciled something and we all passed it on to the next guy and he tight penciled it and then passed it again and the third guy inked it. It’s me, Roger, and Osborne. Roger Brand was the guy who discovered Eugene Teal, the Frogs: Sunday Funnie guy.

Eugene Teal’s magnum opus.

GG: Were you ever in touch with Frank Stack?

JL: Yeah. Not much, just for the Adventures with Jesus. I gave the Billy Ireland Museum the letters from that era. That was what, like ’63, ’64? So that was earlier than God Nose.

GG: Yeah, I think by some months. Right.

JL: Well, we thought he was Gilbert, and eventually we realized he was another person.

GG: [Laughs.] You thought Frank was Gilbert.

JL: I think it’s from Foolbert Sturgeon.

GG: What was your impression of Jack Jackson when you were in San Francisco? Did you have much of one?

JL: No, he’s like a Texas guy. He had a beautiful wife and he wore a cowboy hat. No, he was in Chicago and he called and somehow he wound up in the ghetto — he thought it was another neighborhood or something, I dunno. But I never saw him when he was in Chicago, I just talked with him on the phone about “Where am I? How do I get out of here?” [Groth laughs.]

Jesus Meets the Armed Services #2 by Frank Stack.

GG: He was doing some vicious satirical strips at that time. Really ballsy stuff.

JL: Yeah, in the college humor magazines too he was doing this one-page Jack Davis-looking thing. And there’s a bunch of them that Aarvark had that they were gonna print, but then Aarvark kind of stopped publishing because of the hippie thing. Instead of humor magazine they opened an underground movie theater. And the way the humor magazine was — it was a different era — it didn’t look like it was hip. It looked pretty academic.

GG: Really?

JL: Before the hippies, yeah. And Playboy used to influence their layout. They’d run an interview in Aarvark with three photos on the bottom of the page in italic quotes like Playboy did. It’s the only magazine that ran an interview with Shel Silverstein. He never did an interview except the one in Aarvark.

GG: Do you remember who interviewed him?

JL: No. Howard Cohen maybe?

GG: Was it good?

JL: It was good. He predicted stuff that would happen in the future. He said, “Someday they’ll say fuck on television and nobody will notice.” [Groth laughs.]

 

Little Ladies—the Ladies of the Underground

 

GG: I was curious about one odd thing I read, which was that your wife, Jane, published something called Little Ladies, which was about the spouses of the underground and girlfriends of the underground cartoonists.

JL: She would print a dozen and they went to the wives of the people we knew who Jane met on our travels. So Margaret Osborne and Dana and Trina …

GG: And what was that like?

JL: Little Ladies? Just complaining, mostly. But it was humorous, I guess.

GG: [Laughs.] Humorous complaining.

JL: Yeah. I did one called Big Men, it was like the opposite of Little Ladies. I did two issues of Big Men just for kicks. [Groth laughs.] Wilson and his girlfriend hated Little Ladies, so in Big Men we said, “We call ourselves by our last names. We don’t use the first names that were bestowed upon us by the matriarchy.” [Laughs.] So Wilson did some cartoon of that — I dunno, castrated penises or something, signed Wilson — for Big Men. His girlfriend complained about Little Ladies. She thought it was divisive, kind of subversive, and it was adding argument, making the women rebel and that kind of stuff.

GG: Do you still have copies of these?

JL: Yeah I do, I gave them to the Billy Ireland Museum.

GG: Speaking of men and women in the underground movement, it’s pretty undeniable isn’t it that it was a pretty sexist environment, I mean, male dominated?

JL: It was.

GG: Very few women cartoonists.

JL: Yeah. There were a few — Shannon Wheeler and Pat Dailey [who had published in the Berkley Barb]there were a few who actually did satire.

GG: Now, Shannon Wheeler’s not a woman cartoonist and not of that generation.

JL: Oh, no? Well, who’s the one who did …

GG: Shary Flenniken, do you mean?

JL: No. She was in the Hot Rod magazines too. She had some kind of Irish name. Shannon something. She’s dead now.

GG: I’ll try to look her up.

JL: She did a cover of one of the underground comics, a basically green cover with a guy holding a bunch of products, like how Wacky Packages did parodies of products. But, like Bijiou, I rejected Trina [Robbins] it is true. But Trina wasn’t humor.

“Speed Queen” by Trina Robbins.

GG: You’re saying you rejected it on the merits of the work, not because she was a woman.

JL: Right. Well, actually, the strip that I rejected was … she had some guy in his underwear and she’s got him in bondage, making him make her a tuna fish sandwich. And it wasn’t humor, it was more of some kind of power fantasy.

GG: [Laughs.] Reverse Crumb.

JL: Yeah.

 

Vietnam and the Myth of Freedom

 

GG: [In the ’60s] were you angry at what you were seeing around you, socially and politically? Is that what fueled a lot of this?

JL: Yeah. The myth of freedom, and the draft, and all the restrictions that are laid upon the average citizen.

GG: Vietnam was not really a part of that at that moment, as early as ’64, right?

JL: No, maybe ’65 I started having draft physicals. Eventually I got a CO status. So when I was in the alternate service — I wasn’t in the Army, I was in the alternate service — I went to Renewal Magazine, which was put out by the church federation in Chicago. It was about urban renewal as it was about integration, and they would print Martin Luther King’s speeches, to be the paper or record for that, so when Tribune or the regular mass media misquoted him you could always go back to the Renewal printing of the speech in an unedited, unadulterated form.

GG: And this was published by whom?

JL: The Church Federation of Greater Chicago.

GG: What is the Church Federation?

JL: Jim Mcgraw was the editor. It’s the liberal ministers, during the Malcolm Boyd, Harvey Cox craze.

GG: You are not religious are you?

JL: No, I’m more or less anti-religious, but then so were a lot of these ministers at the time.

GG: What was your job there?

JL: I don’t know, because they sent me the cover of the conspiracy trial. Mostly I drew pictures.

GG: But you were on staff?

JL: Yeah.

GG: That’s a pretty good job. [Laughs.]

JL: Well, it didn’t pay well, but it kept me out of the army.

GG: You were in the alternative service? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that. Not the ROTC, but something else?

JL: No, if you have conscientious objector thing — I guess it’s 3A status, or something — I can’t work in a hospital, because you’re carrying weapons, but I could do certain things and that’s what I got. And then when it was over, my draft status is now 4W, the “W” stands for “Worked.” I think I’m the only 4W in the country, I’ve never run into another one. We don’t get benefits or anything.

 

Identity Politics and the Limits of Humor

 

GG: Well, one thing you have said was that when you worked for The Seed, and by the way, was that an anarchist periodical?

JL: It started as such, but it kind of evolved into one of those permission-seeking “legalize marijuana” kind of papers. And that never interested me, that attitude.

GG: Why would that not interest you? I mean, would you not want to see marijuana legalized?

JL: I would. But the way to do it isn’t to beg for it. The way to do it is to just, everybody smoke marijuana and if that happens all of a sudden it will be legal.

GG: So you’re opposed to the strategy.

JL: Yeah. Well, it started as a … There were surrealist papers in Chicago, and it started off as a spinoff of those. But then it evolved into a political thing.

Skip Williamson cover for The Seed.

GG: Now I think you mentioned that you ran afoul of their political doctrine, where they rejected work by you because it was not politically pure. Did you experience a lot of that? You said at one point that hippies don’t have a sense of humor.

JL: With The Seed, yeah. Once I ran a cover with a man thinking of a woman wearing a brassiere, a pointy brassiere. And that was sexist to them. But it ran in the Madison-Milwaukee Bugle-American as the cover, they printed in. But The Seed lost all of my art and all of Crumb’s art, and when they printed it they’d print it in purple ink, so you couldn’t really reproduce from what they’d printed.

It was kind of … If a free press and the free exchange of ideas is the goal, it wasn’t that. It was: “This is sexist. This is not good for the revolution.”

GG: Have you become more sympathetic to that point of view, sexism and racism as unpalatable sources of humor? How do you feel about that?

JL: Well I think what he did wasn’t really racist, but it was a mockery of racism. And I think it’s good what we did, because there was a reverse discrimination type thing going on. When I worked for Renewal [magazine], we ran a — Jerry Farber was the guy’s name — article called “Student as Nigger,” which compared college students protesting against the war to Negroes working within the system during protests in the ’50s. So for the illustration to that I drew a guy that was split in half, and one half was a student wearing a tweed jacket with patches and carrying schoolbooks and having a beard — all the clichés of what was a student then. The other half was a plantation Negro holding a watermelon, and that was the analogy that was in the article. But even the editor of Renewal at the time made me change the whole watermelon-carrying half to a Negro with a black suit on, like Sidney Poitier. So there was a taboo, but it meant that all black people had to be Sidney Poitier. Like there was a big outcry against Amos ’n’ Andy, but really Amos ’n’ Andy is just The Honeymooners but they’re black. It’s not like the janitor Lightnin’ represents all characters in the thing, any more than Ed Norton represents all white men. So as a reaction to the overly sensitive depiction of blacks in the liberal media, I think that’s what I did and that’s what Angelfood McSpade kind of was.

GG: I was going to ask you if Angelfood McSpade would fall into that category that you’re describing.

R. Crumb drawing from Zap #2.

JL: Yeah, I dunno, I don’t understand Robert. [Laughs.]

GG: You don’t understand Robert Crumb?

JL: Yeah, when he did that thing about “When the Jews Take Over America,” [“When the Goddamn Jews Take Over America”] “When the Blacks Take Over America” [“When the Niggers Take Over America”] … I talked to him about it, and his thing was like, “Well, everybody is racist, you can’t get around that.” But I don’t think so, necessarily.

GG: You don’t think everyone has innate bias?

JL: I don’t, when it comes to race, I don’t think so. Like toward the end, Martin Luther King was doing an anti-utility company thing against the monopolies that were the utility companies then. And that actually had potential to unite poor blacks and poor racist southerners, because both of them had this common enemy. And that’s when they killed him. All the other stuff was divisive, or at least it could be manipulated into that. And then after that black leaders became opportunists, you know, Jesse Jacksons, Al Sharptons.

GG: How do you feel about the rise of identity politics?

JL: Which is what?

GG: Which is a much more strict political point of view based upon your gender identity or racial identity. Do you think that’s …

JL: You mean, the what do they call them, political action warriors?

GG: Social justice warriors?

JL: Social justice warriors. Right. No, that’s crazy. That too has the same Jesse Jackson concept that you can’t be not racist if you’re black, you are racist if you’re white, no matter what.

GG: You mean you can’t be racist if you’re black.

JL: You can’t be racist if you’re black, yeah. I don’t like that. There was a time when things were more natural.

GG: How do you mean more natural?

JL: People didn’t think about who was black, necessarily. There wasn’t a time in the mass media, like if you look at old Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, those shows where Sammy [Davis Jr.] is … any joke directed at Sammy would have to do with him being black, but there was a time … I was the roommate of a guy who was the father of Chaka Khan, and I dunno, the black thing didn’t come up much at all.

GG: Are you saying that that was healthier?

JL: Yeah, I think.

GG: Are you of the opinion that there’s no subject that’s off limits to satire and humor?

JL: Yes. What would be one?

GG: Oh, the Holocaust. [Laughs.] Racism. There’s a lot that today could be …

JL: I’ve never seen a good Holocaust denier gag. The guy who shot Rockwell was a cartoonist, but he wasn’t that good. His stuff wasn’t that funny.

GG: That could be something to strive for. A good Holocaust denier gag. Do you remember Lenny Bruce’s famous skit?

JL: “Six Million Jews Found Alive in Argentina”?

GG: Yeah, yeah.

JL: Well, that’s okay.

GG: That’s pretty inspired.

JL: The opposite of what were traditional National Inquirer headlines of the day. Yeah, that’s the thing about The Realist Cartoons book, the context of a lot of the gags is always forgotten.

 

Election 2016

 

GG: Well, I have one last question at the moment, which is, what was your reaction to the election?

JL: Well, first of all, I never signed anything that said that I agree to be governed. It’s not my election, I don’t care about this crap. The political system is corrupt. It’s just a bunch of people who decided that they would govern the others and take their money. And I don’t want any part of it, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Trump or Hillary or who, it’s a bunch of evil opportunists who want to take the wealth of everyone else. And I don’t care about electing somebody so I have to buy them a new shirt every day. It’s not part of anything that has to do with the reality of things, except when everybody agrees on it and it is. But I don’t agree on it, so I don’t really care.

GG: Did you care whether or not it would be Trump or Clinton?

JL: They were both terrible.

GG: [Hesitating] True, but was one more terrible than the other? Does that matter to you?

JL: I thought Hillary might’ve been more terrible than Trump.

GG: Really?

JL: All of those murders, and …

GG: In what way?

JL: The whole drug thing in Arkansas, and various people she had bumped off.

GG: Oh, you believe that, huh?

JL: Yeah. What’s not to believe?

GG: Well, you’re not referring to Vince Foster, right?

JL: To who?

GG: Vince Foster?

JL: I don’t know. No, not especially, but a lot of people. I think it’s interesting that whenever the newspapers do a survey of who the most admired American is, it’s always the worst opportunistic piece of scum. [Groth laughs.] And what do they think, do they think, “Oh yeah, you scum. You’ll screw everybody, but you’ll take care of me.” But he won’t.

GG: Well, there’s something rancid about the American character that appreciates that kind of predatory mentality. Admires it. I think that’s because we’re such an opportunistic, predatory culture. We’ve championed that in modern life. The ultimate opportunists.

JL: I don’t know, but as you get older it seems like it’s easier.

GG: Easier … ?

JL: To make a living. If you just live long enough, people respect you.

GG: Oh, I see. Right, right, right. It’s like what John Huston said in Chinatown.

JL: What?

GG: I think he was referring to whores and buildings, that they get respectable if they last long enough.

JL: Oh, yeah.

 

Jay Lynch, Painter

 

GG: Now, I understand recently, or at least in the last ten years, you have been doing commissioned paintings …

JL: I do paintings and I auction them off.

GG: Can you talk a little about that? Do you do recreations of underground covers or your characters or what?

JL: No, I just do paintings that are kind of in that style. I just paint what I feel like painting and then I sell it on eBay. I’ve done about a hundred of ’em. Actually, I have scans of all of them, but they’re in four parts. Somebody’s gotta put them together, my Photoshop program doesn’t work for that.

GG: What medium do you use?

JL: Acrylic.

GG: And how long have you been doing this?

JL: Well, I’ve been doing painting since … Did you see the Antiques Roadshow painting of mine they had?

GG: I don’t think I did.

JL: If you [search] “Jay Lynch” plus “Antiques Roadshow,” some guy found a painting I did in 1965 in a dumpster, and he brings it in and they estimated it as $7,000. The video is on the web somewhere. It’s like that section of Antiques Roadshow where they go over the painting. But yeah, I did it in ’64, ’65 and I guess I pretty much always did it, except I didn’t do it in the ’70s. But it did it most other decades.

Lynch’s painting that appeared on Antiques Roadshow.

GG: And you’ve been doing these painting that you sell on eBay for how long?

JL: Since we have had eBay.

GG: So at least a decade or so, I guess. You must have quite a few.

JL: Yeah, probably a hundred. And then there’s ones that I never saved a copy of from the ’60s …

GG: And you did these basically to sell? Not to …

JL: In the ’60s? Well, I went to art school and we had to do paintings, and I just always did paintings.

GG: Do you still have those?

JL: No. I know I still have some. Well, there’s the Roadshow one. And Arnie Winograd, who was the vice president of Pabst, bought one that was a really important one. You know Sue Williams?

GG: Yeah.

JL: It’s kind of like what Sue Williams now does. So Arnie Winograd bought it, and this was in about 1967, and he got divorced, his wife Verna Winograd has it — she’s a real estate agent, I think in San Francisco now. I think she still has it, but maybe they just left it in their garage. Maybe they just bought it to be polite, I don’t know. And there’s one that Rufus Diamont has. But most of them I don’t know where they are.

GG: I’m looking at your Antiques Roadshow painting right now [Antiques Roadshow video playing in background].

JL: It’s oil, so the oil is intrinsically worth more.

GG: And were you on LSD when you did this?

JL: Not when I painted it, but during that time, yeah. Outside from the school was a Billboard for this guy Woods who was running for Sheriff, and I showed him and his family. So that’s what the painting is.

GG: Was this a significant source of income for you, in the last decade or so?

JL: No. I don’t know, maybe $600 each.

GG: Oh, not $6,000.

JL: No. Well, some. I did one of Wacky Packages for some guy for $5,000. All the Wacky Packages characters.

But Wacky Packages are like a negative … If it’s Wacky Packages, you can buy it for 20 bucks. If it’s underground comics, it’s more. There’s a bunch of stuff up now on Heritage, from Eric Sack’s auction. So he sold the initial stuff, but most people don’t know that they continue to sell his stuff of mine and Crumb’s. They do. Some pages sell for $5,000 and one page — the back cover of the Speed Freak Mask from Bijou #4 — sold for $500. So $500 now is like $50 in 1968. But eventually, everything that is made by hand will be valuable.

One of Lynch’s Wacky Packages.

GG: And you have most but not all of your paintings that you —

JL: No, I have none.

GG: No, I mean you scanned them or took photographs of them or something?

JL: Yes, since the advent of computers I scanned them all.

GG: Billy Ireland is getting all those scans?

JL: Yeah. Billy Ireland has all my photos too, they just haven’t organized them yet.

GG: Does Billy Ireland come to your place and pick things up? Or how does that work?

JL: A year ago, they came and looked at everything and took 25 percent of it. There’s a lot that they don’t know what it is — like I have [Antonio] Prohías’s newspaper Zig-Zag Libre from the days of the Bay of Pigs. So it’s just like Prohías’s political cartoons. And no one has it, the Cuban Museum doesn’t have it. But I have these, and I’ll explain to them what it is. And then Spiegelman and I are in there doing cartoons when we were kids — once, we were each in it once. And I have every rough for every Garbage Pail Kid I ever devised. I never threw anything away.

GG: That’s good.

JL: They don’t know why I have it. Like the Jay Ward stuff. I was in touch with Jay Ward, I wrote an article on Jay Ward for Wild. And Jay Ward sent me all this publicity stuff that was intended for the newspapers. So I have that, but their explanation of why I have it doesn’t seem to indicate that I have anything other than the common publicity stuff that everyone was allowed to see. But I guess if someone studied all this, it would be clear.

GG: Well, you can bet that academics are going to be studying it.

 

Facing Mortality

 

GG: Are you willing to talk about your medical condition?

JL: Yeah, although I don’t have any final, authoritative information. It is lung cancer and it is malignant, and there isn’t a cure. And it’s — what do you call it — a lymph node thing. Lymph nodes. So at first they said, “Well, you might live five weeks,” and that struck fear into me to get the chemo and radiation. Then they said, “Well, you could live two years,” and they said, “Well, you could live five years,” and they said, “Well, you could live five weeks.” But I don’t have anything in writing on this. I don’t have a diagnosis in writing, just what a doctor wrote when I demanded it when I was in his presence. So it’s small cell lung cancer.

GG: Can I ask when you were diagnosed?

JL: Around Thanksgiving [2016].

GG: And that came as a surprise, I assume.

JL: Well, I had a shortness of breath, so that was debilitating because I couldn’t breathe. So I went to the hospital, and they kept me for a week and gave me all kinds of tests and told me this. So now it’s better in that I can breathe, but I’m very weak and everything I do takes about five times as long. Like tying my shoes takes ten minutes.

GG: Are you undergoing chemo and radiation?

JL: Yeah. I have had nine radiations and two chemos so far.

GG: