Features – The Comics Journal http://www.tcj.com Wed, 26 Apr 2017 17:53:46 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.4 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 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: That’s pretty brutal stuff.

JL: Yeah. The chemo takes away your taste for food. So I have to eat, but I experience nothing resembling hunger. So it’s on my list.

GG: Eating?

JL: Yeah, yeah.

GG: Well, I guess that frees you from the burden of wanting flavorful food. Well, I’m sorry to hear that. It has all kinds of horrible side effects, doesn’t it?

JL: Yeah.

GG: Well, I have to say, it seems to me, based on the limited conversations we’ve had that you’ve been dealing with this with enormous equanimity. How, if I can ask, do you cope with that, philosophically?

Lynch’s satirical take on the afterlife.

 

JL: What is, is. I leave my body, I become one with the universe, then I come back in tiny segments. Not necessarily as a human or animal, or even anything that exists in our reality, but infinity is a vast thing. Ever since I was a kid I always wanted a certain degree of immortality that in our system represents being able to talk to unborn generations, and that being through the printed word. So I got that as good as I can, I don’t think I have anything really to say.

GG: Well, now is that true or do you feel that your criticism of American society through your satire is something that you feel that needs to be said?

JL: I don’t know.

GG: Do you feel satisfied with what you’ve accomplished?

JL: I don’t know. It will be interesting. Well, you know, like during the days of LSD when you leave your body you realize that near-death experiences — even before LSD — there’s a point where nothing matters, and then again everything matters. But, you know, it’s there, it’s hip. I don’t know how to articulate it.

GG: Well, I can’t imagine that there’s anything more powerful than facing death.

JL: True. [Laughs.] I don’t know.

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Jay Lynch, 1945-2017 http://www.tcj.com/jay-lynch-1945-2017/ http://www.tcj.com/jay-lynch-1945-2017/#comments Mon, 06 Mar 2017 12:20:32 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=98439 Continue reading ]]> Born: January 7, 1945, Orange, New Jersey

Died: March 5, 2016, Candor, New York

Jay Lynch — cartoonist, satirist, and counterculture archivist — died from complications of lung cancer on March 5th. His career spanned more than six decades and made full use of his many graphic talents. He contributed to the earliest counterculture press, drew and edited many underground comic books, designed confectionary novelties and promotional products, and in later years painted a myriad of private commissions for fans of his work.

Young Jay Lynch with a banner headline for Herbert Hoover, circa 1948.

Jay Lynch saw himself as a cartoonist even when he was just a young whippersnapper. He liked to draw. He liked funny stuff. It just made sense. He enjoyed the strip There Ought to be a Law!, which appeared in his local paper. He noted that the cartoonists, Al Fagaly and Harry Shorten, invited readers to send in gag ideas, maybe events from their own lives, that could be adapted for the two-panel strip. The first panel set up a situation that required quick action, and the second showed how their best efforts went awry. The name and address of the person who suggested the joke was included in the strip. Lynch sent Fagaly and Shorten dozens of ideas but none of them were ever used. Rejection, he soon realized, was part and parcel of a cartoonist’s life, and he accepted that.

Many years later, There Ought to be a Law! provided inspiration for his Give ’Em an Inch series that appeared in Playboy during the 1980s. Similar setup, same sort of payoff, but with many more naked adults.

Lynch first sold gags to Cracked magazine while a student at Norton High School in Miami. In 1963, he left his home in Florida, moved to Chicago, checked into a cheap hotel, and got a job as a lingerie stock boy. It was all part of his master plan to earn big bucks in the exciting field of cartooning. He attended art school at night, sold gags to Sick and Cracked, and contributed cartoons to a network of college humor magazines and satire publications, including The Realist. He was a frequent cover artist for the Chicago Seed when underground papers first came to Chicago and also appeared in the Berkeley Barb, East Village Other, The Fifth Estate, and many other members of the underground press syndicate.

The teenage contributors to Wild magazine, an early mimeographed fanzine included future underground cartoonists Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson.

He was a key figure in the underground comix movement, producing eight issues of Bijou Funnies with his partner-in-crime Skip Williamson. They were a vital part of what became one of the most revolutionary art movements of the 20th century. Lynch contributed to numerous other underground titles like Bogeyman, San Francisco Comic Book, Bizarre Sex, and Teen-age Horizons of Shangri-la. The last issue of Bijou Funnies, an homage to Lynch’s favorite satirist, featured Harvey Kurtzman-style parodies of popular underground comic characters drawn by other cartoonists.

After the underground faded he moved into commercial work, overseeing the production of celebrity sticker books and fast food giveaways. He drew cartoons and illustrations for Playboy, Oui, and other men’s magazines. His juvenile sense of humor was also in high demand at Brooklyn’s biggest bubble gum manufacturer, Topps Chewing Gum, who hired him to design cards and stickers, which prominently featured puke and booger jokes for Garbage Pail Kids, Wacky Packages, and many others. In recent years, he has worked on public interest campaigns, illustrated children’s books, and designed covers for the last remnant of the underground impertinence, Mineshaft magazine.

Lynch designed several series of Bazooka Joe comics to wrap around bubble gum for Topps Chewing Gum over the years.

His personal archives are stored in his home in a small town in upstate New York, where he moved in 2000, and include every letter he ever received since 1958, every publication in which he has appeared, file cabinets full of notes and rough sketches, and extensive collections of humor magazines. He bequeathed his property and belongings to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at the Ohio State University.

Before he died, I had several conversations with Lynch about his end-of-life plans. He wanted to stay alive long enough to ensure that his will transfers his whole estate to the Billy Ireland Museum and that his creditors are paid in full, so no one can make a claim on his home. He bought his own casket and funeral package and was interred at Maple Grove Cemetery in Candor, New York. He told me he wanted a tombstone with a coin-operated fortune-telling device on top to pay for perpetual maintenance of his resting place.

“I’m thinking of a Magic Eightball-type-of affair, where you can ask a question,” he explained. “You put in a quarter and it answers it with a Magic Eightball type of answer. They won’t have quarters in the future, but some credit system. I don’t know. Something that maintains itself.” If any hardcore fans of Jay Lynch want to fulfill this eternal wish, please step forward.

He left no close family, two ex-wives, no children; he believed his life’s greatest accomplishment was the creation of an archive that spans the whole Beatnik-Hippy-Punk-New Wave-Alternative-Millennial counterculture. He accumulated a big pile of paper over many years, and it brought him great satisfaction to know it will be part of a proper repository of comic lore, The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. Columbus is also a less likely target for terrorists in the future compared to our major metropolises, he noted. “Billy Ireland’s new building was built by the Army Corps of Engineers and is nuke proof. It goes very deep below the ground.”

Lynch was an old-fashioned graphic artist, with the know-how to make things work in the printing industry. After several decades as inkslinger for hire, he became a repository of arcane printing processes, discontinued art supplies and materials, and forgotten production methods. Eventually, he became the go-to guy when it came to obsolete printing technology. He readily adapted to computer design tools in the 1990s, but if you were printing a million sticker books on a giant Webb press and the color was a little off, you’d want Jay Lynch with his knowledge of halftone color separations and chromatic charts to be in your corner.

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“What I Detest Most of All is Boredom in Work”: An Interview with Sandrine Revel http://www.tcj.com/sandrine-revel-interview/ http://www.tcj.com/sandrine-revel-interview/#respond Thu, 23 Feb 2017 13:00:49 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=97997 Continue reading ]]> Sandrine Revel has been working as a cartoonist and illustrator in France for the past two decades, though Americans likely only heard of her last year when NBM published Glenn Gould: A Life Off Tempo. The graphic novel is a biography of the great pianist, famous for his interpretations of Bach, but what was most striking was how Revel approached her subject. The book is beautifully drawn in stunning colors, but from the opening pages, it’s clear that this is not a typical biography. Instead Revel seeks to use the form to get inside of Gould’s mind, to get a sense of how he thought about and saw the world. As one who has heard recordings of Gould but knew little about him except that he was Canadian and considered eccentric, the book was a stunning revelation, both for its insight into Gould and to witness an artist working at the height of her talent.

The book has been successful in France and Revel received the Prix Artemisia for the book. Revel has had a successful career in France where she has collaborated with writers on a wide range of books including N’embrassez pas qui vous voulez, La lesbienne invisible and Interieur Jazz. The series Un drôle d’ange gardien, which Revel collaborated on with writer Denis-Pierre Filippi receieved an award at Angouleme for young readers. Revel has also written and drawn a number of books inlcuding Le 11e Jour, about her experiences in New York on September 11, 2001. We exchanged e-mails before and after the holidays to discuss the book and her work.

Thanks to Terry Nantier and Stefan Blitz at NBM for arranging the interview.

What interested you in making a biography of Glenn Gould?

I’ve been dreaming of this for twenty years. I discovered Glenn Gould while learning to play the piano. What attracted me to him was his legend, his way of playing, his mystery, his need for solitude. He played for himself more than for others. A great personality for comics.

The first five pages of the book make it clear that this is not going to be a typical biography. I wonder if you could talk us through what you were thinking with those pages and why you wanted to start the book that way.

In these first few pages I wanted to set the tone. Embark the readers within the first few panels in the fantasy world of Gould. You discover the first panels like the first notes or measures of a prelude of Bach. We start the story inside the mind of Gould, which remains the thread of this graphic novel.

How do you typically work? When you’re writing, do you script the book out in detail? Did you work that way with this book?

When it’s just me, I don’t write a script. I know what I don’t want and what my intentions are. I write very little, the story is stashed in a corner of my mind. I draw a lot, I quickly put together the more important sequences and I compose adding links. Justifications, parallels. When in doubt, I try to redo a page, a sequence, I modulate a great deal before being sure of the result. My ideas come to me often while walking my dog in the forest. So as to be quick in execution, I work on a pen tablet. This tool allows me to be faster in the creation process.

As far as the structure and approach of the book, was there another graphic novel you had in mind as a model?

Not one specific model, but many. That includes movies, novels, painters, all too many to mention, that influenced me. The hardest is choosing between the useful and the useless and not become seduced by someone else’s idea. I have to be careful of that when working on it.

At any stage did you consider making a straightforward biography of Gould? Or did you always think of this as a book about how he thought as much as about his life?

When I started work on this biography of Gould, I didn’t know yet which direction to take. To start, to reassure myself, I began with with a script very faithful to the chronology of his life. Then I started to draw and realized I was taking a wrong path because the more I advanced, the more I got bored. Gould is far from a boring person. Quite the contrary, he was impulsive, instinctive, surprising, mysterious, and I had to respect all his character traits in the construction of this narrative. So I started all over again, I demolished what I had done to better deconstruct it. I don’t regret taking at first a false path, it allowed me to better understand him.

How did you decide on the subtitle, “A Life Off Tempo”?

At first, I meant to use the word ‘counterpoint’ a Gould specialty. In fact I built my story leaning on this musical concept and working on a narrative form of that. it’s while walking my dog with my friend, we were looking for a title and she suggested “contretemps” – French for setbacks, or musically: offbeat – and we kept that as it reflects the book’s intention.

[Note from Terry Nantier: we played with this and came up with “Off Tempo” as a musical concept with a similar meaning.]

In your career you regularly work with other writers on books like N’embrassez pas qui vous voulez with Marzena Sowa, and La Lesbienne Invisible with Oceanrosemari. Then you also write books as well like this one and others. Are you interested in writing more? Do you like alternating?

What I detest most of all is boredom in work and to counter that I change up, alternating my method of working. Writing remains my weakness and I like to associate my universe with wonderful authors when the subject interests me. To write more? Not my goal, but there are subjects I’d like to approach solo. Right now I’m drawing by myself two books which are very different in theme which touch me personally: one is about a dog and the other on painting. See? I like touching on everything, almost.

You paint the book and I wondered if you could talk a little about how you used color. Your use of red, the skies, you very clearly spent time thinking about how the book should look.

As I noted above, I produced the comics entirely on a pen tablet using the aquarelle technique. For me, color is just as important as black line. I’m used to finish my drawing with color. This is a very important phase which I can give no one else.. the skies are nuanced with greys, blues, yellows as are the Gouldian skies: “I always assumed everybody shared my love for overcast skies. It came as a shock to find out that some people prefer sunshine.” The red punctuates the story and provides enhancement to the whole. Absence of skin tone on the characters with just a contour around the face and hands shows fragility and transparence.

I’m curious what you found challenging about illustrating music or at least finding a visual accompaniment to the music, which seemed to be what you were trying to do in parts of the book.

Quite frankly, I mostly wanted to do a graphic novel on music before I ended up with Gould. In my bibliography there’s an experimental comic “Interior Jazz” which came out fifteen years ago where I was already attempting to draw music in a story. I had to find narrative tricks to imagine hearing music. It comes from Gould’s body language during his concerts, drawing his hands on the keyboard, the mechanics of the piano, etc. rhythm is brought forth from the layout.

How do you think of Gould? Has your perspective on him changed over the course of making this book?

I so invested myself in this project that I feel like I knew Gould. It’s crazy. He’s company to me everyday as if he were part of my family. What do I think of him? Wonderful. He was a complex, passionate, original man. A visionary we all miss.

I wanted to ask about one of your previous books which I don’t think has been published in the US but I think a lot of American readers might find of interest, Le 11e Jour. Could you talk a little about the book?

I was in Manhattan September 11, 2001. I had just visited the World Trade Center the day before. In this book, I relate my September 11 with all the trauma that goes with it. It’s a very personal look into that day until my departure a few days later. It’s a modest and specific comic, far from the paralyzing imagery TV fed us. A specific vision full of nuances with, at its base, a personal mourning crossing the trajectory of a planetary tragedy.

You mentioned that you draw on a tablet. When did you switch from paper to a tablet and how do you think it’s changed your work?

It happened progressively over five years. I started only doing colors on the tablet with the graphic novel “Sorcellerie et Dependance” (Sorcery & Dependency) then on “N’Embrassez pas Qui Vous Voulez” (Don’t Kiss Anyone You Want). I assembled the story board and colors for “La Lesbienne Invisible” (The Invisible Lesbian).

Gould is the first book done entirely on the tablet (Wacom and now iPad pro) where I can at any time change a drawing or a full page layout almost at the speed of thought. That way I can remain open to the end to new ideas which can improve my work. A little like Gould, who was totally in control, but also liked to be surrounded with machines to attain his goals.

How has the response to the book been? Have you heard from people who knew Gould?

Bruno Monsaingeon, a close friend to Gould, one of the great experts, complimented me on my work and added that, knowing Gould, he would have appreciated it. It’s the best compliment one could make me. Otherwise the reception has been remarkable. I didn’t expect so much good press. It’s a book on its own, I am quite happy it got so much attention and critical praise. All along the creation of this book I applied myself to show Glenn Gould as a human being, fragile, accessible, I followed my instinct. I am not a music aficionado, nor a sound technician, nor a musicologist and maybe that’s why this graphic novel is accessible and piques people’s curiosity. With people I encountered during signing sessions. I saw a lot of people buying for friends amateurs of Gould but not comics readers. There’s also readers of comics who discovered Gould through my comic. I’m happy it’s worked both ways.

What are you working on now? What’s your next project?

I love Canada–its national parks, the Canadians, their traditions, cultures. It’s a country that touches me and that’s why I continue my trip there working right now on the painter Tom Thomson. I discovered this artist while doing research for my book on Gould in Ontario. I’m approaching painting in front of nature this time, it’s ambitious!

I also have a planned book that’s lighter for kids which should come out in 2017. The two heroes are a Boston Terrier and a little girl–to be continued.

And I have an exhibit of paintings to mount in 2017

I have to ask, do you have a favorite Gould recording?

There are a lot but if I had to retain one this morning it would be the intermezzo op. 18 #2 by Brahms.

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André Franquin: Great or…The Greatest? http://www.tcj.com/andre-franquin-great-orthe-greatest/ http://www.tcj.com/andre-franquin-great-orthe-greatest/#comments Fri, 17 Feb 2017 13:00:46 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=98618 Continue reading ]]>

André Franquin in the 1950s © Gaston Servais; Franquin/Dargaud-Lombard, 2016

Was Belgian Andre Franquin (1924-1997) comics’ greatest draftsman? One colleague who certainly thought so was Hergé. “Franquin”, he declared, “is a great artist. Next to him, I’m only a mediocre pen-pusher.” Fantagraphics’ Kim Thompson agreed with Tintin’s creator. “In terms of ultra-classic greatness,” he once wrote me, “Hergé has that abstract line but Franquin has something else. He created the most complete, the most alive, the most absolute cartooniness in comics history.”

A current Paris retrospective, Gaston, shares their views. It also honours a landmark birthday – the sixtieth year of Gaston Lagaffe, Franquin’s most well-known character. Gaston, whose last name means “the blunder”, is an dedicated idler in jeans and espadrilles. While hardly the first antihero of European comics, Gaston was one of their first post-adolescents. Franquin made him into a prototype of subversion.

Over three decades the artist honed Gaston’s interests, showing him to be an inventor, a music fan, a DIY fanatic and an amateur chef. But, if his character exudes a Sixties effervescence it also has the era’s disillusions. As Renaud Defiebre-Muller notes in the show, “Gaston pits personal autonomy against social control: against manners, against respect, against everyday decorum”. Elevated to stardom by Franquin’s graphic brilliance, this rebellion-by-default changed the rules of the bande dessinée.

Gaston at the Pompidou Bpi © Hervé Vérnonèse

Yet, at the start, Gaston was just an in-joke. Franquin and his editor, Yvan Delporte, had envisioned not a strip but a running gag. Their youth weekly Spirou was a Catholic children’s journal which, like its competitor Tintin, stuck to Boy Scout values. Spirou, a red-clad bellboy, wasn’t even its featured star. That role belonged to a daring insurance adjuster, Jean Valhardi.

The magazine published both a Belgian and a French edition so, between them, advertising volumes differed. The pagination problems were solved by using a centerfold but unexpected gaps still cropped up. Franquin proposed filling these with a character, “a BD hero too stupid to fit the mold”. From the start, his concept was a swipe at the magazine’s rectitude.

In Yvan Delporte, he found a receptive ear. Publisher Charles Dupuis had hired Delporte to make Spirou funnier. A comics scenariste with a beard the size of a copse, the editor was a character. He loved jazz, ran a private club and read comics in English. It’s still funny to think about some of his initiatives, like a “spring issue” with violet-scented ink which caused the whole print works to vomit. Franquin’s pitch for a house “blunderer” tickled Delporte’s fancy. He threw himself into it, even naming the character after a shambolic pal.[1]

On 28 February 1957, Gaston appeared with no explanation; he was simply shown opening the door to Spirou. From then on, every week, he appeared to instigate problems. A page might be obscured when Gaston poked his face in the camera or an article lost under ink he had spilled. When an irate Spirou eventually tried to question him, a dialogue worthy of Samuel Beckett ensued. Why was Gaston in the office? Who had actually hired him? The character shrugged; he didn’t know, couldn’t recall and didn’t care. Once in place, Gaston never left.

Gaston La Gaffe, catalogue, Gaston, Bpi © Franquin/Dargaud-Lombard, 2016

If the concept behind Gaston Lagaffe was simple, his actual character constituted an aberration. In that era, kiddie mags starred exemplary heroes like cowboys, aviators and private eyes. Each of them had a “job” which could further improving narratives. Despite his hopeless behavior, Lagaffe likes people. But, from the start, he was indifferent to all the problems he caused them.

At the moment he got the idea for Gaston, Franquin was overworked. Over a decade, as well as the magazine’s cover, he had been producing Spirou and Fantasio weekly. Now he was starting a supplement called Spirou Poche and had just become a first-time father. If that wasn’t enough, there was more one thing. Franquin also worked for the competition, Le Journal de Tintin.

This was a situation just as odd as it sounds. In 1955, miffed by a contract, Franquin had stormed over to his rivals. Once “at” Tintin, he created a new strip called Modeste and Pompon and agreed a five-year contract. Back at Spirou, the boss Charles Dupuis panicked. It took him ten days of pleading and conceding to win back his star. When Franquin returned, he was still stuck with Modeste and Pompon. Deliverance only arrived as it often would for him – via close friends who pitched in to help.

With stories from René Goscinny, Greg, Roba and Peyo (not to mention those of his own mother-in-law), Franquin added Modeste and Pompon to his weekly regimen. If it’s seen as a bit of a relic today, the strip still personifies what was a heady moment. Its slick, hyperactive graphics – later dubbed le style atome – were an aesthetic powered by Franquin’s love of design.

With the exception of one book (Augustin David’s 2014 Franquin et le design), there’s not a lot about the artist’s crush on mid-century style. Yet it informs the whole of his graphic universe. From Spirou and Fantasio’s pad to the Spirou “office” in Gaston, Franquin is always precise about décor. His armchairs, sofas and lights comprise exact homages to names such as the Eames brothers, Pierre Paulin and Eero Aarnio. They were of course reflections of Franquin’s own taste and home. But, in Modeste and Pompon, the style atome marks something else. It stands as a groundbreaking generation’s final nod to America.

3 – Gaston blocks a page of Spirou in the ’50s © Franquin/Dargaud-Lombard, 2016

Franquin had joined Spirou just after the Liberation. The job followed his brief stint as an animator, at a company shuttered when its owner was tried for collaboration. The change to Spirou brought the 22 year-old a lifelong mentor in the person of artist Joseph “Jijé” Gillain. Also a serious painter and a father of three, Jijé was easy-going yet enormously energetic. Working with Spirou’s then-editor, the communist Jean Doisy, he fused his post-War hires into a singular team. Together, they built what became the “Marcinelle school” of comics.

This was a term defined partly in opposition – to the qualities upheld in Tintin by Studio Hergé. While that team stylized reality, Spirou artists spent their youthful energies milking it. Laughter was their chief priority and every path they took to it (slapstick, word games, big noses and funny animals) exuded breeziness and a contemporary air.

At the root of their success was a talented trio: Morris, Franquin and the nineteen year-old “Will” Maltaite. Initially, Gillain lodged and coached all three artists in his home. For Franquin, the only child of older Catholic parents, that arrangement filled “a desperate need to laugh”. He valued it for the whole of his life and it spurred an introvert to explore the joys of collective industry.

In 1948, when Jijé went to America, both Franquin and Morris tagged along for the ride. During their trip, incredibly, Franquin kept up his weekly work for Spirou. Within five years, at the age of 27, he was a pillar at the busy publication. Thanks to his refinements, redirections and additions, Spirou’s character got a much-needed update. What had once been bland adventures now received complex plots, offbeat geographies and an array of fanciful characters. (Franquin also added outlandish animals, from dinosaurs to the invented, monkey-like “Marsupilami”).

When Jijé decided to linger in America, Franquin also inherited his role at the journal. As well as handling much of the magazine’s most critical work, he helped recruit and integrate new artists. One of these, Jidéhem,[2] became his assistant. From 1957 through 1968, he would – fully co-credited – create much of Gaston, working off Franquin’s sketches.

In Spirou and Fantasio, Franquin resuscitated family-friendly values from before the War. But, with Gaston, he exploded them. The key to both accomplishments was Franquin’s way of seeing. Not only did he come at storytelling from offbeat angles; the graphic skills with which he managed it were astonishing. In a golden age famous for its many celebrities – Hergé and Macherot, E.P. Jacobs and Tillieux –  André Franquin was an undisputed star.

One bit of film in the exhibit demonstrates why. It comes from a French television show, Tac au Tac, which was broadcast from 1969 to 1975. Tac au Tac filmed live, improvised cartooning duels. The Beaubourg clip features Franquin, Morris, Peyo and Roba. While music plays, these four artists silently extemporise: taking turns to create a wordless, communal cadavre exquis.  Everyone is quick and funny and every addition beautifully drawn.

Franquin starts it off with a terrified, scrambling rat. Then, everyone chips in: a cat giving chase, a cop madly cycling, a tax collector, a gangster, a cowboy, an angry wife, etc. But, where others use comic tropes, Franquin’s additions are always unexpected. When Peyo inserts a chicken in the chase, Morris follows with a cook waving a cleaver. Without a beat, Franquin adds a sweaty fat man running desperately. He’s just been decapitated and cradles his head in an arm.

There’s always a crowd around this film — watching Franquin at his work is really mesmerizing. The artist, who crams his frames so full of detail you lose your bearings, is a virtuoso when it comes to motion. No one ever rendered it with more advanced or effortless physics. Franquin’s world just won’t wait, won’t sit still and never listens. His characters keep ahead because they keep on going.

There’s another bit of film towards the end of the show. Made in 1994, it features famous cartoonists talking about how Franquin is different. Says Charles Berberian, “Franquin is a great draftsman but he is much, much more. He’s a guy who can capture all the anguish of his character by completely integrating it into the action.” Morris, by then a global star from his Lucky Luke, agrees. “He was always the revolutionary. All of us make bandes dessinées. But Franquin, he’s doing something else entirely.”

It’s a special position the artist holds even today. Marcel Gotlib, who passed away last December, was once asked why no-one has a bad word for Franquin. Gotlib shot back, “A bad word about what? Franquin’s life? His work? There’s nothing to reproach! …Across the whole profession, it’s a total consensus: Franquin is the greatest. In terms of the bande dessinée, in terms of drawing, in terms of ideas.”

In 1962, Franquin had a depressive crisis which was an omen of difficulties to come. In the midst of a story that was already running, he dropped Spirou and Fantasio for more than year. But he continued to work on Gaston. “I think in life,” he said, “there comes an important moment. One when you discover that none of this is a game. That it’s something serious, something where nothing is free, where pleasures are rare and finding satisfaction is difficult. It’s that moment Gaston always helps postpone.”

But even Gaston couldn’t postpone the turbulent ’60s. The riots and strikes that traumatised France in 1968 brought profound changes to all of Francophone culture. Franquin’s was a generation that fell in love with American culture and worshiped postwar design for its optimism. Suddenly they were drowning ina scorn for consumerism.

In Franquin’s case, these critiques were just the tip of an iceberg. Always a serious pacifist who opposed the death penalty, he became more and more disturbed by the state of the world. In Gaston, he mocked hunters, cops, generals – even those model Messerschmitts Spirou sold in the small ads. But his humor grew more and more corrosive.

In 1974, Angouleme held its founding festival. It awarded Franquin awarded the Grand Prize for lifetime achievement. But that comics world he had once shaken up was different now. It had produced names like Marcel Gottlieb (Gotlib), Philippe Druillet, Nikita Mandryka, Claire Bretécher and Moebius. All through the ’60s and ’70s, publishing and art were changed by new publications: Pilote, Hara-Kiri, L’Echo de savannes, Métal hurlant, Fluide Glaciale, Charlie Hebdo. The real action had moved to France ­– and it catered not to kids but adults. In sharp contrast, Spirou still had its “religious counselor”.

Despite his growing sense of isolation, Franquin stayed with Dupuis. He turned down several offers, including one from Charlie Hebdo. Then, in 1975, he suffered a heart attack.

Although it shook him profoundly, Franquin didn’t fall behind. In 1977, he and Yvan Delporte took another new idea to Charles Dupuis. It was a “pirate” publication, one that would appear inside Spirou every week. Delporte would edit and Franquin would manage the art. But they had one condition: total editorial freedom. Somewhat surprisingly, Dupuis agreed. He gave the pair an office for their project, “Le Trombone Illustré“.

Franquin’s cover for Le Trombone illustré on Delporte’s 50th birthday © Franquin/Dargaud-Lombard, 2016

The Trombone roster mixed old friends like Peyo and Jijé with new pioneers such as Jacques Tardi, Enki Bilal and Claire Bretécher. Printed on paper slightly bigger than that of Spirou, what was meant as a centerfold risked dwarfing its host. This soon led to tensions back at the Spirou office. According to Franquin, “We were viciously attacked. Most of the editors really hated us.” Not only were his colleagues furious with their star; many disagreed with the Trombone‘s brand of humor.

One of their main targets was a strip called Idées noires (“Dark Thoughts”). This, along with the supplement’s covers, was Franquin’s contribution. It was a series of one-page gags whose humor was utterly dark, concentrating on death, disasters and despair.

Over the years of drawing Gaston, Franquin had perfected his style. By ’77 he commanded it with a highly cinematic control. But nothing had prepared either the staff or his fans for Idées noires. It looked like, in his own words, “Gaston plunged into soot”. Everything in its drawings was creepily alive; even the outbursts and onomatopoeias writhed. Its landscape was baroque – yet chilling in its prevailing black and furious clouds of crosshatching.

Aside from monsters and aliens, Idées noires has two kinds of protagonist: humans who suffer and humans who relish inflicting hurt. Their figures are either utterly dark or a stark, trembling white. All are feeling their way in a universe deprived of light.

Le Trombone illustré lasted less than a year. But when the exasperated Dupuis finally ended it, Marcel Gottlieb rescued Idées noires. Gotlib gave them a home at Fluide glaciale, the all-adult comics journal he co-founded. There, until 1983, Franquin continued the strip. If he had only drawn Gaston, Franquin would be a legend. But his Ideés noires are a spookily prescient landmark. These grim gags are part Goya, part Edward Gorey. But there’s no disputing the fact they remain almost shockingly relevant.

Would the strip have been born without Franquin’s personal gloom? The artist himself claimed that Ideés noires was just a progression, the logical development of his earlier work. He liked to cite a Spirou sequence from 1966, in which his villain ruins a fingernail while torturing Fantasio. The higher ups, he told a fanzine in 1988, went ballistic over that. “Clearly, I had touched a nerve and that amazed me. I think that stayed in my head and Ideés noires developed from it.”

But the graphics were something he had always wanted to try. “There was one Saturday Evening Post I had seen as a kid which had a strip done entirely with black silhouettes. I always wanted to use that for some sort of dark comedy. Maybe it’s all gallows humor, but it’s humor nevertheless.” Frank knew his new look was unnervingly strong. In 1977, he used it on a poster for Amnesty International.

Detail from Franquin’s 1977 Amnesty International poster © Franquin/Dargaud-Lombard, 2016

Mostly stark black against a bright scarlet, this appears at the very end of the show. It’s a vivid and harrowing piece in which Gaston fantasizes scenes of his own torture. Says Xavier Zeeger, who worked for Amnesty at the time, “Many people were surprised by the strength of feeling in that but it shows how bleak Franquin’s vision had gotten.”

Fluid glaciale has just re-issued Idées noires. To mark the event, they’ve also published a “Golden Edition” replete with extras and graphic homages. Yet Franquin’s own work that still seems by far most modern.

The cover of Fluide Glaciale’s special edition, 2017

Editor Gerard Viry-Babel isn’t surprised. “When these strips were first published back in 1977, Franquin couldn’t have known that forty years on they would still be newsworthy.”

“But it’s exactly like Gotlib wrote when he first published them, ‘From his very first dark thought, it always seemed Franquin was saying, ‘Watch out; this is no longer any laughing matter…”

 

  • The exposition Gaston, Au-delà de Lagaffe (“Gaston, beyond the blunder”) runs through 10 April 2017 at the Centre Georges Pompidou in the Bibliothèque publique d’information Gallery. Admission is free.
  • Il était une fois Idées noires (“Once there were Dark Thoughts“), the commemorative volume, is out now, published by Fluide Glaciale.

[1] Bohemian poet and painter Gaston Mostraet

[2] “As with ‘Hergé’, ‘Jidéhem’ stands for the French pronunciation of the artist’s initials: ‘J.D.M’. They belong to Jean de Maesmeker. Franquin named his Gaston character “Aimé De Mesmaeker”, a boss eternally after contracts, after his colleague’s father.

 

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Jiro Taniguchi 1947 – 2017 http://www.tcj.com/jiro-taniguchi-1947-2017/ http://www.tcj.com/jiro-taniguchi-1947-2017/#comments Wed, 15 Feb 2017 13:00:16 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=98716 Continue reading ]]> First off, I’m going to give him his proper titles—Chevalier Jiro Taniguchi, de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Maestro del Fumetto. Because when you are paying tribute to a comic book artist who has been knighted by the French government and titled in Italy, you do him full honors. Of course, those are not Taniguchi’s only awards—he had the usual collection befitting a manga genius, including receiving the Osamu Tezuka Culture Award and the Shogakukan prize—but being named Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters and Master of Comics is something special.

You’ve never heard of the esteemed Chevalier Taniguchi? Don’t feel too bad. I had never heard of him either, until several years back when I was still doing manga reviews and hunting around for a publisher willing to take a chance on Shigeru Mizuki. I crossed paths with Stephen Robson at Fanfare / Ponent Mon, who basically said “Have you heard of Jiro Taniguchi?” and sent me a care package full of books. It was one of the loveliest boxes I have ever received. The first one I read was The times of Botchan, followed by The Quest for the Missing Girl. I was instantly hooked.

And slightly surprised that I had never heard of him. Although respected and admired in his native Japan, Taniguchi was not exactly a household name. His quiet, introspective brilliance was not the sort of thing that splashed out from the cover of magazines, or got molded into plastic figures. His voice was much more appreciated in Europe. A Belgian film company produced a live action adaptation of his comic A Distant Neighborhood, changing the setting to Paris. He collaborated with legendary artist Moebius. His work inspired an art movement in France called Nouvelle Manga, led by Frederic Boilet and Benoit Peeters, with whom Taniguchi worked on the comic Tokyo is My Garden.

In recent years, Taniguchi started getting wider recognition in his home country. His work Solitary Gourmet had been adapted into a television series in 2012-2015, and his comic The Summit of the Gods that he did with writer Baku Yumemakura was adapted into a live-action film in 2016. It is some comfort to know that he survived long enough to see this appreciation of this work—for at only 69 years old he died far too young.

Taniguchi was born in Tottori prefecture. That particular slice of Japan seems to produce more than its fair share of giants of manga—both Shigeru Mizuki (Kitaro) and Gosho Aoyama (Detective Conan) hail from Tottori. (A fact not lost on its tourist board, which bills themselves as Manga Paradise. Although while Mizuki and Aoyama have dedicated sites, Taniguchi is largely unrecognized). After graduating from Tottori Commercial High School, Taniguchi moved to Kyoto in 1966 to start working at a textile company. But he had no intention of remaining in that occupation.

In the late 1960s, he met manga artist Kyota Ishikawa and began his training as an assistant. In 1971, he made his debut with The Damned Room in Weekly Young Comic. He continued his training as an assistant to Kazuo Kamimura (Lady Snowblood), before breaking out for a solo career. Taniguchi partnered with writer Natsuo Sekigawa to produce some brilliant hard-boiled crime fiction. While Taniguchi would later be known for his gentle slice-of-life fiction, stories like Hotel Harbor View and Trouble is My Business showed he knew how to draw a man getting a bullet in the face.

In 1987, Sekigawa and Taniguchi launched into what is one of my personal favorites, the 10-volume The Times of Botchan. What began as a simple two-volume exploration of the life of writer Natsume Soseki, blossomed into an exploration of literature in the ever-changing Meiji period. Sekigawa and Taniguchi populated their story with luminaries such as Ogai Mori (Vita Sexualis) and Lafcadio Hearn (Kwaidan).

Taniguchi’s art—his use of simple lines and his ability to capture expression—pushes the work beyond a simple academic exercise. There is a scene where Hideki Tojo appears as a young child that is absolutely chilling, an effect Taniguchi pulls off with minimal distraction and pure clarity of intent.

Over the following years Taniguchi worked with other writers as well on his own. He produced comics in almost every genre imaginable, including crime fiction and funny animals, adventure and fighting, science fiction and young adult. In 1986, he did the comic K with writer Shiro Yosaki, in a genre that Taniguchi would become the undisputed master of—mountain climbing. The story follows a mysterious Japanese man living at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains, making his living as a guide to climbers.

Through Taniguchi’s stunning nature scenes, he captured the splendor and terror of climbing these mighty peaks. He followed K with comics like the 5-volume The Summit of the Gods, a work that follows the real-life mystery of George Mallory, who went missing on Mt. Everest. The Summit of the Gods is intense—there is no other word I can think of to describe it. There is no better comic about Mt. Everest.

Taniguchi further combined mystery procedural with mountain climbing in the emotional The Quest for the Missing Girl, which is another one of my favorites. This look into teenage prostitution and corporate cover-ups remains a chilling examination of one of the darkest sides of modern Japan. His research and commitment to portraying realistic climbing is incredible, as well as his ability to portray sweeping mountains scenes. Taniguchi makes you feel the bitter cold and intensity of clinging to a sheer face with only your own strength and equipment to keep you alive.

In 1990, Taniguchi turned his eye away from gangsters and mountain climbers to look inside at his own life with The Walking Man. Here another Taniguchi hero emerged: the middle-class, middle-aged man becoming aware of his own surroundings. This Zen-like, introspective hero would appear again and again, in semi-autobiographical comics like A Zoo in Winter, the fantasy-tinged A Distant Neighborhood, and the foodie comic The Solitary Gourmet.

It is this aspect of Taniguchi that appealed to French readers. His simple, reflective storylines touched a deep cord in France, who resonated with the comics’ appreciation for nature and daily life that are not quagmired in nostalgia.  From 2007-2008 French jeweler and luxury brand Cartier used Taniguchi’s art for a commercial campaign that spread his fame across the country—a bit ironically, considering Cartier is selling a lifestyle completely at odds with Taniguchi’s portrayal of middle-class life. France also loved Taniguchi enough to commission Guardians of the Louvre, a fanciful story about a lone Japanese man wandering through the ancient art gallery, conversing with famous paintings in a mad fever dream. And lest you should think of Taniguchi as only a wise prophet of the nobility of a peaceful life, while he creating these idyllic portraits of modernity he was also drawing Fatal Wolf, an ultra-violent wrestling comic. Taniguchi was a multi-faceted jewel. One of those facets was huge, rippling muscled men attempting to tear each other apart. The guy could draw an exquisite blood stream.

I never met Jiro Taniguchi, but from all accounts he was very much like that person you see in his introspective comics. The word “gentle” is what you most hear in association with him, and that makes perfect sense. Gentleness exudes from his work, although it is gentleness bulwarked by intense resolve and strength. I imagine he was much the same. An artist as driven as he was, and as dedicated to his craft, much of his own character must have seeped into his work. When my hero Shigeru Mizuki died, it was accompanied by the bittersweet knowledge that his death thrust him into the spotlight. Many discovered his works only because of his death. I hope the same thing for Jiro Taniguchi. 

Thanks to Fanfare / Ponent Mon, there is a wealth of Taniguchi works available in English now. I often recommend people start with The Quest for the Missing Girl, which is a good blend of Taniguchi’s humanism combined with the intensity of his climbing scenes. It’s also a single volume story, so not as much of a commitment as The Summit of the Gods—although you will eventually want to tackle that particular mountain. Another book to try is The Walking Man, probably Taniguchi’s most popular work in English.  One description it doesn’t seem so interesting—a man walking around, discovering his own neighborhood—but Taniguchi transforms it into something sublime. Just try not to go on your own walk through your own neighborhood after reading it. Just try. And then see how much your sense of the world has been changed.

After I heard of his death, I pulled my Taniguchi books off the shelf and have been re-reading them, one-by-one. Damn, they are so very, very good. Goodnight Chevalier Jiro Taniguchi, de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Maestro del Fumetto, Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters and Master of Comics.

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Sarah Glidden in Conversation with Julia Wertz http://www.tcj.com/sarah-glidden-in-conversation-with-julia-wertz/ http://www.tcj.com/sarah-glidden-in-conversation-with-julia-wertz/#comments Fri, 10 Feb 2017 13:00:23 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=98491 Continue reading ]]> [Editor’s note: We asked Julia Wertz to interview her friend and colleague Sarah Glidden on the occasion of the latter’s recent book, Rolling Blackouts. They caught up during a car trip a few months back] 

JULIA WERTZ: Sarah, would you summarize the book real quick for us?

SARAH GLIDDEN: Rolling Blackouts is a book about journalism, comics journalism. The idea came when I was working on my first book. Some friends of mine were in the midst of starting a non-profit multimedia journalism collective. They did most of the reporting in Seattle for different journalism organizations—NPR, Seattle Times, stuff like that. They’d get funding mostly from grants about once a year to do a bigger international reporting projects. So, when I’d go out and visit them, they would always have these great stories about all the reporting they’ve done and all the places they’ve been. It got me really interested in finding out more about how journalism worked. It also sounded really fun. I always wished that I could go with them on one of their reporting trips. I asked them if I could go with them on their next trip and shadow them while they worked and do a book about how journalism works. About how they find their stories and their sources and how they find a translator and things like that. That’s the book.

You were following Sarah and Alex—they were the journalists. Then Dan, who is the Iraq vet, came with you guys. The Globalist was there?

They were first called the Common Language Project, but they rebranded as the Seattle Globalist.

The whole book keeps asking, “What is journalism? What is the point of it?” Do you think their intentions in going to Iraq and Syria … were they naive? Were they well informed? Or maybe too optimistic in getting a story?

I don’t think they were naive. Their idea for this reporting trip was to do some stories about displacement after the war on terror and the war in Iraq. Their audience is a younger audience, and they thought they wanted to look into young Iraqis and Iraqi refugees. What is the fallout from these wars? Who are these people who have been affected by the Iraq war? I don’t think there was anything naive about that. I think they did a good job.

Sarah said that she didn’t know what type of a journalist she was. What are the different types? 

I think she meant more in the abstract sense. Like what is she trying to achieve with her work.

What’s her narrative?

Sure. What kind of journalist do you want to be? Focusing on more newsy things? Clearly, they are a freelance collective, so they aren’t the type of journalists who are backed by Frontline or the New York Times. So, what does that mean? I think that all of us, cartoonists included—what kind of cartoonist are you? What kind of work are you focusing on? 

Yeah, like the different genres of it. How did you friends and family feel when you told them that you’d be taking this trip?

My mom thought it was great. I think everybody was into the idea. I have some Israeli friends who thought that going to Syria would be dangerous and a big mistake. Everyone was supportive.

As your friend, I was nervous. [Laughter.] I think it’s important to point out for the readers, that this was before the …

This was in late 2010.

Before everything went to shit.

It was a very different Syria at that time. It was even a very different northern Iraq. Now there is a lot of tension. ISIS is encroaching on that territory and the Kurdish peshmerga are on the front lines with ISIS. But when were there, we’d see these peshmerga checkpoints. And we’d see military training locations, and say, “What are the peshmerga training for? There’s nothing going on right now.” We felt the same way when we were in Syria. That was very naive. Just to assume that you’re in a place and politically no conflict seems to be going it, that means it’s going to stay that way.

How did you get interested in journalism the comics way? I think we were both kind of late to comics. How old were you when you started?

I was 26, so yeah, pretty late.

Were you interested in journalism before that? How did that even come about?

I think I moved sideways into journalism from autobiography and memoir because that’s how I started. We got to know each other because we were both doing autobio comics …

Bad autobio comics. [Laughs.]

… and posting them on Flickr. I knew you through your Flickr avatar before anything else. You make autobio work about what interests you and what’s happening to you. My first book, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, was an extension of the autobio stuff I was doing. I thought I’ll go on this trip. It was a free trip, paid for in part by the state of Israel, so I thought it would be a real interesting and weird trip. Then I would just make comics as if I were doing my normal work. Comics about my experiences and what I was thinking and feeling. Lots of feelings. But that also entailed doing a lot of research into the places I was going and that’s just what I’m interested in—trying to figure out why the world is so … interesting. 

You also talk about marketing stories. Her article got dropped by—who was going to do it? They said it was too dark.

Sarah had pitched a story about displaced people living in abandoned [Saddam Hussein?] barracks and prisons in northern Iraq. She pitched it to the World. I think Alex wrote the pitch, and they wrote back saying that it was too dark.

Is that a thing journalists face a lot? Having to pep up sad stories?

I don’t know. To be honest, I don’t know exactly what that email was. Sarah was paraphrasing and it would have been a creative paraphrasing. But I think that when you’re pitching a story and every part of the journalism process—the reporter and the editor—it’s the reporter’s job to try to find what they think is an interesting story, but then it’s the editor’s job … Let me put it this way: a journalist is closer to their subject and the editor is closer to their audience. Between the two of them, they are compromising on how to give the audience a story that is interesting and important.

Sure. That’s why editors always pick titles for the article.

Right. A lot of times the editor will write the headline, not the journalist, so a lot of times you end up with headlines that make journalist really upset.

You guys talk about the guy who was going to buy a heater and that brought up how journalists have the responsibility to not intervene in their subject’s life. Is that difficult? What is the downside of intervening in an interviewee’s life?

You’re talking about the scene where Sarah was interviewing a guy who was living in a displaced peoples camp and he was complaining about the cold. A friend of ours, another journalist named Kamaran who is Iraqi-Kurdish, was interpreting for us during that interview. The guy was talking about how cold it is and how it family gets so cold and all he really wants is a heater. Kamaran said he would try to get the guy some help. As American journalists, that’s kind of one of the ethical guidelines—you don’t give gifts to the people that you are interviewing because if that was something journalists did, your subjects would be influenced by the promise of gifts. You don’t pay people for interviews. That’s what that was about. But I think for Kamaran, it was like, I’m going to do whatever I can to help this guy.

Is that hard, not to help people?

Sure. Journalists have an impulse …

Especially when the intention is already there to help, to get eyes on the story.

The intention of journalism is not always going out there because you want to help that person. You’re hoping that person’s story that you’re putting out there in the world will help people understand a bigger issue. That story can stand in for something bigger than just one person, and can help them understand a phenomena like displacement or war. Sarah was always talking about making it very clear to the people she was interviewing that she doesn’t believe that this story would necessarily help them directly. That comes from an exchange. A person wants to tell their story because they want their story to be told. That’s all the journalist can offer. You can’t even promise that the story will be told because you do have to deal with the editors and you can publish something and that doesn’t mean people will read it. In the end, you have to have the faith that it’s important to put these stories out there and it’s important for people across the world to understand what people are going through somewhere.

What are the challenges between a freelance journalist doing what you guys did versus someone from the New York Times doing what you guys did?

New York Times and other papers like that used to have foreign bureaus all over the place, but those have been shutting down a lot more. It is a lot harder for someone who’s posted overseas to make the connections and understand the region a little bit better. You end up having freelance reporters going and dropping into places that are new to them. Obviously having that kind of institutional support and the money to send reporters to these places and keep them there for a long time is better. What also happens when you have someone abroad like that is that they might end up going to the same people all the time. They might end up having sources that are closer to the government and that are going to give a certain point of view that a freelance reporter, just by not having those connections, might have to talk to people who are closer to the “everyman.” The people who are actually living in these places and not in control of it. I think both are necessary, but it’s distressing how there’s less and less institutional support for international journalism now at a time we really need to understand the rest of the world a whole lot more than we actually do.

One of my favorite parts of the book is seeing behind the scenes of journalism. When Sam, the guy who was being interviewed, pretended to wake up and go about his routine. You just don’t see that. And also, I liked the part where the little Turkish kids run up and you think they’re asking you for money, but they give you guys candy. Were there any other misconceptions that you or other people had about the people there? Things that turned out different?

Sure. I think you go into a story or a place or a person with some idea of what you think you’re going to get. Finding something different makes it more interesting, but you have to have a baseline to evaluate things off of. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was surprised by how much anger the older Iraqi refugees had.

Directed at you guys. It was harsh at times.

It shouldn’t have been surprising, but it’s not something you get to see very much with the journalism coming out of the Middle East. You hear about Iraqis being angry, but those are militant taking up weapons against American soldiers. But these are average people. Not particularly political. A lot of anger. You would be angry if some foreign government came in and turned your world upside down. I think it was good for us. I really wanted to include that in the book because I think it’s not a side of things we usually get to see. Often, when someone’s a refugee, it’s tempting to just view them as a victim. Someone who has been wronged. But people who’ve been wronged are allowed to have feelings about it and be angry. And to ask questions back to the journalists like, “Why did your government do this?” It shouldn’t have been surprising, and it really wasn’t, but it’s something we hadn’t been able to hear before.

Yeah, most reporters don’t include that. I thought it was interesting because it made me feel like Americans are so narcissistic. Personally, I didn’t think about that aspect or that the average citizen over there being really mad about Americans coming in. But, of course, they are. Later when you guys are at [The Refugee Processing Center] when she yells at you. I feel like most journalists would cut that. But you actually see the dialogue. When you have them speaking in their native language and then you have the translation of it, how did you decide to do that visually? Their word bubble is behind the translators. How did you decide to do it that way? There are other options.

All the other options seemed to be bad. I thought of putting what the person is saying in Arabic or in Kurdish and then doing what the interpreter in the same panel, but my panels are already pretty text heavy as it is.

That would be laborious.

I stole the idea from documentaries and from radio pieces where somebody is speaking in their original language and it’s overdubbed by the translator or interpreter’s speech. It’s their world balloon and you can kind of see some of the letters of what they’re saying in their original language, then the interpreter’s balloon is on top of it to show that they are translating. There are some moments that aren’t translated because the interpreter wasn’t translating what they were saying, so I just kept everything there.

Walk me through a day of making the book.

For a long time, I was just writing it. I had to transcribe everything. So, all of the dialogue is actual dialogue. I had this digital recorder that was on almost all the time—in the interviews, but also when we were in between the interviews, walking through these towns we were in, having breakfast. And so, I had to transcribe all of that. Probably, I didn’t have to transcribe all of it, but I wanted to. I just wanted to have everything in front of me so I could see what I had to work with.

How long did it take to transcribe everything?

It was about a year of transcribing but I was working on other things. I was working on some short projects, and things like that—and traveling a lot. Writing is the thing that takes longest for me: just deciding what scenes I want to use, and how to edit down a three-hour long conversation to something that won’t last more than five or six pages of people sitting around and talking.

When you got to the drawing part—

Oh, that was the easy part. Once everything was written, then I usually work two pages at a time. I pencil and ink two pages one day, and then watercolor the two pages the next day.

What watercolors did you use?

Winsor Newton.

You only use five colors, right?

Oh, well, like five, six, seven, like…I started adding some new colors as the book went on. But yeah, I use a limited palette. I’m not doing anything colorful and exciting like Lisa [Hanawalt]. [Laughs.]

But it matches the tone. It would be weird if you had a lot of hot pink panels. [Laughs.]

That’s probably true. I studied oil painting in school, so I learned how to paint by mixing my own colors out of very few tubes. So, that’s how I approach watercolor.

It looked like you had a much more complex palette of paint. You must be good at mixing it up. What’s the hardest part about painting?

Night scenes. The darker the scene is, the more paint you use, and the longer it takes. It’s really hard to put down large areas of paint and make it look good. Watercolor is better for lighter colors and for giving more air to things. Any of those night scenes, where there are a whole bunch of layers of really dark blue—and then, if you wait too long and let and edge dry, and then you need to go back into it, it will create these colors butting up against each other, and it doesn’t look very nice. Night scenes are the hardest. They’re also cool lighting challenges. I guess that’s a fun part of doing a night scene, just having to think about, what does it look like when there’s a bunch of buildings at night, and the lights are on, and the TV’s on in one window? They were the most difficult but I also had a lot of fun.

Comics journalism is kind of new, at least to the general public. What do you think of the state of it now, and who’s doing good stuff? Or stuff you like?

I think it’s great! With places like The Nib, which are devoted exclusively to comics journalism. Other websites—or even magazines—which aren’t traditionally into comics, but adding comics journalism. I think there’s a lot of people doing a lot of really good work, like Joe Sacco, who’s been doing this for so long. He’s great. And he’s done work for Harper’s, publications that aren’t prone to using comics. But there’s a lot of great new people too. I really like Sam Wallman’s work. He’s an Australian cartoonist. A lot of the stuff on The Nib I think is really interesting.

Is it still a small field? A couple of you working, or do you think it’s a lot bigger than people assume? I assume it’s small.

It’s pretty small, but comics journalism—there’s a range of stuff. Lisa does comics journalism: her restaurant reviews and her movie reviews. She’s done things like the visit to the toy show. That’s comics journalism, also. I actually use her work when I do classes. I use her work as an example of comics journalism too, because I want people to know it’s not just stories about refugees. The things that you traditionally think about are Joe Sacco-style comics journalism.

Right. Very political.

I mean, you do comics journalism. I think that, in that way, sometimes people forget that there’s more to comics journalism than The Nib. Anyone working in nonfiction—basically, the lines can blur between memoir and journalism. I think that’s where New Journalism that started in the 1970s and ’60s comes in. I think that’ lots of things can be comics journalism. I’d be interested to see more movie reviews in comics form, or just like, “Here I am, dropping in to the swap meet for a day, in a new place. What is it like?”

You think it’s more palatable, especially for younger people, to see a comic, versus seeing a textbook or an article?

I don’t know about palatable, but I think that maybe comics can make people take a second look at something. At the moment, we’re bombarded by text and photos all the time. So, drawing and images that are hand drawn are more rare. When you see a comic, maybe you’ll take notice and want to read it, just because it’s different. What will happen when there’s as many comics journalists out there as there are prose journalists, maybe then people won’t really be into it anymore. At the moment, it’s an exciting time, because it is still fairly new. I think people can pay attention.

It’s entertaining, too. I think, for kids, it’s hard to read a textbook of information, but when they can see it, it’s much more entertaining. So, a lot of the content of the book is really difficult and dark. How does that affect your daily life while reporting on it?

While reporting on it, or while writing about it?

Just dealing with the material.

That was hard. While you’re in an interview, you have to hold it together. Especially for me, I wasn’t even interviewing, I was just there, watching. So, I need to just not be intrusive at all. And that meant keeping it together when people are talking about really sad things. But writing about it is tough, and drawing it can be really difficult. That’s when you start to really internalize a lot of the things that people were telling you. Sometimes, when you’re drawing someone making a funny face, you realize that you’re making that face. So, you’ll be drawing someone smiling like a grimace-y smile, and then you realize that you’re smiling that way. So, that works for sad moments, too. If you’re drawing someone telling a sad story, and you’re trying to— it’s a little bit “acting,” like you’re trying to put yourself in their shoes, and trying to get the facial expression right, or the emotion of the scene right. In a way, you’re inhabiting that person. That’s when it can be really tough.

It’s also something like, well, boo hoo, I felt sad when I was working on a comic about something that actually happened to someone. You feel like you’re not even allowed to have those feelings. But it is hard. For some of the people I was drawing, by the time I was drawing them, the war in Syria had broken out, and I didn’t know where everybody was. I’d kept up with a lot of the people we had met there. And, some of them are safe. Like Momo and Odessa, the Iraqi refugee couple, those younger artists, they resettled in Vancouver. I see them update their Facebook almost every day, and I know that they’re fine. But some people you’ve lost track of, or there’s just no way to know where everyone is. So, that’s tough. You’re drawing someone, and you don’t know if they’re OK.

If they’re dead or alive.

Yeah. So, it can be really hard. You feel really powerless. You wish you could just do something, and then this thing, where you’re just drawing them, is the best thing I can do. And, that feels really futile sometimes.

Speaking of helping, though. What would the average person, like me, how can we help the refugee situation?

I think just listening to refugees’ stories. And not trying to hide from the reality of the situation, especially for all refugees, not just Iraqis, and not just Syrians. There are millions of refugees from Somalia, still. It something that I think we don’t really want to look at. There’s a lot of misinformation here.

Like Trump saying the refugees coming in are causing crime.

Right.

Jesus.

He says things like, “We need to vet them properly, we don’t know who they are.” You saw me getting really upset when he said that during the debates, and then, right after that, Hillary said, “Well, we will be vetting these people.” And I’m like, “No. These people are already vetted as much as you can vet someone.” We can’t look into people’s hearts, and know what their intentions are.

That’s why it’s insane when he said, “We can’t be certain of their love for our country.”

You can’t be certain of anyone’s—

Yeah, that’s a ridiculous thing to say.

But, it’s a really stringent process that all refugees go through, especially refugees from Syria. We let in the most vulnerable people first, women and families. It’s not like we’re letting in hordes of single, young men, which are the ones that these people are the most afraid of. I think those guys deserve a chance too, but really, the reality is, only one percent of registered refugees ever get settled. It’s a very, very small number. I think that the average person can educated themselves about that stuff, and demand that their politicians do better, because we could let more people in. We have a fine history, in the U.S., of helping a lot of refugees. We let in many, many Vietnamese refugees after the Vietnam War, for just one example. We could do better with Iraqis and Syrians.

Do you think people are just afraid, because “terrorism” is such a hot word right now?

Yes. I think people are afraid because people purposely try to make them afraid. People believe when people tell them things [laughs]. I think that journalists, we need to do a better job giving people the real information.

The correct information, too. Trump has incorrect numbers.

Yes. [Laughs.] Just being curious and being informed. I understand that there are a million issues out there. There’s racism, and the treatment of Native Americans. There’s environmental destruction. When you think about all of the stuff that we need to pay attention to, I can understand people being overwhelmed. So, actually, yeah, I don’t know what people can do.

Is there a charity you would recommend, for refugees? A specific one, are all of them all right in general?

I think that everyone needs to do their own research with Charity Navigator, and things like that. I think the UNHCR does good work, but there are some who say that the UN is making a lot of mistakes with refugees. I’m not going to get into that. But, Mercy Corps is an NGO that we talked to a lot when we were over there, I think they have a pretty good record of helping refugees But I think that people can look into that on their own. Charity is always a good thing. It never hurts. But I think really listening, and not just taking the information that you get for granted is a good first step.

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All Inside http://www.tcj.com/all-inside/ http://www.tcj.com/all-inside/#respond Fri, 10 Feb 2017 13:00:08 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=98564 Continue reading ]]> Today on the site we have cartoonist Julia Wertz interviewing her friend and peer Sarah Glidden about Glidden’s recent book, Rolling Blackouts. 

Comics journalism is kind of new, at least to the general public. What do you think of the state of it now, and who’s doing good stuff? Or stuff you like?

I think it’s great! With places like The Nib, which are devoted exclusively to comics journalism. Other websites—or even magazines—which aren’t traditionally into comics, but adding comics journalism. I think there’s a lot of people doing a lot of really good work, like Joe Sacco, who’s been doing this for so long. He’s great. And he’s done work for Harper’s, publications that aren’t prone to using comics. But there’s a lot of great new people too. I really like Sam Wallman’s work. He’s an Australian cartoonist. A lot of the stuff on The Nib I think is really interesting.

Is it still a small field? A couple of you working, or do you think it’s a lot bigger than people assume? I assume it’s small.

It’s pretty small, but comics journalism—there’s a range of stuff. Lisa does comics journalism: her restaurant reviews and her movie reviews. She’s done things like the visit to the toy show. That’s comics journalism, also. I actually use her work when I do classes. I use her work as an example of comics journalism too, because I want people to know it’s not just stories about refugees. The things that you traditionally think about are Joe Sacco-style comics journalism.

Right. Very political.

I mean, you do comics journalism. I think that, in that way, sometimes people forget that there’s more to comics journalism than The Nib. Anyone working in nonfiction—basically, the lines can blur between memoir and journalism. I think that’s where New Journalism that started in the 1970s and ’60s comes in. I think that’ lots of things can be comics journalism. I’d be interested to see more movie reviews in comics form, or just like, “Here I am, dropping in to the swap meet for a day, in a new place. What is it like?”

You think it’s more palatable, especially for younger people, to see a comic, versus seeing a textbook or an article?

I don’t know about palatable, but I think that maybe comics can make people take a second look at something. At the moment, we’re bombarded by text and photos all the time. So, drawing and images that are hand drawn are more rare. When you see a comic, maybe you’ll take notice and want to read it, just because it’s different. What will happen when there’s as many comics journalists out there as there are prose journalists, maybe then people won’t really be into it anymore. At the moment, it’s an exciting time, because it is still fairly new. I think people can pay attention.

Elsewhere:

Our own Chris Mautner writes about Gerald Jablonski’s new book.

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Something of Value http://www.tcj.com/something-of-value/ http://www.tcj.com/something-of-value/#comments Mon, 06 Feb 2017 13:00:13 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=98243 Continue reading ]]> On March 26, 1994, after four days of trial and a deliberation of forty, ninety, or 120 minutes, depending on what you read, a St. Petersburg, Florida, jury of three men and three women, each older than the defendant by at least a decade, declared Mike Diana to be the first American cartoonist officially guilty of obscenity.

The judge, an ex-naval officer, ex-prosecutor, and Rotarian, ordered Diana jailed. Diana’s girlfriend, Suzy Smith, wept.[1]  Diana’s lawyer asked for his jewelry so it would not be stolen by his guards.  Diana spent four days in maximum security while the judge pondered his sentence.  The noise was unrelenting.  The lights were on constantly.  His cell had a metal bed with one blanket.  Sleep was impossible.  His company included murderers and rapists.

Because of pictures he had drawn. 

When Diana returned before him, the judge asked what he had learned.

“I learned I don’t want to be in jail.”

“Is that all?”

“I learned what I did was wrong.” Diana didn’t believe that.  But he sensed the judge wanted more than his previous answer.

The prosecutor demanded that Diana be imprisoned for three years, arguing, falsely, that he had made thousands from his art because the trial had made him famous.                   

The judge placed Diana on three years’ probation.  He fined him $3000, which he was to pay in $100 monthly installments, and ordered him to perform eight hours of public service for 156 consecutive weeks while working full-time.  He was to be psychiatrically evaluated and have up to ten months’ therapy at his own cost.  He was to submit to urine, breath, or blood tests upon demand.  (This requirement was stricken on appeal.)  His residence could be searched at any time without a warrant.  He was ordered to complete a course in journalistic ethics.  He was forbidden contact with anyone under 18.  He could not possess or create – even for his own pleasure – drawings that were “obscene.”[2]

Following his sentencing, Diana, his mother, and Smith went to a seafood restaurant.  The tablecloths were sheets of white paper, and crayons were available for children to draw upon them.  Diana drew fish defecating, then added breasts and penises to them. At his first meeting with his probation officer, he asked if he should give the police a key to his apartment or let them kick in his door?  His P.O.’s attitude seemed, “Let’s just get through it as smoothly as possible.” Still, Diana kept his art in his car’s trunk and worked on it only at night.

                                                                             I

Michael Christopher Diana had been born in New York City, June 9, 1969.  At the time of his trial, he was five-foot-two and fit from running, calisthenics, and weightlifting.  He had light brown, shoulder-length hair, which he had refused to cut despite his lawyer’s recommendation, because he felt it important to his identity as an artist.

His father taught junior high school science.  He gave his son animal skulls and tapeworms preserved in formaldehyde and entertained him by attaching electrodes to a frog and making its legs jump.  Diana’s mother kept house.  He had a younger brother, now married with two children, and a younger sister, who, upon graduating high school, joined the Marines.

The children were raised Catholic, in Geneva, a city of 15,000 on Seneca Lake.  (Scott LaFaro[3] was born there.)  In nursery school and kindergarten, Diana wet himself during naps.  He was tested and hospitalized and prescribed pills. Surgery on his urinary tract was considered.

Once, assigned to draw his family, Diana portrayed them nude, with genitals.  Once, when his class collected material on the beach for art projects, he brought back a dead fish.  By 2nd grade, his interest in art was so strong, his mother enrolled him in an after-school program. 

When Diana was in fourth grade, his family moved to Largo, Florida, a city of 50,000.  (D’Quell Jackson [4] was born there.)  Diana hated the heat.  He hated church.  (He attended mass and Bible  class until he was 15.) He hated the conformity and culture of a community, primarily elderly and retired, with lawn statues of  flamingos.[5] He hated the schools, where teachers  disciplined students with paddles.  When he was 12, his parents divorced, and he stayed with his father.

Diana liked the Three Stooges.  He liked Tales from the Crypt, “old, bloody, gory, religious art,” and the underground comics of S. Clay Wilson, Greg Irons, Rory Hayes. He had few friends. His only pet was a tarantula, to which he fed lizards and crickets. When it died, he cried for days. His father had taken over a fruit and vegetable store, which sold beer and cigarettes, cheap. Diana worked the register, drinking himself to better engage the customers.

He received A’s in art and failed or barely passed everything else.  Creating art, he felt, gave him the chance to be who he was meant to be.  As part of this art, he made videos featuring himself as a slasher film-like killer.  His mask was a money bag, which he had found in a dumpster and cut eye holes into.  The “blood” he splattered came from corn syrup and food dye.  Once he performed, masked, wearing all black, at a “night happening,” while a duo played electric guitar and bass.  On his belt was an 18-inch dildo, which penetrated a baby doll, from which he had removed the stuffing, and whose head he had filled with heavy cream, which spurted from the eyes and mouth at each dildo thrust.

The crowd was “indifferent.” And his car was towed, costing him $300.

Diana created his first comic at 13.  The cover depicted an eyeball dangling from a skull.  On the second, a creature munched on a baby’s skull. In 1988, with a friend, he created his first zine, meaninglessly entitled HVUYIM.  In 1989, he launched Angelfuck. Then came Boiled Angel.

It ran from 30 to 86 black-and-white pages, and was duplicated on the photocopying machine of the high school at which he was a janitor. He wanted Angel to be “as shocking as possible.” He wanted it to be “more extreme” than the UG cartoonists he admired. When #6 was found in the possession of a fellow busted for marijuana in San Francisco, the police sent it to law enforcement authorities in Florida, and Diana was asked to give a DNA sample to prove himself not the person who had killed five college coeds in Gainesville.

Angel’s circulation never exceeded 300.  Its only sale inside Pinellas County, where St.  Petersburg was located, was to an undercover police officer who wrote Diana claiming to be a fan.  (“Far fucking out,” he called it.  “Tasty.”) Diana sent him issues #7 and #8 (aka “Ate”).

The cover of  #7 depicted a child with one leg amputated and one eye gouged out.  Issue #8 displayed four naked women clutching a decapitated man. Inside, knives and dollar sign-decorated crosses penetrated people’s bodies.  A penis entered a beheaded neck’s stump.  A severed head fellated a cross-wearing monster.  A huge penis entered a child so tiny that it exploded. A chalice cup is labeled “AIDS-infected Blood of Christ.”

Fourteen months after mailing #8 to the undercover officer, Diana was arrested.

Once courts decided that the First Amendment did not mean “no law” when it said “no law”and that some expressions were too sexually dangerous – or “obscene” – to be  disseminated, issuers of these expressions became subject to criminal prosecution. Phrases defining limits were planted like stakes in the ground, and beyond them “speech” could not go. As time passed, courts moved these stakes and expanded this ground, and the public became able  to read Ulysses and watch Carnal Knowledge.  But markers remained.

In 1994, in Florida, a work was obscene if an average person, applying contemporary community standards, found it lacked serous artistic, literary, political, or scientific value, while appealing to prurient interests by depicting patently offensive sexual conduct.  This definition  said nothing about “disgusting” or “sick,” but it is difficult to believe that the jurors who convicted Diana did not feel these thumbs pressing heavily on justice’s scales.

On appeal, Diana’s attorneys argued lack of notice, entrapment, prosecutorial misconduct, that “community” should have been defined to encompass the entire state, and that a jury judging a work four years after its creation could not apply “contemporary” standards to it. I doubt any of these arguments gained traction with the appellate court. I think the guts of the case were “prurient interests,” “patently offensive,” and “serious.” And as with the jury,  I suspect the calculated vileness of the work overwhelmed the court’s sensitivity to jurisprudence.[6] 

Not that it would have had difficulty upholding the verdict.

Take “prurience.” Anyone who has seen the opening credits of Masters of Sex knows proving that is easy.  Mushrooms and champagne bottles, railroad tunnels and crevices in geological formations can appear sexually suggestive.[7] While most people would seem more likely to snap Boiled Angel shut and abandon its vicinity than hunker down beside it with lubricant and tissue, once the state had Sidney Merin, PhD, a neuropsychologist known in local legal circles as “Sid the Squid” for his ability to cloud waters, testify that Angel’s depiction of “pain, mutilation and torture” would sexually arouse members of a “bizarrely unstable” deviant group, that hurdle was cleared.

And “patently offensive” was no barrier either.  Remember the old joke? “Well, Mr.  Jones,” the psychiatrist says, “the test results show you prone to bestiality.”  “What’s ‘bestiality’?” says Jones.  “Intercourse with sheep, cows, pigs, chickens…” “Chickens!  UGH!” says Jones.  If chickens can freak out Jones, what chance did exploding babies have with six average Floridians? No, once “obscene” words and pictures warrant time in the slammer, you can forget “prurience” and “offensive.” You better have “serious value” going for you.

Diana spent much of his five hours on the stand, trying to convey the worth of his work.  He cited the influence on him of Salvador Dalí and Diane Arbus.  He itemized the hours he put into each book.  He explained that the nightly news’s reporting of serial killers and pedophiles, “each channel battling for the bloodiest stories,” had left him feeling people had become numb to murder and sexual abuse and wishing to shatter their indifference.  (His approach, it strikes me, was similar to Pop Artists like Andy Warhol, whose soup cans and Elvises were said to document America’s consumer culture and celebrity worship.  Only Diana was making it confront its lust for blood and perversion.)

But his testimony alone would not do.

In any case where attorneys fear how jurors’ pre-existing inclinations will define the phrases that are key to their verdict, they will provide  “experts” to influence the jurors in the direction the attorneys desire. And since in a country as diverse as ours it is hard to find an issue about which experts will not disagree, jurors of almost any inclination will have an credentialed peg on which to hang it.[8]

During the second half of the 20th century, “obscenity” experts regularly trooped into court rooms to debate the existence of “value.” They included nationally known literary critics (Malcolm Cowley, Alfred Kazin), poets (John Hollander), novelists (Leon Uris), academics (Harry Levin, Mark Schorer), book review editors (Barbara Epstein, Eliot Fremont-Smith), newspaper columnists (Nat Hentoff, Dorothy Kilgallen), as well as eminent priests, ministers, rabbis, sociologists, and a co-author of the Kinsey Report.[9]  

Diana’s prosecutor cleverly cut against this grain.  Both his hardly-household-name experts  came from the Presbyterian Church-affiliated Eckerd College, located in St.  Pete.[10] One, James Crane (Art) testified that magazines “aren’t usually considered as art” since they were often thrown out.[11]  (He also said that, he considered Diana’s work inferior to Prince Valiant and Peanuts.[12]) He conceded Angel might compare to “shock” art, like that of the Dadaists, but noted that once this had shock worn off, their work “didn’t last”; and work must endure in order to be art.[13]                                             

Crane’s colleague, Victor Sterling Watson (Literature) testified that, for a creative work to have value, it must make “sense,”[14] must offer a creator’s “interpretation” of experience, not simply reflect it,[15] and must be “life-affirming… I mean, does it give certain values such as courage, fidelity, beauty, honor, love, friendship, community?” Boiled Angel, he felt, lacked “any context of interpretation.” Nor did it contain an “affirmation of anything that I would consider a positive value…”[16]

A basic rule of obscenity defense, as promulgated by Charles Rembar, who successfully represented Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Fanny Hill, and Tropic of Cancer, is: The less defensible the work, the more “impressive” its defenders must be.  (They might not register with jurors as much as a couple fellows from the local Presbyterian college, but they could disincline appellate judges from linking themselves with the Philistines in bound volumes on law library shelves for future generations to scoff at.)  No disrespect intended, but Diana’s experts did not meet this standard.

One, Seth Friedman, published the San Francisco-based Factsheet Five, a magazine devoted to—and little-known outside of—the world of ‘zines.  The other, Peter Kuper, a cartoonist from New York City, edited the leftist anthology World War 3 Illustrated, whose circulation never exceeded 3000.  Moreover, neither emphasized Boiled Angel’s value as much as they argued that it wasn’t about sex but “victimization.” But it didn’t matter what Angel was about, so long as it prurient appealed to one of Dr.  Merin’s deviants. That could only be offset by social contribution.

Friedman’s and Kuper’s lack of renown and misdirected focus were not their only problems.  Their cities of origin allowed the prosecutor to inflame his closing argument by charging the jurors to protect Pinellas County from what might be “acceptable in the bath houses of San Francisco… (or) crack alleys in New York.” That was a cheap shot, but it made me wonder why the defense hadn’t had a Floridian, past or present, testify.  Had they approached, for instance, Dave Barry, Judy Blume, Edna Buchanan, Michael Connelly, Harry Crews, Carl Hiassen, Duane Hansen, Peter Matthiessen, Tom McGuane, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Joy Williams?  Had they all declined?  Was their price too high?[17]

It also did not help that, at the time of Diana’s trial, the killer of those coeds, Danny (“The Gainesville Ripper”) Rolling was in the news, awaiting sentencing.  This encouraged the prosecutor to call Boiled Angel “the sort of stuff that stirred up… somebody like Danny Rolling…. Step number one [is]… the drawings.  [Then]… you’re into the pictures… [Then] you’re into the movies… [Then] you’re creating these scenes in reality.” In other words, he was arguing that drawing comix was the first step in a march to the turning the imagined scenes into actuality, so that Diana had to be stopped now before he began snuffing women, children, and babies.[18]

After three months, Diana’s lawyers had his probation stayed, pending the outcome of his appeal.  In June 1996, without telling anyone but his parents, Diana moved to New York City.  The day he arrived, his conviction was upheld. 

New York refused to oversee Diana’s probation.  So once a month he reported by phone to Florida. Once a month he mailed his $100.  He completed a journalistic ethics course at NYU.  He delivered food to HIV patients as his community service.  And for the next two years and nine months of his probationary period, he remained forbidden to be in the presence of a 17-year-364-day-old or, I suppose, draw a murderously deployed penis.

                                                                           III.

It will surprise no one who has read my views on transgressive art[19] that I found Diana’s prosecution to have been stupid, cruel, and a waste of taxpayer money.  I am aware of no evidence that any kind of art causes people to act criminally, and even if there was, I do not believe the rest of us should be denied access to material simply because it might detonate our most marginal neighbor.  And I think it beneficial for people to see what words-and/or-pictures disturb them, so they can search themselves to see why that is

To me, Diana’s prosecution seems more like bullying than justice.  He was a single guy, without corporate backing, publishing a barely read comic.  His drawings were crude and off-putting, not seducing or rousing one to action.  His stories were hardly commanding enough to seize control of one’s unconscious. He did not, in detailed prose, describe the nailing to the floor and dismemberment of a woman, like Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho. He did not salaciously link sexuality and automobile accidents – “the erotic delirium,” the semen spilled,  and pubes lacerated – like J.G. Ballard in Crash.[20]  Diana’s aesthetic seems like The Three Stooges Meet Freddy, or Rory Hayes guest-artists Little Orphan Annie, the oddity of the juxtaposition making one chuckle, if ruefully, at the carnage, the continually building how-can-he-top-this bank of outrages fascinating like a playing card tower.  It does not, I say without hesitation, make one think, “Gee, that sounds good.  Where’s my chainsaw?” and head for the local preschool.  Diana was a lone weirdo (in the best sense), a zine-making guy seeking footing in the world, not an author of lit-ra-choor, anchored to important friends in important places.  He was an easy target to beat on.

If the State of Florida was engaged in something beyond a sadistic exercise in PR, a good faith effort, say, in deterrence or rehabilitation, I have some seat-of-my-pants-researched  news for it. In 2012, to accompany a European tour of Diana’s art, Divus published a two-volume slipcased compilation of his work, America.  One volume, Live (400 pp.), was entirely black and white and the other, Die, (128 pp.)  mostly color.  By my calculation, Diana would have been on probation from approximately March 28 through June 28, 1994, and from June 8, 1997, through March 8, 2000. These compilations only give the year of completion of each work,  so I have confined my study to 1998 and 1999.

Live has nine works from this period. In them, a child stabs to death his parents and three siblings, machine guns hundreds of school children, and kills himself.  A teenager blows up a school with 3427 students and teenagers inside and urinates on their graves. Aliens invade Florida and behead and eviscerate naked citizens.  A naked woodsman ejaculates while felling a phallus-resembling tree.  A fellow fearing he has been invaded by insects slices off his own nipple. A skull drips semen after sex with a giant cock.

When Diana’s probation officer would remind him that he could violate his probation by drawing, he would reassure her, “Of course, I’m not drawing.”

But of course he was. 

                                                                            IV

Becoming America’s most shocking cartoonist is a bit like becoming its fastest runner, except that instead of pushing one’s body, one pushes one’s mind.  Both feats test courage and commitment.  To both, upbringing and obsession contribute.

Diana had to identify where our society’s nerves were rawest and squeeze that spot until his knuckles whitened, despite its shouts and screams. This act set him apart at the same time it elevated him. While his prosecution gave him name-above-the-title power in some circles, it also cost him.  People feared that if they asked for his art, it would make their doors a target for the jackboots. So while the tag “Only Cartoonist Ever Convicted…” may ring Diana’s neck like Olympic gold, a Wheaties box was never in his future.

Mike Diana in 2015, via Divus.

At present Diana shares a three-room apartment with two other artists in what had been a party house for Argentine skateboarders in the Fort Washington section of Manhattan.  He scrapes by, supporting himself primarily through his art. His website sells his drawings, paintings, comix, t-shirts, patches.  He contributes work to others’ comix and zines.  He designs the occasional album cover.  He has graphic novels in progress. Manhattan’s galleries elude him, but he has exhibited at them in London, Prague, and Berlin – and at squats in abandoned factories in France. He will have a joint show in Paris with Stu Mead, an American ex-pat painter of sexually explicit works, often involving juveniles.  A documentary about Diana’s trial, to which he is contributing animated clips, is being made by Frank (“The Godfather of Gore”) Henenlotter and Mike Hunchback, the punk guitarist/song-writer.

While writing this article, I had one phone interview with Mike Diana and several email exchanges with him.  At the end, I asked him, “Was it worth it?  If you had it to do over again, would you?”

“Since I was little,” he said, “I wanted to draw things I liked… I wanted to share my drawings with others. When I was in Florida, in my teenage years, I wanted to make shocking art.  The oppression is so heavy there, it makes you want to rebel.  The religious folks there cause this to happen.  I wanted to offend those that needed to be offended, and Largo, where I was living, is overrun with those kinds of people. I never had a feeling that I did anything wrong, I was just using my freedom of speech.  It’s not my fault nobody else in that part of the United States wanted to exercise this freedom.  Yes, I would do it again and again.”

I mentioned that, at artwhore.com, he had advised others to “Draw as sick as you can.” Why, I put to him.  Who or what was being served?

“I was trying to say, if you want to make art that is risqué or that most [people] don’t like or feel is unsavory, just do it, Draw what you want.  Don’t let the bastards that are always grumpy get you down, discouraging you from what you create.  It is important to the artist and this free society we live in.”

I thought about that.

It was, of course, by no means certain that permitting Mike Diana to keep drawing children being fucked to death would have led him to personal growth, or to work that museums would hang, or which would lift civilization further from the mud. It did seem, though, that his continued application of ink to paper had not resulted in any of the state-warned-against conduct on his part or, as far as I knew, triggered anyone else’s felonies.

Mike Diana, 1997

Beyond that, I only found myself thinking thoughts I had already thought and writing words I had previously written. (It was so wearyingly discouraging to think that in the late 20th century we had not progressed beyond the nonsense of State v. Diana. Of course, we are now well into the 21st and look at the megalomaniacal, malicious death cap we have elected president.)

So, seeking freshness, I asked a few people whose work and opinions I respect what they thought about Diana.  Here are their responses.

One thing I hated about the way Mike Diana gets processed by most people is that his comics are awful, that they are beyond-the-pale offensive, and that we defend him anyway because of principle.

I think all this is wrong.

I think Mike’s comics are funny.  I think they’re pretty clearly “white trash shenanigans” stuff more than comics exploring the real terrors of the soul, like Simmons or Columbia do, and I think a lot of his comics art is attractive. –Tom Spurgeon.  Editor of The Comics Reporter

I was inspired (by) his surrealist visuals… (and) unfurled psychedelic id.  Simpler minds may only want to feel appalled by the vileness of his subjects but there is great, eye-popping beauty to his images… He has an innate sense of layout and optical play.  His imagination and attention to absurdity are more commanding of my attention than any institutional artist. -Jon F.  Allen.  Writer, cartoonist and co-editor of Pop Wasteland.

                                                                                  

I see interesting parallels in Mike Diana’s case with the start of the first Gulf War.  Police action against him started the same time [as] the cycle of war and violence conducted by [the] American elite.  And you take draconian measures against the guy who never did any actual harm to anyone and who was only drawing comics and you don’t have any call for legal responsibility for people who were involved in premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people at the same time.  And you have official psychiatric evaluation of “criminal” Mike Diana who was only in charge of his own comics zine but you don’t have any psychiatric evaluation of Madeleine Albright for an example who was in charge of heavily armed superpower… Mike Diana was the victim of the same school of thinking which finds suspect and guilt everywhere but never in themselves.[21] – Wostock.  Filmmaker and cartoonist

One of these people, J.T. Dockery, author/artist of Despair, responded at such length and in such depth that I felt he deserved stand-alone recognition. So here’s…

                             Satan, Mike Diana, At Least One or Two Other Things & Me:

                                                                                          An Appendix by J.T. Dockery

With Mike Diana’s work, I can feel the imagery moving along ley lines of artists before him who charted geography in lands that made the squares twitch and recoil but also sparked an audience–however limited– alternately hungry for subversion and wills to be weird such as: Rory Hayes, S. Clay Wilson, Joe Coleman, along with a soundtrack of lyrics by The Misfits and artist Raymond Pettibon’s Black Flag album covers, I can observe Diana surfing the waves of punk and heavy metal, its subcultural imagery.

It’s not for nothing that the same Florida that begat Diana’s comics also begat the death-metal genre of bands like Obituary, Deicide, and Morbid Angel–with their reveling in blasphemy, Satanism, and at least one or two other things–concurrent with the late ’80s/early ’90s/Diana’s pressure cooker of Boiled Angel that got him in such community-standard-hot-water in the “Sunshine State.” I’m aware that the court would not allow any evidence of context or tradition, so no entering into evidence any previous underground comix, etc. to establish a heritage for the kind of “folk art” that cuts the guts right out of the American apple pie. I would argue that tradition–and Diana’s place in it–is one of the nobler emanations of American arts and letters/(sub)culture.

I also can’t imagine his work being made and distributed outside the context of the ’80s/’90s zine scene, with Factsheet Five serving as central hub for distribution of weirdo print matter traveling across state lines before the rise of the internet, giving Diana an underground/alternative audience outside of his immediate community. And I can’t imagine his prosecutors having any sense of the zine scene, punk rock, heavy metal, or underground comix (even in their own backyards), actively dismissing any context as nothing but degeneracy. (What did one of the Florida prosecutors say about New York crack alleys and San Francisco bathhouses again?)

I would say Diana’s work is evidence that he’s processing the hypocrisy of avowed American normalcy and, furthermore, if he was capable of doing any “actions” delineated in his work, he WOULD NOT be MAKING that work. It’s the repressed and those who fear the shadows full of their own darkness who are the real scary beasts, crouching low and breathing heavy, preying on society/individuals; the old fallacy of failed thinking that if someone makes transgressive art, he or she is, it follows, either capable of performing transgressive acts and/or inspiring the transgressive acts depicted. (Not to mention the reactionary fear that comes from observing an artist drawing the spears that poke the sacred cows of the status quo/decency/the current community standards of any given neighborhood conservative Christian church). It reminds me of the scenario of the elected conservative politician who endorses the most foul homophobic legislation, harping on enforcing his morality crusade, who often seems to be the most likely to end up caught with his pants down engaged in illicit acts with other men. I find myself thinking also of serial killer John Gacy. (Did he ever paint BEFORE he was in prison?) Certainly one can almost regard his strange paintings as the result of an incarcerated killer who is restrained from the option of further murder, with killer coming first, artist second by a wide margin. If Gacy had it within himself to put his murderous impulses into paint, he wouldn’t be a killer. Speaking of Joe Coleman, he’s often said that if not for discovering the outlet/s of art, he thinks he would have become a killer and/or some kind of criminal.

But maybe talking to/about Mike Diana right now is perfect timing, when, somehow, a “reality television” celebrity/smoke-and-mirror-millionaire has been elected (is that vomit I taste in my mouth?) to the highest office of the land. Whether he’s getting caught on a hot mic endorsing sexual assault or generally spouting fragmented ill-formed hate speech, Donald Trump seems like a Diana character to me. Which is to say, a vile/violent walking, talking caricature of himself (either not self-aware, or so deeply cynical that he IS aware, that he’s playing a character for an intended audience). And yet he was recently tossing around, on the bathroom stall of Twitter, that threadbare notion (what year is this again?) of prosecuting citizens for burning the American flag. Which reveals, at best an ignorance and at worst a denial, of what the law of the land protects as freedom of speech.

I think of William S. Burroughs’s “Roosevelt After the Inauguration”. Burroughs had the experience of being prosecuted on charges of obscenity–and it seems to me that casting Trump in the Roosevelt role and adapting/updating Burroughs into a comic, as delineated by Mike Diana, would be–as I imagine the result in my mind’s eye–a perfect summation of the current situation. (I’m not exactly sure why Donald Dump can’t be deemed legally obscene, ha/ugh.)

Of course, invoking Burroughs as positive to the negative example of Gacy, one could argue, subverts my analogy – being that, indeed, Burroughs did accidentally – as the official story goes – shoot and kill his wife. Unlike Gacy though, Burroughs was not a serial killer, and  himself viewed the act, however unintentional, to be the central motivating fact of his career as a scribe, and the corpus of his work as something of an atonement, or rectifying/attempt at redemption for having been an instrument in the bodily death of Joan Vollmer. No matter where one lands on the Burroughs question, I’d venture to say there is no meaning/understanding/criticism of art without including context (and then there’s the issue of not separating the artist from the art, which is to say: seeing value in failed/flawed human beings capable of producing interesting work despite their inherent flaws, as transcendence of flaws and failures, not because of the same).

What’s interesting to me is that 1. Diana was legally prohibited from making art, period (not merely a judgement of specific works in print, but a judgement/censure of any future works) and 2. what that fact means to an artist, how it changes him. On the back end of that, I’m aware that the actions of the prosecuting authorities in Florida ultimately negated their own goals, meaning that as the events were happening other artists and writers and institutions stepped forward to make statements in his defense – (it’s difficult to imagine Neil Gaiman discussing Mike Diana’s work if not for the situation of his prosecution) – and generally making an obscure artist more well-known by the very processes of censuring/censoring him.)

Like anything else, if one can’t take one’s faith being satirized, or one’s country/its leaders being satirized, then what occurs to me is that it is more pudding-proof that one’s religion/government – and humorless faith in such institutions/individuals within those institutions – can’t,  in actuality, BE all that powerful. Not if any reaction to any skewing of the supposed power of faith/government in the form/s of art/the arts is perceived as an attack, a threat, which must be eliminated. As I would say of a government so afraid of its own citizens that it spies on them, that’s playing from a weak position.

 There seems to be a moral/lesson in this story for those in power willing to pursue censorship, for the short term silencing/derailing of careers of artists. History reveals that censoring artists/their works seems to never accomplish much more than making the artist/their works censored/censured more famous and studied than if the authorities had just let them work/satirize/poke the sacred cows in the warm amniotic fluid/peace of freedom of expression.

I think of William Tyndale, put to death in England for illegally translating biblical scripture into the English language, and yet, within a generation, his work was put into the language of the King James translation, the official version, sanctioned by the throne which killed him, ultimately making him as important an architect of the language as William Shakespeare. The Tyndale name is not well known outside of the circles of biblical scholars, yet every time we say a word such as “atonement” or utter a phrase such as “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” that’s all Tyndale/14th century words and phrases from his translation. And they strangled/burned him for his efforts.

That’s a major-league digression. But, hell, Diana is more like Tyndale than his church-going, painfully middlebrow, corn-pone persecutors. At least we don’t torture or kill our artists, writers, philosophers, scientists, etc. simply for doing what they do, and exploring ideas/expressions that run contrary to the status quo and legally protect their freedom of speech. I mean, at least…for now.


Endnotes:

[1].Smith (aka “Suzy Morbid”) had been drawn to support Diana because she had been fired from her job as the hostess of a public access cable TV show after showing a tape of the singer GG Allen urinating and defecating on stage.  She found Diana “nice,” “shy,” “lonely,” and “depressed.”  “He needed somebody,” she concluded.       

[2].Since, arguably, nothing is “obscene” until a judge or jury rules it so, and since the jury had not identified what part of Diana’s work it found criminal, this placed a burden on Diana’s judgment.  It would have also seemed counter-productive to those who believe that if one is possessed by inner demons, which some in the courtroom seemingly believed Diana to be, it lessens the chance of their acting anti-socially if they can release through art the pressure these demons generate.

[3]. Look him up.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. . Largo  recently made national news when its City Commission voted 5-2 to remove its City Manager because she was transitioning from male-to-female.

[6].The only part of the court record I was able to review was Diana’s opening appeal brief, so my understanding of the case may be incomplete.  But since this brief is likely to have recited the facts in the light most favorable to Diana, and since my analysis will focus on his defense’s shortcomings, what I have to say may not be terribly undercut.

[7]. If Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree is to be believed, some men may even find watermelons sexually irresistible.  And at least one serial rapist/murderer is said to have been inspired by Cecil B.  DeMille’s Ten Commandments.  See: Murphy. “The Value of Pornography.” 10 Wayne L.Rev.  668 (1966). 

[8]. Speaking of “experts,” journalists ring them in too when purposes require, and, coincidentally, I have just heard from the always-fascinating Ruth Delhi, PhD, who has been on a lengthy, silent meditation in the mountains of Peru, but read the first part of this article and passed along a hand-written note, via a touring charango player. “What an unusual child!” she said of Diana. “And his parents were amazing. They recognized his interests and encouraged them. They didn’t confuse their son’s playfulness and imagination with pathology, even though his behavior was extreme, but accepted it, removing its negativity, and helped him function.”

[9]. Even cartoonists were not unworthy of such defenders. When the owner of an Oakland gallery was prosecuted in 1970 for displaying the art of UG comix Snatch and Cunt, the Founding Director of the UC Berkeley Art Museum testified on his behalf.

[10].U.S. News & World Report currently ranks it 127th out of 180 liberal arts college in the country.

[11]. So much for newspaper comic strips, comic books, political broadsheets and pamphlets, rock show posters.

[12]. S.  Clay Wilson was not discussed.

[13].This assessment would startle Yale University, which recently celebrated Dada’s centennial with a five-month long exhibition.

[14]. One might cite Pablo Picasso to the contrary: “The world doesn’t make sense.  So why should I paint pictures that do.”

[15]. Or one might cite Andy Warhol’s films, William Burroughs’s tapes, or Marcel Duchamp’s urinal to the contrary.

[16]. Watson was not asked about the “courage, fidelity, beauty, etc.” within, say, Louis Ferdinand Celine or Nathanael West, Otto Dix or George Grosz.

[17]. Diana’s attorneys had intended to call a third expert, Shane Bugbee.  After Diana had been charged, Bugbeen had reprinted Boiled Angel #7-8, published a new comic by him, Superfly (a bat-winged skull devours a corpse on the cover), and arranged a gallery show of his work in Chicago.  But Bugbee’s nom de publication was “Mike Hunt” (get it?), and since this was how he was identified on the defense’s witness list, his testimony was excluded due to his identity not having been properly disclosed.

            Not that he would have solved the impressiveness problem, I daresay.

[18]. According to Diana, the alternate (non-voting) juror told him he had been done in by “the serial killer slant.”

[19]. If you haven’t, I refer you to my essay collection, Outlaws, Rebels, Pirates, Free-Thinkers, & Pornographers, Fantagraphics.  2005. 

[20]. I did not watch “slasher” films, so I can’t pull comparisons from them.  I’m sure there are many.

[21]. Wostock’s dating of the war and identity of the Secretary of State responsible are off, but his point is well-taken.

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Preview: Pretending Is Lying http://www.tcj.com/pretending-is-lying/ http://www.tcj.com/pretending-is-lying/#respond Wed, 01 Feb 2017 13:00:47 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=97587 Pretending Is Lying, along with a short afterword by its original editor, Jean-Christophe Menu. Continue reading ]]>

On February 7th, our friends at New York Review Comics are publishing Pretending is Lying by Dominique Goblet. We are pleased to present an excerpt from chapter 1. Following the pages is a text  by Jean-Christophe Menu about the book. 

goblet-1 goblet-2 goblet-3 goblet-4 goblet-5 goblet-6 goblet-7 goblet-8

 

TWELVE YEARS OF CORRECTIONS

The Goblette told me about the famous day: the drunk reunion with the “fireman,” the colored pencils that Nikita already had, “Bleeding,” the chest “from when I brought back from when I was with the pirates,” which collapsed, the Turbo injection … “Roger Out!” The whole thing, you know? The perfect scene to begin the necessary autobiography, and to attempt to arrive at, of course, the top floor.

It was 1995. The first pages of the first chapter were as impressive as they were pungent. Each time I saw them, there was oil paint modifying the pages. This troubled me a little, because I saw that black and white wouldn’t suffice for rendering such nuance.  Events transpired which resulted in the autobiography being put on hold on multiple occasions. There were other books, expositions, trips; the autobiography returned, left again, returned.

The method had changed: grey pencils now steadily rendered Brussels and Charleroi, but it was the same story from the pages of 1995, which, for their part, had continued to yellow. Reintegrating their sepia tone and their now-old style with the new-present was a way for Dom to defy time, the true first subject of the book, completed twelve years after it was started. This book smells of oil, grease pencil, humid wood, the disorder of the street market; it exhales twelve years of well-tempered promises, carefully untied and resolutely wrapped up. Pretending Is Lying breathes like no other book — Jean-Christophe Menu, editor of original L’Association edition

 

 

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Jack Mendelsohn, 1926-2017 http://www.tcj.com/jack-mendelsohn-1926-2017/ http://www.tcj.com/jack-mendelsohn-1926-2017/#comments Fri, 27 Jan 2017 13:00:21 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=98287 Continue reading ]]> Jack Mendelsohn passed on Wednesday from lung cancer. A cartoonist Zelig, Mendelsohn seems to have touched down at nearly every comics and animation hotspot in the second half of the twentieth century. But his greatest achievement was a quirky comic strip called Jacky’s Diary that ran from 1959 to 1961. The fictional drawn diary of “Jacky Mendelsohn, age 32 1/2,” the strip is told entirely in a faux-children’s prose and picture style, to brilliant effect.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Mendelsohn’s ambition was always to be a cartoonist. His father, Irving, was Winsor McCay’s film agent, and the young Mendelsohn visited McCay numerous times. Mendelsohn also visited his favorite local cartoonist, Stan Mac Govern, and received an original Silly Milly comic strip for his trouble. A high school dropout and Navy enlistee, Mendelsohn began his comics career after World War II as a freelance gag cartoonist for magazines including the Saturday Evening Post, and a script writer for dozens of funny animal, humor, and fantasy comic books, including Felix the Cat. Later, he wrote for MAD Magazine and its sister humor comic Panic. A restless, energetic young man, Mendelsohn moved to Mexico in 1951 and stayed for the better part of the decade, hatching Jacky’s Diary there as well. Mendelsohn was—and still is—a writer by trade. In 1959 he knew he couldn’t sell a comic strip based on his limited abilities as a draftsman, so “I thought if I could do a comic strip as seen through the eyes of a child and drawn in that crude style, I could use my writing to do an ‘endaround,’ bypassing the skills I lacked as an artist.”

The humor in Jacky’s Diary depends on the dissonance between “young” Jacky’s perception and adult reality. Therefore, in Mendelsohn’s masterful comic book version of his strip (only one issue of which was produced), Jacky writes in “A Visit to the Circus” that “The reason lions raw so much is on a count of they feed them raw meat.” And, writing about a tightrope walker: “A man came out & walked on a clothes-line. He must of been real poor, on a count of he didn’t own any clothes. So he did it in his under-where.” The prose is closely observed and often very funny, right down to the comical misspellings and malapropisms. “I made the most use of every panel,” Mendelsohn said. “ I always saw every inch as precious—every inch had to be justified.” Jacky’s Diary was also clearly meant for adults. Mendelsohn noted that he “never at any time considered Jacky a children’s strip. On the contrary, I considered it very adult with the use of wordplay, puns, and satirical observations . . . I don’t think the average child would have fully appreciated what I was doing.” Mendelsohn’s lone solo comic book enabled him to expand his stories across multiple pages, allowing the writing and art to assume a leisurely pace, making this 1960 gem his finest moment.

Mendelsohn’s drawing, despite his supposed limitations, is very effective. He studied books of children’s art in order to channel the look and feel of the work. In a recent interview Mendelsohn described his drawing process as “like a zen state, I would follow the pencil wherever it moved. I made very few changes from the pencils.” It is funny and gracious work, lying somewhere between Henri Matisse and Jean Dubuffet, in its faux-naïvité and straightforward beauty. Mendelsohn’s characters are both expressive and iconic—his reduced graphic language makes them stand out even more, perfectly communicating with just a couple of circles and a line. It is also a surprisingly prescient style—its pared down, whimsical look is now shared by many contemporary underground cartoonists. Check out some originals over the Billy Ireland site and the strip itself at The Fabulous Fifties.

But despite a lot of promotion, a one-shot comic book version, and even two animated shorts, Jacky’s Diary was cancelled in 1961—A Sunday-only comic strip at its level of popularity was simply too expensive for the syndicate to continue. in 2014 the strip was collected in its entirety.

From there Mendelsohn moved into television, writing for Jay Ward’s studio, as well as for animated versions of Beetle Bailey and Krazy Kat, as well as Scooby Doo. In 1968 he was one of writers for the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. At the end of the decade Mendelsohn began writing for live-action television with Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, and then became the head writer of Three’s Company and The Carol Burnett Show. In later years he found success once again in animation, as story editor for The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. Jack Mendelsohn received the Writers Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 and the Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing in 2014. At the time of his passing he’d completed a new Jacky’s Diary book-length story, though I don’t know if publication had been confirmed. 

I met Jack Mendelsohn first via phone back in 2004 when I was researching Art Out of Time (from which the above it taken), in which I reprinted the wonderful Jacky’s Diary comic book, and then later near his Los Angeles home. He was, until then, a cartoonist’s favorite (Mark Newgarden turned me on to the work, as he did so many great comics), and was happy to be rediscovered. I found him to be a wonderful and engaging man, generous with his stories and praise, but as any reader of Jacky’s Diary would know, also a man touched by melancholy and loss. A great, sui generis talent is gone. 

Here’s a great 1965 cartoon from Paramount, which reunited Jack with Howie Post.

 

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The Ted Stearn Interview http://www.tcj.com/the-ted-stearn-interview/ http://www.tcj.com/the-ted-stearn-interview/#comments Wed, 18 Jan 2017 13:00:05 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=98037 Continue reading ]]> I’ve known Ted Stearn for about thirty-five years.  He was studying at the Rhode Island School of Design when my future wife Richmond Lewis and I were also there, and we all became good friends in the years thereafter.  I was so intrigued with the paintings, drawings, and sculptures he made over the years—particularly a series of “automatic drawings” that were devised from random mark-making—that I suggested he make a comic for Rubber Blanket, the magazine I was publishing in the early 1990s.  Ted took the challenge so seriously that he is still making comics today—damn good ones, too.

Ted Stearn and David Mazzucchelli. Photo by Richmond Lewis.

His latest book, The Moolah Tree, is the third installment in a saga that began in Fuzz and Pluck (1999) and continued in Splitsville (2008).  Fuzz, a rejected, perennially abused teddy bear with no self-confidence, and Pluck, a poultry-slaughterhouse escapee with self-confidence in (over)abundance, are unlikely companions trying to survive in a world of users, losers, and desperate seekers (not unlike our own).

In this conversation we talk about many of the ideas that power his work, and also touch on his careers as a teacher and storyboard artist.  I encourage you to visit tedstearn.com to see more of his work than can be shown here.  He remains one of my favorite people and one of my favorite artists.

— David Mazzucchelli

THE SMELL OF PAINT

DM: You and I had similar trajectories in art school. We both started off majoring in illustration and then switched into painting. Knowing your work over all these years since that time, and thinking about the things that you wanted to make when you came out of school, I’m curious why you went into Illustration in the first place.

TS: I was paranoid about work and how I was going to get it, and I thought that fine art was too…fluffy. And I remember I called up my parents—I’m sure a lot of readers can relate to this—I called up my parents, it was three months after being in Illustration, and I said “I don’t know what to do”—I was, like, crying—“I don’t know what to do, I—I can’t do this, I don’t like it, I hate the teachers, and stuff’s stupid, uhh….” And I actually said “I wanna go into Painting, but I don’t know,” you know, it’s just too—you just don’t do that, it’s too…impractical. So, they were so sweet, they said “Do what makes you happy. Just go ahead and do it.” And I remember my first tour of the Painting Department and I just felt like “Oh, I belong here. This is great. I like this.” Because everyone was just really into it. I liked the smell, and the freedom… and the Illustration Department, I think you would agree, had serious problems back then.

DM: Well, regardless of problems it may or may not have had, it didn’t turn out to be the place for me either.

TS: What was the reason for that, for you?

DM: I think I didn’t know what illustration was, and I was trying to make what I thought art was, even though in the back of my mind I think I always knew I wanted to make comics. But I was trying to make drawings and paintings, and when I switched out of that department, it became immediately clear to me what illustration was—you’re given a problem and you solve it.

TS: I feel like something can be compartmentalized as illustration and not art when the subject is more important than the actual work. You know what I mean? That’s its job. If it goes beyond that, and it becomes a world within itself, and it becomes this really interesting, complex, other thing, then…you can call it “art,” I guess.

Painting by Ted Stearn, 1988.

DM: With a capital A. What occurred to me was, I embraced ambiguity. In art ambiguity is a good thing, in illustration it’s not necessarily a good thing.

TS: I remember something you said in the studio. You said “You know, now I get it! It’s like the Talking Heads—stop making sense!”

(Both laugh)

TS: You remember saying that?

DM: I do.

TS: Well, it stuck with me, I was like, “Yeah, sure, definitely.” I mean, one of my favorite things about art-making is you have to break rules. I never liked sense too much.

Ted Stearn, self-portrait drawn with “wrong” hand.

AN IMAGINATION ARCHIVE

DM: (Sifting through books and papers) I’m sitting here going through, like, thirty years of your stuff, and it’s really interesting to see the connections between drawings and paintings you were doing about thirty years ago—

TS: (laughing) Thirty years! That’s crazy.

DM: Well, that’s the late eighties, right?

TS: Eighties, yeah.

DM: It’s interesting, ’cause I remember a lot of those paintings very distinctly—

TS: Really?

DM: Yes, very clearly. Well, pretty clearly—

TS: You know, Richmond was an inspiration for me. She really was.

DM: Oh, yeah?

TS: Yeah. I mean, I didn’t want to paint like Richmond, but I remember I would go in your apartment and you would have all the Daredevil stuff out, and I was like “Okay, looks good! I want to see Richmond’s paintings, though!” (laughs)

DM: Her stuff was out too, as I recall.

TS: Yeah, well I kinda went “Oh, David, that’s really cool, you’re an incredible draftsman—let’s go see the paintings, now.”

(laughter)

DM: Smart move. Some of the imagery in the paintings you were doing back then found its way into the first comics you were making.  The “Beach Boy” comic for example [published in Rubber Blanket No. 1]—there was a lot of Coney Island imagery and boardwalk scenes in your paintings before that.

Painting by Ted Stearn, late 1980s.

TS: Right. Well, that was the first comic I did for you, and that was definitely pulling from my obsession with the Jersey Shore (laughs)—before it was a TV show!

DM: And where did that come from—that obsession?

TS: Um, I don’t know. I think I saw a lot of aesthetic stuff that I was really excited about, and so I wanted to reinterpret it as, not a cacophony, but a whole orchestration of shapes and colors and busyness and—

DM: You mean the combination of signs and different typography and different-shaped buildings and things all crammed together, that kind of accumulation?

TS: Yeah, I think it reflects in the comic maybe a little bit? Just how disorienting, if you walk through a boardwalk area? I was very intrigued by that, and I was also intrigued because it’s right next to nature—beach, ocean, complete nature—and then you’ve got this, you know, orgy of the follies of civilization or something. Also, I grew up in that kind of environment—we would always go to the beach in the summer, and as a kid I loved the boardwalk, the ocean, the whole scene. So it had a lot of personal resonance with me in hindsight, and the whole craziness of the boardwalk made me think about that contrast.

DM: There was another painting of the huge orange with human legs—

TS: (Laughs, shakes head)

DM: —that became Sourpuss in the Fuzz and Pluck comics.

TS: Yeah. (Shakes head) I don’t know why, I really don’t. I think it’s best not to analyze too much….

Automatic drawing by Ted Stearn.

DM: The reason I’m bringing it up is that in the drawings that came a little bit later, the ones you call “automatic drawings,” there’s also an animated quality to shapes, so that seemingly random or casual marks get turned into living creatures by the addition of arms or legs or something like that.

TS: All those images that I was creating was kind of like building…an imagination archive that I could pull from.

Automatic drawing by Ted Stearn.

DM: Those automatic drawings are what made me ask you to make comics for Rubber Blanket. Those and the paintings. There were characters and a sense of place and a sense of “something’s going on”—I thought “this guy can make interesting comics.”

TS: I just couldn’t believe how hard creating a comic was.

DM: (Laughs)

TS: So hard. And yet I really wanted it. It took me years and years and years. And some kids just have it and they go ahead and do it. But if you hadn’t asked me…I don’t think I would have done it.

DM: Sorry about that.

SCULPTURE TAKES UP SPACE

DM: Do you see a connection between the work you’ve ended up doing in animation as a storyboard artist and the way you were thinking when you were making kinetic sculptures? 

TS: Uh…. (Pause) No.

DM: (Laughs) Okay.

Kinetic sculpture by Ted Stearn.

A sketch for a kinetic sculpture.

TS: Well, they require different approaches, to me. But I will say, one reason I got into comics, one reason I was making those sculptures, one reason that I’m pretty natural at storyboarding is I have this fourth dimension of time. I mean, all works of art technically would have the dimension of time, but this is like really kind of exploding it in a past and future direction. So, the sculpture is less about movement and more about introducing the element of time. That became very interesting to me, and that’s why I enjoyed all that more than, say, just doing a painting, an image—that became really limiting to me, even though I loved it and I would go back to it easily, but…I felt like I was in a box. I didn’t want to be in that box, I wanted to create worlds and places that kind of just expand as much as I can. There are a lot of influences—music is a big influence on me. In the early nineties I was doing paintings and drawings, but I felt stuck, so I started making drawings that were all over the wall, and then I started building things, making three-dimensional drawings, as it were, and it kind of took off from there.

Sculpture by Ted Stearn.

DM: Right.

TS: You know, Jonathan Borofsky was a big influence on me. I remember seeing his work in 1982, we did a field trip to New York from RISD, and he just blew me away. I was just like, “This is just play, this is just so much fun.” And he had some kinetic sculptures in there.

DM: I remember the “Chattering Men.”

TS: Yeah…(makes hammering motion) the “Hammering Man.”

(Note: there were both.)

TS: But it was the overall-ness of it, it was just like…this huge sculpture here, this painting of a dream leaning against the wall over here—I loved that freedom, the turning yourself inside out. I loved just being able to, uh, not be disciplined about what you’re going to make and just sit down and start making something and see what you come up with. So this was a frontier for me, to build things and construct things, as opposed to sitting and drawing on paper. It was a very different experience. So I’m a really big believer in getting outside of your medium.

A video of Stearn’s 1992 installations. 

DM: Interestingly, after that expansion of grad school, by going into comics you did end up drawing on paper.

TS: I know, can you believe it?? Yeah.

Ted Stearn in his studio, 1990. Photo by Sharon Jandik.

DM: But long before you were making comics you were thinking about characters and settings and worlds and creating these environments and I think it really shows right from the first comics you made that there was this sense of world-building, or atmosphere—

TS: (Nods vigorously) That’s really good, I hadn’t really thought about that a lot, but I think that’s true, and I think the artists and the authors who I admire the most are able to do that. They did reflect on the real world, but they created their own—like, Basquiat did that, and, I don’t know, Goya did that, Charles Burchfield, and a lot of other artists that I admire. They weren’t married to “reality”—you know, so many artists recreating the world in their own vision. That’s what I appreciate about a lot of artists and I guess that’s what I was trying to do, though I don’t think I thought about it consciously, whether it was the sculpture or the paintings or the automatic drawings or the comics…

DM: And Halloween costumes.

TS: Which one was that?

DM: You were always coming up with interesting Halloween costumes.

TS: (Laughing) I don’t remem—

DM: I remember one in particular that cracked me up, it was a shirt with like twenty-foot-long sleeves and your hands were just dragging behind you—

TS: (Laughs) I had rubber gloves at the end. And one was the seven plagues of Egypt— (touching his chest in different places) I just stuck things on me.

Halloween costume, c. 1996.

DM: Richmond remembers you did (miming a large shape around his head) a big head, a big bear head or something—

TS: I did. I did a Fuzz head, yeah.

DM: That was after you had made Fuzz and Pluck?

TS: Of course, yeah. What happened to those days? We used to construct things.

DM: Now we don’t have room to keep them.

TS: (Laughs) That’s true. That was a big element in why I gave up doing sculpture—even though they were meant to be disassembled, I still didn’t have space to put it anywhere.

PARADOX

DM: When you were in grad school, you read the book Gödel, Escher, Bach, and I think that had an influence on some of your thinking in terms of connecting dots between different things…

Automatic drawing by Ted Stearn.

TS: Actually I couldn’t get through it all, but the concepts were fascinating, linking music, math, and art. If you look at my background, my father was a chess player, he played chess almost every night, with himself or with a computer. And he was a big influence on my thinking. He was a computer programmer, and he was also always debating with us. He would take a devil’s advocate view of something and he would argue with us about, for example, whether the moon landing ever took place. Anyway, he had that book, and when I was about twenty-one I was like, “Oh, what the hell is this? Who cares?” And then later I picked it up again—but it wasn’t just that book, he also had The Annotated Alice, which is about the things that are really going on in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, as well as Gödel, Escher, Bach. I was also tying in Zen Buddhism, which was about similar either/or conundrums. A lot of it had to do with math and a lot of it had to do with logic and a lot of it had to do with paradox, and how a paradox is almost impossible and yet it is possible—(laughs) there’s a paradox in itself. So, that really fascinated me because I really wanted to investigate just how elusive truth is. That was definitely injected into all my work. Like if you think about the automatic drawings—that’s when I just sat there and drew whatever came into my head—to me that’s the nonsense, the non-sense, it’s anti-sense.

DM: Lewis Carroll is sort of the intersection of logic and nonsense.

TS: Well, that’s what I realized. Alice is not a real girl, she has nothing to do with being a little girl, really. She’s logic. She’s reason in a world that is nonsense and she’s trying to make sense out of nonsense, and the nonsense is telling her, “No, you’re the one who’s nonsense. This is sense.” So everything is turned on its head. So I’m always thinking about, in terms of stories and characters, how can we turn things on their head and make the reader go “Oh, I thought this was gonna be an easy answer, and it’s not.” I have fun playing with that idea—where we think that the right answer or the moral issue or the character’s correct motivation is all based on this very clear line, and I really want to throw a wrench into it as much as possible.


DM: In the new book, The Moolah Tree, at one point the vagabond character makes a comment on what’s going on around him—he says “Boy, everybody is looking for something.” And everybody is looking for something, and practically all the characters find something but it isn’t the thing they were looking for.

TS: (laughs) Yeah, I think one reviewer put it pretty well how I was thinking, he said, “He’s teasing with the idea of ‘money doesn’t buy happiness,’ but he never pulls it out completely in this grand cliché,” and I’m like, “Yes, that’s what I’m saying! I’m saying, I don’t know, maybe we do need it. Maybe we don’t—I don’t know.” But this is how people are dealing with it, and that’s the fun part.

As soon as something becomes a pat answer—and this is in life, too—I have big problems with it, because it never is. I’ve changed my mind about a lot of issues, I’ve changed my perspective on love and life and family and all these things, and so if it’s written in stone, I’m there with my sandblaster. Because our perception of the past is always changing, people are incredibly fickle…. I think there are certain universal truths, but I’m sure not going to tell the reader what they are. To me it’s a conversation. The reader is putting their thoughts in my work and I am throwing out ideas, and I’m saying how about this? So, the reader has to do a little reflection…the reader has to come to a conclusion—which people love, you know, they like that closure. I try to add closure but…with a question mark.

SIDEWAYS INTO COMICS

DM: You came to comics kind of sideways, but you weren’t unaware of comics—you were not a comic book reader the way a lot of people who get into comics are, but certainly you had an affinity for the form. If I’m not mistaken you had a cat named after Ernie Bushmiller—

TS: (Laughs)

DM: —before you were making comics yourself.

TS: I was always interested in comics. My grandfather was a dentist, so we would go to his waiting room and he would have all these Richie Rich and Little Dot comics—I really liked those kind of things—and Donald Duck…I liked the funny ones. Superheroes, I read them but they weren’t a big influence on me.

DM: They weren’t funny.

TS: Yes, you’re right! After I grew out of that, I was like, “I’m a peinteur, I don’t look at comics”—(quickly smiling) no, I’m kidding, I wasn’t like that. I kind of rediscovered them later. I especially liked—now it’s almost cliché—I looked at RAW, and RAW was a big influence in my understanding what comics could be. I also discovered “Little Nemo.” That was really gorgeous stuff—I’d never seen it before, until like 1988 or something.

DM: Eye-opening.

TS: Yes. It was when you asked me to draw a comic, and I thought, “Well I definitely have to give this a try, ’cause I’ve been looking at all this stuff and I find it very interesting.”

DM: But there was also an interest in cartoons, you know, Betty Boop…

TS: Yeah…I guess I always had an interest in comics and animation, and if you look at the paintings, they’re pretty cartoony in a way—when I say cartoony, I mean, I feel like I had an attraction to bold images, something that’s almost iconic, bright colors…I guess we have to define “cartoony!”

DM: That’s why I was talking about these shapes in your drawings with an animating quality to them—these invented characters.

TS: It’s the old trope of marrying popular culture and art, I guess. But it’s so common now. I see it everywhere, I see it in art, I see it in…what do you call it, anthropomorphizing…all these animated cartoons on TV—cartoons just seem so much more pervasive now. Back then, I wanted to really marry cartooniness with  traditional art forms, and today we would say “big deal, what’s new about that?” But back then, back in the early eighties, I thought it was kind of an intriguing idea. I wanted to not be precious and artsy, I really dislike that. That’s one reason I got into comics, I guess. I felt like the art world that I had come to understand was this whole game, and there was a lot of money in it and that kind of tainted it, and the thing I liked about comics was: one, there’s no money in it—

(Both laugh)

TS: —and two, it felt like a frontier, I felt like, “Oh, look at the possibilities!” Now it’s totally different.

DM: Sure. Things have really changed.

TS: When I came up with Fuzz and Pluck, I was thinking of an anti-hero, a paradoxical hero, or something that kind of answers the cutesiness of Disney in the seventies and eighties, and that’s what I was used to. But now I feel like the meaning is kind of lost because [cutesy Disney animals] isn’t really the culture right now. I wanted to do something that was anti-mainstream culture and now I feel like a conservative in some ways—which is scary enough for me—but I don’t feel like I’m on the frontier of anything right now. That makes me confused as an artist. I’m not sure what my next step is.

FEAR = HUMOR

DM: Before you were making comics did you have an interest in telling stories?

TS: No! I’m a terrible storyteller.

DM: I’ll disagree with that.

TS: Well, it’s a lot of work for me. It’s not something that comes naturally. The way I construct a story is just taking different elements and putting them together. I want to keep playing with the reader’s expectations, not just of the plot but of the actual storytelling—and that’s really tricky (laughs). Because a story is built on certain clichés that we’ve built up over the ages—

DM: Let’s call them “conventions.”

TS: Yeah, that’s better—and I became especially exposed to these because I was working in animation where we come up with certain conventions to explain quickly—as in, “Okay, we’re gonna have a scary shot! Okay, we’re gonna look up at the door, annnd the character’s gonna come in and open the door and it’s gonna be a low angle shot and the lighting’s going to be behind him…” These kind of shots that we had to come up with, and they still come up with over and over again, they just got me thinking a lot about how much I despise (laughs), how much I despise clichés because they don’t really come from a genuine place anymore. They’re xeroxes of xeroxes. We don’t realize how conditioned we are to act and react, like, “Okay, this is gonna happen next…” So I see it a lot. “Go close up to show them looking. Don’t show what they’re looking at yet.” And then my favorite is “waking up from a bad dream.” (Leaning back in his chair) There they are in bed having a bad dream, they wake up, (jolts forward) they do a sit-up! Like who ever does a sit-up waking up?

DM: People do it all the time—I’ve seen it in the movies!

TS: Exactly! So, this kind of lack of originality, um, it’s partially laziness, partially habit, because it “works.” And I think that’s based on fear, we’re afraid to go outside of a certain convention, because we don’t really know, it’s uncharted territory. So, when I’m thinking of a story, usually the first idea is gonna be pretty cliché, so I have to go beyond that and that’s the scary part, because it’s like, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen if I try this. Will it work?” Whereas, as you know, the cliché will “work” in the conventional sense.

You know the farting donkey [in The Moolah Tree]—

DM: The flonkey.

TS: —the flonkey—I had a dream. I kept picturing Fuzz and Pluck on a Pegasus, like a flying horse. And I was thinking, “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna do a flying horse, Pegasus, no way, I can’t do it.” So I tried to think of things that will serve the same purpose but will be a surprise, will be funny, will be more interesting than the same old thing. That’s what I do with almost all my characters, like the pirates—they’re never called pirates, they’re not dressed like seventeenth-century swashbucklers or something, that’s, aaugh, I could never do that. Anyway, I had a dream about riding a horse with flowers all over it. And I thought, this is really interesting, and so I built the backstory about the flonkey based on that dream and the idea that I wanted a flying horse. Of course, I didn’t want her to just fly—

DM: She had to be propelled somehow.

TS: Yes, we don’t give that away! So that’s how I’m constructing these things, I’m trying to do something that’s never been seen before.

DM: It’s interesting that that’s something you dreamed, because some of the most harrowing moments in the Fuzz and Pluck stories are dream sequences, or hallucinations, and they really take the reader into a much darker place. You also made a few short comics called “The Forgotten Dream of a Melancholy Chef,” and the logic in those comics is definitely a kind of dream logic.

TS: Well, usually I don’t remember my dreams. I would stress this to anyone who’s an artist out there: stop thinking about the subject, and think about the feeling you want the reader to get. Many dreams happen to have that dimension. The fact that it’s a dream or not a dream doesn’t matter, but the effect that I wanted in those cases—I was expressing something and I wanted a certain emotional quality. That was my aim, it wasn’t so much what it’s “about,” that was all secondary. There’s fear and uncertainty in them, but to me… I know what you mean about the dark side and stuff like that, but to me it has to be funny as well.

DM: Absolutely—and they are.

TS: Well, I don’t know. But to me, the absurdism of whatever I’m doing and the feeling that I want to get, it kind of reflects how I see the world, ’cause I think everything in this world is weird and funny.

DM: Sure.

TS: I don’t understand books and stories that don’t have any funny in them, I mean… the world is so absurd and funny to me! I can’t take those comics to an even darker place and have something truly horrible happen, ’cause I see it as the intersection of funny and scary. In 1991, I guess, when I was in my studio, I put a sign up that said “Fear and Humor are Synonyms.” I want it to be creepy and I want it to be funny and I think that’s a paradox within itself. Because if you just go creepy it’s just sad and you wanna take an antidepressant, and that’s not really my point. And if it’s just funny then it’s goofy, silly, weird for the sake of weird—that’s not where I want to go either. I like a little bit of both, I think it makes a nice balance.

DM: The first “Melancholy Chef” comic, which is one of my favorites, where the chef is cold and hungry—even though there’s food right in front of him—and this woman comes out of the sky and says “I’ll take care of you,” and then on the second page there’s this boxer defending him, saying “I’ve handled worse than this” as we see that woman leading a giant toward him—that is the perfect combination of fearful, funny, absurd. But the dream in Splitsville that Fuzz has of sawing up the ferryman—that one is a little less funny.

TS: (Laughing) Yeah. Actually I did think it ended up funny, the way he ends up all cut up, his legs are sticking up…

DM: You’re right, the drawings are painfully funny.

TS: I guess I mean more subtle, coming up with images that are for whatever reason humorous or odd and not dark and heavy. I’m not into dark and heavy. One reason that I started doing comics in the first place is I really couldn’t find what I liked, I couldn’t find that unique feeling that I want the reader to get.

FUZZ & PLUCK

DM: In Splitsville it’s explained that Fuzz and Pluck have ended up together by an accident of circumstance, but then you separate them.

TS: Because you can find out who a character is. A character is primarily a character when they are interacting with another character.

DM: They are of course brought back together by the end of that story, and that tells us why they’re together at the start of The Moolah Tree. But, Fuzz and Pluck are together pretty much because they’re together, right? They don’t have any necessary reason to be together…

TS: Yes. I love it when I read a review and it says, “These two friends, they’re best friends,” and they’re not friends. They’re not. For Fuzz it’s kind of a parental thing: he needs Pluck because he can’t see what to do. He’s not sure, he’s very fuzzy about a lot of things. And Pluck needs Fuzz…as a moral compass, in a way. Well, not so much a moral compass, but to balance his selfishness and “I’m number one” kind of survival mode. But they definitely are the crux of all the ideas I was talking about before. They kind of need each other, but not just because they’re nice. To me that doesn’t work, I think we all kind of use each other. If you read all three books, Pluck is always trying to get away from Fuzz.

DM: He is, and yet he somehow can’t.

TS: Exactly.

DM: And yet he seems to in a certain sense accept his role—

TS: Yeah…

DM: —a little bit—

TS: Yeah, he needs someone to boss around. Fuzz is perfect for that. I mean, it’s not a new formula. It’s Gilligan and the Skipper…

DM: They’re co-dependent!

TS: …it’s Laurel and Hardy, especially. And I wasn’t even really thinking about them, but…the only difference I would say really is that Laurel and Hardy actually call themselves friends. I haven’t gotten that far yet. I feel like it would just ruin everything if I did that, it’s just not working for me.

DM: No, there has to be this strange…

TS: Tension.

THE WORLD OF FUZZ AND PLUCK

DM: There are a lot of what looks like hand-made vehicles and machinery in Fuzz and Pluck’s world. There’s a low-tech quality—I don’t think there’s any technology after like 1970—

TS: (Laughs) Well, I would say that after 1970, many people didn’t understand technology—I mean, they knew what it was, but they didn’t know exactly how it worked.

DM: From your drawings, it looks like you can really understand the technology, and how to fix the thing (both laugh), just from being the reader of the comic.

TS: Part of the influence was making those sculptures. I’m thinking, okay, so-and-so needs this kind of instrument—it’s almost like I’m in my studio building that instrument for them. And it also reflects on my conscious idea of not referencing the outside world as much as possible. It’s almost like they’re in this place that has certain things that work certain ways, no computers, nothing too complicated, because I think the reader actually can relate to it better. I don’t want to reference any company or current event or anything that would make it part of our world.

DM: Also [in Fuzz and Pluck’s world], animals and toys can speak and move as humans do, until the most recent book. Fuzz and Pluck are the only characters who are not human who act like humans. In the previous one, Splitsville, there’s a cast of animal characters, and toy characters, who interact with each other and with humans, and in more cases than not, seem to be in service roles…

TS: Well, I think that’s consistent—animals and whoever’s not human are subservient to humans, and so I kept that. As for the flonkey—she just doesn’t speak English.

DM: (Laughs) But there’s another dog in the comic that just acts like a dog. He’s only in a couple of panels. Was that a conscious decision?

TS: No, I remember putting that in and I thought, “Oh, this kind of breaks my whole—“ Which dog is this?

DM: Just in the background of a scene—

TS: He’s pooping on one of the bills and then walking around. I saw that and I thought this doesn’t really break the rule because…he could talk—

DM: (Laughs) He could, he has nothing to say.

TS: Right! He’s just walking on all fours. No problem there. But that’s very much a part of the world, there’s a subservience going on. I think we feel that way as children, so I’m kind of relating to the child in me. You don’t have your freedom, you have to work for it (laughs) and you have to answer to other people, (shrugs) stuff like that.

DM: In Splitsville you’re very explicit about that with the whole gladiatorial combat thing, which I’m tempted to read as a metaphor for the freelancer’s life.

TS: It’s definitely a metaphor, but I don’t want people to get the idea that I’m telling them this is what it’s about—

DM: Certainly, it could be read as more than just that.

TS: —but basically it’s from working in an animation studio. We all had to work together as a group, and yet we were all competing for the next job. There’s a paradox. So, that’s one issue from my life that I brought in. It has to do with being a freelancer—you’re constantly looking for the next job and you have to be nice and you have to jockey up…uuughh. I’m still doing it. And also, I wanted to show some gladiators, I liked that with some cute little animals.

DM: Well, you draw good animal violence. And when you think about the history of comics—

TS: Well, you did a lot of violence.

DM: I did lots of violence, but the violence I drew was more…bare-knuckled.

TS: Very elegant.

DM: (Wincing) Well…it started off being a kind of…abstracted sense of violence that is more like showing bodies moving at angles across panels, and it turned into more of—

TS: I think of it almost as looking at a choreography of dancing.

DM: But the later stuff that I did turned into drawings of people really slamming their knuckles into other people’s bones. What I’m talking about in yours is a kind of history in comics of people bonking each other over the head with big mallets, that kind of—

TS: It’s called slapstick.

DM: —slapstick, exactly. It’s hilarious.

THE MOOLAH TREE

DM: When you came up with this story, were you thinking more about what you wanted the characters to go through or where you wanted to send them, or were you thinking about what kinds of events would be interesting, or were you thinking about “what kind of things do I want to draw?” Or all of the above?

TS: In all the stories I think about what would be fun to draw, and what—nobody else, just me—what would really be fun to sit and look at and read. So, I think of certain scenarios, really generally, and I came up with this one because I was having a lot of trouble getting work, and I was bleeding money, and, uh, I was kind of scared and nervous, like the characters are. And there was the whole housing crisis—I was actually looking for a house just while the whole thing was crashing (laughs). So I think I wanted to take the idea of economic insecurity and have a fresh take on it. I didn’t want to do something that was too “real” or too dark and sad, I just wanted to play with that desperation that I felt at the time…and I still do, now and then, when I’m unemployed.

Pencils for The Moolah Tree.

Other things like “why pirates?” I think because I really like that lawless adventurer aspect, so I wanted to take that and make that something we’d never seen before. One of my favorite characters that I’ve created is the captain, Dunderhead. He’s pretty complex, he’s not simple. He’s not evil but he’s presented as a “bad guy,” but he’s not, really. He’s just desperate.

DM: He also has a bit of a sad story with a dog who doesn’t speak in this comic, but perhaps can. (Both laugh) You actually do talk about the housing collapse by having the three bankers who show up on Segways. That becomes one of the main lines of the story, that [the character] Despera is losing her house.

TS: Right. Well, it has to do with the theme of money. But every issue or storyline or plotline, they’re kind of McGuffins. What concerns me is how the characters react to issues, not so much what the issue is. And that’s really what’s fascinating to me about people, and how people are so blinded by their beliefs, and they feel strongly about certain things that aren’t true—which, you know, I’m number one guilty of that, but anyway the politics of how people relate to each other and how they relate to issues and problems and making decisions and figuring out who they are—that’s more interesting to me than the housing market. The housing thing is a McGuffin, it’s something they can dance around. The same thing with the money tree, the money tree is of course a symbol. But it’s how they react that I’m interested in, not so much “the issue of greed,” it’s how they deal with greed and selfishness and are they doing the right thing, are they doing the wrong thing? How are they acting? If I can have a very real character—and I don’t mean realistic, I mean a very well-rounded character—then we’re more invested in how they’re gonna act, we empathize with them more.

I was just thinking, one of my favorite comics of the nineties was Hate. I liked what Peter Bagge did. He always had really interesting, complex characters for comics, and it was funny, too. It’s kind of the same thing. I’ve become very interested in the personal politics. In fact my next book, it’s going to be more…it’s gonna have a lot of…personal politics in it (laughs).

DRAWING

DM: Your drawing is beautiful. How do you feel about the drawing and what you’re trying to do with it and what you’re trying to say with the way you depict the world that you’ve created?

TS: Well, I think there are some obvious influences. I like a lot of older comics, like from the turn of the [previous] century, and how they use pen and ink, that kind of thing. The drawing is really fun, because it’s like making music to me. It’s very important for every panel and every page and everything to balance and relate to each other.

A lot of people say “Why do you work in black and white?” I like the electric energy I get from the vibration. I remember I did one comic with some gray backgrounds. But for me, I don’t know, I wanted that vibration for my stories. I missed all the lines (laughs).

DM: All the lines come to the surface more equally in black and white.

TS: I don’t know why I prefer this way I’m drawing, ’cause it’s kind of time consuming, and I could do it much simpler, I could draw little lollypop trees in the background and—

DM: No no no.

TS: Okay, I won’t do that! I could simplify it drastically, but then the world that I’m creating becomes a little bit of a cardboard cutout. And what I love, always loved, is being able to enter into a place, like what you touched on earlier. “Krazy Kat” does that, you know, Herriman does it with…much more economy than I do. I’m like nnnhhh (knocking on his head), how does he do that?

DM: Me too.

TS: I remember reading Stendhal’s The Red and the Black…there are all these people pursuing things. That was an influence on [The Moolah Tree]. They were all in this beautiful Swiss landscape and it was described by the author, but they were oblivious to it. So that’s kind of what I was thinking: nature is beautiful to me, so I’m going to make just a gorgeous place, it’s beautiful and it’s complete but…everyone’s blind to it. For one panel Captain Dunderhead reflects on it, but then he’s back to his own selfish thing. So that is one aspect of how I approached drawing this particular comic. I really enjoyed drawing this comic, I hope it shows.

DM: Absolutely. It’s a real pleasure to go through page-by-page. You flip through this book and you want to read it.

TS: My mom started halfway and read it to the end, she said “I just kept turning the pages!” Well, she doesn’t read comics! (Imitating his mom) “I kept turning the pages, I wanted to get to the end.” I said, “That’s good but start at the beginning, not in the middle.”

HOW TO LOOK AT THINGS

Pencil drawing for The Moolah Tree.

TS: I want to contest one of these ideas that a comic panel should be drawn as fast as it’s looked at. There’s this other idea that you go to a museum and on average one artwork is only looked at for thirteen seconds, which implies we’re not looking long enough. That may be true, but I’m putting it in my memories. I walk away from it, I can remember it for years afterward.

DM: (In “teacher” mode) What you’re talking about is the idea that a comic is not an accumulation of single images that should be looked at equally; it is a flow of images, and so you don’t want the reader to slow down by stopping at each one, or stopping at an inappropriate one; so the drawings have to have a degree of—

TS: Yes, you’re right…

DM: I’m saying, this is the theory: that information has to be taken in quickly enough that you can go to the next panel, except where you want the reader to stop and stay for a while. Of course, no one complains that it takes a year to make a movie that you only watch for ninety minutes.

A sketch for The Moolah Tree.

TS: Yeah, and I think that’s where the actual drawing becomes very much integral with the comic, you have to have it working as a read, and as a flow, definitely. Who did that, um, Laurence Sterne, I think—he just sticks this marbled page, or a squiggly line, and a few others, in the middle of the novel, for sometimes clear reasons, sometimes for mysterious reasons. So I want to put up a couple of dams and say, “Stop and look at this, then keep going.” I also like going back and contemplating, almost like a “Where’s Waldo” thing where you’re just looking at this whole world.

DM: You and I would probably agree that even something that looks simple is much more effective and much more beautiful when you can sense there’s an underlying structural thought given to it in order to place that thing right there.

TS: I try to do that. It’s all planned. Like your Asterios book—every time I go back and look at it I find something different or there’s something that I missed or, I know there are layers in there…so that’s what I’m interested in storywise and visually, and marrying it all together. When it’s successful all the aspects should be inseparable.

DM: How did teaching comics affect the way you thought about making comics? Or the way you thought about teaching?

TS: I taught comics and storyboarding from 2001 to 2004 at Savannah College of Art and Design. I enjoyed teaching immensely, it was never boring. I don’t think it affected my comics much, as I was pretty set on who I was as an artist and what I wanted. One thing I learned from teaching is I shouldn’t get specific about “good” quality and “bad” quality. For example, I don’t care for standard Manga style, but I never let that on, because, as in any style, there is really no applicable criteria to approach why it is or is not “good” quality. So one student was a fantastic Manga artist, not because she drew Manga or not, but because she had a great sense of design and following a narrative. Was it original? Not really, but that’s not really what she wanted. So I tried to develop a criticism technique that applied certain conditions to any style, such as composition, narrative flow, strong drawing, stuff like that. This allowed the student to improve, but kept the elusive “style” issue out of it. I also tried to stay neutral about general impressions of quality, like, “it works,” or “it’s beautiful,” or “it’s weak.” I insisted the students had to articulate why. Sometimes I forgot this myself and didn’t do this! But usually I did try to guide the students to think for themselves.

TENSION

DM: Working as a storyboard artist, you get a script and some notes, and you have to follow that exactly. When you’re making your own comic, (shaking his head) you don’t write a script and then draw it?

TS: I do [write a script], I actually do. But I’m thinking about it, so I’ve kinda got the movie in my head. I do write it all out, and it’s almost backwards though, because I see the characters and what they’re doing and I know visually what’s going on, but I’ll just write it out ’cause—

DM: It’s quicker. Sometimes.

TS: Yeah, it’s quicker, I guess. I want that rhythm of words­—that’s important. But storyboarding has helped me communicate visually more effectively. When I started doing storyboards I was unsure of how to communicate, how to express something—I think that’s just natural—but it was my job to communicate. We had to communicate something really succinctly and quickly and easily in a way that was really readable. At the same time, though, I definitely don’t want to be didactic at all [in my stories]. And I want to ask questions, I don’t want to give answers, I hate stories that give answers (laughs).

DM: They’re the worst. But you’re very conscious of  “I’m gonna set it up so that when the readers get to this panel or this page or this sequence, they understand it in the way I want them to understand it.”

TS: Well, the way I want them to understand it is not one way. It’s kind of like you’re holding the reader’s hand and you’re taking them through a house and you walk into a room and I might see a lamp and a table and ten books, and they might see the dresser and the rug or something. When I’m taking them through, I definitely want them to come into that room but I don’t want to put blinders on them and say “You can only see it this way.” I guess that’s a kind of weak metaphor, but that’s what I’m trying to do, so there’s a balance between giving too much information, being too didactic, and then there’s the opposite problem, which is also common, where the reader really doesn’t know where we’re going. The reader at least needs to believe they’re going in a certain direction, or have some general idea, and when it’s just, you know, one sequence after another—it has to have tension. And I bring that up because I’m a big believer in visual tension, too. It’s Hans Hofmann’s favorite subject. He talks about how all great art must have tension, so I expand that in different directions: everything, even the compositions have to have tension, the character interactions have to have tension. And tension is opposites pulling at each other, or pushing at each other.

That’s just one aspect of what I want in a comic, or almost anything else in art. You have to be really honest with yourself and say “What do I really want to look at? What would really be fun to look at?”—not just draw, but to look at, and read. When I was teaching I always used to think about that. I’d say, in so many words, “We don’t even know it, but we’re so scared to find out who we really are and what we really want.” Because it’s reflected in the work. If the work is completely safe and it’s conventional and it’s got all the bells and whistles of convention, then you’re afraid of something, you’re not really facing who you are. So whenever I see myself going in that direction, going in this kind of safe place, I challenge myself, I think, “Sorry. Come up with something better.”

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Tintin and the Curse of Clarity http://www.tcj.com/tintin-and-the-curse-of-clarity/ http://www.tcj.com/tintin-and-the-curse-of-clarity/#respond Thu, 12 Jan 2017 13:00:10 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=97887 Continue reading ]]>
A virtuoso draftsman with an imagination to match, Belgium’s Hergé (Georges Remi, 1907 – 1983) is Euro-cartooning’s nonpareil. Having sold over two hundred million books in a hundred languages, his creation Tintin is known around the world. Hergé’s fame, however, exceeds even the world of comics. When they reach the auction block, his originals now fetch fantastic sums. In 2014, going for €2.65 million, a double-page Hergé spread broke the existing record; last November, a single page went for €1.55 million.

Scrutinized by an army of “Tintinologists”, Hergé’s work also enjoys an impressive bibliography. Expanded yearly, this can range from PhDs to tomes such as last year’s Dictionnaire Amoureux de Tintin. This volume, not atypical, clocks in at 785 pages and features everything from how the artist saw roller skates to his “most overlooked” inheritors.

So how does Paris’ Grand Palais picture the subject of Hergé? Amidst so many competing theories, where does the blockbuster stand? Strictly speaking, it’s a hagiography traced in la ligne claire. Yet by assembling so many riches, they unwittingly let the work speak for itself – and it proves a disquieting tattle-tale.

Although it is worshipped as a “ninth art” in France, the Grand Palais has never before dealt with the bande dessinée. Here their explicit intention is to elevate Hergé and place him alongside Vélasquez, Warhol and Picasso. Critics have made a lot of this but the show was tailored to justify it. Every day, as soon as it opens, the place is packed with crowds aged “from 7 to 77” – Tintin magazine’s summary of its target audience. Yet the show isn’t describing merely a master storyteller or a titan of the bande dessinée.

Its portrait is that of a royal figure, an authorised and reified Hergé. A true peer of the very artists he collected, he is seen as a great whose drawing merits comparisons to Dürer and Da Vinci. For brilliance, scope and artistry, the art on show is indeed singular and it can certainly withstand a little overzealousness. In 450 original pieces from all stages of Hergé’s life, a visitor gets both the creation myth and apotheosis of his ligne claire. As a bonus, he or she also sees private paintings plus an illuminating survey of Hergé’s graphic design.

But all this is deployed in a curious anti-chronology. The expo introduces Hergé via a wall of his paintings, all of which were done during a year in the 1960s. Under the tutelage of abstractionist Louis Van Lint, the artist poured his energies into this different discipline. But the results, while honourable, have little to recommend them. As an abortive outing and a probable source of frustration (if not deep disappointment), they are an odd lead-in.

The paintings introduce a one-room mini-museum stocked with some of the modern art Hergé collected. The contents include six prints by Roy Lichtenstein (an Hergé fan), Jean DuBuffet’s La Cafetière, a Great American Nude from Tom Wesselman and the portrait of himself Hergé commissioned from Warhol. Bolstered by other pieces, including a portrait bust by Tchang Tchong-Jen, the dim room exudes a dusty and dated ambiance. Its real energy comes from the artist’s own work: Hergé’s riveting sketches for the unfinished Tintin and Alph-Art.

The expo has ten rooms in all, each with a theme like “The Curious Fox” (Hergé’s Boy Scout name) or “Lesson From the Far East” (the story of the artist’s friendship with Tchong-Jen, how it informed The Blue Lotus and transformed his life). At numerous points in many places, Hergé himself pops up on film. He is always modest, jokey and self-effacing; never does he answer a question with any depth. Whether Hergé is asked about the cinema, his work or his art, he remains anodyne. Yet his diffidence masked a sharp and probing mind. The artist was fascinated, for instance, with Balzac’s Human Comedy – as well as inspired by its recurring characters. He loved reading Simenon and Dickens but also Stendhal and Proust. In 1971, he famously exclaimed to the interviewer Numa Sadoul, “Tintin (like all the others) is me, in exactly the way Flaubert said ‘I am Madame Bovary!’… “.

Yet with regard to the public, as in the lines of his work, Hergé made himself a master of control. Just like his private feelings, the sharpness of his thinking was kept carefully under wraps. The same way he refined his line over and over, so it conveyed only what he wanted, the artist refined and guarded that face he showed the world. This is a tension palpable throughout the show, one that powered his art and helped to forge his style.

What work, however – and what a style! In so many ways, Hergé’s sketches, scribblings and storyboards are magical. At the height of his powers, they simply radiate invention. Hergé kept his energies harnessed via an extreme, labour-intensive process. Once he had decided the basis of a sequence, said the artist, “I use absolutely all the energy in my possession. I draw wildly, furiously, I erase, I scratch things out, I’m full of rage, I swear…I try to give each character’s expression and their movement as much intensity as I can “.

Out of “all these lines that blend, cross, run over and under each other” he refined and re-refined until he chose “the one that looks at the same time the smoothest and the most expressive.” Above the samples, as a wall text, hangs another quote: You can’t know the extent to which all this is long and difficult, it’s truly a manual labour!…It’s as painstaking as a watchmaker’s job. A watchmaker or a Benedictine monk. Or a Benedictine watchmaker.

The resulting line is astonishing in its fluid ebullience and its roots are inspiring. For Hergé was an autodidact with no formal training at all. As a youth who loved images, he explored, imitated and then discarded voraciously. Early on, the artist soaked up everything that attracted him – from children’s illustrators like Benjamin Rabier, Christophe and Oncle Hansi (Georges Colomb and Jean Jacques Waltz) right up to Picasso.

Employed towards the end of his teens by the Catholic paper Le Vingtième Siècle (The Twentieth Century), Hergé also fell in love with task after task: photo-engraving, lettering, photo-montage and page composition. The list of contemporaries whose styles intrigued him was just as varied. Some of them were poster artists, like Léo Marfurt, Cassandre (Adolphe Jean Marie Mouron) and Jean Carlu. But René Vincent –  who had the same Art Deco smoothness – worked in the world of fashion.

Remi already signed himself “Hergé”. From 17, he used this, the French pronunciation of his reversed initials (G.R.). But the man who helped him consolidate the identity was an outspoken, right-wing Catholic priest.

The Abbott Norbert Wallez stood 6’2″ tall and weighed 242 pounds. An imposing figure, he was the head of Le Vingtième Siècle’s publisher. Energetic, opinionated and a fervent fan of Benito Mussolini, the enterprising clergymen had actually managed to meet Il Duce. (He was the proud possessor of an autographed portrait). Hergé, who was a quarter-of-a-century younger, found himself impressed by the worldliness of the voluble priest. Asked by the Church to reinvigorate Le Vingtième, Abbott Wallez was bursting with schemes. One of these was a youth supplement, Le Petit Vingtième. In 1928, he asked his young employee to edit it.

No sooner was the magazine established than Wallez had yet another idea. Remi had drawn a boy and his dog for the Catholic Le Sifflet (The Whistle). Could he not turn them into a series for Le Petit Vingtième? The priest even supplied an idea for their début – a trip to Soviet Russia that would show the horrors of communism.

Soon, he had a keen Remi working twelve-hours a day. In addition to the new Tintin strip, Hergé had responsibility for his supplement’s covers, layout, typography and illustrations. Yet even on the days he needed to skip lunch, the artist made sure he popped in to see the priest. Wallez, he later said, made everything about their daily discussions interesting. “He was the first person who showed me what intellectual life could be”. In 1932, Hergé married his secretary.

Right up until his death the priest would remain a father figure. Wallez served time in prison for collaboration but, to Hergé, he was always a trusted counsellor. Hergé remained grateful for his first vote of confidence. But, says the artist’s biographer Pierre Assouline, he also saw in Wallez, “a spiritual father. Not spiritual in religious terms, but in the deepest sense.”

During the 1930s, as well as postcards and stationary, Hergé frequently designed advertising. From 1931, he signed all such efforts “Hergé Studios”. Then, in August 1933, after a contretemps with the city’s Public Works, Wallez was forced to resign his position. Without his mentor, Hergé became doubtful about Tintin’s future. Instead, he looked to advertising and took action to make Hergé Studios legal. Works from its brief existence – which officially lasted less a year – are lavishly displayed.

But Hergé’s promos for toys and travel prove revealing. Their lines are controlled and clean, their compositions neat and minimal. But, stripped of their period context, they lack genuine punch and brio. Rather like Hergé’s paintings, they are casualties of a missing ingredient: narrative.

One key to this may lie in Hergé’s childhood, wherein art played a slightly unusual role. Dutiful at school yet difficult at home, he was a rambunctious child who often needed “calming down”. His parents learned to accomplish this by giving him tools to draw. (If somehow that failed to work, their next choice was a spanking). In the end, the family communicated largely through drawing.

As an adult, Hergé would say he looked back on childhood “with sadness, morosity and, sometimes, even disgust”. The Remi home lacked colour; it had no music, few books and little overt affection. There was also a secret buried at the family’s heart: Remi’s father and his uncle – twins – were illegitimate. Neither had any real idea about their paternity. Young Georges learned about this mystery only as an adult. As a child, he was simply warned never to ask about or speak of his grandfather.

Remi’s mother was always fragile. Suffering blackouts and depressions, she was frequently hospitalised. Since his business called for travel, Remi Senior charged the young Georges with watching over her. Years later, when she had died in psychiatric care, Hergé was surprised to feel he had never known her. He was 39 at the time and her death triggered the first of several breakdowns.

All Belgian artists of Hergé’s generation endured not one but a pair of world wars. They had been born into an ultraconservative, mainly Catholic country – a colonial power that enjoyed a certain prestige. But in 1914, when Hergé was seven, that world was commandeered by the German Army. Their presence lasted four years, a cold, frightening, hungry period. Even when the occupation ended, shortages continued.

If none of this offered a recipe for happiness, neither did it make Hergé into a rebel. As visitors discover in the expo’s many photos, he always had the appearance of a model character. Every snap shows him as rigid, reserved and smartly dressed. But even a glance at his working pages will disclose another story. Hergé’s drawings are dark with battling versions of even the smallest gesture. Their action spills over boundaries, their faces melt from one emotion into its opposite and the frames are filled as much with hesitations as with decisions.

The art reveals what the exhibition doesn’t state: this was a Boy Scout who slept around on his (first) wife, a writer of adventures with no time to spare for travel, a self-promoter who – even under the Nazis – kept his eye on the main chance. All this and more is present in the work, which suggests the price Hergé paid for all that discipline.

There have been many theories about Tintin’s “adolescence”: an existential form of youth untroubled by sex or family. In the view of Hergé biographer Benoît Peeters, the artist added “very adult qualities to his own vision of childhood”. For the psychologist Serge Tisseron, author of Tintin chez le psychanalyste (loosely, “Tintin on the couch”), “His books are the history of a child who tells you how he sees all the adults around him and who reconstructs how they speak… Even his vistas are seen from the height of a child.”

The artist himself defined Tintin’s status more cryptically. He liked to paraphrase Jules Renard and saying, “Not everybody can have the luck to be an orphan!”.

Two things brightened Hergé’s own childhood: the cinema and the Boy Scouts. Taken from his earliest years to see silent films, he loved losing himself in their mute, alternate world. As an artist, he cited the significance of Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton. But Hergé was also influenced by early Westerns and by the likes of criminal mastermind Fantomas. The silent screen helped Hergé learn how to advance a narrative and he always remembered its protocols and etiquette.

If his family were fallible, the boy scouts brought him “camaraderie, nature and adventure”. For Hergé, scouting always remained “the great memory of my childhood.” It gave the artist precepts he felt he should always value, especially those which had to do with friendship and loyalty. After the Occupation, they were his rationale for supporting collaborationist friends.

Was Hergé – as so many critics insist – a Fascist and a racist? Was he anti-Semitic? At Hergé, all such questions go unaddressed. Fourth in the show’s ten rooms is one entitled “Success and Torment” which concerns the artist’s wartime work at a pro-Nazi paper. For Hergé’s career, this choice was critical. During the Occupation, with its controls, restrictions and paper shortages, it kept him visible and enabled his books to appear. Plus (as the artist joked to a friend) right after he joined, the paper’s circulation doubled.

But with the Liberation, things changed radically. Arrested four times and subsequently investigated, Hergé was ruled an “incivique” – a proscribed non-citizen. He was barred from ever again practicing his profession.

It was the lowest point of the artist’s life. Yet, unexpectedly, Tintin came to his rescue. The character, as Pierre Assouline has observed, saved Hergé twice. In the first instance, Tintin kept him out of prison. Many of the artist’s friends and colleagues received serious sentences, others had to flee and a few – like the editor Paul Herten – were put to death. Yet, says Assouline, “You simply couldn’t put Tintin in prison. Anyone who did that would have been covered in ridicule.”

But Hergé’s humiliation was total and public. One resistant weekly, La Patrie or The Homeland, even ran a parody of his strip called “The Adventures of Tintin in the Land of the Nazis”. This pictured his characters rejoicing at their freedom, with Tintin’s faithful dog boasting that Hergé never made him into a German shepherd.

Privately, the artist said death would have been preferable.

The second time, what saved him was Tintin’s market value. One of the character’s lifelong fans was a former resistant named Raymond Leblanc. With a spotless war record, Leblanc found success launching movie and romance magazines. He wanted to enter the youth market, for which he had conceived a weekly called ‘Tintin’. Leblanc searched out Remi and outlined his project. The artist, at an all-time low, was extremely doubtful. But a determined Leblanc soon succeeded in clearing his name. When they launched the magazine in 1946, a grateful Hergé even let him license Tintin products.

The rest of the Tintin saga is history – but its author never recovered. Hergé underwent years of recurrent depression and breakdowns. There was also a certain freedom, a singular spontaneity, that his art could never recapture.

The essence and heart of Hergé’s oeuvre, his most extraordinary achievements, were put in place during the ’30s and ’40s. In the exhibition’s rooms, “A Family on Paper” and “A Myth is Born”, the great treasures are his works from those decades. As the great bédéiste Jacques Tardi maintained, “Nothing has ever been drawn more beautifully than the first black-and-white Tintin books. The soft sensuality of the lines continues to move me.”

Hergé’s best trait is indeed peerless. As his colleague Edgar P. Jacobs observed to Benoît Peeters, ” What always struck me about Hergé’s drawing was the extraordinary vibrancy of his line… a good part of his genius resided in those lines that never stopped moving, whether he was drawing a plan, a piece of furniture or the fold of a garment.”

Yet the universe they delineate is, in many ways, not one for children. Recently Benoît Peeters, speaking on French radio, drew attention to the work’s darker side. “Hergé’s world is also a universe filled with terror… the alcoholism of Captain Haddock, the kind of dreams Tintin can have, the Yeti, the mummy, the suicides, the opium den…” Children can sense, he added, that Hergé never takes them for babies. “As a child, I was terrified by Tintin! I would often skip over pages to avoid a shock.”

Underneath that beautiful line and its pursuit of clarity, the fears one cannot help but sense were Hergé’s deepest. His drawings are explosive; they absolutely erupt with conflict. It’s an intensity best summed up by Remi’s friend Marcel Stahl, who knew him from the 1930s up until the end of his life. “Georges had a kind of anxiety… He didn’t have the knack for happiness. He never knew how to experience life like a normal person. There was always some problem, a well of dissatisfaction that affected everything in his life. And fame changed none of this.”

The Grand Palais blockbuster finishes up with a giant room, a “salon of the selfie”. It’s a space created especially for guests, a backdrop against which they can immortalize the visit. The room is covered by an enormous mural which, in 1973, appeared on the New Year’s card of Studios Hergé. Here are the boy reporter and Milou, Haddock, Thompson and Thomson, Castafiore and Calculus, with all the villains they fought and many of their compatriots. Some hold placards or banners emblazoned with positive sentiments. “Peace”, they read, and “Merry Christmas”, “Control Violence”, “Protect the Environment”. It’s a fixed pantheon, with all the reference points of an exemplary childhood.

Yet Tintin, just like Hergé, was never wholly exemplary and never really a child. Perhaps that’s why, despite the crowds, the room remains empty.

Hergé runs through 15 January at the Grand Palais in Paris; for Tintin fans, the catalogue is a treat

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The Best Comics of 2016 (According to Some) http://www.tcj.com/the-best-comics-of-2016-according-to-some/ http://www.tcj.com/the-best-comics-of-2016-according-to-some/#comments Wed, 04 Jan 2017 13:00:13 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=97531 Continue reading ]]>

We asked our contributors to send us their Best of 2016 lists. Many obliged! Thanks to all for doing this. Now onto 2017. -Eds.

Walter Biggins

1) Hugo Pratt, Corto Maltese: The Ethiopian (IDW)

2) Tom Hart, Rosalie Lightning (St. Martin’s)

3) Ben Katchor, Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay (D&Q)

4) Michel Rabagliati, Paul Up North (BDang)

5) Moebius Library: The World of Edena (Dark Horse)

Honorable mentions:

John Porcellino, King-Cat #76 (John Porcellino)

Gilbert Hernandez, Garden of Flesh (Fantagraphics)

Lewis Trondheim and Keramidas, Mickey’s Craziest Adventures (IDW)

Julie Doucet, Carpet Sweeper Tales (D&Q)

Notes: 3 of my 5 are reissues. Apparently, no women or no nonwhites made my cut until the honorable mentions. I suck. I’ll do better next year. 

Robert Boyd

2016 Favorites

My favorites from 2016. There are still a few on my “to read” pile that might make it—for example, The Greatest of Marlys would almost certainly have made it if I had read it in time.

They are in order from smallest to largest.

Endless Monsoon IV: Very Pleasant Transit Center by Sarah Welch. 56 pages, two-color risograph, 5” x 7”. This is a very slow-moving series about two young women trying to make their way in a world of somewhat straitened circumstances. The art is transmits the humid, sweaty feel of Houston very well.

Blammo number nine by Noah Van Sciver (Kilgore Books ). 44 pages, black and white comic book. The two long stories in here are classic ’90s-style alternative comics stories—one is autobiographical (Van Sciver inadvertently offends a sensitive soul at the Center for Cartoon Studies and flashes back to his Mormon childhood) and the other a short story about a museum guard who starts to paint paintings in the style of long dead abstract painter being shown at the museum. Both stories are really good, and I liked especially have despite working in the museum, the museum guard is clearly doesn’t know the social etiquette of being in the art world. Van Sciver shows how difficult it is to cross the class divide because one must know the rules of the other side—it’s like a mini-lesson in Pierre Bourdieu.

What is Obscenity? The Story of a good for nothing artist and her pussy by Rokudenshiko (Koyama Press) 178 pages, 6” x 8.5” squarebound book combining color and black and white pages. This book combines articles and comics to tell the first-person story of a Japanese artist who spent time in jail for producing obscene art—specifically for providing digital file of her pussy for 3-D printing in a crowdfunding campaign. The comics here are straightforward and highly amusing, and her story is utterly incredible.

American Blood (Fantagraphics Books) 208 pages, 5.9” x 8.6” squarebound paperback book printed with purple ink. This book collects various self-contained stories that Marra self-published in his Traditional Comics line between 2009 and 2013, including The Incredibly Fantastic Adventures of Maureen Dowd. I had never read these comics before but they were an eye-opener. Funny, satirical, etc.—if someone could take the best drawings that male high-school stoners from 1976 until now drew on their desks and make comics out of them, they would approach this book in sheer awesomeness.

Scorched Earth by Tom Van Deusen (Kilgore Books ) 82 pages squarebound, 6” x 9”, black and white). There is a long tradition in narrative art of having utterly reprehensible cads as protagonists: Sebastian Dangerfield in The Gingerman, Harry Flashman in the Flashman books, Withnail in Withnail and I. And now in Scorched Earth, Tom Van Deusen can be added to that immortal parade of assholes. His genius twist on the time-honored genre is to make himself the hateful but hilarious protagonist.

Megg & Mogg in Amsterdam by Simon Hanselmann (Fantagraphics Books) 160 pages, full-color, hardcover. There seems to be a theme with my choices this year—books about self-absorbed partiers. The trip to Amsterdam happens only at the very end, and it’s not any different from their current existence—just colder and wetter. Werewolf Jones descends to new levels of depravity, including making money of his 10-year-old quasi-feral son’s cam shows. But the real annoyance is Owl, the only one who seems to have a job. I find this book repeatedly hilarious.

Demon volume 1 by Jason Shiga (First Second) 176 pages, black-and-white, paperback. The incredibly bloody story of Jimmy Yee, a man who commits suicide over and over. At first it reads like an epic case of gaslighting, but the actual explanation is weirder than I expected. A bizarre concept taken to a logical extreme in a very amusing, violent way.

Founding Fathers Funnies by Peter Bagge (Dark Horse Books) 86 pages, color and black and white, hardcover, 6.5 x 9 inches. I’ve loved Peter Bagge since Neat Stuff (see below) and loved these strips when they first appeared as back-up features in various Bagge comic books. They work best as short stand-alone stories, but I’m very glad to be able to read them collected into a book.

Blubber #2 by Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphic Books) 25 pages, 6.5 x 9 inches, black and white. Blubber is Gilbert Hernandez’s one-man anthology of superheroes and monsters fucking. When I read it, I wonder—why hasn’t this been the dominant genre in comics for years? It is my favorite comic book of 2016. I haven’t read issue 3 yet, so I have that to look forward to.

Nod Away by Joshua W. Cotter (Fantagraphics Books ) 240 pages, 7.8 x 10.2 inches, black and white. This ambitious science fiction story (it’s meant to be the first volume of seven) is packed full of ideas and characters and great artwork. Unfortunately it ends on a cliffhanger. Now I kind of wish I had waited until all seven volumes were out before I read it!

The Eltingville Club by Evan Dorkin  (Dark Horse Comics ) 144 pages, black and white and color, 8 x 11 inches. These stories have appeared in various anthology comics, including Dorkin’s one-man anthology Dork, since 1994. The Eltingville Club started at the high tide of Wizard magazine, which at the time seemed like the ne plus ultra of degenerate fandom. Dorkin captured that vibe in his dense, hilarious comics. But fandom, if anything, managed to reach new lows, particularly regarding women fans—see “fake geek girls,” Gamergate, and incessant online and IRL harassment—and in bringing his Eltingville Club members to the present, Dorkin drags them even lower than where they started. It’s cruelly fun to read.

Peplum by Blutch (New York Review Comics ) 160 pages, 8.7” x 11.4”, black and white. A picaresque adventure story set on the frontiers of the Roman world, it makes me imagine what David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life would have been like if drawn by Frank Robbins or Alberto Breccia. Peplum is the mysterious story of a young imposter pretending to be a Roman nobleman Publius Cimber is part of an expedition that has recovered a woman frozen in ice. The ice miraculously does not melt despite its long, eventful journey. “Cimber” loves her, which is the source of all his misadventures. Blutch’s chiaroscuro style is breathtaking

Sir Alfred No. 3 by Tim Hensley (Pigeon Press) 40 pages, 9.75 a 13 inches, color. The Adventures of Bob Hope comic book lasted 18 years, and Tim Hensley has aped its format to tell a series of anecdotes about Alfred Hitchcock. A lot of them are familiar stories if you know your Hitchiana, but Hensley rarely just gives you a straight-ahead retellings of them. His humor is oblique; it’s not about a series of gags. That, combined with his pastiche of Harvey Comics drawing style, make this one of 2016’s best.

Neat Stuff by Peter Bagge (Fantagraphics Books).  488 pages, 9” x 11.6 inches, two volumes, hardcover. This one doesn’t completely count since I read every single issue of Neat Stuff when they came out. Bagge describes his readership as falling in the “lone weirdo” demographic. It has his immortal characters, Girly Girl, Goon on the Moon, Studs Kirby, Chet and Bunny Leeway, Junior and the Bradleys. But it also has a bunch little masterpieces that people may have forgotten, like “Do You Know Where It’s At?!?” and like “The Fall and Rise of Zoove Groover.”

The Nib , edited by Mat Bors, featuring a large variety of cartoonists including Tom Tomorrow, Matt Lubchansky, Emily Flake, Rich Stevens, Jen Sorensen, Keith Knight,  etc. These are all clever, funny political cartoonists, but what makes the Nib great are its journalistic comics such as Jess Ruliffson’s stories of life in the military, Kate Moon’s story on the Great Barrier Reef, and Ben Passmore’s first person “Letter From a Stone Mountain Jail”. Day after day, the Nib provides amazingly good political and journalistic comics. It’s a brilliantly edited site.

Pat Palermo’s Galveston Drawing Diary by Pat Palermo. Daily comics blog. Pat Palermo is a Brooklyn artist who is currently doing a residency at the Galveston Artists Residency in Galveston, TX. Since he arrived in August, he has been drawing a page of comics every day in pencil on lined yellow paper, scanning them, and posting them on his blog. They started off being about a fish out of water—a Brooklyn guy on a sub-tropical Texas island—and that is still a theme he returns to frequently. But his coverage of the presidential campaign and its aftermath slowly grew in importance as time went on. His drawing is fantastic but also has an appealingly casual quality.

Jessica Campbell

Beverly by Nick Drnaso

Someone Please Have Sex With Me by Gina Wynbrandt

Pioneering Cartoonists of Color by Tim Jackson

Libby’s Dad by Eleanor Davis

Epoxy Cartoon Magazine by John Pham

RJ Casey

What Am I Doing Here? by Abner Dean  

Unwell by Tara Booth  

Blammo #9 by Noah Van Sciver

She’s Done It All! by Beatrix Urkowitz 

One-pagers by Gizem Vural 

Rob Clough

1. Rosalie Lightning, by Tom Hart
2. Blammo #9, by Noah Van Sciver
3. Someone Please Have Sex with Me, by Gina Wynbrandt
4. The Unofficial Cuckoo’s Nest Study Companion, by Luke Healy
5. Exits, by Daryl Seitchik

Anya Davidson

This is random smattering of books and zines I liked in no particular order. Can I say that I think these kinds of lists are arbitrary, because there is a dizzying number of brilliant books out there that I haven’t read, so this is more of a “list of things I read that I greatly enjoyed” than a best of? 

a) Dias de Consuelo by Dave Ortega #’s 2 and 3

Beautifully executed serialized biographical comic about Dave’s grandmother.

b)Perfect Hair by Tommi PG

Dark and funny painted short stories about sex and loss

c) Crim Coblend’s Garage Island #3 by Max Huffman

Snappy strips drawn inventively. Shades of Daniel Torres and Lale Westvind

d) Almost Completely Baxter by Glen Baxter

This is a reprint by New York Review Comics. Absurd and transcendent gags.

e) Beverly by Nick Drnaso

Nick has an uncanny ear for dialogue and is finely attuned to the beauty and pain of the mundane.

Andrew Farago

Rosalie Lightning, Tom Hart 

March, Book Three, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell

Demon, Jason Shiga

Power Man & Iron Fist, David Walker & Sanford Greene

Hot Dog Taste Test, Lisa Hanawalt 


R. Fiore

New Comics:

  1. King Baby (Kate Beaton)
  2.  Patience (Daniel Clowes)
  3.   Sir Alfred (Tim Hensley)
  4.   Peplum (Blutch)
  5.   The Twilight Children (Gilbert Hernandez and Darwyn Cooke)
  6.   The Boys of Sheriff Street (Jerome Charyn and Jacques de Loustal)
  7.   Nicolas (Pascal Girard)
  8.   The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Sonny Liew)

Old Comics:

  1. What Am I Doing Here? (Abner Dean)
  2.  Trump: The Complete Collection (Harvey Kurtzman et al.)
  3.  Mandrake the Magician: The Sundays Volume 1 (Lee Falk and Phil Davis)
  4.  Tim Tyler’s Luck (Lyman Young and Alex Raymond)
  5.   Moebius Library: The World of Eden
  6.  Complete Crepax Volume 1: Dracula, Frankenstein and Other Horror (Guido Crepax
  7.  Robert Crumb Sketchbook 1964 to 1968                                                                                   *.  Raymond Pettibon: Homo Americanus

In gathering my personal nominations I came across a couple of Amazon orders of forthcoming and just released books I’d made in April that illustrate the sheer profusion of notable comics that came out in 2016.  One was for The Adventures of Dieter Lumpen (Jorge Zentner), Providence (Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows), The World of Edena (Moebius), and Alack Sinner: Age of Innocence (Munoz and Sampayo, still forthcoming); the other was for Red Barry Volume 1 (Will Gould), Mandrake the Magician Dailies Volume 1, Corto Maltese: The Ethiopian (Hugo Pratt), Tim Tyler’s Luck, and Dirty Duck (Bobby London, still forthcoming); not to mention another order I made a couple of weeks later including numbers 1, 5 and 6 on my new comics list and number 1 on my old comics list. 

The ask was for a Top Five, but I stretched it out to encompass what I consider the First Division; books that stood above the rest, that had some quality of revelation to them.  My ground rules were that anything that had its first publication in English in the United States in 2016 was a new book. Numbering is in order of preference, but in the old comics category the order of finish is arbitrary after the top two. The Pettibon is not ranked because quite frankly though I have this brick on the shelf I haven’t tackled it yet, but I can’t imagine this comprehensive retrospective of the Posada of the Los Angeles telephone pole couldn’t be one of the major books of the year.

Getting down to individual cases . . .

Hundreds of discrete choices each made for its own reasons coalesce one on top of another until they form a way of life, one that none would have imagined if they had set out to design a way of life, and yet compliance is nearly universal. One unit of the crowd sidesteps into an alleyway and says, What Am I Doing Here? In his collection of psychic vignettes Abner Dean blazed not a trail but a road not taken. He turned the cartoon caption from a joke into a poetic provocation that interrogates the image. Drawing his characters naked serves to impose awareness that they are creatures from a natural world, inhabiting their own artificial creation. With no intention to that I can discern he also portrays a segregated society, which only admits one kind of person. Dean doesn’t imply that this is a society on the brink of a social revolution, and yet 30-odd years a pop band would be rephrasing the question: “My God, what have I done?”

I lead with my top vintage pick because my top contemporary pick, Kate Beaton’s King Baby, is very much in the Abner Dean tradition. As it deals with happy things Beaton’s book lacks Dean’s sense of quiet desperation, but it has the same quality of seeing commonplace things with eyes both unsparing and enchanted. Where Beaton’s first venture into children’s picture books The Princess and the Pony seemed to strain a bit to bend its tale to its moral, King Baby is a perfectly executed little gem of observation, capturing something fundamental about the strangeness of infancy in an affluent society, from its say-it-all title to its elegant punchline. I think it can be assumed that any expectant mother with a comics-conscious friend can expect to be receiving this book as a baby shower gift for the foreseeable future. They’ll read it themselves and then read it to their children when time comes.

Running quickly through the rest, Patience turns the wish-fulfillment tale on its head with a passion that disintegrates irony, Sir Alfred is another example of perfect execution of a concept on multiple levels, Peplum is as slashing in its narrative as it is in its artwork, The Twilight Children left you wishing that its creators had just had more time, The Boys of Sheriff Street was a prime slice of Charyn American mythopoetics, Nicolas showed the enduring appeal of the Blechman fleck better than Blechman himself, and Charlie Chan Hock Chye was just a shock in its Maus-like encapsulation of an era.

When the modern era of classic comics reprints began you wondered when the bubble would burst. Was there really a readership for all these fifty dollar books, you’d wonder. Now we are coming to the point where we’re running out of classic comic strips. The Complete Peanuts is complete. Mickey Mouse has donned the Bing Crosby hat, which means the good times are just about over. In Dick Tracy we see the first glimpse of Moon Maid over the horizon, which means it’s about to go out in a blaze of lunacy. Little Orphan Annie is still more or less in the middle of its run, but you feel like you’ve seen about every move Harold Gray has, several times. The number of comic strips with wide name recognition and a ready contemporary readership is quite limited, and it remains to be seen whether a readership can be found deeper dig into the likes of Abbie an’ Slats or Barney Baxter. At the same time the addition of Dover Graphic Novels and New York Review to the ranks of retrospective publishers seems to have been a tipping point, and we’ve never had a wider range of comics of the past at our ready disposal. This does not even take into account the print-on-demand samizdat that is bringing us the high-quality likes of Kim Weston’s The Unavailable Carl Barks.

The icing on the cake of 2016 was the long-promised Trump: The Complete Collection (though a more honest title might have been Trump: Both Issues). It’s an exquisitely produced look at a road not taken, Harvey Kurtzman’s dream of a humor magazine with the full production values of a slick magazine that would be fulfilled fourteen years later by the National Lampoon. It is perhaps more notable for what it promised than what it delivered, but what it promised was tantalizing. I ordered Mandrake the Magician: The Sundays in a spirit of speculation, half expecting a mediocrity on the level of Lee Falk’s other strip The Phantom. Fortunately Phil Davis turns out to be a sort of Alex Raymond Light, and the absurd premise of a stage magician operating in the real world as a genuine wizard, evening clothes and all, in practice turns it into a kind of comic strip Weird Tales.

Do you suppose I might get by with endorsing Mandrake without dealing with Lothar issue? Didn’t think so. Racially demeaning characters might be divided into active and passive. The actively demeaning character acts out racially stereotypical traits, as it might be cowardice, ignorance, hedonism, sloth or superstition in such a way as to imply that they are characteristics of a race. In a passively demeaning character the demeaning characteristics are implicit, and depend on the assumptions of the readership. Mandrake’s enforcer Lothar is of the passive variety. He is capable, courageous, and loyal, yet he is a servant and refers to Mandrake as “Master” for no other apparent reason than that it is the “natural” order of things. Since Americans do not normally require their paid servants to address them as Master, the implication is that it’s Lothar’s idea. Lothar’s speech is pidgin, and yet English is not his native language. His adherence to a comic strip version of native dress could be taken as demeaning, and yet it does have some relation to actual African native dress. Namely, to wear a leopard skin is the particular privilege of a Zulu chief. So, potential dignity points for that, but it raises the question, why is this leader of a fiercely independent people calling this fop Master?

Finishing out my list, in Tim Tyler’s Luck you got to see Alex Raymond become Alex Raymond, The World of Edena is as much a feast for the eye as it is a famine for the mind, Complete Crepax Volume 1 is most notable for giving the first long look at Valentina I’ve been able to get, and Taschen’s Robert Crumb Sketchbook 1964 to 1968 presents these seminal early pages without the reproduction limitations imposed on them the last time around. The coming year has a hard act to follow.

Craig Fischer

In the documentary Cartoon College (2012), Scott McCloud argues that comics is now too vast a world for any single person to understand, metaphorically noting that “parts of comics have dipped beyond the horizon line.” And I’m one person presuming to name The Very Best Comics of 2016. My vision is flawed, I can’t see beyond the horizon, but here’s a handful of books from last year that I found moving, significant, funny, and/or edifying, in alphabetical order:

House of Women #3, Sophie Goldstein (self-published). In bringing her science-fiction rewrite of Black Narcissus to a lusty conclusion this year, Goldstein shows off her growth as an artist beyond The Oven and her other previous comics. When the three issues of House of Women are collected into a single volume by AdHouse, Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly—it’s only a matter of time—will the publisher replicate the attention to design and printing (those lavish die-cut covers and molasses-thick spot blacks) that Goldstein put into her self-presentation of the material? I hope so. 

Providence #7-11, Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (Avatar). Almost a year ago, I wrote a long TCJ article analyzing the first six issues of Providence, and now I’m including the five issues that came out during 2016 on this Best-Of list. It’s remarkable, a deep dive into H.P. Lovecraft that also shows off Moore’s ability to structure a dense literary story in visual form. Providence #11 switches time and space between panels as much as Gilbert Hernandez’s most experimental work and still provides a carefully-planned, satisfying conclusion to the tale of protagonist Robert Black. One final issue awaits us in 2017, and I have no idea what’s going to happen next. I wish I could say that about other comic books.

Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, Sarah Glidden (Drawn & Quarterly). Very early in Blackout, Glidden asks an independent reporter (also named Sarah) to define journalism, and she replies, “anything that is informative, verifiable, accountable, and independent.” Makes sense, until the rest of the book reveals how messy and complicated the practice of journalism can be, in ways that are bracing, mature correctives to simple-minded Trumpist post-factualism. Further, Glidden’s tight focus on a tiny cadre of reporters allows them to emerge as fully-formed characters, especially a veteran and defender of the Iraq War who confronts people and places forever changed by 21st-century American foreign policy. “Maybe the question really is: what is journalism FOR? What’s the point?”

Rosalie Lightning, Tom Hart (St. Martin’s Press). Obviously, the drama of Lightning circles around the incomprehensibly sad death of Tom Hart and Leela Corman’s three-year-old daughter, but it has so much more to offer than tragedy and despair. As I re-read the book, I found myself warmed by the gymnastics Tom and Leela go through to sell their New York apartment—they function as a close-knit, loving unit before and after their disaster—and the cascade of allusions (to The Vault of Horror, Louis, Astro Boy, My Neighbor Totoro) Hart uses to represent and process his feelings testify to the power of art to give our lives meaning and hope.

Sick, Gabby Schulz (Secret Acres). I have a friend named Toney who’s a horror film connoisseur, who’s brought movies like Audition (1999) and Martyrs (2008) into my life. When I gave him Schulz’s Sick for a Christmas present, he replied, “This book is almost too pessimistic and grim, even for me.” I get that. It’s harrowingly painful to watch Schulz’s physical illness—his unrelenting fever, his bloody shits—spiral into mental illness, into an anhedonia so black that Sick reads like (to paraphrase Cioran) a barely postponed suicide. But boy, can Schulz cartoon. His drawings of a child choked by a ghoul (a metaphor for domestic abuse) and a tableau of “all the beautiful people enjoying this beautiful world” (a Hell worthy of Bosch) are beautiful in their craft and directness of purpose. Toney again: “It is a singular example of an artist’s angry fist-wave at the cosmos…a totally original work.”

Best book about comics: Hellboy’s World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins, Scott Bukatman (University of California Press). Hellboy’s World is an examples of academic comics criticism that is both full of intellectual insight and a blast to read. In lucid, often funny prose, Bukatman describes Hellboy as “a Howard Hawks movie set in an H. P. Lovecraft universe with art direction by Jack Kirby”; traces Mike Mignola’s love of literary occult investigators and characters who deny preordained destinies (like Pinocchio’s refusal to be a puppet); and discusses how Mignola’s bibliophilia influences Hellboy stories and the packaging of those stories into gorgeous library editions. (Bukatman even fruitfully compares Mignola with Yasujiro Ozu.) Hellboy’s World is pretty lavish itself, with full-color illustrations that raise the bar for future scholarly monographs.

Runners-Up:
Bacchus Volume Two, Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf/IDW) / Casanova: Acedia # 5-7, Matt Fraction, Fábio Moon, Michael Chabon and Gabriel Bá (Image) / Comic Book Creator #11-13, edited by Jon B. Cooke (especially #11, devoted to Gil Kane) / Criminal 10th Anniversary Special, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Image) / Critical Chips: 10 Contemporary Comics Essays, edited by Zainab Akhtar (self-published) / Corto Maltese: The Ethiopian, Hugo Pratt (IDW) / Epoxy Cartoon Magazine, John Pham (self-published) / Frontier #11 (“BDSM”), Eleanor Davis (Youth in Decline) / Hellboy in Hell #10, Mike Mignola (Dark Horse) / Laid Waste, Julia Gfrȍrer (Fantagraphics) / Patience, Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics) / Sir Alfred #3, Tim Hensley (Pigeon Press) / Talk Dirty to Me, Luke Howard (AdHouse) / The Weight #4-5, Melissa Mendes (serialized online/self-published).

Shaenon Garrity

1. March: Book 3 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

2. Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart

3. Demon by Jason Shiga

4. Otherworld Barbara by Moto Hagio

5. Patsy Walker a.k.a. Hellcat! by Kate Leth and Brittney Williams

Richard Gehr

Der Räuber, Tilo Steireif & Robert Walser (Haus am Gern)

Smoke Signal #25

Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam and Other Stories, Simon Hanselmann (Fantagraphics)

Underworld: From Hoboken to Hollywood, Kaz (Fantagraphics)

Patience, Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics)

R.C. Harvey

Best comics-related (history, biography) books: Tim Jackson’s Pioneering Cartoonists of Color, a much-needed resource; The Life and Art of Wesley Morse, the “lost” artist who produced engagingly rendered 8-pagers and nightclub illustration.

Comics collections: Gag on This: The Scrofulous Cartoons of Charles Rodrigues.

Graphic novel: Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (shows how the form can be expanded and exploited).

Best comic books (in descending order, so you can use the first, which is 5th on my list, and drop the rest; or not): Cage (revitalizing and re-energizing the drawing part of comics), Strange Fruit (no lines in the art; just color—a painted book), Lady Killer (simply outrageous but superbly drawn).

Biggest Disappointment: Tokyo Ghost (brilliantly drawn, but the story is tepid stuff)

Anne Ishii

Bas Jan Ader by Kevin Czap, Ley Lines 8 (Czap Comics)

Fatherson by Richie Pope, Frontier #13 (Youth in Decline)

Yes, Roya by C. Spike Trotman and Emilee Denich (Iron Circus)

Gorgeous by Cathy G. Johnson (Koyama)

Libby’s Dad, Eleanor Davis (Retrofit)

Monica Johnson

1. Rosalie Lightning, Tom Hart

2. The Complete Wimmen’s Comix

3. Disaster Drawn, Hillary Chute

4. Blackbird, Pierre Maurel

5. Don’t Come in Here, Patrick Kyle 

John Kelly

 We Told You So: Comics As Art, by Tom Spurgeon with Michael Dean

Krazy: George Herrriman, a Life in Black and White by Michael Tisserand

The Complete Neat Stuff by Peter Bagge

More Heroes of the Comics, by Drew Friedman

Underworld: From Hoboken to Hollywood, by Kaz

Robert Kirby

1. Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart (St. Martin’s)
2. Turning Japanese by MariNaomi (2dcloud)
3. Our Mother by Luke Howard (Retrofit)
4. Band for Life by Anya Davidson (Fantagraphics)
5. Wendy’s Revenge by Walter Scott (Koyama)

Fave self-published minicomics are (a tie) The Warlok Story by Max Clotfelter & Zebediah Part III by Asher Z. Craw

MariNaomi

Rolling Blackouts by Sarah Glidden

Trying Not to Notice by Will Dinski

Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart

Virus Tropical by Powerpaola

Handbook by Kevin Budnik

Chris Mautner

Sir Alfred #3 by Tim Hensley

Peplum by Blutch

Laid Waste by Julia Gfrorer

Big Kids by Michael DeForge

Ganges #5 by Kevin Huizenga

Joe McCulloch

10. Hellboy in Hell #10 (Mike Mignola, Dave Stewart, Clem Robins)
9. Puke Force (Brian Chippendale)
8. š! #25 (eds David Schilter, Sanita Muižniece, Berliac)
7. Ding Dong Circus (Sasaki Maki, Ryan Holmberg translation)
6. Ganges #5 (Kevin Huizenga)
5. Laid Waste (Julia Gfrörer)
4. Carpet Sweeper Tales (Julie Doucet)
3. Peplum (Blutch, Edward Gauvin translation)
2. Sir Alfred No. 3 (Tim Hensley)
1. Rosalie Lightning (Tom Hart)

 Jason Miles

These are the 2016 comics that hit me hardest, stayed with me, nagged me.

In no particular order:

Blubber by Gilbert Hernandez

What me worry? These have been the most important comics to me. 

Patience by Daniel Gillespie Clowes

Painfully good. 

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Annie Murphy

Annie does that Alan-Moore-thing; illuminating the most curious and the most common injustices… crimes that we’re all vaguely aware and actively ignoring. Elemental detective work at its finest.

The Future of Art 25 Years Hence by Gary Panter

Beautiful, beatific absorbant. Humbling.

Love and Rockets vol. IV #1 by Beto + Xaime

Love and Rockets is my favorite thing made by humans. It’s more than that. The characters are real. I’m constantly wondering what Hopey’s up to or if I’ll ever find Palomar. Sometimes I hear people complaining that they don’t know where to start. Just jump in! Keep going if you like it and fuck off if you don’t. This is comics.

Providence by Alan Moore + Jacen Burrows 

Brilliant unpacking and resetting of H.P. Lovecraft, trauma, denial and xenophobia.

Urstory by Amy Kuttab

Conjures the timeless dustlight of childhood.

Late Bloomer by Maré Odomo

Holistic record of life. Euphoric.

Ancestor by Malachi Ward + Matt Sheean

Turned me inside out.

Sunny by Taiyo Matsumoto

Heartbreaking.

Super Powers by Tom Scioli

Comics and psilocybin. What’s the difference?

#25 and Mr. A #18 by Steve Ditko

New Comic Day.

Scab County by Carlos Gonzalas

I love the way this guy tells a story.

Mostly Saturn by Michael DeForge

I think this may be the first DeForge comic I’ve read all the way through. Obviously his stuff is visually brilliant, but to my eyes, all his comics (the ones I’ve tried to read) amount to a chromatic tribute to ennui… which isn’t my thing. I may reread Mostly Saturn and see it as another tedium trophy, but honestly I’ve been too scared because the result of that first reading was ecstatic! I feel this comic is the first true “Literary Comic.” It’s got this braided, experiential abstraction thing going on that transcends all the usual comic language bullshit. This may be a complete game changer.

Brian Nicholson:

Top five comics of 2016, offered unranked

Big Kids by Michael DeForge, Drawn And Quarterly

There are a couple of things that reoccur in Michael DeForge comics. The first is plots about bodily transformation. The second is that, from story to story, there are changes in the formal language, not just of the storytelling, but in the approach to a figure, working through new ways to cartoon that most identifiable form. Even though the overwhelming majority of these comics have been very very good,  the minor breakthrough of Big Kids is that, by focusing on a narrative of the transformation of the narrator’s perception, the trend in DeForge’s art, towards a more two-dimensional sense of the picture plane, away from depictions that feel grounded in three-dimensional space, can here dive even deeper into abstraction while the narration remains present in intimate emotional reality.

If DeForge’s other comics can be considered body horror, or likened to early Cronenberg, this comic is more like a queer take on the 1998 film Pleasantville, by way of They Live. While those films use color and black-and-white to refer to different levels of “reality,” DeForge sticks to color throughout, but instead uses a more distended and abstracted cartooning of the human figure as a metaphor for coming to terms with a deeper and stranger world. It’s a narrative of self-acceptance, about growing into a mature person rather than remaining a stunted child. While the narrative feels like a metaphor for hallucinogen-induced revelations, drugs, alongside sex and anarchist anti-cop politics are present as plot elements from the very beginning. The arc doesn’t begin at a place of presumed “innocence,” but rather an adolescent’s cynicism. The shift in the drawing is about going beyond the recognizable, the understood and agreed upon, to depict fresh feeling, a new awakening. Through the narrator’s lens, we see things we haven’t seen before, and are told they are depictions of everyday occurrences. It’s a new way of being alive to the commonplace. The conclusion of the book, the narrator’s caption of “I felt a lot of things,” should be echoed in the understanding reader.

Band for Life by Anya Davidson, Fantagraphics Books

One of the immediate pleasures of comics is their accessibility, both in the easy understanding they offer to a reader, and for how the cheapness of the materials needed to make a comic allows for underrepresented viewpoints to be heard. Occasionally, a comic comes along that is funny and true in a way that nothing else has been allowed to be, depicting a worldview unarticulated elsewhere. Anya Davidson’s Band for Life is both indebted to her own autobiography in the noise-rock underground and extends a deep literary and comedic empathy towards all marginalized people. The cartooning language is rooted in John Stanley, Milt Gross, Archie comics, the most accessible work there is. It’s a character-driven comedy for people who are not going to see themselves and their struggles depicted anywhere else.

In collecting a strip originally serialized online, it becomes clear how many characters there are in the narrative, how distinct they are from each other, and how much thought has been put into giving everyone a consistent backstory, and showing how these fully realized figures can be in conflict but still be depicted sympathetically. Using a Simpsons-like approach to building strips around people previously depicted as incidental supporting characters, in time it depicts a world of music-making more inclusive than most arts scene within the real world, an act of utopian idealization that’s a testament to Davidson’s imagination in the face of a widespread lack of it.

Shortly after publication, the way of life the book depicts would begin to feel actively endangered. In a 2016 where the awful outcome of Trump’s election was followed by the tragedy of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, and the white supremacist alt-right mobilized themselves to use complaints about fire codes to target live-art spaces to evict people from homes on the premise that these are places where radical leftists congregate, this book documents the way people’s everyday lives can be an act of resistance, even if they are primarily fighting to have the energy to make music against all the other pressures in their lives. The climax of the book, an extended sequence that didn’t previously appear online, shows how the band came to initially form. By using this flashback structure, the point is larger than just “life goes on.” The comic’s talking about a noise-punk band, rather than activism, and is a comedy rather than a political tract, but the book’s world building-via-digression allows the book to make the cogent point, denied by the self-interest-obsessed we must collectively overcome, that disparate people can come together to organize into a unit more powerful than themselves individually.

Pushwagner, Soft City, New York Review Comics

This is a gorgeous visionary work, initially drawn in the 1970s, then lost, only to be rediscovered a few years ago, and now finding publication through an English-language publisher. The drawings are massive, composed around repetition, grids, a depiction of a mechanized world. The line flickers with the inconsistencies of real human life. Adults are drawn in a simplified manner, redolent of children’s drawings, while the infant child is rendered deeply enough for us to know we are seeing this doomed world with its eyes. It has this wide-eyed view of the world, taking in cityscapes in all their dehumanizing detail. It’s insane that this book exists, as everything that makes it remarkable, how fraught and anxious it feels, the scale of it, the ambition of it, how much energy is being dedicated to the capture of tedium, feels like it should work against the artist having the focus to complete it. There’s a tension created between seeing some of the best drawings you’ll see all year and becoming bored at seeing page after page depicting long sequences of nothing happening, reminiscent of the way that humans becoming bored of the beauty of the natural world led to a desire for the comforts of technology which then constitute the soul-deadening effect the book describes. It feels remarkably ahead of its time, its masterful one-point perspective and slightly quivering line feeling like a mixture of alien observer, infant child, and security camera shooting in 70mm. Filmic analogies would compare it to 2001, Jacques Tati, or Koyaanisqatsi. The pages create their minimalist score out of the reader’s gasping. Ah. Ah. Awe.

Abner Dean, What Am I Doing Here, New York Review Comics

When this book was first published in 1947, it spoke a recognizable language in an unfamiliar way. There would’ve been some precedent, at least, to those familiar with gag cartoons. The lines are smoothly swooping, the black and white shading done with graceful wash. Still, the characters are naked, but without genitals. The worlds depicted in each panel have no grounding in recognizable situations. The punchlines offer explanatory context only by the fact that the set of feelings they refer to seems to be illustrated by the drawing. There was nothing like it then, and nothing like it followed. It feels like fine art speaking a gag comics language. It ends up aging better than any gags from that era I’ve seen. If the gag panels in a 1950 or 1960 Playboy cartoon feel dated in their gender politics, the naked-but-without-genitals figures here seem to speak only a language of romantic intrigue defined by longing and loneliness, and feel profound and timeless.

Eleanor Davis, Libby’s Dad, Retrofit Comics

Working with the single issue format for a short story, rather than contributing to an anthology, Eleanor Davis stretches out here in ways that allow for changes in tone larger than in any individual story she’s told before. There is a subtle, pitch-perfect control in the way the pages here slowly fill up with the color blue, depicting the shift from day into night by delineating more and more of the characters’ surroundings. The world becomes more defined by darkness, the young characters idyll being disturbed by the reality of the world they’re living in insinuating itself. The things that can be accepted in daylight can become utterly horrifying once the sun sets. The tension and sense of unease that develops is stunning. It’s not a horror comic, but the book hinges on a moment where Davis communicates her characters’ fear, and so demands a level of control from her over her audience that her previous work, based more on a sort of affectless tone of neutrality, didn’t. However, that moment of terror is only used to get to the conclusion, where this open-ended voice returns, and we are meant to read against the characters’ interpretation of events. We’ve been shown that the sense of safety felt in the daylight isn’t necessarily true, because living with fear every night slowly takes it toll, and just because we survive doesn’t mean the darkness should be denied as a force that defines people’s lives.

Tahneer Oksman

There were many books published this year that I loved and that I couldn’t fit onto a top-five list. Suffice it to say, for the purposes of this end-of-year exercise I decided to include works that I know I will return to again and again, and those that in some way (formally, emotionally, intellectually) surprised me.

Becoming Unbecoming. Una. Arsenal Pulp Press.

First published by the UK’s Myriad Editions in 2015, Una’s Becoming Unbecoming tells the story of a young girl growing up in Northern England in the late 1970s against the backdrop of the brutal murders of thirteen women (including many sex workers) by a serial killer eventually dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper. The book carries its central themes–of epidemic violence against women and the growing pains of adolescence–over a gently narrated landscape that continually changes shape to accurately capture how the personal and political always dynamically interact.

We All Wish for Deadly Force. Leela Corman. Retrofit Comics & Big Planet Comics.

Like the gorgeous and painful image gracing its cover, Corman’s We All Wish for Deadly Force packs an extraordinary emotional punch. The autobiographical pieces contained in this slim volume, adapting, at times, mythical, biographical, and surrealist slants, tell of longing, loss, rage, and bemusement, all from an incisive, capacious narrating point of view. It would be difficult to overstate the emotional grace of these short comics.

Gulag Casual. Austin English. 2D Cloud.

English calls this book his “first real stab at making art in comics,” and it is quite a tour de force. Reading through Gulag Casual is something like a cross between flipping through an exceptional artist’s private, experimental sketchbook and looking at pieces of art hung up in a Chelsea gallery. The colors, shapes, textures, and narrative snippets are unexpected, and the images and moods depicted throughout somehow appeal through their gruesomeness.

After Nothing Comes. Aidan Koch. Koyama Press.

After Nothing Comes includes a selection of six zines composed by the artist between 2008 and 2014, appended by a brief interview between Koch and Bill Kartalopoulos. This is another collection of experiments: landscapes, geographic and bodily, are pieced together by an artist dabbling in both naturalistic and abstract drawing styles. The pieces contained are image-word play, briefer and longer poems and narrative bursts examining the nature of disconnectedness and loneliness.

The Arab of the Future 2. Riad Sattouf. Metropolitan Books.

Like the first collected volume of his series, Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future 2 is a chronologically narrated story of a recalled upbringing. In this book, Sattouf describes a single year in his life (1984-1985), when he was just six and living in the small Syrian village of Ter Maaleh. Through his careful selection of detailed scenes from childhood shaped by sudden shifts in coloring, Sattouf viscerally evokes everything from the moments of first learning to read the words in his beloved Tintin comics to early imaginings of the sounds his toys made as they moved around at night.

Joe Ollmann

Here’s my list, in no particular order, probably forgetting stuff I loved.

All of Jillian Tamaki’s work on the Hazlitt site.
Patience  by Dan Clowes
Crickets #5  by Sammy Harkham
The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf
Beverly by Nick Drasno 

Sean Rogers

I filed a top five for 2016 with the Globe and Mail, where my picks were Blutch’s Peplum, Chester Brown’s Mary Wept over the Feet of Jesus, Anya Davidson’s Band for Life, Julie Doucet’s Carpet Sweeper Tales, and Aidan Koch’s After Nothing Comes. Here are another five that are every bit as good:

Love Nest by Charles Burns (Cornélius). Burns perfects the comic strip as virus—the idiom itself seems infected, contagious, incurable. Like Jack Kamen boiled down and made black and hard as obsidian.

Red Red Rock and Other Stories 1967-1970 by Seiichi Hayashi, edited and translated by Ryan Holmberg (Breakdown Press). Even with Holmberg’s best-in-the-game contextual notes, I’m not always sure what’s going on in Hayashi’s elliptical allegories and psychodramas at any given moment—but, my God, those moments. Some favorites: a rural community sprouting sleek skyscrapers, a girl’s small feet in a faceless man’s brogues, the silhouettes and snow as a woman pleads with the ghost of her husband, all of it haunted and corrupted by memories of war.

Sir Alfred No. 3 by Tim Hensley (Pigeon Press). Along with Deitch’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Blutch’s So Long Silver Screen, and Oshima’s Ninja, this is one of the great cross-pollinations between comics and cinema. Hensley’s limber wordplay is largely absent (though on location in the Alps, Hitch retches: “Pabst!”), but his cartooning and joke-telling have never been more tightly controlled.

Ganges Number Five by Kevin Huizenga (self-published). This one’s about everything—work and death and love and religion and the origins of the Earth—but it’s still remarkably humble and patient and curious and kind. Huizenga maps out what it feels like inside your head better than anyone.

“Kanibul Ball“ by Lale Westvind, from Kramers Ergot 9 (Fantagraphics). Westvind locks onto the maniac frequency that was humming away through the Golden Age, Kirby, the undergrounds, Pettibon—some Jungian, cosmic shit that rips out again here, resplendent and brutish and powerfully American.

James Romberger

Tim Hensley, Sir Alfred #3, Fantagraphics Books

Dan Clowes, Patience, Fantagraphics Books

Kevin Huizenga, Ganges #5, Fantagraphics Books

Mike Mignola, Hellboy in Hell, Dark Horse

Anya Davidson, Band for Life, Fantagraphics Books

Hugo Pratt, Corto Maltese: The Ethiopian, Eurocomics/IDW 

Chester Brown, Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus, Drawn & Quarterly

Kelly Sue DeConnick/Emma Rios, Pretty Deadly, Image Comics

Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Love and Rockets #01, Fantagraphics Books

John Arcudi/Tonci Zonjic, Lobster Johnson: Metal Monsters of Midtown, Dark Horse

Katie Skelly

Let’s start with Memoirs of Amorous Gentlemen by Moyoco Anno. There’s always an element of humanity removed from Anno’s characters. Somewhere in her super deliberate line that gives way to sharp ribcages and scalpel-precise haircuts, there’s also a ravenous urge to consume and fuck. Anno is never really one for middle ground, although it doesn’t rob her stories of personality. Every now and then some funny or playful sensibility can sneak its way in, but to see Anno only for this would be a massive oversight. Speaking of bobbed hair biches, The Complete Crepax: Dracula, Frankenstein, and Other Horror Stories (Volume 1) is the book of revelations. (Full disclosure, I wrote a short essay for this book!) It’s an amazing excerpt from the breadth of Crepax’s career, and a clever move to start with his sojourns into (and perversions of) the horror genre. Like Crepax, Sarah Horrocks works in a language wholly her own and wholly alien to today’s comics tendencies in her series The Leopard, issue 3 of which came out this year. Forgive me, as I know she’s my dear friend and podcast partner, but who else is doing straight body count murder comics right now? (Note: please don’t actually tell me.) Nasty stuff. Conversely, Gina Wynbrandt serves up soul-murder with her humor compilation Someone Please Have Sex with Me, most impressively, resisting the self-affirmations most of the mills crave. But who knew the most life-affirming work this year would be (a) from Julia Gfrörer and (b) about kissing your loved ones goodbye in the plague? It’s there in Laid Waste: see if you don’t come away with a smile after that one, in the same way you feel a wash of positivity after seeing a film like Martyrs. And finally – give me some leeway on this one as I know it came out in late 2015, but my love of it carried through 2016 and nothing else has struck me the same way since: “Queue” by Dilraj Mann (Island #3, ed. Brandon Graham & Emma Rios). Mann swaddles his gelatinous figures in giallo gel lights as they maneuver through the tedium of hookup culture. I like how Mann does alienation through color rather than dialogue or emotional expression, and I love how his figures dominate the panels. There’s a thickness to his figures reminiscent of Jonny Negron but an agency that’s his own. And that was my year!

Leslie Stein

Last Look– Charles Burns

Beverly– Nick Drnaso

Disquiet – Noah Van Sciver

Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus – Chester Brown

Nicolas – Pascal Girard

Tucker Stone

5. Red Team Double Tap Center Mass #1 by Garth Ennis

Dude finally changed his haircut, nice

4. Johnny Red #6 by Garth Ennis

Who is that weaseling over there by my garbage cans OH SHIT IT’S HITLER

3. Six Pack and Dog Welder Hard Travelin Heroez #1 by Garth Ennis

Oh man, his kid’s faces are so jacked up

2. World of Tanks #1 by Garth Ennis

“Cor blimey”, a spot of tea, AND a fucking tank?? ’nuff said

1. Red Team Double Tap Center Mass #4 by Garth Ennis

“Shoulda cleared the room, cuz here comes the boom” —Billy Joel.

  

Whit Taylor

This is a list of my favorite comics and minicomics from 2016.

Dad’s Weekend, Pete Toms (Hic & Hoc)

Blammo #9, Noah Van Sciver (Kilgore Books)

House of Women III, Sophie Goldstein (self-published)

Burrow, Marnie Galloway (self-published)

Self, Meghan Turbitt (self-published)

The Unofficial Cuckoo’s Nest, Luke Healy (self-published)

Summerland, Paloma Dawkins (Retrofit)

Diana’s Electric Tongue, Carolyn Nowak (Shortbox)

Your Black Friend, Ben Passmore (Silver Sprocket)

Over Ripe, Sophia Wiedeman (self-published)

Our Mother, Luke Howard (Retrofit)

Frontier #11, Eleanor Davis, (Youth in Decline)

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden
, Annie Murphy (self-published)

Sir Alfred No. 3, Tim Hensley (Fantagraphics)

Paul Tumey

My Favorite Thing is Monsters – Emil Ferris

A complex, wrenching, beautifully drawn magnum opus from a gifted and experienced artist new to the scene — worthy of the “graphic novel” label in all senses of the word. Delayed until February, 2017, this was supposed to be a 2016 book — and for me, it was: I was able to get a review copy in late October, and was blown away. I reviewed it already  here. You’re gonna love this one when it comes out.

Si Lewen’s Parade: An Artist’s Legacy – by Si Lewen, introduced by Art Spiegelman

Soldier-artist Si Lewen’s 1957 wordless story about the glorification of war and the cost to humanity is timeless and speaks to us as much, if not more, today than ever. Art Spiegelman discovered and befriended Lewen through his work on his 2014 “Wordless!” slide lecture/jazz performance tour. This edition presents Lewen’s story, with newly discovered “outtakes,” in an accordion-fold format, perfectly mirroring it’s content. This edition is really two books in one. On the reverse side of the work, Art Spiegelman has written a lengthy, fully illustrated introduction and interview that expands our understanding of Lewen as a warrior turned artist, bravely committed to his art and vision. The color images of his paintings included in the “ghost book” on the reverse side of the accordion book are simply stunning. Lewen died, at 97, a few days after Spiegelman presented him with one of the first copies produced. Ultimately, this book offers a parade of at least three compelling stories: Lewen’s parable, his life story, and the touching friendship between him and Art Spiegelman.

Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White by Michael Tisserand

The first full-length biography of the artist who many, including me, consider to be the greatest comic strip creator in Western culture. In addition to learning the fascinating details of a major cartoonist’s life and career in this superbly written narrative, I came away from the book with a much deeper grasp of Herriman’s work, especially the monolithic Krazy Kat.

Dick Tracy: Colorful Cases of the 1930s, edited by Peter Maresca

The first years of the landmark, super-bizarre comic strip are surveyed in sumptuously restored color Sunday pages reproduced in their original size and colors. The spot-on curation selects four different continuities, and a fascinating selection of other pages, all buttressed by clear-eyed, rigorous scholarship. I would place this volume among my favorites even if I wasn’t a contributing writer, in a small way, to the introductory material. The importance of reading the great American newspaper Sunday comics in their original sizes and colors cannot be overstated — it is essential for gaining the true experience as the artist intended. In this carefully composed book, we get to see Gould’s signature visual style and bizarre vision of the world take shape in front of our eyes, which is thrilling.

Highbone Theater by Joe Daly

Daly did it again. I regard his Dungeon Quest series and The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book to be among the funniest, most engaging modern comics I’ve read. Highbone Theater, a modern day, slacker magical realist version of the hero’s journey, delivers the goods again. I laughed out loud many times, and I wasn’t stoned. Like the herbs and chemicals so many of his character’s imbibe to attain mystic visions, Daly’s books take my mind to new places, and I love that about his work. 

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2016 Year in Review http://www.tcj.com/2016-year-in-review/ http://www.tcj.com/2016-year-in-review/#comments Tue, 20 Dec 2016 19:01:19 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=97721 Continue reading ]]> Illustration by Mike Reddy.

Illustration by Mike Reddy.

 

We don’t need to tell you what a year it’s been. So let’s get right to an accounting of what you need to read of The Comics Journal from 2016. Certainly there are omissions and mistakes here, but such is life.

Here are some reviews to revisit:

Sarah Horrocks on Peplum.

Monica Johnson on Blackbird.

Nicole Rudick on Carpet Sweeper Tales.

Robert Kirby on Wendy’s Revenge and Trashed.

Kramers Ergot 9 by Joe McCulloch.

Bob Levin on Gulag Casual and Robusto. 

Robert Boyd on Cometbus #57.

Sir Alfred #3 and The Greatest of Marlys by Chris Mautner.

Katie Skelly on Gorgeous,  Queen Emeraldas, and Someone Please Have Sex with Me.

Richard Gehr on Peter Arno.

Greg Hunter on Dream Tube.

Annie Mok on Soldier’s Heart and The Greatest of Marlys.

Rob Clough on 4 Panel Vol. 1, Rosalie Lightning, and Sisters.

Rachel Davies on After Nothing Comes.

For in-depth looks at a variety of topics, we offer you the following:

Joe McCulloch is the true hero of this and every year with his This Week in Comics column, filled with digressions, deep cuts, and great wisdom. Catch up on 2016 right here.

The great Ken Parille on Abner DeanBlack PantherSir Alfred #3, Patience, and comic book editing. 

R.C. Harvey, here on Al Smith and here on Alex Raymond.

Rob Clough on Retrofit Comics and the 60th anniversary meeting of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.

Annie Mok interviewed Michael DeForge, Eleanor Davis and Julie Doucet.

John Kelly delved into the early work of Peter Bagge.

Frank Young on the madness of Chester Gould.

Abhay Khosla really summed up 2015 earlier this year. We miss him this year.

Monica Johnson on contemporary feminist comics and Paper Girls.

Alex Dueben conducted a massive oral history of Wimmen’s Comix. Here’s part 1 and part 2.

Anya Davidson on Brian Chippendale’s Puke Force.

A Colorist’s Roundtable by Andrea Fiamma.

Peter Bagge interviewed Kaz and Chester Brown, and then J.R. Williams discussed the old days with Bagge.

Noah Van Sciver chatted with Tom Gauld.

Tim interviewed Richard Sala. 

Sarah Lautman, Ginette Lapalme, Jen Lee, Dash Shaw, and Aidan Koch all contributed excellent installments of our Cartoonist’s Diary.

Bob Levin wrote insightfully about Jack Jackson.

RJ Casey interviewed Nick Drnaso.

Kevin Huizenga talked to Ben Katchor.

Todd Hignite caught up with Daniel Clowes.

Robert Kirby talked with MariNaomi.

Ryan Holmberg looked at nuclear manga here and here.

Jeanette Roan went in-depth with Jason Shiga.

Dan got into it with Anya Davidson.

Greg Hunter talked to Gilbert Hernandez about the cartoonist’s incredible recent output and his podcast featured the likes of Gabrielle Bell, Ines Estrada, Anna Bongiovanni, and Eddie Campbell.

Robert Elder chronicled the many appearances of Ernest Hemingway in the comics. Part 1 and 2.

Emily Flake talked about the funny with Glen Baxter.

Ron Rege interviewed the great Dame Darcy.

Paul Tumey delivered a compelling deep dive into the work of Gus Mager, (twice!), a two-part revelatory look at White Boy cartoonist Garrett Price (1 and 2), a look at the early days of minicomix and a twopart chat with George Herriman biographer, and he reviewed the forthcoming My Favorite Thing is Monsters.

And there were sad passings:

Geneviève Castrée

Jack Davis

Richard Thompson

Jack T. Chick

Alvin Buenaventura.

See you in 2017. 

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Fantagraphics vs. Everyone (Part Two) http://www.tcj.com/fantagraphics-vs-everyone-part-two/ http://www.tcj.com/fantagraphics-vs-everyone-part-two/#comments Fri, 16 Dec 2016 13:00:07 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=97573 We Told You So: Comics as Art, the long-awaited oral history of Fantagraphics Books, the topics covered include: the uncanonization of a direct sales manager, criticizing Will Eisner, the mole in the Journal, Fiore vs. Pekar, and Capital City vs. Diamond. Continue reading ]]> The following is an excerpt from We Told You So: Comics as Art, the long-awaited oral history of Fantagraphics Books put together by Tom Spurgeon with Michael Dean. The uncanonization of a direct sales manager; criticizing Will Eisner; the mole in the Journal; Fiore vs. Pekar; Capital City vs. Diamond.

(continued from Part One.)

Thom Powers at his Journal desk, 1993.

Thom Powers at his Journal desk, 1993.


Lighting the Feuds

Powers: There have been so many feuds it makes you wonder if there’s something peculiar to Fantagraphics that causes this pattern. I’m not sure I have an answer for that.

Groth: The Comics Journal was in a particularly contentious period in its contentious history by the beginning of the 1990s. We’d just gotten off of our campaign to shame Marvel into returning Jack Kirby’s art; we’d just won three libel suits in a row; independent publishers were gaining traction; the self-publishing movement was afoot; Marvel and DC were still dominant, of course. I saw the Journal’s mission as continuing to be a provocateur, to shake things up, to continue to challenge the status quo.

A microcosm of the public outcry following Gary's essay, "Lies We Cherish: The Canonization of Carol Kalish".

A microcosm of the public outcry following Gary’s essay, “Lies We Cherish: The Canonization of Carol Kalish”.

I wrote a couple pieces that caused a surprising and to my mind inordinate amount of controversy and condemnation. I wrote an editorial about the public response to Carol Kalish’s death, something I’m still pleased with. I was chewing off my lips for something like two months, because I didn’t want to write what I eventually wrote. Every week, I would get The Buyer’s Guide, and every week I would read these preposterous hagiographic letters and essays about Kalish. They became more and more attenuated reality. There were eventually letters from people who had never met her or even knew who she was, but who were praising her based on previous letters from people praising her, which were based on something Peter David said a month earlier. So, eventually, I decided that the context required me to try to redress the balance. And my objection was less toward Kalish herself than toward these mindless, over-the-top panegyrics about her, unrelated to her real contribution to comics or even who she was. I think that she got more ink after she died than Kirby, Hogarth, Caniff, Kurtzman, all these great artists, did.

I think the reason for that was probably because she was a professional networker. People get praised more because of their networking skills than because they’re great artists, and that offended me; it seemed like an utterly lopsided set of values at work. Fewer people knew and liked Burne Hogarth, so he got virtually no coverage, but because Carol Kalish was the friend of all retailers, she was smothered in praise. So anyway, I don’t know, it seems ridiculous in retrospect, because my piece was like what, 2,000 words, or something like that? It was a short, succinct piece. And you know, the ironic thing is it might have even created more of a shitstorm than my piece on Eisner.

Gary Groth, “Lies We Cherish: The Canonization of Carol Kalish,” The Comics Journal #146 November 1991:

Of course, her job was to sell as much semi-literate junk to a gullible public as humanly possible. Her gift — or genius — was exploiting markets, manipulating public taste, pandering to the lowest common denominator. She was, in an odd sort of way, forthright about the crassness of her employer’s marketing methods. Once I witnessed a retailer timidly question Marvel’s strategy of filling their comics with sex and violence: Kalish’s reply, which was almost refreshingly free of the specious nod to morality to which less assured marketing tacticians would resort, was that little boys liked sex and violence and Marvel was in the business of selling comics to little boys. Hence and therefore.

Thompson: I understand why people were offended by Gary’s piece, but a lot of the criticism was off base. First, that it was written “too soon” — it was months after Kalish’s death — and second that it was an attack on Kalish herself. I suspect that to this day a lot of people who bear a grudge toward Gary never read the original editorial, just other people’s interpretations of it … or if they did finally read it, their perception had already been so colored by the outrage.

Groth: I reread my Eisner piece not too long ago, and it wasn’t bad. I stand behind it, but my God, it created another shitstorm. Even Jules Feiffer raked me over the coals for it in my interview with him. No one was allowed to say anything critical about Eisner then. I think that’s changed since, but in 1989, he was critically inviolate.

Gary Groth, “Will Eisner: A Second Opinion,” The Comics Journal #119, January 1988:

There are, it seems to me, two Will Eisners: The populist who defends mass-market junk and the elitist who champions comics as a form of literature; a shrewd businessman who prides himself on deal making and market savvy and an artist whose aspirations rise above the marketplace; an artist who uses his (and others’) gifts to package utilitarian products-to-order and an artist who strives to duplicate the human condition.

Feiffer: I thought Gary’s essay on Will Eisner was quite harsh. What was refreshing was that he was one of the few people not enamored of Eisner and didn’t genuflect, but at the same time I thought he went overboard in his judgments. There were all sorts of criticisms of Eisner’s work that I thought were legitimate; I didn’t feel like Gary in some instances was on the money here.

Groth: I wasn’t rabid about Eisner, particularly, but I couldn’t understand why no one else noticed that his graphic novels were really lousy, and lousy in an obvious and pronounced way. It pretty much shot my relationship with Eisner, who never forgave me — another example of naiveté on my part, though I probably never even considered that aspect of it when I sat down to write it.

Gary Groth, “Will Eisner: A Second Opinion,” The Comics Journal #119, January 1988:

These observations were prompted by my reading of The Building, and two blurbs from Don Thompson and Max Allan Collins that Kitchen Sink is using to advertise the book. Uncle Don thinks The Building is “inspirational” and “outstanding,” while Collins thinks it’s a “brilliant, graceful graphic novel” that brought tears to his “cynical eyes.” In fact, The Building may be Eisner’s worst book, a menagerie of clichés and an embarrassingly strident use of a hoary, heavy-handed literary device that could be productively employed in schools throughout the country as an example of how not to write a story, but which wouldn’t fail to impress our average comics reviewer as an example of High Art.

Groth: So again, I wanted to introduce a contrarian point of view to the public discourse. There’s nothing that comics fans hate more than something that upsets their little critical apple cart. I got hell for it; I think Don Thompson said I wrote it out of jealousy. But looking back on it, I would fine-tune it a little bit, but I think I was pretty accurate. God knows, considering what he’s done since then, I think it was probably pretty lenient.

Dave Sim and I went ’round and ’round. My disagreements with Dave — and this is long before he wrote that deranged anti-woman screed — were many. One, I remember, was his adoration of self-publishing irrespective of the quality of the self-publisher. I guess I thought that there was something about Dave’s worldview that was skewed and defective and fundamentally amoral … although I didn’t know how skewed at that time.

Gary Groth defends distributor Bud Plant from Dave Sim.

Gary Groth defends distributor Bud Plant from Dave Sim.

I haven’t looked at this in ages, but I think we had a back-and-forth where I wrote a couple of pieces about him, and he wrote a big piece about me in Cerebus, and naturally I wrote a response and so forth. It was one thing after another. I remember Dave also attacked Bud Plant over some utterly specious nonsense, and I mean Bud is probably one of the few fucking saints in the comics industry. So they had this big brouhaha, and not too long after that, Sim was palling around with Steve Geppi and lifting brewskis and watching football games with him. Earlier he had taken this exhibitionistically moral stance about what an unethical person Geppi was, and then shortly thereafter he’s buddying up to him. So I think he was displaying signs of neo-Ayn-Randian economic models back then that were sort of seeping out of his writing, which I thought were morally dicey. I think I went after that too.

At the time, these were like life-and-death issues and I wrote with that kind of urgency. Looking back, perhaps that was naive, but I wouldn’t mitigate that passion, in retrospect, for anything.

One day someone from Capital City called. I forget the guy’s name, but he was an executive at Capital, and I guess I wrote an editorial where I specifically referred to him as a schlockmeister. So, one day someone who answered the phone in my office buzzed me and tells me, “There’s a call for you.”

I said, “Who is it?”

And he said, “Well, he just said, ‘It’s the schlockmeister.’” So I took the call and this guy just yelled at me for five minutes. He was right in the sense that the reductio ad absurdum of my argument that he was responding to was that he probably shouldn’t have a job, and that 90 percent of the comics that Capital was distributing shouldn’t exist. But he was really personally, deeply offended by this.

That kind of conviction about art and what culture ought to be, and what excellence is and what we should be devoting ourselves to was beginning to be sidelined by an overwhelming commercial ethos.

Image probably had a lot to do with that — empowering mediocrity. That was a revolting spectacle, honorable men running to Image because Image suddenly had lots of money and power and clout. And because it was run by creators and creators were intrinsically the good guys.

I haven’t read the Creator Bill of Rights in a couple decades, but as I recall, I was somewhat skeptical of whether this was going to enhance the art form — and that’s what I wanted to do, that was my primary interest, that’s what I thought it was all about. I found a lot of these reformist or semi-reformist agendas, like Scott McCloud’s and Dave Sim’s, were more about giving shitty artists a bigger cut of the pie than anything having to do with art. In a lot of instances, I was not railing against the corporate mentality as embodied by corporations but the corporate mentality as it had been internalized by the more vocal creators.

I was banging my head against that wall, and the wall was winning. Apathy had taken the place of a more activist kind of agenda on the part of creators.

I couldn’t in good conscience champion the guy who pencils and inks Justice League of America. I mean, he probably makes a very good living. He doesn’t own the work. He knows that going in; it’s all work for hire, I think that you can make an argument that work for hire is intrinsically bad. It is just part of this whole commercial culture that encourages people to divorce themselves from their own work in any meaningful way. But you know, nobody’s going to listen to that argument.

Powers: There was a big break between Gary and Denis Kitchen.

Thompson: Kitchen Sink was falling apart, and not only was it falling apart, there was some weird stuff going on in its relationship with Tundra, with which it was merging. It was the big story at the time, and Gary was adamant that it should be pursued in the Journal, as well it should. Kitchen saw this as an attempt to sabotage him, and his paranoia was exacerbated when the Journal editor of the time, Carole Sobocinski, decided to become a mole for him inside the Journal.

Groth: I had what I would characterize as a collegial relationship with Denis Kitchen through the ’80s. We weren’t close friends, but we both suffered the same tribulations as marginal, alternative comics publishers, and we’d often gossip and commiserate at cons and at parties, and over the phone. I certainly considered him a collegial friend or a friendly colleague. He was always supportive of the Journal’s journalistic mission — he had been a journalist himself briefly — and he often complimented the magazine on its hard-hitting news coverage.

In the early ’90s, Kitchen Sink Press was going through he same miserable financial contractions we were. I think he was circling the drain just as we were. We solved our problem by starting Eros Comix. Kitchen tried to solve his by merging with Tundra, the alternative publishing company Kevin Eastman founded in 1990 and sunk his millions in.

Kitchen issued a press release in 1993 announcing Kitchen Sink’s purchase of Tundra. This was suspicious on the face of it; companies on the brink of bankruptcy don’t buy companies who are three or four times their size. My journalistic bullshit detector went off. This made as much sense as Fantagraphics buying Random House. We proceeded to do our job, which was to dig up the truth, and this put us in direct contention with Kitchen who did his best to prevaricate and hide the truth. As it turned out, according to what Eastman subsequently told me in his Journal interview, he, Eastman, has initially owned 51 percent of Kitchen for a while, and even financed the merger or acquisition to the tune of 2 million dollars — the opposite of how the transaction was portrayed by Kitchen. It became more personal when, during the course of our reportage I thought we were being stonewalled, I had a conversation with Kitchen and he told me he would answer our questions honestly or tell us when he couldn’t answer them, but insisted on the subterfuge that Kitchen had purchased Tundra. All this time, unbeknownst to me, our news editor and news writer were in cahoots with Kitchen to suppress the story.

Roberta Gregory characterizes the state of creators' rights in The Comics Journal #137 (1990).

Roberta Gregory characterizes the state of creators’ rights in The Comics Journal #137 (1990).

Powers: I visited Denis Kitchen back when Kitchen Sink was in Wisconsin, back when I was briefly the executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. I visited Denis, stayed at his place, and on the way over people were saying, “Happy birthday, Denis.” In this low-key way he hadn’t bothered to disclose, it was his birthday.

Later that trip he said, “I started a publishing company to control my own work, but now this company controls me.” And I think that’s true for so many entrepreneurs and small businesspeople.

Marc Arsenault, designer and former Tundra employee: 
[Gary] called me up one afternoon, and what he had to say was a bit of a shock. He apologized to me. Apparently, a couple of members of The Comics Journal staff decided that what I and other former employees and associates of Kevin Eastman’s Tundra Publishing had to say about our time there was so horrendous, that — journalistic ethics be damned — it would be a good idea to let Denis Kitchen know what was up, off-the-record comments recorded without my permission or knowledge [in the course of their alleged news writing], and all.

Groth: Over the course of several months when this story was hot, I was increasingly frustrated because the Journal’s news writer simply wasn’t getting the story. He would submit drafts that were woefully feckless and evasive, I would return them for a rewrite with specific notes as to whom to talk to and what questions to ask, I would get another half-assed draft and this would go on and on. The managing editor kept telling me she was on the news writer and couldn’t understand why he was doing such a poor job either. What I didn’t know is that they were both in constant touch with Kitchen, had agreed to sabotage the news story and were feeding him information about how successful they were in undercutting the story.

I only learned about this when an intern working under them whom they had taken into their confidence came to me and confessed the whole cover-up. When I called Sobocinski at home and told her I wanted to meet with her, she never came back to work, and the next thing I knew Kitchen had hired her as his assistant.

Ilse Thompson:
The first collection of The Complete Crumb Comics that I edited started the first years of American Splendor. Because Crumb and Harvey Pekar both own the copyright on their collaborations, we had to get permission from Pekar to publish the work. He was against it. He wouldn’t. Crumb eventually persuaded him, and I got a memo from Gary saying that he had relented. When the book came out, I was arranging for complimentary copies to be sent to contributors, and calling people to confirm their addresses. I called Pekar, who popped a cork when I told him that American Splendor had been reprinted. He had forgotten that he’d OK’d it. “Gimme Groth! I’m going to sue him!” He demanded to speak with anyone in a position above me. I was afraid to tell him that I had edited it, and told him that everyone else was at lunch, because I didn’t want anyone to know I’d pissed him off.

The next morning, Kim told me that Pekar had called to apologize to me, and that I should expect a call from him. When he called, we spent an hour on the phone. He gave me a lesson in Russian literature.

R. Crumb's cover to the first American Splendor collection (Doubleday, 1986).

R. Crumb’s cover to the first American Splendor collection (Doubleday, 1986).

Groth: At first, Pekar refused to give permission to reprint the strips Crumb drew from his scripts. I had to call Crumb and ask him to call Pekar and intercede, which he did. My impression was that Pekar refused permission either because of some feud he was having either with Bob Fiore at the time or an argument I had with his wife Joyce Brabner, but which I remember thinking was a petty reason to deny his collaborator the right to include those strips in his complete works.

R. Fiore: The Harvey Pekar business was one of the more idiotic episodes I’ve ever been involved in. One thing to remember was that it came during that whole period when the move was being made and my return from Seattle, and if you read anything I was writing at the time you’ll see that I was just in a foul mood. You could see it in that ridiculous feud we were carrying on with the Comics Buyer’s Guide, overheated rhetoric mostly provided by me, as if we were in a death struggle with Don Thompson for the soul of the comics, (a) as though they had one and (b) as though it would have been worth having. I am put in mind of Jorge Luis Borges’ description of the Falkland Islands War: Two bald men fighting over a comb.

Thompson: The Fiore/Pekar feud highlights one of the problems, which is that people would inevitably take the writing of one person in the Journal as a company-wide broadside, and generalize their dislike of that person into a loathing for the Journal and Fantagraphics as a whole. So a lot of people hate Gary for nasty reviews of their work that Gary may not agree with, or even have read.

Powers: For years I made pitiful attempts to get Bob to write in other venues. I published my own paper in Detroit in 1993, and I got Bob to write a column for me. Unfortunately, I only published three issues. I once gave copies of the papers to Christopher Hitchens and Hitchens asked me later, “Who’s Bob Fiore? He’s a great writer.”

Fiore: The biggest problem with the position I took with Pekar [re: the reductive use of animals in Art Spiegelman’s Maus] was that Pekar had a point, in that characterizing a people as pigs does have a certain connotation. The real answer to this is that, while it is a problem, Spiegelman defuses it by portraying Poles in a multidimensional way. The thing is, right at the time I was writing that column, I had heard this thing on NPR about Polish collaboration during the Holocaust, and I made this dumbass comment to the effect that, in making them pigs, Spiegelman was being too kind. Needless to say, this was not the way in which Spiegelman wanted to see his work defended. Anyway, having climbed out on this limb, I proceeded in the finest Field Marshal Haig fashion to defend it. What the episode proves is that the things that are most likely to make you look foolish in an argument are ego involvement and emotional involvement.

What impressed me about Pekar is that he actually went out and read The Lost Steps, much more of a commitment than I would have made in the same circumstances. (It actually is a book about a modern man who discovers a primitive society that he finds superior to the modern world and all its conveniences, but Pekar did some selective quotation that made it look otherwise. The dirty cheat.) What burns me up is that I found a quote from Orwell that said that Animal Farm was an allegory of the Russian Revolution, but it was too late. This was the sort of absurd point we went round and round on; Pekar would take a position that was objectively wrong but because of my ego involvement I kept trying to make him admit it, and that’s something he wouldn’t do. And you really have to wonder if someone who can’t see the difference between Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler has any genuine understanding of literature at all. The perverse thing is while artists always complain about being judged by people who couldn’t create art, when artists themselves try to judge a work of art they are immediately subjected to invidious comparisons or accusations of professional jealousy.

Groth: I remember Pekar telling me that he would never, ever allow Fiore to have the last word in that argument and that he would argue for the rest of his life if necessary and that if I ever stopped the argument and gave Fiore the last word, Pekar would continue it in the pages of the Comics Buyer’s Guide. It rampaged over many issues of the Journal and Pekar did indeed get the last word. Until now.

(continued on next page)

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Fantagraphics vs. Everyone (Part One) http://www.tcj.com/fantagraphics-vs-everyone-part-one/ http://www.tcj.com/fantagraphics-vs-everyone-part-one/#respond Thu, 15 Dec 2016 13:00:11 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=97570 We Told You So: Comics as Art, the long-awaited and exhaustive oral history of Fantagraphics Books. This section's leading characters include Barry Windsor-Smith, Jim Shooter, Helena Harvilicz, Frank Young, Eric Reynolds, and Tom Spurgeon. Continue reading ]]> The following is an excerpt from We Told You So: Comics as Art, the long-awaited oral history of Fantagraphics Books put together by Tom Spurgeon with Michael Dean. A tumultuous magazine for a tumultuous industry; Barry Windsor-Smith troubles Jim Shooter’s lower gut; the “I Am Not Terry Beatty’s Girlfriend” Contest; Helena Harvilicz blows up; Frank Young melts down; and Eric Reynolds and Tom Spurgeon: the non-sociopath years.

Summer 1995 backyard party at Peter and Joanne Bagge's house, names tagged by Jim Blanchard and featuring a cross-section of lcoal comics, music and media folk.

Summer 1995 backyard party at Peter and Joanne Bagge’s house, names tagged by Jim Blanchard and featuring a cross-section of lcoal comics, music and media folk.

The Comics Journal vs. The Comics Industry

Barry Windsor-Smith, cartoonist: In the early 1990s, Jim Shooter, Bob Layton and I were traveling to a downtown restaurant. We were crowded in the back of a yellow cab, and the chat was inevitably about the world of comic books. I wasn’t interested, so I was tuned out, thinking of things other than comics.

But then, the mention of The Comics Journal caught my attention and I briefly tuned back into the conversation as Bob snorted, “Fuckers!” with Jim concurring — “Those bastards.” It’s rare for Shooter to curse. I guess he reserves his expletives for The Comics Journal.

Chiming in, I said, “The Journal is the only real magazine we’ve got.” In that context, where Jim and Bob were openly hostile, my use of the term “magazine” implied an arbiter of taste, criticism and intelligence, like The New Yorker, for instance. They both looked at me briefly, and, turning away, Shooter’s ass tightened so fast that it almost overtook the speed of Layton’s gall bladder stricture — what little air was in the back of the taxi was immediately sucked into each of their lower guts with a thunderous stereophonic whistling sound. Following through, I said, “Damned good thing they keep us on our toes, right?”
The rest of the short journey down Broadway passed in silence. Staring out the window while returning to my private musings, I coined the ungainly term Reverse Fart.

Bill Williingham's inspired, Steadman-esque portrait of industry villain Jim Shooter for The Comics Journal #171.

Bill Williingham’s inspired, Steadman-esque portrait of industry villain Jim Shooter for The Comics Journal #171.

Steven Grant: We felt all the comics-news outlets, not just the Journal, weren’t really serving the needs of the comics-professionals community, and there was really no reason to expect them to. We [WAP!, the freelancer’s rights newsletter] never really conceived ourselves as being in competition with the Journal in any way, though I heard rumors the Journal thought we were positioning the newsletter that way. But there was a general sense of outright hostility from the Journal toward the rank and file of comics professionals — which isn’t to say a lot of the Journal’s assessment of the business wasn’t accurate, just that they often professed their views in ways that were perceived as elitist and confrontational — and there were a lot of professionals who didn’t feel comfortable discussing their issues with the business with the Journal.

Gary Groth: The “industry” at large, of which 90 percent or more consisted of Marvel and DC (and Archie), had schizophrenic views of us. In the early days, we would give Gerber and Thomas and Englehart space to rant about Marvel and Jim Shooter, which they appreciated insofar as comics creators had never had a public forum available to them to voice their grievances; it was really the first time that a magazine would give them that kind of space and allow them to express themselves uncensored. Before that, fanzines toed the company line and the vast majority of creators were frankly too feckless to speak out. And to be fair, the Journal could be perceived as schizophrenic: We’d often run negative reviews of their books while championing their rights as artists. So there was always a tension there. Some comics creators respected our willingness to uphold artistic standards and give even creators we didn’t necessarily believe maintained those standards a place to speak out, and there were other comics creators who despised us for our “attitude.” Our attitude was a big problem.

Kim Thompson: That was the point, I think, at which the unity of alternative-minded mainstreamers and alternative cartoonists started to fray. It was a relationship that just couldn’t hold. They were based on improving the mainstream model, and we were based on bypassing it — or smashing it. There was also a residue of hostility because of all the mean things we said in reviews.

Groth: By the time WAP! showed up, I think the scales had been lifted from our eyes — or my eyes — and I realized corporations like DC and Marvel were not reformable and the only moral option was to not work for them — which was not something the Journal could effect. WAP! was interested in improving conditions so that artists could make more money producing crap rather than get fucked over for producing crap. I saw it as a venue confirming the work-for-hire status quo, which I was increasingly uncomfortable with. I came to the conclusion that producing crap was the problem, not how much one gets paid for it. Of course, self-publishing and indy publishing wasn’t the answer either, but I didn’t think it through that far. If I had, I would’ve realized there was no answer and slit my wrists.

The "I Am Not Terry Beatty's Girlfriend" Contest call for entries.

The “I Am Not Terry Beatty’s Girlfriend” Contest call for entries.

Thom Powers: One thing that I think was notable when I was managing editor of The Comics Journal was that it did mark a particularly nasty streak for the magazine. It was issues #117 to maybe #124. It included the apotheosis of our attitude then, the “I Am Not Terry Beatty’s Girlfriend” Contest, which kind of represented a split between Gary and Kim. I think Kim was really wary of our doing this. Gary and I were giggling over the opportunity.

Joe Sacco: I remember meeting Jim Shooter at one of the San Diego conventions and asking him for a quote about something or other, and him telling me, “I don’t talk to that rag.”

Powers: There are some things that I look back on during that period where I think they were a little too personal, and it doesn’t get any more nasty than the “I Am Not Terry Beatty’s Girlfriend” Contest. But I have no regrets. We started the Swipe File then. That I feel a little bad about in retrospect.

Thompson: I thought some of it was pointless bullshit and served no purpose other than to undercut the Journal’s reputation and create additional enemies for no good reason. But I had enough of the same inclinations and history that I had no moral high ground from which to speak, so all I could do is grouse about individual instances, to little effect. Thom and Gary tended to reinforce each other.

Groth: Thom edited the Journal briefly and even wrote news. We were very much in accord, editorially and philosophically, in that we wanted to use the magazine to confront entrenched attitudes in the profession and attack the whole ethos of hackery, and we were willing to use ridicule and humor to make our point. Nothing, I should add, was done frivolously. The whole point of the “Terry Beatty’s Girlfriend” Contest was to underscore how fatuous it was to defend drek. I still think that was pretty inspired, if I may say so. Although Kim’s own comics criticism could be devastating, he was always a little queasy about such tactics.

Thompson: There was always a lot of hostility towards The Comics Journal and Gary, and it tended to divide itself pretty cleanly. Those who liked and regarded as valid the model and aesthetic of mainstream comics didn’t like us, and those who didn’t like the model and aesthetic liked us. There were people on both sides who went the other way, but that’s kind of the way it broke down.

Thom Powers and Gary Groth, circa mid-1990s.

Thom Powers and Gary Groth, circa mid-1990s.

Groth: I was given more shit for the “I Am Not Terry Beatty’s Girlfriend” Contest than anything else we did — at least until I wrote an editorial about Carol Kalish. Even in retrospect, I think the “Contest” was pretty editorially inspired. The fact of it, but also the fact that it took balls to do it. One of the criticisms often leveled against us was that we were humorless and stuffy — yet this was about as funny and as incendiary as you could get. It was freewheeling, more in the tradition of, say, The Realist. I wish we did more things like this today.

The “Contest” came out of a predictably negative review of some short-lived and now-forgotten DC comic called Wild Dog written by Max Allan Collins and drawn by Terry Beatty. The only two people who wrote in attacking the review and defending the comic were Terry Beatty and his girlfriend (in two separate letters). Before we got their letters, though, Beatty called me up and literally screamed at me for five minutes — livid. The letters were brimming with indignation. I thought this was so funny that I initiated a contest, open to Journal readers, to write in defending the comic; the winner would get a subscription to the Journal. The only criterion was that the contestant couldn’t be Terry Beatty’s girlfriend. We received a lot of entries, as I recall.

The Comics Journal’s Revolving Door

Dale Yarger: Comics Journal editors were a strange breed, as you probably know — they went through like three or four a year for a long time. At least it seemed like that.

Groth: If one of the skills I was looking for in a Journal editor was sanity, I should generally be considered a pretty dismal failure at hiring Journal editors.

Thompson: Some were pretty good but slightly neurotic editors who just eventually snapped, like Helena Harvilicz and Frank Young, whereas others explored the outer limits of office sociopathy.

Robert Boyd: It was a fucking stressful job. Gary was really unhelpful — certainly one of his weaknesses. He was totally hands-off unless he had a problem, then he could be kind of an asshole. I think if he had been a little more helpful and positive when people were doing a good job, they could have accepted his occasionally harsh criticisms a little better. But it was such a difficult job, and people would do it without ever getting a pat on the back. I mean, editors just killed themselves to get this magazine out.

Helena Harvilicz: I used to read The Comics Journal, and I found an ad for the managing editor job in The Comics Journal, and I just sent them a résumé — it was actually a really goofy cover letter that I wrote. I think I tried to impress them with how funny I was, or something. I got quotes from people who knew me, about how great I was. I think it must have impressed them, whatever it was. I’d been out of school a couple years and I had worked in restaurants, and at that point I was working at Georgetown University as a secretary.

Thompson: Helena is a totally hilarious writer, a skill she was never able to really use in the Journal. She later did her own little fanzine, Nut Magnet, which was a masterpiece. She was also a character and a bit of a flake — this tiny, tiny woman who looked like she had barely hit puberty. My wife Lynn told me that she spent one of the first Fantagraphics parties she attended, when she didn’t know too many people, horrified that there was this 13-year-old girl drinking and smoking. “Is she someone’s daughter? Who brought her? Why isn’t anyone stopping this?”

The Comics Journal #132 (1989), cover by Lynda Barry.

The Comics Journal #132 (1989), cover by Lynda Barry.

Harvilicz: I had to fly out and buy my own plane ticket, because they wouldn’t pay for me to come out — at that point they were in L.A. I went out there and I just really hit it off with those guys. It was weird — like coming home in a weird way. We just had the same sensibility, and they just seemed to really like me and I