Features – The Comics Journal http://www.tcj.com Thu, 23 Mar 2017 12:00:44 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.3 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 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/#respond 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 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 really liked everyone. And then Gary offered me the job, which I was kind of shocked about, and then the salary was so poor he couldn’t convince me to do it. So they hired someone else, I think. I forget how much it was, it was pathetic — I think like $11,000 a year.

And then they hired this guy, Greg Baisden. He went up to Seattle with them, and then I guess as it often happens with Comics Journal editors, he lasted a very short amount of time. I thought Greg was kind of an idiot when I met him.

Groth: Greg Baisden moved up with us from L.A. Greg was an extremely good editor as well as a good news writer, but he also had a mercurial temperament — almost the stereotype of a “good” Journal editor. You had to take the good with the bad and I was willing to do that. Greg’s work habits were extremely erratic, but he was extremely committed to The Mission and that meant a lot. But he was unstable and had a temper, which proved problematic.

Thompson:
Greg wasn’t a bad editor, but he had what one might call anger-management problems. I once saw him throw an entire completed issue of Comics Journal paste-up boards across the room at Dale Yarger, but they fell apart like a poorly-packed snowball and Greg had to pick them all up again.

Groth: Once he even threw something at Dale Yarger’s head. I’m not sure if that or something subsequent was the last straw, but he left the magazine. Helena Harvilicz, who was working in tandem with him, took his place.

Thompson: He went on to work for Eclipse and then Tundra, and we would hear amusing reports from his tenures there.

Boyd: What would happen is that an editor would melt down mid-issue. This happened three times while I was there, first with Greg Baisden. I can’t remember what triggered it, but it had been building for a long time. That was the Kirby issue, and I basically finished it and started the next issue until Helena came on board.

Groth: I had been the primary editor of the Journal for the first eight or nine years (with, first, Mike Catron, then Kim Thompson), but at that point I had to devote more and more of my time to the company’s other publishing efforts and had to hire a managing editor to run the Journal on a day-to-day basis. Basically, the editorial template was there and I was still involved to greater or lesser degrees, depending upon how much time the rest of the company sucked out of me or what was going on in my personal life; sometimes I was very hands-on and sometimes not.

Hiring a new managing editor was always difficult. It requires a set of skills that are, if not unique, pretty rare, and I would often have to compromise because few applicants had them all. If I had to choose between someone with zero social skills and a broad knowledge of the history of comics and someone with excellent social skills and a spotty knowledge of the history of comics, I’d choose the former and reap the consequences in consequent office disruption. The people I eventually hired were usually intense, independent, focused and driven. And eccentric.

Harvilicz: They had remembered me for whatever reason and called me up again.

And at the time, I came across the country with this other guy, Thom Powers, and while we were driving he mentioned that I was going to be editor of The Comics Journal, which I was completely shocked about! I thought I was just going to be a reporter. I was working there for like two or three days, and Gary’s giving me all this stuff to do.

Frank Young: To succeed as managing editor of The Comics Journal, you need the skills of a samurai warrior and the fearlessness of an animal trainer. I doubt there are many people on this planet with both those skill sets and editorial and decision-making abilities. The job asks a lot of anyone.

Harvilicz: I went into his office and it wasn’t a breakdown, but I just looked at him and said, “Gary, I have no idea what I’m doing.” Because I had no experience. And he just looked at me and said, “I don’t want to hear it.” That was his training. At that point in my life it was perfect for me. Nowhere else was I going to get a job where I was going to be given so much control over anything.

Groth: I was still deeply involved in the Journal on a day-to-day basis then, conceptualizing the editorial lineup for each issue, conducting a lot of interviews, determining which books should be reviewed, going over the current possible news stories and determining which ones were important enough to pursue and so forth. Once those decisions were made, the managing editor had to make them happen. It was a dream job if you were so inclined, not so much if you weren’t.

Thompson: We always had a real sink-or-swim approach to employees, particularly the Comics Journal editors. I think in part because that’s how Gary and I had done it, although of course in our case we hadn’t been responsible to anyone else who might come down and yell at us. It was rough on some of them, but the ones who worked out always seemed grateful for the experience, and the ones who didn’t usually seemed to collapse because of character flaws or neuroses that had little to do with the actual skills.

Groth: I was stretched pretty thin by 1992 or 1993 — 15 years after I’d cofounded the magazine, and what I needed was a competent managing editor who could manage. I was still doing a lot of interviews at that time and I was writing for the magazine pretty often into the mid-’90s, but I couldn’t handle the day-to-day flow of … managing. So, the managing editor and the news writer and I would meet formally a couple times a week to discuss the forthcoming issue, and I’d answer questions, give marching orders and let them have at it. I would always give them a lot of latitude, but I have to admit that I felt the need to stand behind whatever feature or review or interview subject they suggested or I just couldn’t approve it. So, I was a little dictatorial that way, I guess, but I didn’t want the editorial core of the magazine to change.

Young: My story with Fantagraphics starts in 1990. I was living in Tallahassee, Florida, I was 27 and I was taking care of my mother, who had cancer. It was a pretty grim year for me, and I was feeling kind of trapped. Just for the hell of it, I sent a review of one of the Carl Barks Library sets to The Comics Journal. I had been reading The Comics Journal since I was in high school and I never had any idea that I would be affiliated with the company. By that time, I had 10 years experience as a published writer and editor, for a variety of newspapers and magazines, all in the Southeast.

Thompson: I remember when we interviewed Frank Young he went into great detail about how all his previous jobs were horrible and all his previous bosses were assholes. The ultimate fate of his Fantagraphics employment was laid out right there for us to see and we didn’t put two and two together.

Harvilicz: Gary never did anything with the magazine, except hire that idiot to write those horrible columns! Who is that guy — Ken Smith? You know, I went to Johns Hopkins, and I had a philosophy degree and I couldn’t read that shit. I tried to cut it every issue! Gary was evasive about it, completely. He would never ever answer the question of why is this in here?
I always wanted to make the magazine more lighthearted and funny. And the interviews were great, but they were way too long.

Groth: I’m not sure there was a single Comics Journal editor who didn’t hate Ken Smith’s philosophy column, which made me all the more adamant to run it, of course.

Eric Reynolds' logo for one of Kenneth Smith's occasional forays into column writing at The Comics Journal.

Eric Reynolds’ logo for one of Kenneth Smith’s occasional forays into column writing at The Comics Journal.

Young: I wrote this article basically to take my mind off this miserable situation I was in. I got a letter back from Helena saying that she liked the article, and it got published. I did four or five things for them over the next few months.

Groth: Frank Young — very smart guy who knew comics, had taste and appreciated the form, perfect Journal material. But there was the temperament issue again.

Young: A thing I noticed right away was what a combative and mutually abusive relationship Helena and Gary had. They were meant for each other, because they both could push each other’s buttons. I think to each other they were just giant consoles of buttons that would get reactions. They would have screaming matches. About anything. Helena would just fly off the handle. She was a very competent person, she knew what she was doing, but she had a very chaotic personality at the same time. She would get into arguments with Gary about very trivial things that didn’t really have any importance. And he would just keep pushing her buttons until she would explode. And she would just freak out, and I think it was just great entertainment to him. He didn’t have any emotional investment in it.

Groth: I liked Helena. We had a volatile relationship, but I never took our arguments personally, and I didn’t think she did, though I could be wrong about that.

Harvilicz: I had no friends, I knew no one and I lived in the attic at the office at one point. It was really a crawlspace that I lived in for a couple months.

Groth: At one point, Helena asked me if she could crash in the attic for a while. I said, “Are you sure?” I mean, it was an attic on the same level as the Journal office on the second floor of the house, but the roof slanted down and you literally couldn’t stand up in it. Well, Helena could probably stand up on the far side against the wall, but then she’d have to crouch down if she moved a foot into it. I shrugged and said OK. She lived there for a couple months — rent free, of course; it was, I thought, a temporary measure. She’d make jokes about how any guy who came into her “home” had no other option than to get on his knees immediately.

Boyd: Then Helena quit suddenly.

Harvilicz: As much as I loved working there, mentally I was all over the place back then, and I felt like I’d learned the job. It wasn’t like I was the best magazine editor ever, but I understood it, and I was like: OK, what else is there? I really wanted to move into doing something else for Fantagraphics. Like being an editor — I was sort of lining up do that, and he’d given me a book to work on. And then we had that blowup.

Thompson: Gary and Helena were a volatile combination. Helena was a pretty good editor but she’d have these blind spots and sometimes not think things through, and Gary would get legitimately annoyed with her and call her on the carpet, and he’s not particularly gentle as a reprimander and she was fairly sensitive and argumentative. I could hear them screaming at each other in Gary’s office since we shared a wall.

I remember we were at a San Diego convention, Lynn Johnston was attending, and Gary told Helena to go introduce herself, give Johnston a copy of the magazine and ask if we could do an interview. Of all the issues to give this nice middle-aged Canadian newspaper cartoonist, Helena gave her the recently released “sex issue” of the Journal, which was totally filthy, full of hardcore porn images. Miraculously, Johnston weathered the blow and did eventually agree to the interview, but it led to one of those “Why did you do that?” colloquies in Gary’s office.

Helena Harvilica and Tony Millionaire, circa late 1990s in New York City.

Helena Harvilica and Tony Millionaire, circa late 1990s in New York City.

Harvilicz: Gary and I had a pretty weird relationship. I was always frustrated. People thought that I was attracted to him sexually. They did, because he has this weird magnetism for some women, but that really wasn’t the case. I was very frustrated in the relationship because I did want some kind of, something more from him — I had these really intimate, like, platonic relationships with men, and I knew he wasn’t willing to go there with me. And that was always frustrating for me. Later on, when I lived with Pat [Moriarity], I sort of had that with him, I had a close relationship with him. And then when I moved to New York, I lived with Tony Millionaire, and that was it! It was the perfect relationship I had been looking for with a man. We lived together, there was no sex whatsoever, but it was this intense relationship where we were really close. He’s a wonderful guy.
I really wanted Gary to be kind of like a mentor to me, which was just never ever going to happen. I was a little disappointed. I think Kim was a little more nurturing than Gary — I really liked Kim.

Thompson: Helena and I got along great, but then, I didn’t have to deal with her professionally. I don’t know if I’d have handled the Helena problems better than Gary. I had a mild crush on her, actually, which I confessed to her years later in San Diego when we were both drunk off our asses, and she said she’d had one on me too, but in her case it may have been the liquor talking, or she was just being nice. I don’t know. Of all the oddballs who trooped through the Fantagraphics offices, she’s one of my favorites.

Groth: I really liked Helena, but she was such a goofball that I may not have taken her as seriously as I should have. She would do a very competent job and then make a decision or say something so absurd or foolish or ignorant that I would go crazy and that would stick in my mind more than all the rest of her professional engagement.

Harvilicz: You know, I was feeling like I could take so much shit from Gary, and I really just did not let it bother me at all — a lot of it was shit I deserved. I remember one time he called me in his office after I’d done this interview, and he said, “Sit down — I want you to hear something.” So then he starts playing the tape back of me interviewing this guy — and this goes on for like five minutes. And he goes — “Now, did you notice that every time this guy started to say something interesting, you had to open your mouth?”

Young: Helena quit on Labor Day of 1991. We had just finished issue #144 and something happened over the weekend and she just exploded for the last time. She left a resignation letter that just said, “I have quit. Sincerely, Helena Harvilicz.”

Harvilicz: I remember going into that office and leaving a note — “I’m quitting, I’m going out to get drunk, this is my two-week notice.” And just put it on Gary’s desk. Because of the nature of who he is, or our relationship or whatever, he didn’t really even bother to follow up on it. He was like, “Fine, you quit.” OK. I think maybe if he would have apologized, I probably would have stayed.

You know, he’s one of those people who has to win, no matter what it is. He doesn’t really want to talk about it. He’s right, and whatever. On the one hand, though, it was like that’s great — I never had a boss before that I could go up to and say “fuck you” — you know? At least he takes it. He won’t admit he’s wrong, but he’ll at least listen to you give him shit.

In some ways I kind of regretted [quitting Fantagraphics], because I felt like at that time, I loved comics so much, and I just loved the company and everything.

The controversial "Sex Issue" of The Comics Journal (#143, 1991), with a cover by R. Crumb

The controversial “Sex Issue” of The Comics Journal (#143, 1991), with a cover by R. Crumb

Groth: I remember that Helena and I had an argument over some decision she made or was about to make, and I was frustrated because the decision seemed to me mistaken because it reflected an ignorance of comics history. At one point, she told me she didn’t know shit about comics, and I told her in that case she shouldn’t be editing a magazine about comics and she quit on the spot.

Harvilicz: I got drunk one night after I quit or was fired, I don’t remember what happened. And I called him up and said, “Uh, Gary — I want to come back and edit the Journal.” And he was like, really? I think he was like considering it. And I was like, yeah. And then the next day I sobered up and thought, “I don’t know why I did that, I’m never going back there!”

Young: I was helping someone move that day and afterwards I came into the office and there was a typed note from Kim Thompson on my desk that said, “Congratulations, you’re now the managing editor of The Comics Journal.” Without even asking me. It was quite the promotion.

I definitely had an agenda of making the magazine less threatening to the comics world. I was really excited to come out here and meet all these cartoonists, and as soon as anyone found out I was associated with The Comics Journal they would clam up. It was a little crushing, because, at the time, I had been making comics and was entertaining the thought of taking it seriously, and here I found myself at the epicenter of it and the only person that was really accepting was Pat Moriarity. Of all the people in the Fantagraphics world at the time, he was the most unguardedly friendly. He was interested in seeing the work I’d done and was very encouraging.

But the work schedule I had at the Journal left me with no energy to do anything else anyway. It was an extremely labor intensive magazine because everything was done by hand — all the graphics, color separations and typesetting. They processed photographic material with these foul-smelling chemicals, which gave me some chronic health problems for several years after. I was hoarse for two years afterwards and never have gotten my speaking volume back completely. There were people there like Dale Yarger, putting in these 20-hour days, who used to sleep at the office. That was the one thing that I wouldn’t do, even if I was working till 4 in the morning, I would go home to the insane Greenhouse in Ballard, where I lived with Tom [Harrington], Pat and Helena — the Fantastic Four. Helena began to see me as an old grouch, because I would complain about her ranting and raving at all hours — whooping it up and banging pots and pans and screaming like a gibbon.

Despite all the crazy stuff, I was actually very excited about working on The Comics Journal, but it had gotten a bad reputation as just a soapbox for Gary’s whims, to the point where if I had to do a news story and had to call someone, I’d get hung up on. I wanted to improve that somehow and I know that Gary didn’t like that — he made some passive-aggressive comments.

I have to say, I do like Kim, and of the two of them, I would say he’s the more levelheaded, business-like. He has some real problems with being passive-aggressive, and if Gary would get him going, he would just go along with things. I think Gary’s self-image was like Hawkeye from M.A.S.H. This zany guy that was sticking it to the establishment. The witty, charismatic guy that was putting the screws to the man, and Kim would get caught in the undertow of that sometimes. But on his own, Kim could also be, if overly harsh and critical, also very helpful.

I wasn’t very happy and I wasn’t getting paid very well, but I did like what I was doing on the magazine. It was getting at the idea I had, which was a magazine that was still part of Gary’s psyche, but was not something that people would hang up the phone on.

The straw that broke this camel’s back was the aftermath of the infamous Todd McFarlane issue, the mainstream issue. Dale and I had just busted our butts to get this issue out for San Diego. It was a tall order, but we dug in and delivered the goods on time. After the issue came out, and everyone else was having fun in San Diego, I took four days off — I was putting in 70, 80 hours a week, and just not getting anything back in return.

Gary and Kim called me into Gary’s office and proceeded to play this game of good cop/bad cop with me. Despite the fact that I had done what I thought was superior work for them for lousy pay, it was just the ultimate “fuck you” from both of them. I was just sitting there feeling so shocked and mortified I couldn’t say anything. Basically, they were telling me that I was doing a rotten job, and the Journal really sucked, all of which I knew wasn’t true. And the bottom line was that they wanted to finish up this special Harvey Kurtzman issue I was working on — a pet project of mine I’d been assembling for a year — they wanted to just slap it together as quickly as possible. Most of it was completed, or in the editing stages, but I wanted to finesse it. I just remember feeling so crushed, because they were basically telling me, well you poor pathetic schmuck, you’re just completely worthless and untalented, but no one else is dumb enough to take this job so we’re going to let you keep it. But you’ve got to work even harder and put less care and quality control into your work. And I did something I’ve never done before and never done since — I didn’t even clean out my desk. I just walked out of the place and never came back.

Thompson: The Frank Young thing was weird. The Comics Journal was always battling scheduling problems, but Frank had gotten fixated on the Kurtzman issue and it looked like it was going to take forever, just fuck up the schedule beyond its normal state of fucked-upness, mess up cash flow, advertisers, subscribers … It was like Michael Cimino edits a Comics Journal. We had some sympathy for him wanting to really bust his ass on it, but we weren’t in a position to let it slide for as long as it looked like it was, and we had a meeting where we told him he had to get it out. So far as I remember it was perfectly amicable, which just goes to show you: His perception was that we raked him over the coals for two hours. He sat there and looked at the floor and said “OK,” and the next morning there was a five-page single-spaced letter from Frank, which amounted to, “How dare you ruin my magazine, fuck you, I quit,” and that was the last we saw of him. He’d clearly been saving up his grievances.

Frank ended up working, at least for a while, as an usher at one of Seattle’s main movie theaters, so that was a little awkward, but we’re OK now.

A quintessential Journal issue from the early '90s, which featured the last of several Harvey Kurtzman interviews he gave the magazine over the years before passing away in 1993.

A quintessential Journal issue from the early ’90s, which featured the last of several Harvey Kurtzman interviews he gave the magazine over the years before passing away in 1993.

Groth: Frank was very proud of the issue that preceded the Kurtzman issue, and somehow thought that he earned the right to spend twice as much time on the Kurtzman issue because Kurtzman deserved more time and attention. That’s true, in theory, but you can’t run a magazine that way, so I explained to Frank that, no, he had the usual five to six weeks to put the Kurtzman issue together. The Journal was supposed to be monthly, but it was never monthly, and came out nine or ten times a year. You know, the editor of The New Yorker doesn’t get to put out the next issue two or three weeks later just because the issue he just put to bed was really good. Frank nodded and seemed to accept the logic of it, left and never came back.

Young: I was really upset and I wrote a scathing letter to Kim and Gary. If I had to do it all over again, I would have said these things in person. It was just a year’s worth of bottled-up frustration and rage. I found out later that some of the stuff I said about Kim and the way he treated people had some positive impact — I found out that he was being a lot nicer to people. I regret the harshness of the tone of that letter, but it was the best I could do at the time.

Groth: It’s always the delicate flowers who insist on their sensitivity in the face of the relentless negativity of the Journal office who write the bitter, five-page letters of resignation dripping with venom and bile. Frank Young’s ex post facto letter of resignation was a masterpiece of the genre.

Harvilicz: Then this Carole Sobocinski was hired, and that was like some nightmare that happened with her.

Yarger: Even when we were putting the Journal out weeks and months late, generally editors were a pretty devoted bunch, so I was used to a high level of commitment. They weren’t all as organized as they might have been, but they were committed. And Carole didn’t seem to have that same approach to the Journal, so it made my job a lot harder.

Boyd: I left right before Carole Sobocinski melted down. At first, we really got along, but after a while, I felt kind of used by her. We were barely speaking when I left. I wrote her a memo saying I wanted to keep writing Minimalism. She wrote back a terse note saying, “No, I’m taking it over. Give me all the minis you have to review.” I guess I could have gone to Gary or Kim and asked them, but I thought, “Fuck it.”

I had a huge box of unread minis that I put on her desk. She came down and said, “What do you expect me to do with all these?”
I said, “These are all the minicomics that people sent me. I think some are good enough to be reviewed, but it’s up to you now.” She told me to pull out the ones I thought were good. I laughed and said, “You have got to be kidding. I quit. I don’t work here anymore. You wanted this job, you’ve got it.” Then she gave Minimalism back to me — with a note saying I could continue writing it.

Later, when the whole Sobocinski thing exploded, Kim called me up and said, congratulations. You were the first person here that Carole hated.

Thompson: I’d grown to loathe Carole for several months before the blowup — I thought she was deceitful, lazy and self-serving — and had been urging Gary to fire her, but he stuck with her for some reason. He and I were having some of our periodic issues at the time and I have this suspicion she was playing those. She was very shrewd. What a horrible woman.

Eric Reynolds: I literally started at TCJ the day that Carole Sobocinski cleared out her desk, if memory serves. I may have even taken over her desk. Although we never worked together, her presence loomed that entire summer, as all of her subterfuge slowly came out and into focus.

K. Thor Jensen, cartoonist: I applied for the managing editor position at The Comics Journal in, I think, 1994. Might have been 1995. Of course, since my résumé was a paper route, opening mail on the night shift at the phone company and digging ditches for Labor Ready, I didn’t even get a call back. Prodded by my housemates, I called Fantagraphics and asked to talk to Gary.

When he wasn’t there, the receptionist — I forget who it was — asked if I wanted to leave a message, which I did. As best as I can remember it, it was, “This is K. Thor Jensen and you’re going to regret not hiring me as managing editor of the Journal because I can out-fight, out-fuck, out-type and out-proofread any of the fat-ass Colin Upton wannabes on your staff.”

A few months after that, when I had a strip published in the Journal, I used that as my biographical note.

Young: I don’t know everyone who’s edited the magazine since but I know a lot of people have gone through the same cycle of being the wonder boy or girl at first, and then at the end of their run they’re just the lowest form of scum on the earth and everything bad for the next six months is blamed on them.

Reynolds: The names of TCJ editors who left their position on good terms is a pretty small list.

Groth: I have to admit that I probably didn’t have much patience then — or now, for that matter — for Journal editors retroactively whining over how much work it was to edit the magazine. Was it a lot of hard work? Damned right it was. Is there anything worth doing that isn’t hard work? I don’t remember anyone I interviewed for a managing editor position telling me that the reason he (or she) was applying was because he wanted to put in a minimal effort and have an easy, cushy job. I would be very up-front about it: I told anyone who applied that it was a lot of work, a lot of hours and required a lot of dedication to the mission of the magazine. To me, devoting full time to editing the magazine would be a dream job. You’re given enormous (but not complete) autonomy, you have an opportunity to shape every issue, it’s intellectually stimulating, journalistically courageous and enormously rewarding. Financially, it was admittedly lousy, but it’s not like the magazine was ever a moneymaker and it was an opportunity you’re not going to find much in the real world to exercise your critical and intellectual faculties with few compromises or corporate considerations. Anyone who found this too much of a hardship wasn’t cut out for the job.

(continued on next page)

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“A Fair Bit of Alchemy”: A Q&A with Luke Howard http://www.tcj.com/a-fair-bit-of-alchemy-a-qa-with-luke-howard/ http://www.tcj.com/a-fair-bit-of-alchemy-a-qa-with-luke-howard/#respond Wed, 14 Dec 2016 13:00:30 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96384 Talk Dirty to Me and Our Mother talks about teaching at CCS, anxiety disorders, and his creative process. Continue reading ]]> lukephotowb

Luke Howard is a 33-year-old cartoonist and faculty instructor at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT, where he received his MFA. I first became aware of his comics in 2014, when I read his Ignatz-nominated mini, Trevor, in which he displayed his skill with playful, reality-bending narratives. This spring, AdHouse Books published Luke’s first graphic novel, Talk Dirty to Me, a quirkily funny, melancholy character study about a young woman at a crossroads (my TCJ review is here). This fall his newest comic, Our Mother, was published by Retrofit, and it’s his best work yet: a formally inventive, unique blend of bracingly honest autobiography and fanciful science fiction, imparted with equal doses of humor and sorrow. Spoiler: Our Mother has already made my Best of 2016 list. I interviewed Luke via email in late October and I’m very much looking forward to what he comes up with next.

Kirby: Can you tell me what roads eventually brought you to the Center for Cartoon Studies? (Basically, I’m looking for your cartoonist origin story.) 

Howard: Just like every human being on the planet, I was a cartoonist until I was about 10 years old. I truly believe that cartooning is an inevitable stage of childhood. But somewhere along the way we get too self-conscious and for most of us the cartooning stops. Lynda Barry wrote a whole book about that, right? Well, I was one of the unlucky kids who stopped. I wanted to be either Bill Watterson or Gary Larson when I grew up, and when I was around ten I asked my parents for a real cartooning desk with real cartooning tools. I figured as soon as I got the tools the professionals used I would become a professional and draw like one. So Christmas of 1993, my parents pull out all the stops and get me the real deal: a serious cartooning setup. The desk even angled the way I knew cartoonists desks were supposed to. I was all set to embark on my new career as a professional comics-making machine. But when I sat down for the first time to use it, I was devastated by the fact that my drawings didn’t look as good as Calvin & Hobbes. Somewhere in my stupid, ten year-old mind, I thought having the right tools would mean my artwork would instantly be on par with that level of cartooning. I couldn’t figure out why my drawings still looked awful; my brain neglected to see that I would have to actually practice to get better. So I came to the conclusion that I must not be destined to be a cartoonist and never touched the desk again.

In school I avoided any opportunity to make art and felt completely ashamed about my perceived lack of innate talent. Instead, I focused my creative impulses on film. Filmmaking became my passion and it was what I pursued all the way through college and into the working world. I made short films, I did commercial work, I edited, and I ran cameras. I was making a comfortable living in the film industry when the 2010 flash crash went down, which resulted in the demise of the company I was working for. Suddenly I was unemployed and having a hell of a time finding work. Somewhere in that depression of job-hunting and being creatively impotent my wife Abigail suggested that we try doing a comic-a-day project; she grew up loving manga and wanted to try her hand at it. I agreed to go along, making shitty gag comics each day. At first it was unbelievably painful, I was instantly 10 again and hating what was coming out of my pen. But I pushed through and after a month found myself actually enjoying some of the things I was making, even being proud of them. Here I was, 27 years-old, and I couldn’t get enough of drawing comics; I was neglecting to hunt for a new job because I was so fixated on making my daily comic. I realized this was an impulse I should be listening to. Then I heard about the Center for Cartoon Studies. Three months later we were moving our entire lives up to Vermont so I could attend the school. Man, it still sounds insane when I lay it all out like that. What a ridiculously irresponsible life choice. But it couldn’t be helped.

I have to say that reminds me quite a bit of your protagonist Emma’s struggles to figure out her life path in your book, Talk Dirty to Me. Was that meant to be autobiographical? 

That’s interesting. I never really thought about it in those terms before. I guess in the end it’s impossible for our comics not to be autobiographical to some degree – we’re always drawing from our own emotional experiences in one way or another. If there’s something autobiographical about Emma’s journey in that book it’s probably the fact that she’s so held back by a lack of confidence. Even as a young kid she has a lot of shame and self-doubt that keeps her from being the kind of person she imagines she could be. That resonates with me, even today. And whether that’s me feeling shamed by my shortcomings as a young artist, or Emma feeling shamed by her inability to blossom into somebody who is more secure, it certainly boils down to this idea that often we have a difficult time seeing value in ourselves. So when these liminal situations present themselves, that struggle is definitely what’s at the heart of things. Can you dig deep and find enough value in yourself to push forward? Is your confidence going to be what carries you over that hurdle, or is it ultimately going to be the thing that keeps you down?

Unlike Emma, whose future is still unclear by the end of Talk Dirty to Me, you seem to have found your niche. How is teaching at CCS for you? How does it aid or influence your own comics? Or does it hamper your process? 

It hampers my process in the way any full-time job hampers comics-making. There just aren’t enough hours in the day and a big chunk of energy and time is being eaten up by something that isn’t comics. So what’s the solution? Either make less comics, or work two full-time jobs – your day job and your comics job. For the time being I’ve gone down that second route. It’s rough, maybe not even sustainable in the long run. But there are things about my job at CCS that really keep the fire lit. My two years as a CCS student were the hardest and most productive work years of my life. As a faculty member, being around a tribe of young cartoonists that are going through the same things—pushing themselves to be stronger cartoonists with every assignment, and the constant flow of self-improvement—can be an incredible boon to my own productivity. And I think especially since I’m still relatively wet behind the ears when it comes to comics, being at the epicenter of an education system keeps me hungry for furthering my own education. Heading into my third year as a faculty member, I feel like I’ve almost been through four years as a student, if that makes sense. It’s funny, though, you mentioning that it seems like I’ve found my niche. That doesn’t feel all that true from my perspective. Not to say I haven’t been lucky to have the opportunity to make books with both AdHouse and Retrofit—maybe that is a niche of sorts. From my side of things it all still feels very precarious, like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like maybe the next time I sit down to make a comic it’ll be like I’m 10 years old again, and what comes out on the page will feel unacceptable—the spell will be broken. I still feel a lot like Emma does at the end of that story, the future is unclear.

Man, how depressing was that answer? Maybe you can tell confidence isn’t my strong suit. But I’m really trying to work on that. As a teacher I get down on my students about being self-deprecating. I give them guff when they’re not being better champions for themselves. Sounds like someone’s not practicing what he preaches. Get it together, Howard.

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A scene from Talk Dirty To Me (AdHouse Books)

Well, maybe now you can direct your students to this interview! Since you mentioned it, let’s talk about your new comic with Retrofit, Our Mother. I was very impressed with your humorous approach to the material. It really heightened the heartrending reality of your mother’s situation. Can you tell me about your process for writing & drawing it? 

I knew I wanted to do a humorous comic about what it felt like growing up with a mother that had an anxiety disorder. It had a big impact on me as a kid and having inherited the disorder from her later in life, I’d hoped that maybe unpacking that a little might be therapeutic. But I also wasn’t sure I would be able to tackle it in autobiographical form – I’ve always found autobio to be especially challenging—I enjoy the emotional barrier fiction allows. I also knew I wanted to tackle this story through disjointed narrative. I’m really interested in the power of nonlinear storytelling. Authors like Italo Calvino, Virginia Woolf, and Kurt Vonnegut have always drawn me in with that kind of writing. Something about the abrupt jumping from one thing to the next feels challenging and rewarding. I think it also does a good job of mimicking what life and memory feel like. I mean, whose life actually feels like a three act structure?

I’ve never been really good at sitting down and writing out a whole comic ahead of time. My comics feel more successful (or maybe just more honest?) when I’m doing a lot of the writing as I’m drawing. I tried to come up with some humorous vignettes that weren’t literally a depiction of anxiety, but instead just really felt like that anxiety. What does it feel like to have an anxiety disorder? Maybe it feels a little like being trapped in a giant robot with a guy named Kevin that just won’t shut up and refuses to die. What does it feel like to be going through the stressful process of finding the right medication? Maybe a little like experimenting on a caged animal. What does it feel like to inherit a familial disorder like this? Maybe a little like your family has put a hit out on you. This was how I boiled down the ideas. And after I had the vignettes that I felt best served as a skeleton for the story, I was able to start roughing out my pages and playing around with things as I went along. There’s a fair bit of alchemy in the process for me—like the story starts telling itself as I dig into it. There are a lot of half-penciled pages that get tossed when a certain direction leads to a dead end, and a fair bit of improvisation and unexpected pivots as well.

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I like to pencil on crappy typing paper so that things don’t get too precious. For this project I was working relatively large – I think each page was about 19″ x 28″ or something close to that. I try to pencil through the whole story before I move on to inking. I don’t thumbnail, so the pencil stage is the most difficult link in the chain (and the longest). Sometimes I’ll find that a page I’ve penciled later in the story will require me to go back and re-pencil some previous page. I’m always carving out room in the process for that – it’s almost like a rewriting stage that happens along with drawing. I try to have the entire story locked down in pencil before I move on. I pencil really tight so my pencils usually look fairly close to how the final inks will look. To ink I’ll tape a piece of Bristol paper over my typing paper and use a lightbox to let the pencils shine through. With this particular project I wanted to try inking with radiographs (I’m usually using some kind of nib) and I was happy with the quality of the line.

Finally, I do all my color work in Photoshop. But really, more important than anything else in the process is making sure the story is feeling true and honest. I’d find myself stopping along the way and asking myself “does this feel true? Does this feel honest?” And whenever I could answer “yes” to that question, I knew I was taking the story in a good direction. Anytime I felt unsure or knew the answer was “no” was when I would start throwing away pages. All-in-all this ended up being a really rough story to tell. I mean, it seemed to come out of me relatively easy, but the emotional fallout of having to immerse myself in what these feelings actually feel like made for a very stressful spring. But in the end I found the process to be rewarding because of that. It actually forced me to deal with some deeper things I was doing a good job of avoiding.

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Do you think that it’s harder/more time-consuming to work in this more instinctual way? Does your work with your students include honing their individual work processes? 

Like anything, I think different approaches work for different people. But, yeah, I do think there is something about the approach that you and I are talking about that transfers some of the heavy lifting to further along in the process. I may be getting into the drawing more quickly, but I think it also means I’m more subject to having to edit or even redo pages. Theoretically, fine-tuning a script and really nailing the thumbnails should protect you from as much editing later. But it just doesn’t feel like the right approach for me. I seem to need that spontaneity and surprise to last a little longer. I have trouble slogging through the drawing if I feel like I’m just copying all the decisions I’ve made in an earlier stage – I’d start to feel like a studio assistant to myself. And then I’d get mad at how little I’m paying myself—suddenly I’m going on strike, it’d be a mess.

As far as working with my students to hone their individual work processes? I’d like to work more with them on this sort of thing. Currently I co-teach a course called “Publication Workshop” with Cartoonist Jon Chad, which focuses on the more technical aspects of comics, things like Photoshop, InDesign, bookbinding, cover design, etc. So our class is really about learning all the tools that assist our stories, rather than the writing or drawing of those stories themselves. That said, I like to think the way we structure our class—with some of the philosophies of design and composition—ends up having an effect on how they approach their pages. Since design and narrative are intrinsically linked in comics you end up thinking about all of those things in tandem.

Speaking of design and narrative, I wanted to ask about the section of Our Mother in which you incorporate old family photos instead of drawings. Did going all fumetti come as a sudden inspiration as you were working, or had you planned it ahead of time? It’s one of my favorite sequences in the book. 

 

That is one of the sequences I am most proud of. Originally I had planned to have some sort of scene where a mother character and a child character have a more matter-of-fact conversation about everything that’s going on. Much of the book is more obscure or metaphorical, and I liked the idea of hitting this section and suddenly laying it all out there more directly—I liked how jarring and uncomfortable that could feel. But there was no intention originally to place myself or my own mother into the scene. After all, this was meant to be self-exploration behind the veneer of fiction, right? But just like how it happens in the story, I really did hit a wall when I was trying to conjure up how to end this story. I really did have this conversation with my mother, and I recorded it hoping that maybe some idea might shake out as we were talking. After that conversation I was struck with the strong feeling that I needed to break the fourth wall somehow. It felt like the right choice in that moment.

Throughout the making of this comic I had been spilling over old photographs from my childhood, texting family members, just trying to put myself back there. Now that I was faced with this strange decision to suddenly break out into non-fiction for two pages, it made complete sense to me that the photography would serve as the best indicator that not only is this something different from the rest of the book, but that it is closer to reality than the rest of the book. I also think there is something about old photographs that can be incredibly disarming. Maybe it’s that nostalgia is like the cousin of melancholy. I can’t help but feel a little emotionally exposed when I’m looking at old photos or old home movies. I feel lucky that I was able to stumble onto what this sequence ended up becoming. I mean, without getting too philosophical, it does seem like these things are sometimes given to you from the universe as much as you yourself are conjuring them up (he said, oh so ostentatiously…).

You said earlier that working on the book forced you to deal with things you’d been avoiding. Do you mean it was therapeutic?

Maybe not initially. Initially it was a bit devastating to work on. I don’t even think I realized how much stuff it was going to bring to the surface. After I handed in the final book, I hit a kind of emotional low point. Part of that may have just been the post-project blues, but a lot of it was spending so much time thinking about and digging up the past. My brain wasn’t going to let me turn that off when I was done with the comic – I couldn’t just put the genie back in the bottle. It was clear that I needed to start dealing more with some of the things that I was uncovering. So that’s when I started trying to see a therapist more regularly for a while – as much as I could afford, anyway. Maybe the book itself wasn’t therapeutic while I was making it. But it certainly was the catalyst for something therapeutic. I think making that comic lead to some really important personal growth. It’s funny to admit that a story with giant robots, a talking ape, and a farting hot dog had such a significant role in improving my mental health. But then again, maybe it’s fitting that way.

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So what’s your followup, got anything on the horizon yet?

I have a few small things that I’m working on for the spring – shorter comics in the 24- to 48-page range. There is a longer project that I’ve been tossing around for a bit that I hope to start drawing this winter. It’s got a loosely sci-fi bent and it tackles a lot of the issues that I started getting at with Our Mother. I’m not done exploring mental health in my comics yet.

I also hope in the years to come to tackle a memoir about my childhood, growing up with a father who was in the Air Force and then ejected from the military when he came to terms with being gay. The impact of that situation on my parent’s marriage, the difficulties my father faced as he was forced to abandon his dream of becoming an astronaut because he couldn’t hide who he was anymore, and the trauma that was leveled on my mother as this all started to come out—our inability to accept homosexuality for so long in this society has ruined and/or messed with so many lives. At the same time, if my father hadn’t had to repress his homosexuality for so long, my parents wouldn’t have ever married, and this chubby ginger would never have been born. Anyway, as you can see, there’s a lot to unpack about my familial history. I’m just waiting for the right time.

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“Everything Was in Season”: Fantagraphics from 1978–1984 http://www.tcj.com/everything-was-in-season-fantagraphics-from-1978-1984/ http://www.tcj.com/everything-was-in-season-fantagraphics-from-1978-1984/#comments Thu, 08 Dec 2016 13:00:35 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=97414 We Told You So: Comics as Art, the long-awaited and exhaustive oral history of Fantagraphics Books. This chapter's topics include the wisdom of Gil Kane and Art Spiegelman and the growth of the Fantagraphics publishing family: Amazing Heroes, Nemo and … comic books 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. This particular section covers the late ’70s to mid-’80s, when the company was headquartered in a three-story house in Connecticut, and began publishing comics as well as criticism. Watch out for appearances by Gary Groth, Kim Thompson, the Hernandez brothers, Peter Bagge, Jack Jackson, Gil Kane, Art Spiegelman, Heidi MacDonald, R. Fiore, Bud Plant, R.C. Harvey, and Carter Scholz.

Long shot of the second Stamford office house, which was thankfully set back from the road (i.e., hidden from view)

Long shot of the second Stamford office house, which was thankfully set back from the road (i.e., hidden from view)

NEW DIGS

Gary Groth: I don’t remember our move to Connecticut feeling that momentous. Everything seemed impermanent to me back then. The company could have gone out of business two months after we moved to Connecticut; I would’ve just moved on.

Kim Thompson: You have to bear in mind that never in my life up until that point had I lived more than three years in the same house, let alone city, let alone country. So moving to Connecticut was a smaller leap than anything that had come before.

Rick Marschall, comics historian and Nemo editor:
I flattered myself at the time to think that I played a role, or planted a seed, regarding the move to Connecticut. I met Gary, Mike and Kim after I started at Marvel, and I had just moved to Westport for the second time. I remember urging a Connecticut World HQ for Fantagraphics on Gary as a matter of inevitability and pride. Comic-books artists in the stretch between Greenwich and Ridgefield included Gil Kane, Curt Swan, John Byrne. When I later moved from my apartment in Westport to a house in Weston, Bill Sienkiewicz took the apartment; Terry Austin then rented upstairs. Anyway, I have a recollection of urging Fantagraphics’ move to Connecticut for all these reasons — and of course proximity to New York City — and my memory is that Gary said “Connecticut?” in the same way Ralphie asks Santa in A Christmas Story, “Football? What’s a football?”

Groth: I knew nothing about Connecticut, had never set foot in the state before. But, New York was too expensive (although I don’t know if Brooklyn was more expensive than Connecticut at the time) and Connecticut sounded like the kind of place we could rent a house rather than an apartment.

Thompson: The move to Connecticut was a pretty big deal in one way: At that point we both quit our day jobs. I was a general office worker. Gary was doing freelance typesetting. He didn’t so much quit a job as stopped doing it. At that point we realized we had to do this as a full-time job or not do it.

Groth: When we got to Connecticut, we rented a house. It was only the two of us at the beginning. We worked in a basement in the house for about a year, but the basement flooded at least once, causing havoc with comics, files, everything on the floor (which was everything). So, we moved to this huge three-story house, in an exclusive section of Stamford. Everybody thought I was nuts, since I was the one who engineered this move, but I thought we needed more space and I thought it was something of a deal. It had five bedrooms, two living rooms, three sundecks, a ground-level “basement” that wouldn’t flood, a two-car garage. It was in this area surrounded by other huge houses, owned by TV-network executives and doctors and lawyers. We clearly didn’t belong there.

Groth and Thompson in the second floor where the office had grown, circa 1983

Groth and Thompson in the second floor where the office had grown, circa 1983

Dwight Decker, editor: Some people called it the Ski Lodge because it somewhat resembled one, built into a hillside so the second-floor back door was at ground level while the first floor/basement had a front door. It was well back from the street and pretty well surrounded by woods. There were other houses in the area, and I wonder if there was a potential conflict with zoning laws since Gary was running a business out of his house and there were UPS and other delivery trucks making frequent stops.

Kenneth Smith, cartoonist and writer:
Every closet and shelf-system was crammed with reference copies and Fantagraphics publications. The living room was rather shadowy and very amiably laid out, nearly a conversation pit. It must have been a fun place to work, even with hell-on-wheels deadlines over everybody’s heads. In retrospect, I guess I wonder why there weren’t more tables and working surfaces. I know I always have a shortage of unencumbered surfaces, not to mention shelving.

Thompson: It was the same thing, different place. We just lived in a nicer house.

Steven Ringgenberg, editor: It was in a beautiful neighborhood and I liked to go running when I lived there.

Groth: We shared a really long driveway with one other house. Five of us lived in the house. The office was on the ground floor in a large wide-open space, which included a bedroom and a sauna. Yes, a working sauna! The living rooms and the kitchen and two bedrooms were on the second floor and on the third floor were two more bedrooms. Our neighbors put up with us for six years. I don’t know if they knew quite what we did. I think they probably thought it was some drug-dealing operation, and the fewer questions asked the better.

Decker: Because housing was so expensive in Stamford, Gary sublet bedrooms to a couple of people who had nothing to do with Fantagraphics and worked elsewhere (I can’t remember if it was more than one). I can only guess what they thought of the mad goings-on.

Tom Heintjes, Comics Journal news writer:
As the new guy, I got the crummiest accommodation. It was a storage room where they kept boxes of back issues. I stacked the boxes up and laid a mattress on top of the boxes. I had enough room to sidle out and then sidle back in at the end of the day. All I ever did was work and sleep.

Mike Catron: It was a very nice house. It had paper walls, kind of a Japanese design. The upstairs main bedroom where Gary was had a huge sliding door with paper panes. Down in the basement, they had a sauna. It was a redwood booth, with a pile of coals, you’d turn on the electricity and you could get a sauna bath. That lasted until we needed more space and it became a storage area for something or other. Kim was fond of going down there in his little towel and taking a sauna.

Decker: Most of the work was done in the finished basement, which had a drawing table for paste-ups, a typesetting machine and a couple of desks. Somewhere in the rear was a small room where the back-issue stock was stored. Kim had a back bedroom, I seem to recall, but exactly where it was and if I was ever even in there, I’m not sure now. Gary had the master bedroom on what amounted to the third floor, facing a balcony that looked out over the living room. Hours were very irregular, with all-nighters being frequent. Gary in particular had shifted his schedule to the point that he almost never emerged before noon, and he had to struggle if he had a morning appointment in New York City.

Groth: Ernie Bushmiller lived in the house next to the beginning of our driveway. We could see his house from the balcony. I didn’t give a shit about Ernie Bushmiller at the time so I never even knocked on his door. But I remember passing his mailbox every day with his name on it.


THE FIRST EMPLOYEE: PRESTON “PEPPY” WHITE

Thompson: The first person we hired when we got to the new house was Peppy White. We hired him on to do production work. We were tired of doing it all ourselves.

Groth: Peppy moved to Connecticut from Virginia. He was a pal of mine from Virginia. We were expanding and needed another hand.

Preston “Peppy” White:
I moved to Stamford, Connecticut, when I was about 20. Having been friends with Gary since I was 14, and having similar interests in publishing and comics, I guess I was a logical choice to be the first employee.

Thompson: Hiring Peppy also marked the beginning of the period where the Fantagraphics staff was a bunch of our buddies working in the Fantagraphics commune. Tom Mason, a friend of a friend, was hired soon thereafter to supplement the production staff.

Peppy was a great kid. He looked up to Gary. At that time he was three or four years younger than Gary. The distance between 22 and 18, that’s a lot more than between 50 and 46. We got along great.

Heintjes: Peppy was a real character. He was a very high-strung, very energetic, very funny, very cutting and very witty guy. He was older than me. When I came there in my early 20s, he was in his mid-20s. He seemed experienced and worldly.

I always admired Peppy, because he was an art director on a lot of key, early projects.

Thompson: Peppy worked his ass off and was a really sweet guy. He was also kind of a goofball and accident-prone. I still remember the eerie calm in his voice when, in the middle of trimming sheets of cardboard with an X-Acto knife, he said, “Guys … I need someone to take me to the hospital. I just cut off the tip of my finger.”

Groth: He cut the tip of his finger off once with an X-Acto blade. I was about to take him to the hospital and thought I should grab the damned thing to take with us. I looked around for it on the floor and couldn’t find it! Then I noticed my dog, Plato, slinking off. Ooops.

Heidi MacDonald, writer: They once tried to set me up on a blind date with Peppy White. There’s a deep, dark secret for you.

Thompson: He would get into the most bizarre scrapes with girlfriends, other people, the law and household objects. These occurrences became known as “Pep stories,” and would get told and re-told, often by Peppy himself.


GIL KANE’S FRIENDSHIP


Groth:
I spoke to him on the phone once or twice to set it up, but I really met Gil Kane for the first time when I interviewed him for the Journal at a Boston convention. Subsequently, I spoke to him on the phone often. We would have these marathon conversations. In the beginning, I don’t really think he knew who the fuck I was. I would call him, say, “Hello, Mr. Kane,” and he’d be off and running. I would occasionally interject a remark and set him off in another direction. He was so voluble that it was as if he hadn’t talked to anybody else between our phone calls and had to make up for it talking to me. At first I think he just enjoyed talking and I enjoyed listening, so it worked. When I moved to Connecticut, I called him up and we got together.

Thompson: Gary and Gil Kane knew each other before we came to Connecticut. There was a big Kane interview in Comics Journal #38. That interview cemented the beginning of their friendship. Certainly by that time, they were thick as thieves. Gil was a real father figure to him, and they had a warm personal relationship.

Elaine Kane, Gil Kane’s widow:
We lived in Wilton [Connecticut] and they lived in Stamford. They became really good friends. Gary would come to the house. We would go to their place in Stamford; they had big parties and everything. It was an interesting relationship. They were both very intelligent. The conversations were interesting. A lot of time was spent later on with Burne Hogarth as part of the group.

Gil enjoyed Gary and his — how can I put it? — not his odd behavior, but his against-the-grain behavior. Gary did pretty much what he wanted. Gary would come over and we would go to dinner and Gary would be wearing a shirt that said, “Fuck” on it. We would meet people and Gil with a straight face would introduce them and we could see the horror on their faces.

White: Once I went out to dinner with Gary, Gil and Burne Hogarth. Gil and Burne spent the whole night arguing with each other. Gary and I could only sit back and watch these two titans verbally wail away at each other about this point or that point as if the fate of the intellectual universe hung in the balance. Burne would be yelling and pounding the table and Gil would wave his hand in the air dismissively and say, “No, but you see, my boy … ”

We took a drive up to Gil’s house in Connecticut and surprised him on his birthday. He was really touched and had no idea we were going to do that. He had the biggest grin I’ve ever seen. We all had screwdrivers sitting in his studio.

Burne Hogarth and Gary Groth, circa 1984

Burne Hogarth and Gary Groth, circa 1984

Groth: I enjoyed how outspoken Gil was. Most artists of his generation had this unspoken but strictly adhered-to policy of never speaking candidly about their fellow professionals. Gil was willing to criticize publishers, people who wrote his paycheck, and that was enormously attractive to me. I told him once, when I was still in Maryland, that he reminded me of Gore Vidal, who was literally a year older than Gil, with, at that time, the same silver-colored hair, and the same aristocratic bearing. But, he replied that he felt more like Norman Mailer. Mailer was my height and bellicose. I didn’t get it at the time. He explained it to me and it made sense — Gil always felt like the odd man out in comics. Vidal was critical of entrenched power, but he was part of an elite social circle whereas Mailer was always viewed by his peers with skepticism if not outright hostility and occasionally a grudging admiration — just like Gil. So, I was only looking at surfaces when I made the analogy, and Gil was exactly right on a deeper level. Even though he achieved a certain literary respectability, Mailer acted like an outsider.

Gil Kane, circa 1971

Gil Kane, circa 1971

Elaine Kane: They respected each other. They would tweak each other about the business. There was a lot of trust there, too. They trusted each other. They were both great readers; they would read different things and discuss them. It was an interesting time. A very interesting time. They became very good friends based on mutual respect.

Groth: If you’re lucky, you’ll meet a handful of people throughout your life with whom you click. Gil and I clicked on a profound level. We shared so many of the same enthusiasms and admirations and passions. It’s such a pleasure to be with someone with whose values you’re so in synch. And so rare in the context! At that point, in 1979, 1980, we were roughly the only two people in the comics profession who shared these values. Or so it seemed. That would change and change quickly as The Comics Journal gained steam and more and more people who shared those values wrote for it, and more artists joined our cause. But early on, it felt like the two of us against the world.

Gil Kane, “An Interview with Gil Kane,” The Comics Journal #38 February 1977:

The thing in comics are the pictures, the images. Comics are totally a visual form at this point. Its entire appeal is in the emotional impact of those images, of those fantastic images — on the eye and the mind. And they make deep connections, deep emotional connections that keep people rooted to this material long past the time that they’ve gotten tired of the last repetitious comic book.

Groth: He really was a provocateur and attracted genuine animosity from his peers; he wasn’t just putting on an act, he was the real thing, he believed what he said. He was smart, and thoughtful and had theories about cartoonists, all of which made sense to me. He was the only guy in mainstream comics with his brains and ambition who wasn’t living up to them. We talked about it endlessly.


CLICKING WITH ART SPIEGELMAN AND FRANÇOISE MOULY


Art Spiegelman, cartoonist:
I can’t remember when I met Gary. This is the problem of being a memoirist with Alzheimer’s.

Gary Groth at a press conference in Marvel's office, circa 1981

Gary Groth at a press conference in Marvel’s office, circa 1981

Gary Groth at a press conference in Marvel’s office, circa 1981[/caption]Groth: When I went to New York, I’d go to Marvel press conferences and then go to other, more enjoyable social gatherings. I met Art at a party that might have been put on by Marvel or DC, which strikes me, in retrospect, as odd because it wasn’t Art’s context at all. The thing I remember mostly was talking to Art without being very familiar with his oeuvre. Art’s comics appeared in so many different comix that I didn’t quite have a handle on him. An artist-editor named Larry Hama, who was editing or writing some gung-ho military-related comic for Marvel at the time, walked up and started chatting. He and Art got into a big argument.

Spiegelman: I remember Larry Hama. I don’t remember arguing with him, but I guess I’m an argumentative type, so I guess it could have happened.

Groth: I could be wrong about the trajectory of the conversation, but Art must’ve known of this shitty comic Hama was editing, was clearly offended by it and told Hama exactly how he felt. And I remembered being impressed because Art was not pussyfooting around, he was telling him he was pushing a fascistic point of view, which is what I thought as well. It was a memorable confrontation, and you don’t see too many of those at comics parties. I remember being impressed and admiring Art, his willingness to confront someone like that.

Thompson: We knew about Spiegelman. Breakdowns had come out. We knew about Arcade, we knew about that material. We knew about the original Maus, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” and all of that.

Groth: Art wasn’t a prodigious cartoonist. I was familiar with the major underground cartoonists, but I wasn’t familiar with Spiegelman. I had read a few of his things but couldn’t place the name. Kim knew either of him, or Kim might have met him on one of his trips to New York.

Thompson: Spiegelman was a fairly early major interview. As I recall, it was issue #65, and in fact when we first started talking to Art, he was working on the first issue of Raw. The first part of the interview was done before the first issue of Raw came out. The second part was after they had done the first issue of Raw and they were working on the second issue.

Groth and Thompson in a photo taken to accompany their interview in David Anthony Kraft's Comics Interview magazine, circa 1981

Groth and Thompson in a photo taken to accompany their interview in David Anthony Kraft’s Comics Interview magazine, circa 1981

Spiegelman: I was aware of them; I don’t know what happened when exactly. We were monitoring what they were up to. It was all part of, at that time, a small market for weird material.

Thompson: As you might imagine, Gary and I and Art and Françoise clicked very much. Raw Books was a complete inspiration.

Spiegelman: We knew what we wanted to do very early on. It overlapped what was happening in comics. But it wasn’t of it. In some way it still isn’t. I feel somehow in the center of the mix and to the side of it. Even at a point where a lot of people we introduced in Raw are being published by Fantagraphics, I’m still bumbling to the side somehow.

Groth: I liked Art and Françoise, but I don’t think they were an inspiration to me, at least not in terms of publishing. Raw was sui generis and wasn’t really a model for anything I felt we were capable of doing. What I found inspirational about Art was his infectious enthusiasm for greater sophistication in comics. He was always discovering new (or old) cartooning talent. One of the major virtues of Raw was all the European artists it brought to my attention. Every time I would drop by Art’s place in Soho, he’d drag out various artists’ work that he had on hand for the next issue of Raw and proudly display and explicate it. His enthusiasm was absolutely infectious.

Spiegelman: It wasn’t just European comics. It was trying to find a place to stand as the underground comix tide lapped back out towards the horizons. There were a number of interesting cartoonists with no place to go. A good case in point was Charles Burns, who has certainly come into his own in the years since. But when we first met him, we were trying to shoo him away. When Charles showed up at our door after seeing the first or second or both Raws, we were trying to shoo him away since people were ringing our bell every so often because we lived and worked in the same place. We asked him, “Whoever you are, send stuff.” And then when he sent stuff, it was like “Please come back.”

He told us the stories of trying to get published in underground comix. That just seemed mind-blowing to me. It was proof that there was a need for this weird thing we were doing. That Denis Kitchen had no place for him, for example. Certain artists from the Arcade days still needed a home, because they couldn’t find one. Mark Beyer comes to mind as a good example of that. People I was teaching when I was teaching at SVA had no place to go, Drew Friedman and Mark Newgarden and Kaz being examples of that. There wasn’t any construct for any of these things in the 1980s. Anything that was even close became something we’d look over. Our aesthetic and Wendy Pini’s was very different, but Elfquest started at the same time, and we became very aware of that. Similarly with Gary, when he began publishing Lloyd Llewellyn and the Hernandez Brothers, it was interesting. If anything, it took me longer to recognize those artists because it was closer to my ideal of what a mainstream should be.

Groth: We weren’t publishing comics when we befriended Art; we were just publishing The Comics Journal. That was our connection: He was reinvigorating comics and publishing the kinds of comics we wanted to see and we were publishing a critical magazine that could write about them.

Thompson: We admired the literary graphic ambition. The enormous care they took with production. The integration of international work, which was certainly unique to them. They represented everything we wanted to see in comics.

Spiegelman:
We had great conversations about comics from the get-go. That I do remember.


PUBLISHING COMICS

Thompson: Money was always a problem. When funds would run low, we’d try to think of some way out. We had to figure out things that would make us a ton of money. That was the time we did the X-Men Companions, a Focus on: George Perez, a Focus on: John Byrne, an Elfquest companion as well. For all the hostility between us and Marvel and us and DC, they were remarkably accommodating with something like the X-Men Companion. They even shot a shitload of photostats of X-Men pages for us. There was an old idea that fanzines could print as much as they wanted, and it would serve as promotion. It was a little dicier doing a whole book, but they were perfectly amenable to it.

23-focus-on-john-byrneGroth: I cut a deal with Jim Shooter, who gave us carte blanche to use all the X-Men images we wanted to for the X-Men Companion. They even supplied black-and-white stats for us. My gut told me that there was a sort of quid pro quo implied, that we would be nice to Marvel in The Comics Journal as a result of this largesse. I chose to ignore that implication, of course.

Thompson: At that point, we’d also started publishing Amazing Heroes, which took a bit of the edge off our relationship with Marvel and DC. Not only were we publishing a magazine that was friendlier to them, but because of AH, The Comics Journal started focusing less and less on mainstream comics, which means we pissed them off less.

Heintjes: Gary offered me the princely sum of $12,000 a year, which is $12,000 more than I ever made in my life. I thought this was great.

Thompson: We never gave ourselves any money. Gary and I had to give ourselves minimal salaries. I didn’t get any salary for years. I was essentially unemployed. I still get those annual Social Security statements that list your annual salary all the way back to when you were 20 and there’s about five years when it’s literally zero, and then it moves up to $2,500 or something and finally cracks five figures years later. We didn’t buy much. We needed money for gas and food, movies and maybe a couple of books. Temptation only occurs when there’s a period when you’re flush, so that was never an issue with us. We usually had nice houses, but we had a bunch of people living there. In Connecticut we had a gorgeous house. But he lived there, I lived there, we sublet a room, the office was there and so on. There was no money to piss away, though.

Groth: We weren’t set up to publish comics, per se, but back then things were so loose. We had the distribution channels in the growing comics-shop market, and by that time there was Phil Seuling’s Seagate Distributors and Bud Plant and a couple of smaller distributors. We were probably dealing with four or five distributors. There may have been a shitload of them, but they were all pretty minuscule. We had the infrastructure and this inchoate distribution system locked in because of the Journal.

Thompson: Publishing was a logical thing. Gary had already done it. He’d done it with a magazine called Always Comes Twilight. That was more of a graphics thing, less comics, but there were a couple of short comics in it. That was in the late Fantastic Fanzine days. We were also publishing comics in The Comics Journal. We were reprinting the Howard the Duck and Spider-Man newspaper strips. And I think at that point we were publishing some short comics by Grass Green. We ran a few episodes of this utterly weird medieval comic by Don Rosa, years before he became the new Carl Barks.

Groth: Always Comes Twilight was basically a hold-over from my fanzine days, eventually published in 1976, a few months before we started the Journal, but full of the artists I published in my fanzine. I don’t remember why it took so long to publish or even how I managed to do it at that time.

Don Rosa, cartoonist: I don’t recall how the comic strip that I did for Comics Journal #41 came about … But I recall why I did that strip, especially since it was nothing like the comedy-adventure sort of stuff I’d always done. By 1977 I was living in an apartment, eating meals at nearby restaurants and eventually struck up a friendship with a waitress in a nearby Denny’s. I soon learned that she had a slight drug problem, but was very interested in fantasy “sword and sorcery” writing. I thought if she wrote a story for me to illustrate that might help her self-respect or something, anything to get her off needing the drugs.

A page from Don Rosa's fantasy epic "Tagdenah", serialized in the Journal for several issues

A page from Don Rosa’s fantasy epic “Tagdenah”, serialized in the Journal for several issues

So she wrote “Tagdenah”, a short story about a wizard in some medieval land. Never asked how she came up with that name. It was a short piece … maybe four pages, and I did it all with captions like Prince Valiant. She and I did a second “Tagdenah” strip for TCJ, but I don’t recall what issue it was in [#145]. I really don’t recall if there was any reaction from TCJ readers, probably because getting such approval wasn’t the main intention. But it doesn’t matter … I failed at helping the girl get off drugs, and I heard a few years later after I’d moved away that she had taken an overdose of drugs on the day of her little sister’s wedding — depressed, one would assume — and had died. So, the story behind the story has a sad ending.

Thompson: The Flames of Gyro by Jay Disbrow was the first original comic book we did. Disbrow, Hugo, Los Tejanos and Don Rosa’s Comics and Stories — they happened really close to one another. It’s all a blur.

Groth: I may have met Jay at a convention and I don’t remember if he offered to do a comic for us or if I asked him if he would; the former seems more likely. I thought it would be fun to publish an old school Golden Age artist who had dropped out of the field and wanted to come back.

Jay Disbrow, cartoonist:
Gary Groth, he must be in his 70s by now. Is he still publishing? I met Gary Groth at a convention. He remembered my comics for Star Publications. He let me do whatever I wanted, which was science fiction. The comic was called The Flames of Gyro.

Groth: We had a very extensive correspondence beginning in the end of 1978 about The Flames of Gyro. There was a lot of back and forth about this and other projects he pitched. He drew the book on these enormous, two-and-a-half-by-three-feet sheets of paper. Each page was as big as my desk. I’d never seen original art this size before. They stopped drawing them that big around 1952 or so.

Thompson: It was literally, “he was there and he had the book.” He said we could publish it and we said, “Sure!”

Groth: He drove the original art up and left them with us. Flames of Gyro was this goofy Flash Gordon-type science-fiction/fantasy thing. I shouldn’t say “goofy,” because it was dead serious, but that made it even goofier. It had this weird labored beauty to it, because it was drawn in a meticulous wash. That made it a production challenge because it had lettering and wash on the same page, so we had to double-burn it to make the wash reproduce in halftone while the lettering would retain its 100-percent black ink. I remember enjoying it as a learning experience.

Marschall: I was driving somewhere with my wife and kids — maybe to start a vacation — and I stopped in for some reason. Gary and Kim could not wait to show me the artwork that had just arrived. These usually quiet and invariably cynical guys were breathless, watching for my reaction as I looked at each page. I honestly thought they were putting me on. I mean: Disbrow, nice, old-school gentleman and all that; but I really thought it was the craziest junk I ever saw. Gary and Kim were serious; I mumbled some niceties and drove the hell out of there.

Groth: We thought it would be an interesting experiment, to see if we could publish a comic. Jay himself was such an ingenuous guy, a sweetheart, much older than us, though younger than I am now, I think. He had grown up in the very commercial environment of comics, so he was a real professional grown-up but also had a childlike enthusiasm for this work. He drove a big American car — something like an Impala — and smoked a pipe and wore a suit. He was like my dad (except for the pipe). I can’t explain why we published it, really, except we thought it would be fun and we genuinely liked Jay.

Disbrow: I used to work for L.B. Cole and I wrote my own material. But I hadn’t worked in comics on a full-time basis since the big crash of 1954. 80 percent of comics publishers folded after that due to the infamous Dr. Wertham and a congressional subcommittee investigation connecting juvenile delinquency to comics. Only the giant publishers survived that.

I had to go into commercial illustration, which paid more, but it wasn’t the same. With the comics, you have a romantic element, mystery and drama. I knew from the time I was 14 that was what I wanted to do.

Thompson: How many did we print? I don’t know. Maybe 2,000.

Disbrow: I
don’t think it sold very well, because it was a one-time thing. We didn’t do any more. It wasn’t competitive, because it was black-and-white. I’m sure it would have done much better if it had been in color.

Groth: We had copies of The Flames of Gyro for years. It filled our garage. We must’ve printed 10,000 copies. Finally, right before we moved to L.A., I asked Jay if he wanted to pick some up, free. He drove up in this gigantic car — a Caddie or a Buick or something. And we just kept loading the car up, filling the trunk, the back seat, every available space that wouldn’t be occupied by he and his wife, and Jay kept saying, “That’s enough,” and I’d say, “Just another few boxes, Jay.” We didn’t want to haul those damned things to California.

Ad copy for The Flames of Gryo, 1979:

What unholy power throbs within this medallion … that drives men to kill for it … and die for it!? This man knows its secret and has sworn to destroy it … but this man wants it — at any cost! From the freezing void of space … to the raging hellfire of a remote world … theirs is an epic conflict which can only end in death!

Disbrow: After The Flames of Gyro, I did a little bit more in comics and I went to the conventions. I did six years of a strip for the Internet called Aroc of Zenith, 312 pages, but I’m retired now.

Groth: Jay was drawing a sequel to The Flames of Gyro, but, uh, we didn’t publish that.

Bud Plant: I don’t think that sold very well. Maybe it’s time to pull those puppies back out. I thought he was a funky artist back then, but I kind of like a lot of those guys now.

(continued on next page)

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An Interview with Kerascoët http://www.tcj.com/kerascoet-interview-by-alex-dueben/ http://www.tcj.com/kerascoet-interview-by-alex-dueben/#respond Fri, 02 Dec 2016 13:00:09 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96865 Continue reading ]]> paulantoinette_coverIn recent years Kerascoët has established themselves as one of the great cartooning teams working today. The husband and wife duo of Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset have created a number of books including two volumes of Dungeon: Twilight and the four book series Miss Don’t Touch Me, which NBM collected in a single volume. In 2014, NBM published Beauty and Drawn & Quarterly published Beautiful Darkness, two very different books, both of which were among the best books published in North America that year.

The two recently visited the United States, where among other things they saw the release of their first children’s book, Paul and Antoinette. It was also just announced that among their many upcoming projects, the pair will be illustrating Malala’s Magic Pencil, a children’s book written by Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, which will be released next year.

The first thing I read of yours, the first comic published here in the United States, was Dungeon: Twilight. Was that first comic you made?

Marie:  We started Dungeon and Miss Don’t Touch Me at the same time.

When did the two of you start working together?

Marie:  We met in art school and we started at the end of our studies. We lived in a very small space. We only had one desk and so we started working together we couldn’t switch from one thing to another. We heard about a contest to be published and we only had two weeks. We didn’t ask ourselves how to do, we just jumped.

How do you work? Do you both pencil, ink, and color?

Marie:  Yes.

Sébastien:  We don’t draw the same but we are complimentary.

Marie:  We don’t have the same style.

Sébastien:  We don’t separate the work–sketches, inking–like comic book artists sometimes do. It’s more like in animation or some Japanese manga-ka. She works essentially with the characters. I mostly do the backgrounds and things like that. But she also makes the mise-en-scéne, the storyboards, sketches, inking, coloring. It’s always different with each project because we don’t draw with the same style.

Marie:  And we change our process.

Artistically, your books are similar, but they each have a distinct look.

Marie:  Yes we try to change our tools and our process from one project to another. We like to explore different things. We don’t think about style, but it comes from us so there’s the style. Most important for us is to have a book that is coherent.

Sébastien:  When we start a project we make our own rules and constraints. We play with the rules, like playing a game, but we know the rules of the game. When it’s done we move to another thing. We want to always be surprised by our own drawings and process. When we do the same thing for a year it becomes a routine and we don’t want this.

How do you decide what projects to do?

Marie:  It’s hard to agree.

Sébastien:  It’s harder and harder

Marie:  It needs to have meaning and it has to be important for us. We need to have something to tell. Not to just make a book to make a book.

Sébastien:  At the beginning, a lot of it was from meeting people. We met Hubert and we wanted to do something with him. We talked about what all of us wanted to do together. Our projects are always collaborations so it’s not that someone is writing the story and then after gives us the story for us to draw. We work at the beginning with the idea of the project and what we want to do together.

Marie:  As a team

You enjoy complicated narratives.

M&S:  [laughs]

Sébastien:  Not so complicated.

Marie:  We like when stories are intense and very full. I don’t know how to say it. There’s a lot of panels, for example. We want big stories. Dense.

You like stories that are dense and they’re big, but I think about Beauty which kept moving in different directions and it was huge but also intimate.

Sébastien:  In France it’s three books, so when you read the three of them together it’s big.

Marie:  As a reader or spectator, I like to be lost. I don’t like to know what’s going on. I’m for me one of the best movies is Mulholland Drive because I don’t know what I watched. That’s the best thing. You go out of the movie and you want to go back to be in the movie. It’s still with you when it’s over. You carry it with you. That’s what I like in fiction.

missdont-touchme-1One example of that would have to be Miss Don’t Touch Me, which is four books, and the mystery that sets the plot in motion is solved and resolved at the end of the second book.

Marie:  For us the characters are very alive. With Miss Don’t Touch Me, the character is a real person and we wanted to know what’s happening to her after everything.

Sébastien:  When we talk about her, we talk like she’s somebody we really knew.

beautdark_pg59You’re also not afraid to go to dark places. I think everyone who read Beautiful Darkness was shocked by it.

Sébastien:  It’s probably the most intimate book we made because it was Marie’s idea in the first place. We worked with Fabien Vehlmann together because we had so many common ideas and thoughts that we wanted to put in the story. It’s about childhood and death and a lot of stuff. And innocence, I think.

Marie:  But there’s a comic part in it. You can laugh at it, too.

Sébastien:  It was our strange sense of humor.

Where did the idea start originally?

Marie:  I made a lot of sketches. I knew how to start the story. The first ten pages were very clear in my head. Then I met Fabien Vehlmann and we talked a lot about the story and it echoed in his work. It’s very funny. It’s about depression, but in a funny way. [laughs] He’s a very funny guy. When I talked to him about my story I told him I can’t draw it because it’s so depressing but when I told him about the sketches and he looked at them, he was laughing. I was so surprised. So the three of us started to work together.

beaut_dark_cover-fullBeautiful Darkness has a much more painted, lush style. You had that in mind from the start?

Marie:  Yes, that’s what we wanted. We wanted to be in nature and paint nature and have fun with it. We just finished Miss Don’t Touch Me and there’s a lot of backgrounds that are not funny to draw like buildings and cars.

Sébastien:  There was a lot of research.

Marie:  Lots of research. We live in Paris, but we wanted to feel nature and the seasons.

paul_antoinette_int2 paul_antoinetteint1Your publisher sent me a copy of your new children’s book, Paul and Antoinette. How did this come about?

Sebastian:  We started to work with Kirsten Hall of Catbird Agency in New York. She contacted us a few years ago. She was building her own little agency and she looked all over the world for people she wants to represent in the US. So we said, okay, why not.

Marie:  She showed our art book to Claudia [Zoe Bedrick] and she fell in love with a character we made a few years ago–this pig with the big glasses. She asked us to make a story about him and that’s how it started. We want to make more and more children’s books. For me it’s the holy grail of fiction. I’m so happy to see it.

So you had Paul and then gave him a sister.

Marie:  Yes, she said how about make a couple? We thought a strange couple. He looks very clean and strict and so we gave him a sister. [Sebastian] has a sister and I have a brother and when you are two you are very different roles. As a child my brother had glasses and was strict and everything was perfect in his room. I went to his room when he wasn’t there and just opened the door and closed it and when he came back he knew I had opened the door. I don’t know how because I didn’t touch anything. I liked gross things a lot. I ate the grease, the disgusting part of the meat, just to watch him react. I loved the pleasure of watching him react.

Sébastien:  It’s also a way to talk about accepting different people, and accept that people who aren’t like you can bring you something else in your life.

Marie:  I’m so happy with what she did with the book. It’s a beautiful book.

I gave the book to a few people to read who commented that they liked how the typical gender dynamic–that the girl would be neat and the boy would be messy–was flipped.

Marie:  Thank you.

Sébastien:  Most of our characters are female. We like strong female characters. Like Miyazaki.

Strong characters and complicated characters.

Sébastien:  Yes, Blanche in Miss Don’t Touch Me lived through a very difficult thing–her sister killed in front of her–and for us it’s very important that the characters always bring what they experienced in and after they don’t forget it. Sometimes in fiction [characters] live through a horrible thing and two minutes after it’s like, woo! Everything’s cool. I just lost my mother, my sister, my hometown but I’m great. For us, no, it’s not possible. She just lived through something awful. Even if after something nice happens, she’s always affected by this. We were talking a lot with Hubert because sometimes he made her do things and we would say, she wouldn’t do that because she’s not a victim. She will take the best of it and she will fight. When we draw we are always in the heads of the characters. Even when they are pigs.

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I did especially love the ending of Beauty, because it really made this point about the nature of beauty.

Sébastien:  It was a long process. If we had to write the end of the book when we were just starting the project, it wouldn’t be like that. It was the result of all the things that we did. We were very happy because Hubert’s first ending was dark and there was lot of death and we didn’t want that. We said, we did that, now we need a happy ending. What’s wrong with a happy ending? They fall in love and they are meant to be together so don’t fight against it. He agreed. It was against his nature at the beginning, but at the end he was very happy with it. We were very happy. But it was a fight. [laughs] We don’t want to always make the same kinds of things. If you want to surprise people you have to sometimes think differently.

beauty-2Beauty was the most recent comic that you’ve made which has been translated but I know that you’ve made other books since then.

Marie:  We had a book that just came out called Satanie.

Sébastien:  With Fabien Vehlmann.

Marie:  It’s about a group of people who go into the ground and go too far and they arrive in hell. It’s funny, too. [laughs]

Sébastien:  It’s like an adventure story. A road movie, but a road movie in the ground. It’s also a psychological story about what’s happening in the characters’ brains.

Marie:  The deeper they go, the more they know about themselves

Sébastien:  They’re struggling with their own demons but also real demons. [laughs]

Marie:  I’m working on a strange ABC in France with a friend. That’s my next book. It’s a strange ABC with phrases with all the words starting with the same letter. All the letters are like that. The translation has been very difficult. It’s difficult to make it work in French and English.

Marie:  We have a lot of projects. We are making another children’s story in France. We are working with a French theater to make children’s books from short plays.

Sébastien:  We also have a project in animation with Benjamin Renner who was the director of Ernest and Celestine. We’re working on an adaptation of Les Tchouks, the children’s books we made in France. We’re trying to adapt it for an animated TV show.

 

Thanks to Alix de Cazotte, Program Officer at the Cultural Services at the French Embassy, for arranging the interview.

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The Gift http://www.tcj.com/the-gift/ http://www.tcj.com/the-gift/#respond Wed, 30 Nov 2016 13:00:52 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96677 Continue reading ]]> A grand drawing for Hal Roach, discovered during research for the biography of George Herriman, Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White, reveals the deep friendship between the famed movie producer and his resident cartoonist. For a two-part conversation between Paul Tumey and biographer Michael Tisserand, click here and here.

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Chico and Groucho Marx were there. So were Walt Disney, Louis B. Mayer and Harold Lloyd. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were guest speakers, as were Jean Harlow and Will Rogers. The master of ceremonies was Charlie Chase. Few could dispute Film Daily’s report that the “Hal Roach anniversary dinner-dance was easily one of the best parties held on the coast in years.”

The party began on Thursday evening, December 7, 1933, and lasted until the next morning. Five hundred invited guests joined Roach at his studio in Culver City to celebrate his twentieth year as a studio head, with thousands more listening to an NBC radio broadcast of the proceedings. “Memory Lane was all lighted up with electrics,” reported Grace Kingsley for the Los Angeles Times. “The place had been fitted up like a palace.”

It’s likely, but not certain, that George Herriman was among those in attendance. Herriman’s friendship with Roach dated back to at least 1920, when they went on fishing trips together. Introductions probably had been made by Herriman’s close friend and former Los Angeles Examiner colleague Harley Marquis “Beanie” Walker, who appears to have begun working for Roach in 1917, writing titles for Harold Lloyd’s “Lonesome Luke” movies. When Herriman returned from New York to Los Angeles in the early 1920s, he set up shop in Walker’s office, and drew “Krazy Kat” while Roach’s comedies were being filmed around him.

Although news accounts of Roach’s party don’t list Herriman, a newly discovered Herriman cartoon is dated the night of the party, and most likely was presented to Roach at the event. It is a grand gift. There are sharp and funny caricatures of stars such as Laurel and Hardy, Will Rogers and Charley Chase, as well as Roach’s behind-the-scenes men, including Our Gang director Robert McGowan; Roach’s old friend Lewis Albert “Al” French; and Beanie Walker, shown “rhapsodizing rhetorically, attempting what might be termed, a ‘script.’” Roach’s father, Charles, and brother, Jack, are seated on a bench, with Officer Pupp, Krazy Kat, and Ignatz peering out from behind them. Soaring over the whole affair is a magnificent Hal Roach himself, riding a polo pony and announcing that he has just cleared his twentieth hurdle. “I do the hurdling, and he gets the credit,” responds his horse, wide-eyed.

Herriman inscribed his gift to “‘Hal,’ dolling,” adding the nickname he seems to have acquired on Roach’s lot: “The ‘Squatter.’” It is a characteristically modest move by Herriman, but the generous drawing is an unmistakable sign of the great affection shared between Hal Roach and George Herriman, as well as how much Roach must have enjoyed having the resident cartoonist drawing “Krazy Kat” on his lot. The full-color original of this gift has not been located; currently the only evidence of it is a black and white photograph that had been carefully preserved in a scrapbook by Hal’s mother, Mabel Roach. It is reproduced here for the first time.

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An Interview with Lawrence Hubbard http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-lawrence-hubbard/ http://www.tcj.com/an-interview-with-lawrence-hubbard/#respond Wed, 23 Nov 2016 13:00:03 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96254 Continue reading ]]> real-deal-1
We asked the great Johnny Ryan, author of Prison Pit and Angry Youth Comix to interview one of his favorite cartoonists, Lawrence Hubbard, who has just released the collected Real Deal Comix. Real Deal Magazine was a barely-known but much-loved comic published in the 1990s that contained hardcore gangster, Blaxploitation-influenced comics. It was rediscovered a few years back and written about over at my old alma mater, Comics Comics, and Lawrence did his first public appearance in years in 2010 at Cinefamily with Johnny in honor of my book, Art in Time. So we’ve brought them together again for a conversation about the new book.

Johnny Ryan: At what age did you start drawing? Who were the artists that inspired you? Was there a point early on that you knew you wanted to pursue art as a career? Did you receive any encouragement from your family? Was anyone else in your family an artist or have interest in art?

Lawrence Hibbard: I started drawing at the age of 3. I liked drawing mechanical things like trains, cars, buildings houses, and then I decided I needed to add people to the mix, at that young age I knew I wanted to be some kind of an artist, I loved to draw and couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do. My mother encouraged me very much, my father sometimes, but he was a cold and distant man. My influences were the artist who drew the comics in the Los Angeles Times at the time, Rick O’Shay, Brenda Starr, Rex Morgan MD, Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy. I liked it because it was violent, characters got killed, I remember one panel where Dick Tracy punched a guy with an upper-cut and his teeth shattered and blood flew out of his mouth! In a Sunday comic strip. I also loved Doug Wildey who drew Johnny Quest. I admired his realism. At that time Disney’s Wonderful World of Color came on Sunday night, and they would do specials about the “nine old men” — their great animators like Ollie Johnson and the rest who worked on Dumbo, Snow White etc., and I decided I wanted to be an animator.

For comic book artist I always loved Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Steranko. Also E. Simms Campbell, an African American cartoonist whose work was in Esquire, Playboy, Stag etc. I would like to do a film about him if I ever get a chance. I was also a big fan of Mad magazine in its prime, Mort Drucker, Angelo Torres, Dave Berg, Al Jaffee, George Woodbridge, Jack Davis, etc.

What was your high school experience like? Did you enjoy it? Did you ever have to beat the shit out of some wise ass punks?

My high school years were rough, my father had run out on us three years earlier and we were pretty broke, living on welfare and food stamps. I didn’t have any clothes or other fly gear a lot of my friends had (bellbottom pants, print shirts, platform shoes, cool hats, looking like the Jackson Five). I pretty much kept a low profile, but I always enjoyed my art classes.  After High School, I got a job at a now defunct savings and loan in the stock room, doing shipping and receiving and unloading trucks, no time for college, broke needed money. Over the years I took classes at Santa Monica College, UCLA, Otis Art Institute, but never had time to get a degree, always working and taking care of other people. Funny thing is all my fights took place in junior high school (what they call middle school now) when I was there in the early ’70s the gang bang shit was getting hot and heavy here in Los Angeles, Crips, Brims, Ace Duce, Piru’s (now called Bloods).

And you had a bunch of assholes running around talking that shit who were just wannabes, they would wear the gang attire, talk the talk, but they had never been jumped into “The Set.” These motherfuckers were always talking about jacking somebody, they tried to jack me numerous times. I fought like a motherfucker. I’m proud to say that after three years at Louis Pasteur Junior High I did not give up one cent! I was broke and angry and wasn’t taking any shit! I remember one time I fought 2 guys at once in the boys bathroom, they tried to jack me for my few wretched cents I had, I was like G.C, “Fuck this shit you ain’t taking my money!” It was like a fuckin’ movie! I slammed one dude’s head into the sink, threw an elbow at the other to get him off of me, then went to work on him, I felt no pain, no fear, I started growling, I felt a primal rage! They both said, “Fuck it! It ain’t worth it” and ran out the bathroom! I felt real mannish after that! If I can fight two motherfuckers  at once, one ain’t shit!  Word got around after that, I got my respect! I never fucked with anybody and I never backed down from anybody, when you’re in a fight you go into the zone, your adrenalin is pumping, your in survival mode, you feel the pain of the punches later! If a fool tried to jack me and stepped to me and said  “Homeboy, give me a quarter!’ I’d say “Fuck a quarter, I got a dollar! All you gotta do is take it from me” And they would punk out as usual.real-deal-73

Did you ever use your art to get women? List their names and phone numbers.

The majority of the chicks I have run into over the years don’t care about art that much. Ask me this again when and if I get the “Real Deal Show”!

There’s been some attempts to turn Real Deal into an animated TV show. Can you tell us about that?

A few years back J.J. Villard, the most hardcore Real Deal fan on the planet, got us a pitch meeting with Nick Weidenfeld at Fox Animation. Nick had just been hired as head of a new project called ADHD “Animation Domination High Definition”, and they were looking for new shows. This was the first pitch meeting I had ever been to and I was nervous and sick on the stomach, it was me, J.J. Villard, who had worked with Nick at Cartoon Network, and Adam Weisman, art director for Stussy, who had done a video about me and my work for Stussy.

It was so Hollywood! A cute young assistant ushered us into his office and offered us water, a minute later Nick entered the with his personal assistant, plopped down on the couch and said “What you got for me?” I think J.J. started talking first since they knew each other, then Adam showed him the one minute animated scene of Real Deal on a tablet, Nick smiled and laughed and seemed to be digging on it, then Nick started asking me about Real Deal, for a second my mind went blank — “Real Deal, who what?” Then I just started talking and went into the zone, gave Nick and his man several issues of Real Deal. Nick was smiling and said “I have to have this!” and we had a development deal! I couldn’t believe it! I had heard of people pitching for years and never getting shit! Anyway the money that was offered was so low I’m not going to mention it, but we had a deal.

After many meetings and tables full of sandwiches and drinks it was decided to hire a writer since me and Adam both had full time jobs and JJ was about to go into production with King Starking. After several meetings we decided on a talented young man named Brian Ash. He really studied the material well and seemed to pick up the Real Deal vibe. He wrote a full script and outlines to ten other scripts — good work. Anyway to make a long story short, after about a year we stopped getting phone calls, feedback and requests for comic books. We contacted the studio to find out what was going on, and when were we going into production. They finally got back with us and said some studio big wig in New York thought it was too violent and didn’t want to do it. They we’re sorry and asked if I wanted to come in and talk about it. I felt like someone had ripped my guts out! As usual, I had to say fuck it! and kept on going.real-deal-23

What was the lowest point in your life and how were you able to get through it?

I’ve been through many low points in my life, many deaths, many financial problems, etc. But one of the worst things to happen was when my partner in Real Deal, Harold Porter Mc Elwee, aka RD Bone, died of a stroke and a heart attack in April of 1998. I couldn’t have loved him anymore than anyone could; he was like a blood brother to me. It was devastating, and the fact that our futures were entwined with each other, we were going to have our studios together, comic books, animation, live action etc. Now it’s all gone! It can’t be! I have to keep going!

Tell us about your working schedule. How often do you get to draw? How are you able to balance having a “day job” with being an artist?

I currently work as a security guard in a high-rise building in the Miracle Mile area. I work Saturday through Wednesday, I’m off Thursdays and Fridays. I can only draw on my off days because when I get home on my work days about 11:30 pm I just pass the fuck out. We walk about three miles a day on our patrols  and we stand a lot, dealing with the idiots who come to the building and running out the homeless people who want to camp out in the lobby. It can be very draining. That’s the most frustrating thing about it is not getting enough drawing time, artist are like athletes and musicians, the more we practice the better we get! I worked for years in the IT industry as a Production Control Analyst, Computer Operator, Tape Librarian, Data Control Specialist. All those good jobs have either been outsourced or turned into month-to-month contract jobs with no benefits. I’ve been a licensed insurance salesman, but that’s all commission-based and a hard grind, one week you make money the next you don’t. I suffer for my art.real-deal-45

What do you have to say to those college sucking wimps out there that think your comics are too violent, misogynistic, and racist?

What I have to say to them is “Fuckin’ read Real Deal.” Whenever you have idiots who say that stupid shit, the first question I ask them is, “Have you read it?” Then they always say, “No.” Real Deal is satire and if you don’t get it, put the book down and step away from the table! People are so wrapped up in this politically correct bullshit its like they’re brains are constipated! They’re like Pavlov’s dog. If they see or hear things that aren’t PC, they blurt out certain responses without knowing what the fuck they’re talking about!

I just learned from the Inkstuds podcast that you’re really into conspiracy theories. What are the ones you’re most concerned about? Where do you go to find the most exciting conspiracy theories?  

You know it’s funny that so many things we are told just don’t make any sense if you think them through logically. Sometimes if you bring these things up, the powers that be try to slap you down or destroy you after they give you a chance to get your “mind straight” of course! I don’t want the shadow government coming after me, because I’m ill equipped to do battle with them. But just get into the details of the assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK, Malcolm X, also 9/11, The USS Liberty etc. Many things just don’t add up and there are many coincidences and connections between the people involved that seem improbable, and thanks to the internet I see lots of people are thinking the same things I am. That’s what inspired me to create Real Deal #8 “The Psyop Issue”, it will show how it all fits together, at least in G.C.’s life!

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Edward Sorel on Mary Astor, Hollywood, and Operatic Gestures http://www.tcj.com/edward-sorel-on-mary-astor-hollywood-and-operatic-gestures/ http://www.tcj.com/edward-sorel-on-mary-astor-hollywood-and-operatic-gestures/#respond Fri, 18 Nov 2016 13:00:05 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96863 Continue reading ]]>
mapdNow in his eighties, Edward Sorel has had a career that is the envy of most cartoonists and illustrators. His long career has included a significant body of work for magazines like The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, The Nation, Ramparts and The Realist. He was a co-founder of Push Pin Studios with Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser. He’s a muralist, children’s book author, has illustrated dozens of books, and has been the subject of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.

His new book is Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936. The heavily illustrated book tells the story of the actress best known for playing Brigid O’Shaughnessy in the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon. Astor was raised by a nightmare of a father, started working in Hollywood during the silent film era, was married multiple times. Her divorce trial in 1936 featured her “purple diary” which detailed her colorful personal life. It serves as a portrait of a very different time in ways that are both funny and puzzling. Sorel’s book is not just a straight up biography of Astor, but also his story as well and is heavily illustrated with what his fans will recognize.

I loved Mary Astor’s Purple Diary, and it was a revelation because when I think of Mary Astor I think of Brigid O’Shaughnessy, which I think is what most people think of when they hear her name.

The knock that she gets for The Maltese Falcon is that she was too old, or at least that she looked too old. Her alcoholism did age her a bit as she was only 30 when she made the movie, I think. She looked a little older. The real problem I think was that the Hays Office, with their insane censorship, did not allow Huston to show a sufficient amount of sexual passion to make the plot plausible. That final scene where he tells her that he’s going to turn her in, you’re supposed to feel that he’s really torn between turning her in and saving her because he really is passionately in love with her. There was nothing in the movie that showed it or made you feel it. I think there’s one kiss that ends with him looking out the window. So I don’t give her a knock. I think she was plenty sexy. I think it was more the censorship rather than her age that was the problem.

You make the point in the book that she was a good actor, but she made few good movies.

Very few good movies. Aside from Dodsworth, which to my mind was the greatest of all her movies, there are very few. I suppose she always acquitted herself as best she could, but the movies themselves are not worth watching. I was criticized by one person for not including The Palm Beach Story in my book but I thought that was basically a pretty silly movie. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Mary Astor in Dodsworth.

Mary Astor in Dodsworth.

I love Preston Sturges, but I agree with you about The Palm Beach Story. Besides Dodsworth and The Maltese Falcon, Red Dust is interesting but not great, and I love Meet Me in St Louis, but Astor is the mom and she’s barely in the film.

That time was her pre-suicide period. She was continually trying to kill herself because she couldn’t stop drinking. That was one of her mother roles.


You talk about how you learned about this sex scandal in the book, but did you know her work from before that when you were younger?

Certainly not. I remember her when I was 10 years old in 1939 in The Prisoner of Zenda because she was just so beautiful. She had the perfect turn of the century Victorian face. I remembered her in that, but no. When you’re a little boy you’re empathizing with male characters rather than female ones so I was more interested in James Cagney or others.

Throughout your career you’ve shown a lot of affection for that era of film.

Yes. As I intimate in my book, because of the studio system you saw the same supporting actors week after week. There was always Franklin Pangborn or Thomas Mitchell or Edward Everett Horton or any number of supporting actors you saw week after week and they became a kind of family. It was a family that didn’t have any conflict. I was always drawn to movies because there was a great deal of conflict in my family in my expanded family. Politically at any rate. Several members of my family were avid communists and they were always castigating the members of my family that weren’t communists, so there was always that conflict in my family.1-2

You mention in the book that you came upon this story decades ago. Why did it take you so long to write the book?

Because I had to make money. I had four children and had to send them through college. I was lucky enough to have lots and lots of deadlines. I made a surprising amount of money, considering. On the one hand I was very, very lucky to go through life making pictures. On the other hand I made a lot of worthless pictures. A lot of the most haunting work an illustrator gets is for advertising and most of that stuff is just worthless. I was doing a lot of that and then suddenly the field came to an end. As the computer took over and as the internet took over there was less and less advertising in print and then print started to vanish. Ten years ago I suddenly realized there’s not much work out there. I was lucky because I was able to create my own ideas and sell them to magazines, but that didn’t produce much income. By the time it utterly disappeared about five years ago I started thinking in terms of finally doing the book I planned to do fifty years ago. It took my three years to do it including a false start that got rejected, but I finally did it and the rewards were much much richer than anything I had done before. Even the murals that I did, which up until my book were the high spot of my artistic life. The book was even more satisfying than that.

What was the false start? What went wrong?

I was doing it relatively straight. I was telling the Mary Astor story and I wasn’t part of the story. As I walked out of my publisher’s office with my rejected dummy one of the assistant editors said to me, you know if you put yourself in the story, it might work. Once I put myself in the story, it was a breeze. It not only became amusing, but it was fun to write. I was having more fun writing it than I ever did drawing. I’ve always said that the only people who enjoy drawing are amateurs. Once you’re a professional, you have certain standards and certain visions of what the drawing should be and you don’t always come up to it. I can’t say the writing was fun, it was hard work, but I took great pride in it. It was my voice and my opinions and I was able to talk to Mary as long as I was in the book.

As someone who knows your work, the writing felt like the way you draw.

You couldn’t have said anything nicer to me. I have always admired spontaneous drawing and I have always hated my drawings because they occasionally got overworked. I have always admired people like [Ludwig] Bemelmans and Feliks Topolski and Jules Feiffer who have enormous energy in their drawings. I admire drawings that have spontaneity, and I don’t always have that. I think probably because my ideas are occasionally very operatic–they have many people in it and many things to explain. It’s very hard to be spontaneous when you have to do a picture with many elements and they all have to come out in the right place.endpaper_resized

There are lots of illustrations you’ve made over the years which have lots of elements and I’m picturing many. Along similar lines, the endpapers of the book have a nude Mary Astor reclining with the studios in the background and other elements. How did you decide on that image and assemble it?

The truth is that I love detail and I love reference material and I love swipe material. I do a lot of research. One of the reasons I do so many parodies of art that was done in the past is because the old masters were masters of composition. I’ve always considered composition my weakest skill. To have an old master where the compositions are perfect, it’s great fun to parody. When I was looking for something to do for the endpapers I went to Google and looked at hundreds and hundreds of designs and I must have found something that suggested the naked Mary Astor figure. I’m sorry to say that I can’t remember what my swipe material was. I knew the other elements that I wanted, so it was easy after that. There was the plane crash that her first husband died in and the movie studios she worked for. I have no shame about looking to other artists and other art for inspiration.

That differed a lot from all the interior drawings in the book?

I’m always amused when artists talk about where their inspiration comes from. The truth of the matter is that all of us are terribly influenced by photographs. Citadel Books did a whole series of movie books, paperbacks of different actors and actresses, and I have a lot of them. I never got proper training in life drawing and my mind is not a computer that can produce gestures easily. I need to see certain gestures–and convincing gestures. I think to the extent that my drawings are interesting is that the gestures are interesting. That’s what cartooning and illustration is all about. It’s all about gestures because there are no words–unless you’re a cartoonist doing a comic strip–so the gesture has to really tell the story. I work very hard at gesture. I hope it shows. I hope the labor doesn’t show, but I hope the gestures are convincing.

csofy-ew8aa9xdkWhy did you chose to draw the interior illustrations that you did?

The great thing about doing a book is that you can pick the scene you want to draw. There was one scene that I knew I had to do–her father attacking her because of what he considered her lack of ambition. I did a kind of strobe shot of his fist banging on the piano. I knew I had to do that even though it was a very difficult picture to do. Then there were the pictures that had absolutely nothing to do with the book that I did because I wanted to. There’s a picture of Tom Mix with some car that was made in Los Angeles that nobody knows about. I did it because it was fun to draw and I had a picture of it. The book was in my entire life this book was more a labor of love than anything I have done before.

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I know that you went to art school, but you said earlier that you never studied life drawing?

Because it was impossible. I went into art school at the very time when drawing was considered rather old hat. The illustrations in The Saturday Evening Post were condemned as the lowest form of art, illustrated books stopped, the New York school of abstract painting was considered the acme of fine art. I graduated from Cooper Union in 1951. The good thing about it was there were plenty of jobs and the bad thing about it was that I still didn’t know how to draw. My drawing skill–which was not too bad when I was nine years old–had completely atrophied from going to High School of Music and Art and going to Cooper Union. The thing that was valued was design and abstraction. Which interested me not at all. And still doesn’t. Even though I started Push Pin Studios with Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser, which was essentially a design studio. I did learn how to do design, but it never really interested me. What I loved was drawing.

You seem to have found a niche of doing illustration fairly early in your career, though. At least that’s how it looks from the outside.

I suppose. Some young people have an image of what they want to become very early in their life. All I ever wanted really was to have my own apartment. When I was a young man I didn’t care how I got the money to get my own apartment, but the truth of the matter is I wasn’t good at anything except drawing. Fortunately I was able to make a life for myself where all I had to do was draw pictures. I was a hack to start out with and gradually became something more than a hack. I regard my early years of working for agencies and working for magazines as being paid to learn. I did what was required and in the process learned how to draw.

10You have been for many years now at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and The Atlantic and The Nation and work that’s above hackwork.

Well above hack work. I like the work I do. I’m proud of the work I do. But it’s the old line, if you want to be the top banana, you’ve got to start at the bottom of the bunch. One of the reasons I learned to work in pen and ink was because the easiest work to get was work from the newspapers. At the time I started out, there were a lot of newspapers. They didn’t pay very much and the only thing that worked in a newspaper was linework so I had to learn how to do line. And I did.

At the end you make the point that you hope someone will write a full-length biography of Astor, reissue the books she wrote, and put her on a stamp.

Yes. [laughs] I make a presumptuous comparison to Felix Mendelssohn who was instrumental in bringing Johann Sebastian Bach to prominence again. He was a largely forgotten Baroque composer until Mendelssohn showed his the magnificence of his music. I too am eager to remind people that Mary Astor did was a great talent, although the thing that must be said against her was that she did not value her talent. She had been offered many times contracts for leading roles but avoided it because she was afraid that it wouldn’t last long. She knew that as a supporting actress she could have a very long career and in fact she did. Supporting actors can have very long careers, but she didn’t do anything about getting good roles for herself. And it’s a pity.

Like I said before I knew her from a few of her films, but having read your book, she is a fascinating character.

Thank you. I thought so.

And more interesting than most of the characters she played on screen.

[laughs] Yes. A friend and I tried to turn my book into a musical but it proved to be impossible because she was a woman who did not take her life in her own hands. Most musicals are about women who are indomitable, like the Unsinkable Molly Brown or Coco Chanel or others. Instead of doing things, Mary had things done to her which made her an impossible subject for a musical. She still might be a good character for a straight play.

She’s just so passive.

Yes, very passive. Her evil father knocked all her guts out of her. She learned to be obedient and do what others told her to do. She kept marrying men who were the same way–who took control of her and very often exploited her and took advantage of her.

You said that this book is the most satisfying project you’ve ever made. Are you trying to write another book?

I’m trying to figure out a way of doing a memoir that’s amusing and yet says something about the political scene. How we went from triumph in World War II to Donald Trump in the 21st Century. I think we did it by having a series of incompetent and criminal Presidents from Eisenhower on. The only person I exempt partially from that description would be Obama, who I think is a decent and well-meaning person. The other Presidents, every one of them, committed vile criminal unconstitutional acts. Everybody forgets that lovable Dwight D. Eisenhower overthrew at least four democratically elected governments while John Foster Dulles was his Secretary of State, and the others that followed him were no better. I’m going to try to do a memoir in which my rage combines with my pleasant memories of those years.3

I’d be interested to read that. Over the years you’ve been willing to step on peoples’ toes.

Only powerful people. [laughs] No point in stepping on the toes of the weak and powerless. But yes, of course. Especially hypocrites. Especially Democrats who say one thing and do another. I had more fun with Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey than even with Richard Nixon although he was really probably the King of the Hypocrites. I’m more critical of those who are supposedly on “my” side than I am of easily recognizable enemies.

Well, Mr. Sorel, I know that you have to go. Thank you so much for taking the time.

You can call me Ed. I may be old, but I’m just a cartoonist. [laughs]

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“Why Draw Comics About Anything Else?”: The Keiler Roberts Interview http://www.tcj.com/why-draw-comics-about-anything-else-the-keiler-roberts-interview/ http://www.tcj.com/why-draw-comics-about-anything-else-the-keiler-roberts-interview/#comments Thu, 17 Nov 2016 13:00:34 +0000 http://www.tcj.com/?p=96905 Continue reading ]]> kkKeiler Roberts quickly gained attention for her autobiographical mini-comic Powdered Milk, which explores her life with her family from right around the time her daughter Xia was born into the present, when she’s both a professor and cartoonist. With her bone-dry sense of humor and highly expressive, loose line Roberts pulls no punches in her short vignettes. While Roberts has the instincts of a humorist and structures her comics in that form, it’s her willingness to frankly address issues regarding the postpartum depression she experienced as well as her ongoing issues with bipolar disorder that give her comics power and authenticity. Roberts establishes herself as an irascible protagonist whose interactions with her daughter reveal an important truth about parenting: children are often as terrible as they are wonderful, and often at the same time. Xia functions as an unending source of funny malapropisms, to be sure, but she also reminds Roberts of her responsibilities. Roberts’ artist husband Scott functions as a kind of witty straight man, a source of calm and strength as Roberts goes about her day as best she can.

Roberts is also a keen observer of character dynamics and the humor of awkwardness, as a hilarious strip about a trip to a day spa that involves comparing bodies with a friend demonstrates. Roberts writes a lot about social anxiety and the ways in which she copes with the world, but her strong storytelling and character focus prevents it from being didactic. Her stories are little bursts of truth that trust the reader to make connections, and even the most emotionally wrought situations are tapped for their humor. She won an Ignatz award for Outstanding Series at SPX 2016, a couple of years after she drew strips in which she discussed her dread in potentially attending the show. She addressed all of these topics and many more in this interview, which we collaborated on together in a shared document. I edited it for format and made some minor corrections, as well as reordering some of the questions for clarity and flow.

Robert Clough: Where were you born and raised? How old are you, if I may ask?

Keiler Roberts: I was born in Milwaukee and grew up in Sun Prairie (which is just outside of Madison) Wisconsin. I’m 38.

RC: Did you grow up reading comics? Did you have friends whom you read comics with?

KR: No, I read the Sunday comics and a few things my brothers had lying around – Mad Magazine and Groo the Wanderer. I never read superhero comics.

RC: Did you grow up drawing? Did you draw with others, like siblings or friends?

KR: My three older siblings were all much better at drawing than I was. I drew slightly more than the average kid, but not a lot until middle school. I made dolls and doll clothes. I was too cool doing that to bother reading comics or drawing.

RCDid your parents support you in your endeavors related to art growing up?

KR: My parents always supported me in whatever I was interested in. They never questioned me about what I wanted to do. They weren’t fanatics though. They didn’t come to every event. I never felt like they were hovering. They also allowed me to quit things without question.

RC: What was your childhood like? In what ways does it inform your work now?

KR: I had a loving family, and we still all get along well. My childhood was full of the stresses that most kids face, though. I had all kinds of insecurities. Kids are cruel, especially girls. When I was around eleven, I think my depression started, as did my body issues. We had a ton of pets, which I loved. I don’t remember my parents ever yelling at me. I was always obedient, though. I wanted to please everyone. My mom is a much better mom than I am. Xia’s probably a happier kid though.

RC: Your mom makes frequent appearances in your comics. What does she think of you putting her on the page, and does she like this version of yourself that you portray for her?

KR: My mom has never said that she likes being a character, but she doesn’t complain about it. She’s a great sport. She says I make her look like an idiot, but I think I’m just making her a likable character. I think people can really relate to her character, but in person she can be very intimidating.

RC: How so?

KR: My mom is very direct and honest. She says what’s on her mind. She has a natural sense of authority. I don’t know if it comes from her voice, eyes, height, or personality, but she makes an impression. She’s really gentle and funny, but I don’t think it’s the first thing you see.

RC: Did you study art in high school or college?   

KR: Yes, I took as many art classes in high school as I could. I went to UW-Madison Wisconsin for a B.F.A. and Northwestern for an M.F.A. I studied painting. When I started college I planned to get a teaching certificate so I could teach high school art. I switched my major when I got involved with the advanced painting class at UW.                                     

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Starting In Comics

RC: Was Powdered Milk the first work you self-published?

KR: No, I illustrated a children’s book that Steve Fiffer wrote called Arctic Bears Chase.

RC: You’ve said that you got into doing comics by taking a class with Aaron Renier. What motivated you to take that class in the first place, and what was it about the class that was so inspiring?

KR: I was working on a blog that had some autobio components. I wanted to work with images and writing in some way, but I knew nothing about indie comics. My husband told me to try comics. He’s the head of Animation at DePaul University. He hired Aaron to teach the comics course and then scheduled it to fit with my teaching schedule. It was the greatest gift he’s ever given me. I was also teaching full time at DePaul at the time and was in Aaron’s class with some of my own students. It was humbling.

Aaron knows everyone in comics. He brought all kinds of work in to show us along with his own pages that he was working on. The assignments had a beautiful structure. They really prepared us for the final project, which was a full minicomic. I made Powdered Milk vol.1. I felt like I was beginning a new life. I had even changed my last name a few months before. I knew then that Scott was right – comics were my replacement for painting, which I’d been struggling with for ten years.

RC: What was it about comics that replaced painting? Why were you struggling with painting? What was it you were trying to express that wasn’t coming through?

KR: I was trying to create a picture of life from my point of view. Painting has so many layers of interpretation based on its history and contemporary art. It’s pretty inaccessible to most people. You have to be trained to “read” a painting. I always felt the need to explain what I was doing but resented having to say anything at all about it. I don’t feel like I have to explain my comics. People understand them, and if they don’t like them it’s probably because their tastes are just too different from mine. I don’t feel the need to defend anything. The physical accessibility is also extremely important to me. I want everyone who wants them to have my comics. If they can’t afford a book, they can read a lot of it online for free, or go to a library.

This is what I think the reasons were, but really I just kept getting depressed from painting. Even when things were going well for me professionally, I didn’t want to be involved with the art world. Since I started making comics, every aspect of it – drawing, writing, reading, meeting people in the field, facebooking, and teaching – continues to open up in exciting ways. I always wanted to make some kind of book with words and pictures and figured it would be a children’s book, but after I did that I knew I really wanted to make something for adults.

RC: Why was it important for you to do something for adults in particular? Was writing for children alone too limiting, not allowing you to express what you wanted to express? Or was it simply the urge to express yourself autobiographically not really fitting into kids lit?

KR: If I had an idea that I really liked now for a children’s book I would do it, both the writing and the illustrating. I assumed, based on the children’s books I’d read, that  I would be very limited in terms of content. Some parents have told me that their children, who are Xia’s age and older, love to read my books. Maybe I could do something for kids with the same structure, style, and content as my books, with smaller changes. It’s actually been on the back of my mind for a while. I wanted to write for adults because I’m the audience I aim to please. I would have to feel the same way about writing for children – that my personal taste guided the project and I wasn’t working to please kids or publishers. I’d have to trust that kids would like what I like.

RC: Why draw comics about yourself, as opposed to other subjects?

KR: Why draw comics about anything else? I’m really interested in what’s true – real life experiences. I only have full access to myself. It’s not because I think I’m especially interesting. I would do autobio from your point of view if I could.

RC: Do you like having a sort of established “cast of characters”, each with their own roles in your story?

KR: I do, but I would like to include more people. I just haven’t found a natural way to do it. I have close friends that have never been in a comic.

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RC: How do your husband and daughter feel about being characters in your work? Have you ever had to self-censor something because you realized it was too personal for them?

KR: They generally feel good about it. Xia laughs her head off when I read her parts to her. I do hold back on their behalf. I don’t write about Scott in ways that would make him look very bad or would reveal too much. He proofreads all my rough drafts if he’s in them. I won’t put anything in about Xia that I think might embarrass her. It’s hard to know exactly what that’ll be with kids though.

RC: Do you ever collaborate with your husband Scott? Are there unique challenges or benefits to living in a two-artist/cartoonist household? Do either of you ever seek out the advice of the other in helping to solve particular difficulties you might be having with what you’re working on?

KR: No. I hate working with him on almost anything. He wanted us to make a birthday card for Xia together and I scowled at him, drew a bunch of stuff very quickly, and said, “You finish it. I’m going to bed.” Of course when I woke up there was this gorgeously ornate card on the counter. He’d somehow covered everything I did in this lace pattern. I just want to get it done. He wants to take forever and consider all the options and then be elaborate. It’s not just him though, I don’t want to collaborate with anyone.

RC: Why?

KR: I’m too paranoid about pleasing the other person. I can’t trust my instincts.

We rarely ask each other for advice. It’s great having an artist partner because we can go to things together and we understand a lot about each other, but we work pretty separately. We share a studio but we’re on different schedules.

RC: Does being an autobio cartoonist in any way impact the way you live your day-to-day life? Do you find yourself “acting” in order to get a good “scene” for later?

KR: I don’t think so. I guess I go into certain situations with an open mind, thinking it might make good material (like King Spa), but I’d never say I’m acting. I’ve always been turned off by people who seem to be performing in life. They aren’t usually autobio cartoonists.

spaRC: The King Spa story is one of your most memorable. Do you remember any awkwardness in the actual moment, because what sets the story apart is the actual ease I sensed in the way you depicted it. Also, when your friend said, “Now we’re really friends”, did you know then and there you had the ideal punchline?

KR: I know there wasn’t ever any awkwardness among my friends who went there together. I don’t remember if I knew at that point that I would use that conversation. I’m generally forgetful about the process that lead to any comic. I’ve always recorded good conversations in my journal – long before making comics, so I may have just written it down to preserve it.

RC: You’ve alluded to dealing with body image issues. Do you find that drawing yourself nude is in any way therapeutic? Do you find it easy or difficult to do so?

KR: Yes, it probably is. I love bodies. One of my favorite things to do is go to the beach to stare at everyone – the more variety the better. I can’t articulate what it is that I love – why I care that some women carry their fat in their hips and others their thighs. My own body issues stemmed from not feeling sexy. I thought if I got thin enough then I would be “dateable.” It’s not hard to see where this perspective came from. My weight yoyo-ed significantly in high school. In grad school I watched a friend of mine flirt, and it dawned on me that personality is sexy. That should’ve made me feel better, but instead I started to worry more about my personality. Anyway, if I think about myself – my body or my personality – in a way that’s separate from sex appeal, I am ok with it all. That’s the way I felt at the spa with my friends. I have this funny body, like almost everyone else, and it’s super fun to draw. I don’t look at myself when I draw by the way. There’s even more nudity in [Roberts’ upcoming book] Sunburning. Scott just shakes his head. I don’t think it would be therapeutic to draw my body from observation. When I imagine things – anything – my body, a memory of an event, a place – I don’t judge it like I do in life. It becomes warmer and more acceptable.

RC: What cartoonists’ work did you look at before starting your own, if any?

KR: I learned of Gabrielle Bell, John Porcellino, and Vanessa Davis in Aaron Renier’s class. I loved them all immediately and they are still at the top of my list of favorites.

RC: John Porcellino was an early champion of your work, selling it through his Spit And A Half distro and generally talking you up. Did it feel immediately validating to have someone you admired support you right off the bat?

KR: I was shocked and deeply flattered. I still am. John is amazing in so many ways. I owe him so much.

RC: How did you settle on your current style, which is both naturalistic and minimalist?

KR: I try to draw without thinking about style at all. Like, if someone said to you, “Draw a little picture of your house so I can see what it looks like, and I’m leaving in five minutes.” I put in all the details that help to tell the story, and I use them to make a good composition, and that’s it.

RC: What cartoonists do you draw inspiration from now?

KR: I don’t know if there’s anything specific that I’m borrowing from their work, but some of the cartoonists I’m enjoying right now are Noah Van Sciver, Lisa Hanawalt, Simon Hanselmann, Carol Tyler, Roz Chast, Leela Corman, and Tom Hart.

RC: Do you consider yourself to be an artist who writes, a writer who draws, or something else?

KR: I think of myself as an artist because that’s my whole background, but I enjoy the writing part more. It’s easier for me.

RC: Do you enjoy the simple act of drawing apart from working on your own comics?

KR: Yes. I enjoy figure drawing the most, but only short poses.

Teaching

RC: What’s the experience of teaching like? Do you teach cartooning, drawing or something else?

KR: I get Sunday night dread before my Monday classes, but I always enjoy working. I teach Indie Comics at the School of the Art Institute and Beginning Drawing and Figure Drawing at DePaul. I’ve taught all kinds of other classes, but this had been the routine for the last few years. The best part of teaching is getting to know the students. The more diverse the class, the better. I’ve learned that my first impressions cannot be trusted and many of the students who immediately irritate me become my favorites.

RC: How much of your own work do you show your students? How do they react to it?

KR: I usually show them a few stories in the beginning. It’s really awkward if I show them something funny and no one laughs. Sometimes it goes really well though.

RC: Is teaching satisfying on a creative level for you?

KR: I can be as creative as I want to be with teaching. No one tells me what to do at either school. It is satisfying, but I have to make something physical/visual in order to be satisfied in general.

RC: What’s your Indie Comics class like? Do you teach them cartooning, character and storytelling techniques? What texts do you use, if any? What comics do you have them read?

KC: The students do a few short assignments, then make a 24 page mini comic that they print for everyone in the class. I choose different readings every year. This year it was Best American Comics 2015, My Hot Date by Noah Van Sciver, Scab County by Carlos Gonzales, Sec by Sarah Ferrick, and we had two visiting guests – Nate Beaty and Whit Taylor. My husband is coming as a bonus to talk about Risograph printing. I also bring books every week to pass around. I try to select cartoonists that make really different work from each other. I talk with them a lot one on one while they’re developing their final comic. I don’t teach them cartooning, but we talk a lot about content, storytelling, composition, drawing, incorporating the text with the image, etc.

RC: Has Xia shown any artistic inclinations thus far? Is that a path that you’d enjoy seeing her pursue?

KR: Xia is drawing and making things constantly. It’s incredibly exciting to see what she comes up with. She’s more creative and talented than I was at that age, by far. I don’t think I’m hoping for her to become an artist, but I would feel really sad if she didn’t love making art throughout her childhood. It’s wonderful to have that in common. She shows a lot of interest in medical things – passionately playing doctor or vet. And she’s not squeamish like I always was. She’ll probably be a mover though, because she has always loved carrying big, heavy, awkward things around.

Motherhood

RC: Are you in any way motivated by the idea of talking about motherhood in an honest way in terms of detailing both positives and negatives? In other words, is breaking through the societal ideas of what mothers should be like and feel part of your mission as a cartoonist?

KR: I hope to write with honesty about all things, about life. There are positives and negatives and there is no movement in the direction of an answer. I’m annoyed by the depiction of mother characters in picture books. They’re always nice and caring, but rarely funny.They’re almost never a dynamic person/mouse/rabbit/bear with a true personality. I doubt I’ll ever write a children’s book with a fascinating mother character though, because I don’t have a specific mission as a cartoonist. I don’t have a message.

dammitRC: Was a general dearth (at the time) of comics about the experience of being a mother in any way a motivator to write so much about Xia?

KR: No, but I’m always at the edge of a trend, right after a few people become famous for it but before everyone’s doing it. I did a huge sewing project at the beginning of Project Runway, I had a blog right before Julie & Julia was made into a movie, when I still had to explain to some people what a blog was, and then I was diagnosed bipolar when Homeland aired. I have a sixth sense for these things. Now everyone has a comic about motherhood.

RC: Have you read Carol Tyler’s first collection, Late Bloomer? She had postpartum psychosis and goes into a lot of detail about how difficult it was for her as a mother–and this was all in the 80s. As far as I can tell, it’s the first sustained comics narrative about motherhood. It was like another 20 years before I saw more of these sorts of stories.

KR: Yes I did. That story knocked me out, it was so sad. I love the way she told it and the color she used. I’m reading Soldier’s Heart