David Lasky has one of the quietest voices of any person I’ve ever met: soft, low, and gravelly. We first met six years ago, at Cafe Racer in Seattle, and even in that first meeting I was struck by his soft, compassionate demeanor—easy to laugh, always listening, observing, thinking.
In his comics, though, he alternates between observer and innovator, a cartoonist who on one hand can create minutely observed, sometimes inexplicable human dramas (“Minutiae”, “Portrait of Ella”), and on the other hand is capable of producing work that changes the way a reader thinks about the page, or even the purpose of comics (“The Raven”, his “Pear” series, his various Ulysses-related projects).
David’s new book, created in collaboration with writer and colorist Frank Young, is The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song. Its publication represents the culmination of half a decade of work on the part of both men, some of which I was fortunate enough to observe or participate in, both as an early reader at the rough-draft thumbnail stage, and later as a pinch-hitter inker on several dozen pages. David and I sat down for a few hours one recent weekend to discuss the book in the context of his two decades worth of innovative minicomics and short stories.
SEAN MICHAEL ROBINSON: What did you think when you opened the book for the first time?
DAVID LASKY: Well, I was pretty psyched. I had a lot of anxiety after working three and a half, four years. Did we screw something up?
It was such a relief to open it up and see it looks good, the paper is great, the production’s great. It exceeded my expectations and gave me a lot of relief.
ROBINSON: I had a book come out this year, and when I got the advances, the first thing I did was look through it to look for printing errors and misspellings and stuff.
LASKY: Frank’s been through it and found a few minor errors but it’s nothing to have a headache over. I feel like whatever errors got through, we did our best effort to try and catch them. Did you find stuff in your book that drove you crazy?
ROBINSON: Yeah. Really minor. For the most part it looks exactly like I hoped it would, which is good. Of course, there’s a lot of frustration on the road to that satisfaction.
LASKY: Every publisher I work with, I find something that’s disappointing and I’m frustrated, but then I hear about someone else’s publisher or read some story about some horrible thing that happened to a creator, I’m like, oh, I’m so lucky. [Laughs.]
ROBINSON: Would you consider yourself an optimist then?
Robinson: You’ve had a fairly long career, but a lot of your peers have had much different trajectories. I think of Matt Madden and Jessica Abel and Tom Hart and people that were part of the same scene. For people that didn’t read many comics then or who weren’t really dialed into that scene, this might seem to be your debut work. Is that a strange feeling to you?
LASKY: It feels a little overdue, but it’s also a good feeling. Are we on tape now?
LASKY: Let me formulate a better answer. [Laughter.] I never wanted to rush putting out a book just to have a book out. If I did it, I wanted it to be something I was really happy with. And this is something I’m really happy with. I think I maybe just move a little slower than some of my peers. And I have other peers who are still just making the occasional minicomic and who look at this book as something really amazing. Whereas up here, Ed Brubaker is a huge celebrity in comics. We all have our own pace we’re moving at. I don’t really feel too … I mean, it feels overdue, but at the same time I don’t feel self-conscious about not having done a book earlier.
ROBINSON: I guess I was wondering how much you think that has to do with the self-promotional aspects of it, the small scene that comics is in terms of networking. You see people that are very good at taking what cachet they do have and spending it out into something else.
LASKY: I’m not a huge self-promoter. I did do conventions through the late ’90s, and got little bits of attention and made a lot of friends. But there were certain people who just had the luck of having the right editor passing by their table or the right agent seeing their work and that just never happened for me. I was not the kind of person who would seek out those editors or agents and I didn’t know how to find them, or I didn’t even know that they existed, really. It was only by 2007, after my peers had moved to New York or were getting published and had contacts in the publishing world, that I visited New York and was informed that everybody has an agent and these publishers are really interested in graphic novels. Living in Seattle I was clueless to all of that.
ROBINSON: That was definitely the peak of the bubble as far as that goes, right? People like David Heatley getting like a $50,000 advance or whatever.
LASKY: I totally missed that train, or I heard about it as it was leaving the station. I just enjoy doing the work and getting it out there. The promotion is something that I’ll do to a certain degree, but like a lot of artists I’m not entirely comfortable aggressively going after a deal or contacting editors and saying, “Hey, so, how about publishing this?”
ROBINSON: Of your peers from that wave of American comics, it’s hard to think of much work that’s as satisfying as your best stuff. I think about the 24-hour comic you did that’s supposedly titled “Minutiae”, but it says …
LASKY: “Four Alarm Orgasm.”
ROBINSON: Yeah. I mean, a piece like that, or I think about Tom Hart’s best stuff too, like the first Hutch Owen book. Those are things that are just really strong conceptually and are strong thematically and have more resonance to me than most of the work that was coming out at the same time. And I was surprised that you didn’t have a book earlier, or that someone didn’t come up to you and say, we want a book-length version of this.
LASKY: I’ll confess that someone did come up to me.
ROBINSON: Oh really?
LASKY: Brett Warnock at Top Shelf has been coming up to me for years, saying, “Dave, let’s do a Lasky collection,” and I just wasn’t ready. I haven’t been ready to collect stuff until now. I can’t explain why. It’s what I was just saying: if I wanted a book put together I wanted it to be something really good that I was happy with. I was very honored and flattered that Brett continually would say, “Let’s do a Lasky book.” But the sense that I got was that there was this rush to get it to press, and I would see my peers often put out books that — I’d just read it as three of four minicomics, and now it’s a squarebound book, and was it worth making into a book?
When it’s a minicomic you can take certain risks and there’s no danger. It’s a low-budget operation. But when it becomes a book some publisher is putting up a lot of money and then it’s out there in bookstores and libraries and it’s representing alternative comics to the world. And if it’s not a very good book, I cringe. “Oh, why did they put that out?” I’m not saying that my peers put out a lot of bad books. I think there’s a lot of great books. But if I put out a book I want it to be my best thing possible. So I have had publishers express interest, but … partly I wasn’t ready, partly I felt they were maybe just overeager, or maybe were gonna put out something that wasn’t my best material.
ROBINSON: Would you call yourself a cautious person?
LASKY: Obviously in this situation of putting out a book, I’ve been very cautious. I think when the stakes are lower and I’m just making a zine or a minicomic, I can throw caution to the wind and say, “Let’s make something totally crazy,” and make ten copies of it. And then I can really experiment in that situation. But if I’m playing around with someone else’s money, I don’t want to be so crazy or experimental.
ROBINSON: You touched on this a little bit in “Portrait of Ella”, but I was curious what your fine-arts background is, because it seems like a lot of your minicomics, especially, are really strong conceptually.
LASKY: I went through a liberal arts college, William and Mary in Virginia, and got a bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a minor in English, which I thought was a good combination for doing comics. It was a very traditional school; they didn’t have a comics class or program, they didn’t even have a photography class because they thought that’s too vocational, and “We want to teach the fine arts here.” I was in a very 19th century fine-arts program, where we would look at Van Gogh, but beyond him we were looking at very few 20th century artists. We were just learning the very basics of figure drawing and still life, which was a fantastic education for me as an artist, as a draftsperson. It gave me good eye for looking at the world, and it helped a lot in making comics.
And the minor in English, I tended to gravitate toward classes that were more in the 19th and 20th century. I especially got to love modern novels and modern writers of the early 20th century. James Joyce became a huge influence, though I didn’t like his work at first. It grew on me. I think everything he did with themes and metaphors in Ulysses informed my earlier comics, and even up to the Carter family book there’s a whole lot of Joyce influence.
ROBINSON: How so?
LASKY: Picking the 1930s comics style and blending it with my own style. Part of my admiration for Joyce is the way he picked other literary styles and combined them with his writing. In one of his chapters, he’s imitating the style of popular novels. So it’s “bad” writing, but he’s putting enough of himself in that it’s really good writing. That’s the kind of thing I strive for when I’m doing a different style of art, as in The Carter Family.
One reason I think I’m not more well known is that I didn’t come up having a certain style and sticking with that style, so people look and say, “Oh, that’s a Lasky.” Maybe people do that, but for each project I pick a different style, and there’s a certain way I draw that I can’t avoid, but I try to bend that as far as I can toward a certain look that serves the project itself. And I think that’s been a drawback as far as marketing goes.
ROBINSON: So what I’m picking out as a conceptual art influence is more of a modernist fiction influence. When I look at your Ulysses mini, what’s interesting about it to me is that the concept itself — the idea itself — is the most valuable thing. Do you know what I mean? The fact that you thought, “I’m going to adapt a thousand-page book of incredibly dense, experimental prose into a twelve-page minicomic.”
The fact that you made that conceptual leap is the value of it. If you just tell some about that they almost get the effect that you actually do from reading it. And then actually executing it is the icing on the cake. But if you gave the comic to someone who didn’t know who James Joyce was, didn’t know what Ulysses was, and asked them to read it, they might be amused by some of the drawings, but they’re not necessarily going to get the actual effect of it. In other words, the object itself, the fact of its existence is the important thing. To me that sounds like a kind of ultra-modernist art move.
LASKY: Well Ulysses specifically just came out of having the book assigned in a college class, and I’m a very visual person and the book is a very textual book, and it wasn’t helping me — it wasn’t painting any pictures for me. It was saying, “Come into this world of words and luxuriate in the words and the way they sound and bounce against each other.” And that was hard for me, and I just thought, “Why isn’t there a comic-book version of this to help me?”
I later figured out that is good marketing, to find a need and fill it. And I ended up the year after college starting on this adaptation. I was just doing it for my own benefit, and then I discovered that there were thousands of people out there who also wanted a visual, a comic book basically, of Ulysses. I guess because I was working in minicomics—that was all I was doing at the time—that was the format to do this in. And I got the humor of “Let’s condense it as far as possible.” If I had got the idea now I might say, “Let’s do a graphic novel.” But at the time, the minicomic was my format. I got the joke of it, but I wasn’t prepared for other people getting the joke. I wrote this intro without really thinking about it. “Some details had to be left out.” I see people pick up the book and that intro is what cracks them up and the rest of it, I had to execute it and I did a lot of research to get it all correct. But that notice is the real joke of the thing. It’s one of many things where I just wrote it, almost with a straight face and then realize, “Oh, people think that’s funny.” [Laughter.]
ROBINSON: Do you find things are like that in your daily life as well?
LASKY: Sometimes I’ll make a comment or have a conversation at work and not realize that people are cracking up over what I’m saying. Once I was in this office job and the vice president of the company came down to my part of the office and was bantering to me, and I was just bantering back at him, and I was like the lowest guy on the totem pole, and I didn’t care that this was the vice president. And after he left my supervisor was like, “David I can’t believe how you were talking to the vice president.” But at the time it didn’t register that I was doing anything wrong or funny or …
ROBINSON: Is that ever disconcerting?
LASKY: I think I’m kind of socially dysfunctional that way. It’s maybe why I’m not able to play the game very well of marketing my work, because I don’t take things seriously, I don’t know that I’m supposed to take certain things seriously, or I don’t know how to talk to serious people, maybe. I’m slowly learning these things as I age.
ROBINSON: So you have built up a framework around certain interactions that helps you navigate them a little bit differently? You say you’re learning– what does that entail?
LASKY: Learning how to have a serious conversation when the occasion merits it, I guess. Not banter with somebody if they’re speaking seriously. When I was a teenager and in my early twenties I couldn’t take anything very seriously. A lot of people in college suddenly get serious and go, “Now it’s time for me to wear a suit and go out and get that job.” I was an art student and I never had that moment. It’s probably arrested development.
Life forced me eventually to get serious and try to hold down a job, but I’m kind of in slow motion doing that thing that other people did in college of getting serious and being a professional. I think I just wanted to devote my energies toward becoming an artist. I think a lot of artists are this way — the serious stuff is just a necessary evil that we deal as minimally as we can and then we get back to creating the art.