ROBINSON: The two comics of yours that I really think are master works are “The Portrait of Ella” and the “Minutiae”, both of which feature people finding themselves in situations where they’re not able to decode what’s happening to them in relation to other people. With varying stakes. But both of those characters seem to be wishing that they had more access to the thought processes of other people.
LASKY: That’s a good analysis: the inability to decode things. I never really thought about that in those stories, but it’s definitely there. “Minutiae” is not autobiographical, but it comes from other stories I heard from friends, and I was just creating a fictional story that feels — I never intended for it to feel autobiographical, but a lot of people have said, “Are you sure that wasn’t something that happened to you?” I think I put a lot of my own feelings of frustration with social interaction into the story. That’s the autobiographical element; the story itself is a cobbled-together fiction.
Both of those come out of reading other autobio comics artists and reading prose writers’ fiction and memoirs, and especially from someone like Robert Crumb in his autobiographical stories, getting the sense of somebody expressing their social dysfunction. In the early ’90s there were a lot of autobiographical comics and I was taking in as much as I could and I just got a sense of people expressing their own dysfunctions for the reader, saying, “You’re not alone.” Whereas before you read these stories you might of thought, “I’m the one person who can’t get this right, who … ”
ROBINSON: Who wants to hump ladies’ shoes.
LASKY: Right, or I’m the one person who, can’t function in mainstream society. Like even my outsider friends, they can find a good job and have a good girlfriend or boyfriend, and what’s wrong with me? You read these stories and you’re like, “Oh, I’m not alone.” And as you learn more about people you learn even thoe seemingly well-adjusted people are really messed up. There’s a few people who are well-adjusted and not that messed up, but I think most people have something that’s bothering them or some major issue that they carry around all the time.
That’s what I took away from reading American Splendor — this guy’s a file clerk, but he’s still making comics, and he seems to find some happiness in life in these little moments. [Harvey Pekar] was a huge influence.
ROBINSON: What was it like to actually draw one of his stories?
LASKY: I worked on a story about him speaking Yiddish as a boy. Sara Rosenbaum actually penciled that and I inked it. So she worked more directly with Pekar. I was actually kinda shy about talking to him. I think I spoke on the phone with him once just to ask him what the title should be. But, it was exciting to have at least one comic with Pekar, and I took over a year to draw those two pages, because I wanted to really make it look good. We’d do a little inking, and then set it aside. I was working on The Carter Family at the same time, and I didn’t want to rush this Pekar two-pager. But, it was strange because it was set in his childhood, so I wasn’t drawing the old, you know, curmudgeon. [Robinson laughs.] It was a lot sweeter than most of his work.
Working with him, I was surprised just how little control he exercised over how things should look and how the panel should be composed. He drew with stick figures [laughter] and wrote the script out, and the artist was kind of free to do what they wanted — it didn’t have to be exactly accurate, I think. In hand-picking his artists, he knew: “I could trust this person to present it in a realistic, working-class manner, and not pretty-up anything.” For a long time, I just thought, you know, why doesn’t he work with more exciting artists? But he totally knew what he was doing. I liked that. He was a lot more canny or savvy than people realize, I think.
ROBINSON: Crumb is an interesting influence. It seems like there’s a whole genre of people that have internalized just the surface ticks of Crumb’s comics and that’s it. There’s a Seattle cartoonist who both of us know, that draws what are supposedly autobiographical comics of himself as a total grotesquerie doing all types of horrendous things. I had read one of his comics before I met him, and when I did meet him I just couldn’t believe that this was the same person. It’s like a Crumb-inked grotesquerie and he’s this slim handsome-looking dude with a handsome-looking girlfriend.
LASKY: Could you whisper his name?
ROBINSON: Tom. He’s doing that work with The Intruder. His comics are hilarious but it’s almost a kind of pastiche, like an ode to grotesquerie, an ode to Crumb’s grotesquerie. And it’s very interesting that so many can look at the same kind of thing and lock onto different aspects. I wouldn’t guess that you had a kind of Crumb influence.
LASKY: I think I’m just taking something different from Crumb. A lot of those autobiographical artists who draw themselves all grotesque, sometime it’s genuine. “This is how I really feel about myself, even though I don’t look this way, this is the discomfort I feel with my own skin.” But a lot of times I feel like it’s just a pose, like you’re saying, “I’m gonna draw myself this way because this is how you do autobiographical comics. I don’t really have a big ego, look at how horrible I make myself.” [Laughter.]
ROBINSON: It’s hard to know.
LASKY: Sometimes it’s hard to know. Like with an artist like Ivan Brunetti, he’ll just beat himself up all the time and, at a certain point I’ll think, “Oh, he’s just faking this, because this is what you do in autobio comics.” But then I’ll go to a convention and hear him talk and realize that oh, he really does struggle with hating himself. It’s hard to tell sometimes: is it entertainment or is it genuine?
ROBINSON: The first time I read an issue of Peepshow, I thought there’s no way that this is true at all, because someone who really is in the situation he’s describing couldn’t function enough to draw a page. Now it’s been ten years and he’s put out like ten pages since then. So I guess unfortunately sometimes you do find out it’s legitimate.
Do you think that if you were happier you would be less productive or more productive? Or are you happy?
LASKY: I’m pretty happy. I think a lot of my best work came out of going through periods of unhappiness. I think while I was unhappy I wasn’t in the best physical shape for drawing comics. Because I was more concerned about being unhappy. Creating comics about it became kind of a therapy … therapy/public service. I’m going to work this out for myself and put it out there for people to continue what I felt from other people’s comics of “you’re not alone, this is something that happened to me.”
There are so many times I just decided, I’ve got to quit drawing comics, and I have at times quit drawing comics. Like I’m going to go to school and learn computer graphics and get a real graphics job and make a real income for a change– and then within a year I find myself drawing comics again. It’s not something that’s been financially rewarding for me, but it’s something that’s just become a habit I guess, a way of functioning in the world. A lot of time when I sit down to draw just a single image picture, I won’t be able to draw on an empty page– I have to draw a panel border. “OK, now I can fill this.” Comics has become a way of working with the world for me.
ROBINSON: It seems to me that you have a pretty unique ability to visually, diagrammatically interact with the world. Like your “Raven” adaptation, for instance, or the other visual-less comics you did, when you have no picture left and all that it is is organized information. Where does that impulse come from?
LASKY: I guess there were other cartoonists who I saw doing similar things. There was a comic called Longshot Comics where it was all dots and word balloons coming from the dots. I didn’t think that it was especially successful, but a lot of people liked it. I just liked that somebody had attempted that. And I was inspired by that to go in a picture-less direction. In my fine-arts education, we would stop around Van Gogh or Matisse maybe, and once Cubism came it was like, “Oh, don’t go there, stay with working from reality.” It was the 1980s and I was very aware that there were weird things going on in the art world at that time that were mostly not very interesting to me, but were the focal points of art out in the world at large. Anything that had to do with money or controversy was “artistic.” As a realist artist, I just didn’t get it, and kept thinking I should be able to understand this in some way, because people keep saying how important it is.
When I was 12 I first saw Robert Motherwell’s black-and-white abstract paintings. I didn’t like them but there was a certain something about them. The starkness of the black and white would draw my eye to them, but I found them kind of empty. I didn’t quite get it. I think just the wanting to know what this was about carried with me, even though I was mostly doing comics where I was drawing and depicting reality. By the time I’m doing “The Raven” I’m thinking about Robert Motherwell, and thought, “Let’s bring Abstract Expressionism into comics.” What does that look like, how does it pan out? It was also the first time I did comics without pictures. I was trying to recreate the effect of listening to a radio show, because I love old radio shows.
I did a whole minicomic without really any pictures and gave it to Jim Woodring and he was like, “What is this?” But I think from trying to make a radio-show comic I got something out of it that I wasn’t expecting. Just taking prose and isolating it on a serious of panels transforms the prose in almost a poetic kind of way.
ROBINSON: You’re imposing a rhythm on it like a poet might with divisions of lines and such.
LASKY: And so from there I took a poem, “The Raven”, and really tried to set up panels and pages in a really poetic way using a poem that is very structured.
ROBINSON: What’s interesting about that is once it’s done it’s something that’s available to everyone. Once you made that leap and put that on the page, that’s something that any cartoonist can avail themselves to now. Whether or not they can do it as effectively as you is another question, but that groundbreaking is a gift to the medium.
LASKY: Thanks. There hasn’t been a huge genre spreading up around that, but it did feel like it was something that I had to do, like climbing a certain mountain just so somebody will have done it.
ROBINSON: When you were talking about Abstract Expressionism, I was thinking again about “Minutiae”. You have those sequences where he’s running the comb through her imaginary hair and you have the close-up of the tendrils of hair, where these kind of languid lines are really similar to the lines for the sperm later and the spoon at the end … I suppose some of this comes from the starkness of the drawing, but all of those items, the spoon, and the sperm, and the hair in the comb, the ribs of the comb all are evoking each other in a graphic way that’s not actually addressed in the text. Are those just purely design decisions, or is it actually a planned element?
LASKY: In that case it was a 24-hour comic, so it was all intuitive. I was just drawing it out of my subconscious like, “I gotta get something out on this page, what should it be?” It’s definitely not from consciously thinking about how any of it was interacting with each other. Partly it was a cheat, like, “I’ll get this page done faster if I have some solid black panels.” But it was also that love of radio shows and love of bringing visual abstraction into comics.
ROBINSON: It seems like there are a lot less of those kinds of things in the Carter Family book. Is that a function of either having a collaborator, or just how dense the story is, in terms of the amount of information you had to get across in 180 pages?
LASKY: I think that the density definitely forced us to really focus on the story. We had wanted to do maybe 100 pages more story than is in there. We took all the nonfiction story that we had and pared it down to just the essentials, and then told them as economically as we could. If the publisher had said, “Do as many pages as you want,” we may have gone off into flights of experimentation, but I think the art and storytelling is in the service of the story itself and the people and the times and place that they’re in.
Early on, we set up the concept that it’s gonna be told in the context of old newspaper comic strips, specifically Little Orphan Annie, Gasoline Alley, and maybe Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs, and a few other strips that Frank and I both love. So, the idea of doing anything wild or experimental would’ve jarred the reader out of this comic-strip context we’re setting up. Drawing in that style was a lot like acting, where I’m playing the role of a 1930s cartoonist, and I’m not gonna do a David Lasky modern pictureless comic, unless something like that that was observed in an actual 1930s cartoonist’s work.
ROBINSON: Do you find restrictions like that shackling or freeing?
LASKY: For this, it was a little bit of both. I definitely was keeping an eye on what was happening with the art and the colors just to make sure we weren’t taking the reader out of the 1930s world we were trying to create, because I hate it in any historical comic or movie where something like somebody’s hairstyle just jars you out of where you’re trying to suspend your disbelief. If you don’t believe that hairstyle, then you can’t believe in the rest of the movie, or at least that’s how I am about it. At the same time, any constraint has an aspect of freeing the artist. It seems paradoxical, but a constraint just gives you a framework to start building on, whereas if you don’t have that framework and you’re totally free to do what you want, you often don’t really go anywhere interesting.