ROBINSON: It’s interesting that films have more authority in this way. Like I wonder what percentage of people know Lawrence of Arabia from the movie where he’s this cocky, self-possessed, self-martyred, 6’4”, blue-eyed man, versus what percentage of people know him from the actually remarkable things that the man himself actually did do.
LASKY: Hollywood definitely changes reality because in any story they’re telling they need an actor who’s good-looking and has a certain charisma that gets the audience on his side, and he becomes the hero of the story. And there is a complete story usually, where in real life there’s usually no hero. There are just people doing what they do. There’s no story in real life. We can frame things we do in stories but real life is so different from Hollywood.
ROBINSON: It seems like what may be the difference here is that (1), they’re representing themselves through their recordings, and (2), that there’s not a whole lot of documentation anyway. I’m also wondering if maybe the artifice of your book is clearer because it’s obviously drawing? Whereas something that’s filmed has an …
LASKY: Authority because you’re seeing reality on the screen, even though it’s not reality. I think in drawing something like this I’m aware of what Hollywood does, and I’m aware how comics are a fiction also. I’m trying very hard to draw the characters, and where they lived, looking how it looked. I want the reader to identify with these characters, but I’m not going to try and make them look glamorous if they were not glamorous people. I was very much aware working on this that Appalachia in the ’30s is a very foreign place to me, and no matter how accurate I try to be, it’s not going to be how it was. It’s going to be mine and Frank’s vision of this. And I just had to come to accept that, and do my best to present it in an accurate manner, but there’s definitely an artifice as you say.
ROBINSON: So I wanted to come back to something we talked about earlier. You made several autobiographical stories at the beginning of your career, and it seems like you’ve done a lot less since then, except for maybe a couple one-pagers and things like that, like the one-pager that you did about what you did in 2001.
LASKY: When I started drawing comics, I was in my early twenties, my formative years as an adult, and I was in the process of learning how do you meet women, how do you get a job, all these basic life skills. It was important to me to put these into my comics, partly as a public service: “If you’re as lost as I am, here’s what I did and how I got through it.” But I don’t think I really got through it as successfully as other people. It was more like, “You’re not alone, I’m messed up too.” [Laughter.]
A lot of the literature I read in college English classes was a user’s manual for real life. “How does one live?” I wanted to throw in my two bits. And I think once I reached my late twenties, early thirties, I felt a little more stable, and a little less need to talk about myself. I think I also got it out of my system, and to keep writing about myself would have been narcissistic. I think I want to go back to autobiography and chronicle my time delivering bread, just because that was an unusual occupation that is almost never depicted in comics or any other kind of media. So there’s a need for that, but maybe not so much of a need for other aspects of my life to be chronicled.
I realize that comics take a long time to create, and if I’m going to put a lot of time into something, I’ve got to pick carefully. The Carter Family was something I knew I really wanted to do. So for the last decade I don’t feel that kind of urgency to do more autobiography, except to do bread delivery.
ROBINSON: The reason I ask is because I know a lot of people do work of an autobiographical nature who have some kind of moment of clarity where they realize that some person they have depicted had objected to that depiction, or has had some kind of real-life consequences from their work. I didn’t know if that was the case for you too.
LASKY: Well definitely. Leann, my significant other, said, “Don’t do anything about our relationship, if you want our relationship to last.” [Laughter.] Because she read Joe Matt [laughter] and said, “Don’t talk about our relationship here.” And I think that was probably a good decision on her part. But I think there was a stage I was in in my twenties where I didn’t want to draw a comic unless it was something nonfiction, and something that I experienced, or it didn’t feel genuine in the comic. I couldn’t write fiction at the time. It was just where I was at, and I got out of it partly from realizing that whatever I draw in a comic, it’s going to be fiction. Whether it happened to me or not, it’s artifice. It’s my presentation of something and other people are going to read it and say, “That’s not how it happened, that’s not what I said.” But it all becomes fiction to some degree, and I was more comfortable with fiction after that.
ROBINSON: I wonder how much of alternative comics’ fixation on the confessional mode comes from its link to indie rock and that kind of scene where authenticity is so prized.
LASKY: I think in Seattle in the early ’90s, Nirvana and all the other bands were definitely drawing their pain and their confessional experiences in the music. I came to Seattle not really interested in the music scene here, but got to really like Nirvana and some of the other bands and would read about Nirvana in The Stranger or The Rocket. Sebadoh and other bands like that were in an intuitive way just putting their raw emotion into their music. I think it was Gillian Gaar or some other writer who coined the phrase “emotional honesty” and that term really resonated with me. I thought, “OK, this is another thing I can try and bring into comics and see what I can do.” I think in a story like “Portrait of Ella” I was really going for some sort of emotional honesty, but I still was creating something artificial and was definitely finding places to put on the brakes. [Robinson laughs.] I’m not going to be completely honest, but I’m going to be somewhat honest here.
ROBINSON: Well what do you think she would have thought if she had read that comic?
LASKY: Well she did read it many years later. She had completely changed as a person; we were in our early twenties there and she was maybe in her late thirties when she read it, and was just saying, “Whoa, that was a crazy time for me.” That was the only comment she had.
ROBINSON: So you couldn’t tell if she could recognize herself in your portrayal?
LASKY: For somebody in that situation—“Here’s a comic I made about you when you were 22 years old”—it’s just a jarring thing. And for her it just brought back a lot of memories, not all of them good memories, about being young and struggling. But she didn’t have too much else to say about it.
ROBINSON: Well that’s probably good.
LASKY: People have said when they see a story where they were a character, or familiar with what went on, they just say, “Oh, that’s not how that happened.” That’s normally what I hear from friends who don’t read comics, and it’s an odd experience for them just to be reading a comic in the first place that’s not a newspaper strip; it’s about something they were a part of and they normally react really jarringly. “That’s very interesting David, but I don’t remember that happening that way, could you explain to me why you wrote this this way?”
ROBINSON: When I was reading The Carter Family, I though a lot about The Social Network, and how if I was Mark Zuckerberg what a horrifying fucking thing that would be, to sit down and watch an actor acting out something that vaguely relates to me, but no one was present for. What a horrifying thing it would be to see someone who looks like you, who is acting in a way that maybe has some kind of relationship to you, but is not you, and is referencing experiences that were important to you. It seemed like that would almost be significantly more horrifying than if you could travel back in time and give A.P. your book.
LASKY: I think if someone came from the future and showed me a graphic novel about my life it would blow my mind and I wouldn’t really recognize it, “You got all this stuff wrong.” [Laughter.]
ROBINSON: So you’d be more concerned with the time travel than with the inaccuracy of the depiction.
LASKY: [Laughter.] I’m not sure where you were going with it, but it made me think of when I’d watch made-for-TV movies about celebrities, like some movie about John F. Kennedy, and as a kid I would just think like, “That looks nothing like John F. Kennedy.” Or a Beatles TV biography and it’s just actors in bad wigs and they’re doing what Frank and I did where they don’t know what happened in these private moments so they just fabricate them. And I used to find those both really awful and really funny, and I was just fascinated by them. “I love the Beatles, I want to see what they did to the Beatles here.” So when I create a non-fiction comic, I’m always thinking about made-for-TV movies and thinking how can I do this in a way that isn’t an artificially constructed version of this history, how can I make it feel as real as possible to the reader, and make sure it doesn’t look like someone is wearing a bad Beatle wig. [Laughter.]
ROBINSON: Were you a visual kid?
LASKY: Yeah. Loved comic books and movies and played Atari games. I enjoyed prose books, but it was always harder than jumping into a bad TV show. I watched so many bad TV shows as a kid. But yeah, I was a visual learner and was a visually oriented person.
ROBINSON: I was curious if you’ve indulged in any of the childhood pursuits of drawing maps of imaginary places, or playing war with your pencil, drawing tanks and things like that.
LASKY: A little bit. I think I made a few maps, but I wasn’t obsessive about that sort of thing. I never got into Dungeons & Dragons or those board games of world domination, because they departed from the visual, and departed from simplicity and became more like putting yourself in a fictional world, and I was never that. I was more shallow, I guess. I never wanted to take the time to create a whole Dungeons & Dragons world; it just seemed too complicated to have fun. But I did love things like the Narnia books and would draw pictures based on Narnia and make up my own coat of arms for when I’m a knight in Narnia, that kind of thing. That was about fourth grade, and in high school I become interested in samurai, drawing lots of samurai. Partly because Frank Miller’s Ronin came out, and then I saw some Kurosawa movies. We just respond to things like that that come along. Star Wars of course, I had a period of drawing Star Wars things.
ROBINSON: One of my prize possessions as a child was a note from George Lucas’s secretary letting me know that George loved my storm trooper drawing and had put it on the door of his office. Which I’m sure was true.
LASKY: That’s awesome. [Laughter.]
ROBINSON: There are some nice visuals in those movies in terms of the intercutting action, but also the designs are really slick and reproducible. You can probably draw a TIE fighter from memory now, right?
LASKY: Sure. I think Star Wars came out when I was about 10 and the first time I saw it, I don’t think the plot really registered with me. It was just a series of things happening to Luke Skywalker. Something explodes at the end and everyone’s excited. It was more just this fantastic visual feast, and my friend and I when we got home just wanted to draw spaceships and it was only after seeing it a few more times when I realized, “Oh, there’s actually a plot, that makes it even better!” [Laughter.]
ROBINSON: So what’s next, man?
LASKY: Collecting the book of stories for whatever publisher might want to take it on, maybe the bread delivery memoir–I haven’t really decided yet. I’m still in recovery from the Carter book. I’m not quite ready to embark on a big project.
ROBINSON: There are a lot of attendant things with a book release that are not necessarily …
LASKY: Planning promotional events, blogging, which … you hope that all the blogging you do is useful for the book, but you just don’t know. Some people seem to blog really effortlessly, posting all these photos and drawings, but just a little blog entry takes me a few hours. I think it’s because I don’t have the right handheld devices to beam them to the Internet.
ROBINSON: When you were talking about your career, you said something about being slower than your peers, and it strikes me that you move fairly slowly. I’ve drawn with you, had conversations and everything, and it does seem that your pace is significantly slower than that of a lot of other people. Has that always been the case for you?
LASKY: Yeah I think so. And I talk slow.
ROBINSON: [Laughs.] People can read fast though.
LASKY: There are artists at conventions who’ll just draw beautiful sketch after sketch like Craig Thompson or Dave McKean, and I’m just in awe of how fast and facile they are. I’m not like that generally. For the kind of drawings I want to make, they can be very slow. With the Carter Family and their world, I’ll want to get their likenesses as close as I can, and their clothes and the landscape to be accurate. I worked very slowly to the frustration of everyone else involved in the book. Trying to get things accurate, and to draw in a style that felt somewhat like old comic strips. I could have cranked out the book a lot faster if I wasn’t worried, or drawing in my own style and thinking, “That looks kind of like a 1930s suit, that’s fine, and here’s some mountains.” A lot of graphic novels are like that and sometime it works, and sometimes it falls flat. I think I worry too much about giving the reader a certain experience and that slows down my process.
ROBINSON: Well, it must have been a strange thing then to give up some of that control when the deadline really came down and things were really firm. Did you just have to switch off that part of you?
LASKY: Yeah I tried my best to turn off the thoughtfulness to meet the deadline. Fortunately we planned the book really carefully.
LASKY: We had thumbnailed and roughed every page. So the story’s there, and I felt good about it. And I’ve done so much research that I didn’t feel like I was really faking my way through it as far as how things looked. For certain pages I really wished I could have put more care into it, it was a little hard, but, am I allowed to say…?
ROBINSON: Yeah, whatever you want.
LASKY: You’re not just the interviewer, you’re a background inker. You and Carl [Franzen Nelson] really did a great job and helped us get the book done on time. So did Dalton Webb and Tom Dougherty, and Vince Aparo ended up doing a few pages. It was giving up a large degree of control which was really uncomfortable.
ROBINSON: [Laughter.] Yeah?
LASKY: I had to just get done quickly. To the casual reader they probably just look fine, but that giving up of thoughtfulness was hard for me.
ROBINSON: Well, you’re at the mercy of somebody else and even in your collaborations with Frank or your editor, there’s got to be a certain degree of that too. It just seems to me that this is just such a world away from the work that you’ve done before.
LASKY: Yeah it was a very different experience. Before this maybe thirty pages was the longest story I’d done. As a slow thoughtful creator it was hard to do much more than that. And also I think I have a short attention span with these projects I do. It was a hard process but it created this very long book in a reasonable amount of time, three-and-a-half years. It was grueling, but it was a good learning experience for me. And I’m so grateful that the book exists now. Will I do another book of this length and magnitude? I don’t know.
ROBINSON: I always wonder,if you’re going to give up that kind of control, what would that look like to do a 200-page book of the “Minutiae” style. What if you just accepted some kind of limitation like that, and that the limitation is actually built into the act of creation itself, you know? Would that work for you over a long period?
LASKY: Maybe. When “Minutiae” was finished, I was really unhappy with it. I didn’t publish it for about a year. I didn’t really plan to ever publish it. People would come to my house and look at it and say, “This is good; you should publish this.” And I’d think, “Oh no, I don’t think it’s something I want to show the public.” And when I finally did get comfortable with making it a minicomic, it was really well received. So 200 pages of comics out of the subconscious quickly drawn, I don’t know if I could sustain a long piece like that. But it’s something I appreciate you suggesting it, it’s interesting to think about maybe doing it.
I’m really excited to have a longer work, especially because this was a story I really wanted told and having a book out there. It’s suddenly like you were saying, it’s my debut, like I exist in the world of commercial comics. Whereas before I was kind of a secret alternative comics guy that some people knew about, but the world at large didn’t really know who I was, or know my work.
ROBINSON: The paradigm has shifted to books so hard that it’s like everything that isn’t collected just doesn’t exist.
LASKY: There’s that, and I’m glad to have the benefit now of existing, but for me I’m so much more comfortable doing the short works, that maybe I should find a way to do those and release them as books. Certain writers I really like, like Edgar Allan Poe and Ray Bradbury, they’re really revered for their short stories. And maybe that’s the kind of artist I am, I definitely feel more comfortable with short works.
I also feel like I’ve been an artist in development for the past twenty years, as a slow person, a late bloomer maybe. All these short pieces I’ve been doing are just explorations of the medium, trying to build my skills in different ways. I feel like maybe I’m at a point where this Carter Family book is like my graduate thesis, and I’m really ready to do what I was meant to do. And the period of learning and experimentation is over maybe. But I definitely knew all along that I didn’t want to be the kind of artist that develops a certain style and puts out a certain character or product, and people count on that product coming out every month or every three months. I have too short of an attention span and too many interests to ever be that kind of commercial comics producer.
ROBINSON: Are there any benefits to collaboration?
LASKY: Yeah, definitely. Collaborating brings in a completely different view, a completely different voice. I feel like when collaborating with a male writer interesting things happen, but with a female writer, there’s a whole added dimension that I could never bring to a comic.
ROBINSON: Do you feel like you understand women?
LASKY: No. [Laughs.] I feel like I’ve grown into someone who can empathize better with women and have a strong respect for women, but I don’t understand women. I don’t understand men either. I think part of that mystery of “who are other people” keeps me going as a storyteller; it’s a secret quest to learn about other people in the world. I’m not as interested in making comics about non-human things. I did a polar bear comic strip, but normally I always make comics about other people. They’re the great mystery I was always curious about.
Transcribed by Kristen Bisson, Tom Graham, and Anna Pederson