I'd never seen anything by Jonny Negron before 2011; by the end of the year, his collective output made my Ten Best of the Year list. That he wasn't alone in that distinction—see also Uno Moralez—goes to show what an incredible year for new work from emerging cartoonists 2011 really was. But more than anyone else save perhaps Michael DeForge, an artist to whom he is frequently published in close proximity, Negron seems uniquely poised to take advantage of a number of trends at altcomix' bleeding edge: The ease with which Tumblr allows cartoonists to post new art and comics to the web without needing to identify as, or navigate the world of, "web cartoonists"; the simultaneous rise of sex and horror as subject matter for compelling and thoughtful work; the explosion of small-press anthologies and the networks of creators, editors, and publishers that evolve around them.
None of this would matter at all if Negron's work itself weren't so striking and singular. Admirers will toss out reference points like Mardi Gras beads when looking at one of his strangely cold action comics, or his off-kilter pin-ups of stylishly dressed (if they're dressed at all), frequently zaftig women: Yuichi Yokoyama, R. Crumb, hentai and horror manga, Double Dragon. But the crystalline intelligence behind his comics' frequently languid pacing, or the confrontationally matter-of-fact posing and blank expressions of his pin-ups, or the clinical explicitness of his violent and sexual material—to say nothing of his lusciously clean line—transforms his low-culture and underground influences into fully formed work of surprising richness and sophistication.
Negron tends to be the star of whatever anthology will have him: His chase/fight/fuck comic "Grandaddy Purple Erotic Gameshow" from the inaugural issue of Ryan Sands/Michael DeForge-edited alt-erotica series Thickness, for which he also drew the cover, was his breakout work. He and co-editor Jesse Balmer, with whom he had collaborated directly on the jam comic Demon God Goblin Heaven, took the blend of eros and thanatos as far as anyone's gone in recent memory, and as effectively, with their own anthology Chameleon, particularly in the memorably well-put-together second issue. But really, Negron's the star of the most exciting anthology of all: Your RSS reader or Tumblr dashboard, where chances are the relentless reblogging of his admirers is what brought him to your attention in the first place.
The 26-year-old Long Island native recently moved back to his landmass of origin and currently resides in Brooklyn after stints in weird-culture outposts Oakland and Austin. It was in his new apartment that I reached him by phone for this interview. Virtually everything about Negron was a mystery to me prior to our conversation, which is what made hearing first-hand about his background, his influences, his feelings on his work's reception, his plans for the future, and his forthcoming book from PictureBox such a pleasurable discovery.
SEAN T. COLLINS: When I was putting together my list of the Best Comics of 2011, I noticed that several artists—yourself, Michael DeForge, Lisa Hanawalt, Uno Moralez, even Gabrielle Bell—were making an impact not through any single comic, but through the sheer volume of high-quality work that the web, and the recent explosion of print anthologies, make possible. In your case it was particularly noteworthy, since I don't think I'd seen anything by you before the beginning of 2011, though I know people like Ryan Sands were hip to you a few months before that. What is your work schedule like, to enable you to produce the amount of work you produced last year? [Laughs] How much time a day do you spend working?
JONNY NEGRON: I don't really count the hours. When I'm working, I forget about time. If I had to estimate, it'd probably be somewhere between ten to twelve hours a day, when I'm working to finish a story.
SEAN T. COLLINS: When you get up in the morning and decide what you're going to work on that day, how do you prioritize? It seems like your work is fairly evenly split between comics and stand-alone illustrations. Do you know what you're going to be doing when you sit down to draw?
JONNY NEGRON: When it comes to the individual drawings and paintings that I put out, generally no, unless it's something that's been commissioned, or an illustration for a magazine or something. Then it's something I've thought about. When it comes to strips, I usually do a bit of planning in terms of story.
SEAN T. COLLINS: What about the outlet? When you start something, do you know where you'd like it to be published—on your site, in an anthology?
JONNY NEGRON: I've mainly done things for anthologies at this point. In those cases, they usually ask me to contribute work first. I'd say 90% of the strips that you've seen are things where I was already contacted by a publisher, and it was written for a specific book.
SEAN T. COLLINS: Have you thought about going the old-school route … actually, I suppose it's not so old-school; DeForge has Lose and other people still have their own solo series. Have you thought about that?
JONNY NEGRON: Well, right now I am working on a solo book with PictureBox. We've been talking about doing a book for the fall. That's pretty exciting. They're interested in publishing more work in the future. I have a lot of stories that I've already planned out that I'd like to have published in the future, through an actual publisher. Doing everything yourself is…like, for Chameleon, I do it independently, with the help of a few people. We're doing most of the work involved in distribution and things like that, and it gets a little stressful when you don't have a publisher.
SEAN T. COLLINS: It's always struck me as a bit weird, the extent to which alternative comics artists are expected to be publishers, marketers, distributors, PR people for their own work. To the extent that you've self-published and published other people, do you find managing all those aspects of publishing comics to be a difficult balance?
JONNY NEGRON: Yeah. I don't think I'm very well suited for it. I try to do it, just because…for a while, I thought that would be the best way for me to put stuff out, just to do it as quickly as possible and control everything. But I'd really like to be in a position where I could just draw and have other people take care of the rest of it.
SEAN T. COLLINS: The way I first discovered your work is through your pin-up stuff, for lack of a better word -- your drawings of women. I remember talking about you with a friend, and he actually asked, "Oh, does he do sequential stuff?" On the Internet, because it's so easy to reblog single images on Tumblr and similar platforms, the emphasis tends to be on standalone things, mostly pin-ups. And obviously there's a big audience for that kind of work regardless. Do you feel like that element of your work has received the right emphasis, or do you want to draw people more to your comics?
JONNY NEGRON: I've always been very creative, so I don't really have a preference. I don't want to only do comics, and I don't want to only do pin-ups. I'd like to do large paintings, and have exhibitions in galleries, and things like that. There are stories that I want to do, but I'd like to do many other things. So I'm not really sure, in terms of what people are seeing more of. I don't know.
SEAN T. COLLINS: Well, as you point out, most of your comics work has appeared in print anthologies, so to see it, you're required to buy the book. When something goes up on Tumblr, there's no obstacle—if you're on the Internet, in theory, you can see it.
JONNY NEGRON: Yeah. [Print comics] seem like it has a much more limited following.
SEAN T. COLLINS: I know very little about your background. How long have you been drawing?
JONNY NEGRON: Oh, I've been drawing since I was very, very young. I've been drawing since I was about two years old. I only looked at it as a hobby. I'd taken some classes, but I didn't finish college, so I don't consider myself an educated artist. I've studied a lot independently, and I've just been drawing the whole time. I'm mainly self taught.
SEAN T. COLLINS: Where did you go to school?
JONNY NEGRON: I grew up on Long Island, so I went to school there. When I first got out, I really wanted to go to SVA. I wasn't able to get into SVA. I've never really been the best student, and it was mainly because of my grades that I didn't get in. I went to community college, and I guess I wasn't mature enough [laughs] to really stay focused, and I dropped out after about a year.
SEAN T. COLLINS: You're just 26, so it seems like you found a peer group pretty rapidly after that. You're constantly working in some form of collaboration, either directly with Jesse Balmer on Demon God Goblin Heaven or in an editorial or contributor capacity for various anthologies. How'd you come across the people you work with?
JONNY NEGRON: I lived in Oakland between 2009 and 2010, and I met Jesse Balmer there. We became friends pretty quickly, and one day we were just hanging out drawing together. I'd draw some squiggly lines on the page, and he'd finish it. We'd draw panels, and go back and forth: One of us would draw a piece of the page, and the other would fill it in. We kept doing that, and that's when we decided to do Demon God. But yeah, I've always enjoyed working with friends. As far as Chameleon goes, I contacted most people via the Internet. Jesse was the only one I'd actually met before we collaborated on that.
SEAN T. COLLINS: What's your comics background, specifically? Did you grow up reading comics?
JONNY NEGRON: Yeah. I grew up reading X-Men, Spawn, and things like that. A lot of manga. I've always been really into Blade of the Immortal. I liked Dragon Ball Z, Akira, things like that.
SEAN T. COLLINS: It's always interesting to talk to people—this is going to make me old and stupid—of your generation, because with me, the manga boom was after my time, in the sense that I wasn't a kid. I'd graduated college and was already reading comics "as a grown-up," you know what I mean? So most of the manga I ended up reading tended to be critically acclaimed—not so much alternative manga or gekiga because at first there wasn't a lot of that being translated, just not the big popular action serials that are maybe the manga equivalent of what X-Men was to my generation. I never had that opportunity as a teenager, or at least I wasn't seeing it if it was around.
JONNY NEGRON: When I was a kid, there was pretty much none that you could find—definitely not in your average comic store. It wasn't until I was a teenager that it became much more popular. Part of the fascination for me in seeing that stuff was that it was really not like anything I'd seen before, especially in comics. Everyone's androgynous-looking, it's a lot more sexual, there was nudity. Everything was more adult-like, even the kids' stuff. It's more mature than the average American comics. And it was so rare at the time that I became really curious about Japanese comics. That's probably why it's so evident in my style. That's the first thing most people say: "Oh, you like a lot of anime and manga, don't you?" [Laughs] But I'm influenced by lots of art and comics. I wouldn't say comics are my primary source of inspiration.
SEAN T. COLLINS: What is, then?
JONNY NEGRON: I spend a lot of time watching films, just to get a better idea of lighting and storytelling, the way scenes are framed.
SEAN T. COLLINS: Your comics rely on less obviously sensational elements—silence, negative space, the vagaries of pacing—to a degree that I think many would find surprising, if they know you as the guy who draws big girls. Is that your film influence at work?
JONNY NEGRON: Definitely. I'd say a majority of that comes from film. I like static. I like things that move slowly. The way that people consume media these days…people don't have the attention span, or whatever you want to call it. That's just not what they're told is good. It's "boring" if a scene's slow, or if there's not a lot of movement. But I really appreciate that stuff. I want to put that feeling into comics. Something epic.
SEAN T. COLLINS: Maybe you need to let the moments around an event breathe for the event to really mean much of anything. Giving it that space gives it more impact. Certainly that's how your work functions.
JONNY NEGRON: I feel that way too—you're just focusing on what's happening on the scene rather than going all over the place.
SEAN T. COLLINS: There's a flattening of the action in your violent comics, like "Violence City" or "Grandaddy Purple Erotic Gameshow" from Thickness. When you show someone hitting the ground, or a fist punching someone's face, the moment you draw feels like a half a second before or after what most people would normally draw. It's like you're capturing a still image of the progression of motion, but not at the moment of greatest impact or energy. Instead of showing the fist continuing on its arc as the other guy reels backwards, you're preserving that connection.
JONNY NEGRON: I've never thought about that, myself. When it comes to violent scene, the main thing… That's back to film as well, but I usually think of video games, like the old sidescroll beat-em-up games—Double Dragon, Final Fight. "Violence City" was an homage to those kinds of games, a character walking down the street beating everybody up.
SEAN T. COLLINS: The graphics and game-play back then were rudimentary, so that a fight consisted of someone walking down the street, then firing their fist out like a piston. As action, that has a vibe all its own. It reminds me of your pin-ups, which are virtually never traditional pin-uppy, sexy poses. They tend to just be standing there at three-quarter profile. It's just a presentation of the body. Why doesn't it look more traditional?
JONNY NEGRON: I'm not really sure. People ask me about that the most, about why I draw the body types I do for women. To me, I see it more as a metaphor, at times. I'm not necessarily trying to make them extremely sexy, or fetishize it. In a way, it is, but I personally am detached from it. I'm not like R. Crumb, I'm not obsessing over these kinds of women. In part, it's a style thing. And also, really, I've gotten a good response from people. They like the way I draw women. It's encouraging in making these really curvy women.
SEAN T. COLLINS: Have you gotten a good response from women?
JONNY NEGRON: Yeah! Most of the good responses come from women. And guys too, but the guys are more like [horny guy voice] "Yeah, they're hot!" But I do it also because you don't see it very often. You go to a magazine stand and half the magazines are the same very thin woman. Beauty is not limited to that kind of person. Anyone can be beautiful. That's part of the statement I'm trying to make with those drawings.
SEAN T. COLLINS: I'm a bit surprised to hear you feel detached from that material.
JONNY NEGRON: I guess sexually, I'm not [attached]. I was talking to a friend about it the other day: People comment more on stuff that involves sexuality and nudity. But there's all this other stuff that's more accessible, like superhero comics, where if I think about what's happening—these very muscular men wearing tight clothing and doing fantastic things and fighting—that, to me, is a little bit more strange than drawing a woman. [Laughs] If you put anything under a microscope…
SEAN T. COLLINS: I'm stealing this sentiment from someone I can't remember, but the amount of art about violence, which hopefully most of us won't actually participate in during our lives, versus the amount of art about sex, which ideally we all would [laughs]…
JONNY NEGRON: Yeah. We all live on earth because people had sex. And it's treated like this dirty, disgusting thing you're not supposed to talk about or look at. It's really a great thing that everyone enjoys! It's very strange when people say things like, "This is smut! Trash!" Yeah, we've been programmed to think that it is, but I don't think it is.
SEAN T. COLLINS: The blend of sexual material and horror is very much in the air in alternative comics right now, and your work runs really hard and deep into the sexy end. Your contribution to Thickness was the porniest thing in the book by far. As I've asked other cartoonists who do explicit work before, do you feel any personal risk about doing that kind of material, about putting your id out there?
JONNY NEGRON: Yeah, I do, honestly. There are times when I feel pretty ambivalent. Especially when I was working on Thickness, there some scenes where I was like, "[Sighs] Man, this is pretty intense stuff." It's stuff I couldn't show to everyone. Some people would be really grossed out and offended by it. But back to what I just said, I don't feel bad about it anymore. I actually want to do more stuff like that. People like it, so.
SEAN T. COLLINS: I loved the "Grandaddy Purple" strip you did in Mould Map #2 as well, but it's so different from the one in Thickness. That one was so dependent on motion, while this is just a static tableau, a cross-section of a house where everything's happening all at once. You've taken the same basic vibe, and conveyed it in two ways that are both recognizably comics, yet are totally different in how they work.
JONNY NEGRON: Yeah, I never thought about that. I came up with that cross-section because I was limited to under two pages. I didn't put a whole lot of thought into that one, because once I decided it was going to be a cross-section, there's not really much of a story that's happening. You see a couple arrive at the house, and then they enter, and join the orgy that's going on. And that's about it. [Laughs] Every strip that I've done takes place in the same universe, so eventually, the more stories I put out there, the stories are going to meet each other. They'll connect characters that appear in different stories I've done throughout the years.
SEAN T. COLLINS: It's interesting to hear you say that, because the strip you contributed to Study Group Magazine #1 feels like something else entirely. Like, the critic Derik Badman called it "the first Jonny Negron comic I've liked."
JONNY NEGRON: [Laughs]
SEAN T. COLLINS: The ruminative tone's much more in line with traditional alternative comics.
JONNY NEGRON: Yeah, and I completed that one after Thickness just because I needed to something that wasn't violent or hardcore sex content. I wanted to do something that had more…I don't know, a different tone than the other comics that I've done.
SEAN T. COLLINS: This reminds me: You read X-Men and Blade of the Immortal when you were younger—when did you get into North American alternative comics? Or did you? Is that something that's been important to you?
JONNY NEGRON: I think I got more into alternative comics when I was in my late teens—like R. Crumb. But not a whole lot. I reached an age where I really stopped, and didn't read comics as much. Now, within the past couple years, I think just because I became serious about making comics myself, I started reading a lot more comics, but it was more like studying. There's a lot of great stuff, and I enjoy a lot of comics, but I don't really collect them anymore. I don't read every new must-read. I like the Hernandez Brothers and Love and Rockets a lot, but not a whole lot of the older independent comics.
SEAN T. COLLINS: What are you reading, then? Stuff by people you've worked with, or are friendly with?
JONNY NEGRON: Yeah, recently. The last thing I picked up was Garden by Yuichi Yokoyama. He's one person I really like very much right now. Other than that, there's not too much.
SEAN T. COLLINS: What tools do you work with?
JONNY NEGRON: For penwork, I use Microns, mostly. I use India ink too. For coloring, I primarily use Pigma color markers, and I use watercolors as well.
SEAN T. COLLINS: What else are you working on now? Is there more Chameleon coming up?
JONNY NEGRON: Possibly. I think we'll maybe put another one out in the spring. I'm not sure.
SEAN T. COLLINS: We're living in a heavily anthologized era, which is exciting to me because I really like short-form work. I think it's made possible a whole lot of work that, if it weren't for all these anthologies, would have a hard time getting any traction. Seeing it all together…
JONNY NEGRON: Oh yeah, most definitely. My idea for Chameleon was really just to put out a little art book, and not just a series of short strips. I tell everyone who contributes stuff to Chameleon that they can do whatever they want to. I said, "It doesn't matter at all to me." That's the main reason I wanted to do Chameleon. You get a handful of people who ask you to contribute to an anthology, and there's usually a theme of some sort -- stuff that's not exactly what I want to do, the theme that they choose. So I purposely told everyone "Do what you want to do." It's been surprising, because especially with the second one, they all fit together nicely. I'm pretty happy with it. I didn't tell anyone anything about what I was gonna do [in that issue]. There's a lot of violence in there! [Laughs] It worked out pretty nice.