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No Choice But Comics: Kramers at X

Sammy Harkham's warhorse anthology Kramers Ergot has by now spent over a decade as the foremost outlet for serious short form comics in the US. That's more than twice as long as its tenure as a scrappy, slightly zine-y venue for work by a promising contingent of very young cartoonists (issues 1-3, 2000-03), or the period it spent storming the gates with glorious, blasphemous redefinitions of the medium for the 21st century (4-6, '03-'06). If it isn't the mainstream, Kramers has still become a mainstream, with a definable impact, influence, and set of followers to call its own. There's fawning quotes from the New York Times and Time Magazine and more emblazoned on the newly released issue 10's belly band, proof of the publication's institutional status if you're the kind who needs it. Yet within a comics culture that initally struggled to deal with its mere existence, Kramers is often treated as a hot potato - too boundary-breaking or future-forecasting to be investigated as anything else.

Kramers Ergot 10 makes things plain as can be from its indicia on in, proclaiming debts in bright red capital letters to RawWeirdo, andThe Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, a holy trinity of American anthologies. Weird shit in their time, in combination these titles laid out a rough playbook for the alt-comics style of the '80s and '90s - one that Kramers would provide a necessary pivot from a generation later. The name-drop opening of this volume suggests a circle closing, that focusing on differences between canon and challenger ignores their fundamental connection. "I felt like this issue could be the one where we make it explicit," Harkham told me in an Oakland alehouse on the eve of the book's release, "the relationship Kramers has always had to the history of comics. When issue 4 came out everyone was like 'oh, it feels so cutting edge and new, blah blah,' but the reason they're feeling that way is because it hearkens back to the last one hundred years of comics. There is a lineage that it's connected to. And in this one we just make that more explicit."

If Kramers isn't - never really has been - the all-destroying comet from an imagined avant-garde many wanted it to be during its mid-oughts period of greatest notoriety, what can it be? For me, this issue suggests itself as a more ideal version of the eternally benighted Best American Comics series: an anthology showcasing new work by a collection of proven talents, both long established and still ascending, with an elevated level of quality as its lone polestar. "In comics there's no reason to do anything that doesn't put quality as its number 1 priority," Harkham opines. "You can't say that about any other medium, pretty much - people are trying to get things done on deadlines or fill a slot on Netflix or whatever. But with this the goal is to make the book as good as you can. It connects to this idea of comics as a whole. With an anthology you're not focused on this book or this artist. You're saying I like this medium. I like all of it, you know?" 

Indeed, more than any previous issue, this Kramers has something for anyone who's into comics, if the rep it's been assigned doesn’t circumscribe who'll pick it up. One-page gags by a history of greats from Frank King to Simon Hanselmann orbit longer pieces by Connor Willumsen or Harkham himself that demand equal weight be given to both ends of the old “literary comics" descriptor, with squint inducing formalism from C.F. and Marc Bell forcing readers to confront work that reads like nothing else, and Lale Westvind throwing red meat to the peanut gallery with a body horror comic rooted firmly in the Golden Age superhero idiom. The book sees talented artists like Aisha Franz, John Pham, and Will Sweeney making comics that don't really invite comparison to any others, but fit perfectly in a collection bound together more by the high level its contributors are working at than any stylistic tendencies. 

Still, Harkham dismisses the Best American Comics comparison. "Best American has to serve this sort of phantom audience. What regular people want, or what librarians want. More squares are reading comics, but I don't care about squares or the comics they're reading. There's never been a drive towards cheerleading for comics - people should come to us. We don't need to go to them." An audience for the book is presumed, with no conversions necessary... even if it won't be banging down the doors en masse on new release Wednesday. "Let's just make a great book for the people who are gonna find it in a library, find it ten years from now, find it on a friend's couch, a dorm room," Harkham says casually. "That audience base is fucking rad. I love that audience."

Speaking as a longtime member of its captive audience, Kramers 10 is a great issue, to my mind the best since 2006's issue 6. It's the largest one since the hot take-generating $125 broadsheet-sized issue 7, but its handfeel is pleasingly insubstantial, a nice floppy comic book whose cover's gold foil framing might almost have gotten there by accident. "We wanted something very light that you could read on the toilet or in bed," Harkham says. "Like a big oversized annual. I've been reading Wonder Woman treasury editions with my daughter, and the art's amazing, the stories are great, the size is great, the interior paper isn't super heavy and glossy... it's a great reading size and a great looking size. It's definitely exactly Raw #7 size. That was a comic that I got out of a one dollar bin and is still an evergreen for me."  You could say this is an editor trying to have his cake and eat it too, thumbing his nose at his book's status as a subcultural touchstone while further cementing it, but maybe it’s also just what these things are at their core - there’s probably not too many pristine copies of Raw and Weirdo floating around these days, and Kramers 10's production proclaims that it's okay with being similarly destined to degrade. 

This is the shortest issue in a long time too, with only a few pieces that demand focus for more than a few minutes. Where earlier issues' sprawl was a huge part of their appeal, slopping one ladleful after another of stuff onto the reader until a state of total passive reception was inevitably reached, there's a pleasing crispness to this issue - maybe the very first one you can read right through without feeling like it's inevitable that you'll be missing something. It's also the first issue in well over a decade not to feature any non-comics illustrations. "You don't want 300 pages of that size," the editor says, "and there was no reason to run just a drawing by someone. As you get stuff in it makes other work unnecessary." 

Harkham practices with the concision he preaches. His own story, titled "Blood of the Virgin" like his current solo book in progress, is as ruthlessly edited as any Hemingway, with a cowhand-turned-early film director's winding life in the entertainment industry summed up in 24 elliptical pages that beg for the adjective "whirlwind". For the first time since his instant classic "Poor Sailor" in Kramers' breakthrough issue 4, Harkham's contribution forms the spine of an issue. "It makes me look like a fucking asshole," he mutters. "I was very insecure about it. I don't love the idea of being the editor and the guy with the longest story." But it serves a purpose: "My work is very narrative, it's very grounded, so just by knowing that it's gonna be in the book that gives us room. It lets us do something more visual, because you know that mine is gonna be so grindingly literal." Harkham hits something real here - there is a sense of level footing in this issue of Kramers that past volumes haven't had. Somewhere a half-empty glass is mouthing that the insurgent-turned-incumbent magazine has lost a certain anarchic spirit as it hits double digits. But this is also what it looks like when a publication that's long championed a medium cleaves more closely to it. Previous Kramers have felt as much like exhibition catalogs or art books as anything else, but this one is a comic full of comics, more a comfort for readers than a challenge.  

It's also a comic full of reprints, or at least work that wasn't originally created for publication here. Though rarely discussed as a venue for reprinted works, Kramers has produced some highlights in its time, introducing the English-speaking world to Suiho Tagawa and Marc Smeets in issue 6 and infamously closing its 8th volume with enough episodes of Penthouse's airbrushed sleazefest "Oh, Wicked Wanda" to choke a horse. The big ticket in issue 10 is clearly the section devoted to Shary Flenniken's Trots and Bonnie, a one-page gag strip about a tween girl and her talking dog that ran in National Lampoon from 1972-90, pasting Brady Bunchian cheer over an almost unbearable parade of misogynistic, patriarchal abuses. Flenniken's comics couldn't be better suited to right this second; that this stuff was ripe for reprinting is self-evident. That it's Kramers doing it is both surprising and obvious. 

The book's scattering of other reprints is lower-key, but still impactful. A Robert Crumb two-pager looks incredible, gives Kramers another marquee name on its contributor list, and exhumes a piece of that guy's work that points its spleen at a fully deserving target (namely “those right-wing party dudes with too much testosterone and not enough money" who've managed to take over this country's political apparatus since Crumb laid these panels down in 1990). A single translated page from French virtuoso Blutch's "covers album" Variations is stunning to behold and provides a steadying hit of straight genre comics amid stranger surroundings, its re-rendering of a classic page from Moebius's Blueberry series inviting us to look at another all-time great through this book's oddball filter. A typically whimsical Gasoline Alley Sunday page from 1922 slots in seamlessly among more pointed stories. "Frank King is making work in a completely different context," Harkham expounds, "but there is a connection. He's bringing energy and a personality to work for hire that he's not being forced to. And I also like thinking of this book as not existing out of thin air. There's a river of comics history, and I'm just throwing in, you know?"

The book's final reprint is a two-page Spain Rodriguez/Kim Deitch collaboration that originally ran in a 1968 issue of the East Village Other, and appears here framed by a new Deitch buddy-comedy comic relating its process of creation. It points up how often the river of comics history Harkham mentions has wound through terrain that isn't taken up by comic books as such. The East Village OtherNational Lampoon; the King page is a tearsheet from the Chicago Tribune. In a long autobiographical text from Jaime Hernandez on Kramers 10's indicia page, the Love and Rockets Hall of Famer reminisces: "We were always drawn to comics. If there was something in a magazine and they had an ad that was drawn like a comic, we were always drawn to that." In making his case for the form and its lineage in this book, Harkham reminds us that it's never been holistic. "Without a doubt, comics have only built audiences by sneakily getting into people's way," he claims. "In newspapers, in magazines - that's always been how regular people have had a relationship with comics. If anything, what we've been dealing with for the last 20 years is going more like 'no, comics are something you should search out'. All I know is the audience has always been a certain percentage of the populace, and I'd say that percentage has stayed the same for the last 40 years."

Other concerns are more apparent, though Harkham insists that as an editor he "never think(s) thematically, only visually". Beginning with Jaime conjuring the bedroom-bound fraternal comics obsession of his childhood, the book treats of its medium as something hermetic, a coded language that exists all around us but can only be truly understood by a small group of seekers. David Collier's one-pager recalls a youth spent in libraries diligently uncovering the history of his chosen medium, and muses on pioneering comics critic Coulton Waugh's traveling the same well-trod ground. Comics by Helge Reumann and Jason Murphy veer toward abstraction, but retain just enough connective tissue to tease readers into believing that looking just that little bit harder might make their pieces fit together neatly. Ron Rege's page aims for the heart of the thing, illuminating a section of an alchemical text by 17th-century astronomer Johannes Fabricius. 

A more prominent theme is the shadow of economic exploitation, which hangs over a majority of the book's longer stories. Harkham's slice of fictional biography chronicles one man's struggle to free himself from the degrading machinery of early Hollywood. Anna Haifisch transmutes Mervyn Peake's short story "Rottcodd and the Hall of the Bright Carvings" into a pointed fable about artists' exploitation by capital, one that finds a harmonious counterpoint here in Aisha Franz's tale of the super-rich. The most chilling of Flenniken's Trots and Bonnie strips sees a middle-aged man extracting sexual acts from uncomprehending young girls by buying their Girl Scout cookies, and twists the knife with the suggestion that Avon saleswomanship lies in their future. Connor Willumsen, John Pham, and Will Sweeney all train eyes on the struggles of the ordinary working stiffs who drive your cabs, make your smoothies, and pack your fucking Amazon boxes. 

"I hadn't put it together in that way," Harkham says, "but it's all in the book. It's pretty clear what my instincts are, what I'm thinking. You start sensing themes and connecting tissue between stories. Everything around (the book) is connecting to this larger picture of like, it doesn't make sense to make comics, and it's not a medium that rewards you as a maker. It doesn't even reward you as a reader very often! Most of my friends who read comics follow like half a dozen cartoonists who never publish. It's like one thing every couple years, and every day they wanna read about comics and think about comics - but there's nothing out there. It's very dire. When I think of what comics needs, it's something of high quality that comes out regularly and can pay well. That would be amazing! And since Kramers fails at both we'll just keep holding out."

Unprompted, Harkham changes subjects as our talk nears its end. "All the energy most people spend online, I spend making anthologies," he muses. "Maybe that energy would be better spent making solo books with other people where I work as an editor. There's a lot of great comics that are out of print, there's a lot of great artists who are not being advocated for. With Kramers you're at the whim of the quality of the work that you get in, whereas if I look at an artist who did great work and it's all out of print - that exists. I did this one thinking this might be our last issue."

I say he's making me wanna cry, then offer that during the four year layoff and change of publisher between issues 7 and 8 I'd assumed we'd already seen the final Kramers - and that was a decade ago now. Harkham laughs. "I would never put quotes on a belly band on the front cover unless I was like, you know what? Fuck it. Let's remind everyone... these books did alright." 

He pauses before continuing. "But that all said, if Tim Hensley was like 'hey, I got this 24 page story and I don't know what to do with it'? Yeah, very quickly we would be working on Kramers 11. If Julie Doucet was like 'oh, I never reprinted this thing, we should do something'? There'll be a Kramers 11."

I ask Harkham why he led the book off with a massive blockquote of the fourth Hernandez brother's childhood drawing-table remembrances. He relates a long, fruitless search for some piece of intense writing about some specific comic which could serve as a tone-setting introduction for the book, before his frequent dinner companion Jaime dropped something ideal in his lap, “suggesting that there's nothing but making comics, and that there's no choice but comics, and that all the reward is in comics."

Kramers 10's table of contents is printed on its final page. An epigraph above it displays an old Yiddish saying: "For a little love, you pay a lifetime."

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21 Responses to No Choice But Comics: Kramers at X

  1. Derik Badman says:

    Damn, Matt. I was going to skip this but now you’ve convinced me to read it.

  2. Matt Seneca says:

    Do yourself a favor! Thanks Derik.

  3. Alex says:

    These books have been great and I like Harkham’s work as a cartoonist. It’d be great if he reprinted #4 (again) so that when every essay about these things mentions what a breakthrough that issue was, people could read it, but I get that these things aren’t that easy to do.

    I just have a problem with the idea that “more squares are reading comics.” Who are the squares? Women? Kids? Because comics aren’t any more popular with the Spawn or Green Lantern or even Illustrated Biography of Albert Einstein crowd than they were when the first issue of Kramers came out. Comics’ growing markets, its square fans, are people who don’t look like Sammy Harkham. I get he’s saying this as a way to draw a line between his book and Best American Comics, saying one panders and the other doesn’t. But Best American Comics, for all of its flaws, highlights YA comics, features more than a couple women per installment, etc. There’s a weird quality vs. pandering argument happening here, where if you recognize comics are made for all kinds of people, you’re a chump and a square.

  4. P says:

    @Alex

    I think you are taking that point in the wrong direction. In a world where Marvel puts out the biggest movies every year and Mark Millar is about to have his own Netflix line; it seems to me it’s directed at people who don’t give two shits about comics but are just interested in what the money machine is trying to feed them. Whether it’s Stranger Things comics tie ins or Avengers 37: Ant Man’s Grandkids Go To College, there’s a growing number of people who are only interested in comics as a passing trend and not because they love it. Seems to me Harkham wants to edit something that’s for the people who truly have a connection to and passion for the medium.

    Thankful for any time my eyes get to feast on Lale Westvind’s art, here’s to hoping for 10 more Kramer’s.

  5. Alex says:

    P– I think that’s probably what he means in some way, but he’s comparing his anthology to Best American Comics, not whatever today’s equivalent to Wizard Magazine is. I’m not going to defend Best American as a record of the country’s best art, but it also isn’t publishing Deadpool comics. Harkham’s being flip, but when he divides comics into the good shit and the stuff squares like, and the squares have diversity and he has a couple women and… a thirty-year-old Robert Crumb strip, he sounds as outdated as his beatnik-era lingo.

  6. Scipio the Younger says:

    “[T]here’s a growing number of people who are only interested in comics as a passing trend and not because they love it.”

    I want to agree with P’s interpretation here but don’t know if the above statement is true. More people are definitely interested in comic properties but seemingly only when they show up in movies. Anecdotally, I don’t know anyone who has bought even one comic despite the fact that most people I know have seen at least some superhero movies.

    That seems to lead to Alex’s reading, which certainly feels worse. And as dedicated to Kramers as I am—I HAVE THE TOTE, FER CHRISSAKES—I think the critique from Alex (and others on Twitter) regarding diversity of contributors is fair and important.

  7. Alex says:

    The thing that taints anything Sammy does going forward is that he co-founded and served on the board of Cinefamily, which closed in 2017 after sexual harassment and rape allegations were thrown at another co-founder and a separate person on the board, and the board was accused of ignoring all of that for years. It’s hard to take the squares comment with a grain of salt when the guy making it owned and helped run a theater with a totally hostile environment. He seems pretty okay with the boys club.

  8. Scipio the Younger says:

    Oh, and: Probably Harkham is just saying more people with “bad taste” (by his standards) are reading comics, and it has nothing to do with the demographics of the cartoonists or the readers. But that conclusion seems harder to reach with so few women and artists of color doing his book, and, regardless, his money could be at least closer to his mouth on that.

    And last thing: He seems to be at the height of his powers as a cartoonist. I finished his story in this book wishing I could read new Sammy Harkham comics all day.

  9. Alex says:

    Scipio, you put it better than I could with your last comment. Exactly. And I feel the same about his talent as a cartoonist. Sorry for all the comments.

  10. Matt Seneca says:

    I feel like I should jump in here with a point of order – I was the one who introduced the Best American comparison as a topic of conversation to Sammy to see what he thought of it. That binary is coming from me, not him.

    The reason I brought it to the table is that TO ME, Best American seems frequently caught up in showcasing “the medium” that it often gives its creators a less than flattering spotlight. Representative excerpts from long books that made a splash during a certain window of time, plus nebulously defined “other stuff” that is probably more emblematic of the guest editor of a particular volume’s taste, most of it shoehorned into a format that doesn’t match what it was created for, takes some shine off of both the work on display and the diversity of content and approaches those books seem to want to present (again, TO ME). I think the way Kramers is edited, with discreet works created specifically for a format, tends to present both its publishees and its form in a more favorable light. The formalistic qualities of the respective series do much to explain what I, personally, see as their different levels of aesthetic success.

    Of course, we’re talking apples and oranges – the books serve different markets – and I don’t want to beat up too much on BAC, which if nothing else I’m glad exists. I was interested in what Sammy would think of the comparison between his book and the other series, simply because high profile comics anthologies are relatively rare – and despite their obvious differences, Kramers and BAC share many, many contributors and command attention from similar segments of both the comics-focused and “wider” (or whatever) media. The BAC talk is in the article because of my personal belief that it was worth making the comparison.

  11. Scipio the Younger says:

    Thanks for the follow-up, Matt! As to the representation issue, it seems to stand independently from the comparison between the anthologies. I first saw people discussing it on Twitter and felt like a blind idiot for not making the observation regarding lack of diversity sooner (and I guess that’s the problem, and the point).

    Hopefully it’s not inconsistent for me to say that the latest Kramers is still stunning and that I enjoyed this article quite a bit.

  12. Peggy says:

    ahh, the old squares and hepcats debate. LOL

  13. Alex says:

    BAC is a point of comparison because the article brings it up— Harkham is still separating what he’s doing from everything else. And he should probably think his anthology has the best work! It would be bad if he thought it stunk. But when Sammy turns his chair around and sits down on it backwards to rap with us cool kids, he needs to realize he’s saying the cream of the crop is lily-white and male. The failures of the BAC format, or anything else about it, are beside the point that this anthology has a big, ugly failure to go along with its successes.

  14. Sally says:

    Kramers 10 was a bit of a disappointment to me. Outside of Sammy’s story and a few notable others (Anna Haifisch, Lale Wsetvind, and Will Sweeney), its contents felt like strips that each cartoonist had lying around previous to Sammy calling up and asking them to contribute. “Oh, yeah, I got something you can put in there…”

    That, and the stable of cartoonists he pulled from for this issue are all the Usual Suspects. Compare this to 9, where the best strips were by up-and-comers like Anthony Huchette, Adam Buttrick, and Abraham Diaz. And it’s great to see people like Archer Prewitt or Rick Altergott publishing stuff, but their contributions are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gag strips that blur with the other short strips in the collection. New Prewitt should be a cause for celebration, but it comes across as filler. If the dorm room buddy Harkham imagines picking this up were to read it, these strips would barely register. That’s too bad.

  15. Belnz says:

    I’m not sure where you’re coming from there@Sally, there was far more excerpts from probably-never-completed stories and scrappy sketchbook stuff in number 9, which I consider the nadir. From what I’ve read, KE 10 is all self-contained and complete stories, many of them representing the artist at the height of their powers. A far cry from the cavalcade of tossed-off ideas and biro’ed notebook papers of 9

    @Alex your efforts come across as misguided and self-righteous, and seem to hinge entirely on your definition of Harkham’s use of the word ‘squares’? Please be responsible, the more people that pipe up, the easier it becomes to drown us out.

  16. Alex says:

    Belnz– I’m probably focusing on “squares” so much because it’s such a weird word to use in this context. And I have to keep emphasizing this, but I love most of the artists in this Kramers (and I liked 9 a lot!). My criticism of Harkham’s dismissal of newer, different types of comics fans and the fact that there’s very narrow representation in his curating work would be the same no matter what word he used. He could have said “people” and I’d still get irked by the fact that 4/5ths of the contributors to the big alt-comics event book are guys. I’m sure Sammy is a good guy. He’s a good artist. I just think this is a blindspot he could stand to correct.

  17. Erik Nebel says:

    (i have a friend who works in a comic book store who often uses the term “squares,” sort of in a fun, ironic way, not critical, referring to “normal” people. maybe the term has become popularized recently with a certain segment of the comics community.)

    the squares have zero interest in comics as an art form.
    i would love to live in a world where squares wanted to read Kramers Ergot and Best American Comics.
    it’s the literary artsy crowd that is most likely to pick up those books.

  18. Let’s disentangle the “squares” and the BAC qs from what seems to be much more basic qs that Kim O’Connor is raising elsewhere: that Kramer’s is 90% white men and its creators are possible uncompensated? Or that creators who do work that is commissioned but not used are uncompensated, at least?

    Those seem like hugely important things to be talking about. Not shouting about, not trying to “cancel” anyone, but can we talk honestly about what those things mean?

  19. Malloy says:

    People C’mon the one with the Green and Orange Frank Santoro story and the C.F pornography was the best one.

  20. oof this comment section is starting to feel like Square City! Could not be happier with Kramers 10 — the Shary Flenniken strips alone are worth the price of admission.

  21. Brian says:

    Just wanted to say that people complaining about the new Kramers’ lack of women and POC should pick up issue 5 of the anthology Happiness, recently released by Perfectly Acceptable Press.

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