There was a time early on in my life as a Noel Freibert reader when I’d spent at least as much time arguing with him about his comics as I had reading the comics themselves. As part of the Baltimore-based underground-comics group (don’t call it a collective — see below for why) Closed Caption Comics, Freibert stood out even in that motley crew for the graphic intensity of his comics, in both senses of the g-word. In stand-alone comics like My Best Pet and Mr. Cellar’s Attic as well as his contributions to CCC’s annual eponymous anthology series, Freibert deploys a thin, stringy line of uniform weight that makes his images of manic maniacs and drippy, oozy gore seem to radiate off the page. His horror stories’ narration and dialogue, meanwhile, is indebted to EC Comics, but eschews their twist endings and punning sarcasm, employing their verbosity instead to browbeat reader and hapless victims alike with the futility and awfulness of their plight. It’s a combination that fits nicely alongside the ornamental oddities of fellow CCC members Lane Milburn, Erin Womack, Conor Stecschulte, Ryan Cecil Smith, and so on, yet discomfits and overwhelms on its own gonzo terms. These are comics you’ll want to pound on the table as you talk about them, whether positively or not.
Though the 26-year-old Louisville, Kentucky native has lived in Baltimore since moving there to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2004, a tour with his band Witch Hat proved him to be difficult to pin down even at this late date. But I found his thoughts on horror and the place of cruelty in art, on the working relationship between the members of CCC, and on the influence of noisecomix titans Gary Panter and Fort Thunder, among many other topics, to be worth the wait.
Sean T. Collins: Though I’d been following Closed Caption Comics for some time by this point, I believe my first actual interaction with you was when we had a pretty passionate debate over your comic “My Best Pet,” in which a character burns a cat to death in a microwave, which is not one of my favorite things to read about. We walked away agreeing to disagree, but I thought it was a pretty instructive discussion in how in probed the uses and limitations of shock and gore in comics, and the extent to which artists can and cannot calibrate reader reaction to that kind of material. Did you get anything out of it? How would you say it relates to your overall use of horror and cruelty?
Noel Freibert: I felt provoked by your review of My Best Pet because it seemed negative on the basis that my comic involved scenes of animal violence. I felt like you were casting a moral judgment. In that moment I felt that I had to defend my art because I don’t actually mutilate animals, or agree with mutilating animals, even though I make comics with characters that mutilate animals. As a viewer of entertainment, I feel willing to be confronted with most any subject matter. I don’t judge media simply by its content, but how the content is presented in context.
I had a lot of fun engaging in our conversation. It felt good to defend myself, to probe, and to write about my work. I gathered a lot from personal reflection. If you hadn’t written the review I probably wouldn’t have gone about that in such a direct manner. I think about our conversation often. It’s probably affected me in the sense that I have even less regard for timid viewers. I realized that my comics aren’t for everyone and shouldn’t be. In many ways I think your review was the best reaction. An appalled viewer is so much better than apathy! I couldn’t have asked for more.
Collins: Ha, I haven’t often been accused of timidity! Nah, I know that’s not actually what you’re saying about me. But it does make me wonder if you’ve come across any other harsh reader reactions. When I’ve interviewed people like Johnny Ryan and Tom Neely about their more outré work, they’ve said that most of the time the self-selecting nature of the alternative-comics audience shields them from outrage. Have you found that to be the case, me and the microwave-cat aside?
Freibert: One experience comes to mind: This guy bought some of my comics at a show. He was one of those people that stands around and talks your face off about how much they like your work. He immediately went over to his girlfriend and showed the comics to her. I watched the whole interaction happen. She was disturbed by some of the content, so she made him “take it back.” [Laughs] This was one of the weirdest interactions that I’ve had face to face simply because he had spent so much time expressing to me that he liked the work beforehand. Weird.
Collins: From your “ET” imprint on down, EC Comics loom large over much of your work, albeit in a way that largely abandons their broad irony. How much exposure have you had to those comics? I ask because I could see the idea of EC Comics, rather than the comics themselves, being the real inspiration for you.
Freibert: I’ve read most of the EC horror titles and I’m a big fan of Graham Ingels. I think he’s the best of the lot. It surprises me how little he gets brought up in conversation. Ghastly! His style is really amazing considering the time when he was making that work. Everyone else on the EC roster holds a pretty fluid cartoon style, they are able to make something look pretty if needed, but not Ghastly. Literally every character Ingels draws looks disgusting. Even when he’s trying to draw a beautiful woman or handsome man, they usually look sick. It’s amazing stuff.
In terms of content my work is less about replicating EC style and more about crafting a challenging horror comic. The things that I’ve ripped directly from EC are more formal elements, like a six-panel grid, narrator voice, and compositional elements on the covers.
Collins: What do you get out of using that tight grid? I’ll admit that Frank Santoro has me second-guessing myself about any grid that doesn’t have a “center” panel anymore, but I still think a six- or eight-panel grid have compositional advantages for rhythm and momentum that they wouldn’t have if they had that central anchor point. What do you think?
Freibert: What drew me to the six-panel grid was the simplicity of it. It allowed me to spend less time thinking about making a certain panel larger than the others. I could free myself up and focus on crafting a coherent story. Also I felt like I wanted to make comics that appeared to be “straight” or “normal.” I wanted to teach myself what making “real comics” was like. I wanted to be able to make work where having abnormal grids would really mean something. I pared it all down to the basics so that if I chose to do something in the grid that strayed from the norm, it would have an impact.
When I worked at [an art] museum I read a lot of Tintin, and that sparked an interest in using 12-panel grids. It’s interesting for me because every page has double the panel count compared to six panels, and it allows me to spread moments out and/or pack information in.
Frank’s grid ideas are really on point. We’ve actually collaborated before on a comic that maintains the idea of “the center” — a little experiment, not sure if it’ll ever see the light of day, or if it even needs to. It was a learning experience. I don’t always adhere to the Golden Rule, but it’s good to know that it’s there. I’d say [Closed Caption Comics] mostly adheres to the “Brown Rule.”
Collins: [Laughs] Back during the Great Cat Debate, you mentioned that nuking the poor kitty was a way for you to explore certain visual textures, namely splatter. That oozy, melty, rotting vibe is a common one in your comics, and it’s made all the more striking by your uniform line weight — it makes the splatter less a consequence of some action and more the point of the image itself, somehow. Did I characterize that right? Which came first, your interest in these textures or your interest in horror?
Freibert: My interest in horror has always been there. As a child I would basically just draw monsters — no cars or machines, just monsters. My older brother has always been into horror movies. He’s a big inspiration to me.
My obsession with texture is a more recent development. I worked at an art museum for two and a half years, and it sparked in me an interest in color field painting, as well as other forms of art. I wanted to use elements of those shapes and textures in my own work. I try to put as much energy into the formal elements of the comics page as the plot. The two go together. My interest in the “splatter” and the reason for the splatter are equal.
Collins: I also really enjoy your experiments with lettering, how at times it actually supplants the “drawings” and becomes its own form of visual storytelling. I see very few of your peers working with it in this way. Can you talk a bit about what you’re up to there?
Freibert: There are certain points in my comics where the visuals become unnecessary, where it would feel forced if i drew something. In those moments I rely on other elements to carry the mood. I watch a lot of films, and in that medium the idea of “giving a break from the visuals” seems more commonplace. Sometimes when I exclusively use text I feel like it’s similar to allowing the soundtrack of a film to carry the mood. The text can be abstract or very direct like an image, but it allows for a different experience than an image can offer. I use it to add variety of mood, and to stay excited as a viewer and creator!
Collins: Thinking about this a different way, it’s obviously a commonplace among comics circles to view drawing as a kind of handwriting itself. Recently I’ve seen Art Spiegelman, Ben Katchor, and Craig Thompson all talk about this, though to obviously very different effect in their work. Yet you’re quite clearly differentiating between text and image by saying the former allows for a different experience than the latter, a break from the latter, even when functioning in its place. Do you buy the idea that there’s a continuity there at all?
Freibert: By “drawing as a kind of handwriting” I’m assuming that those artists are talking about how a particular artist’s style can be recognized by the lines they make. That’s true to some extent…
Collins: Well, yes, that, and in the sense that the art in comics is a kind of picture-writing.
Freibert: I feel like I am interested in artists that are more recognizable for their ideas, where ideas could be a type of handwriting. I’m interested in more formal experimentation, while working at the same themes.
I think drawing and writing each achieve different ends that are unattainable to the other. Like music and film, they can be combined together to different affect, but each individually can not be compared to the other. Comics is a mixture of drawing and writing, and it’s good to recognize the power in each of those individual elements, and to know that you can use one without the other.
Collins: I’d love to hear a bit more about Closed Caption Comics. I know the basics about you, that you got together at MICA and all that, and I’ve even had you collectively guest-blog for me while I was on vacation, but beyond that I know very little about how life under the CCC umbrella works. How often, and how closely, do you work together? In particular, what’s the process behind your flagship anthology series? If you were the Wu-Tang Clan, who would be the RZA?
Freibert: When we were in school we would all hang together chummily. It started off simply as a group of people that were interested in comics. In the early days making comics wasn’t any of our primary practice as artists — except maybe Ryan [Cecil Smith] and Mollie [Goldstrom]. They had actively made comics prior. But now making comics is a big part of the “thing” that each of us does.
It’s been a really long time since we were all in the same space at once, and right now we mostly communicate through email and the blog. Initially the blog was intended as a way to share work amongst ourselves and it wasn’t really thought of as a public place. Over time it’s become our online representation.
We aren’t a super tightly organized group. There isn’t one person that’s in charge of everything, but commonly I would say (and I feel weird saying this) that I make a lot of decisions. I don’t think there is one RZA, but everyone is a piece of RZA. When we come together we make the real RZA. Closed Caption Comics is like the “Jizz RZA.” [Collins laughs]
The amount of variety in the group is one element that really defines it. It continually surprises me how everyone gets recognized in different ways for their work. All of the reviews of CCC9 favored different pieces; I’ve never gotten the feeling that one person is singled out as “the best.” The favor goes in cycles.
The process for putting together the volumes of CCC is different every time. For issue nine I was in communication with the printer, and the basic rule that I gave everyone was the page size requirement. There was no limit on the amount of pages that each member could put in the book. After everyone sent me their pages, Conor and I arranged the order of the contents. CCC is weird in that we don’t accept submissions, we’re basically a core of friends, we only induct someone when everyone agrees that they should be in the group. There is no editing involved, nothing gets cut from the books.
Collins: Has having that kind of carte blanche led to CCC members doing things differently than they would if their primary outlet had an editor’s eye behind it?
Freibert: Not being edited has allowed for certain elements to be present, when they otherwise may not have been. I know that sounds really vague… I’m trying to think about how someone would go about editing CCC… I really can’t imagine anything being cut out. Not having an editor has allowed some people to experiment more and not feel some kind of pressure of consistency. I’ll use myself as an example: My comics in issue 8 and 9 are related in style and content, but my pieces in the seven previous issues all look like they could have been made by different artists. I think CCC is a place for everyone to try new things. From the beginning CCC has been about developing ourselves in a comfortable place were there are no rules to adhere to. It has never been about making a consistent product or maintaining some kind of style. It’s about growth and experimentation.
Collins: An artcomix take on genre storytelling, an emphasis on “markmaking,” printmaking and musical efforts, a collective spawned by an art school — needless to say, comparisons of CCC to Fort Thunder are thick on the ground. What do you think of that, and what do you think of the Fort? How direct of an influence on you were/are the Fort artists?
Freibert: I learned about Fort Thunder in a really indirect way. I’ve always been interested in comics. From a very early age my grandma would take my brother and I to the local comic shop every Friday. It’s something that’s always been in my life. When I was in high school I developed a very serious interest in underground Japanese comics. I remember first learning about Gary Panter from a blurb on the back of Comics Underground Japan. Someone [S. Clay Wilson] says in their blurb “Gary Panter, eat your heart out,” and then directly under that there is an actual blurb by Gary Panter. [Laughs] That’s the first time I’d ever heard of Gary Panter. I remember looking up his work and at the time I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it. Some years down the road, while in school in Baltimore (pretty sure this happened in the computer labs while we were printing the second issue of CCC), Conor and Lane were looking at the Fort Thunder website. I’d heard them talking about it before, but I didn’t know what it was. I was familiar with [Fort member Brian Chippendale's band] Lightning Bolt, but hadn’t made the connection. They showed me the website and I remember being really drawn in by the work. Soon after I realized that this weird guy, Gary Panter, had inspired them. I eventually got my hands on Cola Madness and was convinced that Gary Panter was “The Man.” Underground Japanese comics sparked my interest in comics as a young adult and Fort Thunder re-injected and solidified that excitement while I was in college. Christopher Forgues and Brian Chippendale are making some of the smartest comics in America right now. They’re very inspiring people on many different levels; every project they take on, whether audible, visual, or other, is really on point!
It’s interesting making comics right behind this big cluster of amazing work. It used to feel like we were always under someone’s shadow, or stepping on someones toes. As we’ve developed I think CCC is very separate from what Fort Thunder was and what its prime artists are continuing to do. One thing I would like to set straight is that CCC has never been a “collective.” We don’t make art together as a group, and we don’t live in a colony. Beyond having an interest in comics as a medium, there is no ideology. We are a group of friends that publish our work together.
When I think about my own development, I consciously chose to mimic horror genre comics and develop a more direct and “straightforward” idea of comics, because at the time I became very interested in looking at those types of comics. More specifically, I saw the approach as uncharted territory, something that the Fort wouldn’t have done. Along with this development came an interest in using structured grids, excessive dialog, and giving more focus to story craft. Lane and Ryan are also making very blatant genre influenced work.
Collins: The horror stuff definitely sets many CCC members apart from FT. To the extent that horror impacted FT at all I see it mainly in terms of kitsch monster imagery, although to be sure there are horrifying passages in Chippendale’s Ninja, and Mat Brinkman’s Teratoid Heights is sometimes chilling, and Brian Ralph’s Daybreak is an out-and-out horror comic. But it’s the exception that proves the rule. You and Conor and Lane and sometimes Ryan do actually seem to want to frighten people from time to time.
Indeed, your comics have a directness that I find both funny and fraught with some kind of hidden meaning I haven’t quite accessed yet. Your villains tend to spell out their villainy with extravagant bluntness, and when comeuppances are dealt out, your narrator voice really lays it on thick. “That pig fucker sure learned his lesson huh?…With a bullet in the head! Ha Ha Ha! That’s the way Kyle, kill everyone! It’s what they deserve.” There’s not really anything clever, or even “clever” in the old EC vein, to how this is done — you’re just coming right out and laying the awfulness in front of everyone. Why this in your face approach?
Freibert: It’s funny that you’ve chosen that line from “Son of a Gun”. Lately I’ve tried consciously not to use words like “fuck” in my comics. That word is so common. It’s a really easy way to make someone that’s been conditioned by mainstream society feel like “this is extreme.” I’ve found out that it is more pleasurable, more funny, more amusing for myself to work around such common words of assault, to pick at something deeper in the viewer. I often use a blunt approach because I like the humor in it. I think there is humor to harshness. Maybe my personality allows me to laugh at things that are not funny… maybe that’s why it seems strange to you. It’s mostly humorous to me.
Collins: No, it’s definitely funny! But it also strikes me as a way of battering down some reader defenses.
Freibert: Yeah, that’s what it’s about, the blunt impact!
Collins: I have very little sense of you beyond your comics. What are you, for want of a better word, into? I’m most interested in what comics you’ve been reading lately, but anything else would be helpful as well.
Freibert: I currently live in Baltimore City in a warehouse space called Floristree, it has a reputation as a music venue; over the years a lot of really amazing shows have happened in the space, and amazing artists live here. It’s also a few blocks from Edgar Allan Poe’s grave. These are my current roommates: Jordan Bernier, Andrew Liang (Eamon Espey and Andrew collaborate often), Shaun Flynn, Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez, Benjamin Boeldt (Benny is the pop synth band Adventure), Jared Paolini, Steve Santillan (Steve is the bass player in the band Thank You).
Along with making comics, when the occasion arises, I enjoy making art to be viewed in a gallery space. I also play drums in the band Witch Hat. I have a solo music project called “Old Man” and I have a collaborative project with my brother called “LLORT.” My brother Finley has inspired me a lot over the years. He’s exposed me to a lot of counter culture, and weird music. He knows an immense amount about film, and is always seeking out weird things. Not to mention he’s currently getting a doctorate in mathematics! Yow! [Collins laughs]
Very recently I’ve been on a huge Richard Corben binge. I first encountered his work in the early 2000s with House on the Borderland, but I’ve been really obsessed with his earlier work lately. I have weird feelings about some elements of his work, but his sense of color is always spot on. His comics made on computers are also interesting. Even though Corben’s style can seem really straightforward or conservative, he’s an artist that hasn’t been afraid of experimenting and failing. That’s really inspiring.
I love Usamaru Furuya. I’ve been pretty obsessed ever since I saw the bits from Palepoli in Secret Comics Japan. More of his work is finally being printed in English! Lychee Light Club is amazing, but his early stuff is incredibly mind blowing and are some of the strangest conceptual comics I’ve ever seen.
I collect quite a bit of untranslated manga. The artist Yuka Goto is really great — her book Justice Corps has a style that is very fast and kinetic. One of my favorite series that hasn’t been translated is God’s Left Hand, Devil’s Right Hand by [Kazuo] Umezu. It is insane and inspiring. One artist I like a lot that is relatively unheard of [is] Gataro Man. Eamon Espey showed me his work in 2008. Really crazy detailed fast-paced style, real “poop” style. He made the comic Battlefield Baseball that the movie is based on. Also Mutant Hanako by Makoto Aida is another personal favorite, along with [Suehrio] Maruo’s Ultra Gash Inferno.
I recently read Tatsumi’s Black Blizzard. I was really impressed by the simplicity of style and fast pace at which it was drawn. That’s something that I think is really important for comics, to be drawn fast.
Collins: So no Habibi-length opus for you, then? Have you thought about doing longer work at all? I suppose there’s nothing stopping you from drawing it really fast…
Freibert: [Laughs] I have some ideas for longer works. Now that I have no job I plan to pursue those ideas. It took Tatsumi twenty days to finish Black Blizzard! That’s pretty frightening! It’s 127 pages. AHHHHHHH!
Black Blizzard is good, but I feel like the story is somewhat basic. The most time-consuming part of making comics for me is feeling satisfied with the amount of ideas that I can embed into a story while maintaining a somewhat coherent structure. I want a comic to feel like there is a lot going on. It’s a difficult balance. Here’s a message from the not-to-distant future….”Expect some long-form work.”
Collins: Will do. What are you working on now? Do you have anything coming out soon?
Freibert: My latest project is the horror culture magazine WEIRD. It’s my editorial debut, and I got some really great work collected for the first issue. There are written stories along with photography, drawings, and comics, including a vintage reprint! I’m also working on some other individual comics, and should have something new for the Brooklyn fest.
Collins: Nice! On a personal note, I was really bummed to see that Conor Stecschulte had something new last year and I somehow missed it. I am y’all’s target audience!
Freibert: Sean, you’re in luck! Conor is almost finished with a long-form comic The Amateurs. It’s so big there’s no way you’ll miss it! I’m excited to see it all finished, he’s been working on it for more than a year! Also, fair warning: expect some animal violence.
Collins: Consider myself warned. And with that, the floor is yours if there’s anything you’d like to add.
Freibert: The comics medium seems really young and I’m excited to see people — myself, my peers, anyone — break it down. Everyone, grab a hammer and have at it, kill the poor thing if you have to… THERE IS MUCH MORE TO BE DONE.