The Tom Neely Interview


VALENTI: Your mom said that your grandparents were artists, and that you had art books in the house?

NEELY: We had a lot of art books in the house. I wouldn’t say my grandparents were necessarily artists. My grandmother is a hobby painter now that she’s in a nursing home. My dad’s mother, she had a lot of art books around the house and everything, which was great. Whenever I’d visit her she’d take me to museums and she actually gave me the Smithsonian Book Of Comic Book Comics for Christmas when I was 5 or 6. I think that was the first time I remember really getting into comics. But yeah, no, they weren’t artists [Chuckles.] Sorry, mom. She likes to say those things though. She likes to carry on the idea that things are inherited, but I don’t know. I don’t remember any other artists in my family. But they always encouraged it; both my grandparents would take me to museums when I’d visit.

VALENTI: Was that where you saw Mickey Mouse and Thimble Theatre?

NEELY: Thimble Theatre came later. But the Mickey comics, my grandmother — my dad’s mother, Dottie — gave me a subscription to the old Gladstone Mickey and Donald comics. Those were the first comics I read regularly, the Gottfredson Mickey comics from age 6 on up. And then I didn’t really get into Thimble Theatre until later, but I was really into the Popeye cartoons when I was a kid. And the Popeye love started with the cartoons, and then eventually led me to the comics in college.

VALENTI: Was Bill Blackbeard’s San Francisco Academy of Comic Art still in San Francisco when you were in college?

NEELY: I wasn’t even aware that he was there. I was so removed from the comics world at that time I really didn’t know much beyond what I was reading on my own. I didn’t have any cartoonist friends, or I didn’t even read The Comics Journal until after, until probably my second year of grad school I found The Comics Journal. So I really had a limited exposure to comics other than Mickey and Archie and superhero stuff until I lived in San Francisco in art school. But then I didn’t know Bill Blackbeard was there. I wish I did because Dylan [Williams] told me a lot about when he would go and visit him and dig through the archives and hang out with him. So I was like, I wish I had known that was there [Chuckles]. I didn’t even know that A.P.E. existed when I lived in San Francisco. First A.P.E. I went to was two years after I moved away from San Francisco.

VALENTI: Let’s talk about One Fine Day. Explain that project for people who haven’t seen it.

NEELY: When I was in art school and I was doing oil paintings of these anthropomorphic animal characters, a lot of them were based on classical paintings: re-interpreting a Rembrandt [Harmenszoon van Rijn], but with bunnies and chickens. I was doing that, but I also wanted to tell a more complete story, so I wrote my first comic. It wasn’t the first one I wrote and drew, but it was the first one I completed and published, Aminals #1, that I self-published as a Xeroxed zine and gave out at my M.F.A. show. I had all my paintings up on the wall for my M.F.A. show, but I was giving out my comic to everybody that came by, because it told more of a semi-autobiographical story about living in San Francisco, but with bunnies and chickens [laughs]. So right after art school, I was already going to Comic-Con to visit. That summer of 2000 was the first time I took a comic with me. I just had Aminals in my backpack, and I was going around giving it to people, and meeting people, and I met Martin Cendreda, and then the next year, when Comic-Con was coming around, he asked me if I wanted to table with him.

From One Fine Day #2 ©2002

I’d had the idea for One Fine Day as an animated cartoon I wanted to do. I’d been working as Disney for a year and a half and was really much more interested in animation at the time, not more than comics, but more interested in animation than I am now [laughs]. I hurriedly put together the first issue and basically just did it as a storyboard for the first chapter of this comic, or what might’ve been an animation, so that was One Fine Day #1, and I was new to working at Disney, and I was rebelling against the art school influence and wanting to do something a lot more commercial, but I think at the same time I hadn’t really found what I wanted to do. So basically, the idea was wanting to make a ’20s style Fleischer cartoon in comic form. It’s one image per page, works like storyboards, but I wanted it to be like silent movie-style, so there’s occasionally word panel pages, like silent movie-style pages, or title cards. I was trying to tell this story that was set in the ’20s cartoon world.

At the time, in the early 2000s, in the animation world, there was a push for animation historians and animators that wanted to have access to cartoons that had been censored for years, like old Bosko cartoons and old Mickeys that had racist stuff in them, or “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs,” and all these cartoons you couldn’t get access to except through bootlegs. Even though they have a lot of racist material in them, they are still really beautiful works of art. I was so immersed in the animation world and people talking about that all the time, I had this idea that maybe there’s a way to incorporate that kind of character stylistically in a non-racist way into a comic. So I introduced this blackface character into the comic, and that was in the second issue of One Fine Day I introduced the character. It was originally going to be an eight-part story, but by the time I finished Chapter 3 and published it and was taking it some of the Comic-Con conventions, I just started feeling really uncomfortable selling that. The idea of trying to do that and trying to push the idea that stuff is art even though it’s racist, it’s still worthy of looking at and not white-washing history and erasing that.

And now you can get that stuff on DVD and you guys are publishing Mickey comics with that imagery. So I think it’s good that we got over that hump of being able to present that stuff in a historical context, and I think I was trying to talk about that in the comic, but I started to feel really uncomfortable about it and feeling like it wasn’t really my place to do that as a white man. So I just couldn’t continue the series. Oddly enough, when an African-American would look at them, they’d really like them. I only got negative reactions from uptight, white cartoonists [laughs].

And Daniel Holloway compared me to a Nazi sympathizer, or something like that, in the only review I got for One Fine Day. That added to the uncomfortable feeling. Basically I learned a lot from doing that. Part of it was, I’ve always been interested in trying to push boundaries in art, I think that’s art’s role, and I think that’s what I was trying to do, but I hadn’t quite figured out my own voice in comics, so I was trying to do something else that wasn’t necessarily my voice, but I was still trying to push those boundaries in some way. I think that was my personal attachment to it, but it just didn’t feel right anymore and I didn’t want to do it anymore, so I never finished that series. I still get e-mails occasionally, people being like, “Are you ever going to finish this?” Nope, sorry [laughs.] Maybe I’ll change the character into a horse and redo it, but no, I don’t really have any desire to cover that territory anymore.

VALENTI: Were you “quoting” the racist imagery, or do you feel it has aesthetic value in and of itself?

NEELY: I’m not sure … I think at some point I had convinced myself that there is an aesthetic value to that kind of imagery, and I think there is definitely a historical and contextual value to our culture that this kind of artwork not be kept hidden. I really thought that maybe I could rob it of its racist power by using that imagery in a non-racist way. But “quoting” that imagery just … I don’t feel like it was my place to be making a statement like that.  And as a white artist, I feel like it’s probably impossible to use that imagery in a non-racist way, no matter what your intentions are.


VALENTI: It seems like you were creating that Barry character — he was also in you SPX 2003 minicomic. I was interested in talking to you about characters, 1) for animation and 2) for comics, because you spend so much time re-interpreting people’s characters. I was interested in that impulse.

NEELY: I think it was when I was being really influenced by the animation world I was working in, and working at Disney. There’s something really strange about when you start working for Disney, it seems like everybody goes through this phase in their first year or two where you’re just so in awe of all of that. If you read the story, it’s amazing, that he was a cartoonist in the middle of Kansas, and he created this character, and then it became this huge empire, and so it’s easy as an artist to get enamored with that idea. I was interested in pitching my own cartoons to other networks, so I was just really interested in this idea that you create this character that you can then turn into comics or cartoons or toys or whatever. That idea really permeates your brain when you’re surrounded by animators and illustrators and vinyl toy people, and I was really surrounded by that environment at the time, but I started getting bored.

From One Fine Day #1 ©2002

I learned through that process that I don’t really like the idea of just doing the same thing over and over again, and I want my art to always evolve and try new things, and that’s where the character from The Blot came from, the protagonist, he doesn’t really have a name, some people call him Tom [laughs]. I got really tired of these anthropomorphic monkeys and bunnies and characters that were all pretty much stand-ins for myself, anyway, but different aspects of my personality. I just wanted to do something even more generic and more faceless and less specific, so that’s where the protagonist from The Blot came from. Just made a nondescript, every-man character, and he was loosely based on Buster Keaton, because I was very into the silent films for a long time. It was a way of trying to represent a character that could represent me but could also be relatable to anyone who read it. I wanted it to be a book that could be relatable and interpretable by anybody to come up with their own ideas about what it was. That was an attempt at creating a non-character. From there it was evolving into doing different things every time. The first werewolf painting I did was basically the guy from The Blot naked with a wolf head. So originally it was more of a specific sequel to The Blot but as the story evolved, I didn’t want it to have that specific of an attachment, and it evolved from those characters, but it was an attempt at pushing even more away and becoming more of personalized thing.

Now I’m not really into the idea of developing a character, I mean I love that tradition in comics, but it’s not really something I’m interested in pursuing, and I see other contemporary cartoonists doing that and it feels very foreign to me now, coming up with a solidified style and set of characters that you’ll just do forever just doesn’t make sense to me as an artist. It makes sense in the tradition of cartooning, and maybe that’s where I break from those ideas and go more on the fine arts way of thinking, the way a painter thinks instead of a cartoonist. I’m not exactly sure where that works, and I don’t mean this to diss Kevin Huizenga, because I love his comics, but when I look at his new stuff, sometimes I’m like, I don’t know how he is still drawing these things the same way and using the same characters for this long. It’s really bizarre to me. It would depress me to do that. I hope he’s happy doing it because they’re great. But yeah, that idea is very foreign to me now.

VALENTI: I think Doppleganger is a meditation on the existential act of cross-media synergy. Because there are a million Popeyes; they just put out a Popeye cookbook. So basically, what is really the character, when the character is a cartoon, which is in itself just a collection of Popeye drawings, and a theme park? You can make that a question of identity; and it’s a daily-comic-strip existential act, because every day, there’s a new Popeye: the multiplicity …

NEELY: That’s one of the reasons I like doing mostly wordless, surrealistic comics, because I really love hearing different interpretations from people. I don’t always have specific ideas about what my stuff is about, but I often will retroactively figure out what they’re about, but I always like hearing different interpretations, it’s always fun. My mom’s interpretations are usually the most hilarious [laughs]. There’s an aspect of The Wolf that are definitely about that breaking away from those ideas too: that might be what the Mickey Mouse gloves on the skeleton are about. Trying to push away and evolve away from that tradition, but also still working with that tradition, so maybe Popeye is a similar thing.

Also with the Popeye thing, I don’t agree with the whole idea of characters being trademarked and copyrighted in perpetuity. These characters should be in the public domain now. Anybody should be able to make a Popeye comic at this point, or a Mickey Mouse cartoon, because the companies that own them are doing bullshit with them in their new forms, so why not open it up and let interesting people do whatever they want with them? I think it’d be much more rewarding for everyone if they would allow that.

Recently I was trying to talk to Craig Yoe about getting hired to draw the new Popeye comics, but when I sent him this, he said he loved Doppelganger and he was really complimentary, and he has always been supportive of my work, but he was like, “We’re really looking for an E.C. Segar clone,” and I was like, “That’s going to be the most boring Popeye ever, why would you just clone something that already exists? That’s totally pointless.”


From Doppelganger ©2010

That’s a worthless pursuit in my book. He said do some samples and I tried, and I can draw exactly like Segar if I put my mind to it, but the thought of putting my mind to that just fills me with dread. If I got that job and was having to do that, I think I would start to hate comics the way that I don’t like animation as much as I used to, because there’s so much rigidity in what I do as a freelance animator that it’s just not fun anymore, and I wouldn’t want comics to become that way. So, as much as I wanted to draw a Popeye comic, I do not want to be a Segar clone, because then I’d start hating Popeye comics. So, fuck it, if I ever feel like doing Popeye, I’ll just do another Doppelganger or something. Or not, because I already did my Popeye, so maybe I don’t need to do any more.

VALENTI: So at Disney, when you were working there, were you drawing physical 2D?

NEELY: Most of it ended up being Flash. I did some traditional animation, but I got hired in their online division doing Web cartoons and Web games based on their characters and shows, so a lot of it started off traditional, but would be finished in Flash or After Effects, and at this point I’m not even doing any drawing really, it’s more like chopping up style-guide art and animating it, because everything has to be so perfectly on model that if you stray even slightly, they send it back for revisions. So after 10 years of doing that I have this vast library of already-drawn characters and animation sequences. It’s more like dealing with puppets than it is drawing and animating. You’re just manipulating existing artwork, which I think makes it more boring [laughs]. Originally I was doing a little bit more traditional, but it was always for online. I’ve done some stuff for TV, but that was background artwork and stuff.


VALENTI: In your comics, the backgrounds are like animation backgrounds: like sets. And the same sets pop up in all your comics. Like the bathroom and the bathtub, it’s in Henry & Glenn and it’s in The Wolf. You also have the city that pops up a lot: the rows of houses. Is it conscious?

From Brilliantly Ham-Fisted: 19 Comic Strip Poems ©2008


NEELY: A lot of the stuff, like the bathroom in The Blot and in Henry & Glenn, it’s my bathroom at home. The house on the first page of The Blot is my house, but reversed. So a lot of it is just drawing from what’s around me, and pulling inspiration from that, because a lot of my work, under the surface of all the surrealist stuff, is semi-autobiographical. So there’s that element to it. But then the houses and the fences and those different things, it’s trying to create my own system of symbolic, metaphorical elements that I can put in there that have meaning to me, but the more you use elements like that, recurring, then other people develop their own ideas about what that symbol could mean, about what it represents. It also provides a through line through a lot of my work that weaves them together. The Wolf, in a lot of ways, is very different from The Blot or Brilliantly Ham-Fisted, but there’s elements, like the house appears in here, throughout Brilliantly Ham-Fisted, and is in the background of a lot of The Blot. They are just personal symbols that I rely on, or it’s almost comforting to see those symbols in the background, that makes it feel more like me, even if I’m doing something different.

It all starts as a vision of some image or symbol or some idea, and I don’t always know what it’s about, so you just keep exploring that image, until you’ve figured out what it is. The wolf is introduced in The Blot in a different form, and it eventually evolved into the werewolf character from The Wolf, and now I feel like it’s done. I feel like I don’t need to draw wolves anymore. I’ve said all I can say with them. I feel like I know what I was doing with it. You’re always trying to figure out: what am I saying?; why am I compelled to draw these masses of houses or masses of people heads, or big crowds and jumbled-up messes of body parts? I’m not sure why I’m compelled to draw those things, I just am and so I keep doing it until I figure out what it is. And at that point, I move on and find a new thing to draw.


VALENTI: Describe the L.A. comics scene.

NEELY: I’m not sure if there is a cohesive “scene.” There are a ton of talented cartoonists in this city and a lot of pockets of cartoonists who are friends and stuff. But a lot of us are so spread out I never see most of them. I have a lot more friends in the Portland and Bay Area comics scenes than in L.A. Those scenes seem more community-oriented, whereas L.A. feels very insular and clique-ish. When I moved here, I wanted to have a group of cartoonist friends to hang out with, but couldn’t seem to penetrate any of the L.A. “scenes.” I spent years banging my head against a wall trying to make friends with certain groups but always being kept out. I don’t know if it’s snobbery or competitiveness or just that we’re all so spread out, but I’ve never felt welcome in the L.A. comics community if there is one. So, I gave up on that group of people.

I started the Igloo Tornado with a group of friends. I found friends in music and the lowbrow art scene and animators and zine makers and writers and filmmakers. Scratch below the awful surface of Hollywood and all it’s bullshit, and L.A. is a wonderful place full of little pockets of artistic bohemianism. Lately I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons with a group of cartoonists: Levon Jihanian (our Dungeon Master — and we play in his Danger Country world), Shannon O’Leary, Jon Vermilyea, Jen Wang, Malachi Ward and I have started a campaign.

VALENTI: Do you think the comics that come out of L.A. share any characteristics?

I think so, but it’s hard to put my finger on it. I was thinking about this when I was at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival last week — there is definitely a difference between East and West Coast comics.  Not only in the content and the style, but also in the way that cartoonists interact with each other.  I kept hearing people talk about “competition” with other artists in Brooklyn.  L.A. kinda feels that way sometimes… maybe that’s the problem I’ve always run into here. Maybe that’s why I have more comics friends in Portland and the Bay Area. Maybe it’s that N.Y. and L.A. are such a harsh place to make a living as an artist it makes you more competitive and career-oriented. And I fall into that trap occasionally.

From "Transfer" in Merry Musical Miscellany #1 June 2003

Especially as a self-publisher doing all the work, I tend to get frustrated with other artists getting more acclaim, getting flown to other countries by their publishers, or having lines wrapped around the block for their book signings ... But I’m happier when I ignore all that shit and just work on my own stuff and hang out with good positive people. In the creative circles that I hang out with, which is more musicians and writers and non-comics artists, it’s more about community and working together. I don’t feel like I’m around much competitive, cutthroat behavior. Among my friends I feel like there’s a much more casual attitude toward creative activity. It seems like everyone I know has a day job to get by, but does something awesome and creative on the side whether it’s art or comics or music or writing or acting or witchcraft or whatever. We’re not trying to break into the system, rather we’re trying to exist underneath it, where we can be ignored and allowed to do our own thing. That’s what I enjoy about the L.A. people I’m surrounded by.


VALENTI: There’s a lot of ritual in your comics, these ritual activities that occur over and over. I don’t know if you are comfortable talking about it, but you said you had OCD. When you told me that and I thought about The Blot, and about all that anxiety, that makes a lot of sense.

NEELY: That’s a new interpretation of The Blot for me, but it totally makes sense. I was always a little OCD, my mom was a big germaphobe, so I grew up thinking that way, and I was hanging with my friend’s 3-year-old all weekend and thinking about how as a kid I was very particular about my toys, and I would go to my best friend Holland’s house and all his toys were broken, so I wouldn’t let him play with my toys. There was always a little bit of that in me. Also in high school we found out I have a form of dyslexia that affects organizational abilities, and I had to force myself to become anal retentive about that, because that’s the way I could make myself not feel chaotic all the time. In a chaotic environment it was very difficult for my brain to figure things out, and that would make me feel more OCD, so trying to be organized was a way of combating OCD, in a way, or those tendencies. I don’t think I’m officially OCD, but I just have those tendencies. Well actually I am, because I was a hand washer, a really bad hand washer for a while, but I think I’m over it now. But that aspect manifested when I moved to San Francisco and was in a big, urban environment for the first time, and there was so much anxiety about that, and I really focused on germs and became this super-germaphobe who wouldn’t touch door knobs in public, and stuff like that, and washing my hands constantly.

I went through a lot of therapy in the last few years, actually stopped therapy this year because I feel like everything is pretty good now. I realized that a lot of that is about trying to control things when you’re feeling chaotic, and whereas I used to try and channel it into keeping my space organized it became this germaphobia thing and now I’ve learned to regulate and be aware of what that’s about. So that idea as applied to The Blot does work, because The Blot is about this thing attacking you, but you master it and learn to use it and control it and it becomes a part of you and it’s not a bad thing anymore. I can see that interpretation working.


VALENTI: There’s a period where you deal with disease and trust. The Melvins comic [Your Disease Spread Quick] and The Blot have these disease metaphors, or an attack from this chaotic force. Everything seems like it’s under control, and then you are attacked, and everything gets really crazy and destructive.

There is relationship stuff in The Blot and relationships are about losing control. You are married, so you’re with another person, you’re working as a unit: so you have to negotiate that.

From Your Disease Spreads Quick, "The Melvins Comic" ©2008


NEELY: The Blot was about a failed relationship before, so there’s a lot of that in there. Sometimes it’s about external things, but mostly is about internal psychological terror, but it’s easier to manifest that. That’s what I love about horror and surrealism. The best horror is all about your own neuroses and sometimes the best way to symbolize that is through some horrific physical thing. Your Disease Spread Quick is a lot about how I was feeling about the world at the time, because of the Bush Era and the economy is all fucked and everybody’s struggling and having a hard time, and in the middle of it, trying to get by as a artist. That’s what a lot of that book is about in a way. Trying to survive. I’m not a memoir cartoonist, I can’t really do direct autobiography because it’s too personal, so it comes out of me in weirder, surrealistic ways. And that’s more fun anyway because there’s enough autobio-memoir comics out there.

And then it becomes something that other people can interpret and take their own thing from it. To me there’s a specific thing that The Blot or The Wolf is about, but to you it’s something different, and I like that idea. Whereas if I’d just written, oh my girlfriend dumped me and we had a horrible break-up and blah blah blah, it’s just like OK, somebody’s read my specific story and maybe they can relate to it, but to me, it’s much more valuable to work in metaphors or in surrealism because it’s more open-ended. And I guess it’s a little bit of a shield.

VALENTI: Tell me a little bit about collaboration, riffing in comics — I was thinking about the Igloo Tornado collective. Could you elaborate on how that works creatively?

NEELY: Collaboration is a tricky thing with me. I’m not very good at it, I don’t think, with certain things. But with some things, collaboration is fun. So it doesn’t really work when I’m working on one of my more serious projects like The Wolf. That was part of what slowed down the process of that book. But also, collaborating with the musician for a while — because I just wasn’t, and then that’s what ultimately led us to not release them together, ’cause it just didn’t feel right, because each of our components became too personalized, and it just made more sense to separate them.

On the other hand Henry & Glenn is basically — Igloo Tornado was one of my best friend’s from Tulsa, Scott Nobles. He moved to L.A. in 2003, 2004. And I was already friends with Levon Jihanian and Gin Stevens. I had met Levon at Comic-Con 2001, I think. And I met Matthew — er, Gin Stevens’ real name is Matthew, so I might flip back and forth between saying that. I met him at my neighborhood bar, and the bouncer introduced us. “Oh you guys are artists; you guys should talk.”

So when Scott moved to town, I was like, “Hey, we should just get together with a group of artists like once a week or once a month and just look at what each other is doing and talk about it, and just talk about art.”

At that point I had been out of art school for a few years, and was missing the community aspect of being around other artists, ’cause most of my friends in L.A. are not artists. Or if they are, they’re animators and that’s a different thing.

So we would just get together and drink some beers and talk about art, and occasionally critique each other’s work, and just encourage each other. At some point, we were working on an art show together. We were gonna have our first group show, or four-man show at a gallery in L.A. We were trying to think of some way to collaborate, and we’d tried doing collaborative drawings, and none of them were all that good.

One night, after too many beers, Gin Stevens said something like, “There should be a book like Tom Of Finland, but with Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig.” And we were like, “OK, let’s do that.” [Chuckles.] Then we’d get together and just try to make each other laugh by making these stupid Henry & Glenn comics. We published it as a little zine for that art show. It was just a little throwaway idea that we just had fun doodling together. It turned into a monster.

But it’s just fun to be around other artists, and riff on each other and come up with ideas. So collaboration in that aspect is a rewarding outlet for my more serious, brooding art in my studio alone. It’s just fun to get out and draw with somebody. But it doesn’t work with everybody. I can’t with other people sometimes — when I’m traveling, I’ll end up with a group of cartoonists, and they’re all sitting around a coffee shop drawing, and I just can’t. Sometimes it’s way too personalized; it’s a personal thing for me to draw on my own. But it’s fun with the Igloo, ’cause they’re good friends, and we’re all very different artists, but we have no judgment. We’re just supportive of each other and encouraging and constructively critiquing of each other. It’s tough to be an artist, so strength in numbers helps, and community can be a valuable thing.


VALENTI: The Blot is dedicated to your family. Why is that?

NEELY: They’ve always been very supportive of me. I don’t remember a time when my parents ever argued with me about being an artist. They were always very supportive of it. They always were like, “Well, you’ve gotta find a way to make a living off of it.” So they encouraged that, but they were always very supportive. And my brother and sister, too, were also very supportive to me. I was going through a time where I was in a very significant relationship for a number of years, and then that ended, and then what are you left with, but your family and your friends. Then that becomes more important. That’s pretty much it. They’ve just always been big supporters, so my first major book should be dedicated to them.

VALENTI: Do you think it’s possible to have comics that don’t use other comics as a building block? It’s a larger art question, isn’t it? People take it and they process it, but they’re building on other people.

NEELY: I think it’s possible. Especially these days, where culture is so readily accessible, it’s hard to escape having influences in your work. I think we’re all made up of our influences. But I think it’s possible to. I have a lot of friends who don’t read any indy comics at all. And my family and stuff, and I give them my stuff, and it’s accessible to them. And my parents have no knowledge of E.C. Segar or Floyd Gottfredson, but I gave them The Blot and they understood and could get into it pretty immediately. So I think it’s possible, the idea of something not built on history.

But as an artist who loves all kinds of art, it’s really hard to push all that away. I think that The Wolf was definitely an attempt at doing that, of trying to push out a lot of those influences and try to just find what I wanted to draw the way I wanted to draw, and what I wanted to say and how to express something. It’s still definitely based on some influences — storytelling-wise I was influenced by Lynn Ward and Otto Nuckel and the woodcut novelists. Originally it was gonna be a lot more comic booky, with panels on pages, but that just wasn’t working. So it made more sense to do it more as a one panel per page book, in more of that tradition. So there’s that element to it. I mean the history of the vanitas for the cover and horror movies and all that stuff.

We’re always made up of our influences, but I definitely try to push as much of those influences, especially contemporary ones, out of my studio before I can really get into my head and work on something personal. In the middle of it I did the Popeye comic, because it’s fun to do that stuff. That was just a fun book that I spent a week drawing just as a side project. When I was hitting a mental roadblock on The Wolf I just needed to do something fun and easy. So why not just do my own Popeye comic.

It’s something I do think about a lot; allowing influences to be absorbed but trying not to let them take over. There’s aspects of The Blot now that I look at and I’m like, “This is just way too influenced by something else,” and that bothers me now. That’s who I was at the time, and so it makes sense that’s always a process. But in the history of my comics, you can see I think me trying to push away from that: from One Fine Day that I think was way too influenced by Mickey Mouse and Bosko and stuff to The Wolf , which is trying to get as far away from that stuff as you can.

VALENTI: It’s interesting to see how people process — you and Kim Deitch, for example, are very influenced by animation from the ’20s, but your comics are not alike. What you do with that is pretty different.

NEELY: Yeah.

VALENTI: And that’s always really fun for me as a reader to see. I think that’s where the art comes in.

NEELY: Kevin Huizenga’s also very influenced by Floyd Gottfredson, but he does it in a completely different way too. I always find that pretty interesting as well. But I try not to think about it when I’m in the studio [chuckles].

From One Fine Day #3 ©2002

I mean I always think about it afterward, ’cause once I finish a project, I’m trying to figure out what all’s going on in there. And I’m still figuring out aspects of The Wolf. It’s fun to think about that.


VALENTI: Let’s talk about your injury-to-the-hand motif. I think a lot of cartoonists are obsessed with their hands, with drawing hands. Your hands are in your comics, right?

NEELY: Yeah.

VALENTI: Those are your nails in your comics.

NEELY: I have a tendency to not cut my nails often enough [laughs].

VALENTI: When you meet a cartoonist, you’re like “oh,” because they look like all of their characters. Even if they don’t look like their characters —

NEELY: I’m always disappointed when they don’t.

VALENTI: Like Linda Medley, all of her characters look like her, even the anthropomorphic ones. It’s just you can see where they’re using themselves.

So I don’t know if that’s an anxiety about the hand and the injury.

NEELY: Oh definitely. I was working at Disney in 2000 up until about 2006, when I started getting a lot more serious about comics and was doing less trying to lessen my amount of animation work so I’d have time to draw, I was having a lot of hand and wrist problems from working at the computer too much. I didn’t get full-on carpal tunnel, but I was developing really bad tendonitis, and my fingers would swell up and feel really puffy. So I had a lot of anxiety about that. And it’s fine now, I’ve learned to deal with it and get over it with exercise and taking breaks and hydration and stuff like that.

I’ve always had anxiety about my hands. I bought a scooter a while back, and I was riding around L.A. on a scooter. But then I started getting paranoid about if I fall and break my hands: I’m fucked. My whole livelihood is my hands and my eyes. Those are the two worst things I could lose. There’s definitely some of that anxiety. They’re very important.

VALENTI: Self-Indulgence is about hands.

NEELY: They’re fun to draw too. I hear a lot of artists complain. Renée French, I was on a panel with her last year at A.P.E., she talked about how she hates drawing hands. She said, “If you look at my earlier comics, every panel is a creative exercise in avoiding drawing hands.” That’s fascinating to me, ’cause I love drawing hands. I think they’re the most fascinating parts of the body in some ways, cause they’re so many intricate joints and weird lines and veins. They’re just fun to draw. When I was in life drawing class, I always liked when we had a 60- or 70-year-old model, because there’s so much more to draw, so many more lines and ugly wrinkles and weird things. It’s much more interesting.


VALENTI: let’s talk about vomit as a procreative force [Neely laughs], and consumption, ’cause that’s obviously something that’s going on in Self-Indulgence. You expel, but it’s actually a force of creation —

NEELY: It’s funny cause I’m not a big fan of vomit. [Laughter.] But it’s another metaphorical thing about the inner self vs. the outer self, is what I’m trying to get at with that. It’s not really about being gross, like gross-out vomit comics, something that Johnny Ryan might do. No offense to him: I love his stuff. [Chuckles.] But it’s a different thing. It’s a metaphor for all this stuff inside us that we don’t even really know about, in our head and in our bodies. I’m fascinated by the idea of dealing with those, the duality of being a human. There’s part of you that’s inside your head, and then there’s a physical part of you that’s out there, and those two things are actually really separate.

That’s the idea of Doppelganger, and my obsession with those multiple personalities. It’s not really about schizophrenia or anything like that. It’s just about dealing with feeling like you have to be different people in different situations. Especially as a self-publishing artist: wanting to be a cave-dwelling artist, but having to go out and promote your book. But also enjoying meeting people, meeting your fans, and meeting people that like your work, ’cause art is about communication. So that’s important. But it’s a complicated relationship, because there’s a part of me that’s a shy shut-in, there’s a part of me that wants to be out there and socialize. I think a lot of it is dealing with those ideas of all the different aspects of who we are. So that manifests through vomit. [Laughs.]

VALENTI: Well, it’s also loss of control.

NEELY: Yeah.

VALENTI: But it’s better for you in the long run, especially if you’re sick, or hungover, or whatever you are.



8 Responses to The Tom Neely Interview

  1. Pingback: Quote of the day | Tom Neely: “I’m not marketing my semi-pornographic book to teenage girls.” | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment

  2. Man, I learned so much about Tom from this interview, and I thought I knew a lot about Tom already. Great work.

  3. tom says:

    yeah, but did you want to learn any of that?

  4. Levon says:

    I knew all this stuff already but now I can save a lot of money at my therapist by just pointing them to this great interview.

  5. Pingback: Carnival of souls: Tom Neely, Craig Thompson, BCGF aftershocks, more « Attentiondeficitdisorderly by Sean T. Collins

  6. Pingback: The Tom Neely Interview | Comics Theory | Scoop.it

  7. Amazon Book REviewer says:

    A terrific interview . Tom is surely a talented artist, and The Blot and The Wolf show great skill and imagination as well as brilliant, well-read mind.

  8. Pingback: Déli Beagle: Batarangutans! « Végtelenül Egyszerű

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