Tell me about Vice.
That’s something that people really don’t know that much about. You were there in the very beginning of this multinational empire.
Yeah, I was there. If I am remembering this correctly, Gavin first showed me Ron’s comics.
I didn’t know that. So take it from the beginning. Where did you first meet Gavin McInnes?
He saw my comics somewhere, and I can’t even remember where, but he started writing to me when I was in Sackville. Maybe he saw Hep.
Oh, an early Hep fan, eh?
I don’t know what he saw first, but he started writing to me these funny, wise-ass letters, like insulting me and stuff. He’s a funny guy. I was in New Brunswick going to school, so to get home to London, Ontario, I would travel through Montreal. I started stopping in at Montreal and that was pretty interesting because there is a lot of cartooning going on in that town. I’d be meeting up with Gavin. This may be ’94, or something, probably. I met Gavin, and he was doing mini-comics; he was doing this mini-comic called Pervert. He drew a comic about me called “Marc Bell Dish King,” because I had a dishwashing job. There were all these mini-comic networks at that time. It was all through the mail. So I met Gavin, and I got in touch with the whole Montreal scene there. But what was the bigger question here?
Okay, Vice. And then I moved to Montreal in ’95 or ’96 or something, and that’s when Vice started up. At first it was Voice of Montreal, and Gavin and Suroosh were the editors, and later this guy Shane came in. And so Gavin dropped mini-comics. He still did comics for Voice, and I was submitting comics, and at one point I interviewed Dan Clowes.
In Voice, yeah. He was very patient with me, you know. And eventually Voice turned into Vice, and it was distributed nationally, kind of following that Exclaim! model, it was still free. And then I don’t know if it moved to New York, and then it became a magazine, or vice versa. But it turned into a magazine. So I was giving him comics every month. I think at one point we had some falling out or something, and I stopped giving him comics for a while. But then when I was living in Halifax, he called me up and said, “Hey, my new girlfriend really likes your comics. Can you do some more comics?” [Laughter] It was pretty funny, so I was like, “All right.” So I started doing them again, and this is kind of like an off-and-on thing, and then that led to the last thing I did with them, a year of—or over a year of—doing those song comics. And by that time they were paying me okay, and I was still doing my monthly in Exclaim!, and I was doing my weekly, and so when I started doing all that art, I was like, “Something’s gotta give.” So I quit Vice. Exclaim got rid of all their comics at one point. I forget what year. So Exclaim! got rid of all their comics, and I think I was still doing the Vice one, and I quit Vice, and then I forget…maybe it was the weekly I quit last.
That makes sense.
And so I quit the weekly. I gotta say, the weekly deadline was driving me crazy. I was being silly. I’d leave it till Sunday night, and then I’d have to have it in by Monday night. So that’s why “International Doodle Week” was happening every other week. And then I was just like, “Look, I have to quit. I am not offering anything here.” So I had to do it. So in a way, creating that “There Is No Escape!” thing seems fine for a weird anthology like Kramers, but putting that stuff into a weekly is so crazy.
Right. Where it’s really meant to be a different kind of forum.
Where’s the entertainment value there?
So, Vice. What was the atmosphere? Were you hanging out with them?
Oh, yeah. I was hanging out with them. Like I say, when I was first coming from school in New Brunswick to Montreal to hang out with Gavin and check out the Montreal comics scene I’d see Gavin. He was already hanging around Derrick Beckles around that time. This was before Voice had started and Gavin was still drawing mini-comics. Gavin and Derrick were very sharp, and they were a really funny comedy duo, one upping each other. Anyway, I just felt like a hayseed or something. But Gavin got a kick out of me for whatever reason. And he liked my comics, and we were trying to break into the mini-comics scene.
And then they broke into the international media scene.
And then Gavin sort of changed popular culture with his humor. He kind of did, really. Right time, right place, and it kind of just worked that way. Or maybe he was just part of something that would have happened anyway.
At a certain point at Vice, around the late ‘90s, 2000, the whole reputation around Vice was cocaine and misogyny and fuck everything.
Wear heels. No sandals. [Laughter.]
And the less benign kind of stuff. Did that ever give you misgivings?
Being in there? No, no. Because I’m on the comics page. Gavin would always say, “I’m just running this page as a favor, like this running a D&D club, you guys are fucking lucky you’re in here.” He had that attitude. [Laughs.] Because he had moved on, right, he’d clearly moved on. But that whole thing, I thought it was interesting, because it was getting all over the place. To be in a magazine, and it being distributed all over the States for free. It was a great business model in a way; it was crazy.
So tell me about the Vancouver years, because that’s when I first met you.
Yeah, you sent me, what was it? Ganzfeld number…
Number one, yeah.
I don’t even know how I…well, I’d been ordering your stuff from Spit and A Half.
Oh, yeah. That’s right.
I think. Or Wow Cool. Somehow I had your mini-comics.
That was an interesting time, because The Ganzfeld was happening. I was talking with someone about this the other day. When I saw The Ganzfeld #2, I was like, “Whoa. This is going to be very popular.” Which is funny in retrospect.
Shows what you know. [Laughter.]
Exactly! I was being completely naïve. But the format appealed to me. I was like “Whoa. It’s really design-y, and it’s got things to read, and it has comics. This is the publication for me.” But now I know in retrospect—
—nobody likes that stuff. [Laughter.] As it turns out.
But it was an interesting time for me, because the Shrimpy [book] came out, and The Ganzfeld was starting, and Kramers 4 was being assembled.
That was a pretty interesting time.
Well, it’s an interesting time, too—I guess this is something I wanted to talk to you about—Right around that time there were a lot of things happening. There’s Kramers, there’s Ganzfeld, there’s the Giant Robot stores having all these shows, there was The Drama, The Broken Wrist Project. There were all these things, all these little things were popping up…it coincided with the vinyl toy boom, I guess.
And a surge in the housing market. Like when housing was good. I always link it to when things were going kind of crazy.
And the art market was starting to go crazy. People were buying stuff, that’s what I mean to say. And there was this kind of surge of…people had money.
I never thought of that.
You know what I mean, though? People had money.
People had money, and so they were both producing and consuming, you mean?
I guess. Maybe I should think this through a bit more before I…
No, talk it out. I think you’re right, it just hadn’t occurred to me. It makes perfect sense, what you’re saying. Because it’s after the millennial recession is over.
And they dropped the interest rates, so housing prices went up, and people were feeling wealthier. And then in 2008 it all kind of fell of a cliff.
Tell me about it.
And then in galleries, it’s tough.
That whole kind of doodle-y doodle gallery thing really crashed.
I remember being at an art show in San Francisco, and this was maybe 2007, it was a show of street art or west coast lowbrow or whatever you want to call it. I don’t know how to describe it, but it was this giant party, I forget who put on the party, but it was really happening, bands playing, it was jammed, and there was all this shitty art on the walls, I don’t think I recognized any of it really. I don’t know my street art but it was certainly seemed like a bad version of that kind of stuff. And I was like, “This can’t stand! This is such bullshit!” And maybe it’s still standing on some level, but…
But it’s not? No, it’s not. I was thinking, “This has to end. This is bullshit.”
It was indulgent.
It was indulgent. And that was probably the end of it. And I’m glad it’s gone. And it sucks things are kind of in the shitter right now, but on the bright side, I sort of think this will separate the shitheads from the people who actually want to pull through and do it. Because when there’s a lot of money floating around, a lot of idiots get involved, right?
Yeah. I think that’s true. I guess there was just an interesting moment that happened where there was just sort of a lot of this drawing based work happening.
And people were buying it.
But going back to Vancouver. There’s also this aspect that was happening. I mean, you had a whole crew out there. [Jason] McLean was out there.
Yeah. In a way, by that time, I was kind of internalizing it all. I was still part of that scene but I was kind of doing my own thing by about 2003 and on.
You put out Nog A Dod.
That’s true. But I felt like that was my gesture to what had happened from ’97 to 2004 or something. I just thought, “Okay, I’m going to document this, and…not leave…I’m still part of it,” but I was clearly just becoming involved in my own work. I wasn’t collaborating as much. But that thing, Nog A Dod, that was a labor of love, and it was a gesture to those people in a way. That’s what it was.
That you left behind in your pitiless quest for fame and fortune.
I understand. It’s cool, hey, whatever.
[Laughs.] I’m still involved in that scene. A lot of us probably do more of our own work now and some still collaborate a little more than others. It was just something I wanted to do, to just document it.
So, can we talk about Amy Lockhart, your partner in life?
Yeah, I wanted to ask you about Amy, because, aside from being a great artist herself, I think she’s important to your work. I just wondered where Amy fits sort of in your creative life.
Well, we kind of get along by ignoring each other in some ways. We’ve collaborated, but we don’t really work together too much. But I love her work. We created that…it was her film essentially – The Collagist. It’s a two-minute film. It’s pretty flattering she made a film about my collages. It was a pretty nice thing to do. I think she filmed that that in six different cities, bit by bit, even though it’s only a two-minute film. But we made some of the little pieces together.
Your sense of humor and hers sort of dovetail. There’s a similar kind of absurd take on life that you guys share. But creatively, it’s just about ignoring each other pretty much?
Well, we respect each other’s work. And I’ll show her stuff and say, “Look, what do you think of this, blah, blah, blah.” We don’t really make work together, but still there’s a relationship there with the work still, somehow. I mean, her stuff reminds me of just a lot of stuff I really like. I love her paintings and her animations and stuff. And she’s just got a really funny attitude. She doesn’t give a shit about nonsense.
She doesn’t take any shit.
She doesn’t take any shit, really. So I respect it. It’s almost like Amy’s a given to me at this point. How do I say that?
Like a constant?
Yeah. I don’t know what to say. Or we’ve been making work around each other so long, it’s hard to separate. Even if we were separated, it’s still the stuff, the work, that we’ve been around each other so long, that there’s just a relationship with both our work, even though it’s quite different, really. It’s pretty different. I mean, it shares some things, but her stuff is way…it’s way, I don’t know…austere? Or what’s the word. I don’t know the word.
I guess it is scarier, isn’t it?
Do you take shit?
Do I take shit?
I said Amy doesn’t take any shit. Do you take shit?
Well, maybe she doesn’t bother with shit. She doesn’t bother with any bullshit, but I probably get in there more and get involved with more of the nonsense. I may be a little more gregarious or something. Amy’s more content just to do her thing. I may be a little more outgoing.
Do you feel like you’ve had to make many compromises creatively in your life?
Not really, no.
But have you been faced with things where you had to make a choice and you said, “Fuck it” or, “No, I’ll do it,” or you said whatever?
I was recently asked to work on this video game project being produced by Sony but decided not to do it, I would have had to sign away the material for good, work-for-hire style. And a while ago, this design company who worked for Nike in Asia asked me to do something and I turned it down and gave the job to Keith Jones who needed the money more. I had already worked with these people before and that worked out ok. I did a record cover for this Asian pop star Edison Chen with them. They had picked up a copy of The Fader and there were five or six artists featured including me and they decided that these were their guys and they contacted all of us. So you buy this CD, and it’s called Please Steal This Album, and there are be seven or so different CD sleeves by all these artists with a blank CD in one and the real CD in another and so the idea was that you’d burn a copy of the record and put it in one of the sleeves and give it to your friend. Anyway, I heard more recently that Edison was busted. Did you hear about that? He brought his computer in to get it fixed, and there were all these pictures on it of him sleeping with, or having relations with all these women who were related to all these serious people in China. Some of them mobsters or what have you. So he had money on his head. So that’s what happened to Edison Chen. [Laughter.] So that design company also got a gig with Nike in Asia, and they asked me to do something, and I probably would have done it, but my motto is, if you’re gonna sell out, you gotta get paid, and they just weren’t offering enough.
They weren’t offering you enough money to sell out.
Exactly. I guess my main problem—if people want you to do illustration, that puts my brain in this mode that I’m sometimes not comfortable with, because…maybe more recently, I’ll figure out a way to do it on my terms, but for the most part, or in the past, sometimes I’d just do terrible work when I’m asked to do an illustration, and not because they weren’t open minded, but I just get in this mode. You know, there was that World Cup thing that I did for the New York Times Magazine and that worked out well. Even though it was like a nightmare, it was just a lot of work.
What do you think your greatest weakness is as an artist?
Oh my god. I don’t know. I know my stuff is flawed but when I think about that I try to remember that I am interested in things you could call flawed. I am not into super straightforward or slick stuff. I worry sometimes about a lack of meaning in my work but I think that maybe the meaning is found through the form or simply the way I have put something together and other, less obvious ways that people are used to finding these things. Things become just so sprawling in my work, you just can’t get a grasp on it, which can also be a positive point with the work at certain points. I have been thinking about these things lately. And it’s tricky. With my comics, I’m not a super confident storyteller. I think I have an inherent sense of storytelling of course, like stringing images together; not everyone can do it, I don’t think. And I can do it, but my weakness might be just not having studied enough, or been conscious enough of narrative devices. I don’t want to be some clear, boring, regular writer, but I think my failings so far have been a jumbled-ness or something.
So you worry about your work not having enough meaning?
Yeah, I do. Or maybe not “meaning”. Meaning’s a weird word, right? I don’t know. Looking at my stuff can worry me because everything is always getting sidetracked a bit. Narratives and images. Also, I have been working in both comics and stand alone “art” so maybe it’s possible I haven’t had the option or the time to work things out properly in just one medium. Maybe I should make a decision. Or integrate the two more. I think about doing something more solid.
So, one thing we used to talk about was this idea of a wrench, throwing a wrench in the works.
I do have one thing I can say about the wrench, because maybe it pertains to my own work. Sometimes I look at a work and won’t be too interested. The way I will respond is, “Well, they needed to throw a wrench in it.” They need to throw a wrench into what they’re doing, and maybe it would come out more interesting. The thing that I liked about doing collaborations is that someone is interfering with what you’re doing. I’ll be drawing something and then someone adds to it or they take it in a different direction or because it’s a different person, it’s kind of an interference. So I think that led me to try to interfere with myself in the way I’m working, like with drawing and collages and stuff, trying to create something more interesting by creating a bit of a problem that has to be solved. Then things get more elaborate through solving that problem, like for example with the collage stuff, constantly interfering with what I’m doing, in a way, to try to make it more interesting or compelling. That’s probably part of how my work becomes kind of busy, but like with the collage stuff, I’ll put one thing down, and I’ll work on that, and then it’s just something that’s gone too smoothly, so I’ll add maybe some other piece of board or whatever it happens to be to sort of interfere with it, just to try and hide things and build layers. I mean that’s just a way I’ve sort of figured out to throw a wrench in the way I work.
When you talk about comics and making things move, do you feel like you have to disrupt that somehow by building up each panel?
Well that’s the thing, right? If you want to make things move, you can’t really do that that much, so I’m not sure how I do that in my comics. In that case a simple character really helps because it has to pop out from all that stuff. I keep using “There Is No Escape!” as an example but that is a pretty good example of a fairly simple main character in a chaotic environment. And trying to maintain a certain tone in the pacing and writing.
Yeah. Are you still interested in characters in your comics?
I don’t know. See, I am still confused. Just like in the ’90s. I do sort of appreciate things that are confused. I usually like work that has some problems.
Are there any cartoonists that you look to now for that kind of inspiration, like in terms of making stories? Or is it all pretty well absorbed and it’s kind of up to you?
I think all my influences have been pretty well absorbed and I am thinking about the area between comics and art and seeing what I can do. I am not so sure I can go back to the full on comics entertainment mode we talked about. I think right now I am trying to find a way to tell a story that is not exactly comics. Kind of like how I built Gustun. It’s a grey area. I think about cartoonists like Rege and Beyer and Mark Connery and how they approach things.
Tell me about Mark Connery. I discovered him through you, of course, and remain totally fascinated. I think there’s a bunch of us who just worship Connery, basically. For me it’s his acute sense of space and gentle absurdity that somehow combine to make emotionally resonant work. He may be the most cut-to-the-chase cartoonist around, but the chase is pretty fucking weird. I dunno. So, three questions: What’s his background? How did you meet him? And what is it in his work that you respond to?
I have been gathering a bunch of Mark Connery’s old comics lately and documenting them and that has been very interesting. Mark is from the suburbs of Toronto and he started producing mini comics as a teenager. I recently met with Samuel Andreyev, who has a great collection of Mark’s self published stuff, and I wanted to look at those. Funnily enough, Sam was writing to both Mark and I at the same time in the late '80s, ordering stuff from us and sending us his own comics. This was before I had met Mark; I probably would have been 18 or so. Sam would send these crazy envelopes to us, they looked they could have been made by a 50 year-old nutcase but we discovered later he was around 10 years old or younger when he was writing to us. I didn’t meet Mark till later, when I was 24 and we made that Sam connection. Sam also lent me these letters that Mark had written to him at that time and they were so sweet, very encouraging, telling Sam what he should check out. When Sam was only 16 or so he assembled this hardbound Mark Connery bibliography called Hi Kookoo!. I wanted one but I couldn’t afford it. Mark was only 22 but there were already 100 or so entries in there. I think the book depressed Mark because it made me feel like he was dead [Laughs]. I think you explained pretty well what is good about his work. I also like how it has this classic feel, like it’s a given or feels like it has always been there. It’s kind of hard to explain. And I like the energy Mark can create with just 8 small pages. Most of those Rudy comics are little 8-page books. 5.5” x 4.25” and on regular bond paper, black and white. He doesn’t need anything fancy to get his stuff across. I really admire that. Mark has mentioned that some of his favourite things are 7” records or short little zines.
So is Pure Pajamas the last collection you envision of the old work?
Well I thought of making another one called More For The Shit Can because I once made a zine called More For The Shit Can as kind of a joke. I was assembling comics at one point and making a mini called There Is Nothing! I don’t know if you ever saw that. It was a whole bunch of different strips. Actually, a few of them are in Pure Pajamas. Then after that I had all this other stuff that I didn’t think was that great. It was the leftovers and I made this cover for it, a drawing of me by my friend Jon Desbarats, me saying “Ew Gaud!!” and “More For The Shit Can” scrawled on it. So I could possibly put together another collection, but I think it would have to be a zine or something. 10 copies.
Right. You’re done with the old for now.
It seems so, yeah. There’s a ton of other stuff. Some of it I like but I don’t know if I could handle seeing most of it in print.