Ron Regé Jr. was first published by Highwater Books in the 1990s and, along with kindred spirits such as Fort Thunder, changed the aesthetic and style of art comics (or altcomics or alternative comics) forever. In 2012, Regé’s The Cartoon Utopia shocked the art comics scene again with mythical imagery and messages that are nearly too intricate to read. His new collection, What Parsifal Saw, follows The Cartoon Utopia in its themes, and includes such acclaimed comics as his story, “Diana”.
I talked with Rege at CAKE 2016 about the past, present, and future. The interview has been edited for clarity, and was transcribed by Sabrina Futch.
Kim Jooha: What does What Parsifal Saw mean?
Ron Regé, Jr.: Parsifal is an opera by Wagner – the last opera that he did. It centers around the holy grail, and Parsifal is a character who, at the height of the opera, has a mystical vision where he’s brought up to see something, and he sees this goddess in the light.
The first three pages of the book are what Parsifal saw. The cover is what he saw. The first image is the spear with the holy grail, and then the next page is this figure led toward it. What he saw is like having a mystical vision, which a lot of my work is about.
I didn’t realize how complicated the title would be. And I realized that no one says it, I don’t like to say it, and it doesn’t say it on the cover, so… A lot of the confusing things about my work aren’t on purpose. For instance, I have Alex Schubert’s Blobby Boys in the book. You and I know what that is, but I realized that most people who buy the book aren’t going to know what that is and say, “What are these little green creatures?” All I had to do was just write a little thing. My work has a lot of confusion like that. A lot of things that are confusing to people are either mistakes or my nearsightedness… To me, it all makes sense!
I thought it was all intentional!
It’s a little bit of half and half. I’m trying my best to explain things, but it gets muddled, and I think that’s my art, just trying to figure out how to say something in a certain way.
How did you choose which works to collect for the book?
I knew that Fantagraphics was reprinting The Cartoon Utopia, and I felt like I had enough other work that it seemed like a good idea to have another book come out at the same time as the reprinting. Everything in What Parsifal Saw would’ve been in The Cartoon Utopia. The Cartoon Utopia was this project that could’ve gone on and on.
Like “Cosmogenesis”: I was already thinking that I was going to put those forty pages in there. But I got to a point where I was like, “Do I want to work on this book any more? It’ll take another year!” I needed to be like, this is it. And I had wanted to put in “Diana”. So, “Diana” and “Cosmogenesis” were ideas I had had going back to like 2010. Seeing I had them both, it seemed like a good idea to collect them together.
Is that why What Parsifal Saw and The Cartoon Utopia have a similar design?
Yeah, I wanted to make the design similar, and I put the same thing on the spine. They’re meant to be companion books.
A lot of people praised “Diana” when it came out.
A lot of people liked it, and a lot of people wanted to publish it, but … you know … you can’t! I don’t even know how to talk about this in this interview [Laughter.] You know, like, do we say the word? [Laughs.]
But it ended up being printed!
Yeah, and we did some work with it. Comics people are so nerdy; I’m sure that one day someone will look at the Xeroxed version and look at the book and find the differences. But I fine-tuned it to as best as I could so we could publish it.
Did you counsel with a lawyer? [Laughs.]
Fantagraphics did. And the lawyers helped tell me what to change, what things shouldn’t be in there.
Are you satisfied with the edited version?
Yeah, actually! At first, I was like, “I don’t want to change the work that I made,” but I’m happier with the result. There’s a page and a half that’s missing, I rearranged the panels a little bit, but I’m satisfied with the way it came out.
I also liked the end page about how everything in our world is a wave. It explains your philosophy concisely.
Yeah, the inside front and back covers, and then there’s the third page in the middle. That’s all one story. I had a little text I was going to put on the inside front cover, like, “Continued on page fifty!”, then on page fifty, “Continued at the end of the book!” It looked ugly, and I was like, “Oh, why bother.” Comics people are smart enough. There was one review that came out recently where the person could tell.
But the title of that story, “Cymatic Therempapy”, is what I was originally going to call the book. So, What Parsifal Saw was my idea of something that’s easier. [Laughs.]
It was for Pitchfork. They wanted me to do some music-based comics. So that was done for a general audience. It does explain my philosophy.
Your recent spiritual work, starting from The Cartoon Utopia, is different from your older work.
Discovering that material changed what I was doing. As I was reading spiritual books, I’d be inspired by something, and I’d be like, “I want to do a comic about this.” And then my friends’ lectures, I would be like, “I want to turn these lecture notes into comics somehow.” I think, probably, my life was shifting drastically, and I didn’t know what I was doing as an artist at all, and it made me develop this new style. I think that’s the change that everyone sees so much. And also because of the way that graphic novels work – it was a slow, gradual change, but to the public, it was like, BOOM!
It also happened at a time when I wasn’t sure what I was doing with comics anymore. I wasn’t interested in making characters or all the normal stuff you would think of in comics, and I thought maybe I was going to transition into being more of a gallery artist, and maybe my stuff doesn’t work in books anymore even though I loved books. So, I was in this way of wanting to combine the words and the drawings together. You know those full-page drawings in The Cartoon Utopia? There’s maybe ten pages, so that was a good six months where I was making these large drawings.
How did you decide to reprint The Cartoon Utopia?
The Cartoon Utopia was out of print for a while, but people were becoming more and more interested in it, and more and more interested in the spiritual aspect of my work. People wanted the book.
I did this one specific podcast with Duncan Trussell, and that podcast has gotten me so many fans. He’s a spiritual comedian. When I did the interview, The Cartoon Utopia was out of print, so none of them could get it and they were buying it used, and there was a point where it was like $150 on eBay, and I was just like, “This is crazy!”
I just wanted it to be in print. It’s a spiritual textbook, and I’d like it always to be available. It was a real borderline thing for Fantagraphics to see if it was worth it to reprint or for their business decision, so doing What Parsifal Saw and doing it in paperback seemed like a good business-minded move. If they couldn’t do it, I would have done it myself or gotten someone else to do it, because I just had to do it, I had to get it in print again. And that’s never happened to me before, I never cared, but I do want that book to always be in print.
It’s funny having a new book and The Cartoon Utopia being back in print at the same time. I think we sold more The Cartoon Utopias at CAKE than What Parsifal Saw. It was weird but exciting. It was definitely worth reprinting, and to me, it’s exciting that at a show, it proves that people wanted it.
The Cartoon Utopia is singular among your works.
Yeah, and I feel like it appeals to people outside of comics, and I also feel like when I started doing graphic novels, the fan-base for my work would be people who were already into comics, and were into weird comics – a very select group of people.
But now, younger people interested in alternative spiritual ideas, to have a book – I’m interested in making work for them, this brand-new audience that goes beyond comics. And a lot of it is hippie kids! The feedback I got from that book is incredible. I’ve had so many people tell me it’s been part of their experience with that stuff. People were like, “I was getting into the Tarot…” and they discovered my book as part of their process. It makes me satisfied as an artist to contribute that to people. When I’m making work, I’m thinking of that audience. Because I think there’s more of them. It goes so beyond the world of comics.
I’m not the sort of cartoonist that thinks about my audience in a way like, “I’m working for young adults!” or “I want to do a story for this demographic!” but now I am, now I have this demographic that I’m working for.
I like to do things these days because the internet exists. With a lot of the confusion, if you don’t know who Parsifal is, and I like that! It’s funny because there’s comiXology and there are the digital versions – I wish I could do a version of The Cartoon Utopia with hyperlinks. Like, if you could go through it and I could put hundreds of hundreds of links that you could press on and you could see each one. But you could just do that yourself.
I’d love if I turned people onto this stuff. And even if they look into it and don’t like it. And there are people interested in it! I had a lot of conversations with people this week who are interested in that, and also who are like, “Oh, I’ve looked into that too!” or I’ve got a few people who are going to be sending me things, like “I’ve done some stuff about that!” I’m happy and curious about that. I like bringing those things back and also looking at them from a different light. I’m presenting a lot of New Age ideas that a lot of people don’t want to look at. My book isn’t tie-dye or purple; it doesn’t look New Age-y, you know? And also with the magic stuff that I’m interested in, a lot of people are like, “Oh, that’s black magic! Satanism! That’s New Age-y.” You know both things put people off a little bit.
I hope that people look into Madame Blavatsky. She’s a very controversial person, but I appreciate her and the stuff that she did. So many spiritual movements have had so many crazy things in history. The controversies with the people involved wiped it away, but everything that they established influences all of us. Like, why does everyone know their astrological sign? Why is astrology in the newspaper? That’s crazy! In every newspaper? In the United States? The United States is a Christian country. Those are the deep questions I’m interested in that I feel like America doesn’t ask for itself. Just take it for granted, but like how did that happen? People doing yoga, how did yoga come to the United States? Theosophy faced a lot those issues.
A lot of people get mad about theosophy because they see it as Orientalism or a whitewashing of Eastern ideas. But it’s from the 1800s; it’s just such a different universe. Theosophy takes Eastern ideas and combines them with Western mysticism and Kabbala and all that stuff and turns it into New Age in a way that seems strange to a lot of people. But this was before everyone knew what Tibetan Buddhism is. Nobody knew that there were monks in Tibet, because you couldn’t get there! No one in Europe knew that. We live in a culture where you can study those things, and you can go to Zen centers, and you can go directly to the source of this stuff, but I don’t think we can understand a hundred or two hundred years ago how that all made sense.
In PC culture, the way that everything is being examined these days for what it is, and acceptance of things, and also calling out things that are offensive or appropriative, I’m looking forward to examining that with this work I’ve done, because it makes people very tense. Our cultures have always been intermixing, like, Native American beads came from India in the 1600s. They knew that they liked glass beads, and these guys on boats brought them from some other place. There are things that are wrong, and appropriative, and then there are ways that things have just mixed together.
I just like weird characters who have had strange ideas in the past. I’m always reading books about it: have you heard of this character? What about this guy? Seems like he had some pretty interesting ideas, but didn’t he do these bad things too? And it’s like yeah, well, they said he did. I think there’s a lot of that in the world.
I think that could be a good introduction to your work: “I’m interested in weird people who have strange ideas.”
I also want to talk about The Shell of the Self of the Senses.
I like doing it. I love having a deadline. People subscribe, and I send them a little mini-comic every month. I always make sure it fits in a regular envelope, so it only takes one stamp, it’s simple – I just fill the orders. I think people enjoy just randomly getting it. People don’t get a lot of physical mail anymore, and I don’t always send it the same day every month, so people never know when it’s coming. It’s been fun the last year. I’ve been doing mini-comics my whole career, and I love doing them in different ways, and I love making them in weird foldouts and stuff. I keep them pretty simple for this project, but it’s always something I like to keep doing. It’s almost something I thought would disappear like I wasn’t going to do that anymore, but yeah. It’s a combination of old technology and new stuff – like I couldn’t do this without the internet. I wouldn’t have been able to get the subscribers and show people what I was doing.
You’ve been touring a lot recently with What Parsifal Saw. How does that treat you?
It’s been fun; I’m feeling emotional right now about it. Just the comics, and like, family. I saw so many friends this weekend; people I’ve known for twenty years like John Porcellino and Jenny Zervakis. I’ve known them forever, and to be meeting people like you. It’s expanded so much, and it is such a family that I’m part of, it just feels beautiful to me right at this moment. And it’s great to be part of something. I’ve felt it before, but – that party last night, just playing with Gary [Panter], with this real reach of such an age range between all of us, and also the way the comics community is, inviting so many different kinds of people, very inclusive to everyone. I felt that at TCAF too. TCAF is in a library, and the whole city is there! So, feeling part of this thing has been cool.
I felt so many different sides of that over the years: I remember there being a time a few years ago where I was so tired of gossip, people fighting, and competition that I wanted to get away from it all, and now I feel the opposite. The shows have been great, and I feel humbled to have met so many people that like my work and appreciate it. I’m such a weird artist that doesn’t fit in. I’m feeling the appreciation.
And over the weekend at CAKE— The Cartoon Utopia’s been out for a while, so I had many conversations about different belief systems. “Oh, I’m into this thing”, or “Have you ever heard of this religion,” “Someone I am related to is part of this spiritual movement.” It’s exciting for me right now, and I hope to do more of this stuff. I know I only tend to go to shows when I have a new book out. It’s hard and expensive to go to all the shows and stuff like that, but… I hope there’s some more coming.
I feel like you’re more present than a few years ago.
Yeah, I didn’t want a lot of promotion [for Against Pain]. I was in a band at that time. I was in a band called Lavender Diamond, and we were on a record label, and we were touring all over the world, and it was serious from when we started in 2004, and then our big record came out in 2007. And that was my life. Music was my life, and these comics were coming out, and D&Q didn’t do a lot of promotion. I didn’t go to any shows, and I did realize after a while that no one in comics knew me anymore. People hadn’t seen me in shows. So, when I was in the band, I stopped, and I wasn’t talking to comics people, and I wasn’t drawing a lot of comics. It was bad; it drove me crazy not doing comics. It was fun being in the band but at a certain point…
Was it intentional to not do comics at that time?
I think it was just that the band was taking up so much of my life that it didn’t fit into what I was doing. I didn’t purposely stop; it just faded away. But I did get to this point where I was like I have to draw more, I have to start working on a book, or I’ll lose my mind. I have to do this. I think I’ll always continue doing this because I think I have to.
What did you study at art school?
I did illustration, but I went to college in the late ’80s over the turn of the ’90s, so it was a weird time for the illustration. My education was very non-computer, old-world. Everything that I learned in college was disappearing. I wanted to be a commercial artist, but I didn’t know I wanted to do comics! I probably should have been a printmaking major – I realized after I got out of school.
But fine art, painting, gallery show stuff… When I was in college, I would see my friends trying hard to get a show and working on paintings for three years, and they would only have one hour, only one night to have an opening, and then it would be over! I was like, “I don’t want that.”
To this day, I did a gallery show two years ago, and I lost my mind over the process of making the work, showing the work, and then the next day having it be over and being like, “What do I do with these giant paintings?” That whole process is so emotional, and I knew I didn’t want it, and I knew I had this other underground thing to do. But even if it didn’t make sense, it was like this other thing I wanted to do, so I never fit in or wanted to chase after it. To do paintings and comics, it didn’t make sense either.
But your comics seem to fit well in a gallery.
It’s funny when you show original comic art. It’s almost more like going to a history museum, the way you’re showing it. The book is the art, you know? The original comic pages have smudges, and they’re not made to be shown. My comics pages, whenever I have a show, look white, because my lines are so skinny. You can’t even see it in photographs.
But yeah, I like fine arts stuff. Now I have ideas for paintings and stuff, but I’ve never had a studio, and I’ve always just worked in my apartment. Most cartoonists are like that. So, the idea of making these giant things, it’s like, where would I put them? I can see my career going in a bunch of different directions over the years.
If you go back to where you started, it’s striking how unique your art is. How did you come up with style?
I don’t know, because I think it’s just being an artist, and continuing with my own unique way of doing things. It’s not like I try to be different from anyone else, I’m just doing what I do. It is interesting over the timeframe I feel like there’s so much more stuff now that looks like what I do now than there used to be.
But back when I started doing stuff, in the early ’90s, Highwater Books was a big deal for all of us. We were a community. If you look at me and Marc Bell, John Porcellino or Brian Ralph or people like that, there are four or five of us that look pretty similar. Me and Marc Bell, Cute Brut is what we were called, being a little cute and violent at the same time. We’ve been friends for a long time, and John Porcellino as well. As soon as I saw their art, I was like, “I gotta write to these guys.” I was probably influenced by my friends. I guess if you put Marc Bell and John Porcellino together it equals me.
I got the idea from Yummy Fur in some of the early issues, too. He would have ads in the back, and he would draw – he still does this – little examples of Yummy Fur as a Xerox. Yummy Fur, I would say, was the first weird comic. I was like, “This is like nothing else. I never thought of that! You could do a Xerox comics!” And there was an ad for Dirty Plotte, which was Xeroxed at the time. The first thing I ever bought in the mail from anyone was Dirty Plotte from Julie. Chester and Julie were the people doing that stuff that I first knew about. I remember it being a big deal to put the money in the envelope and then send them to this woman and then get these comics back in the mail.
For me, all of you guys are wildly different. Especially you and John P.
At the time, when we were doing that stuff, there weren’t a whole lot of people doing what we were doing, so our art was recognized as being similar. Maybe not so much now, but it was very much this group of guys doing this one specific thing.
How did you find these artsy weird comics people?
Tom Devlin worked at a comic shop in Cambridge called The Million Year Picnic, and that’s where I had shopped for years and years and years. When I was in my twenties, before I started talking to Tom, I didn’t have any friends who read comics. I didn’t know anyone who read alternative comics, and I would see them in the store, and I was like, somebody is buying these, I just don’t know who. It was from Tom Devlin, slowly talking to him. I worked at a Xerox shop down the block from the store. I would be going there every day, so eventually, he started selling my comics. I had my own little spot on the shelf for at least five years, the little area where Ron’s comics were. I would make the Xeroxes and just bring them over to Tom. We would just chitchat, comic book nerds in a comic-book store, and he would slowly be like, “Hey Ron, I think I want to publish things!” And he just slowly started doing stuff.
That’s how I got to be publishing and meeting other people, but before that, I was sending things through the mail. There were resources, like Fact Sheet 5, or Wow Cool, a few printed resources where you could order from people, and they would send stuff to you. I would go to my P.O. box and would have so much stuff from people all around the world, and it happened quickly, in less than six months. It was in the mid-’90s. I did not meet them in person, or even hear their voices, or even see a picture of them for at least five or six years. But we would all write and make a new thing.
Then Highwater, we were like, “we’re going to go to all these comic conventions, and we’re going to have our weird comics there, and see if we can find anyone like us!” because we would go to a lot of the comics shows and feel like we were very alone.
And I wanted more; I eventually wanted a career from it. As I was doing it, I felt like I was pushing against something that didn’t want me. When the “graphic novel” thing became popular, things that became popular with the mainstream were very legible comics, and I did not fit into that.
Only realistic stuff with real people.
I’m amazed by the stuff that I see people doing, and the weird formats and the risograph and everything, and the fact that they’re doing it at art school. I see people pushing the medium and doing expressive, artistic stuff now.
When I was doing it, it was hard. To do comics that were difficult or abstract, I felt lonely doing it for a long time, and it didn’t make sense. And it didn’t make sense in the art world and the comics world. I felt almost like I shouldn’t be doing it through a lot of my life. It just didn’t fit anywhere; it didn’t make sense to people in either world. I felt lonely doing it, and now I see so much stuff that seems to be in the realm of what I was trying to do that it amazes me. I don’t see a direct influence, but I see a lot of stuff riding on the edge of even being comics.
Was Skibber Bee-Bye your first graphic novel?
Yeah, Tom wanted to fulfill any of his crazy publishing ideas, and my idea was to put out a book without serializing it first, which today seems normal, but at the time it was a strange thing to do, especially for someone who wasn’t known. For the most part, a graphic novel was a collection of so many comic books, like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. You would have already read it; you’re just getting something already serialized into a book. There are a few exceptions, but not anyone was doing that.
There was this time when I started drawing Skibber Bee-Bye, and it came out in November ’99. I was consciously thinking about the end of the century when I was doing it. That book is about the end of the 20th century. Not purposely, but that’s what I was feeling. I was like, “I have to get this done.”
I did a couple little mini comics of Skibber Bee-Bye, but for the most part, no one saw it. It took me like five years. It felt lonely and weird to do: people knew who I was, I was known in the mini-comics community, but people thought I had stopped doing comics. I was like, “No, I’m working on this thing!” I think people were surprised that this guy who was heard of, but not, suddenly have this 250-page book come out of nowhere. It was fun to do. I did do it on purpose.
It is a shocking work even now.
I think of that book being like my version of doing, a David Lynch film. That’s my movie, my angst of my twenties thing. Nothing I’ve done is like that, and I don’t know if I’ll ever do another story like that.
I think that is the longest story you’ve ever done.
Yeah, I’ve never gone back to long form. I don’t write fictional characters. But they might all be back, we’ll see. Every once in a while, they start to sneak through, and I do have some adventures with the elephant and stuff that I’ve thought of. So who knows? It would be fun to do another one.
Is Yeast Hoist an autobiographic comic?
I don’t necessarily think of it that way, but they all are, I guess. I never know when Yeast Hoist will be. When I’m working on it, I’ll be like, “Ah, this is a Yeast Hoist comic.” There hasn’t been one like that in a while, but there probably will be more.
Do you have any plan to collect Yeast Hoist issues?
Alvin Buenaventura wanted to do a Yeast Hoist collection as a little box with little comics. He wanted to reproduce the mini comics, and he didn’t want to do it any other way, and we never quite figured out how it would work. Because we couldn’t Xerox them, and a lot of them were color Xeroxes and stuff, and we would’ve had to remake them offset printed, and it was a complicated process.
When did you start comics?
I graduated high school in ’88, and I went to art school wanting to do comics stuff, so even in the eighties and early nineties, I thought I wanted to do that stuff. I did do a few things that no one will ever see. I made my own superhero—
It’s all gone. I think I destroyed a lot of it. It was in my twenties; I wouldn’t do it now. I had some G.I. Joe comics….
Yeah, and not in an ironic way, I liked that. It’s just from being a kid I guess [Laughter.]
There was an issue of G.I. Joe with no words, with Snake Eyes — he’s a black ninja, he’s all in black, he doesn’t have any face or anything — going on an adventure with no words. I was reading Marvel Comics at the time. I liked John Byrne, Alpha Flight, and the X-Men, and I was getting tired of superheroes, and it seemed like G.I. Joe had some reality to it. That one issue without any words was influential. I think Frank Santoro maybe even wrote something about that issue of G.I. Joe. I’m like, “Oh, it’s got no words!” And it’s got this silence, it’s just him being a ninja, and breaking things, and just doing some violence and sneaking away. But at the time it was unique to me because I didn’t discover ’60s underground stuff for a long time.
And then when I found Fantagraphics it just switched. Love and Rockets replaced all that.
Speaking of beginnings, how did you come up with this rays of all your characters? That’s the signature of your work.
I don’t know! It must be inherent to what I’m trying to say, or who I am because I’ve always loved sweat beads, and I would always have those drops shooting, and making all the rays. I guess it was just what I was trying to express.
There are so many norms in comics that you could pick, but the spiritual stuff I did later – looking at the earlier stuff I did with the rays around their head, that was the first sign of it. I guess I always wanted to show that the person was expressing. Here’s the character and they’re shining into whatever experience they’re having.
I think it also came with developing my style and wanting to fill in all the space because I put in little stars and hatch marks in all the white part. It could also be like a halo because I grew up Catholic. When I was in art school, I was into illuminated manuscripts. There’s always halos in that religious work, so it could be that maybe I was being influenced by old religious art.
Did you pick material for Against Pain by yourself?
I don’t remember there being much editing or choosing. That’s all work in anthologies, so it was mostly fitting pages to the 8×10 format.
I feel like Against Pain could have been edited differently. It could’ve been bigger including all those Yeast Hoist comics.
I have a collection that has never come out from that time. Work I had done for websites that don’t exist anymore. Serializer was the first thing on the internet with twenty different cartoonists. I don’t even think we could upload our own stuff – we had to send them. There were a lot of people on Serializer, people doing their own stuff. I think I did like fifty weeks.
Tom used to do comics on HighwaterBooks.com, so the idea was that there was going to be a few different collections. But looking back now, we all should’ve just gone and done the one book. It could have been big, or maybe we could have left some of the other stuff out.
But the other book is still ready to publish – it’s done. It’s another issue of Yeast Hoist that would be the same as the red and the white ones. It just didn’t make sense for D&Q to do it — they were going to do it. It’s a thin little book, and it’s also just disparate little things. That’s another thing I’m looking at now, like, “Maybe I should publish this now!” The older I get and the more time goes by, the more it makes more sense to do that stuff.
What do you think about the label “Cute Brut”?
I like it. Tom Devlin made it up. It was his way of describing the artists he was working with. It’s the idea that our work is cute, but also a little bit disturbing. And are brut and outsider art. That’s another thing I’ve always been interested in – outsider art. I try to bring that sensibility to what I do in the way that I’m not concerned with trying to fit stuff for an audience or anything; I’m just crazily trying to make my own stuff in a way that outsider artists do. So that play of words with “Cute Brut,” it’s funny.
Once I was in Copenhagen talking to a group of art students, and one of the students told me, “Last week one of our instructors explained ‘Cute Brut’ to us.” He had, like, a Venn diagram, with “Cute Brut” with other kinds of alternative comics, explaining it, and I was like, “They’re studying ‘Cute Brut’ in Copenhagen?! We did it!” It was a joke, like, “Let’s make this funny joke and have it be taken seriously.” But no one says that anymore. It gets brought up as a label and I like it.
You reprinted The Dum Dum Posse recently. How did that come about?
I realized how many years it had been, “Oh! ’95.” It was 2015. I’d been doing “Diana” and “Cosmogenesis”, and it was easy to Xerox it, and no one had seen it in many, many years, and nobody had ever asked to reprint it. Most people didn’t even know it existed. I didn’t forget, but I forgot people didn’t know about it, so I was like, “I’ll make a hundred of them.” It had this spiral binding that Anna Haifisch’s new book [Drifter] has and these heavy chipboard covers. It was brown chipboard with silkscreen on the front. So, they were stiff. But the new one, I’ll just make it a Xerox with a staple on the side.
I sat and looked at it and I was like, “If I don’t like this, I won’t do it,” but then I looked at it, and I was like yeah, this stands up pretty good! And, as much as my style has changed, it looks like me, even though it’s from so long ago. I guess that’s my first graphic novel. It’s fifty pages, and that’s a fictional story.
I know that artists hate this discussion — “What’s your next thing?” — but I was curious about the new project.
I’m in a weird spot right now where I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. I have an idea for a book, and I also have another book that’s finished.
The Yoshimoto Banana book?
Yeah, it’s finished in full color. It’s going to be beautiful – it’s going to look like nothing else I’ve ever done.
Your full color has never been published with a spine.
Yeah, I’ve never done a full-color book. It’ll be very accessible. I had the idea to do that book for at least ten years, and I wanted to do it so badly that I just did it. I had it all laid out, panels, the paper ready to go for almost a decade with that book. But The Cartoon Utopia stopped that book from happening. But I wanted to do it so bad that I wasn’t going to ask anybody’s permission, so I just did it, I did the book.
[Lowers voice.] But we don’t have her permission. So no one can publish it, and we can’t get her permission. And I felt bad, because eventually I met people who knew her personally, and I found someone to bring those Xeroxes to her, but she hasn’t responded. I don’t know her. That was the first story she ever wrote – she wrote that in college. It could be important to her; it could be autobiographical, I don’t know. It’s this very thing where, like, I wasn’t allowed to do that. I can make whatever art I want to make, and I wanted to make it so badly, but you need to get her permission.
Did you send her the color version? Maybe she would love the color.
I don’t know; I think there’s a lot of cultural things to consider as well. I’ve had people tell me that in Japan, comics are different. Her sister is a famous manga artist. It’s like the… what is it, Lolita stuff? She has cartoonists in her family. It’s such a cultural difference to explain, “I’m an underground cartoonist, I’m not going to be making very much money off of your work.” I don’t know if that translates. Or it could be so many different things.
There’s going to be a bootleg of it. I don’t know how much I should say about it. I was so frustrated with not being able to get it to come out, but now I’m excited about this idea. I think it might be something that’s beautiful and will be ephemeral. I think it’s going to happen in a very nondescript, you-better-get-it-now way because it’s not going to be in print. So, I’m excited to do this thing that will come out into the world, and then everyone will have it, and then that’ll be it. I wanted the opposite to happen, but at the moment I’m excited about it. It feels like a radical thing to do.
I have another story – I keep doing these things where I do other people’s work — and I do have permission. The author isn’t alive – I have permission from the executors to do it, and everyone’s excited about it. But I feel like it’s going to take a long time, and I think I want to develop a new style. Or it might be like painted with the paint or something like that. At the moment, it feels like a five-year or a ten-year project. I’m too overwhelmed even to begin doing it, but it’s very much in my head.
It’s about a mute singer! It’s by Stanislav Szukalski, who was a controversial artist. He’s from Warsaw and came to the United States during WWII, and everything he had ever made was burned because Warsaw was. He spent twenty years re-doing his career again. He had this weird racial hierarchy that would be offensive if it wasn’t so bizarre! [Laughs.] It is that people with elongated faces are from another planet and that people with square faces are apes. It would be racist if it even fit into any racial category.
But the story has nothing to do with this – it’s just a short story he wrote. [Laughs] It’s very fantastical. It’s about a little boy meeting this homeless beggar who is a mute singer who sings and no words come out of his mouth. I’m excited to do it.
I’ve had a lot of weird coincidences with Szukalski. There was an art show in Los Angeles of his work, and I walk into the gallery, and there are beautiful graphite renderings of frogs, and on the wall, it says, “Rege, Rege.” It says my name twice in these big letters on the wall, and I got chills. He says it means “ribbit, ribbit” in Polish. But it’s funny because I met somebody who speaks Polish, and they were like, “No it doesn’t.” He must have made that up, or it’s phonetic, like “ribbit, ribbit.”
And, there are some pictures of him when he’s younger. [Whispering:] He looks like me. When he’s in his twenties, he has my nose! And my hair is long now, but a lot of the time I had like hair down to here. It freaks me out. I feel like I have a weird connection with him. I feel him calling me to do this or something. I saw footage of him – it looks like my grandfather. He looked so much like my grandfather, and it just gives me chills.
I haven’t figured out how I’m going to make this visual art about something he wrote. I don’t know if I’m going to reference his visual art at all in what I do. So that’s the next thing I’m going to do, but I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet.
I also make my living off of comics, which is always difficult. And I’ve always done freelance illustration work. I never go out and get illustration work. I guess I didn’t learn the right stuff in college, but I don’t know how you solicit work, I don’t know if you need a website or an agent. No one’s ever offered to be my agent. I don’t even understand in the modern age what “illustration” means, but I still get work now and then.
Whenever I’m going to do a big graphic novel, I’m going to need enough money, and enough space to start it, and right now I’m living very month to month and looking in advance. I’m waiting to have the time, but it’s overwhelming at the moment. And I’m doing my little subscription, so right now I’m mostly doing that every month and looking to find the space to do this next big work. So that’ll be the next thing for me I guess. Who knows, something else could happen.