Hold on. I've got to clarify, though, because I agree with what you're saying, but I come at it from a different perspective. You're saying that you think that if you have this idea in your head, and you want to get it down on paper, and you do that thing, that it's going to be nowhere near as good as the thing you'd get down on paper if you were trying to make money? Because I might have to totally disagree with you.
If you knew there was a financial reward to make it as good as possible. Just to get the competitive juices flowing, to make it worthwhile.
I'm trying to wrap my head around that because I get that, but I feel like your generation, and going back to Crumb, I know that was the drive, to attempt to make a living, but at the same time, the reason I think things are so washed out, or becoming so washed out is there's more and more and more stuff. The world is lousy with cartoons, with comic books, and in one way it's fucking great--there's an amazing amount of stuff being done, and a lot of it is fantastic. And at the same time-- me and John P. talk about this all the time, the old feeling of Hey, I'm really glad you started doing this a few years back. But, also, I've been doing this for twenty years, you know? And the same with music. I cannot understand how much music and how many bands there are. Everybody has the means to go and do this, and the means to get it out into the world.
They've eliminated the middle man, which is great.
It is great. But at the same time, when we were talking earlier about you teaching yourself when you were young, having that learning curve and that drive of "I have to teach myself to be a cartoonist and to be good at this." That was very real, and there were far more impediments in the way of anyone getting their stuff out there and seen. You knew that you had to bust your ass to get this thing done.
And it wasn't an immediate line from I'm doing this to now it's in the world. There was this level of work and intensity you had to put in to even get it out into the world. You know, when you bring up the alternative thing and the grunge thing and all that shit, I do think that whole thing came from from a bunch of kids who, when they started doing it, had no clue and no aspirations beyond just getting heard—a bunch of people who were like, "I'm in a fucking band, 'cuz that's what I have to do here." I mean, in hardcore music, there was never one iota of belief that this was something palatable, or commercially acceptable, and a whole world erupted from that thing. And then that whole world turned on its edge when everybody said, "Oh, Nirvana? There's money in this?" Because before that everyone had assumed there was zero.
But that told them there was money in-
But that's when things started getting shitty! [Laughs]
You know, the easiest time to start your own record label was the early '60s or even before. It got more consolidated, mainly due to distribution, since then. So sure, anybody could start a record label since then, but forget about anybody hearing what you're putting out if you don't have a distribution deal with EMI or Warner. It was never easy easy, but it used to be more loosey-goosey. It's been a real double-edged sword, the new technology. I guess new technology always is. Now all you need is a scanner and access to the internet, and there you go. The whole world could potentially see it immediately. But you're also just a part of this cacophony, you have thousands-
A million voices.
There are photos of the Kardashians to look at, so why would you look at Joe Shmuck's mini-comic? More than ever I see people not getting beyond a certain point. You know, there's certain levels, but I don't really see people killing themselves like they used to. Because I think they reach this point where it is like, what's the point, you know? To really pushing the envelope. I don't see it. I might be jaded, though.
That was a question I had at the beginning of this, your generation was all those guys who came out of that mindset, and who are still doing it. I'm talking you, Chester, the Hernandezes, Clowes, all those guys, you had to get it up to that level to continue.
That's just it. If we were going to do it we had to make the absolute most of it. We had to go crazy and invest everything.
I'm surprised that people your age and younger are not more cognizant of how the nature of the internet defeats that. That's the point I'm trying to make, is that it does take the wind out of your sails at a certain point. It's all, you know, it looks good—I'm not talking about you—I mean, with a lot of people, it's like, yeah, it looks good, but how to take it to the next level? And just raise the bar, and "Try to top this." Me and Clowes and the Hernandez brothers, we used to literally say, "Try to top this." [Laughs] We were like, real assholes about it. And of course, they would, and then I'd be… [Laughs]
And that hasn't happened since, I totally miss that. And as you say that, I always thought that it was this kind of internal drive with you and the guys I just mentioned. And the same with me, I have this internal thing that I feel makes me keep trying to hit a certain self-imposed level. But you know, like you said, that's self-imposed, and with every passing year… How do I put this? The world is changing in a way that gives me less chance-
To make a living as a cartoonist?
Yeah. Again, me and John P. talk about this all the time: Bust your ass however you'd like, but it feels like we're not going the direction of getting closer to making a living, we're getting closer to being, like, poets.
Right, or teachers.
Poets and teachers. And I am a teacher, and if I wasn't I'd be totally fucked.
That's the new competition: everybody wants to be a teacher. When I last taught at Seattle U., they dropped some pretty clear hints that they're not gonna have me back due to my lack of a teacher's certificate, let alone a BA, even though no one's complained about the job I've done. Quite the opposite. But there's a lot of people who could do what I'm doing, and do it well, who might have master's degrees.
I didn't go to art school at all, and I've been doing this for six years, and it's been told to me, flat out, that that's the reason I can't advance, or be taken on in a real way, regardless of how well I'm doing my job. And that if I wanted to advance I should work in some way to go get a degree. And that's like, really? Really, you want me to spend forty grand and fucking years of my life to go get some bullshit degree, so you can tell me I can do the job that I'm already doing?
Right, teach all the same lessons [Laughs]
No, it's so that when you come back you'll have the students taping string to the wall or make little piles of sand. [Laughs]
Yeah. But there's still this part of me that knows good and well... Thank God that I have that gig, because my comics don't sell well at all. And I'm slowly getting resigned to that, but there's this other part of me—I did spend twelve years in a band, and it's like you have to do it. You have to do what you have to do, if you're going to make this "art" thing work.
Did Low break up?
No, Low is still a band, I just quit.
Do the others make a living being Low?
And do you feel like you'd be making a living being in Low if you still were with them?
I know I would, yeah.
So was that a really difficult decision? To not do that anymore?
Yeah, it was.
Was it something that you wrestled with for a long time?
Yeah, and it came down to some particular personal stuff going on in the band that put me in a position where I basically had no choice. I laid down some stuff, and I said, "Either some stuff has got to happen, or I'm done." And it didn't, so i was done.
But then relatively late in life you had to commit yourself to cartooning, and that must've been really difficult.
It was terrible.
And it still is.
You said it was terrible and I just laugh. But you have my sympathy!
And after Low, I didn't think I was walking around with a sense of entitlement to a certain sized audience. I felt like I came at the whole music thing from a pretty reasonable standpoint. I never dreamed it'd be anything I'd do as a job. I didn't even aspire to that really because it was too ridiculous. But Low had such a slow growth period, so gradual, that by the time I quit we were doing pretty well. We had a good audience for a mid-level indie rock band.
You had a dedicated cult following.
Yeah. So I went from busting my ass, and the result of that busting ass, when we put out a record we'd sell about thirty thousand in the States and about thirty in Europe. And I was just the bass player, you know, that wasn't my sole artistic thing, but it was something I worked my ass off for, and it meant a lot to me, artistically. I went from that to barely being able to crack a thousand people buying my book.
But if you stayed in the music biz you'd have to keep touring, and touring sucks. Yet something I've noticed with cartoonists is that one of the main ways to keep making money is to go to comic conventions. It's weird how, just like people pay more money see a show than ever before, while they're downloading their favorite band's music for free, it's the same with cartooning. More and more people are downloading my stuff for free, but now when I go to comic conventions, people don't quibble over the price of a sketch. But the catch is that means I have to travel. And while I'm traveling I'm not making comics. Because when you go to a comic convention, it's not just those two days, it's the travel days. And also when you come back you're totally wiped out. It's not like you can go right back to the drawing board. At least I can't. I have to decompress while I talk myself out of getting a real job. [Laughs] You become a dog-and-pony show. You're doing the same thing that the surviving members of the Vanilla Fudge are doing. Just when you think you can stay home to nurse the gout forever, you suddenly have no choice but to hit the road again. You have to go and stand up and meet and greet and pretend your back doesn't hurt. We cartoonists now all have to go and be part of this circus sideshow. I once read about how the all-time great pitcher Grover Alexander spent his last days as an attraction at a Times Square sideshow, right next to the bearded lady, and at first I thought, "Wow tragic." But then I realized: "Hey, that's me!" [Laughs]
See, again, I've turned that into a great lucky thing for me, because I eat shit at conventions as well, you know?
But what happens if, for whatever reason, you can't travel? Then you're just fucked. What if you have a crippling fear of flying? What if you're 80? What are you supposed to do then? It's better than nothing, but it is absolutely not better than staying at home, making new work, and collecting money off the work that you used to do. That was better. [Laughs]
Going back to earlier, I haven't had my stuff stolen and posted online as far as I know, but that drives me insane. And the whole culture that comes out of it of like, "I get this thing for free, and fuck you." It's not only "I get this thing for free" but it's like, "You made it, I get it, and fuck you."
But this James T Spock guy, he's not saying fuck you, in his brain he's saying, "I'm your biggest fan! I'm such a big fan I want the whole world to read everything you've done for free." He's not thinking fuck you at all. I'm thinking fuck you.
It's a new sense of entitlement. When I write to these sites I know I'm wasting my time. It's getting harder and harder and harder to even find that link to an e-mail, so I can just tell somebody in the politest terms. They even instruct you, they pretty much instruct you, "You have to beg us. If you swear at us we're gonna ignore you. You have to beg us." And they have more and more hurdles, and you have to weed through tons and tons of moral self-righteousness on their part. They always talk about anybody who has a copyright alert, if you are trying to protect your copyright, you're Coca-Cola. You're Hollywood. We're all one and the same.
And that's the mentality. It's all free. The idea that everyone is going to get this-- your artistic output, my artistic output, a band's, whatever-- it's gonna all be free? If all of that stuff is going to become free, then everyone in the world at a certain point has got to be prepared for, okay then, you get what you pay for.
Yeah, which is going to be bad art.