A Chat with Kevin Hooyman

conditions coverI met Kevin Hooyman in the mid-'90s in Providence, where we both went to college, and soon afterwards flew with him to his hometown of Seattle where his high school photos showed an allegiance to a dress code that would not change much almost two decades later. Kev's plan then, as it is today, was to escape the house and hit the nearby wilderness as fast as possible. If I didn't know him to currently live a few neighborhoods away in Brooklyn I would place him in a hut in a lush forest near the water listening to local classic rock radio while possibly listening to something else on headphones while he draws. Since 1998 he has had books published (eight, counting his new one, Conditions on the Ground) and countless drawings hung up on white walls around the world. In them, human and humanoid tend to size each other up in the woods and then go their separate ways, one of them usually glad to have not been killed. If the larger one is feeling magnanimous, there is a good chance he will let himself be ridden around. When we are found to be in the real world of 99 cent stores and dance floors and neighbors kids, I take this as my cue that I am now treated to something that at least started off autobiographical. There is an odd pleasure in witnessing Midwestern values take the reins from an already substandard business sense in order for our hero to screw himself over in a routine counter exchange.  On the other hand, if that dog shit is too disgusting to pick up, and the only other being in attendance is a baby, then it might just stay there.

Kevin Hooyman:
Did you see this Berke Breather…  Breathe-ed?

Keith McCulloch: Just came out of retirement after 25 years?


I never read any Bloom County - I don't care.

I liked Bloom County.

Is it good? You're on record.

I mean, I loved it. I haven't really read it as an adult but yeah I LOVED it. It’s good. Yeah he's funny and he's a little bit… edgy or something… in a coked-up ‘80s kind of way.

How is the first week going?

I don't know him to be coked up at all.. I just thought of it 'cause of the ‘80s. And the humor sort of has that feel — like the joke is just stuff getting crazier and crazier. I picture him living in LA — I don't even know if that’s true either.

With that jacket on?

Yeah. And that mustache…  Those pictures on the back covers — He’s like Steve Dallas, his character. I think that must be his buffoonish alter ego, but I have no idea. But i noticed that he was drawing on a computer for these new ones. I don't know that, I just follow him on Facebook and I saw him drawing on one of those pads and I was like, fuck man that’s wild, because I think of him as very… the line is very important. Maybe he's just doing the text on a computer.

OK Kev, let's get some of this out of the way. Influences.

Influences. Early on definitely just the newspaper comics. I read the comics everyday. Standard kid stuff.  I definitely wanted to be like a Berke Breathed or Gary Larson. loved both Bloom County and The Far Side. Those are probably my two favorites where I had to read everything those guys ever drew.

If you showed me the image of any Far Side I think I could provide the caption.

Right. I was trying to reference The Far Side the other day.. emailing with the editor of the Best American Comics thing — sounds like I am bragging, ugh — I had misspelled “Completely.” I didn't put the last L in there and she was just asking if it was okay for them to fix it, and i remembered The Far Side where the guy is on the desert island and there’s a plane going overhead and he's spelled out HELF  - its almost HELP but he hasn't finished the last part of the P and the pilot is like 'oh wait never mind, it just says Helf’ and they made this great Far Side birthday with it that said ‘Haffy Birthday.’ Anyway, somewhere in my email I wanted to make the 'loss of L' joke basically referencing this Far Side comic, but I couldn't figure it out. This is the kind of thing I want to do in my emailing… What I aspire to.

So no degree of going underground?

No. I probably stopped reading comics in high school. My collecting cuts off there too. I don't get anything after 1990. I bet I stopped reading comics then. I was drawing, but more like art department —I guess in high school it was easy to imagine yourself as a painter… copying painting styles and trying to paint really realistically. Standard art high school drawing challenges.

And then once you can drive and start drinking…

Right. There’s a lot of stuff you can do besides sit around and draw..

Now you have an extensive trove of comics in the house.

All the marvel stuff? That is almost the fulfillment of some early dream.  Like. One of the years I was most in to comics was ’86… I would have been 11 and I thought about comics all the time but still only had one short box… maybe 100 comics organized alphabetically. And now, as an adult, I can go online and these things are like 50 cents or less, so I can fill out my a ‘Nam run… or whatever. My 11-year-old dream, finally come true. Nam is not a terribly sought after comic. It’s a weird comic.

Back then when they were coming out I had that sense that they were going to be worth something in like a month.

I had that sense with everything. In ’86 and then 87— that’s the year they had New Universe—there were like eight new characters—all new number ones that you had to buy.  You were like, Well these are the number ones and it’s a new guy - this is like Spider-Man number one. And Punisher came out then—I think Punisher number one is still worth about a buck fifty. Which I definitely went out and bought right away. I mean I don't know how much of an influence this all was. I didn't think i was going to be a comic artist at that age. I did go back home and my mom gave me a box of my first grade drawings and there is… I could show you this thing … there is actually a drawing that explains… Where you write on the bottom of the page on the lined part and above you draw a picture, and it says When I grow up I want to be a comics artist but not superhero comics I wanna do my own thing. I was like, whoa that’s nuts that in first grade I wrote exactly what I wanted to be. I probably wrote a bunch of other shit that I didn't become, too, but there was some part of me way back then that wanted to draw comics about my own thoughts or ideas. And I remember back in kindergarten-first grade I was drawing tons of comics… mostly about Yoda. Which was like the coolest thing. I had a drawing buddy back then - a guy who didn't become an artist but another draw-all-the-time kid - Carl Bracken - his mom was actually a nurse but she was asleep all day because she worked the nighttime shift so we had to be quiet and we would just draw Yoda comics.

Yoda doing what?

I have tons of these—Yoda doing the shit you would see Yoda doing. Probably right after Empire Strikes Back. He's mostly hanging out with Luke and does shit. The funniest thing about this story is that I fully believed - Carl Bracken told me that he was the guy in the Yoda suit and i fully believed it.  You're like 5 or 4 years old—I met him in preschool.

He said he was Yoda.

He said he was and that sort of made sense because he was small and I found him to be pretty impressive. Not that he WAS Yoda. We knew it was a movie. But he was the guy in the suit. These are the things you will accept when you are 4 years old.


Yeah, he sent me a Christmas card last year. I mean we hung out all the time. I think our moms are still in touch. And there was the magic thing where his little brother was my brother's age so you could do the double dump off.


Yeah so I guess early on I did want to be a comics dude but then later I didn't think of myself as drawing comics until… even through the 2000s I thought I was doing some weird art that didn't fit into the art world. I was making these books that weren't quite comics. They weren't sequential drawing with writing. Maybe I was going after a Pettibon vibe.

Right. If he can do it why can’t we? If this is allowed to be considered gallery art.

Yeah, exactly. I cant even think of anyone else.

Maybe someone like Sean Landers, which I thought was terrible, but it was in some big gallery and seemed so dumb. But it was the first time I had seen crappy drawing and writing making the guy tens of thousands of dollars. I don't remember if that was inspirational or saddening.

I think back then I had to be inspired by it. I desperately wanted to make a living as an artist and stop working all those butt jobs.

So do you think you are done with the art world?

Well… oh. I don't know. I think now I feel more comfortable doing whatever it is I’m doing. But I think that the art world now is more open to comic-y drawing. I don't know. It’s not something I am actively pursuing. If someone approaches me and asks me to do something I will usually say yes. And I definitely have a lot of work where that’s the only way to really show it. 32 by 19 inch super detailed drawings where you are looking at the man-hours in all the lines. But who knows. I would say that the comics world feels more like a meritocracy than the art world—or at least easier to force your way in to. You can kind of print a hundred copies of something and if it’s good it will get attention. I think that’s at least sort of true. People doing good stuff can get noticed through the internet or the fairs.


It seems the comics fan is more righteous than other fans. They would pay.

Yes. I guess so. And everyone is supporting each other. It can be a problem. When I go walking around the comic shows I will see people I only sort of know and I HAVE to buy their comic. Like I went to buy this one comic I wanted, from this girl whose stuff I liked, and she was sold out, and the guy at the table next to her was like Hey I remember you and I had just tried to buy her comic so I’m obviously shopping, and my immediate response was like Oh i gotta buy yours .

How much was it?

Oh they're all like five or ten dollars. I have to. I don’t know why. Especially if i just sold a bunch, just take the cash around and buy stuff. It’s just support. It’s good. It works. Because it’s all people who don't have much money buying comics from each other, kinda just telling each other to keep going…  you'd like some stuff.  There’s good people. There’s some energy in the comics world right now I think. Kids are really into it. “Kids” again. But this time really kids — under 25. Deeply into it.

Where are they all?

They're all over. It's international. They're at these fairs — they're at home on their computers. They're making comics.  Or they're in these little DIY cities like Richmond or Providence or… they're all over.

How do you find out about em?

Well I find out about them, and I’m not saying this is the right way to do it or anything,  through Tumblr. I think that’s a comics scene. Unless there's a bigger one somewhere else. But I stumbled onto the Tumblr scene. That’s almost like a community because everyone is just posting. It’d pretty great because people just post the latest shit they drew. Everyone’s pushing each other in a way… there are some people I follow on Tumblr that are super productive that I really admire and feel pushed by. To see people cranking out thirty pages in a month.


Back to your book. I like the table of contents where you see all the titles. “Can of Shit” stands out. Was that real?

Can of Shit? Can of Shit happened. But let's see at some point it ends…  after the first comic ends… I think I did the logical step that didn't occur to the character and put the can out on the deck. All those kids were real. I knew all those kids.  Fernando the Jesus and his older brother, Ramon. I was pretty close with this kid and watched him become a man. They were all sent to live with their “aunt.” Relatives sent them to live so they could go to a good school system.


A ton of kids in one house?

Oh, there were like ten kids in the house. It was also a daycare. All the kids were sent from the DR to get free school. A Republican's nightmare, basically. But the short and the long of it is that you have all these kids stuck there with no parents, basically. It was like Lord of the Flies. But that kid Ramon was always asking me interesting questions and always wanting to play ball.. he was an interesting little kid. But then he hit puberty and got all show-offy. But even when he hit puberty, very touchingly he asked me what number I was in high school - I was number 12 - and later I see him with his jersey wearing number 12. Which was cool.

So you were like his sports father figure.

little bit.

Because no one's playing ball with him.

The kids all kind of get raised by the older ones. Ramon was the oldest so… Those issues in the comic are real. Fernando needed to be called “The Jesus.” He was the only one who wasn't a Jesus. And they called him that to make him feel better.

Why were they keeping that from him? I don't understand.

Because that wasn't his last name. He was from a different family. I think I don't explain stuff well enough in comics.

It didn't really matter though. It was weird enough that it let me know that it really happened.


Providence was kind of inspiring with all of its craziness for comics. It’s a fertile ground… That's a lot of what I was drawing up there. It was always a story when you went out. Family Dollar, coffee shop... you couldn't go out without some baffling experience. That's where I started doing the zines. I thought of them as sort of a field report from the world around me. “Conditions on the Ground.”

New York doesn't seem to factor in [your comics] so much yet.

Oh man, I have some written, haven't done ’em yet. There's a lot to draw in those comics. You really have to sell the city aspect of it. Lots of backgrounds.

How's that going... Are you happy here?

I do not know. I feel I run the same program wherever I’m at these days, which is child care and then log off at eight or 9 and draw comics. I don't ever go out in New York, as you know… I mean I like this neighborhood. Fun to go thru the childcare parts of the day. Easy to meet up with other moms and dads. There's tons of activity. Yeah I guess I like New York.

You just got a big chunk of money doing advertising stuff, so that should help.

Kaboom. REI's economy stimulation.

How did you feel about that in the end? Good experience?

I mean it was good… the ads all came out and kind of sputtered out I  think.


It really is perfect. I wasn't getting anymore money if those ads did well. Maybe they would do another campaign but probably not even. The whole point was to give them a little bit of indy art cred association.

And there were no giant billboards so..

There was stuff in the store but I never saw it nor did anybody I know ever see it.

Yeah, and we get REI catalogs and I didn't see it. I was very happy for you not to have seen it anywhere. This is the dream right? To get the money and not be compromised with your buddies saying you sold out.

It was perfect but I don't know if I am not at all disappointed that it didn't … that it didn't take off. Maybe I would feel more powerful as an artist if I did a campaign and it was a real “hit.” But yeah, they gave me a ton of money… I got the real professional treatment, too. Flew me out and put me up. I honestly have no idea how the ads did. I sort of purposefully didn’t  look.

Well, it seems like the dream gig to most artists—get the money, keep your style, no one see it.

And apparently selling out doesn't even have a stigma anymore. I watched a Frontline about this. They were asking all these 25-year-old kids what they thought “selling out” meant and they just didn't know. They were like, I think it means when you hit it big and make lots of money. They didn't know that any sort of negative stigma could be attached. It was just seen as proof of your success that a big company would want to give you money. It was like the market force is now the force we trust.  If advertisers choose you, you must be great.

[McCulloch becomes distracted by all the comics again, each box lid painted exactly in the manner of the comic series inside.]

You have so many comics.

Someday when I have one million hours free I would like to read them all..

Oh, you don't even get to read them?

I read them slowly, but no I just get in a little here and there. Mainly on the toilet. Like right now I’m reading Godzilla. Which is kind of awesome… it’s a little short run. I think there's only 20 of them from the ’70s. It’s just — it’s Godzilla. He's roaming free. Like the episode I was reading today he's on a ranch in like Wyoming or something and he's eating all the cattle. And you’re sorta supposed to be on Godzilla’s side. I don't actually know what's gonna happen but you're kind of on Godzilla's side— he's like sick of all these small creatures trying to fight him. I mean it  follows Godzilla — he's the hero. But he's also Godzilla the monster.

Does he talk? Does he have thoughts?

No, he has feelings more. He's a monster. It’s pretty good. This is not a highly acclaimed comic. Its sort of one they were…  look here he is eating cows. And the cowhands decide they want to show the city people how to catch a monster, so they are trying to do it themselves, but there are some actual real rustlers actually stealing the cows and blaming Godzilla. I have the feeling Godzilla is going to be heroic to some degree.

And eat those guys?

Yeah. That's the kind of plots they are whipping out for these. But it is kind of funny to have Godzilla be the hero. The way they talk about his feeling and his decisions.  I don't know why I like it. I like the monster thoughts.