An Interview with Jason Karns

Benjamin Marra introduced me to Fukitor, Jason Karns’s flagship title. So when I started putting this interview together, I emailed Marra to see how he discovered Karns’s work.

BENJAMIN MARRA: Comic books, zines, and art books are like magic items to me and I try to surround myself with as many as I can find. By opening and looking through their pages within I get a psychic high from visually absorbing their power. Some have higher psychic value and better highs than others. It all depends on my ever-fluctuating tastes. But I am constantly searching for a new and better high, much like an addict and not so much like a collector. Or I’m like a Forty-Niner, the Internet is my land claim, streams of new blog posts are like an ever-flowing river on my property through which I pan for tiny pieces of gold, or underground comic books, pamphlets, zines or out-of-print books. I am deliberate in my acquisitions and have a highly concentrated horde of magic-item books.

I’ve known Keenan Marshall Keller from when I first started publishing my own work. We live on opposite ends of the country but have a virtual connection through the Internet. I have all his issues of Galactic Breakdown which deliver a very choice high, and from time to time I happen upon his blog or Flickr site to see what’s new in his Internet-world. It was on the his Flickr account that I happened on the issues of FUKITOR Keller had recently acquired. I checked out the FUKITOR blog, which had an adults only disclaimer (good sign), and instantly after sampling the visuals found there needed the raw, tangible, material, printed issues myself. I emailed the address on the blog and asked if the individual (I’m not sure if I knew it was Jason Karns at this point yet) if he wanted to trade his books for my own. (I joke to myself that I just make comics to turn them into other comics by other people). Karns replied and declined my trade offer. I thought about the possibility of not buying the issues for a few seconds before deciding it was impossible not to order all of the available issues. The images I found through the screen of my computer had already seared onto my brain. I find art I can’t forget to be the stuff I prefer.

When they arrived in the mail I stood in my studio and ran my eyes over all the pages devouring all the drawings and information hungrily. Horror, nudity, gore, blood, oozing fluids, giant Nazi insect scientists experimenting on screaming virgins strapped to steel tables as devoted druids stand in attendance, all rendered with Black Hole black ink and bubble-gum markers, printed on cheap color-printer paper (I guess). The high was instant and heavily satisfying. The issues, sitting together in their plastic bag, stuffed in one of my many comic short boxes, were a strong addition to my horde of magic items.

With an endorsement from Marra, whose work I enjoy and opinion I trust, I tracked down a couple issues of Fukitor from Jason Karns’ blog. Rare is the comic that exceeds high expectations. The samples on Karns’ site suggested outrageous, insane comics the way old exploitation trailers and posters suggested extreme movie viewing experiences. Unlike those trailers, Fukitor delivered the goods. These comics were gorgeously drawn, lettered, colored, and even printed on newsprint! They reminded me of EC comics (but imagine EC comics being shock-adjusted to be offensive by today’s standards), Richard Corben, Tim Vigil’s Faust, Ben Marra, Cracked magazine, undergrounds, '70s grindhouse stuff, '80s straight-to-video movies…I couldn’t believe my eyes, and he has like 7 issues available!?! How had I not heard of these things before? I took my copies of Fukitor to PIX (Pittsburgh Indy Comics Expo) and showed them to everybody – other cartoonists, retailers, friends…no one had heard of these comics. I said, “this is bullshit”, and decided two things: 1. I had to learn more about them and the cartoonist who made them; 2. I didn’t want to live in a comics world where Karns's work isn’t widely known and celebrated.

I emailed Jason Karns to get some answers. He patiently walked me through his background and process. I hope if you find this interview and the accompanying artwork intriguing you will consider ordering an issue (I highly recommend issues 5 and 6, but they’re all amazing). And please share this interview or his blog with your comix friends.



RUGG: How old are you?

JASON KARNS: I turned 40 just this past summer.

RUGG: What is your background (did you go to art school or prison or something that seems especially formative)?

KARNS: I'm self-taught. My only background would be that I started reading comic books at a very early age. I was in jail for 24 hours once. That was enough to tell me that I don't want to go there again. Oh, and I did some art classes at a junior college after high school. I didn't learn much. I knew it was time to quit school and get a job when I found myself sitting on the toilet skipping class so I could finish a beer from lunch break.

RUGG: What do you do now, like day job, recreation, etc. – what’s a typical week like for you?

KARNS: I work at the bar that I live above. My typical week is slinging booze and waiting tables in between hanging out with friends, drawing, watching a few old movies, and listening to music. I live in a small town in Illinois. It's relatively quiet here and most folks get along. It's kinda like Mayberry with more booze, with a hint of David Lynch.

RUGG: What is your history with comics (including reading them as a child, how you started making them, how long you’ve been making them, everything, all the way up to Fukitor production)?

KARNS: As far back as 6 or 7 I was looking off of comic books and tying to draw it. I'd go with my mom to the store and spend the whole time at the book racks reading comic books, horror mags, and even Cracked and Mad. Keep in mind, this is the mid to late '70s, a fucking great time to peruse the magazine aisle. When we could afford it I would get to bring some home. I would spread paper all around the living room with pencil in hand trying to copy scenes from Spider-Man comics while watching a Godzilla movie or any of the old Universal monster flicks (back in the good ol' days when that shit seemed to always be on TV). I remember being fascinated with not just the art but also the physical design of a comic book. I would study the logos, sound effects, cover designs, where the staples went, the styles of paper, the differences between Atlas, Marvel, DC, Charlton, and Gold Key, etc…I memorized the names of all the artists. To this day I'm still pretty good at guessing the artist in an old comic right at first glance. And like most I quickly became a huge fan of Jack Kirby.

At age 8 or 9 I started folding pieces of paper together, stapling them and making my own little homemade comics. I would do the obvious superhero crap, but it wasn't very long afterwards that I discovered Conan and began drawing barbarian stuff. I created a character named "Kron", a lone barbarian warrior that was constantly being hassled by soldiers, wizards, and monsters. Before I had even seen a gory movie I was drawing blood and guts. For some reason the gore appealed to me. Kron was repeatedly, page after page, hacking up everybody and everything. Severed limbs, arterial spray, beheadings, and piles of intestines filled the pages. In the earlier issues I even made him a cannibal, I'm guessing as an excuse to show more gore. Eventually I toyed around with the superhero stuff again and would even haul these homemade rags to school and pass them around class for others to read. I don't think the teachers even noticed or just didn't care. I never got in trouble until freshman year when a teacher saw what I was drawing at my desk. At the time I was experimenting in drawing with Bic pens, no pencils, just straight to inks, and I was using a red pen for all the blood scenes. I was pretty proud of this particular scene where half a dude's head was getting blasted off by gunfire. I'm sure that stuck out like a motherfucker when the teacher walked by. Anyway, I was sent to the principal's office to get lectured on why I shouldn't draw stuff like that. A little traumatizing to get scolded for drawing cartoons, but looking back on it, I was probably strengthened by it. It was my first experience in life where I realized some people are just too uptight and ignorant about art. I knew I wasn't fucked in the head. My childhood was so normal it could almost be labeled boring.

So, after high school and into the '90s I kept drawing, sometimes comics, other times just artwork. I was also partying, chasing girls, and just doing what young twenty-somethings do. I dicked around with doing flyers for local shows and some cover art for some buddies that had a thrash band. By the late 90s I was starting to really question what the fuck I was gonna do with my drawing. I was getting a little uninspired. Then one day while working at a liquor store one of my regular customers noticed my doodlings laying on the far side of the checkout counter. I don't remember what it was, probably monsters, skulls, and stuff. He said "wow, man...you draw that?" And I said "yeah...it's just something I do on the side..." And he asked if I had ever read any Zap comix. I had heard of them and had already seen some Crumb stuff. We shot the shit for a bit and he said he owned all the original Zap issues and would bring them in for me to borrow. I kinda blew it off, not expecting him to follow through, but sure enough a few days later he comes in and slaps down all the issues of Zap and tells me to borrow 'em for as long as I want. And that's when I discovered S. Clay Wilson. His art and style was the jolt I needed. It reminded me to just have fun with my art, and yeah, throwing in plenty of blood, boobs, and bad words wouldn't hurt either. Not long after I also got turned on to Joe Coleman's work*. His attention to detail along with graphic imagery was another kick in the ass I needed.

About the same time the internet was starting up and through a friend I was able to put up a website showing some of my stuff. I became email buddies with some of the folks in the underground metal music scene. Billy from Razorback Records would encourage me from time to time. One day he was emailing me about how lame the current trendy metal scene was. We were just kinda making fun of all the hipster shit, baggy pants, nu-metal junk that was going on and he suggested I draw a comic where nu-metal kids get killed by zombies. Usually when someone says "Hey, you should draw this, or that..." I quickly say NO, but being another disgruntled metal kid from the '80s, Billy's idea hit home. And so, "Poseur Holocaust" was born. By the first few panels I knew I had hit a nerve. This is what I want to do. Little homemade, full color comix that don't hold anything back. Lots of gore and craziness, all mixed in with some dark humor. I called the early stuff "Tales From Uranus" and started out just giving them away for free, then later started charging a little bit because the ink costs were kind of brutal. My underground metal buddies spread my flyers around with their mailings and CD orders. Pretty soon word of mouth was getting as far as Europe and people were ordering them from me via snail-mail.

Over the years I made some format changes and wrestled with costs. It was a constant learning process, the whole DIY experience. Finally I was able to get newsprint paper for the inside pages and a nice slick, fullbleed cover. I became bored with the title and really wanted ONE word to sum up everything. "Fukitor" was actually an alien monster character in an earlier comic that hasn't been reprinted since. I was going through my older stuff one day back in 2005 or 6 and saw that word FUKITOR again, and then I knew that was gonna be it. That one obnoxious word says it all to me. It doesn't say any particular genre. It means I can throw in anything I want and it's all the same animal. Meanwhile, it's all just one big sick, twisted, lowbrow homage to those old comics and movies I grew up with and still enjoy today. Now if I could just get them to even smell like a '70s comic, I'd be set.


RUGG: How do you produce an issue (soup to nuts, everything, how do you staple it? How do you color it? Are you printing the interior pages on an inkjet printer yourself? What do you draw with? Do you write the story first or write as you draw each page? I could list a million more of these tech questions, so just give us your process from a blank sheet of paper or rough idea to dropping a finished copy in the mail)?

KARNS: It always starts with thumbnails and little notes. Sometimes a title alone will get the ball rolling. Most of the time it's an image or a scene I see in my head and I'll do little doodles to figure out placement, perspective, and character design. I don't keep a sketchbook, just lots of paper filled with thumbnails, goofy bits of dialogue ideas, and razor thin plot summaries jotted down around a bunch of seedy looking visuals. I always doodle with a Sharpie Ultra Fine point pen.

Once I feel like I'm onto something I grab a piece of regular white copy paper, fold it in half and start the rough pencil layouts. Sometimes it'll flow, sometimes it takes a little more effort. Once I'm happy with the title design and panel layout I get real good and tight on the pencils. I don't like to ink until I'm sure of everything as far as placement, action, shadows, perspective, and even word balloons. Then I ink with a black Papermate Flair pen. I like the tips on those. I'm able to get a good brush stroke effect from those and they're cheap. I'm a detail freak and I hate dead space so I even get in there with a Micron pen before it's all done. The lettering is all done twice. First I lightly ink the letters with the Flair then go back over them in detail with the Micron. I erase all pencil marks and make a black and white copy. It has to be on a photocopier, not an inkjet. That way the blacks are set into the paper and don't smear. I make an extra copy every time just in case I fuck up or change my mind on some colors. Coloring is done with Prismacolor markers. I've been using these for years and have found nothing else as good. If you know how to use them you can get some really good solid results with minimal tracks or bleeds. Once the coloring is done I trim the outer edges a bit to prevent anything getting cut off during the printing stage.

Once the comic is done I arrange the pages in the order I will need them to be for printing. I use an old HP inkjet copier. I feed each individual sheet of 81/2 x 11 newsprint manually, otherwise it'll jam. Once I've made the amount of copies I need, I change the art and do the reverse sides. Every issue is 20 pages which means it's 5 sheets of paper printed on both sides. I use the lower setting on the ink output. This saves a little ink but it also gives the art a little washed out look that reminds me of an old comic, so that works out good. Once it's done I divide the sheets up into 5 separate piles and one by one pull from each pile, fold all 5 sheets together, being careful to make sure they're folding neatly and evenly with a nice crease for the spine. I do that until they are all done and that's it for the insides. Then I make the color covers on a laser machine using slick 11x17 paper. I use a papercutter to trim off all the access. This allows me to have fullbleed cover art. Run those through on the reverse side for the inside cover art, fold them, then individually stuff each one with inside comix. Finally I take a long Bostitch stapler, slip the comic in open and flat and carefully put 2 staples centered in the spine, roughly 2 inches in from the edges, so that the book will open smoothly.

Then I post the info on my blog, setup the PayPal button, and wait for emails saying I have orders. When I get an order I always write it down, lots of times straight onto a blank envelope, make a note on the flap of what issues they ordered (just in case the internet goes down), then stick the comic(s) in a plastic bag sealed with magic tape, seal the envelope, and head over to the post office in the next day or so.

RUGG: Who and what are your influences? What have you been enjoying lately (feel free to name movies, tv shows, books, comics, video games, comedians, etc.)?

KARNS: My main influences are and always will be older comic books and older movies. I could probably be labeled as someone who "lives in the past". That wouldn't bother me a bit, because it's not my fault the present sucks so much. I like reading old, trashy paperbacks too, anything from porno westerns to macho action shit to fantasy and sci-fi. I have a small collection of about 200 old horror movies that I enjoy re-watching over and over. I don't watch tv. I have a tv obviously for my DVDs and VHS, but no cable. The only television programs I ever see would be at the bar, mainly football. So, I'm still heavily influenced by the same stuff for the past couple of decades. Old Mexican horror movies, 60s 70s horror films from here and Europe, Eerie Publications, my small pile of old comics and mags, and a big book of those old Men's Adventure magazine covers are the only things I need to get my juices going. Well, that and cold beer.

RUGG: You want to mention or discuss any favorite old horror movies?

KARNS: Ones I can't seem to live without and watch at least once or twice a month: Mask of SatanHorror HotelDawn of the Dead (orig. of course); Day of the DeadThe Awful Dr. OrlofFistful of Dollars/For a Few Dollars MoreShe DemonsNude For SatanI Drink Your BloodFiend Without a FaceWerewolves On WheelsMark of the DevilDiabolical Dr. ZDjangoThe SadistPlanet of the VampiresAny Santo movieThe Bloody VampireBloody Pit of Horror (just had this eaten recently, but I'm sure I'll get a DVD sometime so I can watch it a million more times)

And a slew of other stuff from Europe and Mexico. Oh, and there's also the original Space Ghost, Herculoids, and Thundarr cartoons when I really wanna nerd out.

RUGG: You mentioned that you don't mind being labeled as "living in the past". I love the history of comics and exploitation movies...but I actually believe we are living in a golden age of entertainment/creativity (granted a lot of that position is based on the fact that we have access to archives of all the great comics/movies/music/books/etc that were ever created). I wonder if you could elaborate on this position that "the present sucks so much." Is there anyone contemporary besides Ben Marra that you like? Do you ever interact with the comics industry (like at a comics shop)?

KARNS: Yeah, part of it is the fact I don't really pay attention too much to the current stuff. There's a comic shop here, but I never go there. I was in a bigger shop in the burbs outside Chicago about 5 years ago and couldn't stand any of the newer shit. All the computer coloring and fonts flying around, everybody drawing like Jim Lee...I think it looks like shit. But that's just me. I'm kind of a butthole like that. 90% of the reason I do Fukitor is because it's the kind of stuff I was looking for all those years buying comics. I never really found stuff like that, so just ended up making the things myself.

RUGG: Do you have other creative outlets besides comics, like music? Do you have a group of other artists, cartoonists, writers, that you meet with or share work with, bounce ideas off of? If so, who and how important do you think that is to your work?

KARNS: I can play the electric guitar a little. Other than that it's just drawing for me. Most of my friends are aware of my comics but I don't chat about it too much with anyone.


RUGG: How many copies of an issue do you print? I’m under the impression that you do not do wholesale pricing, so are you the only person distributing this work? If so, how is that going? Do you do anything to promote the work like going to comic book shows or zine shows or sending copies to people whose work you admire…stuff like that?

KARNS: I don't keep track. I just keep restocking every issue when I need to. I've had some buddies buy up extras before and endorse them occasionally at a convention and I just recently got some issues sitting up at Quimby's in Chicago. I need to get into more indy stores but money is always a pain in the ass when it comes to stocking up lots of extra copies. I recently traded with Benjamin Marra. His stuff is great. I like good sleazy, escapist, violent action stuff and his stuff fits the bill. Plus, his style is cool. He puts in the right amount of grit and detail but doesn't try to draw like anyone else. I've only been to one comic convention, around 2006, just to see what was up. I didn't have a table, was just there wandering around. I saw a lot of fuckers drawing cutesy, manga looking shit and other stuff that was either just way too pretentious or didn't deserve to be even given away for free. I didn't have any fun until I found this dude in the middle area that was selling piles of old horror comic mags. He barely spoke english and was about to kill these hipster kids that were bugging him about every single title they'd pull out of the box, haggling about conditions of the comic, a better price, all that shit. I quietly started to pull out mags that I wanted and my pile became taller by the minute, not asking anything, not trying to pull them out of the bags. He notices me, just kinda smiles, leans over away from the kids and says "3 bucks each". I smiled back and continued to pile up the old Skywalds, Eerie publications, and some Marvel mags until I was close to the 150 bucks I had in my pocket to burn that day. Meanwhile he continued to bark at the asshole kids in broken english "No! 25 dollars! What? No, that is price! "What? Then buy from there! NO!" Then I found the porn mag booth. That was amazing to see that much sleaze and old porn piled up in one room. It was overwhelming and we were getting ready to leave. So, I quickly scanned the paperbacks and grabbed one called Violent Stories of Ghetto Sex. I haven't stepped foot into a convention since.

RUGG: This might sound weird because I think a lot of people assume everyone wants an audience to be as big as possible, but are you happy with your readership’s size and development?

KARNS: Anything is good. I have no delusions about it ever getting out of control or anything, but the more people come along the more it helps with my bills. The kind of material I do is more for a limited audience, but it wouldn't break my heart if a thousand people out of the entire earth started giving a shit and ordered regularly every year.

RUGG: Are you interested in working with a publisher? You work seems very mature to me (in terms of your level of refinement as an artist). So I guess what I’m curious about is where you are as an artist and where you’d like to be or if you are already there. It seems like you are in a position to create work without any editorial limitations and to bring that work to an audience in a beautiful package. As a fan of design and format, Fukitor’s printing/package/design blow me away. So I guess a small, indie comics/zine publisher could offer you wider distribution and potentially a larger readership but perhaps they would want some editorial control. I think it’s safe to say that if your comics were movies, they’d receive NC-17 ratings. Does that effect you in terms of distribution, publishing, or content? I mean, it’s curious to me that your name isn’t even on the comics. Is that an artistic choice or something else?

KARNS: Oh, I quit signing stuff a while back. I figured the art speaks for itself. On the subject of "where I'm at as an artist," I'm pretty happy with the shit I got going. There's always little improvement tweaks that can happen, new shadow ideas, or different perspectives, but overall this is the stuff I see in my head and it's turning out pretty much the way I want. As far as other publishers go, I enjoy self-publishing. If I had to wait on someone else for printing, had to put in an ad, or had to listen to opinions about what I should or shouldn't put in my comics, I'd fucking snap. If ever someone wants to distribute my comics and gives me total artistic control, I'd be interested in that. Otherwise, I'm pretty content with doing it myself.

RUGG: Thanks to Jason for taking time to answer these questions. As for the rest of you – go check out his blog. He’s very prolific and posts tons of artwork.

* RUGG: I like Coleman’s work a lot. His name doesn’t come up as much as it should. The Mystery of Wolverine Woo-Bait is incredible.