At one point in the interview below, the 26-year-old cartoonist Blaise Larmee says that everyone plays a character all the time. I think that goes a long way to explaining what's fascinating about Larmee—not so much about his comics, which are beautiful, thoughtful, and unique enough to get by on their own, but about the sort of artist Larmee presents himself as on Comets Comets, a group blog which also features artists Austin English, Jason Overby, and Caroline Bren, and which displays a relentless obsession less with making art than with what making art means. While this online performance often takes the form of lengthy essays about form, content, and history, it also has a merry-prankster aspect, from the title of the blog itself (a play on our TCJ.com overlords Dan Nadel and Tim Hodler's Comics Comics magazine and blog) to a penchant for anonymous comment-thread trollery and a bogus, since-deleted Twitter account for Christopher Forgues (aka C.F.), the artist with whom Larmee has been most frequently compared. For his part, Larmee seems to enjoy playing with the trappings of youth-Internet culture and design — Helvetica, "scare quotes," Bren's recent Geocities-style redesign of the blog, and so on. Larmee is not one to let his work speak for itself; he uses new media to pile layers and layers of self-interrogatory dialogue on top of it.
Which is either funny or unfortunate (depending on the mood I'm in), because his comics can speak for themselves. His striking debut graphic novel, the 2009 Xeric Grant-winning Young Lions, dials down the fantastical and edgier elements of his C.F. influence to tell a straightforward, relatable story of three young artists at a personal and aesthetic crossroads, with lush and sensual figure work drawn in delicate, smudgy pencil. And his webcomic 2001 eschews his usual studious distancing techniques with enormously immersive and innovative design and layouts—full-bleed back backgrounds with tiny white stars or snowflakes dotting it into the distance, eating up the entire screen—and energetic, even passionate physical choreography between the two friends who are its main characters. And then there is the debut book of his Gaze Books publishing imprint, Aidan Koch's The Whale, which displays great promise from an aesthetically like-minded artist. In short, Larmee has the chops and the vision in his comics to act pretty much however he wants outside of them. Why does he act this particular way, then? I asked him.
Sean T. Collins: Let’s talk about 2001, because I think even more than Young Lions or the Xeric you won for it or the creation of Gaze Books, 2001 seems to be the work of yours that’s gotten the biggest, most effusive response. Personally, I’d never seen anything like it. Can you walk me through the thought process a bit in terms of how you chose to design the comic in that way?
Blaise Larmee: I think the design is pragmatic.
Collins: How so?
Larmee: The panels are squares because squares are the most simple and adaptable shapes to work with online and in print. Each panel represents the face of an 8' x 8' cube of space in one-point perspective. The vanishing point is located in the center of the panel. The background is digitally projected.
Collins: What are you drawing it with? With the white-on-black construction, it’s difficult to tell. It’s not just scanned and darkened pencils, is it?
Larmee: I draw with a ballpoint pen.
Collins: How's that working for you? The change to pen from pencil seems like it would entail a shift in head space as well as technique.
Larmee: I used pencil as an inker would use a pen.
Collins: What’s the plan for 2001? How long will it last? And since it’s basically all you see when you go to your main website, what happens to it, and to the site, when it’s over?
Larmee: I insist on staying in the present moment. 2001 exists, for me, in real time. This is different than Young Lions. For Young Lions I asked myself, "how will I win the Xeric grant?" and every subsequent action was structured toward this specific thing/event. Now my questions change in each panel and are always in relation to my characters and their environment.
Collins: Had you come up with the idea for Young Lions prior to deciding to apply for the Xeric, and that decision simply shaped how it turned out? Or did Young Lions originate entirely from "I want a Xeric"?
Larmee: I imagined after I got the Xeric that I would either write a different graphic novel to publish, or pocket the money. I ended up liking Young Lions.
Collins: What’s your background, Blaise? By that I mean where you’re from and your family situation, but also your history with reading and making comics. I realize that the only thing I know about you, and by “know” I mean “assume,” is “art school.”
Larmee: I was born in New York and grew up in Chicago. I am an only child. I went to a liberal arts college in Colorado. I've mostly lived in Portland and New York since then.
Collins: As I prepped for this interview I sat around trying to figure out when I first heard of you, and drew a blank. I couldn’t remember if it was from the Comets Comets site, or the announcement that you won a Xeric, or you getting in touch about sending me a review copy of Young Lions. Then, as I was writing the very first sentence, I remembered: It was when you, or a person called "Hall Hassi" (or something) who I’m reasonably sure is also you, made a bootleg minicomic version of Kramers Ergot 7 that seemed to upset Kramers' publishers. That was my introduction to your work! And as I think I’ve probably made pretty clear in comments here and there, I’ve found your overall internet presence — the Tao Lin/Hipster Runoff syntax and “irony or sincerity” guessing game; the Comets Comets posse with their tweaking of older art-comix makers, comment thread trollery, and fake C.F. twitter accounts; the nearly relentless art-theory navel-gazing on the blog itself (perhaps that’s changed; frankly I stopped reading for “life’s too short” reasons this past fall) — pretty baffling, How integral is all that to what you do? Do you ever wish you’d started a blog that was just like, “Hey, here’s my latest drawing, hope you dig it!”?
Larmee: My internet life is very important to me. White Shasta is an anonymous person online whom I feel close to, who is responsible for most of the conceptual comments, all the C.F. tweets, and is amassing a fairly interesting online presence in general. Caroline Bren grew up on the internet and she recently re-designed the Comets Comets site in a compelling and beautiful way. Hall Hassi received legal threats for a zine she never made, the photographs of which were digitally manufactured, as was the character herself. At some point this past year I felt I changed characters—from the capitalist to the scholar. I used language which drove away readership and sought to create a semi-private space for discussion. I deleted my personal blog and Facebook account. In a way I felt my character was attempting to transition from middle class to upper class. I could afford to be withdrawn.
Collins: Well, thank you for allowing me into the inner sanctum then, sir. I have a great deal of admiration for character-based artists — David Bowie first and foremost — but I don't have the sticktoitiveness to stay in character consistently. How do you do it?
Larmee: Everyone does it.
Collins: Do you really feel that "everyone" portrays a character? If anything, among artists these days, I think the tendency to let people behind the curtain is more pronounced now in the internet era than ever before. I suppose you're saying, a la Kyra Sedgwick in Singles, that "not having a thing" is in itself "a thing," but I think there's still a distinction. Don't you?
Larmee: What would I do to let you "behind the curtain?" How would I behave? Would I use casual language, express possibly incriminating or embarrassing thoughts as they occur, vocalize my fears and ambitions? Would I seem less academic and more "off the cuff?" The child doesn't have a curtain / the child is nothing but a curtain // because it is not self conscious / because it is only self conscious.
Collins: I bring all this up because I remember that when I went into Young Lions, I expected it to be a lot more iconoclastic than it actually is. It’s obviously a bit of a "Art School Confidential"-type satire of art collectives, and the drawing looks enough like certain artcomix touchstones that it could be interpreted as commentary on them, but in the main it was a) simply very lovely to look at, and b) a straightforward alternative-comic-type story about young people struggling with romance, art, and self-image. I’m curious as to whether you sensed any kind of disconnect there, or is that something only we in the audience brought to the table? Are you happy if critics and readers focus on the more direct pleasures of the art and narrative, or were you hoping for more?
Larmee: Whenever I pick up Young Lions and flip through it I kind of laugh in a funny sort of way, like maybe the way one might laugh at a child who is trying to impress an adult by attempting a cartwheel.
Collins: I actually think that answers my question. What artistic tradition do you consider yourself a part of, Blaise? I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you talk all that much about comics, except in that one post where you trace the influence of CF upon a generation of artists and cartoonists and defend the directness of that influence as valid. Beyond that, there’s that very funny bit you did for Studygroup12 #4 where a character seems literally trapped in a maze with Charles Schulz as the minotaur at its center. Do you feel similarly hemmed in? Is there a lineage of comics you’d feel comfortable seeing your work as a continuation of? Or are you looking more at fine art?
Larmee: I belong to distant traditions which appear to me as images. If I enter these traditions the images crumbles and I am left with the everydayness of reality. My everyday reality is an intimate relationship with images. People, places, and things become images as they remove themselves. In other words, they become screens for projection. I offer myself as such a screen and I accept all that is projected onto me.
Collins: You live in Portland, correct? What’s the “Portland scene” like? I ask because from the outside looking in, I’m not sure there is a contiguous scene – roping your work in with that of people who do revisionist sff for Image seems a bit odd. Who do you consider your peers there?
Larmee: I don't know what the Portland Scene is like. Jason Overby and I hang out. Aidan Koch and I hang out. That's pretty much it.
Collins: How does Gaze Books fit into this? I liked The Whale very much, and felt that between that and Young Lions, I had a rock-solid sense of the aesthetic Gaze was stewarding. Is there more in that vein on the way?
Larmee: Gaze Books exists in the present.
Collins: Be here now. It's interesting to me that your characterizations of both 2001 and Gaze Books are so similar.
Larmee: I think I decided tonight I would put 2001 on hold indefinitely.
Collins: But it's still rolling out. Did you have material backlogged, or did you change your mind? And why would you put it on hold?
Larmee: I had conceived of a website I wanted to make that would require a lot of time to build and maintain. I was excited about the project and excited about putting 2001 on hold indefinitely, but the next morning I found myself wanting to hang out with my characters instead.
Collins: What’s next for you?
Larmee: I accepted a fellowship at The Center for Cartoon Studies for 2011-2012. A French translation of Young Lions is slated for a fall release, to be published by Cambourakis. I am working on a zine.
Collins: Anything I missed, the floor is yours!
Larmee: The image of the internet as "fun," "young," "cool," "sarcastic," "irreverent," etc, is a character written by old media and performed by the youth. Old media demands fetishization of the internet, which young artists are willing to manufacture. Ironically reified images of the Internet are imbued with an ironic currency which mimics old media currency. This virtual currency is acknowledged and promoted by old media because it a) refers to the real currency old media possesses, b) instantly appears in old media's virtual coffers, c) translates into real currency, d) to the unsophisticated observer it appears to be real currency, e) attributes normativity to old media and de-emphasizes its own virtual nature. Examples: a Tumblr image with 103 notes, with the words "Facebook," "WikiLeaks," "Generation Y," and "Justin Bieber" in Comic Sans in pink and blue with drop shadow and lens flare; a Dr. Phil show devoted to "the dangers of the internet;" a news article referring to Anonymous as a "group;" the presentation of Google Image Search, Yahoo! Answers, and 4chan as "readymades" or "found art."
Collins: That is easily the longest answer anyone has ever given me when I've asked my traditional interview-ending catchall question. Most people just say some variation on "Nope, I think we covered it all," or "Be sure to buy my book/visit my website." I'll admit I found it quite striking that given carte blanche to discuss or plug whatever you wanted, you went with what old people think of young people on the Internet. It seems as though you're willing to give as good as you get on that score.
“Say Hello!” is a regular interview column by Sean T. Collins, spotlighting up-and-coming cartoonists.