A Brandon Graham Interview

I met Brandon Graham before I’d read any of his comics. His booth was across the aisle from where I worked at the Emerald City Comicon, and to be honest, I initially approached him just so I could get a sketch. I walked to his booth just as the first day of the show was starting and saw all the issues of King City spread out on the table. I’d heard of King City quite a bit in the previous weeks, and when I saw the issues I immediately thought it’d be fun to interview this person whom I’d never met and whose work I’d never read. I mean, he did have an elephant tattooed on his neck, after all. Brandon was incredibly kind and we had a nice conversation about Fantagraphics, Seattle, and the like: a wonderful way to start the convention.

But then, that son of a bitch, I get back to my booth and all of the issues of King City are in my hands and thirty of my hard earned dollars are gone! I don’t know how it happened. He drugged me, maybe? Maybe I blacked out? Probably he drugged me. In any event I now had a twelve-issue series to read, and by the time we sat down on a curb in Portland to conduct the first part of this interview I’d read all his comics I could possibly find. Definitely he drugged me.

One interview and an incredible amount of transcribing and editing later, I still don’t know why he has an elephant tattoo on his neck. What I do know is Brandon is genuinely kind, he has a desire to laugh, and clean lines that would make a Belgian weep in ecstasy. I hope you’ll enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it.

IAN BURNS: You’re a city kid. Seattle, New York, and now Vancouver. Do you think you’ll ever live in the country, away from a major city?

Yeah. I actually have this thing right now where my girlfriend’s family has a cabin out on Bowen Island, which is this little kind of Hobbit … Hobbit village.

BURNS: Hobbiton.

Hobbiton-type village. I guess it’s like an hour outside Vancouver. And always, whenever I go there it makes me want to work on fantasy comics. When I hang out in cities I get ideas for King City–type stuff, and as soon as I’m in the country there’s Multiple Warheads-type stuff. But the thing I noticed, whenever I’m out there, as soon as I run out of comics or books or whatever to read, I have to go back to the city.

BURNS: What about cities generates those ideas for you?

GRAHAM: I don’t know if it’s necessarily the cities. I’ve always been around cities. When I was in my early twenties, I became an assistant for this guy, Moritat, who draws The Spirit now. He’s kind of an infamous liar and storyteller. And he would just walk me around Seattle and tell me stories about different parts of it. I remember specifically, in Chinatown—you know how Bruce Lee spent a chunk of his life in Seattle?—Moritat would walk past restaurants and say, “This is the restaurant where Bruce Lee lived.” Or, “This is the restaurant where Bruce Lee worked.” He told me about a massacre that happened in an alley once.

Whoa. What alley was that in?

GRAHAM: It was actually an alley in Chinatown where they had a kind of basement Chinese gambling set up. I think this was back in like the ’70s or something. I don’t even remember the truth of it, but the story I got was just that there was a huge gang massacre at this gambling den in a basement. I feel like that kind of stuff really planted this idea in me of like, “Man, there’s got to be so many stories and so much history to every place.” I haven’t quite got that way with country stuff because so much stuff feels so much more untouched, but in cities it’s, you know, everything that’s happened on every block, there’s so many layers of history. It’s pretty exciting to think about.

Now how did you meet Moritat?

When I was a teenager, I was kind of desperate for any way into comics, and I was doing flat colors for a guy that was working for Top Cow. It was kind of horrible garbage work. It was horrible. I remember he was the kind of guy … I remember one time he signed a picture, “Dedicated to the King.” And I remember actually wondering, “Does he know who Jack Kirby is?” But I met him because Moritat and those guys were hanging out. I met him in a comic store. It’s funny how many friends of mine, lifelong friends, I’ve met at comic stores.

BURNS: Were you born in Seattle?

I was born in central Oregon, actually.

BURNS: But you grew up in Seattle.

GRAHAM: Yeah. I moved up to Seattle in I think third grade, and was there until about 24.

BURNS: Is that as far back as you remember? Third grade? Do you remember before that?

GRAHAM: Yeah. I have a very clear memory of going to kindergarten. It’s one of those weird things, you know, a memory of when you’re a kid and your mom is carrying you, except you think of yourself as an adult. I remember my mom was carrying me, but I’m the same size I am now.

Do you remember anything about Seattle early in life? Other things about the culture or any events that happened to you that really stick out in your mind?

Definitely. There’s a lot of comic book stuff. My parents having that stuff around. Are you talking about really early on?

BURNS: As early as you want. I just want to know if there’s something that makes you feel like you are or were a Seattleite.

Well I have kind of weird feelings about it. I have kind of a disdain about it. I think that kind of breeds a lot of excitement: not really finding a place. ’Cause I grew up in West Seattle, and it’s just … It’s such a pit there. And I remember when I was a teenager, thirteen or twelve or something, my brother brought me some Japanese comic books that he had bought at the grocery store. I just became obsessed with that stuff. I remember specifically going out of my way to visit all of the Japanese grocery stores I could and finding whatever cheap, throwaway manga they had and just obsessing over it, taking it to school. I had a binder that was completely covered in Japanese animation. I remember people being like, “Are you part Chinese, or something?” And it was hilarious because it was Seattle, a city. People being like, “Do you speak Japanese? Why would you have any interest in this stuff?” And from that to modern day where it’s just completely part of teenage culture.

BURNS: Especially Seattle culture too now.

GRAHAM: I know it sounds kind of funny with Fantagraphics being here, but Seattle just felt like an artistic graveyard or a desert, where what I was looking for just was really hard to find. I could find it if I digged. I would go out to a comic store in Burien. Burien’s like a twenty-minute drive from where I was living, and I would go there once a week or once every two weeks. I would go to Chinatown and dig stuff up, but it was really kind of getting out of my element, and I would dig and find this really cool stuff. There’s a story I always like to tell about when I was living in New York. I came back and visited West Seattle. I got off the bus from the airport, and the first person I ran into was just a guy at a bus stop. He was like, “You got a cigarette, man?” I said, “Sorry, I don’t smoke.” He goes, “Yeah you better keep walkin’.” It was just this immediate feeling of like, “Yep, I’m home.” Just fuckin’ assholes (laughter). You’ve heard of the Seattle chill, right?

No, I haven’t.

GRAHAM: I think every town kind of has its kind of dissension, but—

BURNS: Oh the attitude! Yeah, I have heard about that. My friends complain about that a lot.

GRAHAM: And I don’t even know how accurate that is. I remember being really obsessed with Fallout after I saw Hate. I was like, “This is a real store that Peter Bagge probably goes to.” And that was real exciting to me, that it was happening in the same town as me, but the idea of a Japanese-animation-obsessed, middle-school-dropout teenage me trying to interact with Peter Bagge? At the time I was like, “Why the fuck isn’t there a scene?” or “Why can’t I relate to these people?” But now I look back and I think, “What would they have said to me?” I mean, yeah, I fuckin’ like Dragon Ball too.

(Laughs). The brother that brought the manga home was Keith?

Yeah. I have two younger siblings that my mother adopted when I was much older. Like when I was in my twenties.

Were they American kids?

They’re Mexican American. My parents are divorced and my father lives in a desert in central Oregon and my mom lives in Seattle. She remarried a Mexican guy and really got into the culture. It’s really interesting. I’m really obsessed with culture, but I almost feel like my childhood culture, when I go back and visit my mom, it’s just not there anymore. They literally have a sombrero hung over their front door and mariachi music and everything. And that’s them, and it’s probably better to evolve than stay the same, but you know, my girlfriend, she goes to her parent’s house and she’s like, “This is exactly how it was.” I kind of wish I had a time capsule like that to go back to almost. But you were saying? About my brother?

BURNS: Were you guys close as kids?

Yeah. Well I had such a hero worship about him. He’s two years older. He’s an artist himself. He’s very good and very harsh.

BURNS: He’s a painter, right?

Yeah, he paints. I remember, he would go out and dig up these fantastic comics. He was reading all the Fantagraphics stuff, he was reading all the European stuff and digging up some Japanese stuff for me. He was really harsh about what I was into. I remember, he would sit there, I would buy Appleseed comics, and he would pick them up and read the sound effects, like, “Blow! Shazam! Blat.” In a kind of harsh way. I developed this idea … I think I have this need to impress my big brother always. Until I got involved with other people in comics, my brother and my friend Ludroe, who’s a really old friend of mine, they were my art friends, and they’re both really unforgiving and really harsh about things, so I always have this idea that I’ve got to be good enough to impress them. I’m glad I have that ingrained now, because now, when I’m drawing and I’m alone, I think, “Keith and Ludroe wouldn’t let this shit fly.”

BURNS: Have you got input from them on newer books like King City and Multiple Warheads?

GRAHAM: Yeah. Ludroe, he’s the guy that kind of introduced me to graffiti. I wrote a story in the back of King City about how I drew a panel once of one of the characters crouching down, and Ludroe said, “You screwed it up. You’ve got to fix it.” I said, “No, it’s fine. I like it.” And he just put an X through it in ink so that I would have to fix it.

Oh my god.

GRAHAM: Just that attitude. I mean at the time I was like, “You motherfucker!” But it’s also kind of understood: shit doesn’t fly around here, which I really enjoy.

: Were you interested in art as a kid in school or was that something that developed later?

I was completely obsessed with the idea of being a comic artist kind of before memory. My mom always told me that I told her when I was seven that I was going to draw comics, that I wanted to draw comics for a living. It was my identity. Although it was interesting, because my parents are really supportive, my mom writes science fiction as a hobby, and my dad is really into science fiction comic books.

BURNS: Actually, you mentioned in another interview that your mom writes Catholic science fiction.


Describe what that is, I don’t…

: Well, she’s very Catholic and she writes science fiction. There’s a story about a spaceman, and he’s lost his memory, he’s in his head and he’s walking around on an alien planet. His suits computer is telling him what to do: “You have to get up. Keep walking,” and it directs him back to his ship and the other astronauts. They’re like, “Oh my god, you survived! How did you survive the crash?” He says, “I had my ship’s computer, I was fine.” And they’re like, “There’s no computer.” And so the voice was God. So that’s kind of Catholic science fiction.

BURNS: Oh wow. Did science fiction and God appeal to you as a kid?

GRAHAM: Certainly not God. I feel like I chose comic books as my religion. I got in trouble church for having comic books, and I got in trouble in school for having comic books, and it’s really funny my feeling about school and my feelings about religion now are negative—

BURNS: (Laughs.) ’Cause they didn’t fuckin’ like comic books.

GRAHAM: Yeah, exactly (laughter).

BURNS: So you got exposed to a ton of sci-fi as a kid.

GRAHAM: Yeah, there was always a lot of stuff around, and even now I’ll call up my mom or dad and be like, “What are you reading now?” and I’ll have to check it out. Of course my dad’s into the Dianetics guy: L. Ron Hubbard. I can’t read that stuff.

BURNS: I haven’t read that stuff myself, but … it seems pretty wild.

GRAHAM: I haven’t either. It just doesn’t interest me.

BURNS: What do you think about comics specifically interested you? Was there something about the art form that interested you later on?

GRAHAM: I don’t know. It’s difficult because it was always around. I think the best answer I can come up with is that it’s the first thing that really excited me. Just stuck with me. I wonder how much of it is in my believing that everything my older brother did was really cool and just wanting to be into what he was into. It’s funny to me, and I say this all the time, it’s funny to me that all the stuff I still haven’t gotten over is stuff he’s completely aware of, but he’s just kind of moved on. And I just can’t get over it. I’ll spend all of my days rooting through stuff. I’ll buy comic books if I find them because I remember seeing an ad about them in a comic from when I was a kid. There’s this window of stuff I’m obsessed with and I really want it all.

BURNS: So you’re talking about hunting for comics?


BURNS: So you and Keith were both obsessed with hunting for a while and then…

GRAHAM: Well he would just dig up a lot of stuff and kind of bring it home, and then I would see the stuff and it opened my mind up a little bit. He had Moebius books. I missed a lot of superhero comics because he was bringing home these cool things. He was reading the Bill Sienkiewicz stuff, and he was reading Kyle Baker stuff early on, but a lot of the really shitty stuff I missed, and my version of shitty stuff of course, I was reading the early Japanese translated stuff and I was really into Critters, when Fantagraphics was putting that out. (Burns laughs.) He was into “Birthright", too, or “Albedo” and all that.

BURNS: So when being a cartoonist became your identity, did you start trying to make your own comics right away?

Yeah. I was always making comics. I remember one of my early comics was called Super Team. The characters were Bombshell Bat, Fearless Frog, Daring Dog, and the Cosmic Kid. They had this giant blue spaceship that they flew around in. I would take a stack of paper and just staple it together, and then draw the comic with pencil and colored pencil. I remember specifically, I was in the fourth grade and being like, “This weekend I’m going to finish an issue,” and I was working on it. And I remember reading an interview with a comic book artist, because back then the learning I did about how to become a comic artist I got from random interviews—when they talked about inking, I remember realizing people inked things and getting really upset about it. “I can’t learn to ink! This is impossible!” So yeah, I was always drawing comics.

BURNS: I’m pretty sure you’ve taught yourself from the very beginning. You have no traditional training.

No, not at all. I didn’t even … I went to one comic book class early on and a couple animation classes, but I only turned in sketches for the comic book class and that was it.

BURNS: So did you pretty much just learn by doing as far as craft? You said you read interviews about becoming a cartoonist and that was a big learning experience, but did you pretty much progress by doing in over and over?

GRAHAM: Yeah. I studied a lot of stuff. I remember when I was lettering comics, and when I realized that comics were printed about half-size what they were drawn, I remember ruling off on a page how big the lettering was and then doubling that and basing that off of like The Dirty Pair issue or whatever I had there. So a lot of it was just really studying the stuff I was reading.

BURNS: Did you do any copying of some of your favorite stuff?

Yeah. Well, Super Team became events. I would just draw in new characters. If there was a show I really liked I’d just throw in a new character that was kind of based on it. I don’t know, nothing too horribly blatant. I remember having characters that basically looked like certain Japanese animation characters.

BURNS: When did you drop out of school?

GRAHAM: I stopped going to middle school, and they put me in this thing called Southwest Youth and Family Services. I basically just stopped going to middle school. I was really angry as a kid. I remember I used to storm out of classes all the time, and I got into fights and things. I started just leaving classes in the middle of them. I don’t know, I found middle school to be a really hostile environment, and I pushed it. I remember … it was, you know, ’90s Raiders jackets and gangster rap everywhere, and I remember specifically shaving my head and wearing a leather jacket all the time. It was funny, because now, I got into graffiti and hip hop and all that stuff, but at the time, in fact I said this earlier today, I really like to draw a line in the sand, and I really like there to be an Us and a Them as horrible as that is. And I think I was just kind of trying to be difficult. So I had a leather jacket that said “Fuck” on the back of it. (Burns laughs.) And it was misspelled, like F-U-K. And so I stopped going to school and they put me into Southwest Youth and Family Services. It was basically a place where they sent troubled students, and I remember there were five teachers to about a 15-student class, and I remember, I was the only white guy in there. I got along with everyone really well, but I remember one guy was in there because he brought a shotgun to school. One day specifically I went in, and school started at noon at that place, and I went in there and no one was in the class, and I was like, “Where is everyone?” and the teacher said, “Oh, we’re having a gang counselor talk to them.” I asked, “Should I go?” and she just laughed at me. (Laughter.) But the thing is, that was such a positive, fun school environment. We played volleyball every Wednesday, and obviously it was totally coddling of the kids for there to be five teachers that were really ready to deal with people, and it was a comfortable environment where everyone was cool with each other.

BURNS: So a more positive experience.

Yeah, it was a really positive experience. They put me into an alternative high school after that. It was this place called Nova, and I always joked that in Spanish it was “No-Go.” Nova was kind of set up more like a college. All the teachers, you called them by their first names. Actually I don’t know if colleges are like that (laughter), and you had to have a coordinator and set up classes and everything. And I just didn’t go. I just stopped going all together and was just done with school. I had these really weird ideas where I was just like, “I’m just gonna do comic books. I’m 16. I’m gonna do comic books for a living.” It was years before I realized what a bad decision that was. I felt a while ago that I wished I’d finished school, but now it’s kind of, “It is what it is.”

BURNS: So there are certain things you feel you missed.

I think it messed with my ability to socialize, because if you go through the school system and socialize until you’re 16 and then you’re no longer in that environment … I spent basically 16 until 19 or twenty, when all of my friends were in school all day, and I would just be going through my brother’s comic books and be drawing all day. I had this huge amount of time on my own. I think about that a lot: what it’s like to do comic books. Not just being alone, but just that feeling of making your own fun.

BURNS: Making your own world is very solitary.

GRAHAM: Yeah, exactly.