A Brandon Graham Interview


BURNS: Do you think that your interest and your perseverance in the comics industry might have weakened by now if you didn’t have, or still have, a strong community of cartoonists around you?

GRAHAM: Yeah, it’s definitely a big part of it. My community of artists has changed a lot and I’ve gone through a couple different ones over the years.

Because you weren’t able to find a community in Seattle, you fell into the graffiti scene. Was your first real comics community in New York?

GRAHAM: I had kind of smaller versions of that community. I had friends that did comics in Seattle that still do comics. Ludroe and Moritat who draws The Spirit for DC were both around. And my brother of course. But it wasn’t a scene so much as just two guys making comics. A lot of my ideas about what was acceptable and what was cool developed with one or two people around, so it was like we just assumed that everyone thought Moebius was the best and a lot of comics that were really a big deal, like Eightball or whatever—I never really read it, it was just something that was kind of dismissed when it came to my group of friends in Seattle. Then to go to New York and have everyone be like, “This is the comic that you have to read.” I’d be like, “Oh, that thing? We don’t read that in Seattle.” I mean, this is nothing against those other books, it just didn’t enter my sphere of influence. New York was a cool community of artists partially because everyone was coming from totally different places. You had the Meathaus guys, like Farel Dalrymple, very much coming from classic cartooning. I think he was really influenced by being taught by Walter Simonson. Tomer Hanuka had a bunch of European influences. James Jean had all his painting stuff. Just because those guys had all gone to school together but had grown up in different areas of art. I think that was probably good for me. That community taught me to respect other people’s art influences. ’Cause before that I was just, “My ideas are right. Everyone else’s are wrong.” And then you meet these other guys who are good artists who have different ideas about art. Community is really important, but I’ve noticed a lot of my friends who are really into doing art, guys like James Stokoe or something, aren’t particularly interested in the comic book scene. He doesn’t want to go to conventions, and he doesn’t really want to influence that. Whereas it’s really important to me to be part of what’s going on in the scene. But it’s kind of double edged too because the business end of it gets kind of gross.

What year did you move to New York?

GRAHAM: ’99.

So how did Meathaus begin, and what was your part in its inception?

Basically, pre-Meathaus: I had moved to New York, I had 50 bucks on me. I was dating a girl who was moving to New York and was just casually like, “You want to come with?” And we showed up there together and promptly broke up soon after.

BURNS: (Laughs.) Fuck.

I think that’s what everyone does (laughs) going to New York. So I went there, and I had this idea of New York as this kind of art metropolis where I could just find anything really easily, but I just had a really hard time running into artists. Anything that I liked, I even had a hard time finding comic stores out there. I think Jim Hanley’s I ran into pretty easily. But I remember being really frustrated by not running into a bunch of artists, or the myth not seeming quite true. Then I went into a Starbucks, I think my first week or two there, and there was a guy drawing. He was incredibly good. I just went up to him, and this guy was LeSean Thomas who later went and worked on the Boondocks cartoon. He did all the character designs, and he was actually doing flash animation back then. He was incredibly friendly, and we started hanging out a lot. He helped me get some of my first art jobs out there. It was kind of at the time of the internet boom. He got me a job at this place called Urban Box Office, which was this kind of Afro-centric web/flash animation site, and they were hiring a bunch of art school students at the same time, so I met Chris McDonald and Farel. They were both working there as well. I remember I called them the “Island of White” because it was mostly black cartoonists there, and there was one show they were working on where the whole staff was white. Meeting Farel was really great, because what LeSean was doing, his focus was really animation even though he was kind of dabbling in comics, but Farel was the first person I’d met in New York who had published comics. He had put out a Xeric book. Popgun War #1 might have even been out then. But I remember meeting him and just being really excited and saying, “You’re the first real real cartoonist I’ve met here.” I think he and Chris, they just decided to do an SVA [School of Visual Arts] based … it was going to be like a 24-hour comic where they were going to get all their friends together and just have a party and everyone’s going to draw a comic and they’re going to publish it. I remember being like, “I don’t want to do a 24-hour comic and publish them! Mine will look horrible.” But I went to one of early parties and I remember somebody giving me a big crate of comic books they didn’t want, and I was taking it back on the train really excited with all these bad Aquaman comics. My attitude was, “Oh, I’ll hang out with you guys at these things, but I don’t want to draw a comic for it.” And only until like issue four or three did I actually even draw a comic in it. But Meathaus was really fun. One of the guys, Stardog, who had a hand in the early issues had a big loft warehouse in Williamsburg, and we would go out there, everyone would meet up. I met Tom Herpich there which was really a big deal for me. I always regard him, he’s almost like a Pat McEwin type artist. He’s this fantastic artist who’s doing comic books above and beyond most people, but it’s so hard to find his work. Are familiar with his stuff at all?

I’m not, no.

He works on the Adventure Time cartoon now. He did a back up in one of the King City books.

BURNS: Ok, yeah. He did the old cat master.

GRAHAM: Yeah. The guy with the beard who was basically using his cat to go on the internet.

BURNS: Yeah that was really good.

GRAHAM: Yeah, I liked that one a lot. Anyways, so meeting him was really cool. I got to meet Becky Cloonan back then. So yeah, Meathaus was just … everybody just kind of threw their friends in who did art. At the same time Farel and some of his friends were working at this place called Alt.Coffee which was in Alphabet City. It was just this coffee shop that all the Meathaus guys would come and hang out in, and a lot of them ended up working there. I remember one time, I would go and draw comics a lot, and one time I think I drew through three shifts of the employees. I went up to the counter and sat and drew, and they would go home and the next guys would show up. I’d be friends with them too so I didn’t leave. I have lots of Meathaus stories.

BURNS: So it started as a 24-hour comic idea, how did it turn into more of an anthology comic?

GRAHAM: I think the 24-hour stuff died out pretty quickly because everyone was like, “Oh, we’re printing these things up and it costs money. We should take some time and draw some nice comics.” And I remember being kind of dismissive of doing something good for it when it started. I just did a comic on typing paper, almost print sized. I forget if it was in issue 3 or issue 4. It came out and I was disappointed because everyone else in there had done better work than me. So I knew I had to go back and try harder on my next story, and I think I actually drew a comic for the next one: "Green Porn". It was funny, because at that time we were all trying to break in. Me and Farel had a thing going where we would get in contact with an editor and be able to go and visit them, and we would always go in with the other person’s work. Almost every single time an editor that liked one of our art would hate the other one’s work. I remember, in retrospect it seems insane, but I remember me and Farel just desperately going up to Vertigo all the time and just trying to get work. I remember an editor told Farel that he was good, but not Vertigo good. (Laughter). It’s hilarious because they don’t publish anything as good as him.

BURNS: Yeah no shit. That’s fantastic (laughs).

So much of that Escalator book that I put together … I would go up to Vertigo and have a new short story to show them, and there was one editor up there named Tony Bedard who writes comics now. Sort of. I haven’t read much of his writing, but he’s a nice guy. I think I must have pitched seriously like 20 books up there, and I remember them telling me, it became a joke actually: they would tell different guys in Meathaus that they were the next Paul Pope. (Burns laughs.) “Oh shit! I’m gonna be the next Paul Pope!” and then a friend of yours would show up and be like, “An editor just told me I was going to be the next Paul Pope.” It would take the wind out of your sails.

BURNS: Oh Jesus.

GRAHAM: Eventually it just came to a point with Vertigo where I was just like, “It’s not the idea that I’m pitching, it’s that they’re not going to take anything I do.” It was kind of that catch-22 of, “We’d love to publish you if you had a name, but you don’t have a name.” I was like, “If you guys’d publish me I’d have a name!”

BURNS: Right, right. How do you get in?

Yeah, exactly, and I think that’s still a big problem in comics. People love artists who are established but have no interest in people that aren’t, so how do you even get to that point. It’s kind of insane—this is a rant I go on too often—when you realize a publisher’s lifeblood is basically new guys coming in.

Why aren’t they thinking of the future.

Yeah, and I couldn’t do it again, because it was like the Tokyopop thing, which in a weird and frustrating way ended up working so well for me. Like a series of bad decisions that turned into something good for me.

BURNS: How did you guys publish Meathaus in the beginning?

I think … I feel like it was connected to Farel’s Xeric grant. I’m not sure, but I remember at one point it was different members contributing chunks of money so it could be published, and I was so uninterested in doing that. I always make up these weird systems of rules for myself, and one of them was like, “I’ll never pay money to do art.” (Burns laughs.) “This is a thing I should be making money from.” I think that was really bad. It’s really funny now because I always get a bunch of credit for being a founding Meathaus member and all this stuff, but I was so: “Ah, we’ll see how this goes…”

(Laughter) I’ll wait till five issues…

GRAHAM: Yeah, “You guys’ve done five issues? I suppose I’ll join in.” I remember the Xeric was kind of interesting because they give you a chunk of money and you can kind of do with it what you will.

BURNS: Yeah. Don’t you just have to get like a quote from a printer?

GRAHAM: Yeah. I know some people have gotten Xerics and done things where they just pay their rent that month (laughs), and then just dig up money later to publish their comic. It’s really cool. It’s probably one of the few ways of getting your work out there and not having to go through impressing a publisher.

BURNS: Yeah, it’s a fantastic thing.


BURNS: Ok, it’s porn time.

Oh good (laughter).

BURNS: You got a job drawing porn before you moved to New York, right?

GRAHAM: I was assisting on porn for Moritat. He was exciting to me because I was obsessed with European comics as well, and he was working for NBM which was translating a lot of that stuff. He was also doing these books … A Night in a Moorish Harem or something like that. He was doing porn star bios. They would basically get these porn stars and have them come up with … I don’t know who was actually writing them, but they would publish a comic book and be like, “This is a porn star’s sex fantasy.” Then someone would draw those. I remember it being really funny, because Moritat would be sent all these Polaroids of the porn stars which he would hang around his office, and he would only play Frank Sinatra music. He just played it on loop. It was him and this magazine called Asian Focus which ran out of this studio space in Pioneer Square in Seattle, and that was the only music they could agree on: Frank Sinatra. So it was Frank Sinatra in this little kind of private detective office with constant porn comics getting cranked out of there. I remember … It was so long ago Moritat had a picture of Angelina Jolie above his desk, and nobody knew who she was because she’d just been in like Cyborg 2 or something. So I did backgrounds for him, and I was doing Top Cow coloring. I don’t know if any of that stuff made print. After I moved to New York I tried to get into NBM, the same publisher, and I don’t think they had much interest in my work, but Moritat’s been kind of a huge push teaching me how to live as an artist as opposed to just doing comic books. So much of it’s just scams and lies, but he convinced the editor to let me ink his stuff. Moritat didn’t have a script at all. We were doing these things called Stray Moonbeams, I think. They were these really bad, almost poetic, afro-centric—that term comes up a lot in my early New York stories—comics that I would ink. He refused to have the scripts at his house. I would call him up and read him the script over the phone, and he would pencil it while he was talking to me. Just really rough. He wouldn’t even draw hands. He’d just send me the pencils. For a while I would go to the NBM office, and if it was the day of the deadline when I knew I had to pay rent the next day, I would sit in the stairwell and just ink as many pages as I could. I’d be watching my watch and thinking, “All right, before they close at six, I have to get six more pages inked. So I just had my little bottle of ink wash and my pens and be cranking them out, because I knew if I sat in a coffee shop I’d get too distracted. Plus it would cost money. It was kind of ridiculous back then. But then I got to do Perverts of the Unknown. I think that was the first one for NBM. Around that same time, I remember I got to meet Paul Pope a couple times because I kept going to the Vertigo office. I got his phone number and I would harass him. (Laughter.) I remember calling him up while I was doing the porn comics, and just being like, “Hey, Dude! How’s it goin’?” (Burns laughs.) I would ask him these questions that I really thought out, and he’d just be like, “Arrggh! What are you doing, Kid? Stop buggin’ me!” I remember asking, “How do you produce so many pages?” Or something like that, and I remember him saying, “I just really care about them. I’m just really into this comic book thing.” And I almost took it like, “Oh, and I’m not?” Because the Perverts stuff I would just crank out those pages really fast. You can really tell in the printed work because it looks so bad.

Brandon Graham's take on Manara.

BURNS: When did Pillow Fight happen?

Pillow Fight was NBM. That was just short stories years before when I was doing Universe So Big for Radio Comics. Before I went to New York or right around then. But yeah, I did Perverts of the Unknown, and I felt like there was a lot of freedom. But I would turn in pages, and if they didn’t have sex scenes in them they would cut the pages. Whole sequences.

Literally every page?

I think it was broken into 10-page chapters, and I had to have enough sex. It wasn’t sex on every page, but it was kind of the impression I got. I did a chapter, I think it was the second chapter of Perverts, where it starts out with them ordering Chinese food and playing video games and having this kind of talk about this girl being this futuristic porn star. They just cropped those pages out. I don’t even know where the originals are anymore. After that I’d become really paranoid and I was like, “Oh my god. Ok. They’re going to have a conversation, so there has to be robots fucking in the background.” (Burns laughs.) And while I was working on Perverts, I like to tell the story about the most depressing moment in my life, where, on Christmas day I was staying at my friend Filthy Rich’s house—I based a character in King City off of him—and he was with a girl in his bedroom, and they were having loud sex while I was trying to draw my porn comic, and to drown them out I was listening to the Lord of the Rings audio books. Every time I would hear some type of moaning or bed thumping I would turn it up louder. Eventually I just put my head down on my desk, and I was just like, “This is the lowest moment in my entire life.”

Listening to Lord of the Rings, drawing porn while my roommate fucks.

On Christmas day.

BURNS: (Laughs) That’s the killer. (Laughter.) Were there any ups to drawing porn?

Oh yeah. I really enjoyed how much fun I could have with comics and how I could do whatever I wanted. I think it was a lot better to get used to drawing comics doing porn as opposed to drawing superhero comics or whatever, because I had total freedom with storytelling as long as there was sex in it. I did a bunch of short stories for the Slipshine website. I did one about this guy who had a paper bag on his head. He had magic testicles that made it so he could ejaculate anything. It culminates in him getting kicked out of a convenience store for having sex on the counter with this girl, and he ejaculates the Eiffel Tower on top of the place. (Burns laughs.) It was just me being able to draw anything I want. Multiple Warheads came out of that period where I was just doing whatever I felt like, so if I wanted to do a Russian werewolf comic, as long as there were sex scenes in it, I could. It was really positive.

So how did you meet Filthy Rich?

He was part of the “Island of White” at the Urban Box Office. Filthy Rich is really interesting because he went to the Joe Kubert School and he used to work at DC Comics production, so he was really sour about mainstream comics. He was like this really innocent, nerdy guy who got married and went to work at DC, and all his dreams were fulfilled, and then he was really unhappy with his marriage and really unhappy about how DC was run, and so he quit, got a divorce and went to work at a bar. So he was working at this bar called Siberia. It was in the subway. It was really bizarre. You would go down the subway stairs and there was a bar right before you went through the turnstiles.

BURNS: Huh. Was it a very large bar?

It was pretty small, but two rooms. So pretty big for being in the subway. I ended up working there too after it moved to another location. He was just this really weird kind of extroverted fun guy who was really into comic books and really had angry fun picking on stuff and into the snark of things. I remember when I first met him we left the animation company and went for a walk and went to Starbucks, and I was just standing around waiting for him to buy his stuff, and he bought the girl’s drink behind him in trade for her walking up and punching me.

BURNS: (Laughs) Where did she punch you?

GRAHAM: I think she just hit me in the shoulder or something, but it was just me looking out a window and this girl walks up and punches me laughing. Then Filthy Rich is like, “I bought her drink for that!” It was lots of stuff like that. I was roommates with him for a long time. Actually it was mostly me just staying at his place and not making rent. But there was lots of that back and forth joking. We had an ongoing thing for a couple weeks where we tried to ruin each other’s sex lives.

BURNS: You have to expand on that one.

GRAHAM: Well I was seeing this young lady, and I was sleeping in his living room basically. I remember it being really awkward because he was really into action figures and he had a bunch of action figures in cases in his living room, and I would meet girls and bring them back to the place and be like, “Uggh, I’ve got to explain about these action figures. They’re not mine.” (Laughter.) But I was with this girl and he came home drunk from the bar. Are you familiar with steamrolling someone, where you just tuck your arms in and just roll over them?

BURNS: Yeah.

GRAHAM: So he basically just came and steamrolled me and this girl while we were in bed. We had to like stop and pull the covers up over us.

BURNS: Oh, man (laughs).

GRAHAM: I was like, “You motherfucker.” The debauchery was insane. I remember the next time I got him he was having sex with this girl in his kitchen, and I came in and just started cooking macaroni and cheese. (Laughter.) I remember having to explain Rich to people. I’d be like, “This is Rich. If you hang out with him for a certain amount of time you’re going to see his penis.” I remember bringing friends over who were just reasonable comic people, and there being like photo booth pictures of some girl giving him a blowjob on the dinner table. I’d have to be like, “Oh, god. Ignore these!” So yeah, the name’s very appropriate. Now he’s got some reasonable job where he wears a suit and goes to work.