“Everyone Knows When They’re Trying To Justify A Moment They Don’t Really Stand Behind”: An Interview with Austin English

“I’m choosing to spend more time on Domino,” Austin English recently wrote in a post on the site for Domino Books, the publisher and distributor that he’s been running since 2011. “Over the last few months, I’ve been adding more and more work to the shop, and will continue to do so from here on out. I’m trying to build an even richer portrait of what people do with comics, a portrait that I hope contradicts my own ideas as much as possible.”

Indeed, in recent months English has imported the last copies of Frédéric Coché’s The Hero’s Life and Death Triumphant from Belgian publisher Bries, listed art books by Ida Appelbroog alongside self-published anthologies from Pakistan, and made two new Domino publications available for preorder. Domino is now an unquestionable, essential resource for comics that you often can’t find anywhere else.

While overseeing this expansion, English was also editing and finalizing Meskin and Umezo, a new longform comic he’s been working on since the publication of his last collection, Gulag Casual, in 2016. 

I wanted to understand more about Domino’s expansion, and how English balances his work as a distributor and publisher with his work as a cartoonist. We spoke in December, just a few days after Meskin and Umezo was completed. 

Domino Books logo by Marlene Frontera

Andrew White: I thought we could start with your post on the Domino site a few months ago, talking about your plan to spend more time on the distro - that's what first gave me the idea to interview you. Can you talk about that decision a little? What led to it, maybe, and how it's going now?

Austin English: Sure. Well, I've been working with Domino for a long time, over nine years. I've always taken it very seriously, but I think it takes time to learn how to spend more time on it and to articulate things, especially to yourself...and over the years, I feel like I've explained Domino more and more to myself in a way where I can do specific things with it...counter-intuitively, understanding it more means letting it do unexpected things, letting other people have a say in it, by being open to work that people contact me with that will lead other people to discover the site and in turn contact me with their work. Slowly, if I’m doing things correctly, the site transforms through more and more artists being involved in it, rather than from top down.

I've always felt that people in comics should be doing whatever they can to be involved---actively involved---with the ideas, works of art, maligned artists that they care about or feel are important in whatever way. That was my beginning intention with Domino, and I think that remains a core part of it. But as Domino has grown, I've gotten more and more into having a space where any take on comics, any form of making them----even ones that I don't understand or easily enjoy---can exist with some kind of context. And by context I mean...here's something someone made, maybe in total isolation, and here’s a simple way for you, a reader, who is maybe also in some kind of isolation, to look at it, order it...and have it sent to you. Then you can struggle with it on your own. I try to connect someone making art on their own terms to a reader looking at work on their own terms, with as hopefully little obstruction as possible. 

Learning how to spend more time on it, meaning just in terms of practicalities? How to find time in the day?

Yeah, or just understanding how to do it responsibly, in a way that works for everyone involved. When I started Domino, I was working odd jobs, sometimes six days a week...I worked for eight years doing deliveries for a bakery, but when the day was over, the real work began: drawing and working on Domino. But there are only so many hours in the day, and I feel like comics do deserve to be treated with the dignity of total devotion. And so I'm trying now to run Domino as something that can, alongside whatever living I make from art and teaching, support itself and support more hours put into it...and provide what’s due financially to people who are self publishing. There are certain mini comic makers I’ve bought in excess of $1,000 worth of comics from this year, and it’s hard to do that---to send out that many comics---when I’m working odd jobs. There was a lot of care put into everything done with the books Domino sells while I was working these odd jobs, but maybe the overall picture and scope of these different books in conversation didn't happen in the same way.

And so one way of getting to that articulation is just carrying a deeper catalogue of books? Or are there other ways to help people perceive the books as being in conversation? 

I think there are a lot of people making really interesting work in comics, at all times. I’ve been pretty engaged with all this stuff since 1998, and back then, people would say 'well, i go to the comic shop and there's rarely a new Dan Clowes comic, there's so little happening...' but to me there were countless things happening in mini comics, just this rich amount of creativity that really meant a lot to me then...and those mini comics still mean a lot to me today. Now, I think that's even more true now...but as always, there’s just so much compelling work being made that no one sees. I feel like a lot of comics curators or publishers or retailers have the things that they care about the most and they often want to shape the history of the form to fit their involvement with what they perceive as the most important work being made now. I *also* have work that is of particular concern to me, but I really believe in comics as a democratic medium, and I think it's important to try to find some way to get as much of this work that is outside of most conversations or radars into some kind of venue that a typical comic reader can see. 

People rely on curators, but I tend to dislike the idea of curation---probably, people view Domino as highly curated, but I try to obstruct my own curation as much as possible. With that as a guiding principle, there's quite a bit of work that becomes important to have in the store. I think a lot of people recoil at how there's such a low bar of entry in comics, the medium feels amateurish and disorganized, but I think someone photocopying their work without much of an idea who it's for or why they made it, that's one of the very important parts of comics culture  that I find exciting...and I think having work like that alongside an art book by Dorothy Iannone (someone who is known worldwide but perhaps under discussed in comics, but in my view, accessible to all), well...something like that existing would be important to me. Inchoate, emerging expression next to fully formed yet maligned expression...the combination of both adds up to something very important to me. 

Yeah, that makes sense - but now you've mentioned twice that you want to expand the catalogue beyond your own taste, and you've articulated some good reasons for doing that. But as a customer I come to Domino in part for your curation!

It’s complicated! I don’t accept everything or seek out everything. It is, much to my personal disappointment, all curated. Everything in the store feels important for readers to engage with based on my own standards. But a lot of that is this counter intuitive process for me of reconciling my feelings for things that don't come naturally...or working with things that I might be very opposed to on some level, but are undeniable. Not undeniable for their skill or storytelling ability. But undeniable that they might be moving to someone. Not everything falls under that wing, there’s quite a bit of work that obviously doesn’t drive me to do that mental calculation at all. Lots of things do though. Basically, if it looks like what I’m saying is that the catalogue is just a tortured conversation I’m having with myself over the years about hierarchical attitudes, then that's correct.

It’s also worth noting that you write essentially capsule reviews for everything you carry, which in many cases might be the only good piece of writing about that comic.

Yes, that's very important to me...the story for that is partly based on, when I was a little kid, my mom used to buy cheap groceries in San Francisco at this holdover from the 60s utopian vision that the city had, this worker owned super market, Rainbow Groceries, that didn’t sell good produce at boutique prices...it sold good food to people at discount prices, it was a worker owned food warehouse basically. And I remember as a really little kid,  looking at their aisle of peanut butter that you could buy by the pound and put in jars and every different kind of peanut butter had these extremely long reviews by the staff...some of the reviews were negative! And everything in the store, which was owned by the people putting stuff on the shelves and doing checkout, had these lengthy commentaries. I think it was interesting to me in the same way comics are: this commentary made everything feel less austere or cold, in the way that text and imagery together feel less austere than on their own. Business is pretty disgusting in general, selling things...I wish I could give the books on the site to people who wrote an essay about why they were interested in them or something like that, but that's of course not realistic. I’m not that idealistic. But...writing some kind of personal note about these books is one way to do that. Edie Fake was doing the same thing for a bit, much more effectively, on the Quimby's website...and John Porcellino of course does this too. Bookstores traditionally do it, but imagining a bookstore that does it for every item is something to think about...

Totally...Bill Boichel is another good example - his catalogue descriptions are my favorite writing about my own work.

Right. And it's his store and you get a sense why he bothers with the stuff he bothers with. That's important...why would anyone spend so much time working with these things? Well...here's why, read this.

You probably don't want to talk about specific comics, but are there examples of the reconciliation you mentioned? Maybe types of works you wouldn't naturally carry but are on the site now?

It’s hard to describe what I mean, I guess...it's important to mention that I work against my own taste in my overwhelming desire to not want to start a dialogue where there’s a sense of authority, but that shouldn't be confused with 'disliking' books. I think...there are  certain works in comics that really mean a lot to me, they mean the world to me, but the most unhappy I've been, artwise,  is when I tried to define my own aesthetic and stick to it. When I worked in a comic shop, the first thing that happens is, some very smart customer will come in and they'll love something that's completely against everything you think you care about. I used to have a strict line quality I liked, Steinberg type lines...ok, well, here are people who understand and love comics who like a lot of brushwork, and that's what they like more than anything. And that’s a superficial example...there’s more grating examples of people just loving things that you can't wrap your mind around. Ok...well, that would give me permission to look at those books seriously, and then they'd become important to me. And, significantly, it wasn’t a curator or critic giving me permission, but a reader. The key, to me, became to be anti-hardline in your taste while also not betraying yourself. You, of course, don’t accept everything but you try to wrestle with things that have some sense of...of not being cynical. It's like with friends, people in your life...I don't just spend time with people who I understand on every level or enjoy at all times. No one does that! But people tend to do that with art, which I’ve never understood. 

I once visited a currently famous painter’s studio. Someone’s work came up, someone who painted realistically...this painter said ‘I hate that stuff. Hate anything that’s slick.’ This artist made non-slick work, and they seemed very engaged with identifying other non-slick work and defending it, and dismissing work that was different than that. I don’t understand that...what you make and like is one thing, what might matter in your life is another. 

Comics people, and I include myself here, rely on curation too much...but something about how comics are made suggests, to me, that they exist vibrantly without curation.

 I've always had the impression that you're a fairly broad reader of comics, though. I suppose that's different from deciding to distribute a comic.

Oh yeah...well, probably like a lot of people who read The Comics Journal, from early on, just any comic felt compelling to me. I've been trying to figure out why that is lately...but I remember being so drawn to Tintin books as a kid...or, like at a thrift store, a beaten up Masereel book...just feeling like there was something deeply important there. I don't know why that happened. Maybe the only things that didn’t, and don’t, hold some kind of interest for me along those lines is something made cynically. 

But the stuff I read over and over? That’s harder to get at and probably not all that interesting.

Frédéric Coché’s The Hero’s Life and Death Triumphant, published by Bries, which seemed to sell out within hours whenever Domino got new copies in stock over the past several months.

You touched earlier on making Domino work in terms of both time and money. First, is Domino paying for itself now? Do you see a path to get there, if not?

Right now, it is. I think for years it had been breaking even...now, it's paying for itself and for me to live on and keep adding books and to pay artists on a tight schedule. For instance, I'd wanted to get certain books from [Belgian publisher] Bries for years but couldn't justify doing that..my budget for Domino for years was non-existent, if I had an extra $20 to spend on stock, that’d be great. Now, I can buy books outright from Bries and there's enough of an audience that will actually take a chance on those books, meaning I can branch out even more. I think the big change is that over the years, there are a lot of people who have found the store on their own and have stuck with it. I don’t do any advertising, there’s rarely stuff written about the store...so I often wonder how people are finding out about it. But over time, probably through word of mouth, there are a sizable amount of people who trust the store enough that it's gotten to the point where I can live off of it, pay everyone consistently and keep doing that. And, importantly, I can do that without compromising the bizarre conception I have for the store that I explained earlier. 

That's incredibly encouraging.

I think starting extremely small and just doing what's within your means made sense to me at the start and still does now...

What about time? What's the balance now between Domino and your own work, and where do you want it to be?

Well, I’ve always found time to do things, and while Domino is a lot of hours, working for myself and just doing exactly what I need to do is a lot more efficient than all the wasted hours involved in working a normal job, all the hours that get flushed away doing nothing just because you have to be there. I have a lot of experience with jobs stealing your time and finding a lot of time to make artwork anyway, just staying up as late as possible to do the thing that actually means something even if I’m really tired...most any artist who didn’t start out with money and defended their creativity knows all about this, it’s not unique. So, now I have even more time to work on art and Domino if it’s all I’m doing. I start teaching again at SVA in the spring, but that feels like an extension of Domino or writing for TCJ. It’s not a job in the way doing deliveries for close to a decade was a job. If, for 'work', I'm my own boss with Domino, I can drive myself pretty hard to get things done and not resent it as much as I do when working for someone else. 

I do wonder about burnout, though - that's such a perennial challenge in comics, people take on these thankless but essential tasks like distributing or even publishing, and they just run out of energy. Do you think about that?

I think it's a big problem in comics for sure, because there’s not a lot of...I don't wanna say support...but there aren’t a lot of concrete reasons to do all this. There are some abstract notions that you can choose to believe in. So, yes, there is a potential for giving up even if you're eeking out a living. I think for a brief period a few years ago, I had this notion of making more fine art type stuff to support making comics, which was working here and there...for a few months I’d have enough money from making drawings to be able to spend time mostly on comics, and that'd happen here and there over the years. But there, I did burn out on it, because rather than supporting comics consistently, most of the time it just took significant creative time away and wasted it on something I didn’t fully endorse for myself...and drifted me into being around art I was at odds with, where it was hard for me to find a lot to be simpatico with. So...I think anything can lead to burnout, washing dishes, teaching, making drawings, putting comics in envelopes...I guess you choose your poison, but the combination of making comics and sending other comics out to people, at least that's a poison I enjoy enough that the burnout, when it comes, will be well earned. 

I do like doing all this stuff. That helps.

I think for me the difference is the scale - in comics, when one person burns out, or just develops different interests, the publisher or the distro that they were running just goes away.

Right, but people learn from things that went away.

That's true.

With Dylan Williams, just visiting him once and seeing these piles of zines he'd bought for the Sparkplug distro, just the thrill of  seeing all that creativity that wouldn't be seen by many people unless Dylan put it out front...that image of stacks of zines never went away for me. Probably the idea of being organized, which Dylan really was...this structure to support a very righteously disorganized art form.

What about Domino as a publisher? Where does that stand, and how does it relate to your goals for the distro?

That's a good question. I think the simplest answer is that there are artists I love that just aren't that interested in self publishing, or are just tired of it. I think E.A. Bethea prints her zines beautifully, they look exactly as they should. And in some ways I think I should, rather than  publish her, pay for a run of her zines or something. But she wrote to me recently and wanted to do a new book with Domino rather than do it on her own. So, as I get increasingly partisan about self publishing, there are books that wouldn't exist if it was up to the artist to do all the publishing themselves...I mean, obviously there are expensive full color projects that certain artists can’t do and Domino can’t do. But, with Bethea, yes, if Domino doing the publishing makes her new book a reality, that's something important to do.

I also think of all the proper Domino published books as some kind of statement, when taken together, so it's always nice to add a new paragraph to that...

Is that a different statement from the one made by the distro?

The distro is it's own paragraph! 

Ha - I like that.

I don't know how much you're interested in answering questions like this, or feel qualified to, but you're seeing so much interesting work through the distro and I wonder if you've noticed any trends in what work is being made, or how it's being published.

I think the difference is that when I go to shows, which I generally dislike, I see trends. But I think what I see through my work with Domino is the antithesis of trends. When I'm looking at the stuff people contact me with or that I stumble upon, I see how insular trends are with highly plugged in comics people, but how meaningless they are to everyone else. At shows, yes, I see a lot of riso work for years or I see experimental genre stuff, genre stuff that is self conscious, etc. There is a lot of back issue bin crawling re-articulated into comics making right now...but none of this is the larger reality. It's just the trend of what's happening with people who are totally immersed in the comics community. There are so many people making comics outside of that specific community...they might use a note or two of the trend, but not much more than that. I'm very interested in this anthology coming out of San Francisco, Tinfoil...the Italian critic Gabriele Di Fazio said something very smart about this anthology, in that you look at the artists in it, and it feels clear that they are not studying Schrauwen or obsessing over the established canon and trying to add their voice to it. Maybe they're appreciative of the canon, but...it's not the main thrust. Figuring out how to make work in their own unique way or maybe being inspired by their friends feels like the 'trend' that they are responding to, rather than what the more plugged in comics culture is responding to. And there are a LOT of people like that. Ian Sundahl, for instance, is a guy who makes some of my favorite comics...he reads about them and listens to podcasts, but I think he makes work that responds to his pantheon of interests and he's not a regular on the comic show circuit. Or Bethea...she'll go to CAB with Domino, and she loves Doucet and Sergio Argones, but I don't think her art has a lot to do with what bubbles up in the Wowee Zonk corner of TCAF.

There are people who always seem to be waiting for the next person to do comics 'right,' usually based on some memory of alternative comics. But, worldwide, that's the minority, when compared to people making comics with no set idea of what they should be. We’re lucky to live in a time when lots of people are creating art, and for the most part, people are not aware of what the correct trend is...until they are told, and then things fall apart. 

Are there comics on the site that you think haven't gotten the attention they deserve? Books you'd encourage TCJ readers to take a chance on?

Hmm, I mean, I’d want them to make those choices on their own for the most part. It seems counter to what I’m doing to prize certain work. 

Maybe, I’ll say...while Dorothy Iannone is known worldwide and not a self publisher, I think comics people should spend more time reckoning with her. I love Kirby but you should be required to read three Iannone books before your next Kirby comics. 


Iannone is an example of a newer trend in the distro - it seems like you're trying to get more work like that, which might be known in the art world but not to comics readers, and then you've also started importing more European work. Are there other areas like that, which you're planning to tackle in the future?

I think we all have this idea of what comics is to us, I think Kramers 4 was exciting to people because during the late 90s there was this clear idea of what was happening in one corner of the underground but it hadn't been phrased clearly in that way. Anke Feuchtenberger and Dorothy Iannone are, to me, clearly cartoonists and I’m just more interested in their storytelling than the Hernandez Bros/Little Lulu mode that I adore but think has outsized dominance. I think there are these ways to make comics that non-comics people are extremely receptive to, like Shel Silverstein or Edward Gorey, that we as comics people look away from and kind of deprive ourselves of. I am interested in plugging in stuff to the store that's very universal, like all the Lynd Ward stuff that’s easily available from Dover or the Max Ernst stuff they keep in print, just as a reminder of how powerful that stuff is and how little mind we pay to it. I'm also interested, which will take more work, of finding old issues of magazines like Flair, which had this really powerful sense of visual design and kind of a cartoon language to its imagery, as part of the visual idea the store is advocating for. 

Concrete Poetry feels important to include, I’d like to track down some of those Big Bear pamphlets...Re/Search publications should be part of the store, which is essential but sort of drifts away from any recognizable trend...a long, long term goal I have the store would be for it to include any imaginable underground publications from any era, as long as there is at least some small visual component. But a catalogue of underground publications, always expanding to include what’s happening now...that’s a goal. Printed Matter is engaged in this, but I have a different sensibility than them. 

What about publishing plans for Domino? You have a new issue of Comic Aht available for preorder - is there anything you're planning or that you'd like to do? 

In 2021 we will have But is it...Comic Aht? #3, a new long form Bethea book and hopefully a Domino published issue of Tinfoil magazine. I think with Tinfoil, I just found it so interesting, it was saying what I’m trying to say with the store in a much more clear way.

Any other future plans for the distro? And what about growth - have you thought about what happens if the work becomes too much for you to do alone?

That's a good question. I've seen a lot of publishers grow far beyond their means and start to do things that they don't really want to do, decisions based on filling a catalog. I’d never want to do that...I think for now, Domino has a function and...it functions! So I want to make sure to maintain that. I actually need to hire someone. There was a period where I had an intern come over once a week and paid them by the hour and they were very helpful...but for keeping things organized and knowing what I need to do, doing everything myself is the system that works. I think a lot about how to hire someone and make it worthwhile for them and fair, but I haven’t figured it out yet.

Dylan said something to me, that at the time I didn’t understand. He was saying he had an opportunity to get Sparkplug Books more distribution...meaning, the Sparkplug line would be easier for bookstores to order. As an artist he published, I thought ‘Great! You should do this.’ But Dylan, of course, did not want to do it...he considered it, and decided not to. I didn’t understand at the time, but now I do. 

We probably should have touched on fairness earlier, actually, in terms of practicalities. How do you handle artist payments? Anything you want to improve there?

I’m slowly moving away from consignment to doing everything up front. I still wanna do consignment to really take chances on things, but I’m getting closer to doing away with it, because it just causes more confusion. I think the most unfair thing is how long it takes certain books to go up onto the site and how, every now and then, a book will get lost in the shuffle. There are about....I dunno, 100 books waiting to go into the store at any given moment? And while I’m much better with adding them then in the past, it's still too slow. So that's something someone could help with. I do know that, as I’ve said already, for a lot of people, this is the only context there work is going to exist in for the moment, and so when it takes forever, I imagine that's a frustrating feeling. Most people are very understanding, but that's no excuse. 

Another basic question - do you have any advice about mailing and shipping? For example, how to pack comics cheaply and safely?

I actually had a long conversation with John Porcellino about this which will be published in the new Comic Aht. I think the main thing is...it helps to enjoy going to the post office, which I do. It helps to have some kind of belief in putting comics in envelopes and getting excited about sending those off...if I didn't still have a little thrill when I drop off 30 packages at a crowded and decaying post office branch, it'd be pretty grim.

In terms of tips? I think if you're doing a mail order business, it helps to make it as close to artistic as the books themselves, but within a realistic frame. I never let an order go out with at least one free comic...the comic acts as packing for the order, but also as a surprise and I take care in what to select as that surprise. I had to switch over to stamps.com because I couldn't do the volume I was doing by writing out the addresses and standing in line anymore. But not writing the addresses by hand is, to me, a sacrifice that I don't like. I got a local stamp maker to make a rubber address stamp, so there's always someone else's craft on every package. I want the stuff people get in the mail to have a dignity and pride to it, to match the work in some way.

So, it helps to enjoy the idea of it...but it also helps to be organized. I think anyone thinking about doing this shouldn’t start, necessarily, with a system of organization in mind and then impose it on their new business...start off wildly and, if you are patient and observant to your own work, a system of organization should reveal itself. But you have to be on the lookout.

The United States Postal Service is a really breathtaking institution. I like radical art being distributed by myself in partnership with this tough government agency. This summer, when they were in jeopardy, the thought of using a truly evil company like Fedex, that treats their drivers like garbage? No...I would have 100% ended Domino if that was my only choice. Amazon probably will end up controlling mail delivery in this country. When that happens, I’ll have to find another way to do this. 

There’s also a real magic in receiving a hand packed envelope.

There is. It’s a miracle you can still do that, to be honest. It might not be forever...it’s been a conservative wet dream for so long, to have Staples or some other company service our mail. I don’t see either party in this country understanding how powerful Amazon is going to become...or they understand completely and love it. 

Yeah, though that's part of why I'm so encouraged to learn you could make Domino your job - this year of all years.

Yes...well, I’d also say, it helps if you've been building things slowly for 9 years...I think I was on the verge of being able to make Domino something that I could live off of, and the extra push of people getting more comfortable with ordering their daily essential items (books are that, for many people) through the mail was just enough to get it to where it is. And...having more time, not going into the city, just working on this and drawing.

Interesting - so maybe it would have taken another year or two under different circumstances.

This process of creating a wider context for the work on the site, the effort you've made to seek out work outside your own taste - do you think any of that shows up in the book you just finished?

I don't know if that's the case, because I'm most interested in comics made by people like Charlotte Salomon or artists along those lines as a reader. But...with this long comic I just finished, as a starting challenge for myself, I really wanted to try to make it much more traditional than my normal tendencies...I doubt it will appear that way to most anyone reading it, but I think I've made a lot of work that is narratively hard for people to follow. I understand that, and while I feel that if you slow down and read the stories, they're pretty simple, I thought it would be interesting to slow things down and make something clear rather than obtuse, because i think both approaches are valuable and...I also wanted to see if I could do it. As much as I love the comics of someone like Ida Appelbroog or Blake, I do enjoy the simple pleasure of a Dave Cockrum drawing, that's a big part of my interest in comics that would be silly to deny. And, obviously this comic is not anywhere in any universe Dave Cockrum esque, I'm not so crazy as I'd say that. But the simple pleasure of that kind of storytelling, there’s some small lean towards that. But only through my jumbled view of Blake and Cockrum and Salomon all interrelating.

The fact that you wanted the book to be more traditional and clear reminds me of something you said in an interview once which has always stuck with me. I'm sure I'm paraphrasing, but essentially you said that you'd start a story with an idea of making it more conventional, but that would fall away after a few panels. So it sounds like this new book was pushing even more in that direction of making the work conventional? Or against your natural impulses?

Yeah, I think in the past things would implode but I would get into the implosion and follow that direction. I never felt self conscious about that, I liked working that way and I think interesting things would happen---for me, at least. And...in terms of those first two panels being 'conventional', they probably were only that way based in my completely out there definition of what conventional even is.

I think over time you get less afraid of drawing. Maybe in the beginning of making comics I'd be happy if I worked for hours and something worked by chance...and the surprise of what worked would be powerful for me. Now I don’t connect to working that way, although I miss it. So it would be disingenuous  to keep making things implode. Things imploded naturally before, it wouldn't be interesting if I was self detonating...

All my work is based in the language I taught myself from that earlier phase anyway, so it doesn’t need to be constantly underlined, I guess.

It's also interesting, and maybe related, that you seemed to have a clear idea of what you wanted this story to be from the beginning -- at least in the sense that, in interviews around the time of Gulag Casual [published in 2016], you describe a project that's very close to where you ended up in terms of the basic premise.

It changed a lot though. The basic premise was for the characters to have a conversation for the duration of the book. So I started off drawing it just letting them talk about general topics that interested me. Around the halfway mark, the characters hit on specific things that were less about my general interests and more about their relationship, the relationship that was building based on how they were talking to each other. Because of that, all this more general back and forth in the start felt pointless...so I rewrote and redrew the first chapter in line with how this improvised conversation ended up building the characters. Hopefully it ends up being, at its core, about how two specific characters interact with each other, rather than them discussing topics. 

That rewriting and redrawing added an extra year to working on the book. 

Was that new for you, to do that much editing?

I always do a lot but never that much. A lot of artists, who I admire, that connect with my work probably think of how I draw as improvisational. I suspect some people think I scrawl things without much thought and allow myself to be satisfied with that. There are a lot of people who work that way that make brilliant work, who have a trust in their mark making and just need to sit down and work with that. For me, the biggest part of my drawing is editing, making some lines and working with the figure and then changing things over and over until I have some satisfaction with it. All the short stories in Gulag Casual, all the drawings go through that in the beginning, and then again as I'm finishing the story when I just take out a third of the drawings that by then I can’t stand. With this book, I think I've just worked out a bigger system of doing that or it's just more developed.  There’s also a lot more editing involved because rather than trust the reader to make assumptions and read the comic extremely closely  as a key to understand why and characters look different from panel to panel, I wanted to see if I could make the reader’s jobs slightly less involved. It’s probably still a huge chore in those regards, but I did want to edit things so that the reader had a little less obstruction and a little more support. 

Is that an intuitive process, looking back at the pages and deciding what needs to be changed? Or is there a method to it?

I think there’s the common thing of, no matter what your standards for storytelling are, there are things that just don't connect once you read them over, so you edit that. But I think there are also moments that you can justify to yourself, but are in truth a dead moment. Maybe only to you, maybe a peer would like that part the most. But to you, you know how you feel. So I try to be pretty merciless on those dead moments, even if there’s something superficial I value in them. I think early on, there'd be drawings that I hated to look at but they were significant to me for some reason when I was doing them? Some breakthrough happened on them. I used to include moments like that as some kind of autobiographical element within the story, but now i'll discard them. 

Everyone knows when they're trying to justify a moment they don't really stand behind.

Going back to the start of the project - you had a basic premise in mind, but do you make other decisions early on? About the page count for example, or how you'd like to see it printed?

I think of comics as being more related to plays and theater than movies, and I think that's not emphasized enough. Small casts with a few scene changes and long conversations...those are the comics, even in genre, that I connect with the most, and reread the most. Cinema style comics with huge casts, lots of different locations...I tend to dip out. I think about trying to set up a scenario where I can get at as many things as I’d like to get at. So having characters talk to each other in settings (a bar, a bookstore, a home) that I enjoy being in...that felt like a good template to improvise against. My first book, Christina and Charles, I worked from a script, which I think is good for a beginning comics artist, but I’ll never do that again. I think the writing in comics has to come from some degree of improvisation, so I’m always looking for a template where I can move the writing around rather than be too boxed in. I think two people speaking to each other...that still hasn't been exhausted, even by 1%. I think you can still express quite a bit from that simple set up, and I’m often confused when lots of things ‘happen’ in a story, because all the events seem unimportant most of the time. I like Ben Katchor’s work...there are no events, no melodrama. But they’re also not dry...the passage of emotion and thought in his work is exciting to me.

The structure of the work itself, no matter how free, will start to box you in as you keep going...the tone of the drawings, even the most minimal concept, it becomes enough of a restraint in and of itself. By page 50, even as i was changing things, what the story is is already a prison...maybe a progressive nordic prison, but still confined. So I try to anticipate that as much as possible. Two people talking is a constraint, sure, but one with lots of get away doors.

With mainstream comics, I like things like Hellblazer, which is basically just people talking to each other every issue.

Is there a tension for you there, thinking about the structure of the book while still improvising page to page? Or, allowing yourself the space to improvise while not deviating from the structure - especially when you're trying to be clearer.

I think the structure imposes itself naturally, you just define it more through editing. I think tone and style also impose themselves no matter what you do. I think young artists worry about having a style, or how to marry their style to a story, but I think that all just happens imperceptibly and organically if you're paying attention to what you're doing overall. Any art I like, it’s all made up of decisions, but the work where someone thinks ‘then I decided that THIS event would happen in the middle!’...I don’t understand art like that at all. The work I connect with, it’s constant decisions being made every second that someone is working. One plot point or another isn’t so important. I like boring eventless art, that kind of stuff is exciting to me and sometimes a small insignificant gesture in a work like that will be overwhelmingly sad in the way a tragedy full of significant passages never could be. 

It seems like you've found a way to stay alert, even or especially in an eight hour drawing session.

Well, I’m probably just not alert in much else. That’s the most exciting part of the day, the most purely enjoyable. If I’m not alert then, when will I ever be?

Maybe this just isn't a problem for you, but at least personally I don't often have the energy to maintain that focus for so long.

Yes but...well, let me see if you agree: I think we all, all artists...when you're working, and you're into it, it does feel like you're making decisions that you can only explain to yourself when you're sitting down in that space, right? You're in a mental space that's different from your normal one….the logic makes perfect sense then, but not once you leave your table. I get a lot of ideas for future images and stories but only when I'm working...so, yes, your focus breaks down, and it's silly to suggest I’m focused when I'm just filling in a floor pattern. but, even when it's just that floor pattern, I'm definitely engaged in a way that's hard to relate to right now as you and I have this conversation.

No, that’s very true -- and it's interesting you mention the patterns. That's a time when your mind can really wander, but you can still make small decisions about the patterning that are visually interesting.

Right, exactly! But...I can actually enjoy a cross hatched comic where i can tell the person's mind was totally shut off and they didn't give a shit anymore. That's one of the things with comics...that communicates to me so directly, just a hacked out cross hatched page, this kind of wall of anxiety or laziness hits me when I see that stuff, and it's a pretty valid form of communication. That’s where they were at, 100%.

Speaking of decisions that are both for yourself and for the reader -- I wonder if the title, Meskin and Umezo, falls in that category. I'm sure you had reasons for choosing those names specifically, but they're also names that are familiar to most of your readers and a section of the book focuses on making and consuming art.

Yeah. And Ramona is named after Ramona Fradon and Wayne after Wayne Boring. but...more than anything, that's just me giving myself something for momentary enjoyment...at first it kind of colored Meskin because Mort Meskin is known to have struggled with expressing himself, so that was a simple association. But really it was just for my own pleasure and to affirm some kind of affinity for comics while working on it. I misspelled Umezu as Umezo early on and then just let it remain like that, so the overly clever part of the book was destroyed. 

By art making, I’m actually curious which part you mean. The line with ‘the psychedelic portrait'?

Yeah, and the section in the bookstore.

Oh right, 'culture has lost all coherence’.

I guess, thinking about it now, one effect the name choice had on me was to push me to think about broad comments like that in the context of comics specifically.

That's interesting! Meskin is the only one who I know a bit about their personality...the others are just figures that I appreciate who are comforting to surround myself with as actors...

Well, you must be aware of Umezu's persona as this larger than life figure, right? You do have Meskin wearing his red striped shirt in the comic, after all. 

I think of his art as powerful and commanding, so that's why I gave him the more self assured role. His art feels unassailable and exerts a real intimidating effect,  for most readers. I dunno anything about his real life or the shirt, but I’m glad that my perception of him syncs up. I actually had no idea he wore a shirt like that, so it’s funny that Meskin wears that shirt...that’s a really beautiful coincidence actually!

I was sure it was conscious.

Maybe it's Meskin’s original provocation in the conversation.

As artists, those two are deep contrasts. Meskins work feels like it’s slipping away from you, barely there sometimes. Umezu couldn't be less like that.

Maybe we should also say - we're now deep in the details of a book that you just finished, that people probably won't have read when this interview runs. Is that a good time to be talking about it, do you think? Do the concerns of the book feel more concrete to you now than they might when it's actually printed?

Now is a good time because I finished it a few days ago and I reread it a million times recently so I’m probably closer to it now than I’ll ever be.

Sure, that makes sense. Back to the visuals - we haven't really talked about how the book is drawn.

I think I’ve just been cycling through different ways of making work and when i took a break from making comics for a year or two, i was just working with graphite pencil to make stand alone drawings. I think what I really missed and started to get tired of when looking at drawings from that time was the lack of contrast. The last story for Gulag Casual was done with pencil and G nibs, but I also use the g nib (incorrectly) as a tool to fill in black areas that you’d typically use a brush for. I think I liked the system of those tools, and as many people say, you learn why comics are traditionally pencilled first and then inked. I think I’m glad I came to that way of working very late, because my pencils developed independently from inking for the most part, not in any real consideration of how to combine them with inks. Now that I ink everything, they feel like two independent practices coming together. 

It's very visually cohesive, actually, for being made over a longer period and with editing. In a good way, there's of course still lots of variation across the pages

The first section, as I was getting closer to the end, looked like it was from a different world. I do, of course, appreciate comics where you see the change over many pages gradually happen. But I also wanted there to be some coherence...I mean, a lot of the book is about people comically lost in the search for 'coherence' so I thought I could justify taking away the evolution to throw the characters some coherence at least in the book they’re appearing in. 

Obviously, I’m self taught, so more work redrawing things is a welcome excuse to teach myself more.

It's so interesting that you were very conscious about a lot of goals here, controlling yourself in a lot of ways. But looking at the pages and the flow of the story, it seems like you were still able to improvise despite that control.

I hope it's cohesive but it's rare where there's a stretch of pages that were done exactly in order or survived their first placement, I kept deleting passages and redrawing sections and changing individual panels up until the last week of working on it. 

And that started from...there were moments of doing that in the first week. I kept putting post it notes every week on sections so things kept changing as new pages were drawn, changing storywise and drawing wise how everything else needed to be.

And were you working on this pretty constantly throughout the past four years? You didn't have a period of putting it aside?

No..I did a short comic for Sonatina, but other than that this is what I was working on to the exclusion of anything else. Obviously you change as a person, what you want to say visually and storywise, over four years, it really changes. Ideas that were in the first few pages seemed ridiculous as time passed. So...lots of thought about whether to keep those things in and refute them, or make fun of them...or to change directions while also preserving the things i really wanted to keep.

Do you know when or how this is going to be published?

Without getting too bogged down in things, so many things happened with my past publisher...big controversies within the company,  that TCJ readers probably know about to some extent. It’s not my place to comment on those things here, really. I really do mean this, I want the best for everyone involved, but I also felt like everything became too turbulent. I worked so hard on this book, I didn’t want it to become colored by all that. I started drawing it assuming it would come out with them, but at some point had to rethink that. 

I just finished the book, so now is the time to start figuring all that out. I've tried not to think about it. 

I do know...the book has the same page numbers as a Tintin album, I'd like it to be published in that exact format

That'd be lovely. I didn't make that connection on the page count.

It worked out that way! It’s just a few pages longer than a Tintin album, I think.

I love that page count for a comic, actually, both for my own work and as a reader - long enough to be a big story but short enough to be reread many times.

Yeah it's perfect! Europeans have some things figured out after all.