“It Doesn’t Punish You for Having Hope”: An Interview with Kevin Czap

I don’t remember when I met Kevin Czap for the first time but Kevin does. As the story goes it was SPX 2012 and they approached my table to introduce themselves and tell me that they liked my work, to which I quickly replied,

‘Oh you’re Kevin Czap. I already know who you are. Your work is great.’

I can’t remember what the comics community looked like before I knew Kevin Czap and I can’t imagine a contemporary comics landscape without their gracious presence. Aptly nicknamed ‘Comics Mom’, Kevin represents so much of what I feel deeply grateful for in Comics; a generosity that seems unimaginable in most places but especially so in a Courtyard Marriott. I often think of Kevin winning the CXC ’16 Emerging Talent Award, holding a novelty sized check surrounded by people smiling from ear to ear. Because that’s what Kevin feels like to me, a one person cheerleading squad. An oversized check I get to cash time and time again.

Kevin is this year’s fellow at the Center For Cartoon Studies, while also running their own press Czap Books as well as co-producing Ley Lines with L. Nichols, a quarterly publication about the intersection of comics and art.

That’s all great but I really just want to talk about karaoke.

Jeremy Sorese: You are a huge fan of karaoke and also an incredible performer, something I’ve been lucky enough to witness several times. Karaoke also feels very pertinent to your work for many reasons, which most of this interview will touch on.

What is it about karaoke that is so appealing to you?

Kevin Czap: Haha thank you. I just love music so much! It has to do with this impulse where you want to repeat, replicate, or embody something that you love. Like, oh, that song (or whatever it is) is amazing, I want to do it too, just so that there’s more of it, so that your enjoyment of it keeps going. The same impulse as playing a song over and over again, except by singing it, you’re closer to it somehow. Which kind of relates to why I draw in the first place, honestly.

The performance aspect is not nearly as important beyond just wanting to be good enough at something you like doing that people genuinely appreciate it.

That sounds a lot like why people, myself included, start making comics. It’s such an immediate desire, the gateway drug that tells you, Oh I could maybe do this too. I’m sure someone smarter than me could write something beautiful about the overlap between karaoke and fan art.

Your work, not only in Futchi Perf but in several other works (such as your Ley Lines book ‘The Letting Go’ and your story ‘The Last Time You Saw Cleveland’) often decentralizes the narrative away from a singular main character in lieu of something more universal, while still feeling intimate and personal.

How did this second person narration come about?

I started doing that years ago by trying to avoid using “I” as much as possible in my own diary, in an effort to minimize myself somehow. Not the healthiest time in my life, but there was something I liked about using it in comics to address the reader and pull them in. Encouraging them to empathize with what’s going on in the comic by having them assume the point of view character. It also acknowledges that there’s someone reading the comic, so there’s an “outside” of the book, aka the real world we all live in. I also think some of that original minimization is going on, because I really am writing “you” in place of “I.”

Now that you mention that kind of emotional connection through a change in point of view, I’m reminded of another mutual love of ours, Galactic Rabbit! Reading her horoscopes written as a shared narrative between you, the reader, and this fictional version of the author, Gala, is so visceral.

I recently did booth karaoke on a date and was struck by how moving karaoke from a group setting to a more intimate one felt very intense. Karaoke is so performative, adopting a musician’s person but also your song choices felt very revealing, almost embarrassing.

Futchi Perf is full of characters confessing something intimate and being rewarded for that bravery. I’ve heard you read Futchi twice now and each time felt so intense, as the story tells you how you, the audience member, feels while simultaneously coaxing that feeling out of you. I remember crying back in 2015 when you read at the bookstore WORD with Sam Alden and your partner Cathy G Johnson.

How is it performing Futchi Perf, especially as someone who often remarks on their own quietness? Do you feel a separation when you get up there or is it a challenge?

Aw, I’ve definitely cried over your work too. I’ve been lucky (or I have a small yet loyal enough following) to read in front of people I care about. Like with karaoke though, I need to turn off the part of my mind that might think too much about the audience, if only to get through what I’ve signed up to do. It almost feels like an anticlimactic answer after your lovely set up, but it’s best to reduce everything to logistics so that I don’t agonize over stuff. There’s a panel in Fütchi Perf where the character cuts off their own internal monologue with a hand gesture, like wiping it off the table - that illustrates how it feels.

It usually feels silly to read the dialogue, trying to portray different characters’ speech, so sometimes I’ll just read captions out loud and let the audience read the rest themselves on the projector.

Also, booth karaoke is good because you don’t have to sit through too many strangers (especially if the bar is packed), but it’s really satisfying to have your friends take over a bar for the night.

I’ve seen karaoke referred to as the New Punk; it's egalitarian; everyone takes turns, no one interrupts one another, it's very social which is all such core elements of Futchi Perf as a vision for the future. This is reflected in your lack of a singular main character but also in the kinds of stories you’re telling. Short fragments that center around someone just being nice to another person. Characters challenging one another to be more emotionally vulnerable.

So many of the characters we do follow in Futchi Perf are nameless and without backstory and yet are treated with immense respect and support not only from one another in the story but also by you, their creator. They’re not the center of your personal world but they're seen and appreciated in that space.

I want to hear you talk about how queerness (in the broadest sense of that word) and punk-ness (in the broadest sense of that word, even though that’s not a real word) have influenced you.

That’s interesting, I haven’t heard that before (about the “new punk”). I’ve been to karaoke where all those things do happen, but maybe to your point, it feels extremely egregious if someone interrupts a song or (crime of all crimes) bribes the KJ to cut in out of order. So too in punk and queerness, I suppose.

Yeah, that’s a good clarification. It’s utopic in theory, a better version of the world we could live in. One where people are more cooperative and generous.

Anyway. My introduction to punk happened simultaneously with zines and DIY, and those are all linked together in my mind. At the same time, punk provided a model for political thought. I grew up downstream of Washington DC and I think that had a lot to do with that, although it wasn’t until I moved away from the area that I started to put together the pieces. I think overall the most resonant lesson that carries through in my work and life is the degree of intentionality - punk to me feels like, rather than going along with received life directions, it’s about working together to create something that works for everyone, and constantly reviewing, revising, and challenging to make sure that mandate is upheld. I mean, the music and fashion and stuff is appealing too.

Queerness for me can seem indistinguishable from all of that sometimes. Queer feels like the dream, it’s what was once impossible but is maybe really there. And actually, I’m surrounded by living proof that it is possible. I’m still processing that.

There’s also the degree to which both punk and queer community have been the pathways I’ve followed through life to end up where I am. Like I don’t know, maybe without either, I’d be working in mainstream comics or something. Or not making comics at all?

I recently watch a documentary on Bill Cunningham, the blue jacketed biking fashion photographer for the New York Times and the film spent a lot of time talking about his values, which felt very punk. Living cheaply, working fairly, being kind in the depictions of others. There was a lot of speculation about his personal life and the narrative had this feeling that Bill had been presented with a fork in the road and had chosen to live as he did. But it was nevertheless a decision which struck me as noteworthy, especially as I get older and it feels harder to just emotionally wing it.

We were both on a panel at SPX called ‘Genderfluidity, Technology and Futurism’ (along with Carta Monir and Rio Aubry Taylor) and we all touched on how drawing lends itself well to deconstructing gender because you can infer so much that the reader in turn will extrapolate in their own heads unlike a movie which has real human bodies and all of the specific realities that come with that.

I feel the same way about the world of Futchi Perf. Its feels like such a lived experience with the city of Cleveland, Ohio but the more realized version of itself. The city is a character, which yes is a cliche to say, but it feels very true for Futchi Perf. You can feel that push between a reality holding you back and a hopeful future as you see it, one that the reader can engage with in the same way as your use of gender.

Futchi Perf is a breakup comic about a city and not a person. Not to get too personal, but what was the reaction from the people you knew in Cleveland? Have people from other cities seen themselves in your vision of Cleveland?

That panel was so great. What an honor to share the stage with you all. What you say about Fütchi Cleveland, I mean, I have found that’s a continuing theme in my work. I’m trying to find ways to navigate to a more realized version of myself. Which, if you think about it, makes sense that it could end up being about a break up.

It’s funny how that worked out, because I definitely started the book as a love letter. The fact that it came out the first time around right as I as leaving was more circumstantial than anything else. It just takes a long time to put out a book, even if you’re doing it yourself on your own schedule. My moving away was very bittersweet for everyone involved, but the reaction to the book itself was positive all around. I’m still close with people I was when I left, and I think they feel a lot of pride in the book and in me which means a lot. I think the positive Cleveland representation in the book helps too.

I have seen and heard people relating to what I’m writing about in the book who aren’t from Cleveland. For instance, people in Providence have responded well to a vision of the future that doesn’t sucker punch you at the end with the bad shit, that doesn’t punish you for having hope.

Do you think of making similar work about Providence, where you’ve been living for the past few years? Or Vermont, where you live now? I’m curious because I’ve talked to you a lot about Cleveland and (much like someone we both love by the name of Joni Mitchell, who wrote a lot of songs about Alberta and L.A.) I see you as Cleveland, Ohio’s punk poet laureate in a way.

Strangely enough, I am working on something right now that is very much colored by my time in Providence. The last two comics I made (“The Letting Go” and “The New Cast”) were very inspired by Providence as well now that I think about it, but this new one is more specifically set there. It’s not something I planned to do, like a Sufjan Stevens-esque suite of city based comics, it just kind of keeps happening.

It’s funny, the first time I ever went to L.A., I was driving around with my friend and I started noticing how I recognized the names on the street signs from all these Rilo Kiley and Elliott Smith songs. The same thing happens in New York. It’s something I do think about when using really specific references in my work, either in the dialogue or the kind of reference I use when doing backgrounds. One of the main scenes I’ve drawn so far is based on my good friend’s living room.

I want to talk about your current projects. I know you’re currently coloring your partner Cathy G. Johnson’s graphic novel, No Dogs Allowed,  soon to be published with First Second. I’ve read the book and seen a few colored pages and its all just so good. I’ve seen Cathy gush online about how this feels like such a perfect marriage of your strengths and I agree. Is this kind of collaboration something you see yourself doing more of? Or does it feel Cathy-specific since you two are together and have that particular kind of relationship already.

Thanks, it’s a really amazing book and getting to give it a super close reading while I work on it has been a joy. It’s good to know that this is something I can do, and the experience has taught me more efficient ways to go about it. In order to do more assist-type work like this, I’d want to have an appropriate balance of my own projects going on, otherwise it gets tricky.

I know you’ve worked on projects kind of like this - not coloring but translation - how do you like it?

I like it a lot actually. I feel like it’s where I learn the most about telling stories, either having to fit my vision into someone else’s world or following behind someone and seeing all the decisions they made and why they made them.

Any other personal comics you’re working on?

I’m finishing up the first part of the comic I mentioned earlier (about Providence). It’s about this character Betty Yaris, her group of friends, and the prospect of getting older. I haven’t sorted out all the details just yet, but I think I am going to publish it online first, and then eventually put out print issues. Beyond that I’ve got a long wish-list of projects to tackle once work on No Dogs Allowed is wrapped up. Also expect Czap Books to make a comeback soon after a quiet 2017.

Um, that is all so exciting to me! I cannot wait.

Lastly, is there anything that makes you really excited about in comics at the moment? Person? Project? Discussion? Anything at all?

I think it was at SPX 2016 when I watched you stride across the Marriott parking lot to give your business card to a bunch of recent MICA grads who just lost their marbles over their excitement to meet you. I knew a few of the students having taught at MICA, namely Sunmi and Paloma Hernando, who run Dandelion Wine Collective. They’re incredibly exciting to me, especially in their excitement to just do it themselves, print what they want, pay their artists fairly, etc.

I really love Dandelion Wine Collective! Paloma and Sunmi make my heart so large, and their professionalism is really admirable (I’m taking notes, for sure). I think Zainab [Akhtar] continues to disrupt the entire game with ShortBox (as you know well). Silver Sprocket is doing so much cool stuff, and Avi’s hustle is kind of unstoppable right now. It’s also been a huge honor to be so close to the current students at CCS, I love what I’m seeing. Shout out to the Cartoonists of Color Database. I don’t know, I could just rattle off names of people whose work I love right now, but it would just keep going on and on. There’s a lot of love to go around, for sure.