“I Mean, Why Did I Like That?”: The Tim Hensley Interview (Part Two)

The first part of this interview can be found here. This section was transcribed by Brooke Chin and Eli Powell.

Backing up for a second, you did four stories for Duplex Planet— was that around the time you started working in closed captioning? Around 1996?

Yeah, ’96 to 2006 was when I was doing that. I think what happened is I did Duplex Planet and Kim Thompson asked me to do Zero Zero and I couldn’t do it, I think because I was busy doing my music at the time. I don’t really remember, or I didn’t feel like I was ready to do it. Yeah, then I met my wife and I moved out of my parents’ house and I got what was one of my first regular jobs, which I had for 10 years, which was doing closed captioning.

You talked a little bit about that in MOME, but basically it involved you watching movies and TV all day and then writing down the dialogue?

Yeah. It was before the internet, so you know, you’d go into work and you’d have a three-quarter-inch video tape and a computer set up and you’d just play the tape and type what you hear, pretty much. And it would just run the gamut from day to day, what you would get, and the workload of it was a lot different than it would be now. And so I would finish early and I would be in a private booth with a door and I could draw and I just started drawing what was on the monitor based on what happened at work that day. It was a good job for a kind of person like me who’s private or kind of solitary.

So there would be a monitor and you’d have headphones on and you’d watch it and then rewind and then start it again?

Yeah, there’d be two monitors. One monitor would have what the captions were, and then the other monitor would be the picture with the captions superimposed. You’d basically go through during the course of the day, say, a half-hour sitcom, and you’d type everything in. Then at the end of the day, you’d play it back and make sure it was okay, and then you’d save everything on a floppy disk, before it was networked. You’d turn in your disk at the end of the day and go home [laughs].

Are you still doing it now? I know you had stopped in 2006, but did you go back?

Yeah, after 2006 I went through many years of being unemployed and I worked as a temp at this big internet company for a while, and then was unemployed for maybe two years, and then finally my wife and I moved, and I got a job here closed captioning again. But the closed captioning industry has totally changed since back then. They’re really paranoid about security and the economics of it are a lot worse than they used to be, so it’s very, very intense [laughs] and very busy. I could never do something like I did back then now at all.

What do you mean by security? What are they worried about?

It's to the point where I don’t even know [laughs] whether I can talk about it in an interview. I mean it’s like, you’re basically under video surveillance there and everything you do on the computer is under surveillance.

They don’t want plot points to get out?

Apparently, for example, someone said, someone leaked The Phantom Menace. I guess the turnaround in captioning is very breakneck because they’re afraid everything is going to end up on the Internet. I think when I did the other job, there was definitely a situation where it was like, you need to sign this form saying that you’re not going to tell anybody who shot J.R., but it was nothing like now.

That makes sense. I wasn’t thinking about Internet piracy. So you started closed captioning in ’96, and you had just gotten married and moved out of your parents’ house?

Yeah, big life change there. That was my first relationship, and I’m still married now, 13 years later.


Plus an extra five years before we were married.

I don’t know if you want to talk about your wife, but what does she do?

Well, when we met, she was working in a museum bookstore, and then she went to college and studied music therapy, and then she got a job working at a day program for disabled clients. She did an internship and then was working there for a while. And now she’s sort of dealing with some health issues.

ts_coverOkay. When you were at your first closed captioning job, that’s when you started doing Ticket Stub?

Yeah, I mean, there was a period when I wasn’t doing anything except working, just going home and learning how to live [laughs] away from my parents’ house. But then at a certain point, I started keeping a sketchbook which was unrelated to what I was working on at the job and then it occurred to me, why am I drawing something out of my head? This is a weird situation, I should draw what’s on the screen. When I started doing Ticket Stub, it ended up being not so much like… I guess I’d want people to know that about the book, is that it’s not really exactly a sketchbook, it’s sort of organized as if it were a magazine or something. It has an editorial voice and it’s not as freeform as it could be [laughs] I suppose.

When you are doing the closed caption job, is it even possible to enjoy what you’re watching or is it too much work?

You have to have a certain frame of mind because you don’t have any control over what you’re gonna be working on and a lot of times you’ll be working on something that’s unbearable. You sort of compartmentalize what it is that you’re seeing. Or you try to be like, wow I really enjoyed, you know, the set design in this movie [laughs] or something, you know, because everything else you couldn’t stand. I mean, you don’t think too much about the quality of what you’re working on sometimes. The thing that’s weird about it is, it’s just a different perception of time when you watch something, because if you watch something that’s a half an hour, just try to imagine instead of watching it for a half an hour, you’re watching it over eight hours. And it just looks different, it gets really bad when you’re working on something where the plot is someone has been kidnapped, because then for eight hours you feel like you’ve been kidnapped or something. [Hodler laughs] Or we did these volumes of Pokemon, there would be three episodes on a DVD, and I think we did 50 volumes of them?


So, definitely sometimes you feel like it's a situation like Clockwork Orange or something like that, clamps on the eyelids. Is this gonna have some deleterious effect on me [Hodler laughs], being subjected to so many terrible TV shows? But it’s a career. [Laughs]

Right. So you started doing Ticket Stub. I can usually understand where the images were coming from. Sometimes the language is a little bit [Hensley laughs] less…


A page from Ticket Stub.
A page from Ticket Stub.

That’s correct, yeah, that’s a good way of saying it. When I was thinking of questions to ask you about your comics, the question I kept coming up with about different comics was, "Why did you do this? Why did you do this? Why did you do this?" I hope I don’t do that too often. But with Ticket Stub, these almost resemble poems about these things you were watching. Is that what you were trying to do?

Sometimes it’d just be at the end of the shift, a free association of things that I remembered from what I watched, and rather than try to create a synopsis, I might remember, you know, Oh, in that new House Party reboot, Kid ‘N’ Play looked kind of weathered in their cameo. So I might have only written “weathered” or something like that. [Hodler laughs] It wouldn’t explain… Or it might be a plot point or some scene sometimes. I didn’t want to write something that, Oh, today I worked on this and this is what it was like, it was bad, you know? ‘Cause that would have been repetitious. So I tried to be kind of democratic about it. If I was working on something, I tried to make everything equal in terms of my response to it. I felt like if I was working on an episode of, say, South Park, which is not a show I watch with any regularity or even enjoy, I just tried to write something about it. That what was I liked about it in terms of… It was similar to the songwriting situations I had, where I was generating topics, except what was being generated was what I was working on that day. Like, who could predict that one day you’d be working on blaxploitation movies and the next day you’d be doing Strawberry Shortcake or whatever [laughs].

And then you put that out as a zine.

Yeah, see, to say “putting it out” is kind of like… [laughs] I mean, it didn’t go anywhere [Hodler laughs]. I would go to Kinko’s after work and I got a long-arm stapler, and I gave one copy to my therapist because I was still in therapy at that point, and then I gave one to my wife, and then gave a very few to friends, and that was it.

What did your therapist say?

She thought I was too punitive on myself, I suppose. [Laughs] That’s all I remember of a remark that she had made.

She thought you were torturing yourself by making it?

No, not that, just that, you know, I think I may have said that in another interview, where I said she said, “Why do you have to kick the puppy?”

[Laughs] Okay. Was there anything that I’m missing between Duplex Planet and Ticket Stub in terms of publishing?

I think the next time I really started to get into it was when I had noticed that The Comics Journal was publishing comics and then when they started doing these big oversized theme-based comics, I wanted to know if I could be part of that. I believe Anne Elizabeth Moore was the editor of The Comics Journal at that time, and I told her I read there was gonna be a music-themed issue [Comics Journal Special Edition Summer 2002] and I said, "Let me do a comic and if you like it, you can use it, and if you don’t, then don’t use it or whatever." [Laughs] She let me know when the deadline was and I turned it in, and it turned out that they ended up using it and then after that, that was sort of my new thing. I’d get some e-mail, by now it was e-mails, and I’d get an e-mail saying, this is the theme for this next one, if you want to turn something in here’s the date.

That was "Smooth Jazz"?

Yeah, I think that was the first one I did.

Was it still the Victor Banana time period or were you Neil Smythe by now?

This was after all that. When I moved out of my parents’ house, I gave up on music. I didn’t do it anymore. Then I moved into comics and Ticket Stub. It was some kind of progression, or regression. It’s almost like once Ticket Stub sort of transformed at the very end of the last issue into sort of like a comic… You know, I’m also wondering if, I’m trying to think… The first comic I might have actually done before "Smooth Jazz" might have been the Dirty Stories "Daikon" comic. Yeah, now I remember what happened was I went to San Diego and Eric Reynolds was there and I gave him the Ticket Stub and he said, "This is good, do you wanna do some comics for Dirty Stories [Volume 3]?" And I did that.

When I was doing research, I saw the Neil Smythe album listed as coming out in 2004..

No, that was 1995.

Oh, okay. The Internet was wrong.

I did the Velvet Glove thing and it did pretty well. It broke even, because Dan [Clowes] had a built-in audience for that record. Then I did this record of my own stuff and the music was pretty dark and depressing. I think I assumed that I would sell the same amount. I’ve still got boxes and boxes of them in my garage. I think I may have sold, it may have been less than a hundred.

The other thing was I was sort of in a record business with my dad and then it was sort of similar situation to what I was talking about as a kid, where I was making comics and selling them to him for a dime [Hodler laughs]. Also, at the time period, a lot of people and musicians were into Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds and the idea was you have these elaborately arranged things. So I was recording this stuff and it was like, people are playing woodwind instruments who hadn’t played them since high school. So their intonation was chancy at times and to me it was just fun, ‘cause it was just like, you know, to create something where nine people were playing at the same time. Again, in terms of a music business decision, making a soundtrack for the Velvet Glove thing was probably a good idea, but doing something on my own, that’s just this weird thing with nine people playing and recording it in a day and half or whatever [laughs], it’s just like I have no idea how to make a living in the music business. It was easier when I had this other job to draw comics. You just need a piece of paper, a lot more affordable than studio time. Especially when we were using this organ for the recording sessions, it was like an actual kind of baseball stadium kind of organ. Just carrying it around, the logistics of moving it was enough to discourage me.

If you have all those boxes of CDs I bet some of your fans would like to buy them. You should put them up on your website.

I brought some to the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival. I think I sold two. I don’t have the 10-inch Velvet Glove records anymore. Those are all gone. I have maybe four Velvet Glove CDs left. [laughs].

I own one record I bought out of the back of Eightball many years ago, that I didn’t realize until recently that you were on: Rube Ruben.

Oh, yeah, that was [Charles Schneider], a friend of Dan’s who lived out in L.A., and that’s sort of how we ended up first meeting in person. His friend was Rube Ruben and he had this personality comedian thing that he did. At that time, a lot of what was happening was people were asking me to write songs for them and I did. It wasn’t like I was a Svengali [Hodler laughs] or a super-producer or anything. It was just like, I would have these songs and I knew how to put together a recording session. That situation was one of those, where it’s not like Rube Ruben… He was a little challenged in his ability to carry a tune [laughs]. I remember, one guy was angry that I had actually written down a solo for him to play and he was like, "I’m just gonna play my own solo" and kind of ruined it. We were making that record and then one side would have the songs I did and the other side had a comedy routine he did. And when we drove to the recording session he was writing the comedy routine [Hodler laughs], you know, in the car. So I was maybe a little more prepared than he was for it, but it was just sort of like… You know, that’s like when you were saying there are different frames of mind in creating something. I wouldn’t be doing that myself, but that could be a good way to work too.

494010It’s funny because I thought the comedy routine was elaborately planned to sound bad [laughter]. I guess not!

I don’t know, it’s been a while since I’ve heard it. He was interested in films. He got some job writing music-video synopses which I thought was a good job. He was really interested in horror movies, I believe he made some Super 8 movie when he was a kid called It Takes Guts [Hodler laughs], and it was like people being disemboweled or something. He’s a nice guy and he had an incredible selection of books, his place was just a mess of books and you’d go there and… I think Fantagraphics published a book he edited. That was another comics thing I did, was he did this thing called Cad: A Handbook for Heels that Feral House put out. It was supposed to be a tribute to men’s magazines or whatever. That was probably some of the first published artwork that I did. I had maybe a three-page comic in there; it wasn’t good, but that’s one of the first things I did [laughs].

Was that something on the theme of being a cad?

[Laughs] It was an adaptation that I did and I think it was like those men’s adventure magazines, they would have some poem about some crazy naval sea adventure and cannibalism or something. I think it was probably an adaptation of that.

Okay. So, on the same website that had the completely wrong date for your album, it said that you refused to allow any of your music to be reissued. I was wondering if that was true or not, and if so, if there was any philosophy behind that?

That was because I had a record company going with my father, and he wanted it to keep it going and I didn’t want to, but he wouldn’t let go of it. So I would keep saying, "No, I’m just not interested in doing this," and he would somehow use that as promotional copy. [Hodler laughs] I mean, obviously there’s not people clamoring that are being refused. I’d rather just throw the CDs out. In terms of reissuing the records now, I don’t really care about whether someone would want to do it, I guess it wouldn’t matter, but there aren’t any master tapes for them, so I don’t know. [Laughs]

I was just curious. I’ve heard some of the music that’s online, but I wasn’t able to track down the CDs.

Yeah, I think you might be able to find Velvet Glove if you tried online, but, I don’t know... I think it was just a situation I wasn’t ready for and when I switched to comics, I just grew up a lot [laughs].

Well, I guess I can see how it might make sense to focus on one or the other.

I don’t know how people are a combination of musicians and cartoonists. Some people don’t really edit what they do, they just let it go out however it goes and create a lot of different stuff, and some people are more neurotic and they just create little things that they have more control over. I guess I’m more in that category where I don’t really do that much. When you’re just creating things, you have sort of percentages where you know some things are good and some things are bad and you just don’t worry about it too much and then you get somebody who’s like everything’s gotta be perfect and there’s just little things and hopefully every little thing is really good. Sometimes that doesn’t work. I’m more in that category, but I might spend years on something and it’ll turn out bad anyway [laughs]. And then I’ll be stuck or something, but I’m not prolific, like, here’s a million things, I’m a musician, I’m an artist, I’m a whatever. [Laughs.]

We’ve been talking for a long time, so if you ever want to take a break or get a drink of water or something, just let me know.

So far, it’s a weird situation. I never talk with anybody about comics or my creative life in normal life. I just go to work. I see cartoonists at most maybe every six months. That’s always a weird situation, but most of the time, you know, I just live my life, and so it’s just weird that anyone would know anything about it at all.

You said you moved. Do you still live in Los Angeles?

We still live in Los Angeles in general, we just live in Culver City, which is more towards the beach. We used to live more in Silver Lake, which is more in the center of Hollywood. We moved into my wife’s aunt’s townhouse and it’s in a gated community. It’s a little bit like the village in The Prisoner.

[Laughs] Oh, okay. Do people wear straw boaters and everything?

That would make it perfect. All the street names are named after movies, so there’s a Gaslight Lane and there’s a Butterfield Lane, because it’s built on the old MGM back lot. MGM Studios was in Culver City and where we live is built around this area that’s what used to be the Tarzan river set, so there’s this kind of lake that looks like a river in the center of it. It’s actually pretty cool.

Those weren’t filmed in Africa?

I bought a book about the MGM Studios back lot and it has a list of the movies that were shot on what is Lot 3, which is what we live on. A lot of those MGM movies weren’t shot on location. [Hodler laughs.]

As a kid I believed it.

Well, you know, they actually have a big tank, and they would have scale model boats. So when you see those things in slow motion, you know, like in rough seas, it’s a boat that’s about the size of, you know, your arm’s length in a tank somewhere.

Right. So, there are a fair number of cartoonists in Los Angeles. Are you friendly with any of them? Do you spend much time socializing with them?

There will be some situations like those Kramer's signings, but I don’t have a social life. In a way that’s good if you’re a cartoonist. It was interesting when I went to the Brooklyn Comics festival. I wasn’t used to that. When I went there, it seemed like everyone was so interested in comics and here it doesn’t seem like there’s really any people who are interested in comics [laughs] at all. I find a lot of cartoonists can be kind of needy and competitive, myself included, so sometimes it’s hard for me to spend extended periods of time talking about comics. I just get threatened or I just… It takes me a couple days to recover after I go to convention or something, because I just feel bad [laughs].

It surprises me to hear you say that. Wally Gropius is a really good book; I feel like you should know that and be proud of it. It’s hard for think of anything that's really better in the last 10 years or so.

Well, when I went to Brooklyn, again it was a surprise, because I met people there who had read the book and liked it. But here there are no fans, or there isn’t anybody I encounter who thinks that book is so great. I mean, you know, I was looking through it today to try to prepare and there’s a lot of it that I’m proud of [laughs]. I put a lot of work into it. But the other day I was also thinking that that essay Ken Parille wrote about my backgrounds, I almost feel like sometimes people are responding as much to that as my book, it was such a well-written thing.

Well, I guess it’s true that even the greatest comics are not really recognized outside of a small number of people. It’s strange to remember that sometimes.

The Internet has changed things a bit, but a lot of times with comics, it’s sometimes years until I find out somebody was affected by or had even read something that I had done. With the Internet now, it seems like maybe comics changes every couple months and there’s some new theory about what comics are gonna be like [Hodler laughs].

Well, they’re all wrong so…

[Laughs] Well, you can lose a sense of continuity or patience on the Internet sometimes and that’s something that can be really valuable when you’re doing comics, a sense of something where there isn’t an immediate result. The Internet is a different kind of experience, where you’re gonna create something really quickly and have this weird reaction to it that’s almost, it just reminds me of a Las Vegas casino or a witch hunt [laughter].

Yeah, the Internet is bad news sometimes. So, "Smooth Jazz". What was the inspiration for that?

Well, the theme was gonna be music, and I think I just got an idea about doing the comic strip ‘cause my parents always used to get those Sharper Image catalogs with those machines with the different sounds on them for bedtime. So I guess I was trying to make a comic about where music was just as much sound or whatever. People were trying to obtain this device that makes people go to sleep, and then that was being compared to smooth jazz [laughter].

This reminds me of something I was going to ask you earlier. Do you read a lot of poetry? Is that something’s that an interest of yours at all?

I guess not recently. I mean, in college, I had to read poems. I definitely like Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson and stuff like that. Sometimes I feel guilty because I was an English major and I feel like I should read something literary and I’ll panic and go out and get something that’s supposed to be good [Hodler laughs], but I don’t follow contemporary poetry. I usually look at what I think a poem is in The New Yorker, and I usually don’t enjoy it so much [laughs].

I don’t read those poems either. I assume they’re bad without reading them.

I compulsively read them, I don’t know why. I mean, I don’t know what I’m expecting [laughs].

They might be great for all I know. I just for whatever reason just can’t focus on them. The only reason I’m asking is that the writing in your comics seem more poem-like than most comics that I read. There’s a density of language, and the imagery is almost like John Ashbery or something sometimes.

When you’re talking about those Comics Journal Special Editions, I did this one for the patriotism issue, and the strip itself wasn’t so good, but the writing I thought was pretty good. For that one, I got a book called, I think it was 50 Patriotic Poems or The Best 500 Patriotic Poems [Hodler laughs]. That was definitely something where I just opened that up and free associated on it, where those poems were always funny to me because they were always trying to rationalize the idea of being killed [laughs] for your country. Pretty much over and over again in all these different ways. They were written in this super foreign language, so I was trying to write it like that. I thought some of the writing of that strip, I thought it was funny but the rendering, the drawing, it just didn’t turn out so good.

That reminds of the national anthem in Wally Gropius, obviously.

Yeah, I mean, "Smooth Jazz" is kind of similar too, trying to find some genre of music that if you examined it closely might seem sillier than it is [laughs].

Right. So you said you felt guilty for not reading more good books? What kinds of books do you actually read?

Well, you know, a lot of times I just go to the library and follow whatever my interest is, and of course comics a lot of times. People don’t consider that to be real writing or a real thing they read. I’ve always been interested in comics and so I always check out comics at the library. The thing I’ve been reading a lot lately are those Library of America books because they have, you know, maybe four books by a similar author and I can take those to work, and they have the ribbon bookmark [laughs].

And they’re usually pretty good, too.

Yeah, I’ve read all those Philip Dick books; I like those a lot. Those are in the Library of America and I read the Harlem Renaissance ones, the crime set. Sometimes that’s like genre literature instead of actual literary literature, I guess.

I've read a lot of those. I remember a long time ago, seeing a post you had made on some message board, that you were reading the same Library of America book that I was reading at the time, the collection of H.L. Mencken’s Prejudices.

Oh, right, yeah, yeah. Yeah, Mencken. Those were funny. He looks drunk in the photo on the cover. In one of those things, he’s talking about how his book sold like 200 copies or something like that.

[Laughs] Yeah.

That sounds familiar. You know, actually in general, a lot of times if I get confused about the process of writing something, I’m more interested in somebody who’s a novelist than reading about a cartoonist’s process, because at least with a novelist they’re used to the idea of failure and something that takes a long time [laughs]. Sometimes with comics they just wanna say like, oh, I’m prolific and there’s a lot of things, and everything’s going well.

It’s interesting you say that because I feel like the prevailing stereotype these days about cartoonists is that they’re all, you know, lonely…

Like a self-loathing kind of thing, you mean?

Yeah, I feel like that’s normally what people say about modern cartoonists, that that’s the image that’s promulgated.

But that’s considered more what their expression is or what their work is about, more than it’s not that there’s a small amount of it [laughter]. You know, like, Joe Matt seems prolific to me.

It’s been a long time since Spent came out.

I’ve seen him around the city in the past and he said he was working on more comics.

Oh, that’s good.

Sometimes it seems likes he’s bragging that he’s not working. I don’t really know him at all.

I don’t know him really either but he does seem to make fun of himself in his comics, and get joy out of making himself look as bad as possible.

Yeah, I admire that [laughter].