Joost Swarte: Scratching The Surface


The 2016 Frankfurt Book Fair will be hosting Flanders and The Netherlands as its Guests Of Honour. For the occasion, Dutch comics legend Joost Swarte has put together his first magazine in over 40 years. With an eye towards giving the best talent from these regions more exposure worldwide, Scratches will be published in English and also feature a host of heavyweight international friends along with a new Jopo de Pojo story from Swarte himself. From Holland there’s the dreamlike geometry of Wasco’s wondrous worlds, Aart Taminiau’s lovely pen and inked juxtaposition of late afternoon teenage boredom with a maestro’s success at an evening theater performance, and Milan Hulsing’s spacey tale of fictional early electronic music pioneer, Earl Blanchard. Representing the Flemish are dazzling dances from Brecht Evens with all the color and panache we’ve come to expect from him, a scene of strange sweetness from Charlotte DuMortier that keeps on revealing more and more to the eye, leaving one unsettled and looping back to the beginning, and Kristina Tzekova’s hypnotic stills of a deer in the waves, a strip beloved by Swarte. There is much more talent from these countries and other European nations within Scratches’ pages, as well as contributions from Robert and Aline Crumb, a back cover by Chris Ware, first and final stories by Art Spiegelman, and another tale from David B’s esoteric library. To round things off, Swarte has modern artists write about the little known but important work of such luminaries as Mark Smeets, Manolo Prieto, and Franz Masereel. After hearing of the project at this year’s Stripdagen Festival in Haarlem, Aug Stone spoke with Joost Swarte about all that went in to the making of the new magazine.

AUG STONE: Where did the idea for Scratches come from?

JOOST SWARTE: Well… (laughs) I must dig in my memories. I always have liked the idea of doing a magazine again. I started Modern Papier when I was 22. It was my first magazine, a small underground publication. We did a print run of about 1000-1500. Artist friends joined in, Peter Pontiac and people from the Dutch underground who were involved with the magazine Tante Leny Presenteert. And then in 1973 there was a publisher who wanted to reach a younger audience so I proposed to make Cocktail Comics, a magazine presenting the new generation of Dutch comics artists. It wasn’t too much of a commercial success although all the artists were paid a professional rate and that was already far better than with the smaller underground publications. And we had the same freedom as with the underground publications, so that was quite good. But then I got a lot of attention from friends and publishers to publish my work so I left the whole magazine idea aside. Until two years ago, when the new publishing house Scratch was founded in Amsterdam and they asked me to be an advisor.

At about the same time I heard of the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is the biggest in the world. The guests of honour at their 2016 Fair are the Low Countries, Holland and the Belgians, with whom we share our language. And I thought it’s a good idea to not only present the literature of our countries at the Book Fair but also the comics. So I started to talk with people from the literary funds in Holland and in Flanders. And they got interested and supported this idea. That was the start of the magazine. It’s intended to give an international podium to Dutch and Flemish comics artists. We’re doing it in English with the hope that they will also have future publishers abroad.

STONE: How did you find the process of putting it all together this time?

SWARTE: That was great. Of course I’ve always been interested in what’s new in the field of comics. Wherever I go - whether it be in Angoulême, or MOCA in New York, or in Luzern at the Fumetto Festival, wherever - I’m always looking for what’s new. I want to be intrigued, my curiosity needs to be filled in. I have a lot of new publications here in my house. I decided Scratches would be one-third Flemish, one-third Dutch, and one-third international, with known friends but also new artists. I like this mix of arrivées and new talent. I saw a lot of new material and I remembered especially this yellow, pictogram style comic by Veiko Tammjärv. I had seen it once in a yearbook of Finnish comics but never broadly presented anywhere else. And I was so impressed by it I thought ‘I need to have this one in Scratches’.

I have an assistant, Seb Ikso, here in my studio. He is a young comics artist recently graduated from the arts school in Rotterdam. Seb knows everything of what’s going on, what’s new. And he looks at it from another perspective. It’s very good to have somebody else with whom I can discuss these things.

Of course I tried to have the best from Holland and Belgium. In this first issue, part of my criteria was ‘who has potential for having their work published in other countries?’ On the other hand, I know for instance that Typex is busy on a huge project, a comic of the life of Andy Warhol, 560 pages, so I wouldn’t bother him until he is almost finished with that. Then there is Erik Kriek who recently came out with beautiful material. But I thought things that have gotten a lot of attention recently can go on their own strength, and they are already published in other countries. So it would be interesting to get artists in who are partly new for my audience, so that I can surprise people.

screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-9-47-20-pmSTONE: Tell me a little about the new artists that you feature.

SWARTE: I was very much impressed by a girl who lives in Liège, Belgium - Kristina Tzekova. She drew stills from a movie of a deer on the seaside jumping in the waves, and it’s an incredible piece. With her other comics too, she has a very feminine approach to the stories that she’s telling. She does them without words, it’s more about gestures etc. When I saw her material she told me about this recent thing that wasn’t published yet anywhere. At first I didn’t know exactly what to think of it because it seems that all the pictures over the six pages look alike. But if you go through it they start to work like a movie. This is a procedure that she does often. I know the movie that this is taken from and the drawn version is much better than the movie because she positions the deer always in the center of the drawing so if you concentrate it really comes alive and has a sort of Zen kind of appeal. That I like very much.

Another thing I very much like to present in the magazine is people in the comics field writing about others who are either in the comics field or just outside in the margins, but people who are very very important in my opinion. There are so many of these sort of artists. Frans Masereel couldn’t be missed here in the first issue. He is very important and I was very happy to be able to present some of his strongest works and to have an introduction by Toon Horsten. Toon Horsten is the man behind the magazine Stripgids, a Belgian magazine/fanzine that gives information about comics. He’s very knowledgeable and wrote a beautiful introduction. And then I have two more articles written by comic artists because I like the idea of artists discussing works by fellow artists rather than from an art historian point of view. So I asked Max to do something on Manolo Prieto. Prieto was a graphic artist in the 40s in Spain who did a lot of book covers for cheap novels. His artwork is due to the limitations of the printing process at the time. Graphically it’s so very strong that I couldn’t miss him. I think for young artists that are fond of what’s happening now and who love the Nobrow style of work, Manolo Prieto will be a great discovery for them. And then we have Mark Smeets, the Dutch artist who died in 1999. Mark Smeets was always one of the best artists in the Tante Leny Presenteert group. He was the best of us all, but he never made an entire comics story. Kramer’s Ergot and published some of his drawings with an introduction by Chris Ware, who is a great fan of Mark Smeets. Smeets was impressed by the imagination that comes loose with comic art and he made sketchbooks full of it. There is now a group of people in Amsterdam that are making files of all these old sketchbooks and through them we have all this beautiful Mark Smeets stuff. So I thought now with all the material available it would be nice to have him too in it. I asked the founder of the underground magazine Tante Leny Presenteert, Evert Geradts, to write his memories of friend and fellow artist Mark Smeets.

screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-9-47-55-pmSTONE: What did Crumb and David B. and Spiegelman have to say when you approached them to be in Scratches?

SWARTE: They loved the idea that I started a magazine! When we meet we always talk about our profession and what’s new etc. I recently wrote an article for Robert and Aline’s exhibition at the Cartoonmuseum in Basel. I wrote about the period that they started to draw, and what surroundings, what the world was like when they started their comics. When I visited them this summer, Robert showed me pages that were made for a non-comic magazine in France. Probably not many people would know of these and he was willing to put them in Scratches so I’m very happy about that. What I think is interesting in the work of Robert and Aline is the atmosphere in their comics, that the comics grow old with the artists. It’s not too often that happens. They grow older and the subjects they treat in their comics grow older as well.

David B. and I spent some time together when we were both invited for the comic festival in Buenos Aires three years ago. Since then we have kept in contact and I love his work. He was happy to participate. As was Chris Ware who made a fantastic page that was partly shown in an American newspaper. But I’m very happy that now for the comic field we will preserve it on the back of our magazine.

STONE: Tell me about your own strip in Scratches.

SWARTE: My wife said to me ‘I always loved Jopo, please bring him alive again’ and I thought that’s a good idea. The title of the strip is ‘Where Destiny Leads Me’, which is sort of Jopo’s motto. So I studied a scenario about the negative connotations of adopting this attitude in your life. It’s not parallel to my own life but I can imagine how destiny can lead you to situations that you don’t want.

It was fun to draw Jopo again. This springtime I was invited to be artist-in-residence at the comic festival in Luzern. They asked me to be at this hotel for about two weeks. So I decided to show on camera how I make my comic pages from the early pencil sketches up to the colored final. I sat in a drawing booth that I designed myself, with a camera above the table. Which means I did one page in 20 hours and it’s all recorded. During the festival the making of this comic was seen in time-lapse in an exhibition. It was fun to do. When I started it, I thought it would probably be like being a monkey in the zoo. The people come around and see what you’re doing but in fact people showed very much respect and they let me do my job. And in 20 hours it was finished. We haven’t shown it yet but that’ probably a future project.

STONE: What else are you working on at the moment?

SWARTE: The most important thing is probably a collection of all the artwork that I did for The New Yorker. That’s about 50 colored illustrations and maybe more than 100 black and whites. And I want to include in the book many of the sketches that didn’t make it. If I’m asked to illustrate an article, I read it and make small synopses in drawing form from different points of views. I communicate these early sketches with The New Yorker and they choose one. But the other ones that were not used often have an interesting approach to the subject and I think it would be nice to show them in the book as well. It will be about 120 pages, I would guess. The idea is to have it published come springtime.

I was also commissioned to make a children’s book. Next year is the 100th anniversary of The Style Movement (‘De Stijl’) which was a very important artistic movement not only in Holland but also internationally. It was a mix of avant-garde artists who wanted to have a sort of non-personal art. My idea for this book is to do an adventure with a cat as the main character passing from studio to studio, from atelier to atelier, visiting all these artists who were part of this movement. But I need to explain and talk about this complicated art movement in a way that everybody, children included, can understand. So it’s a crazy project and will probably be finished next spring too.

STONE: Are there plans for the next issue of Scratches?

SWARTE: The idea is to publish Scratches each year. The advantage of once a year is that you don’t double too much and you can surprise people with high quality stuff. So that’s the idea, to come every year. And for how long a time, you never know…(laughs)