Aaron Cometbus has been creating his zine, Cometbus, since 1981. He’s best known for his writing about punk rock—he was an early participant in the East Bay scene—and his hand-lettered text. Despite the conceptual proximity of zines and small press comics, Cometbus has never covered comics all that much or featured them. One exception was issue 39 from 1997, which was done completely by punk rock cartoonist Bobby Madness (and it was great—Madness hasn’t gotten the due he deserves).
What makes his latest issue unusual is that it’s all about comics. The subject is a series of 14 interviews with cartoonists and people in the comics world in New York City. Cometbus, who is originally from Berkeley, apparently lives in New York now and is evidently familiar with many of his interview subjects socially.
He writes, “If that word [cartoonists] causes you to feel uneasy, don’t count yourself out. Because I used to feel the same way myself.” He realizes this is a little strange—the zine world and the small press comics world are next-door neighbors, but he points out, “We define ourselves by what makes us different from our neighbors, who are similar in every way but one.”
Then he makes a point that I think is incorrect. “The people I ostensibly had more in common with—authors, publishers, artists, and musicians—stopped pursuing their creative work. […] Not so the cartoonists. In fact, the opposite was true. Nearly everyone I knew doggedly pursued their craft.” This is clearly a case of “survivorship bias.” The artists he interviews are ones who by some combination of doggedness and luck managed to stay in the field. The perfect example of a survivor is Kim Deitch, who is interviewed here. Deitch has never been a notably successful cartoonist in terms of popularity or sales, but he’s managed to stick with long after others would have quit. But if Cometbus had been into comics as long as I had, he would be able to name many cartoonists who produced great work but then more-or-less left the field behind. There are many reasons for leaving—some get married and had kids, or want to have an income that would allow them to buy a house, or they have serious (i.e., expensive) medical conditions. It may be as simple as the fact that almost any regular full-time job pays more than being a cartoonist. Or it may be the fact that being a cartoonist is a very lonely job.
This last point is really important to the interviews within. Cometbus has picked New York City, where there is a lively comics-making community that has survived despite dramatically rising rents which are driving artists out. The social structure of comics becomes a major topic of discussion. This is the value of having an outsider like Cometbus put something like this together. To people in the comics world, the comics scene may be invisible by virtue of it being the water in which we swim.
For instance, one of the interviewees is Robin Enrico. Until reading this interview, I had never heard of Enrico. In addition to being a cartoonist, he has organized Paper Jam, a series of small press festivals in Brooklyn, and has organized the Steve Ditko Zine Library at the Silent Barn. He explained he named the zine library after Ditko because “Ditko represents an exit strategy. That’s a possible future for some of us. I don’t even know how old he is, but he’s still doing work.” It’s these organizational activities that point to how a scene is sustained.
With Julia Wertz, she and Cometbus talk briefly about Pizza Island—an all-women shared studio situation that included Kate Beaton, Lisa Hanawalt and several others. It was born of necessity (each artist only had to pay $100 rent). Comics scholar/editor Bill Kartalopoulos talks about living in a big loft in Williamsburg for several years that became known as “Cartoon House” which he shared with a variety of cartoonists and where a cartoonist coming to town could crash. Cometbus says, “It felt like the scene’s dressing room.”
While most of the interviews are with cartoonists (like Gabrielle Bell, Gary Panter, Ben Katchor, Drew Friedman), several are with people whose connection to the local scene exists on other levels. In addition to Kartalopoulos, Cometbus talks to Columbia University librarian Karen Green (who has started a major comics collection at Columbia) and Gabe Fowler, proprietor of Desert Island, a comic shop in Williamsburg. In each case, there seem to be specific actions designed to foster community around this shared interest. Fowler says, “To me, a lot of the strongest people in indie history are people who didn’t just pursue their own interests. People trying to be involved in a community. … I’m into platform building. The commerce part comes dragging along behind that.” And with Fowler, it’s not just the shop, it’s his regular comics tabloid Smoke Signals and his comics festival, Comic Art Brooklyn.
That’s what I liked the most about Cometbus 57—it wasn’t just a bunch of cartoonists talking about themselves (although that is a big part of it). The interviews, by focusing so much on social elements of comics, create a picture of a local and highly connected world. In 1984, sociologist Howard S. Becker published a book called Art Worlds, where he demonstrated that art making was a social activity. It wasn’t about solitary artists working in a studio—without the person who formulates paint pigments for Winsor-Newton, the clerk at the art supply store, the assistant at the gallery, etc., art would be a different thing than it is.
I think that’s what you get in Cometbus 57—a glimpse into a “comics world” where the social relations are as important to making it work as are the individual cartoonists. Cometbus comes out of the punk rock world where the social aspect of the scene is much more obvious. But Aaron Cometbus performs a valuable service in bringing this aspect of comics-making to the surface in this series of interviews.