SPX 2015 Report: Horrocks and Cornellà

Frank Santoro here. SPX is like a "choose your own adventure" game show now. I was excited to finally meet Dylan Horrocks but I never even saw him or met him. I didn’t see Bill Griffith either. Or Joan Cornellà. Actually, I was at the Sunday night Fantagraphics dinner and Cornellà was there. However, he was sitting at the other end of the table so we never spoke. Oh well. Thankfully Comics Journal veteran cub reporter John Kelly did see these giants walkiong among us and managed to talk a little bit with Cornellà. John will also tell you all about Dylan Horrock’s spotlight panel, which I completely missed. You can also read his coverage of Bill Griffith's panel HERE.  I missed all the panels. It was a really hectic show. Didn’t see half of my friends or foes. I was too busy running my little sideshow circus out of my SPX booth. Did you know that I'm building a comic-book school in the house next door to mine? Yeah, it's wild. I'm gonna buy the house next door—and turn it into my schoolhouse. Check out the video HERE. Share it on Facebook HERE. We need more eyeballz than money right now. Please just watch the video or pass on the link. If you like my writings about comics or if anything I've ever done in comicsdom means anything to you---please, please, please pass on the word about the school. Thank you!

I'll have a proper Frank style SPX report soon enough. Until then here's John Kelly:

Dylan Horrocks and Joan Cornellà at SPX 2015 by John F. Kelly

New Zealand cartoonist Dylan Horrocks made the most of his first trip back to the U.S. in many years, stopping by the fabled Politics & Prose Bookstore for a talk and signing before hitting the 21st edition of SPX and moving to Desert Island Comics in Brooklyn, with stops in Boston, Chicago, the Center for Carton Studies in Vermont, and elsewhere, including the inaugural Cartoon Crossroads Columbus festival in Ohio last weekend. He is in the States promoting the soon-to-be-released Incomplete Works (Alternative Comics) and his recent graphic novel Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen (Fantagraphics), which he said came out of the frustration he felt after his a sting writing commercial comics, most notably Batgirl for DC.

“I’m really, really jet-lagged, so if I become utterly incoherent or fall over, just give me a nudge,” he told the SPX audience in a talk moderated by Bill Kartalopoulos. “It took 36 hours to fly here and I got in about a day and a half ago… Come to New Zealand next year. It’s a beautiful country.”

It was Horrocks' first SPX appearance since 1998, the year his breakthrough work Hicksville (Black Eye Comics, later reprinted by Drawn & Quarterly) was first published. In the 17 years since, much has changed in the comics industry and with Horrocks himself.

Kartalopoulos said that when Hicksville first came out it resonated with the comics community in part because it touched on a set of reference points the community shared at the time: “You could just sort of assume that everyone had read the Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Comics and was at least invested in the idea of Harvey Kurtzman," he said. "Everyone had been marginal for so long and had this kind of shared sense of aspiration for graphic novels and more serious narratives and more poetic narratives.”

Kartalopoulos wondered if someone coming to the book for the first time today would think, "Well, we already live in that world." "What do you feel about the position of Hicksville today?"

Horrocks replied, “Certainly the world of comics has changed unimaginably since 1998. [This year SPX] feels like not just a bigger festival—it’s a significantly bigger festival—but a completely different festival. There’s a few friends here in the audience who were here with me in 1998, so we’re still around, but there’s a whole 'other' comics. It’s kind of emerged around us, which feels quite detached from the world that we were in in ’98. It’s like a different world of comics, and it’s really a very exciting and beautiful world. There’s so many extraordinary things happening in comings right now and so many [people] making comics and reading comics who wouldn’t have been interested in it in 1998.”


In a 2010 essay on Hicksville for TCJ, Rob Clough wrote: “In a world where the comics industry and perhaps the form itself appeared to be dying, Horrocks imagined a world where cartoonists could have their dream projects preserved and treated as treasure. This has become our world now as comics readers, with multiple publishers releasing art-comics and providing many cartoonists a chance to make a living. Comics festivals have sprung up everywhere, celebrating local cartoonists and giving them a chance to connect. The rise of webcomics means that anyone can show their work to the world with great ease. The exchange of comics cultures between nations is at an all-time high, with European and Asian comics enjoying their greatest exposure in the US in years—and vice-versa.”

Five years later, that community has continued to evolve and a good part of Horrocks' talk focused on the changes he sees.

“I think that it’s fairly interesting that with the new explosion of comics that’s emerging, I feel that a lot of those comics are now being produced by people who hadn’t grown obsessively just looking at comics,” Horrocks said. “When I look at a lot of the graphic novels in the public library I’m often struck by how the same some of the stuff looks. But I think that maybe there was an explosion several years ago of completely new kinds of comics, going back to the time of people like Fort Thunder. I feel like there was a whole group of people coming in to comics as a form of art rather than purely telling narratives. It meant that you got a completely different feel and that all the conventions had disappeared. But maybe that was a transitional phase… The stuff that I’m thinking of what created by sort of art school refugees, using comics as an escape from the constraints of art school, but [who] actually did some of the most interesting art. Narrative was part of the product that they deployed, but not necessarily the purpose for them. But I think the graphic novel is really foregrounded in narrative, definitely.”

Horrocks said that when he was going through his most recent difficult period of producing new work, he was drawn to that more experimental work because it was “so different from the work that I had always done and it helped to free me from what my sense of what comics could be and I ended up doing something [Magic Pen] that was sort of so focused on narrative… so I kind of came full circle.”

Kartalopoulos: “I think that those two strains exist simultaneously, but the big difference is the more a book is narrative it has an easier path into bookstores and libraries and some of that other work you can get, but you have to go to some church basement in Brooklyn on the right day. Or you have to follow the right person on Tumblr and see what they spot, or they announce that they have 100 copies and you can get one right now on PayPal.”

Horrocks, who in 2001 wrote the memorable essay “Inventing Comics” about Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics for The Comics Journal, recalled meeting McCloud and Frank Miller that on his earlier U.S. visit.

“I remember Scott McCloud dragging Frank Miller over to our tiny little table and saying, ‘Here’s a book you need to have,’ and Frank said, ‘Oh, okay,’” said Horrocks, laughing. “And about a month later I got this email from Frank Miller saying, ‘I loved your book [Hicksville]' and I said, ‘Can you give me a quote for marketing it?’”

Miller complied.


Horrocks was just one of many international cartoonists at SPX this year. He was joined by the insanely popular internet celebrity—at least in comics terms—Joan Cornellà of Spain, who was making his first trip to the festival. I tried in vain to get an interview with Cornellà, but was turned down several times because, as he told me, he does not like doing interviews and felt he had said too much publicly of late.


“I would like to be the… Thomas Pynchon of comics,” he said, laughing, referring to the notoriously press-shy American novelist. And yet, here he was in the US, in Bethesda, Maryland, signing books for fans at the Fantagraphics table all day long on Saturday, among thousands of members of the comics community. When I asked him about the incongruity of the situation, Cornellà smiled lightly and shrugged.

In a 2013 interview that ran on the website missfiocchetti.com, Cornellà had this to say of interviews: "One day a guy wrote me a message on Facebook. He told me he was a fan interested to make an interview in a Starbucks. I acceded to met him and when I arrived there I found some kind of crazy ex convict trying to steal [sic] me with a fork."

While I would have loved to have spoken to him at length, and I had no plans to "steal him with a fork," Cornellà was very pleasant and we chatted off and on throughout the weekend. When he spotted a piece of paper I was carrying that had artwork by Drew Friedman on it, Cornellà asked me if I knew Friedman. I replied that I had known him for many years, had done a long interview with him for TCJ years ago, and had recently spent a day at Friedman’s house, interviewing him again.

“Tell him he’s my favorite cartoonist,” Cornellà said. “When I was just starting to draw comics I used to try and copy his work. I will show you next time.”

“You could have picked an easier artist to try and copy,” I said and he laughed. A search of some of Cornellà's "earlier" work, that is, some work done a couple of years ago for Spanish publications, including El Jueves, does display Friedman influence, as seen below.


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Other early work, seen below, shows off his admiration of Dan Clowes' strips from that same era.


Interestingly, Cornellà seems to be drawn to Friedman's work of the 1990s, including the work he was doing for Topps at that time, like the Toxic High bubblegum card series, rather that his earlier stipple style or current painting/portrait work. Friedman's Toxic High work was done under the direction of fellow cartoonist Mark Newgarden, who also appears to be an influence on Cornellà's current work.  In particular, Newgarden's Little Nun comics from the early 1990s, pantomime strips that were a stylistic synthesis of Otto Soglow's Little King and Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy, contain the same shock value done with deadpan technique that is found in Cornellà's current work.  Indeed, Cornellà's gag panel strip/painting below may be seen as a direct nod to Newgarden, whose 2006 collection of work was titled, We All Die Alone (Fantagraphics).  As does the "Big Nose" panel below it to anyone familiar with Newgarden's work.



Today, Cornellà's six-panel, wordless strips are painted with watercolor or acrylics and are also reminiscent of the minimalism of Bushmiller, an artist who, in the words of Nancy historian Newgarden, "'dumbed down' his gags to the barest essentials, resulting in a strikingly austere visual language." In a way, Cornellà's work is like Bushmiller's--if Bushmiller was rude and worked in six-panel pantomime, as he is and does in this often bootlegged strip from 1961 below:


Cornellà spoke at SPX, as part of a panel entitled "European Comics and the Absurd", moderated (again) by Bill Kartalopoulos. Joining him were Bendik Kaltenborn of Norway and Belgium’s Brecht Vandenbroucke, an artist he has collaborated with in the past and who he says has influenced his work.

“I started doing this type of work after I saw Brecht’s work,” Cornellà said, referring his humorous and often surreal painted pantomime strips. “I decided to paint my own work. Before that I used to my comics, I think it was influenced by Crumb and Clowes but then I decided to destroy this early stuff and I started doing [comics] with no words, trying to have a [bigger] audience, posting my stuff on more public places [on the internet]. I think I [have been] influenced by Brecht’s work but I think mine is more about death and about making jokes. Brecht’s work is, maybe more serious. It’s more about politics.”

Kartalopoulos: “I think [your work] is really more of a joke, like you said, about life and death and human passion and desires and kind of embarrassment… giving human animals the illusion that we’re not just skins full of puke and blood and things like that. Somehow.”

“I like the way you say it,” Cornellà laughed.

Cornellà, who was born in 1981, said that while growing up in Spain he was drawn to the to alternative American comics like those by Crumb and Clowes, which by the 1990s were easily available to him.

“I grew up around those kinds of comics, so it was quite easy to collect openly,” he said. “Most of the Fantagraphics kind of stuff was translated by that time.”


Kartalopoulos then put up on the overhead screen in the auditorium a comic by Cornellà in which a man in a pink outfit shoots an elderly woman in the head and then applies blackface to her corpse. A policeman discovers the body, handcuffs the woman, and in the final panel is joined with the killer in a “happy moment.” Kartalopoulos pointed out that given recent current events in the U.S. the strip could certainly be read as political.

“Yeah, but when I did this comic—I am still doing these comics—I wasn’t aware that it has a huge political charge. I was interested in just making a joke and make people laugh. That’s all. But then what makes me laugh is always about this kind of dark humor… I don’t have a political agenda....[And] personally I'm not trying to offend anyone."

While he has done some illustration work for print publications such as the ones shown above, he says he is planning to stick with his own work for now.  He did two illustrations for The New York Times last year, one of which was accepted--the one below was to illustrate the current New York City subway crisis of "manspreading"--and the other one rejected.


"One was published, the other one was totally a mess," he said of his work for the Times.  "They didn't like what I had sent, and I think it's because I'm not good at it. I don't know how to transform ideas from others to good illustrations, and I prefer to do my own stuff." While his work is widely available on the internet, as well as in his two color books, Mox Nox (Fantagraphics) and Zonzo (Fail Better Press), he still finds that his audience expects him to create a certain "type" of work. His work often crosses the boundary of what may be considered "good taste," and can be offensive to some. A Google image search of Cornellà's art brings up the following categories: Comics, Real Life, Artist, Face, Jesus and Bathroom.

"I am always working for others... I have a public, too," he said, referring to his online fans. "You have your own personal work, but you have to deal with some public. So it's not your stuff. It's always a fight... I think it's a bit funny to have these people trying to tell you what to do. I tend to do not what they want. Maybe for those people who [do not] have humor, then maybe it's just not for them."

Regardless of who the work is created for, an awful lot of people are interested in Cornellà's comics. He has more than 2.5 million followers on Facebook, 214,000 fans on Twitter, and many more social media fans on various platforms such as Tumblr. I don't know what his audience demographics are, but I do know that as a 51-year-old who has been reading comics steadily since the age of three, I like his work quite a bit. So does my 16-year-old son, who has never read a comic in his life. Why does my son--and his friends--enjoy Cornellà's work? "Because it's fucked up."