The following conversation was conducted at Inkwell’s End, Guelph, Ontario, on August 25, 2018 by Dominick Grace and Eric Hoffman. It has been edited by Dominick Grace, Eric Hoffman, and Seth.
Dom: Congratulations on the completion of Clyde Fans.
Seth: Thank you. The book is at the publishers, and they are doing all of the post-production work. They’re still scanning pages, still making corrections.
Dom: I know when we last spoke (in 2014; published in Seth Conversations [University Press of Mississippi, 2015]) you were talking about perhaps doing some revisions?
Yes, there are a fair number of revisions, but they are not the kind of revisions that people will immediately notice. I didn’t rewrite huge sections of the book, not a tremendous amount of re-drawing either. The changes occur mostly in Part Three—that’s where I really fiddled around. In Part One, I mostly corrected the color—trying to fix up how I applied the blue and grey tones back then to make them jibe a little better with the later work—but not dramatically, just attempting to make the book look more consistent. In Part Two, there were a few sequences that got fixed up, not much, but in Part Three, there were major changes. I cut pages apart, or I added in pages or fixed storytelling that was awkward. The main thing that I changed—the section I was waiting for years to change— was the sequence I did of Simon talking to his toys. This was a sequence I always hated, and I always thought it came off really corny. And it bothered me. Almost the moment it went into print I knew it was bad. I rewrote that sequence many times over the years to fix up the awful dialogue but it was always unsatisfying, and then finally about a year ago, I got what I think was an inspired idea, which is I took all of the toy’s dialogue out of the story. So, Simon’s talking, and there are only empty word balloons responding. A simple solution but it solved the problem of the corniness of that exchange. That sequence had come off like a bad horror movie sequence or something. It was crummy. Now I feel so much better about it. Thank God I finally figured out how to handle it in time for the collection. I had thought, this scene is a stubbed toe —but now it ties in much better with a couple of other oddball sequences in the book. It feels right. I’m very pleased about that.
Dom: That’s interesting because one of the things that I noticed when re-reading Fans was that it had felt like the style had changed a lot more than it really does. There’s actually a much more consistent feel to it then I previously noticed.
Dom: But especially with regards to Simon, it was deeply creepy. I want to say not like a bad horror movie, but it had that kind of a Twin Peaks vibe to it.
Well, I kind of went for a weird vibe with that, and, as so often happens when you go for a weird vibe it ends up as an obvious vibe. And that was the key problem for me, as I said, this feels like somebody trying to create something weird, rather than maybe having the proper emotional tone naturally come out in the storytelling. Overall, I hope the middle chapter will still have a slightly otherworldly feel to it, but I pray it won’t have the clichéd element to it that it had when I first put some of it down on paper. I’ll leave that for you to decide when you see it. Sometimes cartoonists will correct things in their work—I’ve encountered this myself as a reader, where I’ve read other people’s work, and then they’d fixed it up and of course, the cartoonist thinks it’s much better, and you’re like, “oh, you kind of wrecked that.” So, you never know. Maybe I’ve made a mistake fixing anything.
Dom: The second thought isn’t always the best thought.
Do you remember Jaime Hernandez’s story “Hundred Rooms” back in the early days of Love and Rockets? It’s about issue five, or something. It’s a big long story where Maggie and Hopey go and stay in Costigan’s mansion and there’s a big party. I thought this was a very great story at the time. When Fantagraphics started reprinting the work in the very first collections, Jaime fixed that story up and added about five pages and changed this and that. I remember even then I thought, “he flubbed it.” He was trying to clear up some plot point but something delicate disappeared in the correction. I preferred the original. So you never know how people are going to respond to changes. But of course you’ve got to go with your gut.
Eric: The tone for that scene with the dolls did seem a little jarring, though not necessarily in a bad way. It did seem a little out of place when viewed in context with the rest of the work.
I’d been waiting so long to get to that scene when I was drawing the story, I was very anxious. I thought, “Oh boy, when I get to that scene, I’m really going to love that scene.” And then almost immediately after it was published, I was like, “Eh, didn’t work.”
Eric: I think withholding the dialogue might make the scene even creepier.
I think so. I think it makes it that much more obvious that it is an interior dialogue that’s going on. Not something supernatural. And I dialed back a lot of what was being said there. It seemed too obvious or trite…even dumb. So it’s iffier now—less clear what exactly is being said—because we’re only getting Simon’s responses.
Eric: Right. Did you change his dialogue at all?
Yes. Simplified his responses. Made them less specific, but enough dialogue happens that you can guess at what’s being said without it being too clear.
Dom: While we’re on the toys specifically, the one toy, the one with the black nose… Talk about creepy. Is that based on a real toy or is that something you yourself designed?
It’s funny you mention that, I changed that element, too. That toy was based on a Halloween decoration. Very loosely based. It’s funny, when I was working on the book, I missed an obvious point there, that Halloween toy is clearly a black racial figure. I’d incorporated that element without fully realizing it and the moment it hit me I knew I had to make that point clearer so I went in and fixed that up in the artwork. It’s totally obvious now. And it needed to be because it reinforces a point I was pushing earlier in the story when Simon purchases the little “pickaninny” doll he’s from the traveling salesman Whitey. I mean, this was an obvious connection and I flubbed it. I looked at those pages and was like, why did I not do that clearly? Somewhere in my subconscious I was connecting it with that other doll anyway, but I had not made it obvious enough that even I knew what I was doing. Now maybe I’ve gone too obvious, but those racist images aren’t in the book by accident and I’m glad I’ve thought this through fully now and that I know why they are in there. I’m often called a nostalgist but I’m aware of the racism and misogyny of that white man’s world I’m portraying. I don’t want some golden fog of the past.
And since Clyde Fans has a strong main thread about the disappointments of progress, it was important that the closed world of these brothers not be a cozy retreat from reality -- not allow any simple ideas about the world being better in 1957. Why is it that Simon goes back to his room with the racist toy instead of any of the other cheap novelties Whitey was peddling? Because the vulgar toys are a symbol of emasculation, humiliation, servitude and the loss of human dignity, something Simon is allowing to happen to himself but is also complicit in.
Dom: But the original was based on something you’d seen?
Yes, I looked at a lot of books on old Halloween decorations and this image came out of that process.
Eric: So it’s supposed to be a minstrel doll?
Yes. It’s supposed to be a minstrel figure. Or I should say, my original image for the doll comes from the tradition of minstrel imagery. Like a lot of pop culture images do.
Eric: That’s funny; I didn’t pick up on that.
Dom: As soon as you mention that, it’s kind of obvious.
Eric: Yes, it is.
It’ll be even more obvious now. It just needed a couple of easy corrections—the obvious stereotypical elements. No one will miss the point, trust me.
Eric: Will it be two books in a slipcase?
No, one book in a slipcase.
Eric: Because in our previous interview with you, we spoke with you about this and you were sort of on the fence about the format.
Well, a couple of things made that decision clear. And the biggest thing would be the changing of the company from Chris Oliveros to Peggy and Tom. Originally, Chris Oliveros was still considering that perhaps we could do a second book and then maybe we would put them together into a slipcase or something. I’m not sure I ever even discussed this with Peggy, but when the regime changed I think it was simply understood by everyone, including myself, that that old idea made no sense whatsoever. The collection would be one book. I mean, let’s be realistic—this is a book where the primary audience will never have even heard of Clyde Fans: Book One [published in 2004 and now long out of print—DG and EH].
It doesn’t make sense after ten years or more to bother with that old format. In an ideal world, maybe I would have followed through with book two. On some level it would have been nice to do a second volume that matched the first, but I don’t think I even broached the idea. A single volume containing the whole thing just seemed logical.
Eric: Abe was on the cover of the first collection, and Simon was to have been on the second.
Originally, that was the way it was going to be, and that would have been nice. I still would have liked to have done that—it hurts to leave that design idea unfinished. But realistically I knew everyone was leaning toward a single volume, just because it makes financial sense, it would sell better, and the new audience is going to wonder why there are two books. I mean, we’d probably have had to reprint volume one just to make that plan work. It just makes sense to put out one single nice fat volume. So that’s the way it’s going to be. And to be honest, I’m glad.
Dom: Do you know when it will be out roughly?
I think in the spring, 2019. It certainly feels like the end of a phase of my career, that’s for sure. I feel very much like I’m dividing my life right now. Clyde Fans and then everything after.
Dom: I guess you’ve spent close to half your life serializing it.
Oh, for sure. It’s been twenty years, I think. It was started in ’97 and I finished it in 2017, so… It’s funny, twenty years sounds like a long time when you’re young. But when you’re older, it’s like, “ah twenty years, I barely noticed those twenty years passing.” 1997 still feels like six years ago to me. Somebody’ll say, “Oh that was ages ago, back in 2008” or something and I’m like, “what, 2008? That’s not a long time ago.” But with young people… You meet a young person who’s 22, and you talk about 2005, that’s a lifetime ago. 2005 feels like just the other day to me.
Dom: I still think of stuff from the ‘90s as new.
Oh yes, me too. I don’t know any of the music from the ‘90s because it was too new. My wife talks about music in the ‘90s when we’re in the car listening to the old folks’ channel, something comes on from the ‘90s and I’m like, “what’s this?” I stopped listening to contemporary music sometime in the late ‘80s. Everything from the ‘90s sounds too new to me. When I say “modern music” I’m talking about the 1990’s. That stuff is already on the oldies channel!!
I’m really out of step with the culture, but, even so, there are the odd things that creep into my consciousness. Right now I’ve hit a technology gap. For years, I could always watch anything on a DVD, but now because I’m not streaming or on Netflix or whatever, I have no way to see a contemporary film if it’s not in the movie theaters nearby. I need to make the technological jump to some other system and yet I can’t dredge up the interest to bother figuring it out. They simply don’t make a DVD of anything anymore. And you can’t rent anything any longer either. All the video stores are gone. There was a time, even ten years ago, where I would go down to the video store, and we had a very good video store here in Guelph, and you’d be like, “okay, here’s a modern film. this looks interesting.” Now I’m out of the loop. Entirely.
Eric: Speaking of technologies fading away, and recognizing that you’ve told this story many times before, it perhaps bears repeating: why fans?
It’s simply that there was a real Clyde Fans. It was a storefront at King and Sherbourne in Toronto. In fact, the building is still there. It’s a clothing store now. For a long time it was a gallery and still had the words “Clyde Fans” on the front. Sadly, they’ve scrapped the old hand painted lettering off now and not a scrap of evidence remains to show the old fan business was ever there. So yes, it was an old storefront and it looked exactly like the storefront that I draw in the comic.
I’ve told this story many times. I passed by it all the time in those days. It was already pretty much of out-of-business when I first noticed it. I would look in the window, into the dark office— very much like the office in the story—and on the back wall were two photographs, as I have in the book, of two men that, in my memory, looked much like the brothers I ended up creating, although to be honest I can’t really remember what they looked like now, it’s been so many years since I last saw those dim photographs. But yes, there were two men and I often thought, “who were these guys? What were their lives about?” and that simply was the origin of where Clyde Fans came from. I had no particular interest in fans, and in fact actually at first I was going to change the name because I thought, "Oh, well maybe I shouldn’t use the name of the actual business—the real place.” I was going to call it Boyd Fans I think, but then I was like, "Oh, who cares? Nobody's going to know about this or anything. It's in a comic book. No one connected to that old store will ever see this comic story.”…and you know what—I guess that nobody ever has because I’ve never heard a word from anyone connected to the real Clyde Fans business. This is the funny part about it all: I mean, imagine if your father had a fan business and it was called Clyde Fans, or your grandfather. Wouldn't you have Googled it by now to see if there was anything on the internet about it, and wouldn't you be surprised if there were hundreds of references to some comic book called Clyde Fans? After you looked into it and saw that the comic was clearly based on your father's store, wouldn't you contact the guy who's doing this book? I have never heard a thing from anyone. I find that downright odd. So, what does that say to me? It says that there's no family left. It didn't carry on beyond these fellows. Maybe they died bachelors, I don't know, or maybe the last family members are too old to be internet-savvy. Or maybe they are just not the type to reach out and contact. It strikes me as strange though. I would have thought for sure by now somebody would have said, "Hey, that was my uncle's store," or something of the sort. For example, I’ve run into people ... there's a guy I see every year at TCAF [Toronto Comics Art Festival] who comes up to me every year and talks to me about how I drew his dad's antique store in It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken. For the first few years I was like, "Oh, yeah, yeah, you," but now when I see him coming I'm like, "It's the guy whose dad owned the antique store." So it's funny that, yeah, the only reference to Clyde Fans on Google is pretty much my book. You can't even find much of anything there about the real fans themselves. And, of course, there are real electric Clyde Fans. I’ve got a huge Clyde fan sitting out there in the porch. They exist. If you look around you can still find them occasionally. They've got little metal tags on them with the company name. They weren't a huge manufacturer, but I'm literally surprised that there is such a pittance of information about them online.
Eric: But the idea was to center it on a fading technology.
Exactly. I was—
Eric: That was the central impulse—
Yes, the metaphor that drew me to it. At that point in time I was probably still formulating a lot of my feelings and opinions about all the change that was occurring in the culture.
Eric: Because technology is something that changes so rapidly, especially in the 20th century.
The funny thing is—well, yes, I obviously I was trying to make some kind of a direct overt commentary about changing times and technology in those first issues of Clyde Fans, but in retrospect, I look back and I laugh at how completely computer illiterate I was at that point. I'd never even been on a computer then—never even moved a mouse. I don’t think I sat down in front of a computer until sometime around 2002 maybe. So in the early section where Abe is talking about technology changing, that's mostly just reflecting my antagonism towards the computer technology I was feeling at the time but without any real understanding of it whatsoever. Just sensing it encroaching into my life and dreading the change it was bringing to the world. Essentially, I think all the technological change I'd experienced before that was somewhat gradual—relatively unnoticed. A technological change that one accepts without thinking because one is used to a kind of step by step progress. You know, we all saw televisions go from black and white to color, records to cassettes, incremental changes ... I remember my brother in law having a home computer in the '80s and it made no impression on me whatsoever. He was like, "You want to look at my home computer?" And I remember thinking nothing of it. It wasn’t any different than when he showed me his de-humidifier. I'm like, "Yeah, whatever.” I did not recognize what was coming at all.
Dom: I remember the first time I saw one, I thought, "who would want this?"
That was what I was thinking. I recall asking, "What is it for?" But by the time I was writing Clyde Fans I was definitely thinking about the effects of big cultural change and getting kind of frightened by it. I was seeing it firsthand in my work as a commercial artist. That field was changing. Suddenly artwork was being scanned rather than being sent physically to the printer. The technology wasn't so good in the first couple of years too. So a lot of the early reproductions in the magazines were really quite crappy. The color trueness was really off when they'd scan from a watercolor painting, and the pixelization was really apparent in the early years, and I was thinking to myself, “this is a definitely step down.” It didn’t even seem like progress. I was irritated that I was being dragged into a world that I had no interest in. I sensed that soon I might be forced to learn a bunch of technological skills that were anathema to me. Although now, here we are 20 years later I will freely admit the technology has revolutionized things, and the printing today is much superior to what I was used to back then in the 90s. It's incredible the quality—the reasonably priced quality you can get because of—
Eric: So you spoke too soon?
Exactly. In some ways, although in other ways I’ve stubbornly stuck to my guns. I'm still with Abe in his basic ... the basic point he puts forward in the first chapter. That you can get rolled over by technology. I feel right now I am being rolled over by technology—social media, the internet, the nature of how human interaction is changing. I’m feeling like I’m a pin in a bowling alley. It's incredible how much change has occurred in the last ten years, and that I'm not ready for it. I'm sure you guys must feel it as well.
Dom: The only social media I'm on is Facebook.
But you must be aware the dialogue that's going on online. The way people ... it's like… how do people relate to each other?
Dom: Trolling each other, yeah, it's not been good for civil discourse, that's for sure.
I think we're living in an odd period. We're living in this period that they'll probably look back on in the same manner as the Wild West where they'll say, “Man, that was a confused period." Something or other will undoubtedly change in the next twenty years that will sort out this mess. It’s got to change. This can't be the way it's always going to be from now on.
Eric: I hope so.
It's leading to societal chaos, I think. In the future they'll look back on all this and say, "These were the years before we figured out A, B, and C," because right now I think ... I just don't see this as culturally sustainable. We are in trouble.
Dom: Well yes, it's in theory democratic access to information. You'd think it'd be a good thing.
It should be.
Dom: But the most insidious thing that it's led to is the annihilation of the concept of truth.
That's one thing I've been thinking about and of course following so closely what's going on with Trump.
Eric: Giuliani's recent statement, for example.
Dom: Truth isn't truth.
Yeah. It’s interesting how quickly we absorb each day’s chaos and then move on to the next. It seems to me that what's happening here is a complete breakdown in all the societal norms that keep our societies running smoothly. You've got people now who are saying things like, "Who cares if ... these crimes don't matter." It's like, now we'll admit they're crimes, but—
Dom: They're irrelevant ones.
They're irrelevant ones. That's a big shift from ... you couldn't have had that without this dividing line of alternate media where people are only believing one thing or the other and there are no longer the old gate keepers that set the standard of what truth is. Now you could make good arguments that that was a bullshit system too, and that you couldn't necessarily ... that when you look through the history of 20th century government and media that people were being lied to consistently and facts were hidden and etc., etc., etc., but it did mean you had a common ground of information. Now, it's like you can't even talk to each other because it’s a matter of you've got your talking point and I've got my talking points and they have nothing to do with each other.
Eric: There doesn't seem to be a consensus reality anymore.
That's problematic, and the more people dialogue exclusively through digital means, the less likely they are to be reasonable about it—to even consider meeting in the middle.
Dom: Yes, because no one's close enough to punch you in the nose for saying something really nasty.
True, in regular life you wouldn't be so nasty. If I was talking ... I went out to lunch recently with an acquaintance I hadn't seen in ten years and when we began talking I started in with my anti-Trump talk and then suddenly I realized he's a Trump supporter, and I was like, "Oh, I didn't expect that," but I didn't say to him, "Fuck you." I was polite and accommodating— like, I was surprised, disappointed, even a bit disgusted. It wasn’t entirely out of character but still—supporting Donald Trump!! But whatever ... we had a conversation about it and at a certain point it was obvious we simply came to a wordless decision not to talk about it any more.
Dom: We'll agree to disagree.
Exactly. So in effect, I was being more reasonable towards Donald Trump and he was lessening his active support. We could meet in the middle with, "Well, I can see your point, but," and then we moved on to other topics, and I thought this is the way people used to behave because they had to. But online you're like, "Fuck you and fuck your children, and I hope you die of a horrible cancer," and this is not how people should talk to each other.
Dom: No, it's toxic.
So we shall see what happens, but anyhow, enough of Donald Trump. My life doesn't revolve around Donald Trump.
Dom: We can leave this out of the transcription if you want.
I don't care. I'm fine with it, but my poor wife— she's like, "I've heard enough about Donald Trump for two lifetimes."
Eric: When I crossed over the border I felt an enormous weight had been lifted.
Ha-ha. It’s interesting because I was never much interested in American politics before. I couldn't tell you much of anything that went on during the Obama years. All that mattered to me was everything seems fine. So it's like I'm not ... I wasn't checking in on Obama every day. Not at all, and in fact, I'm not checking in on Canadian politics every day. I get the basic news from the printed newspaper in the morning and that's enough. I don't need any more than that. Even when the guy I dislike, like Doug Ford here in Ontario, I'm not obsessively following what Doug Ford's up to. Somehow it's very different with what's going on with Donald Trump.
Eric: Very different.
I'm not following Brexit every day. There's a cultural breakdown of norms that's going on that's very unique here, and we're living through interesting times.
Eric: That's the Jewish curse.
Yes, exactly. Here is one thing that Trump will be happy about— in the future when they talk about American presidents he’ll be right on the tip of everyone’s tongue. The big names, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR, JFK, Nixon, and Donald Trump. He will be one of the presidents that is talked about forever. He won't be up on Mount Rushmore, but he will be ... people will be like, "Name a president." He'll be among the first few people named for 100 years. Longer even. Anyhow, back to comics.
Dom: You were saying a few minutes ago, this is a question we had coming up anyway, but since you mentioned how you’d been looking forward for a long time to getting to the point where you would be doing the toys sequence, that fits with my impression when I was rereading it as a completed work that despite the length of time the serialization took, it feels like it was very carefully planned.
It was, although there's two sides to that answer. It was very carefully planned, but it was not written in advance. So just about every single thing that happens in the book was planned back in '97. Every scene basically, although vaguely. So I knew, back then, that in the final chapter, for example, after his vision concludes there would be a silent sequence where he walks to the train station, and then I could see I wanted to have a long sequence of the train and then back in Toronto, all the way back to the house.
I didn't have any ... I hadn't given it any real thought to the very images themselves or how the pages broke down. I just knew that would happen and when I got to that point in the story I was ready to execute it. I knew the arc of the scenes for every section, but I didn't bother to write anything beyond copious notes because I knew that it would be far too boring a process to write a script and then draw it over a long period of time. Even when I initially came up with the idea of the book and I planned that Clyde Fans would take about five years to do, I still was like, that will be far too boring for five years work. So, of course, I plotted it all out in point form and then spontaneously write each section as I went along because that in that way it was easy to my interest alive. Ultimately, I’m glad I did it that way too because after such a very long time you change—I mean, you yourself change, the way you think changes. Probably if I had actually written it all out as a script I’d have had to rewrite it every few years. I mean, the story itself wouldn’t have changed but the subtleties of how I wanted to get those scenes across would have evolved. That’s the irony of the book. The story evolved over time…and yet it remained essentially exactly as I planned it.
Dom: That's where I was coming from with that. It took twenty years, but it doesn't feel like the point of view or the ethos or the informing ideas change over that time, and you do see that sometimes with serialization where someone clearly changed their conception. From an artistic point, there must be an interesting and challenging aspect to doing that.
It’s funny. I wasn't trying in any way to keep any dogmatic consistency, but I think it might just speak more to the fact that I've had a consistent set of interests over all those years. Certain things have changed, of course, in that time and perhaps say, how I might pace a story has changed, but the underlying tone of what I was doing hasn't really changed much in twenty years. I’ve been on a very consistent thread of thought for decades. It narrows or widens, but I think a certain way. Even the work I'm doing today, I can see that I might have still been attracted, back in ’97, to the story I'm writing at this moment for my next book. What might have changed is my understanding of why I'm interested in these things now. I think that when I wrote Clyde Fans I didn't really know what I was writing about, why I picked this particular story or why these particular characters or what any of the underlying qualities in the book are about, or "about" in quotes. Now I think I know why I would write such a story. I look at the work and ... except for a couple of minor things, this old story is pretty much exactly the same themes I'm interested in writing today. Over the years I've said to myself repeatedly, "What do I like and why do I like it?" So you watch a movie and you say, "I like that movie. That really appealed to me, but ..." and often what I'll say is, "... but I wish they had stayed in one contained location." Or, "...too many characters," or whatever. You have a qualm of some kind. Then eventually over the years, especially when you’re a writer as well, you say to yourself, "What's the ideal story I'd like to write so that I could read it?" Often that takes a really long time 'til you figure out what it is you're actually interested in. It seems obvious, I know. You'd think, I'm interested in blah, blah, blah, so I'll write about that, but when I look at Clyde Fans now I think, "Well what was I interested in there enough to make me write that story?" Clearly, for example, I’m interested in isolation. I like the idea of characters that exist in isolation and how they deal with it, how they deal with loneliness or being alone. I like a very limited environment. So most of the story takes place in the Clyde Fans building. If I were to write that now, knowing what I think about it now I might have set the whole thing in the building and never have them leave the rooms at all. I like a low amount of conflict in a story. So even with Clyde I’m like, there's too much conflict in the way I wrote it. The scene where they come together to talk, it's kind of an argument. I probably would have lessened that if I'd planned it today, and because I find that when I ... well, almost anything I watch or read today when I get to the end I say to myself, "I wish there'd been a little less conflict in that."
Eric: I think probably one of your main criticisms of anything is there's too much going on here.
It's true; I always want to narrow things down, make them flatter. It's funny, there's some process of acclimatization that occurs through repetition... I mean, if you like something a lot, a film or a book, and you return to it over and over again, the level of emotional conflict gets lessened by the simple fact of familiarity—of knowing what's going to happen. So there's certain things I love that are conflict ridden like say, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I love the film version and yet it’s literally fighting and backbiting from the first scene 'til the last, but at some point the nature of the experience changes; once you've watched the movie 50 times, it's no longer stressful. Actually I watch it for pure relaxation—the pure enjoyment of the repartee between the characters or whatever. So I think a lot of conflict has to do with the initial encounter. A lot of books I love have a certain amount of conflict in them as well, but once the conflict is resolved then I'm happy to read it a second time. Generally the thing is, I've realized I don't like tension in a story which I suppose is usually the opposite of what they're telling you makes a good story. Isn’t conflict/tension considered the basis of any solid piece of fiction? I feel that's an oversold element in how we write fiction. It's one of the first rules they will tell you when you're writing something, “where's the conflict?”
Eric: Man versus man, man versus himself, man versus nature?
Yes. If you're taking a creative writing course or something and you hand in your low conflict story they'd say, "This is really flat. There's no conflict, you know, whatever." It's interesting that we've placed such a high value on that aspect of drama. Some of the things I probably most enjoy are ... and in fact, in almost every book I read lately I find myself really paying attention to the slower sections—I’ll say to myself, "Pages 70 to 89 were great. Nothing happened. Then unfortunately a big fight occurred on pages 90 to 99 and I lost interest.” I’m almost always saddened when the plot picks back up. Everything was going along so nice and slow and dreary and then…blah blah blah. So there it is, a lot of yakking to just point out the simple idea that over twenty years I've figured out what I most liked, and fortunately a lot of it was in Clyde anyway. Nothing much happens in the story, which is just peachy with me.
So getting back to the final sequence, the out of body experience, that was something that I didn't realize why I put that in when I first wrote the story, but today, it is blatantly obvious to me that I have some sort of a... I guess I would say a mystic bend in my thinking. I'm basically a materialist, but I have a very strong feeling of unreality about reality as I am sure most of us do. That said, I feel like ... when I look back at almost everything I write, there's always a scene where a character somehow tries to deal with the more profound nature of mundane everyday life, and that final sequence in Clyde Fans was particularly ... well, maybe the essential Seth plot point—somebody coming to an interior experience of the unreality of life. I think ... I may have always felt deeply interested in this specific sensation, even when I was a child or a teenager maybe, but I wouldn't have put my finger on it and said, "This is a story point that interests me." Over the years that element has grown stronger. More pervasive. So the book I'm planning out right now, it's got a good amount of that mystic element to it, for sure.
Dom: That's one of the things that struck me rereading it. I mentioned before the sense of the uncanny about it, that there's a feeling in the book that there is sort of a subterranean or extra-material world. Especially for Simon. I love that moment where he steps in the crack in the wall, and that's a completely mundane statement and yet it's completely impossible.
Yes, I was pleased with that particular sequence—not so happy with the toys—but that crack in the wall worked because it was a simple flat statement that sets up the idea that Simon is involved in another level of reality or perhaps a hallucinatory experience, but the toy stuff felt too forced for me. I think that's the tricky part for me was trying to get that in between tone. Somewhere in that sweet spot between mundane and fantastical. Hard to do. You mentioned Twin Peaks. Lynch is particularly good at creating a separate ... particularly good at capturing that reality that this isn't reality. Do you know Inland Empire well?
Dom: I've seen it, yes.
That's my favorite of his films, and as I watch it more and more, the most remarkable element of it is the shifting sense of reality. The characters are doubled. They change identities, character traits…in some odd way that is what real life feels like. He’s getting at something complex there. He recognizes and portrays that odd sense you feel in life that perhaps you might have been somebody else, or maybe in the back of your mind you almost remember a different life. If you thought hard about it you might think, “Oh, no that's not true. Maybe that's just a dream," but there's a strange shifting quality to reality that you wouldn't ... I feel like I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if suddenly it was revealed to me that this life was a dream and this had all been a dream, and you’d say, "Oh, well of course. It felt like a dream. It couldn't have been reality, could it?”
Dom: Makes sense now.
Eric: With regards to Simon's sort of hallucinatory state, mental state... there’s an ambiguity in Clyde Fans because you're not sure if that's contributing to his isolation or if it's the result of his isolated state.
It's a good question, and I'm not sure I have an answer.
Eric: I hate to say, but there's a tension there.
Eric: It's not a conflict.
I don't mind if there’s some tension. It's true. I like a bit of ambiguity in a story, and that's another thing that I've realized over the years is that everybody likes a mystery, but most people don't really care for the solution of the mystery.
Eric: This gets back to David Lynch who puts the mystery at the forefront.
Exactly, and a lot of people don't care for Lynch because they want answers.
Dom: Even if they don't like them, they want them.
…and when they get the answers it almost always deflates the experience. So, myself, I like ambiguity in a story, and I'm not entirely sure what any all of my own work means either. It's much like Simon's vision ... is that vision ... is there any truth in that vision? Is there actually anything revealed to him that's true, or like you say, is that vision a response to his own fear? Is it what leads him into retreat? I feel that the first time through— when people are reading the book serialized— nobody would have been understanding, in Part Three, where I'm showing how the vision fails Simon, because the reader hasn’t experienced the vision yet. It’s just hinted at. When you read it I’m clearly showing that the vision has not lived up to what it promised, which is an exquisite world of isolation and decay. Instead it has solidified into a prison of loneliness for Simon. So, there’s a lot of ambiguity, in that I haven't made up my mind either whether that vision at the end is representative of something that is beautiful. A crystal cave of exquisite solitude, whatever words I used, or if it is literally the hallucinations of a deluded person who's consigning himself to a mistake.
Obviously in real life I would’ve advised Simon, "You need to get out." That is not the answer. Poetically, I’m encouraging him to stay put.
Eric: I think also, though, in a way his isolation acts as a metaphor for the life of an artist, and you do imply that he has an artistic sensibility, since he's working on the book that he never gets around to writing. So there's that isolation that the profession sometimes demands, and I'm speaking personally as a writer, that feeling of the distance from one's audience, of being anonymous, and yet at the same time having a persona that's public in a way. Having one's life at work at best misunderstood and at worst completely disregarded. Abe's speech about Simon reflects this. He's talking about himself, but he might as well be talking about Simon. He's saying, "It's funny how long he could simply be doing what he's always done no matter how futile, day in, day out while the world goes on without noticing." Simon also recognized this anonymity and disregards the results from his isolation. Yet at the same time he considers that isolation a necessary condition of his experiences of profound feelings. You say that the "unfortunate irony" of his prerequisite of isolation is that there's no opportunity to share it. Simon’s resigned to the fact that the artist must ultimately come to terms with this irony.
I often think this is the basic dilemma of loneliness is that ... or loneliness verses being alone—is that being alone is an essential quality to experience certain things. Certain things you only experience or you experience deeply when you're alone. Earlier when we were talking about the drive you took to visit here, that drive is a deeper experience when you're on your own because you notice things in a different way. You're not distracted by conversations with other people. Your senses are somehow more alive.
I recall a trip to Hudson, New York, a couple of years ago, I went there, and I had a terrific afternoon where I walked around the streets on my own, just looking at the town, and then I walked a long time trying to find a perfect spot to have lunch. Finally, I settled down in this cavernous Mediterranean restaurant and I was reading a really good book, drinking a couple of glasses of wine, and I had no responsibilities in life whatsoever. That day is burned in my brain as a really, really exquisite afternoon because it was that perfect experience you can only have when you're alone. Now, I could think of other experiences that go a few years back in time when I was single and very lonely walking around by myself on a book tour or something. When you're miserable, you’re often not actually experiencing things more deeply, or maybe you are, but the desire to share them with someone is so deep that it actually undercuts the value of being alone. There's an interesting dichotomy because almost always if you're alone long enough you start losing the wonderful quality of observation and experience and contentment and the alone time begins to transform into the interior experience of loneliness. When you're lonely all you really experience is being lonely. You walk around saying to yourself "Oh, I'm lonely. Nobody cares ... Why can't I find a girlfriend?" or "Why doesn't anybody like me?" Eventually you've turned inward and so you've lost that precious quality. I'm extremely interested in loneliness because I'm extremely frightened by it.
The times I've had real loneliness in my life have been a little close to madness because they were so filled with anxiety. They were probably closer to panic attacks. Really, the kind of thing where you can't stop thinking about your dilemma. You can't sleep. You can't enjoy anything, and so I'm pretty terrified of that experience. It takes all the pleasure out of life, and that's one of the reasons why I think I'm so interested in the idea of isolation because on the flip side of that terrible loneliness, I'm really, really happy when I'm by myself and content. I mean, I’ve almost always been happy alone. I grew up as basically an only child, but not a lonely child. The difference always was, when I was a child, it was mother and me and that cozy little world of two kept loneliness at bay. and now it's my wife, Tania, that supplies that emotional balm. These figures, Mother or Wife, do not need to be with me all the time—far from it—but they give me this powerful buffer against loneliness. Just the knowledge of their presence. Knowing I am not actually alone in the world makes all the difference. When I'm in the studio alone and Tania's at work at her barbershop I'm very, very content and happy. I know I'll see her later in the day. We'll have a good time together. I don't feel lonely for one second. Sometimes I'm in the house for weeks on end without even stepping out the front door, except when I go out with her on the weekends. Most of the time I never even think about anybody else. But, if she were to die or leave me, probably after a couple months the whole day would be long dirge like "Oh, another gray day alone in this horrible house, how can I stand it?” It's interesting how perspective shifts.
There's a series of artists I'm particularly interested in because they were either isolated or alone —just interested in how they dealt with it. I can't remember, last time we talked I may have mentioned this list of artists then too. I’m often thinking of them. My own little pantheon of lonely artist. Anyhow, to return to what you were talking about—about Simon's dilemma being comparable to the experience of being an artist—hmm, well, what I think essentially differentiates those two experiences is that Simon isn’t involved in communicating through his art to others. He’s alone. I've talked to Chester Brown about this a few times, more than a few times, where we say, "Would we still be doing comics if nobody really cared? Would we have given up years ago if we were just putting out a Xerox comic and few people cared? I mean, maybe, but you're not really getting much feedback?" That feedback of positivity is so essential to allow you to keep working. When I started out, I was unsure of what I was doing, like all young artists are, but now I'm very sure of what I'm doing. It's not simply because of a natural progression of skill by which you do get better, but it’s confidence. That changes. Eventually, if you get enough positive feedback, you're no longer bothered so much by the negative feedback or even the lack of feedback. Let’s face it, you don’t develop confidence in a vacuum. If you get little or no feedback to your work... well, jeez, I’m always impressed by people who continue to put out work when they're getting almost no feedback—then you must ask, "Why are they doing it? Is it just for themselves?" “Can you be that self focused? That confident and secure?” Of course, that sense of doing for yourself has to be a big part of any kind of artistic endeavor, but let’s not kid ourselves. It's never just about that alone.
Dom: Otherwise you wouldn’t publish it, right?
Exactly, just put it in a closet. You want feedback, and probably there's not a single person who doesn't create some work and secretly (or not so secretly) hope, somewhere in the back of their minds, that someone's going to say, "This is the greatest thing I've ever seen." Who doesn’t do that? I mean, you always have the same two opinions of every piece of work you finish. "This is great," or "This is terrible." Usually you have both. Usually about the same work. What changes is that over time, when you’ve received enough positive feedback over the years, is that you stop worrying and say to yourself, "This will be received fine." Chances are nobody's going to say "Finally, they've revealed themselves to be a complete idiot." Not at this point. They'll just be, "It's more of what they do" or if you are lucky somebody might say, "It's the best thing you've ever done." Occasionally it’s, "Oh, this is the sad sign that they're heading downhill," but generally the confidence comes from communication, and without that communication I'm literally not sure how people endure, how they keep doing the work. Some people literally do continue to produce ... Well, there's another point too. I was about to say continue to produce really tremendous work that nobody seems to care about, but that's actually stacking the deck because then they probably have, from a small quarter, perceived the kind of feedback where somebody says, "This book of monoprints or this poetry is tremendous and I love it." One letter even, or some important things that a few people have said to you, or one good review or something in a small magazine, but it's quite different than absolutely an indifferent mention in a zine about what you've done. That's not going to keep you going for twenty years. Then that's where I'm particularly interested in artists like Henry Darger, who did all that work in private. You say, "Why were they doing it?" I’d guess Darger was doing it to save his life because he would have died if he didn't have that artwork. It was an interior world to live in. That's a very different use of art than I’m what I employing to construct my next book. That's a really different experience than most artists.
Eric: That's like more the therapeutic theory of art.
… which is extremely interesting, but you know it didn't make him happy. Working on that did not bring happiness, but it probably brought a kind of day-to-day ... salvation…I mean, I can relate to that somewhat. When I was a teenager I came home every single night and drew these shitty super hero comics that I was totally into because that was a more interesting world to me than the world of high school, and I needed that.
Eric: That's a low bar.
A very low bar.
Eric: You could say that about Darger, that it was cathartic.
Yes, he was taking sustenance from that deep experience of immersing himself in fantasy. His landlord could hear him through the walls talking to himself in several voices. That's a total immersion—having conversations with yourself and you're playing both sides. You can’t write a story like that. You would never write that. It's too good. Or too corny. I’m not sure which.
Eric: It's kind of what Simon does, though.
It is, and that's why I had to tone that down. I've gotten off track here. Somehow that had to do with loneliness. There are artists I admire because these are artists whose work I love, or I'm influenced by—whatever. Then there's this other, smaller group where mostly it is their life story that is interesting. I do like their work as well, but I probably would like their work less if they had had a different life. Edward Gorey's another good example. I like Edward Gorey, but I like Edward Gorey a lot more for being Edward Gorey than I do for his books.
Dom: One of the things I was I think noticing more, rereading Clyde Fans, is that, and I think this ties in with what you were just talking about, Simon is, in some ways, a kind of visual analog to some of your avatar characters. Is there an element in which you see Simon as a way of expressing that aspect of what you were talking about, about loneliness and aloneness?
He is, for sure, but Abe is as well. They're both flip sides of the same person. It's funny though, with Simon, problematically he's drawn too much like some of my own self-caricatures. He's a bit more—he’s certainly thinner and he's a little more gnarled looking, but I actually feel like I've got to a point where I was drawing him and I'd gotten too used to drawing him. He was starting to merge with my own self-caricature. The problem with that is that I worry that a reader who doesn't know my work might find the various parts of Palookaville confusing. Mixing up the various bespectacled, fedora wearing protagonists. Or even the simple worry that someone might think I am using Simon entirely as a self-flattering avatar.
Dom: No, it doesn't feel like it was autobiographical or anything, but it seemed like it had to be a deliberate choice to make him resemble the Seth persona.
It wasn't deliberate. Not really. I just drew two 1950s types when I first started Clyde ... Going back, it's so hard to even remember what my thinking was because I didn't put a great deal of thinking into these initial character designs. I needed two characters, and these are the two guys I drew. One of them had a mustache and one of them had glasses. Then over time—
Dom: It's iconic, so they're easily recognizable.
Exactly, so you could tell them apart quickly. One would be heavier and one would be skinny. That made it much simpler, but I did know at the beginning that they were both going to be the two sides of my own personality. That was an obvious point that I knew from the word go. I think when I first started working in comics there was this idea that I was a reclusive person who was shy, which is not who I am at all. I’m, as you know, a very gregarious person. I talk a lot. Far too much. I’m not a person who's quiet. Often, when I meet people they would be like, "Oh, you're a lot more outgoing than I expected you to be,” So, when I was first working on these characters I knew I wanted to take the two sides of my personality, the very extroverted personality which would be Abe, but also the introverted me. Essentially I think of myself as an extrovert who doesn't value extroversion. I value introversion. Simon is more the quieter side of my life.
If you're a very outgoing person you often end up being filled with a kind of low level self-loathing. It's a natural thing that if you go out and you talk and talk for hours, then you come home and you have this experience of what I call “the physic hangover.” You're like, "Oh God, I talked way too much. What was the thing I said? That was so stupid. Oh, I would like to take that back but" blah, blah, blah. Then when you spend five days by yourself and a calm descends— you’re like, "Those were five great days because the only person I'm dealing with is myself." When you're by yourself, your true self comes to the fore in some strange manner, maybe that's an illusion, I’m not sure, but you're not reflecting off of anyone else and that makes a tremendous difference. So much of the experience of talking to other people is what is bouncing back to you from them—you see yourself reflected back and very often that is off putting. I wanted to deal with two characters who were those two types, my extrovert and my introvert. It gave me a perfect opportunity to have Abe be the much brusquer character and Simon to be the much more reluctant one.
Eric: Simon, albeit to a much more extreme and probably less well-adjusted degree, like you in a way, kind of lives in a self-constructed world. There's a comfort to that, but can't you also regard that, as with Simon, as a kind of prison?
For sure, I do recognize that. Although as you get older, whoever you are—you become more of that person.
Eric: In a way it's also freeing. There's a dichotomy there.
There is. I don't think it's so freeing for Simon. He has constructed a prison. I feel like he's made ... I feel the vision he experienced, it was a misleading choice in his life. It was probably his one opportunity to change, and instead it reinforced the worst choice he was already making—which was retreat. Retreat; in my own life I favor retreat. It's something that I value deeply, but I recognize that it is not a quality that society value and when I talk to people about choosing to opt out of certain things I can just sense that most people don't see retreat as a healthy choice. It's interesting that people are ... If you talk about getting older the thing that is always valued when people are getting older is how much they remain in contact with what's changing and with youth ...
Eric: But that in its own way is imprisoning. I see people walking around with their phones. These gadgets take over their life and then by you saying, "Well, I would rather not do that" they respond, "What's wrong with you?"
It's very true. I think the good thing about getting older, like you were saying, is it is freeing because you no longer need as much approval. This ties in again with the positive reinforcement idea; at a certain point in your life if you've had enough positive reinforcement you become more confident too in making choices that are outside of society's pressure. Well, within reason. We're all conformists so you can't really get away from that, but you can say, "I'm not going to get a device,” for example. That’s not much of a stand. You’ll take grief for it but it’s a little thing. I've refused. My wife has one and I've seen, even with her, it taking over her life. I catch her when I'm going to the kitchen for a second. I see she's checking something on it. I've told Drawn and Quarterly I will not get one for traveling or book tours or whatever. I've already capitulated and got a laptop. That's more than enough. If you need to contact me, send me an email. I will check it in the morning, at night, whatever.
I do think that as I grow older I'm much more confident in doing things because they're the way I like them rather than just being purely reactionary. When I was younger ... I used to always make fun of Chester, that he was a contrarian. It seems like every choice he was making it was just to be the opposite of what you're supposed to do. I used to make a lot of fun of him about that, but at some point I realized I think I’ve pretty much been doing the exact same thing. Sadly, being contrary often means taking a stand against things that mean nothing to you. For example, someone might say, "Have you seen Breaking Bad?" I'd be like, "No, I am not interested in any contemporary television shows." But why? Why am I not interested in any contemporary television shows? I might even trust the person’s taste who is recommending the show, but I will still reject it. It’s like, "Why would I refuse to watch that show?" It's just contrarianism. I'm just taking a stand on something that's totally unimportant. Just stubbornly refusing to keep up with the culture. I’m not proud of this stubborn silly behavior, but it is a fact and isn’t likely to change. For me, that is the type of character I’ve grown into. I’m not going to make any effort to “keep up” because it’s expected of me. I just don’t care. I’m following my own little thread. On the flip side of that, though—you do come to recognize that there are certain areas where you're literally being left behind. You don't know what's going on any more. You feel that there's a tipping point you passed where the culture has somehow moved on somewhere else now and you don't know anything about popular culture any more. I think I've hit that point. I don't know the name of any modern singers. I don't know what any of these video games are people are playing. I might see the occasional contemporary film, but not too many. I'm not unhappy about this, but it is an awareness that, "Yeah, I'm totally out of the loop now."
Eric: With Simon, then, in a way is his depiction of your thinking through, "Well, this is the darker side," or this where this sort of isolationism can lead essentially?
I think it's the recognition. In Simon I see the danger of where isolation leads to ...
Eric: Mental instability?
It's the difference between, again, the difference between being alone and being lonely.
Eric: There's a healthy level of isolation.
Eric: Then an unhealthy level.
Eric: He's gone way beyond.
He has, although Abe doesn't fully see that because somehow or other by the beginning of the book Abe sees Simon's struggle as somehow laudatory and even at the end of the book when Abe goes back to live in the Clyde Building, you know that it's because he's decided that Simon is somehow correct and made the right choice to retreat, but is that a right choice? I'm not really sure that I have a concise answer for that.
Dom: The value of retreat with dignity?
Yes. I do believe that both the characters are fighting for some kind of dignity. I understand that. Getting older that's exactly what I'm thinking too, how to maintain yourself in this culture with dignity. It's not a particularly dignified period we're living in.
Eric: It's kind of guilt by association isn't it?
It's funny. I look at the internet and I think it's interesting that it's a let-it-all-hang-out culture, and I'm not sure that I'm 100% behind that idea. It's not prudishness. Nothing shocks me, or it's not censoriousness ... I am opposed to any censorship, but I certainly don't think we should be ... I think what it is, is just that—the culture is lacking in any kind of dignity at the moment. It’s like “Hey, I just shit my pants. Who wants to see it?" My feeling—there are things that we should keep to ourselves. There are ways that we should interact with each other. There's a veneer needed to maintain dignity that isn't just ... It's about formality, but it's not about being trapped by formality. I feel like we haven't hit that point yet where our society has said, "We don't want to be trapped by formal custom that inhibits us to be happy or free, but we also don't want to live in this complete, undignified, let-it-all-hang-out culture either." There's got to be a middle way.
This is why I have such a dislike of the era I grew up in, the '60s and early '70s. This period where the hippie culture officially took hold. That's when we threw the baby out with the bath water. Don’t get me wrong—there was plenty of bath water to throw out. I certainly wouldn’t have been happy living in the 1950s with that particular culture, but somehow or other that period of the ‘60s to the early '80s was a miasma of change that didn't necessarily lead, I think, to an obviously better culture. I mean, that was an interesting period. A break that had to occur— where they had to, of course, throw away a lot of that early 20th century thinking. Social progress is important and the changes in society made a world where I can do what I wish and make the kind of work that I wish. The monolithic quality of the Western culture has totally fragmented. And that’s all good. However, the vacuum left by the discarding of the tone of the old culture doesn’t feel right to me somehow. This is one of the things where I sometimes crave for more formality, where I say, "There doesn't seem to be enough effort being put into things.” Maybe it’s just personal inclinations— I liked a culture where you went out more, where you had to dress up for things. I liked a culture where people had more interest in aesthetics or ritual or whatever, blah, blah, blah. It’s a messy argument.
The current culture feels cheap and junky to me. It's about instantaneous pleasure rather than long-term accomplishment. Even just in the arts, or in the popular arts, I feel like there's a strong pressure to get something out every five minutes before people lose interest in you. I was just thinking that the other day, "I haven't had a book out in quite some time. Thank God that Clyde Fans book is coming out because I don't have a new work at the moment." It's like after a couple of years you're totally off everyone’s radar. Whereas I’m not losing sleep about whether people are “talking” about me or not, I do care that if you're off the radar people stop calling to offer you opportunities where you can make some money. It's disturbing to me just how quickly everything is moving right now. I don't feel like the people would be ... It would not be a wise move right now if I met a young artist and they told me, "I'm thinking of doing a book that will take me 15 years to do and this'll be the only thing I'm working on." I'd say, without doubt, "That is a terrible plan because you need to get your name out there." People have to see what you're doing, practically every day, or else you can't build a career. That was not so true when I started out. Not true at all.
Eric: Right, there are these YouTube performers, I guess you would call them, and there's been news stories about these people having mental breakdowns, committing suicide because of the incredible pressure to produce content and to produce it constantly.
And for that content to work its magic and get enough people to care. You can imagine how stressful that must be.
Dom: You were talking about how that it's kind of crummy, people don't dress up anymore, and so on. It seems to go hand in hand with what we were just talking about. Ultimately it comes down to ethics, doesn't it? It's an ethical consideration, as far as how we are determined to act responsibly toward each other.
Eric: ... in this agreed way of being, decorum, civilized behavior and so forth, and how it's degenerated.
Politeness is a basic formality that you would think everyone agrees on, this goes back to what we were talking about earlier, but that's not the case. You will have people who will say, and to your face too, not just on the internet, they'll say, "Ah, that's just bullshit." Why should I pretend to be nice about something when I don't believe in it? They’re making a case that politeness is hypocrisy. No, that's not how politeness works. You needn’t get into a disagreement with every single person you're talking to. That's not valuable. There are all sorts of unspoken rules that people—there's a certain kind of attitude that polite behavior is simply bullshit. I call this the “keeping it real culture,” which basically appears to me as just an excuse for self indulgence. Maybe it’s just old man stuff, but I honestly believe that politeness is the oil that keeps society moving smoothly. It doesn't work well if we don't have a certain level of formal behavior, and there is a limit to how much formality you can throw away before things fall apart. Yes, lots of commonly agreed upon values change within your lifetime. Nothing new there. Hanging around with Chester Brown, you get into these kinds of discussions constantly. He’s very good at challenging my complacent thinking. Lots of arguments about society and convention—prostitution, of course. Prostitution vs. romantic love etc. etc. Complicated arguments. Chester and I often disagree. I feel like in many arguments about prostitution and morality, he's got his own blind spots—where he's not willing to look so closely into some of the dark corners because it hurts his argument. Not that my arguments about anything are so tight that he couldn’t take them apart at a moment’s notice.
Dom: Well, isn't he, at the moment, in a monogamous paid relationship?
He is. Definitely, he's a monogamous john, which makes no sense to me. Makes no sense at all, but of course that's because he's an entirely odd character. Any other guy who was a big supporter of prostitution would be all about variety. I mean, the very purpose would be for sexual variety, wouldn’t it? Or convenience. It's funny, but that's Chester for you.
Dom: Speaking of Chester, and the whole contrarian thing, when you were talking about that a few minutes ago, this is completely tangential, but one of the things that kind of struck me, rereading Clyde Fans, is there's a kind of ... it doesn't feel like a very "Seth" moment, where early in the book where we actually have Abe urinating.
Oh yeah. Yes.
Dom: And I was thinking was that a Chester comment on the whole, you know, let it all hang out element in his work?
No, it wasn't a comment on anything, but now that you say it, it probably is more reflective of when I was doing that comic than anything else—during a period when I was probably trying to do comics that were a little bit more straight forwardly open about bodily functions etc. So you would ... I think the first part of Clyde Fans might be more connected to the earlier work I was doing back then. In Good Life, there's a couple of scenes where I'm naked or whatever. And I think I was probably trying at that point to do work, much like my peers, which would be a little bit more bold or honest, although there's certainly nothing bold about having somebody taking a pee. But I think later, I'd probably got to the point where it never even occurred to me that I should probably have a scene where Simon goes to the bathroom or something. I’d stopped thinking in those terms. That kind of thing was more connected to the idea of reality that people were trying to get in to their auto-biographical comics. I think there was a time where I was considering having some sexual fantasies in Simon's mind, but I wasn't sure when I got to that point in the story whether that fit the tone of Clyde Fans or not. And I think I was considering a scene that when he was taking his mother to the old folks’ home for the first time, that there would be some scene where he looked at one of the nurses and had some kind of a sexual fantasy of ... not very involved, but just enough to let you know he was thinking. To give some reality to the sexual side of the character. He so rarely saw any women, that maybe I would have had a mental image of her naked or something. I don't know. But whenever I did get to that point, it felt totally out of place. That no longer felt like a scene in a “Seth” comic. And I think, progressively, as I'm doing my work, I don't feel very comfortable writing about that kind of thing.
In my memoir that I'm drawing right now, Nothing Lasts, yes, I’m writing about sex and yes, there will be more mentions of sex, but it won't be particularly explicit in any way. Very mild. Very modest. I mean, I include my first orgasm and then I think I'm showing myself involved in a one-night stand at the end of the last segment. That's just the beginning of my sexual life, so there will be stuff about sex, but it will all be rather modestly presented. I don't feel ... it's not in my nature to talk openly about intimate matters in my work, but back in the early 90’s I probably was trying a little harder to be more naturalistic. If an old man is getting up in the morning, well then—he’s going to go to the bathroom. But I wonder if I would have bothered showing that if I drew that scene today. Hmm, I might have just had him flushing the toilet or something. I might not have bothered to actually show him urinating. I don't know.
Dom: It does, in a way, though, tie into something else that I was sort of noticing, which is ... and we've already talked about this to some extent, but you know, the very real focus on mundane reality—
Dom: ... whether it's things like an entire page of fan designs or it would seem to be a kind of echo later when Simon is cataloging all of his mother's possessions.
Dom: There was a real, and more of a very deliberate conscious sense, especially later in the book it seems, when the chapters are getting a little longer and more contemplative, that these artifacts, the day-to-day things, the things that we use on a daily basis, are ultimately what people are going to have left, and they're going to be us.
Dom: I mean, someone peeing isn't in the same vocabulary, but it is still mundane, sort of.
It is about mundane reality. Well, you've hit on two points that are important to me. One is that you're right. I'm very interested in description. And that's something I've become more aware of as time has gone on. When I did the first chapter of Clyde, what I was focusing on was ... I wasn't thinking of it as description … I was thinking of it as moment-to-moment comic book story telling. So I wanted to make a point of that. If you have a guy get up and get out of bed and walk to the next room, you have to show it all. So, you follow the character around, and I know that was an approach that, back then, I was very interested in. I think of it as "naturalistic” storytelling. You basically follow the character around as they do things like you're a ghost watching them. So that meant that everything that occurred in the first chapter of Clyde had to be moment-to-moment. There would never be a jump. There might like a shift, you know, where you change from one perspective to the other, or it might be on the inside of a door in panel one, and then you cut to outside the door. That was acceptable. It wasn't like animation where you had to follow it directly. But eventually, I came to realize that one of the reasons why I was interested in that kind of story telling in the first place is that I'm actually really interested in description less than action.
I think if I was to write Clyde Fans again right now, in that first chapter, there probably would have been a long sequence where Abraham talks about the objects in the house. He doesn't really mention them much. I made it a point to show things, to give a feeling of each room, what was in the room, because I knew that later, you'd be coming back to those rooms in other chapters and I wanted the reader to always instinctively know the layout of the building. You always know where he’s going. But over time, I've become more and more interested in just the idea of describing things. Talking about them in detail rather than just pointedly showing them. For example, the sequence where Simon describes his mother's room, which is like ice cream for me—a total treat. I simply adore a good, deep description. A lot of the books I've been enjoying in the last few years, I really like when the author gives you three pages describing a church or something of that nature. Certainly, Proust is great for this kind of thing. You know, you've got 100 pages talking about the garden. Sometimes it can get a bit much, I admit, but I really do like that deep experience of looking closely at something. Certainly, in the new graphic novel that I'm working on at the moment, there's going to be a lot of that kind of description. Although I'm hoping, I'm still working out some of the details on this, but I'm hoping to mix it so you have the two things: The naturalistic story telling where you follow someone around in real time, and the deep description. These two approaches don’t always work so well together because deep description usually means a lot of narration and that doesn’t always go well with a smooth storytelling style. It often requires a lot of “jump cutting.” We’ll see how that comes together. Fingers crossed.
One of the things that I felt when I got to the end of Clyde, after I had drawn out that long vision sequence, which is somewhat naturalistic, but it's also jumps about, and got to the scene where he gets up and walks to the train; I was like, I don't do enough of this this slow style of storytelling any more. I said to myself, this is a kind of storytelling I really value, but you have to put the work in to do it right. It's boring to draw that ten pages of a guy walking from one place to another when you could do it in a page. You could do it in two panels if you really wanted to be expedient—panel one, off to the train station, and then, panel two, there you are coming in the door at the final destination.
To digress, one of the reasons why I'm even interested in that kind of storytelling ... this is something Chester and I used to talk about all the time back in the late 80s and early 90s … was you simply that you could do it. In the old days of comics you couldn't do it. Your editor said, here's your story—you’ve got eight pages. You didn't have any room to have characters walking for page after page. So there was a freedom and a luxury to be able to do that kind of languid pacing. In the course of any artistic career you change and the work changes, but sometimes you look back and you realize you may have gained in some changes and lost in others. So when I was working on that end sequence of Clyde, I definitely had a feeling of regret because I don't do enough of this kind of storytelling anymore. I’ve been doing more truncated kind of stories. More expedient storytelling. If you look at something like Wimbledon Green or The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists or even George Sprott, these are very concise comic books.
Yes, that’s the term. They’re very compressed. So, with George Sprott, those strips had to be compressed because they had to appear on one page, and then when I assembled it into a book, I added in extra material to slow the read down, and if you look at the pages I added, there's like a three or four-page sequences in-between the one pagers that allowed me to drop a bit of that naturalistic story telling into the mix. Without those sequences the story is much flatter. That naturalistic approach is just really powerful. There's something about reading a comic that mimes the rhythms of measured human movements that gets inside you as a reader. Did either of you read Nick Drnaso's latest book, Sabrina?
Dom: No, I want to pick it up. I've recently been reading a lot of good things about it, but I hadn't even heard of it until a few weeks ago.
It's so great. And one of the reasons it's so great, there are pages and pages and pages of people getting up from their cubicle, walking over somewhere and doing something small. Nothing is happening, except a lot is happening, because it's a very intense book. The environments are boldly bland and modern. Offices, malls, whatever, where there's practically nothing exciting of visual interest, there's just shapes and hallways, and the characters are relatively bland looking too. It's really very powerful for that kind of ... it's funny when you really slow down on something where somebody takes a moment. You do this in ten panels where you're like, they're writing something and in the next panel they're thinking. Then they're maybe scribbling something out, then they're thinking again. When you slow down like that, that has a real narrative power somehow. Although, it sounds like it should be boring. But it isn’t— that somehow brings real life into the comics form in a way that you don't get with just some narration block over top of an image. So it's a powerful tool.
Eric: This also ties in to Clyde with its theme of time, I think, because the attraction Simon has for the postcards, for example, is that they depict this one frozen moment in time where there's no context. Everything's been sort of collapsed into this one image.
Eric: And he seems to want that. He wants to stop time from progressing, essentially.
Eric: Whereas, Abe looks at the postcards—specifically the one with the fisherman with the enormous fish—which Abe interprets as representing forces beyond Simon's control, Simon being overwhelmed by forces beyond his control. But both Simon and Abe are talking about the same thing, which is time.
Certainly the frozen moment of the postcard is alluded to in the vision when he's talking about kind of a vision of a perfect life, a frozen life.
Eric: Frozen life, right.
And this is, I think, again ... a quandary; that is, why am I interested in this idea? I'm not 100% sure, but the idea of a frozen life is connected to somehow being freed from the torment of human despair. There's something in freezing time into a moment—a big part of the vision is that it's saying to Simon, or perhaps Simon is saying to himself, that there is perfection in a kind of perfect stasis. Clearly that is what his character is longing for. And it seems to be presented as the answer, as well.
Eric: Well, he's being faced with loss, death, decay, not only of himself but of his mother, of his mental state, the business.
Mm-hmm. The thing about when you try to talk about a story like this, it's interesting that one of the real things I do when I write is I don't make up reasons for why things are happening, but I know that they will be supplied as the story is written. For example, when Wimbledon Green came out, I think Chris Ware said to me something about a brilliant sequence in it. He said it's so brilliant that you had Wimbledon lose his memory and become a hobo. It ties in with Fine and Dandy, and he went over all this sort of stuff about collectors and memory, and afterwards, I thought to myself, “God that does sound great. I wish I'd thought of that when I was making the book.” But, of course, I hadn't thought of it in any way, shape, or form. I turned that comic out really fast and I didn't even think for a second that Wimbledon becoming a hobo connected to the other hobo characters or any of that stuff. However, looking back—well, it’s so obvious. It can’t be a pure accident. And I thought, “That does seem very clever. How did that work out that way? How did that get into the story? If I didn't obviously choose these elements … I mean, how does that all fit together so nicely? Well, the simple answer is that my brain made these choices unconsciously.” That’s what your brain does—it connects ideas, even if you don't realize it. And working on Clyde Fans over twenty years was a good example of seeing your brain connecting things that you didn't plan out, with a capital P, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t put all these things in there on purpose.
What it comes down to is that I trust my brain to tie these ideas together unconsciously, I count on that when I'm writing. So I know a story is more interesting if you don't worry too much about what it means while you're writing it. You know that it will come together even in spite of you. Sometimes you make mistakes or miss obvious connections. It happens. Like when I said like I had to change that doll figure into more of an obvious racial character. My brain missed that. With the matter of the freak-postcards—Simon's interest in the cards— I knew that that was just a good potent image to use for his interest, and I knew I could interpret that in several ways. When I first put those in, did I really know what I was thinking? Probably not. But I knew that it would connect later. I knew it would resonate—connect with the central images of isolation that pervade the story, and the later vision. I knew that they would all somehow circle in around on each other. So yes, by the time I got to the final vision, I certainly knew how I they were connected. But again, it's not as planned as you would suspect. I like a certain amount of ambiguity in things —leaving the door open for interpretation. Even for the author. And the truth is that I picked those cards for the simplest reason. I was just really interested in them back around the time I started the book. Much like the same way Clyde Fans itself was chosen kind of arbitrarily. Why fans? It's the same thing with those postcards, but after using them for a little while in there, I came to recognize that they were a good choice. They were much more interesting than if they had just been postcards— say old motel or main street postcards. It was the essential element of them that they were a manipulated reality that made it more powerful as a metaphor for what Simon was longing for. I mean, Simon wasn't longing to live in the past or live in some postcard of the frozen past. It was being obsessed with these things that never existed in the first place. They are a completely artificial creation. And a strange creation that operates more as a metaphor, an unearthly realm. They're corny but something about them worked well too for when he refers to the little rhyme of the entire world made of paper, which is again, peering into those cards as another reality.
Dom: And in one way, his world is paper.
Actually that's true. It's a bit meta now that I think about it. He's a paper character himself.
Dom: And then again, you know the whole time issue. I mean, one of the things that you can do in a comic that you can't do in real life is violate linear time.
It's very interesting; the very purpose of the comic language itself is always a metaphor for time—just as the way the medium operates.
Dom: I mean the narrative is structured. We start, in effect, chronologically at the end ...
Dom: But we end in the middle.
That was planned, of course. I definitely knew when I started the book that there were a few things that I wanted to try, and one of them was a nonlinear structure. And I knew that readers would be perplexed by the ending because it doesn't resolve anything particularly, but it does explain or fill in the gaps of how the story unfolded. For me, this structure was to withhold the central element of the story till the end—you don't get that explanation till the end, when you see what Simon's vision is all about. It’s a minor plot point in the earlier chapters—barely referred to—but in the end it’s the big “meaning” of the story.
Dom: It's probably ironic because we know, as he does not, what happens in the following years.
Exactly. I felt it was interesting to leave the reader with a greater knowledge than the character. You are meant to buy into the beauty of his “frozen life” but also know that it will fail. The other thing I really wanted to do was, I knew that I wanted to have each of the chapters have a different style of narrative structure for how the story is told. A different approach. So chapter one is clearly a monologue.
Dom: Seventy pages of an old man wandering around talking to himself, as I think you described it.
Exactly. And that's an exterior monologue. All spoken aloud. And then chapter two is the opposite of that, which is that entirely naturalistic approach discussed earlier, where you don’t have the character’s thoughts, the character doesn't tell you what they're doing, and you just follow around and watch them perform. And then in the third section, I wanted to do the opposite of both of those, which was to have an interior monologue. So it's all Simon alone talking to himself. And then in the fourth section, what I wanted was to finally have a dialogue—to bring together the two characters together. They have barely even shared a scene before this. In fact in the third section, that's one of the things I went back and corrected—I’d made a mistake the first time through with their shared panels. When I had Simon and Abe speak to each other, just a couple of minor scenes. I changed those so you no longer see Abe's face any more. Originally it was just the usual thing. Abe's talking. You have a close up of Abe or they talk to each other showing both faces. So now, in Part Three you only see Abe from the back, just the back of his head. I wanted to lessen those few scenes so that Part Four, where they come together to talk, would be more meaningful. So now, you don't actually have a scene where they talk to each other directly face to face until that comes together in Part Four. And Part Four is kind of Abe's story as well. You follow Abe like you followed Simon in Part Two. And then, of course, finally in Part Five, it is an hallucinatory experience. Now, I don’t expect the reader to really notice these things. The chapters read conventionally and these conceits are my concerns. Something for me to think about. I’m not sure the chapters are different enough that a casual reader would even think about these details. But it was fun to do.
Eric: Getting back to metaphors that you did not have planned, but you will take credit for …
Yes, of course.
Eric: With all due respect. I notice that Simon toward the end, he's sitting in the house.
Eric: It's summer. He's wearing a cardigan.
Eric: He's got no fan on.
Yes. That was intentional.
Eric: And he's quite consciously rejecting his real-world responsibilities.
Eric: His fantasy world has now extended into his objective reality as it were. And it's all consuming.
Eric: And he is, figuratively speaking, at that point he is frozen in time. I mean, he's ... maybe that's why he's wearing a cardigan. So it's interesting to me, though, that correspondingly, he equates that slowing down of time in his description, "moment-to-moment progression," which I think is very important to what you were describing about ...
Actually, you're right. I'd forgotten about that. He does talk about the idea of jumping forward in time, gulping time, rather than a moment-to-moment experience.
Eric: Right. He describes that as being somehow more honest. It's interesting to me that you would choose honesty, and I wonder if you might unpack that a little bit.
Well, that's a good question. Somewhere I those words felt right to me. I think—and forgive me if I bluff my way through this because I hardly recall my thinking on this—I think what Simon is referring to would be about putting his integrity and value in the idea of slow time. Paying attention. What we were talking about earlier, of investing in the experience of being alive, rather than the bigger experience of gulping down time in big chunks of distraction out in the world. Losing the close focus by losing your sense of alone-ness. This is probably coming out of me—what I instinctively believe—it reflects a kind of… what should I call this? Well, priggishness or monkishness in Simon that he would see his decision to suffer in this kind of slow time as more admirable than the people out in the world who, even though he says he is connected to them, it’s obvious that he has lost all connection to people living regular lives outside in the world. He’s afraid of people outside in the world. So the term “honest.”
Hm. It probably reflects my… without deeply planning it… it’s a statement mirroring my own feelings about the world. I mean, I do invest integrity into that rejecting stance. I suppose it’s odd that I would think of that in terms of integrity— as if going out into life and ploughing forward is somehow dishonest. I guess it connects to Abe’s complaints about how much hypocrisy is involved in being in the world. And again, there’s something in smallness that holds a great deal of value to me. “Honest” is a charged word yet it totally feels right to me. Perhaps that saying from the Mennonites describes this best—“Of the world but not in it.” Simon sees his retreat into slow time as earnest and real and the outside world with its “regular” time as fake and illusory.
Now, let me ask you a question: What do think a person who’s never read this story before and who doesn’t read comics would think of this book? Would it read like a normal book that you’d find in a bookstore, do you think?
Dom: I think that someone who doesn’t read comics coming to this book would find it a useful introduction because I think, initially, the Abe chapter is very easy to read, because it’s moment to moment, it’s a single character, it’s a monologue. Non-comics people might trip a little over who he’s talking to, but I think as the book goes on, non-comics people might find it an interesting education in the complexities of how comics can work, especially with the Simon chapters, where you have to really be intimate with comics conventions to understand things like when we shift from things that are really happening to fantasy, like where he steps into the crack in the wall, or the dream of drowning, or to me, what I thought of as a particularly brilliant sequence, the bird sequence.
I still remember the first time I read the issue, and I flipped the page, and there was the two-page spread of Simon flying over the city, with the wings … we were talking earlier about the elements of the uncanny in the book. This to me is where it hit the sublime, where you suspend any sense of “what does this mean? How is this allegorical? What is this symbolic of?” and just go “Wow.” It was an arresting moment. I think that non-comics readers, because it’s not “comicy” in terms of narrative style, in terms of characterization, in terms of what we were talking about before about conflict and plot structure … something that I was kind of amused by when I read it first was when we finally come back to Simon and Abe getting together again, it’s a chapter that ends, “let’s see where this goes,” and where it goes to is a huge dialogue with no real resolution. I think people who read literary fiction will find this familiar territory.
That’s reassuring. The reason I was wondering is, when I began the book, back in 1997, it was a very different world of comics than it is today when I finished it. When I began I was writing it for a small group of people who read alternative comics and even though I was making an effort to do a kind of “literary” writing it was still done in the context of that small community. Now, it’s going out into a cold world of bookstores and Amazon, where I wonder what people will make of such a book.
Dom: It’s going out into a world in which a book like Jimmy Corrigan or Building Stories can be a best-seller.
Yes, well, I certainly don’t expect that—
Eric: Building Stories was a best seller?
Dom: Well, it was probably too expensive to be a best-seller, but it did really well.
When you think of how original and unorthodox the packaging was, it did surprisingly well.
Dom: I think in 2018 we have a more sophisticated readership, who aren’t comics readers but who will buy a graphic novel.
I certainly don’t imagine the book as being something that’s going to do really well. I mean, I think it will do fine, but I know that a lot of authors, when they put a book out, they have their fingers crossed, like “come on, let this be the—” I never imagine anything I make will ever be on any best-seller list, but I am always curious, especially with such a long-term project like this, whether or not—you know, will it find its audience. Sometimes you put something out and you get three reviews, and that’s it. On to the next book.
Dom: Well, as I was saying earlier, despite the length of serialization, and despite the nonlinear narrative, it’s very clearly the kind of thing that readers who pay attention to echoes and reverberations and structure will pick up on. I mean, they’re not the kinds of things you notice reading it when it was serialized—
Yes. Serialization was ultimately a bad way to read it.
Dom: For instance, the Stephen Crane poem that comes up early and then comes back later, or the magazine that Simon is reading with his mother, with the images which much later we see with him as a child—those are the kinds of things that I think will resonate really well with non-comics readers.
I hope so. I’m curious. I’m waiting to see. I’m also just kind of glad to get it out of my life. For the longest time, it was there, as something that had to be done.
Eric: I totally sympathize. I worked on my Oppen biography, which I told you about—it just came out. My daughter is seventeen years old—I started writing that when she was born, so I can date how many years it’s been by how old she is.
Gosh, yes. That must be a real indicator of time changing.
Eric: It was. I mean, I did an initial edition of it, sort of like what you did with Clyde, you put out Book One, but it was many years ago, and then I reworked it, I added some more material, and this US edition came out, but it’s seventeen years of my life. So I sympathize.
The genuinely felt relief that it’s off your back.
Eric: It’s almost like, in a way, getting out of a marriage that has played out.
True, or maybe it’s more like it ended on a good note because you didn’t bail.
Eric: Right! Well, I still sweat about what I left out, or got wrong, especially the mistakes I haven’t yet discovered.
Even if at the end you’re saying, like, “I hate it,” at least you finished it. There’s something about bailing out; you never get over that one. It’s like, “there’s the book hanging over my head that I never finished.” A kind of tombstone.
Dom: And it’s a very satisfactory conclusion—or non-conclusion.
Well, I’m glad to hear that. I must say I’m really just glad that it’s done because for the last twenty years, it’s always day in and day out been in the back of my head, “I’ve got to get some work done on that” and “Will I get it finished?” There’s always a bit of a worry—well, there’s the worry that you’re going to die—but the other worry is that you’ll just feeb out somehow. You’ll finally make up a good enough excuse to quit and let yourself off the hook.
Eric: For example, Stephen King with The Dark Tower series. He wrote two or three books and then nothing for ten, fifteen years. And then he gets hit by a car, and nearly dies, and then he says, “I think I better finish that.”
Yes. I’m sure that was a motivator.
Eric: That was the impetus for him completing it: he almost died.
Well, it’s interesting that Chester has—he’s a hard worker, but he has, let’s see, several things that are unfinished. That’s kind of unusual, considering he’s so dedicated. I love to dangle that fact over his head.
Dom: And that’s unfortunate. I mean, even Underwater I thought was fascinating.
It was great. I’ve told him many times, “Just do three more issues, just wrap it up.” But unfortunately, the problem was, that book was planned to take like the rest of his life. So there is a totally bad idea, right there. The minute you come up with a project that will take the rest of your life—you’ve made a mistake.
Eric: I think he said thirty years, or something.
Dom: It would take 200 issues or thereabouts.
And he had decided he was going to become dedicated to it, he had decided, “I’m going to devote myself to this story for the rest of my life,” you know, and then, of course, he got to a point where he thought, “I don’t want to do this story for the rest of my life.” That’s to be expected. Only Dave Sim thinks that way. Still— just like the Gospel stuff—I always encourage him—just wrap it up! Make a nice book out of it. But that is not Chester’s way.
Dom; The Gospels were the one I wish he’d finished.
Did he even finish two? He finished Mark.
Eric: And he did most of Matthew; he got to the Passion, or just before, so all he would have had to do was maybe two or three more installments.
The problem with that, though, of course, is that you’ve got four gospels, and hanging over your head that you’ve only done two. He almost would have been better off if he’d just quit after Mark, and then he would have put out one gospel.
Dom: Right. Because then the expectation isn’t there.
Exactly. He could have pretended he never intended to do all four. But now—I can see how even if he finished the second one, he would still have the other two hanging over his head. “I still have to finish those other two, or else what’s the point?” But, I would have been perfectly happy to have had both of those books. I will let him off the hook!
Eric; I would have liked to have seen what he would have done with John, because it’s the Gnostic gospel, it’s so odd...
Oh, yeah? And his thinking has certainly changed over the years too, so each of the gospels would have quite different. It would be a fascinating collection.
Eric: But I think John, because of his Gnosticism—that’s his cup of tea—and then I see that in Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus, in the notes section of all things, he does this incredible adaptation of Job, which is maybe eight pages, and it’s extraordinary, it’s unbelievable, and I read something like that and I just marvel at his talent. And then I read some of his other things, and I … I don’t know what to think.
I think Chester’s a genius, but I would say, and if he was here, I would say it to him, I would say, I think this prostitution thing has been a wrong turn. I think that it’s interesting, but he’s got such an axe to grind, and every single future work, now, seems like it is going to be about proving some point about prostitution, and I just think that’s limiting himself. Hopefully I’m wrong.
Eric: Have you read the reader reviews of Mary?
No, I haven’t, what’s the—is it that bad? I imagine it could be bad.
Eric: Well, he’s had the few fundamentalists who just take umbrage at everything, but then you get even the people who are more considered, they know where he’s coming from, they have the context, they understand what’s going on, they’ve read the notes, they’ve read the book back to front, and even those reviews are quite tepid.
I have to say, I didn’t know anything he was talking about in the notes, but I read the notes and almost immediately, I was thinking, “you did not convince me with your notes.” And that’s a mistake. There are a couple of spots in the notes where he admitted he fudged the information, and that throws the whole argument into danger. He should have just lied! And I thought, if I as a friend who is totally sympathetic to you am not convinced, then a random reader is quite likely not going to be meeting you halfway with this controversial material.
Eric: And it’s a complex argument that requires considerable—
Eric: —right, so it’s not an easy argument to make. I think he wants it to be easier than it is.
He does. As well, Chester is a very sure person— he’s sure he’s right, and we’re all wrong, and we just will not admit we’re wrong. My opinion is that Chester really does believe that if we would all just stop overreacting and listen carefully to him that we would all be convinced that there is no such thing as romantic love and that society is built on a fallacy of some sort, and that everything is an exchange of goods—a Libertarian kind of idea, I suppose—and that, you know, we need to restructure how we get along with each other and then everything would be hunky dory. Except that it’s completely unworkable, and that no human being—society is never going to head where he’s going, but he’s the one lone man in the universe who knows all the answers, and I always think that that’s a pretty good sign that you’re wrong. I don’t for a second believe that my lame-duck rejection of modern society means I have any answers about how society should function. I really don’t think that I could get up and give a convincing speech about how I think life could work better, because I’m far too aware that all these issues are so complicated.
Nothing is black and white. Take that whole argument from earlier—about formality. The minute you start talking about formality, and you start talking about the society pre-1965 or something, it gets so complicated to start determining what from that society should have carried on and what shouldn’t, and what the nuances are in that argument. When I see people talking about things being better in the past, well, you know, that’s just a ridiculous statement. There’s no such time when things were better. There were some things that were better—
Eric: … and the things that were better about what it was like, almost always are diametrically the very things that they are opposed to.
Yes, exactly. The interesting thing is that absolutely nobody who is talking right now about how things were better in the past is equipped to actually live like that again. In America right now, this idea of turning back the clock is literally a joke—the very people who are subscribing to that silly notion would be completely outcast in that old society. These people have very base desires that are not going to be met by that society back then. Those Trump supporters would be utterly marginalized in 1950s America. They would be shocked to find themselves in a society that would completely judge them. They’d hardly be welcomed there as kings!
Dom: What I find interesting about the whole, you know, “Seth is nostalgic” thing, is that’s always been there in your work, that skepticism.
I’ve always been doubtful, but to be fair, if you’d talked to me when I was twenty or twenty-five, I would have been a lot more argumentative about how things were better in the past.
Dom: Yes, but even in It’s a Good Life, to me, the moment that really stands out there in this regard, is when “Seth” and Ruthie are talking and, you know, the best thing Seth can come up with about what’s better now is his that mother wears makeup, and Ruthie’s “Really? That’s your standard? What about all this other stuff?” and I’m thinking, you know, even that book doesn’t just say, “things were better in the past,” it says, “this character thinks things were better in the past,” but it leaves lots of room for readers to ironize and to distance themselves from that character.
I never wanted anything to be too set in stone. Maybe knowing Chester helps with that because even back then was when I first began to figure out that Chester wasn’t actually shy, just quiet but extremely arrogant, (laughs), he was very useful in making me defend my stupid opinions. He often shamed me out of my desire for simple answers. I mean, you have to be somewhat sure, you have to be arrogant enough to believe you know what you are talking about to make judgments, but I do think that everything is far too complicated to have any simple answers. There’s a great line in The Simpsons, where somebody shouts out, “where do we get these simple answers” and I agree, “yes, if only we had the simple answers, life would be so great.” I hesitate to bring up Dave Sim—
Dom: I think that Cerebus basically crossed the line when he shifted from showing you what he thought to telling you what he thought.
It’s true, that’s a very good—I mean, even with my limited knowledge of Cerebus, I can see the difference between Jaka’s Story and what he was doing at the end.
Eric: The odd thing about the end of Jaka’s Story is that reading it at the time, and at the time he wrote it—and he admitted this—is that he was trying to portray Jaka as a kind of victim, but then later, as his reality shifted, now all of a sudden she is the villain, as it were, in that story. I suppose it speaks to the strength of the material that you can read it either way, so hats off for that, but at the same time, Jaka is sort of representative of this 180-degree turn that he seems to have undergone.
It’s interesting. How do you transform that completely? I mean one of the things we’ve been talking about with Clyde, is that it’s been twenty years, and I think my essential answer is that I’m not that different a person now than when I started it, but Dave, over twenty years time, seems to have undergone a dramatic personal shift, and the question is, is Dave a different person now than when he was doing the work twenty years ago, or is the person who he is now who he always was, and there was a veneer disguising that person, that he was hiding who he was? I mean, I feel like that can’t just come out of left field, unless perhaps it is mental illness.
Dom: I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an element of both veneer and transformation. I do think that when he read the Bible, that was a transformative experience, but I also do think—because he’s also kind of admitted this—he has said that things he said, like that his mother was a great mother, that he was lying, so early on, at least sometimes he was disingenuous.
But which is the lie? The nice things he said about his Mother early on or the revision of that statement? I do think we lie to ourselves, absolutely. There are certainly things that I thought when I was in my early twenties that I now realize were just comforting to think, but not necessarily true.
Eric: I think that Dave is ultimately a contrarian. He’s unquestionably a narcissist, and narcissists tend to be contrarian. They just love to get under your skin. And I think that the general shift, politically speaking, in culture—I think Dave just likes being a stick in the mud about things. Back then, being a stick in the mud meant having these beliefs, and now it’s something else entirely.
I think that sounds true. It’s interesting. Who told me this recently, that when Ditko died, Dave Sim said, “Now I’m all alone.” Someone told me that, and I thought, that is a very grandiose, narcissistic statement—it’s like, “Now I’m the only one representing the truth.” I’m surprised he even let Ditko into his ivory tower, but it’s funny, I mean that really is overstating it.
Dom: As I understand it, even Ditko at some point basically said to Dave, “Stop writing to me.”
I’m not surprised. I could see Ditko—why would Ditko want to be the sidekick to Dave’s narrative? I mean, you know that anyone Dave’s writing to basically has to somehow shore up what he’s saying. They get stuck with the secondary role. I mean, I’m sure Dave would enjoy an argument with Ditko, but he wouldn’t enjoy losing an argument with Ditko, I would guarantee it. And you couldn’t win an argument with Ditko. I mean, how could you penetrate that force field of Randian thought? Even Super-Dave couldn’t penetrate that, I’m sure.
Eric: No, that’s baked in. There’s just no—
There’s no entry point through that philosophical wall.
Eric: Getting back to Fans, as you grow older and life invariably becomes more complex and the ambiguities, moral or otherwise, pile up, do you find yourself drawn towards a greater degree of simplicity in your artwork? Do you find simplicity in art to be synonymous with purity? You seem to be edging toward that in Clyde Fans.
I think I am edging towards it, although, if I had to make a real argument for simplicity and purity, I think it would be a difficult argument. It’s an extremely complicated argument, and the minute you start bringing forward simplicity as some sort of answer to a purer way of getting anything, you quickly get caught up in the fact that there are levels of simplicity, of course, and while simplicity is an excellent tool for organizing complexity, pure simplicity is not a goal in itself.
Eric: A distillation, when it’s that intensely focused, paradoxically results in more complexity—
Eric: —because you’re so focused—like, in Clyde Fans, you’re so focused on essentially what are a handful of moments.
Yes, very true that—I do think that I’m trying to boil things down and create a more intense direction for my work. That’s very true in the drawing of course. The drawing is getting simpler and simpler, and I am starting to feel that I could do a comic where the characters were just silhouettes. I’m not interested in complexity in drawing any more. I might even go so far as to say I’m not even interested in drawing. Whatever it was that made me interested in drawing when I was young, I don’t have that feverish impulse any more. I would much rather just create shapes, or—design is very appealing to me at the moment. There’s something about it that is simple and direct and exciting to me in a visceral way that is similar to how I felt when I started making comics. I’m still interested in telling stories, of course, but I’m certainly not interested in drawing the way some people love to draw. Somebody like, I don’t know, like Rick Altergott, who sits down and does that incredible Wally Wood approach, you can see he really loves doing it, though I’m sure it’s hard work. But I don’t love drawing in that way anymore. My wife has been doing a lot of drawing, just for fun, and she likes to draw. Genuinely gets pleasure from the act. I don’t get that pleasure anymore, and I think that part of the drive toward simplicity in the artwork is simply wanting a more direct way to impart the information. I mean, if I have to do a complex drawing, I’ll do it—when you have to turn the page and have a whole cityscape, because you need it in the story, I will do that drawing. I’ll sit down and I’ll sweat it out, but—
Dom: And it’s worth it!
—but if I can do ten heads on the page that are just silhouettes and get the same effect, I’d be just as interested in that. The funny thing about comics is—sort of to circle back a bit—is that there is a strong impetus to draw, and to show off that you can draw.
When I first started out, I remember while working on Mr. X, Dean Motter, who wrote that comic, told me that he’d shown some of my work to one of the guys at DC, and that fellow said, “I don’t know what to make of it, because I can’t tell if the guy can draw or not.” It was a funny comment that struck me; I’d never thought about it until that point, and it occurred to me, he can’t see through the cartoon style. He’s too used to looking at the superhero characters and that form of stylization, that he can’t see beyond my cartoon style of drawing to understand whether it’s good drawing or not. Cartooning is cartooning. Those superhero guys get caught up in the idea of rendering, how it’s approached—how many lines or what kind of figural detail is show. That is what drawing is about to them, but of course there’s a wide variety of drawing approaches, and whether you’re any good at drawing or not has certainly got much wider parameters than how much rendering is involved. But it made me think about how important it is in comics to show that you can draw. There’s a lot of folks—ask the question, “who ’s the best artist in comics?” If you talk to some older fans about it, it might be Frazetta, or “I’m a big fan of Al Williamson,” or whatever, and when you say, “what do you like about them?” they say, “Oh, those guys really can draw, or “They’re very realistic,” or whatever, and you think to yourself, well, Frazetta’s not a realistic artist. Frazetta has a very stylized approach. I’m not too sure there’s anybody in comics I would say is a realist. What they’re dealing with is a variety of levels of cartoon stylization. Neal Adams is not drawing realistically, not in any way, shape or form. He’s just got a different set of cartoon stylizations than Charles Schulz has. They’re quite different, but they’re both just sets of cartoon symbols that they’re working with. It’s a language—
Eric: Kind of a dialect of sorts.
Yes. But people really are impressed by the visual power of comics, and so, the more you draw, the more you show you can draw, the more people like it. And cartoonists, because of that, have a real chip on their shoulder about getting too simple, because they’re afraid people will say, a) it doesn’t look like you’ve worked on this hard, and b) they’ll say, you don’t know how to draw, because they want to see the show-offy kind of quality of drawing. Chris Ware is very interesting in that his work is visually potent, people are like, “Whoa! That’s really impressive!” But he could make it so much more impressive if he wanted to. You look in his sketchbooks, and that guy can draw like anything. He’s deliberately thrown away that ability to render to instead make simple little round characters, because he’s more interested in the storytelling itself. He’s made a choice. But I would go so far—and Chris would probably totally disagree with me about this—but I would still say that somewhere in him is some desire to show off. He’s making those pages very complex. It’s hard for us cartoonists to give up the desire to try to win praise for rendering. It is hard to give it up, because you still want to show you’ve got the chops.
Eric: But you have to strike a balance between … there has to be a certain degree of artlessness to it. Otherwise it gets in the way.
I remember Dan Clowes saying that the main thing he does when he sits down to draw, is he wants to replicate the fetishistic vibe of the comics he saw as a kid, the potency of the images themselves. Chester has told me that what he’s trying to do is recreate a Harold Gray drawing the best he can do; that’s what he’s doing. I’m not doing that, but somewhere in my mind, I am still thinking, I need this to have some sort of visual appeal that still shows that I’m up to it. So, beginning this new graphic novel, I am really torn about which way do to go with it. Do I do this in the “Nothing Lasts” approach, which is just to draw it and not worry about it, or am I going to do it in the Clyde approach, which means it may look very simple, but a lot of work has gone into it—I call it the full style. The full style, I hate; it’s a drag. “Nothing Lasts” is pure fun. It’s actually one of the few times I do enjoy drawing. I’m on the fence but I suspect the new comic’s got to be the full style or I’ll feel I have cheated somehow. Though to be honest, the “full style” has gotten closer to “Nothing Lasts” in the last year or so. Somewhere in this decision there’s still the old cartoonist aesthetic that if it’s not as good as you can make it, you’re wimping out and people will say you can’t draw. Inevitably, when you see cartoonists who literally have the farting-it-out style, it’s hard to respect because there’s something in the old-world cartooning ethic wherein people my age and older can’t seem to help thinking, “you’re not putting enough effort into that!” It’s not good enough if you did that in an hour.
Eric: You said you were thinking about doing an entire comic in silhouettes?
Eric: Did you see the Anders Nilsen book from a few years ago [Rage of Poseidon, 2013]?
Um, I would think I’ve seen all of Anders’s—oh, you mean the one where it’s just a single page?
Eric: It’s folded out and done in silhouette.
I think it can be entirely effective. I like the idea. After all I just said let me contradict myself—the interesting thing about cartooning is it is an art form where you shouldn’t be paying to much attention to the drawing. But, as the person doing the drawing it’s hard not to. I know—at least, I think—that people reading “Nothing Lasts” probably don’t think any more about the drawing in Clyde Fans than they do in “Nothing Lasts.” They both do the job. That’s really all you need. But there’s some itch inside you that says, “I will know later on that I didn’t do certain things with the full intent,” and then you got to make up your mind whether that matters and commit to an approach. Certainly, I know people who like the “Nothing Lasts” stuff better than the other stuff, and so you say to yourself, “Well then, it doesn’t matter, does it? Maybe I should do the easier approach.” You’re never quite sure, the problem is, if you want to get enough work done there’s got to be certain works that you relegate to the “I will give it the full effort” and others that will be in the “easy does it” style, as Crumb calls it.
Dom: One of the things absent from the collected book is going to be the paratextual material. A lot of that stuff is irrelevant to the book, but some of it, the covers especially, often were oblique or symbolic companion pieces or comments.
Dom: And I guess that ties into—earlier we were talking about serialization maybe not being the best format for this story, but on the other hand, serialization does present options, or opportunities for covers, additional pages and so on to make oblique or secondary contributions. So, do you have any ambivalence about anything from the serialized version being lost in the book?
Not necessarily entirely lost in the construction of the book … though most of those specific things will not be included. I do not reprint any of the covers etc., but I do have a really long introductory design sequence before the story starts, which is literally about forty pages in length—it’s the most ridiculous opening to a book that I’ve ever done. To explain quickly—Chip Kidd told me this once, he said, the space between the half-title page and the title page is the designer’s chance to write a bit of poetry. That’s where you have a couple of pages where maybe you can put a spread, or a couple of images. People usually do, at best, three or four pages there, and I tend to try and stretch those out when I design a book, so the Peanuts collections I think had something like six pages in between, I can’t remember the details. But that space there, between the half title page and when the story starts in Clyde Fans will be about forty pages. So it’s a really long sequence where I drag in some of the same visual elements that I used to design the comics.
It’s an attempt to do the same kind of thing I was doing in the comics, which is to bring in ancillary material, yellow pages, freak cards, business papers and the like—some quality of trying to build the world of the Clyde brothers with those kind of images before you even enter the story.
Dom: One of the interesting things for me about the covers of the comic book is they set the tone before you start the chapter.
That’s funny you should say that because that is one of the big changes that’s come along in comics since those early days of the alternatives—the amount of design cartoonists employ. Just the other day I was talking to Joe Matt on the phone, and Joe has never been much interested in design—Chester always had an innate sense of it and has grown more interested in it, and his comics are always beautifully designed, but Joe is still from the old comics world, where he’s not interested in it—only in the comics themselves, not the design around them. So consequently he doesn’t know what to do with design, or what a good design is. Anyway, he was saying to me that he’s thinking of gathering all the Peepshows up into a book, and he was, like, “would you design it for me?” And I said, yes, I would design it for him, but he’d have to do the actual artwork for the different elements, and he was, “Okay, I just want somebody to tell me what to do,” and I thought to myself, I know Joe well enough that this will be a nightmare. But the strange and perplexing part of all this to me is the fact that he has no interest in that element of how you present the work. He literally is an old-time cartoonist, where it’s just about the comics. I think that most cartoonists nowadays realize that the way you package things has a tremendous effect on how it’s read, and just as you were saying, one of the fun things about making the comic was the cover, and the back cover, and what went onto the inside covers or the letters page, whatever. You didn’t have much to work with back in that format, but that gave you a little bit of an opportunity to build an aesthetic around the story, to set the reader up before they started page one. This was something unavailable to earlier generations of commercial comic book artists. I mean, when you opened up a comic—Weird Sports, or whatever—and there’s story one, story two, story three, whatever. You didn’t have much opportunity to elaborate the package, and you probably weren’t even the guy drawing the cover itself.
Dom: And the cover might have had nothing to do with any of the stories anyway.
Eric: Have you ever been tempted to do a comic in a retro sort of newsprint, floppy format?
It’s crossed my mind. It’s funny; it falls into the category almost of being too easy an idea in a way—
Eric: Too gimmicky?
Tom Devlin asked me a couple of years ago, he said, would I be interested in doing a Fine and Dandy comic, and D&Q would publish it, and I thought about it a little. I was kind of interested in the idea and I liked the idea that such a thing might exist, but I didn’t want to put the work into it. It seems like a waste of my time. And it also struck me as a classic mistake—creating something that will be less than what it should be. I mean, Fine and Dandy, in Wimbledon Green I described the series in broad strokes—described it as being a certain kind of wonderful experience: could I really recreate those comics and make them live up to the ideal? I wasn’t sure I could. The only time I’ve seen somebody do something like that perfectly was Chris Ware when he had the writer in Rusty Brown—It was Rusty Brown, wasn’t it?—who wrote the science fiction story that was like the one science fiction story that he wrote, and it was supposed to be a really good story, and then Chris produced it on the page, and it was great. If that story hadn’t been good enough, it would’ve deflated the whole literary effect he was going for. It had to be a really good science fiction story, and it really was, and there aren’t many people that can sell you the idea first, and then produce it. So, I was impressed.
Dom: To actually be able to pull off the pastiche.
That was a really good piece. I remember being super-impressed. And it managed to be meta at the same time, too; it was full of all kinds of meaning about Rusty Brown’s life. So, pretty clever.
Eric: I guess I have a question that sort of ties into that, as far as metafiction goes. The first chapter of Clyde Fans—we’re talking about Abe now, we’ve addressed Simon, but we haven’t really talked about Abe too much. In that first chapter you have him say, he’s lamenting his failure to transition into air-conditioning and he says sort of about his own life, but in a way it’s about Clyde Fans the story, “a story like this you can drag it out and make it into high drama. A man’s life, crushed by fatal error.”
But it’s not like that, so, in a way, I think you’re sort of setting it up that this isn’t going to be high drama—
Eric: —that this isn’t going to be a man’s life crushed by fatal error. But in a way, isn’t it?
Eric: Are you being ironic?
I suppose. But again, was anyone crushed by a fatal error or is that not simply how life goes? And, setting the story up like that—I’m just stacking the deck in my own favor by openly undercutting the grand theme right off the bat. I guess I’m having my cake and eating it too—attempting to steer off any charges of pretension but going there anyway.
Dom: It’s not Death of a Salesman.
Yes, exactly. Their lives are tragic, but they’re not really tragic in a certain sense. I guess it depends on how what you decide tragedy is, and I suppose that both those characters have made their decisions and have made their bed, and they had to lie in it. The fact that their decisions were poor prescribes what their lives are. Both Abe and Simon have made—as he said, they failed to close, and that is not a grand tragedy, but it is sad. It’s unfortunate for them. Do I feel bad for them? I suppose I relate to their decisions, and I understand them, And I understand that essentially it’s impossible to live life without a great deal—well, regret is an essential element of human life, it would be hard for me to imagine a story where characters do not feel regret, and so I’m not sure I do think of it as a tragedy so much as, this is what human life is, to some degree, although these are two slightly more oddball characters than most because they have so deeply failed to connect with others, and with each other as well. The real failure probably in the story is that they fail to know each other. They really are very isolated from each other. Very alone.
Eric: Of course, you could also interpret that as Abe doesn’t want to admit that his life is a failure.
That’s true. Abe certainly holds on to his glories in the story, and he does brag a fair amount, which is of course part of the salesman’s culture; I wanted to have him have a bit of that salesman’s culture about him. He’s certainly—is he less aware than Simon? No, they’re both a little on the—I’d say neither of them is very good at looking inward, and for characters that are doing an awful lot of self-analysis, I don’t feel like either of them are particularly self-aware or wise.
Dom: I think it’s a subtle thing, but one of the things that tracks through the first chapter is Abe going around doing things and forgetting he’s done them. He makes a coffee, he abandons it.
Yes, I suppose so.
Dom: So even though he seems to think that he’s in control, and he’s got a handle on things and he’s been successful, his reality is in effect disintegrating because his mind isn’t even holding onto the daily—
It seems like much of his talk is about failure, although he doesn’t seem to have admitted who the central character is in the failure. I think in the beginning he’s blaming societal changes; although he recognizes of course that he should have gone into air-conditioning, he recognizes that there’s a fatal flaw that made him choose not to do certain things, there is an awful lot of blame-shifting going on throughout the story. Simon, I think, is more honest in that he knows he is the failure.
Eric: And not even an interesting failure.
Eric: Even his failure is a failure, in a way.
That’s actually a good point. I like that. I think that ultimately I do like Simon more than I like Abe, but I didn’t write either one of them to be the more likeable. But much the way I use the word “honest” to describe Simon, as you brought up earlier, in his approach to time, I think Simon can’t help but be the character that seems to have more integrity because Abe is the one who has actually gone out into the world and has not dealt with people equitably. He’s been harsh. We just see the tip of the iceberg. You can imagine that he’s not always been a nice person to deal with, and he’s not even particularly nice to Simon, either.
Eric: He’s—well, to me anyway, he’s a more complex character than Simon, in a lot of ways.
That’s what makes it easy for Simon to be the more admirable, I suppose, because he’s got less—he doesn’t even deal with any other characters, practically, in the story at all.
Eric. That’s true. Interactions with others ultimately result in an inevitable compromise of your character.
Absolutely. And I certainly poured more of my life and who I am in the world into Abe than I did into Simon. Simon represents some of, you know, my experiences of timidity, but Abe gets much more the forceful role of what I’ve experienced and how I have behaved out in the world.
Eric: At the beginning of Fans, though, he’s living in the family home. He’s surrounded, and you could say he’s imprisoned, by the detritus of the past, by the paperwork from the business and what’s left of the parts and things, and so on, but when he gives his reason for moving back, he says it made economic sense, and that’s a total copout.
Eric: And he also says he had to take care of Simon, but you’re left with the impression that, you know, he’s divorced, he’s out of work; if Abe had something better to do, he would be doing it. So he’s giving himself these reasons for moving back, but ultimately they’re just self-deceptions.
They are self-deception. I do think that his decision to go back at the end, which mirrors the same speech which Simon gives to go back, is—in both cases, I think of both decisions as bad choices. I think that it’s understood within the context of the story that they are lying to themselves. I mean I’m not 100% sure with Simon because I haven’t decided 100% what the vision truly means, but if we take it that it the vision is Simon speaking to himself, then his decision to retreat is a mistake and a self lie. And I believe Abe’s decision to come back to the house at the end after he’s faced some sort of final failure is again, a self lie that about embracing a deeper vision of reality. I don’t think it works out for him, either.
Eric: Abe does have some self-awareness, though, because he acknowledges his own tendencies, when he wonders what it was about his family that breeds this desire to hide, and he saw they both were born with this family trait, both he and Simon. But he calls it playing the game, sociability, but that he paid the price with self-loathing. Why self-loathing?
I guess that’s what we were talking about earlier. When you go out into the world and deal with other people, that means you must deal with the reality of—yourself bouncing back onto yourself. When Abe talks about all his interactions with other people in the world, you see that in them, he’s kind of—well, I guess you could say he’s the villain in the story. All the stories he tells in his narrations are about how he hurt people or took advantage of people. He doesn’t have a single story to tell where there’s anything good. With his wife, he reflects only on disgust; the thought of them being in love makes him feel sick, so he doesn’t even have a good memory of her. It’s like he doesn’t have a single good memory—Abe never speaks well of anyone in the story because much like Simon, he’s the only real character in his world. I think that both of them have the same problem, but they deal with it in a different way. That’s why Simon’s way seems more pure, because fewer people are hurt along the way. Abe’s little speech when he goes north to see that girl is really the speech of a complete narcissist who is not interested in anyone else, and the fact that he doesn’t even really remember what he did to that woman shows clearly that Abe is only concerned with himself.
Even at the end, when he decides to leave, you can see that it’s part of that delusion, that now he’s going back to live some sort of monk-like existence that he imagined Simon living, except that it was pretty clear that Simon was no monk, and Abe certainly doesn’t end up as a monk either. In both cases, I’m playing around with the idea—I think to myself, when I do think about it—with the idea of retreat being some sort of movement towards purity, whereas for some unknown reason I don’t want to fulfill that idea in the story. I could have made one of them happy, or at least have it so that retreat paid off into some sort of deeper profound experience, but on some level I guess, without consciously planning it too hard, I just can’t do such a thing. I had to show it fail. I suppose that kind of isolation — it doesn’t seem the logical end result of these decisions would be profound enlightenment—certainly, not for these two characters. Even somebody like Wimbledon Green has his experience near the end of the book, in the last chapter, Wimbledon basically explains his life and talks about his experience of being in the world and when he was young and going out and being under the stars, and it kind of puts forward the idea of the profoundness of human experience, because I think my characters are all always ultimately looking for that transcendence. Wimbledon Green is obviously a bit of a joke, so you don’t really expect that Wimbledon is going to achieve enlightenment, although in some sense perhaps he is the most enlightened character I’ve done. At least he’s happy and knows what he’s doing. But I feel like my characters always come to that point, somehow, where they seek some grander thing—George Sprott with his dream of the afterlife, whatever it is, but there’s something there—some mystic experience that is lacking. Maybe I don’t feel like I would be able to write it earnestly where enlightenment pays off. I don’t know. As I said earlier, I feel there’s a sense of unreality to the world, a very strong sense of unreality… but I’m not sure what to make of that or what to do with it.
Eric: That would be a betrayal of the naturalism.
Oh, there’s always ambiguity. Even in Clyde Fans there is ambiguity about whether what is happening is real or not, and I drop a couple of clues that make it harder to take the story at face value—a couple of clues that imply a mystic reality. I just didn’t want it to be absolutely written as fact—the kind of ambiguity where perhaps this or that is just an illusion.
Dom: That’s one of the things that struck me about it rereading it, is it’s clearly not fantasy, but it also seems to be hybrid, generically, in that it skews in directions that could go into, like the uncanny.
Like in a movie, like in a fantasy or horror film, there will be times when you don’t know if what’s happening is real or not.
Dom: That’s the definition of “fantasy” according to Tzvetan Todorov, one of the theoreticians of the fantastic. Todorov says the fantastic is that moment of suspension when you don’t know if what’s happening is susceptible of a realistic explanation or not.
Oh yeah? That’s very interesting. I always like it that in a work where you don’t know what’s what. I recall that in the original Wolf Man film, they were going to have a scene—I think, I might be misremembering this—but I think there was to be a scene where Larry Talbot looks into a pool while he’s the Wolfman, and sees just his normal face. So that would be—that blows open whether it happened or not. That shows he’s probably insane. But they didn’t do that, and it’s pretty clear in the Wolf Man that he is a Wolfman. I would have liked that scene to have stayed because then it adds some doubt of whether he really was the Wolfman or not, whether this was in his head, or what that meant. You could spin that out into a variety of meanings, and that ambiguity always makes something more interesting.
Dom: We were about talking about mysteries earlier, and how the set-up of mysteries is that you want a solution, but the solution is often unsatisfactory, and I wonder if there’s a kind of analogue to what you’re talking about with character arcs, or what a character achieves; that itself is a kind of fictional conceit. It’s not necessarily untrue that a life can be like that, but it’s a fictional conceit, and it seems that you’re suggesting that you’re sort of working against that yourself. You’re aware that on some level that’s what people expect to emerge from this—
Eric: Everyone wants their life to have meaning.
Absolutely. I think I’ve deliberately tried to undercut the idea that life has meaning in every single book I write, for some reason. George Sprott’s kind of about that as well, where it is ambiguous whether this a tragedy or not. Who is this man, was his life important? I feel like I have to undercut that kind of cliché. Good Life is basically about the same thing; I mean, was this cartoonist’s life of interest, is Kalo someone of importance, was he happy, did he fail, what does any of it mean, is it important in any way? I think it may have a lot to do with—if I got psychological about it, it’s simply that growing up with the kind of parents I had, I think I looked at both of their lives as tragedies or failures, and yet I wanted to defend them against it. I didn’t want to see them that way. I certainly loved them both, and it couldn’t have been a more difficult marriage—you know, two people who hated each other, and there was mental illness in the family, and a lot of acting out. It was a difficult kind of family to grow up in, but both my parents were entirely sympathetic to me, and both of them—certainly, I look back and say their decisions were terrible ones, their lives were ruined, and yet I can’t just view them as simple tragedies, and yet it’s also hard to say—to get caught up in that trite idea that every life has value, and every life is important and interesting. I mean, there’s something in that essential story of those two people —my parents— that keeps me always questioning, what is it all about? What is all this human suffering for?
I feel like—I’m constantly—It’s hard even to explain, this kind of thinking, but you look around you at the world and —it’s like a statement I read somewhere—I don’t know who said this, Mark Twain, maybe—what kind of God is it who has all the power in the universe but has never made a single person happy? I mean there are degrees of happiness and degrees of suffering out there, people have lives that are complicated, and nothing is simple, and it’s almost impossible to write a story that just wraps everything up neatly about people’s lives.
We watched this movie recently, my wife and I, called 45, from a few years ago, I guess. It’s got Charlotte Rampling in it. It’s the 45th anniversary of this couple, and just before they’re about to have the party he receives a letter that this girlfriend he had 45 years ago, who died falling in a glacier, they’ve just found her body frozen in the ice, perfectly preserved. And then suddenly this revelation throws a curve into everything in their lives, as he is suddenly right taken back 45 years to another life and another person he was, and it’s the kind of film that at the end, when it all came together in the end— it was very messy, and not really a pleasure to watch because it was one of those films where everything was unhappy in the story—and at the end, when it wrapped up, I think we were both unsatisfied, somehow, with the film. After it was over, we were like, “what was wrong with the film?” and “what would have made it right?” and we went through a bunch of scenarios to “fix” it— in the film near the end the husband gives an anniversary speech but it doesn’t resolve anything. It fails in a complicated way. Actually, it’s not a terrible speech, and you’re not entirely sure when he gives the speech whether you’re supposed to think it worked or not, but it certainly does not resolve any of their marriage problems.
So then I started thinking to myself, could I have written the speech that did resolve the problems, that made it a great ending so by the end of the film you were—like Babette’s Feast or something—where you were “oh, life is beautiful!” I was working hard to try and figure out how to manipulate that storyline to wrap it to make the story again come back to reaffirm life and make life worth living and beautiful. And I could not do it. First off; I could not have written that perfect speech if my life depended on it. Secondly, the bigger problem was, is that kind of perfect emotional wrap up even a good ending? Does that not trivialize everything that went on in the film, if you could wrap it by solving the problems of their marriage in a touching anniversary speech? You’d really have to rewrite the whole movie for that. But, what it really brought to mind is how difficult it is to tell a story about the messiness of human life, how unsatisfying it is to the reader/viewer on some emotional level. I mean, there are many movies that tell hard stories brilliantly and at the end you say, “well that was an interesting movie about life”—but you often say as well, “and I don’t ever want to see that film ever again.” It’s not the one you pop in to watch again on a grey afternoon. We seek a certain kind of emotional experiences from our artform.
Strangely, for me, something like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which is so harrowing, eventually becomes a strange sort of feel-good film, if you watch it enough times. There’s something in the structure of the film, the way the characters are connected to each other, that makes their unhealthy bond actually kind of appealing; at the end you almost feel like you wish that you were as close to someone as these two nightmare people are. So what is that all about? What is happening in this story that makes it something to return to whereas other books or films are good but messy—too grim. It’s all very tricky, when you come to write about real life, how to keep it so that it doesn’t sink into some maudlin pap, but also isn’t completely abandoning yourself to a kind of nihilism that makes the work unpalatable.
Eric: Did you ever see that Whit Stillman film Metropolitan?
A hundred times.
I always go back to that scene, where they’re talking about Fourierism and how it ceased to exist, and the main character, the middle-class outsider says, well we all cease to exist, so by that definition we’re all failures.
I love that film. It’s funny, that film has a line in it that I use all the time, I was just mentioning it the other day, which is when one of the characters says, “You know there’s a God because you sense that there’s someone listening to your thoughts.” And that is a line that really rings true to me even though I’m not a believer in God. But I do feel someone is listening to my thoughts. There is a strange quality in the sensation that you don’t feel like you’re only talking to yourself in your head, some illusion that the inside of your skull is limitless; you’re not inside your head at all. It’s this otherworldly place where your thoughts and your voice live. And I know in the film they’re kind of laughing at it because that’s the scene where he’s talking about communication with the pigeons, I think, or the seagulls, but that line has a real profundity to it. I return to that thought often.
Eric: The two dull and gray pigeons—
Eric: That’s Abe and Simon, right?
Of course. I slightly altered that nursery rhyme. I don’t believe it actually reads exactly as I —I changed one line a bit. A piece of straightforward heavy-handed symbolism.
Eric: Just as an observation, Abe towards the end is saying how everything falls away, but then there’s something else that comes up and itches at you, and that there’s almost this sort of resignation that life by its very nature is incomplete,t hat there is a distressing lack of calmness or contentment. He seems to be sort of echoing Simon, in the sense that Simon once was looking for that frozen moment of perfection, and Abe seems to be feeling that same sort of distressing pull of time and experience, and the flow of time leading toward the inevitable. To me, the climax of Clyde Fans comes when Abe realizes that however much he despises his father, for abandoning him—there’s that reveal at the end—that he still yearned for his love, as a son does, and he kept the business running, which he despised, in the hopes that his father would return. There is sort of a dramatic payoff, in a sense.
That’s probably the most dramatic thing in the whole thing.
Eric: You’ll grant me that.
Sure. Without a doubt.
Eric: So, it was sort of a line he cast out into the future, and it was a hope that he secretly held, that he was keeping to himself, and his anger toward Simon was that he saw Simon, both Simon and his mother, as these burdens that were sort of foisted on him by his father. So at the same time he wants his father back he’s also terribly angry at him for leaving and leaving him with that burden and that lonely task of responsibility to keep that tenuous grasp on the outside world on behalf of Simon, and to keep both his mother and Simon from sinking further and further into isolation.
Abe, like Simon, is imprisoned by his past, but unlike his brother, I think he’s more able to suppress these feelings of loneliness and isolation. Aspects of his past, as he describes it, only become dimmer. They become, he says, a series of names—and that echoes Abe's belief that there is power in a name—as a result, some things remain to him quite vivid, whereas for Simon, the past becomes brighter and brighter and brighter until it ultimately consumes him. So in one sense you have Abe sort of repressing and pushing all of this stuff down and on Simon’s side, it’s this yearning and grasping.
I think you’ve touched on a very good dichotomy. You used a line there that hadn’t occurred to me. You said that Abe was throwing out a line into the future, because one of the important symbols from Simon’s narration in Part Three where he talks about a connecting thread into the past, this idea of a vibrating wire between past moments and the present, and I hadn’t really thought about it, but it’s true that Abe is a character who moves into the future, even though he’s talking about the past. Like you said, for him the past dims over time, The fact that he forgets this key event in his own life, this is a person who’s not focused on memory in the same way as Simon who, according to his own dialogue, still feels the people out there that he knew, moving from room to room, et cetera, et cetera. I do think Abe is clearly—I’m trying to write a more normal person— that he is the outgoing side of the two, like when I said earlier that they are myself, Abe is clearly the person who goes out into the world to deal with things, whereas Simon is the person who retreats from the world. But I didn’t want to make Abe the kind of person who—I knew he had to be the same inward type, on some level— like you said, as he sees things falling away, he plants his hope on going back home, as where the answers will lie, but it’s still a forward-moving thought. It’s wrong, but it is a plan, a concrete plan. Even though Simon makes a similar plan at the end of the book, it is not a move forward. It’s a retreat. He’s going back to where he already was—a justification for not making a plan. Abe is a more normal person in that he, like most people in the world, when you make plans, you’re looking into the future, we’re moving forward by saying, “I will do this, I will do that.” Abe has lived his life that way. And yet, ultimately, he wants retreat as well. I think that that’s why we start with Abe in retreat, so that we know how that works out, because it wouldn’t work if it was left hanging. It might give the impression that that was going to be a successful plan. But I do definitely think of Abe as the active character, and it’s interesting that he gets a mixed bag of qualities that make him, like you said, a more complicated character than Simon.
Eric: Does that speak to your own family dynamic, you say there are reflections of yourself, and…?
It does. My father was a lot like Abe, but a lot of these kinds of figures, George Sprott is a lot like my father, too. There was something, a kind of quality of bluster about a certain kind of man. I think my father was this way, and I think there’s—when I was writing George Sprott I was thinking a lot about a certain kind of middle-aged or older white guy. A type I recognized from the era of my childhood that strikes a kind of chord in me. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them tragic figures, because there’s something foolish about them as well. I think Abe is kind of a foolish character. It’s hard; they don’t have real tragedy because they don’t have enough dignity, I would say.
Abe’s character, it’s hard to fully empathize 100% with him because he’s not a good enough person. It’s easier to like Simon because he seems like he’s more tragic, a born failure. I do find that my father had some of that same character as Abe or Sprott, whereas I admired him, I loved him, but ultimately, I didn’t respect him, and that was the problem, that’s where the foolishness comes in. As I get older, I find myself worrying about this for myself. I think the desire to struggle to maintain your dignity is something I would never have thought about when I was twenty—although I should have, because I wasn’t keeping a lot of dignity back then. But now, I find that every—it’s so easy to lose your dignity. To appear foolish in the world. Something that I have a genuine dread of. To get into dime store psychology again, I think it comes from being a child who was easily humiliated, who—like the typical comic fan story of the kid who got picked on too much—
Eric: … sand kicked in your face.
You grow up with an exaggerated fear of embarrassment, and that’s so tied into a sense of appearing foolish — I can’t help but write that into those characters somehow. There is something about them that I can’t demand a full-blown, “you should feel for this character” kind of response. There’s something in it that it’s just got to be their own fault. When I look at both of my parents, and they inform practically everything I think or write about, they’re such potent, giant figures in my mind, and I can’t let them off the hook for their choices. I’m deeply involved with them, and I think about them all the time, I love them dearly, but now that they’re both gone, and it’s impossible to get any answers, I have a lot more questions than I did when I was young. With mother, for example, I grew up with this innate belief that we deeply loved each other, and yet neither of us ever said a word about it, and now she’s been dead for ten years or so, and I find myself thinking, “Did she love me?” I mean, she never said the words, she was cold as ice, she had her problems, and you start to say, “How much of all that was in my own head?” “What was she thinking?” I start thinking about my mother and the strange isolated life she lived, and I think, what the hell was going on in her brain? I never even thought to really ask those questions until it was far too late, until she had dementia. And then you start to think about all the things you’ve taken for granted. Why did you take them for granted? Was it convenient? You know, as a child you would think, if you felt any lack of love, you’d know it, because it would have been something that registered and stayed in your mind. I didn’t feel unloved; on the contrary, I felt very loved, and yet, looking back and reflecting on it all I realize there’s no evidence to make this all clear. What was going on? What’s was all that all about? And now it’s too late to know. I suppose these are the kinds of complexities that when you start writing about anything, you realize that nothing is as simple as it appears. And with father, I look at all of his actions, and they seem self-defeating, poor choices, he lashed out too much at the world — and it’s hard for me, then, to write a character where I think of them as entirely sympathetic. Yet it’s also hard to do the opposite.
George Sprott, many people have said to me, is a book about a bad person. I don’t think of that book that way at all. I think of George as equal parts admirable and equal parts a rogue. George’s behavior is bad—he takes advantage of women, he’s selfish, he’s narcissistic, whatever—but then, on some other level I find I can’t help but like George. George has his problems, he had a bad childhood, but his niece loves him though. You know, you could check off qualities on either side. I probably stacked it a bit hard against liking him, but essentially, I think the thing is I feel like it’s got to be a mixed bag when you write about people. One of the obvious reasons why certain kinds of entertainment is pleasurable is because it’s not a mixed bag. They give you what you want. Nice characters, bad characters, good endings. But, of course, why certain works are emotionally satisfying as art, is most often because of their emotional or moral complexity.
I’ve been reading all the novels, for the last couple of years, of Anita Brookner, who I’m rather obsessed with, and almost every single novel is the same storyline. She’s done twenty-four books that are essentially about a lonely woman, who has a hard time integrating into society—oh, they are more complex than that, but we’ll just leave it there. The interesting thing is, those characters are complicated in each book. Even though it’s the same story over and over again, she slightly shifts gears each time, and nobody is entirely sympathetic in any of her novels. She seems to deeply understand, even though these are clearly about herself, that people’s lives—people—just aren’t good or bad. They are a bunch of this and a bunch of that. I mean, you must think about this occasionally, think about this yourself—Do you ever wonder, “What do other people really think of me?”
Dom: I try not to, but yes.
You know what you think of other people, your friends or whatever, and if you’re like me and my wife, there is something I refer to as “the culture of two,” where you have two people, usually a couple, and between you, you compose a collective world view. Talking things out together you end up coming to a consensus of what things mean. You can’t help it—in the end you sometimes forget that everybody else doesn’t see things in the same light as the two of you. You end up with very specific opinions about everybody you know, and you talk them out, and at some point you say things like “he’s selfish” or “you gotta laugh at her behavior,” or “she’s way too much of the mommy in that relationship” or “he’s certainly not the boss”—whatever. You build the narrative around who they all these people you know are—their marriages, their behaviors, the usual stuff. But of course, these folks don’t have any idea that this is who you’ve decided they are. They probably think, “I’m easy-going” when you’ve pegged them as “trouble”. But then, every once in a while, it will occur to you, “what is the narrative people have made up about me?” "How am I pegged?” It could be “does that guy ever shut up?” or it could be, “boy, he really thinks he’s smarter than he is,” or a bunch of opinions that you have no idea your friends would be thinking about you, and they all agree on it, all your friends, behind your back. All the other cartoonists I know, we have an opinion of the other cartoonists. When we get together, it would be like, “oh, yeah, so and so,” and we would all have a series of qualities that we’ve talked and somewhat collectively agreed upon….and it’s like, that’s who so and so is to us. But of course they don't know.
Dom: It’s like consensus reality.
Exactly. And so, this is who Chester Brown is, we’ve been talking about him or whatever, there’s a consensus reality, but you never know. You don’t even know your own story. You can’t even make a valuable calculation of what your own qualities are. You are probably literally the worst person alive to describe yourself. If you heard other people secretly describe you, you would probably complain that it isn’t a very deep enough interpretation—they’re missing out on all the best stuff. So, forgive this long rambling answer…but of course, when you write fiction, I think that you’ve literally got to build in some ambiguity there.
Eric: You’ve been talking about whether your mother really loved you, and it sort of illustrates what you were saying about not knowing a person, or not knowing their motivations, even your own mother. But you know, a child has such a desire for love, especially from their mother—
Yes, and their father.
Eric: —that I think oftentimes, and I see this with my own children, is that that desire is so great that they will almost fill in the blanks, as it were. There’s such a need for it, psychologically and emotionally. That’s just an observation.
Why do children want to stay with parents who are abusing them? Because that need for love is so deep.
Eric: The other thing is I don’t think that being good is a prerequisite for tragedy.
No, it isn’t. You’re right. That was a gross simplification on my part.
Eric: You made a statement to that effect; I don’t think you intended it.
No, when you put it out in the open, I do not agree with that idea. And it would obviously be, that would make it—
Eric: You can say, he can’t be a tragic character because he’s not all that good—
I think what I—I’m not sure I even agree with what I am about to say, but what I was leading more towards is that you don’t sympathize with those sort of characters. But, that said, I don’t even think you need to sympathize with a character for it to be a tragedy, and to be honest, I think sympathizing with characters is overrated, and there’s lots of amazing stories where you don’t sympathize with the characters but are still engaged with them. It’s just, we want to like characters, and in fact, one of the main complaints about a lot of films, for example, is that there are no likable characters. That comes up all the time. It’s seen as a failing, like they didn’t do it on purpose, they failed to make them likable. That cracks me up.
Eric: Whenever any character is developed to be likable, they’re usually horrible.
It’s really hard to create a likable character. I can’t even imagine pulling it off. It would be tough.
Eric: I always think of the dog in the Itchy and Scratchy—
Eric: —yes, where they have marketing people, and they’re trying to construct this immediately likable and marketable thing, and everybody ultimately hates it.
Dom: Do you think that that sort of almost predisposition to want characters in comics to be either good or bad is to some extent generically developed, that people would be less likely to be saying, “Well, George Sprott’s a villain” if it were a novel as opposed to a graphic novel?
I don’t think so, actually, although I don’t think you could find a medium that was more simplistic than comics for defining characters, but even so, I think perhaps we’ve had a predilection for that for a long time. Look at Dickens, for example.
Dom: It is that way in Dickens.
Yes, exactly, that’s what I mean. There’s been a long history of a desire to make things simple. Just the other day I was laughing at Trump and Pecker and Weaselberg [laughter] and those are, like, that should be like a Dickens novel or maybe Harold Gray, Little Orphan Annie. You can’t make up stuff like that.
Dom: I saw a headline yesterday that said, “Trump worried about Pecker leaking.”
Eric: That’s the least of his worries.
I think I saw one the other day, it said “Trump loses Pecker.”
Dom: That’s even better.
That was pretty funny stuff. What gods bring mister Pecker into the story? That’s where you do start imagining—
Eric: There’s power in a name.
That’s right. That’s a pretty good end line.