Tune out the Industry, Align with Your Weirdness: Paolo Javier and Sommer Browning in Conversation

Covers to O.B.B. by Paolo Javier, with art by Alexander Tarampi and Ernest Concepcion (Nightboat Books, 2021), and Good Actors by Sommer Browning (Birds, LLC, 2022).

I was instantly drawn in by the poet Paolo Javier’s aesthetic and boundary crossing when I read O.B.B. aka The Original Brown Boy (Nightboat Books, 2021). O.B.B. is Javier’s new book of… poetry? comics? essays? art? It was precisely those question marks that signaled to me something that I know already but perennially forget, that in order to really explore a life lived–the nuances, the roles, the assumptions, the gossip, the knowledge, the mistakes–one genre just isn’t going to cut it. Javier intimately understands the permeability of boundaries and categories as a person born in the Philippines and having homes in several countries before settling in Queens and as a multidisciplinary artist. In addition to being a poet, he’s put out sound recordings, created work for the Queens Museum and PS1, and recently collaborated with the filmmaker Lynne Sachs. He’s a teacher, a learner, a scholar, a father. O.B.B. is Javier’s fifth book and the first he’s written in collaboration with artists, Alexander Tarampi and Ernest Concepcion.

I have done my own experiments in blurring (or darkening) the line between poetry and comics in my first poetry collection Either Way I’m Celebrating (Birds, LLC, 2011), an artist book called The Circle Book (Cuneiform, 2015), a series of broadsides called Everything But Sex (Low Frequency Press, 2017), and in other works. Javier and I spoke over video chat and email about what we love about comics, raising kids who read comics, and approaching artmaking with a beginner’s mind.

-Sommer Browning

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SOMMER BROWNING: Well, thank you for your time. I know this was hell to schedule, so I appreciate you.

PAOLO JAVIER: Oh, thank you. I'm honored you're reaching out. You're someone whose work has made it possible for me to do O.B.B. So this is super meaningful. Thank you.

Thank you. I was preparing a little this morning and I wrote down this whole list of questions about who I love and why I got started in comics and I left it at home… but I was rereading your amazing history of poetry-comics in the back of your book O.B.B. and all this stuff came up that I had sort of forgotten. I was like, "Oh yeah, Rarebit Fiends!" So then I looked through all my old underground comic books but the Rarebit Fiends I have is Roarin' Rick's Rare Bit Fiends. Do you know this from the '90s? Rick Veitch?

Rick Veitch. Yeah.

He had a whole series of Roarin' Rick's Rare Bit Fiends. That and Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and R. Crumb was kind of the beginning for me.

Are you still making comics? Is it still something that's in your practice? I don't know how you can ever really get away from comics, not after you’ve absorbed it in your writing. I find it just informs how you proceed in language moving forward. But I'm curious to know for you, where are comics figuring in your poetics? And congratulations on your new book, Good Actors, by the way!

Thank you. Yeah. I'm curious where it's figuring in, too. I miss it. I don't do it as much. For me, it was always when I needed to decompress from other things, I would just sit down with a blank piece of paper and a pen, usually in public. I like to have the overheard conversation and stuff kind of filter through, you know? And then just draw weird stuff. How about you? Did you draw any of the comics in your book?

From the third chapter of O.B.B., a collaboration between Paolo Javier, Alexander Tarampi, and Ernest Concepcion.

I did make some of the art for O.B.B., an ambition of mine early on in the process. My idea was to start off the book with the typical binary separation of the roles of writer and artist, then for Ernest Concepcion and I to go into his studio where the collaborative process would dissolve our identities. The third chapter of O.B.B. is very meta about this process but also revealing of our end result. Ernest and I worked on a series of poster-sized images over the summer when Michael Jackson passed away, and these images became a limit work for us. After completing this series, I had to wonder what else we could do together, for we’d taken the comic beyond the boundaries of the book at that point.

In the fourth chapter, “Last Gasp”, a cheeky nod to the legendary comics publisher, I created the collages that form the basis of Alex Tarampi’s digital drawings.

From the O.B.B. chapter "Last Gasp"; art by Paolo Javier & Alexander Tarampi.

And yes, I used to draw as a kid. In fact, I had a very active drawing practice. I drew until it became uncool to admit it. My dad was a talented illustrator, and it was his secret ambition to be a professional animator, so he passed on his love for drawing via all the comics he would buy for me in addition to the cartoons he would let us watch. He wound up making the more sensible decision and pursued a degree in economics and accounting. But when he showed me all his drawing juvenilia, I could discern even at my young age that his illustrations were worthy of being published. And I think when he showed me his work, I realized how much I truly sucked at drawing–and it was probably this realization that made me come to my senses that I shouldn’t continue. Right now, I'm more like in a Renee Gladman kind of phase where drawing and writing are sort of indistinguishable from each other. And if you look at my handwriting, they do look like scrolls and drawings. Or maybe this is just an excuse for my really shitty cursive.

I love that your dad drew. You’re reminding me that my father, in a previous life before he even met my mother, was a school teacher for special ed, and when I was 10 or so I found these drawings of Peanuts character flashcards about how to tie your shoes and little kid stuff you would learn in preschool or kindergarten. But he had done all the drawings and they were pitch perfect Charles Schulz. Oh, God. I can't believe I forgot this.

Oh, my goodness. I mean, Charles Schulz… that line is hard to emulate. Wow. That's incredible.

I know. I'm so glad you said that. Your dad, my dad. That stuff seeps in. I think about Georgia, my kid. She loves drawing. And I just want her to keep going. I don't want to put pressure on it and I don't want to make too big a deal about it, but I also want to be encouraging.

Three unbound cartoons from Sommer Browning from the collection Everything But Sex.

100%. Yeah, well you're at a much healthier place, I think, than I am as a parent, because I would never really talk about poetry with my eldest, who loves to draw herself, who just always makes art. To my utter surprise recently, she now likes to write poetry. But comics are everywhere in our apartment. Obviously, Saya’s grown up around art, given my own background but also our concerted efforts to take her and Lyra, her younger sister, to galleries since they were newborns. To be honest, I take both of them to art shows more than poetry readings. Mostly because I feel like it's a lot more safe to be a parent in the gallery setting, where there are accommodations for parents especially in the museum setting, than it is at a poetry reading. You know?

No. What do you mean by that?

Well, I've been burned one too many times as a parent in poetry spaces. Taking my eldest to readings in New York City is... let me just say that the poetry spaces here have not been incredibly welcoming. It got to the point where I decided the only kind of reading I'll take my children to is one that I’m curating or involved in planning. Because then I’ll have the guarantee that it’ll be a kid-friendly space.

Really? That sucks.

This has been my experience. Perhaps race has to do with the hostility; microaggressions, I don’t know. It makes me sad to say this because child’s view and beginner's mind are so foundational to art making. It’s definitely why I specifically love drawing–for its immediacy, vulnerability.

Yeah. I take Georgia everywhere and sometimes she hates it and I drag her and sometimes she loves it, so we'll see.

Saya had such a crush on Jean-Michel Basquiat at a very young age, by virtue of seeing his photo and monographs in the apartment. And when we took her to actually see a Basquiat show, his paintings became even more immediate for her. So it’s meaningful for us to take our children to art spaces. And I would love to be able to take my children everywhere in New York City. Poet and publisher Lee Ann Brown is an idol for me in this regard, because she and Tony Torn have been able to be everywhere in the poetry world with their kid. Marcella Durand as well. But ugh–the poetry scene can be so micro to parents! And the last thing I want is to resent these spaces that have been so formative to me as a poet.

Not to say that the art world is 100% kid-friendly either. I had a horrific experience at an art book fair five years ago where this vendor, who happened to be AAPI too, declared that they wouldn’t sell me their wares on account of my showing up with our newborn. I had Lyra with me in a hug wrap; she was just six weeks old! And this awful, awful vendor says to me: "Oh, I can't sell this book to you until you get rid of that tumor on your chest."

After this experience, I said to my partner: "We can't just presume that all spaces are necessarily welcoming of children."

I'm sorry that this happened. For us, sometimes it's the opposite. I’ll take Georgia and she's the one hating. She says, "What the hell is this shit? I hate this." Or "That talk was so boring."

You take Georgia to talks? The ambient experience of that… that's forming Georgia's DNA.

Well, I hope it doesn't cause the inverse and she becomes Alex P. Keaton or something. You want your kids to be happy… but you also want them to be cool. Let's talk about what we're reading or what we have read recently that we love.

I’m not sure what I would do if either of my kids end up an Alex P. Keaton. Need to add this concern to my chanting practice!

What have I been reading? Well, I just completed Batman: Mask; I think we were corresponding about this. I had ordered it because Tucker Stone was discussing Bryan Talbot’s book on his podcast recently with Joe McCulloch, whose knowledge on the book and the subject of Batman gives Oracle a run for her money. Mask is a title that comes out of the Legends of the Dark Knight line I’d been meaning to catch up on over the years, and Joe’s terrific overview and brilliant analysis sold me on ordering it ASAP. I've also been re-reading Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, Craig Thompson's recent series, Ginseng Roots, published by Uncivilized. I'm a quarter of a way through the anniversary anthology of interviews of the Hernandez brothers, The Love and Rockets Companion, published by Fantagraphics a few years back.

Ramzi Fawaz's The New Mutants book [Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics] celebrates X-Men and the New Mutants, and it’s a study that embraces a more positive view of supes via Queer theory and radical politics. Fawaz’s book has proven uplifting for me as I make my way through similar titles, as well as some Golden Age trades of Batman and Wonder Woman. So I'm being a total comics nerd right now.

On the other hand, I'm not reading much poetry. I’ve primarily been focused on the history of supes comics as prep for an essay/article on the subject, lensed through my Pilipinx childhood and immigrant experience, that I promised I’d send to Tucker for consideration once I’ve completed it.

Spread from O.B.B. by Paolo Javier, Ernest Concepcion & Alexander Tarampi. Click to enlarge.

That's a whole world that I've never even jumped into, superheroes. But how can you get away from it? Lately it's just every other year, some billion dollar superhero movie is out.

Yeah–supes! I supported the MCU’s juggernaut, 25-film Infinity War spectacle, catching every new entry in the cinema on its release date. Nothing like it has ever been achieved in narrative feature films, and to my mind the studio met its aims. I don’t embrace the MCU’s view of heroism entirely–too cis het white and vertical in conflict-building and resolution, IMHO–but there’s plenty other things onscreen to admire and be dazzled by. To date, my faves are Ang Lee’s Hulk, Thor: Ragnarok, Winter Soldier, Civil War, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and Avengers: Infinity War–the more nuanced titles among the lot, and also more embracing stylistically of their comics sources.

But I haven't been to the movies much since the pandemic broke, other than catching Spider-Man: No Way Home–which obviously I had to see given how much it reps for Queens and was filmed in our former nabe of Sunnyside. I did take both of my daughters to The Batman, which I thoroughly enjoyed and was surprisingly moved by. It was cathartic to see Batman actually stop anti-Asian hate onscreen. I’m also a fan of The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale (rest in power), which Reeves’ film is based on.

Typically, I read comics across the genres. And it’s important for me to note that my love of indie comics enabled me to see O.B.B. to completion. The book definitely comes out of alternative comics and zines. Bamboo Girl, Mimi Nguyen, Adrian Tomine, Lynda Barry, John Porcellino, Terry Moore, and, of course, Julie Doucet–idols of mine whose work give my book so much permission.

Yes. I love her so much.

But lately I keep coming back to supes, returning to formative titles: Daredevil by Ann Nocenti and John Romita, Jr; The Badger by Mike Baron and Bill Reinhold; Wolverine by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller; and the Punisher, aka Queens-raised Frank Castle, created by Gerry Conway and whose Circle of Blood limited series by Mike Zeck and Steven Grant I kept in pristine condition all throughout my adolescence to college. I’m especially interested in covering Punisher, in light of Conway’s original intentions for the character and its logical development in Garth Ennis’ ultra visceral MAX series, as well as Frank Castle’s ethnic identity and upbringing set against how his character and insignia have been grossly misappropriated by U.S. American law enforcement and the far right during the Trump years… then tracing him back to Circle of Blood and his solo title launched by Mike Baron during the early years of Bush, Sr.’s presidency–a decade when cis het white male vigilante narratives filled the small and big screen. You know of which I speak: The Equalizer, Walking Tall, Death Wish, and, of course, the Dirty Harry movies. My dad was a huge fan of Eastwood and Dirty Harry. Groan…

Gosh, does every dad love Dirty Harry? Mine too.

Yeah, and also Charles Bronson’s filmography. Both actors have roots in the Spaghetti Western genre, which my father loved most of all. It’s intriguing for me to explore this in terms of growing up in Manila at the tail-end of the Marcos dictatorship.

Dirty Harry, like The Batman, has some strong pro-police propaganda even though most of the police force are villains in that movie.

It’s one reason why I like Reeves’ iteration of Batman, for whom a corrupt police force is the greater nemesis. Also, Reeves’ Batman ensures that the hero’s journey takes him away from avenging, and towards a more compassionate purpose.

Still, Batman is pals with a lieutenant on the force, right? James Gordon? And as an immigrant and brown southeast Asian American with an ongoing history of being harassed by the police and homeland security, I can’t shake the side-eye.

Both of my daughters love the character of Batman in any iteration–my younger one is presently obsessed with Prince’s gnostic interpretation in the “Batdance” video–but they were mostly impressed by Catwoman during our screening of The Batman. They absolutely love Zoë Kravitz. They want to cosplay as Kravitz’ Catwoman this Halloween.

In addition to prepping for my article, I suppose I’ve been thinking a lot about supes at a time when I really could use ‘em. Then again, what would it really look like to have these characters around? Alan Moore already showed us two possible scenarios in Watchmen and Miracleman, and both are horrific.

Page from O.B.B. by Paolo Javier & Ernest Concepcion.

But I am slowly but surely moving on to a set of readings that cover the more optimistic and hopeful decade of '90s comics, where Neil Gaiman, Jim Lee, Mike Mignola, and Grant Morrison and indie creators like Bechdel, Doucet, Pekar, and Tomine all share the spotlight. I'm re-appraising Lee's work, especially with Claremont and their X-Men run, whose massive success led to the animated series which, in turn, made me a fan of mutantdom. Lee’s international success makes him such a pioneering AAPI creator, and I feel like this is an important moment for me to finally do a deep dive into his earlier work with Claremont and Image. I’m also planning to write a monograph on Craig Thompson’s Good-bye, Chunky Rice, which just about takes me as far away from the supes genre as possible.

Speaking of indie creators: I have Alison Bechdel's book [The Secret to Superhuman Strength] on our nightstand but haven’t cracked it open yet, as I’m sure it'll only make me feel guilty about not staying in better shape.

I haven't read that one either. But I liked Fun Home a lot. What's interesting to me is that when I first started reading comics, I realized maybe a year into it, that I wasn’t looking at the pictures at all. I was just reading it. And then I was like, why are you even doing this then? So I had to kind of go back and slow down and look at the pictures because I'm so addicted to language. If I see language, it's almost like everything else goes away. But then we think about Transmetropolitan or something, we just think about the author of it. And I couldn't tell you who illustrates that, you know? Do you feel like there is more importance given to the author and the illustrators kind of fall to the side? Isn’t that very weird for a visual medium? It should be reversed.

I love the form of comics, the tension between/because of text and image, and the agency this gives its readers. Noting this, I never read comics for the images, though I did grow up loving one-panel comics like Family Circus, Heathcliff. I even read Sam Gross, whose work is totally inappropriate for a young kid to be reading, lol. (I don't know how I ended up with his books. Probably through my mom, whose irreverent humor I share.) In Manila, I was a devotee of Larry Alcala’s Slice of Life series published on the last page of every issue of MOD Magazine. And then, when we moved to the U.S., I became more invested in the author. I'm dating myself, but this was in the period when Alan Moore and Frank Miller shifted the conversation away from the artist and towards the writer. And then manga emerges in the U.S. market with Xenon and Lone Wolf and Cub and Akira, in whose pages poetic elements are foregrounded, and where the representation of words itself is an intricate art.

The '80s was a good decade for me to learn to be discerning about comics, and who writes the issue began to matter to me as much as who was illustrating it. Maybe it’s why I was never a fan of Image comics when it took over the industry–the press was all about style over substance. I still don't care much for Todd McFarlane’s Spawn because it's so poorly written, despite its creators' brilliant drawing skills. Then I discovered Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, both authors who love poetry and made this apparent in their storylines. But even today, when I read a comic book I hang onto the words foremost, then absorb the images second. In fact, I rarely will buy or collect a book if I don’t care much for its author.

That's something that I love about Doucet's 365 Days. So much writing that it's cramped up between and underneath drawings.

She's incredible. I guess with Doucet, it's her own text, her own pencils, and her inks. The same goes for Los Bros Hernandez, Craig Thompson and Adrian Tomine. They inhabit all the roles. So I'm with you. I have to really care about the writer, unless it's just an image-driven book like Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. But even with that kind of book, the writing still matters in the creative process.

And it’s worth mentioning here that O.B.B. doesn’t engage with supes much, despite my deep and abiding interest in the genre. Instead, it channels my absorption and love of the mimeo revolution, zines, underground and indie comics/comix, and xerox art.

Comics and xerox-inspired spreads from O.B.B. by Paolo Javier & Ernest Concepcion. Click to enlarge.

Yeah. That aesthetic is one of the reasons I love O.B.B.

And I should say that while I love the supes genre, I have zero romantic notions about working in the mainstream spaces that publish its titles. With O.B.B., I definitely eschewed the creative template of an industry that is historically ruthless to creators. At DC and Marvel, you're working for companies that won't compensate you for designs and characters that earn them billions of dollars. I recently watched a brief interview on YouTube with Neal Adams, rest in power, wherein he shares how he never received a single royalty from Marvel for work that they committed onscreen. Marvel, really? You won’t even cut a royalty check for a beloved creator and industry legend like Adams?

I never knew about that. That you’re just a hired hand and they own your creative ideas?

Yeah. When I take my daughters to conventions, we typically make a beeline for the Artist Alley before checking anything else out on the program or showroom. It’s in the Alley where you can see your favorite creator to sign books and commission original art, but also where you see first-hand their hustle to make a dime off their creations owned by these companies. Artists typically sell prints of character sketches, which is one way to make a living off of your drawings and paintings of these characters. So it’s another conversation I need to have with my children, whose shelves are filled with Marvel, DC, and Disney titles. For now, my partner and I are not closely curating their reading. But we are going to talk about the comics industry soon. I don't know what your relationship is like with Disney, but I grew up immersed in their animated and live action films, TV shows, and comics. I’ve seen all the 2D Disney animated films, a number of them twice or three times over. In terms of comics, I lapped up Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge like the model colonial subject that I am.

I grew up on some of those movies, but not too much. My aesthetic early on was just the weirder the better. I remember watching Ren & Stimpy a lot, Courage the Cowardly Dog. These cartoons when MTV was young. Cartoons that felt transgressive, just total gross-out, low brow. Trying to repulse people. R. Crumb has some of that, too. That's sort of why I was drawn to the Freak Brothers and how sexual things could be in these kinds of artistic ways. But also very plain. There's something so essential to comics–like poetry–there's something so essential in not beating around the bush. This is it. This is what I'm feeling. These are my feelings about life delivered on the page without any kind of artifice. Without having to talk about or through academia or theory or taste or anything like that.

There's a purity to the things that I like where it's just like, this is my story, this is how it looks to me, and this is how I feel. Something unapologetic about that. I like Johnny Ryan things. Sick kinds of people vomiting all over the place.

Sommer Browning art from Either Way I'm Celebrating.

I don't know why it's accepted there in comics. I don't know if that's thanks to the ground-breakers of the '50s, '60s, '70s, and underground comics, but it's harder to find novels and fiction and even poetry now where it's just very visceral and very real and very honest. Because I think there's just such a scaffolding of consumerism or academia or elitism that surrounds those things. So it just waters people down or they write towards those ideals when they shouldn't. I don't know exactly what I'm talking about.

I love Ren & Stimpy! I first saw it on the Spike & Mike Animation Festival tour. But I think I know what you're talking about. When I started work on O.B.B., I became disillusioned by poetry communities’ virtue signaling in the midst of the U.S. American invasion of Iraq, the subsequent “War on Terror”’s institutionalized Islamophobia and xenophobia. I couldn’t stomach the gamesmanship, commodification, and gatekeeping that emerged alongside such signaling, and I found myself retreating from “community” and poetry. I turned to comics. Comics! It was truly freeing to be immersed in this art that has meant so much to my history as a reader. And as you say, “in comics there's something so essential in not beating around the bush,” or Bush, Jr, for that matter, and his horrific policies. Through comics, O.B.B. would find its form.

Georgia loves graphic novels and she loves Diary of a Wimpy Kid. And there's a range–some of the graphic novels for kids are so good, so smart, so thoughtful. And then there's–

The commercial stuff.

Yeah. Good way to put it. And she just keeps rereading those. And I'm like, well for summer you can have some of that, but we're mixing it up. But I hope she didn't hear “no more comics.”

I hear you. Saya loves the Dog Man series, Archie, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Gene Yang and Raina Telgemeier’s books. She and her sister live in a time when comics abound that reflect their sensibilities and the communities they move through.

When I say that comics offer a liberating space for me as a reader, I'm also deliberate about what type of comics I feel freed by. Perhaps this has to do with me not having an immediate connection to that world, of not being a part of the industry. I can feel free because I'm about the book that's in front of me, not privy to its production or industry.

Double-page spread from O.B.B. by Paolo Javier, Ernest Concepcion & Alexander Tarampi. Click to enlarge.

Yeah. I wonder when I read poetry now too, if I just have this kind of insidious knowledge about the industry and how much that filters my reading of the work, you know? That's kind of terrible.

No, no, that's absolutely fair. And I thank you for sharing this because it's also partly why I am not pushing my eldest towards poetry, right? Or towards any fixed art practice, for that matter, obviously because she’s just a kid but also knowing how fraught the space of making poetry vis a vis “community” can be. When I began O.B.B., I was quite disillusioned by PoBiz (short for the Poetry Business), which fundamentally rejects experimentation and innovation in our art. And so with O.B.B. I was able to tune out this industry, tune out the stampede of peers towards its gates, and just focus on a work that returns me to why I love to read and write in the first place. Thankfully, working on this book not only affirmed my love of comics but also deepened my appreciation for experimental poetry/poetics. Certainly, there would be no O.B.B. without the pioneering comics poetry of bpNichol and Joe Brainard, and of contemporaries such as yourself and Bianca Stone and Richard Hahn, to inspire me and to light the way.

I have a renewed alignment with my weird side and my exploratory side because frankly, it's never really steered me wrong. It's like, what am I interested in? What do I feel kinship with? That's what I want to write about. That's what I want to pursue. Maybe it's a way to maintain integrity, and I can let everything else fall away because it’s not tied to my career, it’s not tied to my money. I don't expect money from it. I don't expect a lot of things from it. We both have books and you watch them get published and then you're like, okay, now what? It's not the epitome of success. So if you're enjoying it and you're growing and learning, that's the way to go.

Yeah. I hear you. Fighting for beginner's mind. It’s been my aim since I started working on O.B.B. And then maintaining this beginner's mind, or one’s negative capability, if you want to be a Romantic about it. To just be happy and excited again about making your poetry, right?