“What We Accept as Real”: A Tom Kaczynski Interview

The Minneapolis-based artist and publisher Tom Kaczynski is a fixture of the alternative comics scene for many years who has made major strides both artistically and professionally over the past half-decade. Most of his comics work to date can be divided into two major groupings: 1) casual and digressive mini-comics essays on technology, politics, history, alienation, and utopia (many of which will be collected into a forthcoming book called Trans Terra), and 2) conceptually dense science-fictional stories about contemporary urban (and suburban) life he created for the discontinued anthology Mome, reminiscent in both subject matter and tone to the fiction of J.G. Ballard, William Gibson, and Bruce Sterling, and which can be found in the new collection, Beta Testing the Apocalypse. He is also the founder of a relatively new publishing company, Uncivilized Books, representing a roster of accomplished artists including Gabrielle Bell, Jon Lewis, James Romberger, and others. I spoke to Tom via Skype in late November. During a bit of back and forth about the weirdness of talking to each other via videophone, Tom mentioned another recent Skype call he'd made with the cartoonists Kevin Huizenga and Dan Zettwoch. We join the conversation in progress...

TIM HODLER: ...Wait, so does that mean that you're going to be publishing Leon Beyond?

TOM KACZYNSKI: It's part of the next season. The next season is figured out, from March next year until July or so. That's four books. It's gonna be Amazing Facts … and Beyond! which is a Leon Beyond book, the David B. book, Les Incidents de la Nuit, which is Incidents in the Night. That's gonna be translated by Brian Evenson! [Laughs.]

Oh, that’s a great get!

Yeah, I'm really excited about that one! Then, Zak Sally is doing Sammy the Mouse Vol. 2 with me. He's almost done with it. And I'm doing this book with Peter Wartman, who's a brand new cartoonist… Not many people know anything about him. This is his first book. He's in Minneapolis. He graduated from MCAD a couple years ago. I want to support the Minneapolis scene. [Laughs.]

So, Uncivilized Books. When did you decide that you wanted to become a publisher?

That's a difficult question to answer, because I feel like I've been publishing all my life in a weird way. As a self-publisher to begin with... but even when I look back at my comics, I was doing them as a little kid. There was a comic I drew when I was 10, where I drew it, I stapled it, folded it, then drew a logo on it. I gave it a print run, gave it a price and everything. It was one of the very first comics I ever made, and it was already a complete product. [Laughs.]

How many copies did you make?

It was just the one copy. [Laughter.] This was back in Poland, I didn’t have access to a Xerox machine or anything. It was water-colored... It was this weird object that already had all the trappings of being published: a cover, a logo, everything.

Did you try and sell it?

No. [Laughter.] I just remember that always, whenever I drew comics when I was a kid, I always made sure it had a cover, and all the little information that it needed.

But Uncivilized was at first created mainly as a self-publishing vehicle. At some point, I was talking to Gabrielle [Bell], because she was coming to Minneapolis for the Rain Taxi Festival, and we decided to do this mini-comic together. It was just a one-off for this show, but it went really well, we got some good feedback on it, and we decided to make more of them. In the meantime, I thought, “Well, it's kind of fun to do other people’s books.” So I started adding other artists to the mix, with Jon Lewis and Dan Wieken, who’s an artist in Minneapolis. At some point Gabrielle decided not to do The Voyeurs at Drawn & Quarterly, and asked me if I wanted to do the book. At that point I was just a mini-comics publisher. It took me a while to think about it. To really do justice to that book, I would have to become a proper publisher. That’s where it started snowballing. Once I said yes to that book, I was like, “Okay, distribution, I gotta figure that out. I gotta figure out where this is gonna get printed, I gotta figure out all that stuff.” Started making a plan to become a publisher, which is where I’m at now, I guess.

Do you have any idea why Gabrielle thought that was a good idea? Since you weren't a publisher I mean?

I don’t think it was any bad blood with Drawn & Quarterly or anything. We just were working well together. We were getting some good feedback on the mini-comics, and she really liked the way I was designing her comics, the way I was working with her. We just meshed together pretty well, and she wanted to try something different, and we decided to make a go of it [Laughs.]

So you first started putting out the minicomics around 2010, is that right?

I think it was 2009 actually. The first one was L.A. Diary, the next was just called Diary, and then came San Diego Diary, July Diary, and The Voyeurs.

And you were doing your own Cartoon Dialectics at the same time.

Yes, Cartoon Dialectics, the little Trans mini-comics, and Jon Lewis’s True Swamp and Klagen.

But you had originally put out Trans-Alaska and Trans-Siberia before starting Uncivilized...

That’s true, those started out before Uncivilized Books became Uncivilized Books. Even the first issue of Cartoon Dialectics had a short life before Uncivilized Books. I think I was just calling myself Robot 26 Publishing or something like that. It was a kind of a nondescript, brand-less publishing venture [Hodler laughs]. Uncivilized Books was an attempt to create a publishing identity which looked bigger than just me.

From the outside, The Voyeurs seems to have done really well in terms of publicity and getting into bookstores and things like that. Is that accurate from your experience, too?

I’ve been very happy with it. We set certain targets for the book and the book has been meeting those targets, so it’s good. That’s the business part. In terms of publicity, I’ve definitely been very happy with what we were able to get. A lot of that work was done by Gabrielle. She did a lot of self-promotion and pushed that book and was able to get it well placed. The fact that we got the nod from Publishers Weekly for one of the top five graphic novels, that was really gratifying. And kind of amazing for a first book, too, so there’s really nothing I can complain about. I’m very happy with how it turned out.

As a new small publisher was it difficult to get into Barnes & Noble?

Well, not really, because I have a distributor. I’m working with a distributor, Consortium, and they work with Barnes & Noble. They work with pretty much everyone. They’re a pretty big distributor, so pretty much the whole book market is open to us right now... which is kind of amazing. They distribute Nobrow as well. For a publisher like me, with no backlist, it was a pretty amazing opportunity to be able to hook up with these guys and they’ve been great. They’re kind of new to comics as a distributor, but they’ve been trying to learn more about them. I think they’re talking to other publishers. It might become a nice place for small comics publishers to have a home in the book market. So, once I got the distributor, it wasn’t that hard to do Barnes & Noble, but it took a while in the beginning to set that up.

Are you a hands-on type of editor, or does it depend on the project? Let's take The Voyeurs—was there a lot of back and forth on that?

Gabrielle mostly did what she wanted, but she did ask me to help her weed out weaker strips in the beginning. We started out with maybe 200, or a little bit over 200 pages of material and we whittled it down to 160 pages. I was helping to get through that, but she had the final cut. She sometimes took my suggestions, sometimes not. Occasionally I would suggest she redraw a panel or something, and she sometimes did it, and sometimes she didn’t. I like editing actually quite a bit. I’ve been working with Peter Wartman, the new cartoonist that I’m publishing next year, and we did a pretty heavy edit of his story. I made a lot of suggestions about how this story could develop and move along, suggestions in terms of panel sequencing, etc, etc. I was pretty heavily editing that one. Everything else... it just kind of depends on the project. Like with the Leon Beyond book. There’s not much editing to do other than to pick which strips are in or not. I’m pretty much letting Dan [Zettwoch] and Kevin [Huizenga] do that.

And with True Swamp, you are basically just republishing the original book, correct?

Yeah … that’s the older material. But Jon did a lot of restoration; he spent a lot of time to make it a little bit more legible.

Yeah, I talked with him a little bit about that a while back, and it seemed like it was gonna be a big project, and take a lot of redrawing.

Yeah, he was missing about 20 pages of original art. It was something we couldn’t rescan. We ended up having to scan from the comics themselves. He had a collaborator helping him out with that, and it took a while to get the scans to look good and print well, etc.

I know you have been friends with Jon and Gabrielle a while, and it seems as if Uncivilized kind of grew organically out of your relationships with them.

Yeah, I met both Jon and Gabrielle at AWP: Artist With Problems, a drawing group that we used to be part of in New York. But I've liked True Swamp for a long time; I never thought I would get a chance to publish it. It’s work that got buried a little bit in history, and it deserves a new lease on life. I was friends with both of them and before we published anything. With James Romberger it’s more — I met him at the Brooklyn festival last year, I think he wanted to do a piece on Gabrielle’s book, and we just started talking about comics and it turned out he has all this amazing work that’s unpublished [laughs]. This Post York story had been sort of simmering under his hat for a while, and he showed it to me and we just decided to do it.

And what is Post York exactly?

I think James was taking a film class, and he wanted to do this story where as he was drawing it, he was finding new ways of continuing it. There’s a point in the middle where something happens but then the story continues in another fashion, where it takes a different path. [Tom later added that here he was "inartfully trying to describe Alexandre Astruc's 'Camera Stylo,' 'the camera that writes,' and James's translation of the technique into comics form.] It was a really interesting experiment, and I loved his drawing. I've loved his art ever since Seven Miles a Second way back in the ’90s. It just seemed like a no-brainer for me to do this.

And it also comes with that record, which is interesting.

Right, so the main character is based on his son Crosby. It’s lament for the kind of world we're leaving or our children. Crosby just happens to be a young hip-hop musician and ended up doing this song for this story. We were trying to figure out how to include that as part of the project, and I found out that you could still get flexi-discs made [laughs], so we went ahead and did one, and it turned out pretty good. We had some production snafus … Did you try playing it?

Yeah, it works!

Great! [Laughter.]

I’m always amazed when those things work. I haven’t seen one of those in a long, long time. This is Post York #1 -- are you planning on publishing more issues with records attached?

There’s really no specific concept as to what other music could be attached to future issues, if there are any. James has expressed interest in continuing the series. Originally it was just gonna be a one-off, and then we slapped a #1 on there just to see. [Laughs.] But he’s interested in doing more work for it now, so we’ll have to figure out what form the next issue takes. He’s been liking a lot of these big newsprint comics, so maybe it’ll be a different format. I don’t know, it’s too far in the future and too unformed at this point to even discuss. [Laughter.]

I won’t make you do it then. One thing I’m sure you’ve heard a lot from other people is that both The Voyeurs and True Swamp look really great, I mean as objects, and they really stand out for that. I know you have a graphic design background, but had you done much book production before?

Not too much book production. I’ve obviously designed and produced a lot of minis, and I have done print production before. I worked at newspaper for a long time as an art director, as a graphic designer … one of my first jobs in college and just post-college... I was working for the Minnesota Daily, which is a student newspaper. I did a lot of similar work before, so it wasn’t too difficult to transition to book design. I mean, there are small things here and there in those books that I regret a bit now, but overall I’m pretty happy with the way they turned out.

Maybe you don’t want to say, but what do you regret?

It’s just really tiny details that most people probably aren’t noticing, but I’m just like, “Uh, I wish that was a little bit more to the right, or if that wrapped just a little bit differently, it would’ve been so much better.” Just small, small things. But I’ve always wanted to design books, and it was nice to finally get the opportunity. Originally, my own Trans Terra book was going to be the first book for Uncivilized Books. I was working towards that... I wanted to experiment on my own work so I wouldn’t have to worry about other people. But then the book with Gabrielle happened, and ended up being first, so I ended up practicing on her book. But it was really fun. We worked a lot on the cover design, we went through probably 20 different variations. It was pretty fun to do. I'm pretty happy with the way it turned out.

Has being exposed to the business aspects of publishing comics changed the way you think about your own cartooning career?

I know more about what’s going on in the background I guess, so if I’m negotiating contracts and things like that [laughter], it’s kinda like, “Yeah, I know what’s going on back there.” So I can probably negotiate more from a position of knowledge than before. But in terms of my own comics, not really? I was happy that, with my book for Fantagraphics [Beta Testing the Apocalypse], Eric [Reynolds] pretty much let me design the whole thing. I just had some production help from them. I feel more comfortable doing that kind of work since starting Uncivilized Books.

Now, your upcoming Trans Terra book is basically a collection of the four minicomics?

It's the four original Trans mini-comics, plus a bunch of new material that wraps up that whole train of thought... or train wreck of thought or something. [Laughter.]

Those books seem to be part of a tradition in comics you don’t see that often any more—the kind of free-flowing rant or essay comics with the cartoonist walking around and acting as the narrator, like Clowes used to do, and Crumb and Peter Bagge. Were you consciously engaging with that tradition?

All those guys are big influences on me. I wasn’t consciously trying to do that, but when I'm looking back, I’m like, “Oh, yeah, well, duh, they were doing similar things.” [Hodler laughs.] I maybe get a little bit more overtly intellectual on mine —where I quote actual books and people — whereas they were a little bit more casual with their pontificating or whatever. [Laughter.] What I was doing originally with the Trans books... basically the first book was a kind of panicked, “I need to do something for the first MoCCA festival!” And I just kind of regurgitated all this stuff I was thinking about at that time very quickly. I got a pretty good response to it, and I was like, “Well, I might as well follow up, ‘cause I didn’t really finish my train of thought on the first one,” and I just kept going with that. Each book is more and more carefully thought out. I’ve been searching very slowly... hopefully when this book is out, I will have found something resembling a coherent thesis. [Laughter.]

The first three you did pretty close together?

Yeah, the first three were pretty close. I think they all came out within a year, year and a half. In the middle of that I got the opportunity to contribute to Mome, so that derailed the production on the Trans books for a long time. I always thought of these Trans books as a little bit more casual, little bit more off-the-cuff, but the more I got into it, the more fascinated I got with using comics to explicate ideas. The more Mome stuff I was doing, the more I wanted to go back to the Trans comics and do more of that kind of work.

Did you ever consider doing that kind of thing for Mome?

I didn’t think it would fit. I thought about it, but I got in this very specific groove for Mome, that was a little bit Ballardian, a little bit science-fiction, and I just wanted to keep that going. If Mome had continued past issue 22, I may have done more of that kind of work in the future, but yeah, in Mome I wanted to keep a certain... a different level of work... a different kind of me. [Laughs.]

A Polish author you briefly mention in one of the minis, Witold Gombrowicz, wrote a novel—which I haven’t read—called Trans-Atlantyk, and I was wondering: Does that have anything to do with the titles of those minis?

No and yes. [Laughter.] I had read pretty much everything that Gombrowicz had written way before I did Trans Alaska. I read Trans-Atlantyk but it’s something that I had forgotten, and it wasn’t a conscious influence at first. When I did the Trans Alaska book, the title actually came last. I didn’t know what it was gonna be, so I was like “part of it is set in Alaska, so I’m just gonna call it Trans Alaska.” I decided to keep the "Trans" for the other books. I was writing about Atlantis in the third book, and I remembered that Gombrowicz did Trans-Atlantyk. I ended up calling the third book Trans-Atlantis. It wasn’t a specific reference, but more of a happy coincidence. But Gombrowicz definitely influenced me quite a bit, he’s one of my favorite authors. Just in terms of how he writes and more importantly his diaries. He was an émigré author, he left Poland at the beginning of World War II, and ended up living in Argentina for many years. If you read his diaries, it’s all about being a Polish person in the New World and his struggles with that. That was really important for me when I was younger. I identified with that kind of struggle.

I've meant to read him for a long time.

Ferdydurke, his first novel, is amazing I think.