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

You seem to include a lot more literary influences than most cartoonists do. Much more often than you reference comics, at least — though there’s a Kirby reference in one of the minis. Is that generally true? Are you more influenced by literature than by comics, do you think?

I think it probably just depends on the time. At certain times I’m reading more literature and philosophy, and at other times I’m reading old comics. I definitely vacillate between the two. There are times when I just don’t want to read another comic; I need to read a book. I need to read something else. And then there are times where I want to read lots of comics. A lot of the Mome material was drawn when I was more interested in books. I was reading Ballard and other books in that vein. It just seeped into my work. With the Trans books, it’s both. I feel like they’re — they obviously reference novelists, philosophers, people like that. But they also reference Kirby and weird mythologies like Atlantis. It’s more of a melding of comics and high art. It’s some kind of pulp philosophy or something. Initially I wasn’t very conscious of it, but, as I do more, I get a little more conscious about what I’m tying to do, and I pepper it with very deliberate references and things.

In the later issues, I was impressed with how all of your digressions seemed to come together with this one guy, Ignatius Donnelly.

[Laughs.] Yeah, he’s the nexus. [Laughs.]

He went to Minnesota and wrote the book about Atlantis, and there are all these other connections. Did you know his story before you started, or was that just serendipity?

It’s serendipity, but also you never know how it all will come together when you’re working on it. I was always interested in Atlantis when I was a kid. When I was working on the Trans books and started thinking about utopias, Atlantis came up as an example of an early utopia and all these facts just bubbled up. I had read about Ignatius Donnelly before, but only as a footnote, in a history of writing about Atlantis. The more I dug into this material, the more I found. For example, I didn’t know that he had written the first dystopia, Caesar’s Column, and how that would fit really well with everything that I was doing at that time with Trans Utopia. The more I read — there are tons of other things that haven’t made it into the books yet. I would like to do a book about him specifically, where I pull together all this other stuff. There were all these weird reports of underground cities in Minneapolis around the time when he was writing. [Hodler laughs.] These ancient cities supposedly existed in the caves under Minneapolis. This stuff was being reported in The New York Times in the 1860s and I’ve been wondering if Donnelly knew about all this stuff. Did that influence his Atlantis books? So there are all these really interesting things that I’d like to tease out that I don’t think have been done elsewhere. He’s primarily remembered as a politician. He was the governor of Minnesota, he was a State Representative, he was a vice-presidential candidate. He has a very specific place in American history for those reasons. His literary side has been less explored, although the relatively recent republication of Caesar’s Column is probably changing that a little bit.

From Trans Utopia

Have you read it? Is it good?

Yeah, yeah. Why do you ask? [Laughs.]

Because it sounds interesting.

It’s actually pretty exciting. It’s a pretty good novel. It’s set in New York. It’s set in New York in year 2000 or something like that, or 1988, I can’t remember the exact date — the world is run by a cabal of industrialists. There’s this weird al-Qaeda-like brotherhood that is trying to overthrow the cabal. Things come to a head in this huge zeppelin chemical warfare that destroys half the world. At some point people run away to Africa – the only unspoiled continent – and it’s just kind of amazing. There’s a lot of "bad" stuff in it, where Donnelly gets political. For example, there’s this Swedish character in the book, apparently because Donnelly was courting this Swedish constituency in Minnesota. So some of those characters are in there to further his political goals. [Laughter.] But it reads pretty well. If he was edited a little bit, I think it would be a pretty rockin’ novel, you know? [Laughter.]

I didn’t know it was in print.

Bison Books did it.

One of the interesting things about the series is that gap that you mentioned earlier. There were those five years between the first three issues and the fourth, and it seems to me like there was a huge leap in your storytelling skills and your ability to braid together a lot of different things at once. Does that impression ring true to your own experience?

Sure. I definitely worked on that book [Trans Utopia] for a longer time. It was originally closer to 40 or 50 pages, but really edited it down. The first two were pretty much straight off-the-cuff. There was no penciling, there was no premeditation. They were drawn straight to ink. The third one was much more structured, compared to the first two. With the fourth one, a lot more time had passed, and I had more time to work on it. So yeah, in that sense, I think it’s the best book of the bunch. [Laughter.] Any time you do anything straight to ink there’s always going to be something that you regret doing. Every now and then I think, “Oh, should I redo those first two books,” but I've now come to like the organic progress that's visible in the books.

It’s definitely interesting to be able to track your development as an artist. It seems to have happened very quickly, too.

Well, it’s deceptive, because there’s a lot of time passed between some of these books.

So when you’re creating comics now, is that sort of the way you do it? Where you spend a lot more time before you start inking, rewriting and reworking layouts and things like that? Or was that more of an anomaly

It was unusual with this one because I did a lot of work on it, and then set it aside [to work on Mome]. When I came back to it with new ideas I was able to edit freely without worrying about deadlines. With Mome there are always deadlines, so there was a lot less time to do that kind of extensive editing. My process has been very kind of, um, unformed [laughter], or inconsistent. Every comic is done differently. For one of the comics in Mome, after I scripted and drew it ... I still liked the way it looked, but I hated all the words. I literally took out all the words and I rewrote every single panel. That was an interesting process to go through. [Laughter.] Another story in there, I wrote and drew it very quickly. I was done in two weeks. It was a very quick process. I was very happy with it. I wish all my comics could work that way. It was just so straightforward. Most of the time it’s a lot more difficult, where I end up razoring pages, rearranging panels... it gets a little bit hairy. I’m actually in search of a new process right now. Now that the Fantagraphics book and Trans Terra are almost done... I need to figure out some new way of working. [Laughter.]

Which was the story that you re-wrote all the words for?

It’s the second story in the book [Beta Testing], "10,000 Years”, where the character wakes up 10,000 years later and still has a job and everything is kind of the same.

Is that the Zizmor one?

Yeah, with Madam Zizmor. [Laughter.] Influenced by Doctor Zizmor, who is ubiquitous on New York's subway ads. I think he’s a dermatologist or something?

Yeah, he cures your acne with lasers, I think.

Exactly. [Laughter.]

From "10,000 Years"

I miss those ads. I guess we should move to that book in general. These are basically all the Mome stories, with one story that hasn't previously been published.

That’s correct. It’s mostly Mome stuff. Most of the Mome stories ran in black and white, but in this book I was able to use color on all of them.

Was it difficult to figure out how to adapt them into color?

I had done color on a couple of the other stories before. I've developed a process for that, and it wasn’t too hard. There were a few things I sweated [laughs] but it was pretty fun to do, actually. When you already have this finished work, it's fun to re-work it, without having to worry about the writing, or anything like that.

You mentioned this before, but a lot of these stories are very Ballardian. Had you discovered J.G. Ballard's work recently when you began working on these, or is he someone who had been a favorite for a long time?

He was someone I discovered just around the time I started working for Mome, maybe a year or two before. I read some books by him when I was younger, The Atrocity Exhibition, but I just didn’t get it then. It was so weird, I assumed all his work was like this. And that turned me off Ballard for a long time. Around the time I started working on Mome, somebody suggested other books by him, and I finally found the Ballard that I liked. All of a sudden I found myself sucked into his work. Now I've been able to return to The Atrocity Exhibition and appreciate it. I pretty much read everything he’s done, with a couple of exceptions. The only ones I haven’t read are his new memoir and Empire of the Sun. It’s the only one left unread, because I had seen the movie based on it before—and I liked the movie, I remember liking the movie, but at that time, I didn’t even know that that was the same Ballard! It seems so different from his other work. It might the last Ballard that I read.

That was the first one that I read, back whenever that movie came out. What was the book that finally worked for you?

It was one of the shorter ones. It was about the children that go crazy.

Oh, Running Wild.

Running Wild, that’s it. And actually I didn’t like that one very much either, but there was something in there that I really liked, and then I read High Rise, which I loved. And Concrete Island and The Drowned World and Crash. It's his early phase, I guess. I loved all those books. Whenever I read a new writer or an artist, a lot of times I don’t like them at first. Like there’s something that I just don’t get... but after a while something clicks and all of a sudden I get all the stuff that I didn’t get before. Now I even like Ballard’s later stuff, which some people don’t. You know, Rushing to Paradise and Kingdom Come and Super-Cannes. That one was a big influence on the “Million Year Boom” story.

There’s a Ballardian influence running throughout the book, but in the early stories it seems particularly strong, sometimes almost reading as pastiche. Was it difficult to figure out how to absorb his influence and learn to tell this kind of story in your own voice?

The Mome stories were the first time I was trying to find some kind of fictional voice. Everything that I’ve written and drawn before was always a little bit half-baked — the writing always took a second place to the art. I think it took me a long time to learn to do comics. Getting the opportunity to do stuff in Mome, I felt like I had to pick up the game. I spent way, way, way longer thinking about how I want to write, how I want to tell these stories. There’s definitely some imitative Ballardian stuff in some of the early stories. It slowly mixed with my other influences. I started bringing in things other than Ballard into the stories. Eventually it became a more eclectic mix, rather than a single voice sitting behind me.

From "Cozy Apocalypse"

You had a day job at that time?

Yeah, I was in New York at that time, and I was working in advertising. That was a very Ballardian occupation. [Laughter.] That was one of the reasons why I think he clicked with me. I had a day job, so I was drawing in the evenings. At one point I was able to get my boss to give me Fridays off, which was very nice. I think the first — actually the second — Mome story was done on those Fridays. Starting work on Fridays through the weekend... that gave me a little more room to get stuff done.

Those were some pretty intense stories, some of them, so I imagine it was a lot of work.

Yeah, it was. I was also really excited to be in Mome, and I had this real burst of energy and eventually I kind of burned myself out [laughter]. I was a steady contributor for my first four or five issues, and then contributed much more sporadically. In that initial burst I was just so excited and it felt like I needed to do something good in every issue. I felt this pressure and excitement that I had to do something. It was actually really nice to have. I wish I felt a little bit more pressure now to get stuff done, you know? It was a great crash course, putting out story after story at a rapid clip.

Did Eric do a lot of editing?

He was pretty hands off. I would ask him to read it, but mostly I got, “Yeah this is good.” Most of the time I mainly worry whether this is intelligible to another person. When I finish writing something, I often think, “This makes no sense!” Usually I just want for someone to confirm that they can follow the story from point A to point B, C, D. It seemed like Eric was able to follow it, so that put me at ease. [Laughter.] I don’t remember any very specific edits, though. Maybe I should talk to Eric and see if he can remember something? I don’t remember any specific edits. AWP was happening around the same time, so I was showing a lot of these stories to other cartoonists, and was getting a little bit of feedback, but not a lot.

I loved the index in the back of Beta Testing. Did you write it?

Yeah, I did. It’s been a dream of mine to have a comic book with an index for a long time. [Laughter.]

I was wondering if you had hired a professional indexer.

No, I don’t know if they can even do — Are there professional indexers that can do comics?

There are professional indexers — I don’t know if any have ever been hired to do a comic before or not.

I wouldn’t even know what to tell them. Like, what do you tell them? [Laughter.] What do you say, “Index these kinds of things?” Or do they just kind of make it up?

I don’t know how indexers do their job. They know.

I just think that that’s half the fun. To me, that index is almost another story. I pick out very specific things that I want people to look at and be aware of. I get to point out that they exist and that they’re in there. Some of the index items reference to pages without an obvious referent. I use the index like an additional guide through the book, that identifies concepts or items that aren't obvious unless you know the source.

Yes, it adds a lot -- I hope people don't skip it. That reminds me of another Ballard story. "The Index". It’s one of my favorite stories by him. Basically it's just the index to the biography of a man's life, and you piece together the story from hints you get from the index entries.

I think it’s one of his later short stories, right? I don’t know if I’ve gotten to that one yet. I have that giant short-story book that came out a while ago. I had read a lot of those stories but not all.