An abridged version of this interview ran in Real Groove magazine (2007). Huge thanks again to Douglas Wolk who graciously answered all of my questions.
CC: I know that the focus of Reading Comics isn’t about strictly defining terms but I’d like to ask you about the broad category of “art comics”. It seems that a few cartoonists are acceptable to a fine arts context (i.e. Crumb, Ware, Paper Rad, Chippendale) as well as to the traditional publishing/books audience that art comics calls home. In Paper Rad’s case they’re arguably more famous in the fine arts world. Do you think that the idea of art comics will continue to change over time? (I’m thinking about cartoonists who consider galleries as part of their practice as opposed to strictly working to publish books. Incidentally, the only NZ cartoonist I know of who has had their comics work exhibited alongside fine artists in a NZ arts institution is Dylan Horrocks.)
DW: Of course it'll change over time, although I'm not sure how. I think one change we're already starting to see is the idea that being "countercultural" alone is no longer enough to get credibility in a fine arts context--it used to be that galleries would really only glom onto artists who were wacky and outsider-y, and of course they still do, but Ware doesn't fit that template at all. Neither do the Holy Consumption artists, who are starting to turn up in a fine-arts context more and more here. Something else that's been happening over the last 10 years or so is a movement among art cartoonists toward stuff that's got a little more "aura" than standard mass-produced comics--books with some element of handmade-ness, like Jordan Crane's screen prints or Hope Larson's hand-assembled projects. CC: Why are some cartoonists compatible with fine arts galleries and others not?
DW: Beats me. I think the "compatibility" mostly has to do with their willingness to play the fine-arts game, although comics with interesting design or linework tend to look better on a wall than comics that are more focused on narrative. You're never going to see an Irv Novick image on a gallery wall, unless it's as context for a Lichtenstein... One thing that makes cartoonists much easier for galleries to display, in particular, is work that's self-contained on a single page or even better a single image (e.g. Raymond Pettibon). CC: What do you think about the recent Masters Of American Comics exhibition?
DW: Well, it was really nice to see a lot of that work up close, and of course any exhibition like that is going to reinforce a canon that already exists and leave out a lot of stuff--there was no way to avoid those criticisms. That's the price you pay for getting to look at Eisner and Kirby and Panter originals up close. But the show itself seems not to have been overseen by somebody who was paying particularly close attention. I think I blew a small gasket when I saw a piece credited to Harvey Kurtzman that was not just obviously by Basil Wolverton but signed Basil Wolverton.
CC: OK enough with the art questions. There are a few themes threading through Reading Comics (schizophrenia, mysticism, talented creators becoming cranks). How did these themes develop over the course of putting the book together?
DW: More or less by accident. I suspect there are talented creators in every medium who become cranks. I think, though, that there's a connection between schizophrenia and the way cartooning works--creating something that is the world and isn't the world at the same time, translating the evidence of your senses into something that's still visible and still narrative but a lot more personal. The most extreme form of that sometimes seems to pour out of cracks in a lot of my favorite cartoonists: an almost desperate need to make themselves understood in the face of overwhelming consensus reality.
CC: In your chapter on auteurs you point out that analogies between comics and cinema can be misleading and potentially not useful. Can you talk about how, conversely, knowledge of film criticism was useful in writing Reading Comics?
DW: It was mostly useful in coming up with the voice for it--what I was aiming for was something assured but not authoritative, if you see what I mean. There's not anything like a uniform approach to film criticism, or a single basis on which people are "supposed to" understand movies. What the best film critics share, though, is that they're all really readable: it's easy to enjoy their writing, and extend their ideas toward thinking about other parts of cinema, even if you're not particularly interested in the specific movies they're writing about. That sort of tone and attitude was what I was trying for--it's tough, and I'm still struggling toward it.
CC: There’s been an impulse recently in comics writing for taking a look at under-examined or non-canonised corners of comics history (publications like Art Out Of Time, Comics Comics). What do you think about this? Could Reading Comics be considered part of this continuum?
DW: Everybody likes to be the first to champion something! (And some great stuff has come out of that: I can honestly say that my life has been improved by finding out about Fletcher Hanks.) I think the comics canon is still taking shape, and as far as I'm concerned the longer it takes to ossify the better. I did deliberately put in a couple of chapters that I expected would make some people say "what the hell were you thinking?" (And, sure enough, they rose to the bait.) I do prefer to see writers following their personal tastes instead of focusing exclusively on stuff that's either already famous or totally unknown--but either one of those paths can be someone's personal tastes, so I try to give either perspective the benefit of the doubt.
CC: On the visual side of things, how was the snappy jacket design decided on?
DW: I had almost nothing to do with it, although I like it an awful lot. The "almost" is because the original version had the eye on the cover looking straight ahead--which made it look exactly like the eye on the cover of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. Having already stolen the grammatical form of McCloud's title, I didn't want to cop his design too--so I asked if Da Capo could please make the eye look a little different, which is why it's looking to the side on the finished book.
CC: Do we have a word for “comics-like” yet?
DW: I wish! The thing is, it's almost impossible to make a new piece of critical language catch on; they tend to turn up accidentally. I wonder, for instance, who first used the word "decompression" to apply to the kind of cartooning it's generally used for now--it's a good little metaphor.
CC: In Marooned you named your Desert Island disc. Desert Island graphic novel? Or alternatively, what’s been on your reading list lately?
DW: Oh man. If I had to pick one that I keep coming back to, it'd probably be Jim Woodring's The Frank Book, which gives me that "oh... I get it now" feeling almost every time I read one of its stories. Lately? I've been on book tour for the last few weeks, so I need mind candy for planes and trains, which currently means collections of the Marvel Ultimate titles. I liked that Jae Lee story with all the silhouettes in Ultimate Fantastic Four vol. 4 so much that I bought a page of original art from it at Comic-Con in San Diego. And I just today read all of American Virgin so far--it's aiming someplace fairly unusual, and doesn't hit its target all that often, but I have to give it credit for purity of intention, appropriately enough.
One of the joys of comics is the thrill of discovery - sifting through piles of dusty genre material in the hope that work of value will peek to the surface, whether hiding in longboxes, second-hand book shops, op-shops or down the back of the couch. It’s a similar impulse to second-hand record shopping - eyeing up half-remembered, arcane looking album covers, thinking to yourself, “Is there something in this?”. More than often you’ll come up short, but with enough persistence you might end up succumbing to the “op-shop bends” - that stomach-churning state of sudden excitement only experienced when you’ve stumbled upon something totally fucking rad.
I felt this in way late December 2009 - when rifling through Balmoral’s op-shop, checking out a framed print of Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase hanging above a clothes rack, I picked up a cardboard box of around twenty-five Oink comics. I instantly clicked that I’d struck a goldmine - a large collection of English cartoonist Banx’s uncollected Burp comic strips, plus extra assorted misc by the British cartooning guru, mixed in between generally undistinguished strips of a smelly nature. That might be a bit harsh - Oink was an interesting breed of English comics publication put out in the late eighties, focusing on scatalogically themed humour featuring characters like Pete and His Pimple, Tom Thug or Harry The Head (drawn by the Fall’s Marc Riley!). Kind of like a punky precursor to Viz or Toxic but, “y‘know, for kids“. There’s some good bits here and there (notably, strips by Tony Husband) but nothing holds a candle to Banx’s psychotically violent and hilarious page works. A good litmus test of funny comics is if you can sit around with your mates and some beers and they make you laugh out loud - Burp passes with an extra gold star for great drawings.
Burp’s premise is simple – it stars a cheerful bug-eyed alien named Burp who has sentient internal organs that he can pull out of his body and put to various uses. Each of his organs is a cartoon character that he can chat to, hang out with, etc. Landing his spaceship in late 80s England, Burp is unfamiliar with Western social codes - much humour is achieved through his innocently disgusting and destructive interactions with the British populace. On top of that, there are gags involving alien technology and pets, all complemented by Banx’s ear for witty dialogue. It adds up to a sustained light-hearted riff on Cronenbergian body-horror, with surprisingly abject and brutal events occurring throughout, intensifying the hilarity. For example, in a sequence involving Burp inventing a teleportation device that can teleport fast food directly into your stomach, he unwittingly teleports five gallons of tomato ketchup straight into the brain of his unsuspecting human test subject - with explosive results. Other strips show Burp starting a band with his organs, getting kidnapped by his own liver, performing brain surgery on Ronald Reagan, etc. A strip depicting the use of internal body deodorant (“Beauty isn’t just skin-deep, readers!“) recalls Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers asking why no one has staged a beauty contest for inside of the body. Later into Oink’s publication, Banx switched up the milieu - taking Burp into deep space in an exploratory and sometimes poetic sequence of strips.
As revolting as these developments might be, it’s Banx’s masterly skills as a draftsman that really hammer home the depravity lurking at the heart of Burp. A British cartoonist in the tradition of Ronald Searle or Ralph Steadman, Banx’s lines zoom and splatter across the page - scratchy angular line work with stark chunks of black that pop. His rounded character designs contrast with severe, man-made urban backgrounds. With a gift for grotesquery that calls to mind a neotonically-inclined Basil Wolverton, Banx delights in every grisly detail - body fluids flow freely, a gigantic tongue covered with bursting boils licks a skyscraper. Stink-lines are all over the place, bodies are dismembered/displaced/put back together again, disembodied brains crack wise. Morally ambivalent characters hint at insane violence while wielding huge, razor-sharp weapons out of an LSD nightmare. Burp is totally great, thematically interesting and funny as hell. Check out a selection of Burp strips and more of Banx’s work at his website - www.jbanx.com
Wow... the top one's from his from his Nanosecond strip (2007) and the bottom one's from his 1980s Listener strip (!) Shafts Of Strife. Both can be read/viewed at: http://www.insanitywetrust.com/trace/tracehodgson.htm - fantastic stuff!
Monster Men Bureiko Lullaby Takashi Nemeto Picturebox Inc.
The first English translation of Japanese heta-uma (bad-good) cartoonist Takashi Nemeto’s outrageous graphic novel from the mid-80s, the hair-raising antics depicted throughout Monster Men Bureiko Lullaby expose readers to a super-intense world of hilarity and woe. The first thing I thought when I got the shrink wrap off this volume and flicked through was “Uh-oh... I hope I don’t get raided by the cops”. A collection of short stories combined with the longer The World According To Takeo, there’s also an interview with Nemeto and multiple text pieces to contextualise his works. The longer story tells the tale of the relationship between a radioactive lunatic and his son, a lonely gigantic sperm. Beyond the constant sex and frequent violence a subtle sense of pathos and moral reflection lurks amongst his characters. The surface crudeness belies the impeccable craft involved in constructing these improvised narratives - the amoral world Nemeto creates is compelling and perversely addictive, while his drawings and page layouts compliment his themes smoothly. Certainly not for the faint-hearted, well outside the bounds of what currently constitutes acceptability in the graphic novel realm yet perhaps essential because of it - Monster Men Bureiko Lullaby is difficult and highly rewarding reading.
(originally published in Real Groove magazine, February 2009)