JASON T. MILES: Sammy The Mouse is one of the funnest comics I've read.
I think it's hilarious, it makes me laugh out loud and I find myself happier after reading and re-reading each issue to date. How much fun is it for you to make these comics? Is the process as excruciating as you describe in Like A Dog?
ZAK SALLY: Yeah, Sammy is a totally different deal; I really and truly enjoy writing and drawing the thing. I won't say that it's all roses, there's always still the problem solving and running up against your own limitations and inevitable crises of faith, but, you know: that's COMICS! There definitely is a feeling of "holy crap this is great there's nothing I'd rather be doing" more often than not while working on Sammy.
And yeah, in a lot of ways Sammy was a reaction to the whole thing I had going on with comics up until the Like A Dog and Recidivist material; by the time I finished Recidivist #3 I just thought – this is ridiculous. If I can't find some way to get some kind of happiness through this then I ought to just give up, for real. I'm supposed to LOVE comics, not hate them. I wasn't sure it'd work at the time, but it did, somehow.
I think I'd gotten too wrapped up in that "comics are SERIOUS" thing, and forgotten what a great medium comics are for just...telling a story. That writing an entertaining, engaging comic is... as big a deal as some snooty-assed art comic. Like those old issues of Hate ... man, each one came out and it was JAM PACKED-- after reading it you felt like you'd been to the free buffet at the casino but all the food was GOOD: more story than you could handle, at least a couple for-real-laugh-out-loud moments, great characters and art, a LETTERS PAGE... GOD that was a great comic book. Pete Bagge is an AMERICAN TREASURE!!
Sammy is still pretty slow and boring compared to that stuff, but what you wrote there at the top makes me feel really good; I want it to be fun, and funny.
I think it's funny, and it makes ME happy, so...
My only problem is that I can't find more time to work on them, get out at least a couple a year or something.
MILES: As you know, I'm also a big Bagge fan and similar to his work Sammy possesses a real sense of terror and consequence. In Sammy I think the hardest laffs quiver shoulder to shoulder with disaster. Can you speak a little more to how you're making comedy with dread and horror in Sammy? I mean, the skeletal bastard is simply awful! and when Pat the rabbit bartender hammers a nail into Feekes forehead...!!!
SALLY: Actually, I'm not entirely sure I can speak to that. Again, sort of in response to how I used to make comics, I really consciously set out with Sammy to not... over-think too much (as that hadn't got me anywhere all that useful in the past). I mean, yeah-- I've got a tendency to take stuff too seriously in real life, but I don't really walk around all day in a haze of existential dread, you know? I'm a FUNNY GUY, and... I think really hard about the story, and the structure and the mood and all that; I really do sweat the details but when I'm writing and drawing the thing, a lot of it is really, "Does this feel right?" If it does you nail it to the ground and if not you burn it off (note: this is harder than it sounds).
If something makes ME laugh, then... it's right, period. Thinking TOO much about it will kill it dead (I know this from experience).
And, you know: the "terror" of life is so subjective, and so is humor.
some folks will say that ALL humor is based on suffering... but all those people are pretentious, insufferable windbags, and can go get fucked.
With that said, I think when Sammy's all said and done, what it might be "about" is consequence. Maybe. We'll see I guess.
I need to work on being more inscrutable and mysterious: it increases sales.
How am i doing so far?
MILES: I think you're doing good-- wait! Do you mean "how am I doing at being inscrutable and mysterious?" or "how am I doing sales-wise?"
This interview was conducted by Comics Journal editorial intern Christine Texeira and proofread by TCJ's Kristy Valenti and myself. Thanks to all! –Ed.
Christine Texeira: This catalog is a reprinting of an original DeMoulin Bros. catalog from 1930, but there were other DeMoulin Bros. catalogs and earlier catalogs from competing companies (Pettibone, etc.) — why this catalog in particular?
Charles Schneider: Catalog #439 cannot be topped. It has nearly all of the devices ever created by the company. All of the stops were pulled out and the kitchen sink was thrown in. It is the best and final edition of this sort of thing and it's likes will never be seen again. It was, as historian John Goldsmith has stated, the "Christmas wishbook" of the DeMoulin Brothers. They put the most insane and ultimately super-wackiest things in it after YEARS of MADCAP creating. This was their final bid at creating lovingly crafted, truly inventive, deliciously surreal, nasty and often diabolically cruel works of art that were both appealed to the highest and lowest of aesthetics all at once. Often decadent dandies make the most merciless pranksters.
CT: Can you define exactly what "burlesque paraphernalia" and "side-degree specialties" are?
CS: They are props, devices, gags and gadgets designed to assist fraternal orders on creating dramatic, pseudo-esoteric initiation (or hazing) dramas.
CT: Can you give us a little history of pranks and fraternal organizations?
CS: Fraternal organizations discovered that they could gain members by increasing the fun and outrageous drama of the initiation "rituals." It is fun to be part of a "secret" club. And after going through a humiliating prank initiation, it was all the more fun to anticipate a friend's face — when he goes through the same gauntlet of goats and shocks!
CT: Specifically: fraternal organizations, like the Freemasons, never took part in any of these pranks — who did? How were they affiliated to established fraternal organizations, like the Freemasons?
CS: Groups such as The Modern Woodmen of America, the Knights of the Maccabees, The Woodmen of the World, the Knights of Pythias, The Improved Order of Redmen, The Elks, the Odd Fellows were just SOME of the groups that used the DeMoulin Bros. creations. Often, men would be members of multiple groups. Some people are just "joiners," and collect membership cards like badges. The[re] might be a member of the quite serious Freemasons, as well as groups which focus more on social interaction and networking.
CT: How were masks, wigs, beards, costumes, etc. used in "side-degree" initiations vs. traditional initiations?
CS: The wigs, costumes and beards etc. were used in the initiation skits. In fact, there are suggestions given for various costumes to be worn in connection with specific devices. Such as — wearing a donkey or tramp or "yellow kid" head while leading a man to his potential spiked and electrified doom.
We're very pleased to present this interview with Cathy Malkasian conducted by contributing Mome cartoonist Robert Goodin. We typically have Fantagraphics staff members conduct these "Diaflogue" interviews, but when assigning an interviewer to talk to Cathy, I couldn't think of anyone better than Rob, who has known Cathy for years and published her first minicomics under his Robot Publishing banner. I was thrilled when Rob and Cathy agreed to have this conversation.
Robert Goodin: I think you had a bit of an unusual path to comics. Why don't you tell us about your background like education and your main profession.
Cathy Malkasian: The wonder of mixing words with pictures started in kindergarten. We were given the task of doing little booklets depicting some event in our lives. We drew the pictures and the teacher or our parents would take our dictation for the story, writing words where there was room. The combination of words and pictures, bound in a stable form, really excited me. I can only describe this feeling as joy.
Decades later, when I started doing comics, that same joy came back, remarkably unpolluted!
My interests were so varied growing up, but they always centered around the study of character. I could have learned any subject well if there were compelling characters involved.
The school system back then was geared toward verbal and pattern-based/logical/verbal thinkers. Kinesthetic and character-based thinkers had to make our own way. I wish that higher math had been taught with characters, since it is so much about relationships and solving for unknowns. These can all be translated into character gestalts, involving emotion and even comedy in a way that makes abstract ideas stick.
I processed and translated experience in terms of character, either taking on the qualities of other people, or assigning characters to abstract ideas or words, such as the days of the week. Character created relevance.
So whether I was studying acting or music history, opera or eventually working in animation, I was always interested in characters and how they interacted and thought. Directing and storyboarding for animation was a very exciting experience, because never before had I the opportunity to see characters I'd drawn come alive in other people's hands! It was fantastic! A great way to connect with great artists. But the strictures of children's TV writing kept the stories from getting deeper, so comics seemed like the next logical step. Comics allowed for that gestalt experience, getting characters and their context to represent philosophical, ethical and emotional states.
RG: You've certainly got some abstract ideas attached to character in Temperance. There is a good balance between characters representing ideas, but also being real people (at least with Minerva and Lester, less so with Pa and Peggy). How did these characters come together in your mind? Did you begin the book with large ideas that you wanted to wrestle with or did you start with characters that these ideas glommed onto?
CM: I started with the idea of war and how it may be the larger expression of our struggle with entropy. Let's face it: nobody is a fan of decay!! Who wants to slide into chaos and emerge transformed? Even though that's the way of things it's too scary to contemplate! We all want to take our minds off this stuff, but it's there in the background. So we have to deal with it consciously or unconsciously. This story is all about entropy and synthesis; the two sides of change, the dual nature of everything. Of these two constants, entropy (and its psychological counterpart oblivion) gets most of our attention, paradoxically because we don't like facing it head-on. Look at our culture now: we hate decay as much we glorify it. Our pervasive way of dealing with it, of beating it to the punch, is violence. We glorify violence because it is entropy under the illusion of our control.
I looked at violence as our sped-up version of entropy, our way of fooling ourselves into overcoming nature. If we can just destroy things, we will somehow live, conquering nature. If we can harness what nature does, we won't have to succumb to it. Tearing things down, blowing them up, gives us the temporary illusion that we stand over and apart from the forces that shape us. War is the most absurd expression of this illusion.
So I wondered: how would I personify not just this force of entropy, but our deeply uneasy feelings about it? How would this force look to us on an emotional and ethical level? We often judge our own decay as cruel and unrelenting. It seems like a form of self-hatred. So I had to make the Pa character not just driven at every moment to do his destructive work, but to hate himself and everything around him. His "job" as this force is to keep going until even he is destroyed. But of course that's impossible, and he knows it, so he's in torment all the time. He can't enjoy the game he's a part of. Still, with his all histrionics he seems impressive and all-powerful.
On the flip side, everything that seems gentle, receptive and creative is still seen as weak in our mass culture. While we judge entropy harshly we often ignore synthesis/creation. This force, which Peggy represents, is very subtle much of the time. Peggy is in the background, in everything. Her influence is practically invisible so it's easy to forget her. She goes about her business more slowly. To personify her would involve a sense of knowing, kindness, compassion and, of course, love. Sadly these qualities still get punished in our popular culture. So Peggy must work "underground," just as the sustaining core of any culture must plan for rebuilding even while the fires rage above.
RG: Yeah, I’m picking up what you are laying down. Why is it that destroyers always trump creators? I guess it’s just much easier to destroy something than to create. I always think about how a given population only needs a small percentage of their number bent on destruction to make the society absolute hell. How many terrorists does it take, or corrupt government officials, or faulty oil rigs? It can seem like a lost cause. Your book ends on a note of hope. Are you completely full of shit?
CM: Destroyers are generally more seductive than creators because bonding via primitive instincts is easy, immediate and addictive. Destruction generally requires less skill and time than creation (even a three-year-old can start a forest fire), so any spectator can say "Hey, I can do that!” Creators, on the other hand, are methodical and patient, representing the more executive functions in the brain. They can seem more intimidating, since they don’t have that immediate bond with our simple instincts. Can you think of many people in our popular culture who are admired for their patience and persistence? False, fast power is always more impressive to more people, especially people who haven’t developed their skills at patience and methodical thinking, or who live primarily in their instinct-based emotions.
Another reason the destructive minority grabs influence is that we are transfixed by our own awe at destruction, at seeing natural forces hijacked in the form of grand spectacle. I have a hunch that our fascination with destruction is an outgrowth of our neurological need for contrasts and patterns. We need to find patterns and disrupt them, to keep our brains awake. And we are fascinated at our own fascination, too. Humans can't seem to get enough of ourselves…
Big disturbances, for good or for ill, really wake us up, sending ripples through the wider cultural mind.
The end of the book is a tableau of a cycle coming around again. Whether or not it’s hopeful is up to the reader!
RG: Since we are on the topic of patience and creating, I wanted to talk to you about comic making. You’ve been making your living in animation and have been drawing storyboards for many years. While there are some skills that translate well into comics, comics still have aspects that do not have any overlap (like designing a page to work as a whole, placing blacks and whites, and a nice, finished drawing). Did you find it difficult to make that transition? Was there anyone you looked at when (or if) you felt a little shaky?
CM: I’m really driven by story and character, and this applies to both media. It’s a pretty intuitive process, waiting to “see” the next scene or panel once I am emotionally involved. As far as page design goes, a lot of my visual instincts come from doing paintings. I don’t paint often, but when I do it’s a quite a challenging exercise of balancing all those things you mentioned. More than producing a nice finished drawing, I want to get into the scene. Once the scene feels “real” the drawing is finished. It’s great looking at other people’s work, and their influence sinks in, but I don’t usually analyze it. Getting too analytical takes all the fun away!
RG: I know what you mean. There is also the phrase, “Paralysis by analysis” that can creep in too. At some point you have to trust your instincts. However, you appear to be blessed in that good artistic decisions seem to come naturally to you, where I need years of studying and practice to put things together.
CM: Well, what may appear to you as good instincts is really the end product of hitting a lot of intellectual and creative brick walls. I always do a mountain of preparation then get frustrated and give up, at least until my brain airs out. At that point all you can do is let go and trust that all the research and notes and sketches will sort themselves out. So however you slice it, we're both putting in years of study and practice. And, by the way, your work just gets more and more stunning.
RG: Now that you have two graphic novels out in 3 years, what’s next? Are you going to do another big book or do you want to try something shorter? Do you have any interest in reprinting some of your short stories?
CM: I am so ready to do a comedy now! And shorter books, too! It'd be good to see what Percy Gloom is up to — he'd be a great little guy to work with again. I also have this novella I wrote that needs some spot drawings and paintings, so that'll be fun, too. There's a mini-comic I did a while back called "Little Miss Mess" about a couple of incognito space aliens. I really like the main characters and wouldn't mind continuing their adventures. So ideas are rolling around in the old noggin. I just need to find out which one is shouting the loudest.
MB: In the new issue of Thrizzle, apart from the move to full color, there also seem to be fewer short strips and gags and more multi-page stories — what led to this? Is this indicative of an evolutionary shift in the comic?
MK: Well, yes — the comic has to keep evolving to keep going. For this issue I had been developing these three story ideas for a while, and it just worked out that way. There will still be lots of shorter bits coming, but many of them will be under one conceptual umbrella or another.
MB: You count some pretty high-profile comedy writer/performers among your fans (Conan O'Brien, Robert Smigel and Peter Serafinowicz among them)... apart from the fact that they know funny when they see it, how did your work come to their attention?
MK: Someone showed it to them, or they noticed it somehow, and they though it was funny. And when someone you think is funny thinks your work is funny, that's about the best feeling in the world. Really kept me going when there were no other tangible rewards.
MB: You've also had comedians doing voices at your readings, as with your presentation at MoCCA this year, which was a big hit — do you see more potential for cross-pollination of comics and live comedy?
MK: Yes. I very much want to expand on this actually. I feel that I'm working at the intersection of where art and comedy meet, and I'd like to expand that intersection. Too many artists are scared of being funny, at least without a veneer of preciousness...
MB: Who are some of your favorite people working in comedy?
MK: Besides Conan, Peter and Robert? If I were to single out one person working right now — and I will — it's the English comedian Stewart Lee. He's currently doing a TV series called Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle in the UK. Oh, and the Channel 101/Acceptable TV people — they're doing truly great work.
MB: Can you reveal anything about the new television project you're developing?
MK: Not quite yet. One word: horror.
MB: My spine is tingling already! Any word from the Conan camp now that he's been scooped up by TBS? It sure would be great to see some Kuppermanic material on his new show.
MK: No, and "from your lips to God's ears."
MB: Amen. You've fully embraced Twitter as a joke outlet/workshop — have you made any specific or surprising discoveries from it that have found their way into your comics work?
MK: Definitely. I do trot concepts out there I'm thinking of using — Twitter is a very immediate way of testing an idea's conceptual catchiness.
MK: It's very labor-intensive when I actually do the whole page the old-fashioned way — but I do that less often these days. Not that I don't enjoy it — I do — but Time is the most valuable commodity right now, and I really haven't got enough. So I do use the computer quite a bit, any shortcut I can think of. But the most serious time is devoted to thinking and planning, working out the concepts.
MK: Those are from an eccentric man's collection that I acquired from a now-defunct used magazine store on 40th street. He'd been buying men's magazines for decades, and then taking them apart and putting them back together in his own order, with cover defacements to finish them off. They've been a huge source of inspiration over the years — a surreal avalanche of period weirdness — and since I put some pages online a publishing company has come forward to do a book, which should be out in the next year.
MB: What attracts you to that type of material, and to that vintage aesthetic in general?
MK: Because art and design in those days was sharp and provocative — for people. Now it's sleek and boring — for designers.
MB: What are some of your other sources of inspiration that might not be apparent in your work?
MK: I read a lot of genre fiction — thrillers and the like. Lately John Sandford — he can really write!
MB: Was there a concept or persona behind the "P. Revess" pseudonym you used to use?
MK: I liked the ambiguity of it, also "Revess" suggests "Reve," the French for "dream."
MB: You did some 3D comics for Nickelodeon magazine — could an all- or even partly-3D issue of Thrizzle ever be in the cards? Please?
MK: I'd love to. BUT someone has to format the 3D, and then you have to include the glasses… You guys give me the word, I'll start working on it now. I love seeing my drawings move in the third dimension!
MB: I'll see what I can do about that! We'll call up Ray Zone. And finally: Any other projects in the works we should know about?
This interview was conducted via telephone and transcribed by Comics Journal editorial intern Ian Burns and proofread by TCJ's Kristy Valenti and myself. Thanks to all! –Ed.
IAN BURNS: One of the new features [in The Search for Smilin’ Ed] is this huge fold-out here, and I was wondering, now that there’s over one hundred characters in your own personal universe, does having it that large affect how you create new stories at all?
KIM DEITCH: Well, it certainly gives me a lot of advantage in terms of I’ve got all these characters and I can use them in stories, but I’ll tell you, bein’ a character of mine isn’t all that great [Burns laughs]. If I haven’t got a good idea for ‘em, forget about it. A character’s only as good as he is contributing to the storyline that I want to tell. The only one that’s really lasted all this time is Waldo, and even him I’ll lay him off for years at a time if I don’t feel I’ve got a good story.
That’s why I think those stories are pretty good is because I never tried to force one. I never got up in the morning and go [adopts southern drawl]: “Hmm, I’m gonna make me a Waldo story!” [Burns laughs]. I don’t do that: to me, the play’s the thing, and it’s got to be a good yarn.
BURNS: In the middle of creating a story, do you think: “I could see the story from a different angle.” In the TCJ #296 interview, Gary [Groth] cited the Rashômon Effect.
DEITCH: God knows that’s a gimmick that’s gotten plenty of mileage.
I will say this: in “The Sunshine Girl,” the long story in Deitch's Pictorama, that character Eleanor — I got to like her so much that I’d say the story I’m working on now was suggested by the fact that by the time I was nearing the end of that story, I got to like that character so much I hated to give her up. But ironically, now that I’m doing the story she doesn’t really have that much to do with it [Burns laughs]. At the beginning, discovering this manuscript, and then there’s an epilogue at the end and this woman occasionally mentions her by name as she’s describing something she did, so....Well, you just have to see where things go, you know? I had it in my mind that I’d like to do another story with her and maybe I will but, oddly, I didn’t really do that at all. I just used it as a jumping-off point for another story with a new character.
BURNS: Great. Back on the fold-out: Did you go through any in-depth laying-out process for all these characters, or...?
DEITCH: When I submitted the idea to Kim that we do The Search for Smilin’ Ed, the reason I did it is I figured this one I’m working on now is going to take me so long, I’d like to have something come out in the meantime, so people don’t forget about me. But, he said, “OK, I think this will make a good book, but you know what, I’d like to have an article in there talking about ‘The Kim Deitch Universe.’”
Now, I didn’t make that term up. But you know the Marvel Universe: it just means the interconnectedness of all my characters. And when he said that, I immediately, feeling cocky [Burns laughs], said: “Well, hell, if you guys are going to have an article about The Kim Deitch Universe, the least I can do is draw it!” [Burns laughs.]
Having said this, then I’m going, “Oh my God what have I said? How the hell am I gonna draw that?” [Laughter.] But, in a way that worked out, because I even spun off my own uncertainty: I was proud of the thing I worked up, it’s almost like a story but it isn’t a story. It leads you into it. Along the way I got the high concept: “let’s have it all happening inside my head.”
BURNS: Right, that’s what I was just going to say: it’s all centered around that image.
DEITCH: Yeah, and once that happened, then I really started catching fire. I did several elaborate sketches of it, and it wasn’t exactly pure fun, but it was happening. I knew I was onto something good and it came out pretty good, I think. It was hell: I had two computers cave in under me because that was a huge file. I had to get Paul Baresh to cut it in half. If you look at the Universe ones that they printed separately, you look really careful in the middle you can see where there’s a slight differentiation, ‘cause we were doing it in two hunks. Pretty much the biggest file I ever worked on. “Sex, Drugs, and Rock ’n’ roll” for Kramers [Ergot]; those were bigger, but they didn’t give me the trouble that this one did. “Kim Deitch Universe” was really blood, sweat and tears. But not the concept, so much, once I got going on that.
But the real bitch was colorin’ it, which usually is sort of fun for me. But I never had such a big busy thing. Like I said, first I started on my wife’s computer and it crashed, and then I went over to the other computer...it was giving me all kinds of trouble till I cut it in half.
Tony Millionaire: The reason it took so long between Billy books was not that I didn't have an idea. I actually have the first three books generally laid out as a trilogy and maybe I'll keep it going from there. The problem was The Drinky Crow Show, which gobbled up huge buckets of time. I shouldn't really call it a problem, I loved doing the show and though the first few episodes were kind of awkward, by the time we got to the last few we were really running along. My favorite is the second-to-last episode, which takes place mainly inside Mme. Duboursay's uterus and Uncle Gabby's rectum. I also did the Elvis Costello record album and a few one-offs like the Iron Man piece for Marvel, and of course, the weekly Maakies. There was also about 80 pages of Sock Monkey squeezed in there somewhere. I hope to get Billy Hazelnuts 3 out much quicker.
JA: Have you read any comics lately that you enjoyed?
TM: Yes, Wilson by Dan Clowes. It's the funniest thing I've read in a long time. I love the switcheroo of styles all through the book, and I love the way you think at first that it's just a collection of one-offs about an annoying loser who you can identify with because he's blurting out all the things you'd blurt out but you didn't want your ass kicked. I've read his more serious stuff, it's refreshing to see this accessible, funny version of his earlier work, I really love this book. I've also been reading Fletcher Hanks, this guy was totally out of his mind, you can see his insanity in his drawings even more than in the writing, strange peculiar man, I am crazy about his work. I've been going over the Popeye books, the hamburger jokes never get old. "Come up to the house for duck dinner, YOU BRING THE DUCKS." Also, I check American Elf every day for my dose of regular family life, and while I could stomach the Pasadena Star-News I loved reading Drabble, Family Circus and Tina's Groove by Rina Piccolo with my kids.
JA: With all the attention and care you give to draftsmanship, it seems surprising that you're as prolific as you are. How long does it take you to make a single page of Billy Hazelnuts, from blank page to inks?
TM: Once I sit down, it's all work, I just crank it out. The problem is getting down to my table. When people say I'm prolific I have to disagree, I procrastinate a lot. Then again, walking around or doing nothing is a good way to come up with ideas, so I guess I'm always working. When I'm feeling good I get between one and two pages per night drawn from pencil to ink. I found a nice technique to speed it up, I work at a size which is just barely larger than the print size. That way, they shrink it down and it looks crisp, but I don't have to use a huge illustration board. With pens you don't need all that space, but if you work with a brush you do. I don't.
JA: Part of what makes your art so fascinating is the way you combine the grotesque with more classic illustration in the vein of Herriman or Winnie the Pooh. Do you ever feel conflicted between these two different aesthetics when you are drawing, or does it all come out very naturally?
TM: Sometimes I consciously try to draw more like Herriman or Ernest Shepard, but my hand always twists back to itself after a little while. Drawing is like handwriting, which is why you can tell a fake Pollock from the real thing. I can't, but I guess somebody could.
JA: Baby birds in your works seem to be connected to themes of life and what it means to be a living creature. It plays a big part in this Billy story, and it also came up in Sock Monkey too, when Uncle Gabby accidentally kills a baby bird. What do these baby birds represent in your work?
TM: Most baby animals are adorable; kittens, bears, horses, even alligators. But the poor baby bird, even with its giant eyes and wobbly head, is usually quite ugly. The grotesque pig-like skin, sticky feathers, ugly open screeching mouth. The curled up shitty feet and bumpy head, it really looks like a malformed earthworm. But it also exudes this charming sort of helplessness, you have to help the little guys, and when you see a dead baby pigeon on a city sidewalk it makes you tear up like a blubbering waif, pity mixed with nausea. There you lie, you hideous mass of garbage, if you'd gotten past this awful part of your life, you could have soared in the sunlight on a cold February morning! But look at you now, you look like the worst dish in a bad Chinese restaurant.
JA: Why does Billy feel such a responsibility to help this baby bird if he finds animals to be "disgusting bags of meat"? What motivates Billy?
TM: Billy's story in Book One was about him being made, going through changes which depended upon who was cutting his scalp off and stuffing his head. First he's a fighting monster, then a friend to Becky, a demon influenced by that crazy Gator built by Eugene, etc etc. It was about Billy's journey to figure out who he was. In Book Two he is still a tough guy, fighting the animals in the farm, full of self-hatred because he realizes he is close to becoming one of them. In his rage he harms this little bird by driving away its mommy, he is driven by guilt to help it. Being a very passionate person, he takes this new responsibility very seriously, it becomes his duty to assist the bird, even though the bird is eating his "flesh" (suet, bread dough, mold, molasses etc) all through the adventure. It's the second stage of life, see? 1. Getting alive. 2. Having a duty. 3. Attaining enlightenment.
Our Aunt Judy embroidered a pillow for us: "Raising children is like being pecked to death by a duck."
So there you have it, I've spilled the beans about the whole book and series. Now I just have to figure out how to deal with Book Three, the whole Old Man Enlightenment volume. Coming soon!
JA: In this book, Becky assumes a much smaller role than in the first. Does she have her own adventures when Billy's away?
TM: Maybe, I haven't figured that out yet, but I want her to have a major role in Book Three. She's a very strong character and means a lot to Billy, just as all guiding angelic scientifical motherly saints do. Her presence means everything. She's the one who gave him the hazelnuts, she's an agnostical Goddess!
JA: Ann-Louise/Uncle Gabby seems to be almost the same as Becky/Billy, except of course with Becky being sassier and more involved than Ann-Louise. Do you think the relationships would be the same if genders were swapped around? Like if Ann-Louise or Becky were little boys or Gabby and Billy were girls? Would the stories still work? Or is there something about the mother/child relationship that is necessary for these stories?
TM: I think the mother/child relationship works for both genders, like me and my little dog "Whisky."
Even with me and my little girls, and vice versa. It just depends on the story.
JA: Have you received any feedback on the first Billy Hazelnuts from either children or their parents?
TM: Moms love the book, Daddies love the book, kids love the book.
When I presented my idea to Gary Groth at Fantagraphics he said, "Well, we don't really publish children's books." I said, "This is not a children's book! It appeals to the same audience that the Sock Monkey books appeal to!" He said, "I thought the Sock Monkey books were children's books..." I said, "No, they're great for kids, no swearing, but they're for people who remember being kids. Have you ever read an old favorite children's book and found it kind of lame compared to how magical it was when you were a kid? Well, Billy Hazelnuts is for that person!"
JA: Do you think there will be many more Billy Hazelnuts books?
TM: Yes, very many. I love these characters. I will always produce Maakies weekly, Sock Monkey now and then, and Billy Hazelnuts now and then. I don't like regular schedules, but I love continuation of character.
JA: Is there anything I've missed? Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?
A couple weekends back I sat down on a Friday night and read thru printed proofs of Tim Hensley's WALLY GROPIUS and was absolutely blown away. So much so that immediately afterward I emailed most of my coworkers to tell them how much I envied the pleasure that awaited them in reading the book in its entirety. I was so excited by a Fanta book that I was pimping it to my own coworkers. That's like telling your pregnant wife that, boy, she's really going to love that new baby that's on its way. Probably a bit unnecessary. But I couldn't help myself.
Having serialized WALLY in MOME for the last few years, I'd read every chapter many times over throughout its creation and loved it every step of the way, but once I finally sat down and read the whole book, I was dumbstruck by just how perfectly crafted and funny and sublimely brilliant it functions as a whole. The way Hensley's lyrical and satirical dialogue/narration plays off his impeccably beautiful, retro-ish cartooning is sui generis and as fully realized as anything I've ever read in comics. But don't believe me. None other than Daniel Clowes calls it "one of my favorite graphic novels of all time. Hilarious and utterly unique, WALLY GROPIUS is a work of unassuming genius that rewards on ever-deepening levels on each re-reading." Obviously I couldn't agree more. It's part teen romance, part dada absurdity, and part satire of power, celebrityhood and modern culture.
Anyway, when the idea came up recently in an office meeting to do more author interviews on Flog!, I knew where I wanted to start and had emailed Tim before the meeting was even over. Thankfully, he agreed, and here's what came of it.
FLOG: Tim, one thing that struck me in the course of putting the book together with you was just how specific your vision was for how the book should look and be printed. You were unusually specific and confident in your choices, for someone who was putting together his first book. And now that I've seen the book, I'm impressed by just how perfect your choices were. You picked a paper stock that I was unsure about in the abstract, for example, but it just works perfectly. As you were serializing the story in MOME, did you always have a pretty clear vision for the eventual book?
HENSLEY: I knew from the start I was doing an old fashioned hardback European comic album in terms of size and page count. I chose that format because it best fielded the liability of my inability to turn out a phone book of material. It also made a lot of decisions for me--a lot of albums I looked at had glossy cover stock and coated paper inside, endpapers printed with only process blue... Also, Alvin Buenaventura sent me some paper and cloth samples to look at in advance, so that made me appear better prepared than I was.
FLOG: I'm curious to know if you remember when you had the first idea for Wally, and what that idea was. Meaning, when you conceived it, were you thinking mostly in terms of the plot of Wally having to marry the saddest girl on earth, or was the plot a secondary concern to a larger, more abstract idea about *how* you were going to tell this larger satire?
HENSLEY: The when of it was after I got an e-mail from Gary Groth asking me to serialize a longer story in Mome, but there wasn't any eureka biopic moment I can recall. Both the plot and the how of it were an accretion of details more than a big abstract idea. I'd seen The Lady Eve with everyone chasing Henry Fonda, I liked how Dell comics would reuse the same character logos and break their stories into chapters--things like that. It was like piloting a Beverly Hillbillies truck full of garbage most of the time. Although I wrote the story out in advance, I did keep the last panel after the veil raises blank until the last minute, not really sure who the winner would be, figuring anybody at all would likely work.
FLOG: That's funny, because I think the ending is perfect. I asked about the original 'idea' because your work has many things going on at once. There's this plot of teen romance and political intrigue, but as tightly wound as it is, as a reader much of the pleasure comes from the dialogue and narration and visual puns, all of which are funny, clever, lyrical and even poetic at times. It's a series of great gags and brilliant ideas and a such masterful use of the language of comics that the plot is almost gravy, and I wondered which came first, the overarching plot or these individual moments. I'm guessing the plot just because there are some seeds planted early that are crucial to the story's resolution.
HENSLEY: That sounds more like a compliment than a question! The main element of the plot was [spoiler alert: highlight text if you dare] the check fraud of changing "IRS" to "MRS.," which I got from a book at the library on confidence men. One thing I thought was weird about Richie Rich and Uncle Scrooge was that the villains always wore black robber masks. Whenever I'd read, like, Vanity Fair magazine, there'd always be an article about a millionaire falling for or running a Ponzi scheme, so a more accurate villain seemed like it could just be somebody charismatic; the idea of Richie Rich being simply talked out of his riches by a con man sounded funny. I didn't really get that in the final story, but that was where I started. There's an old Wash Tubbs continuity where [spoiler alert]a couple swindles Wash that was probably the inspiration for the idea of having a married couple posing as father and daughter. And I always liked in, like, Plastic Man when Plas would don a beard and glasses, as if the drawing itself or his plasticity wasn't enough of a disguise.
FLOG: I've been reading your comics since at least the early 1990s in Duplex Planet, and your Ticket Stub minis, and even asked you to contribute to DirtyStories in the mid-1990s. But it seems like it you remained on the periphery of the "scene" until you started Wally Gropius in Mome. Was it really as simple as being asked to serialize something in Mome to get you to dive into comics the way you have the last five years? You never had any ambition to do a longer story before that?
HENSLEY: Nothing ever seems simple; it's hard to summarize the last twenty years. I had plenty of time when I was young and didn't know what to do, and now I have no time that I arguably do. I'm still too slow and don't seem to approach things like the hard-chargers I always read about. You couldn't really bank on me in a baseball card way. But it really did make a big difference to have a steady low-key place to work for a while. Where else could I have had the chance to serialize this story? Flight? I feel like I lucked into a few productive, if not breezy, years.
FLOG: I know music is a big part of your life and I think it comes thru in a myriad of ways in this book, as well as other pieces you've done in the past. Is that a very conscious thing or something that's so internalized that it can't be helped? Do you think of your comics in terms of musical rhythms and beats?
HENSLEY: My father is a professional musician and my mother sings in a church choir and I used to write songs, so both. I don't think of my comics as musical scores though.
FLOG: You don't write songs any more?
HENSLEY: I stopped writing songs after I lost my virginity and moved out of my parents' house. I still sing along with the radio when I'm driving.
FLOG: Ha! Okay. There's one truly shocking scene in Wally Gropius, at the end of "The Argument," between Jillian and her father. I don't want to give it away, but at that point in the story, it's a seemingly random and disturbing development. Were you intentionally playing this for shock value at that point in the story, or did you just think it was funny? When you delivered that chapter for MOME, not knowing what came next, I found it highly disturbing, and I'm wondering if you realized how chillingly that scene subverted all of the more lighthearted melodrama up to that point.
HENSLEY: I wanted there to be something at stake with the idea of the saddest girl in the world, and I wanted the readers to know something Wally didn't when they got to more scenes between him and Jillian. I also intentionally tried to make the page where he and Jillian kiss similar. To me, it explained why Jillian would be so interested in national anthems. I often get a reaction to my work which is "it makes me feel creepy, so you must be a creep." The scene is not anything from my own direct personal experience or inclination at all, and that I often have to explain that is just part of the veritable minefield the story is indirectly describing.
FLOG: This book has possibly the greatest sound effects in the history of comics: the sound of a closing door to a money vault is "TRUMP!", Wally's backfiring hotrod belches "DEUTSCHEMARK!" and "RUBLE!," Wally vomits "HEAR$T!", etc. Was that formal conceit inspired by anything in particular?
HENSLEY: One of the great reliefs of finishing this story was realizing I wouldn't have to think of any more money jokes. I can remember making a list of millionaire names and thinking, "OK, what sound effect would Vanderbilt make?" There wasn't any direct inspiration other than the way Richie Rich radiates currency gags into the physical environment. I did love Don Martin's sound effects as a kid; I recall he had "Poit" for the sound of a breast popping out of a dress. The font for all the sound effects came from John Stanley's Dunc and Loo. Tired of all the references to other comics yet?
FLOG: No! Speaking of which, recently my friend Jason Miles introduced me to The Adventures of Jodelle, which kind of fascinated me as a proto-underground, pop art artifact. When you were interviewed for Mome a few years ago, you mentioned that as an influence on an earlier piece you'd done for Dirty Stories. The reference was lost on me at the time, but now, I can see a bit of Jodelle in Wally, as a kind of pop art satire on excess. I guess that's not a question, but I'm wondering if you agree.
HENSLEY: The loud color scheme and the slamming door at the end may have been an influence, but, yeah, I was imitating Jodelle and Pravda more on the Daikon strip I did for Dirty Stories. Daikon was just before I learned how to really use a brush, so it could've turned out a lot better. Christophe Blain did an homage to Pravda you can find online that's perfect.
FLOG: Dash Shaw blogged about WALLY on Comics Comics, and described your visual style as, "It's like what [Tim] chooses to draw in the environment (and what he chooses not to draw) is determined by some graphic Feng Shui." Ken Parille ran with this, comparing your style to mid-20th Century kid's humor comics, which tend to use backgrounds sparingly, utilizing only characters and objects necessary for the gag. I thought it was a very astute piece. How conscious are these decisions, or do they just come intuitively to you in the layout stage?
HENSLEY: Those were both well-written posts, so I expect to get asked about them a lot! I knew I was drawing for color, and I was consciously trying to drop out elements to let the color through. Ken Parille was more specifically accurate that it imitates old humor comics. The danger is in losing so much detail you can't tell where you are. I would try to repeat certain colors if Wally was in the garage with the Dropouts again and always put three moneybags on a shelf there. The thing I thought more interesting in Dash Shaw's post was his note that he thought all the character's voices sounded the same; rereading the book, I can see his point.
FLOG: Right, he said the "voice" was the comic as a whole, which he meant as a compliment. Another thing Dash commented on that I found interesting was when he described how Wally's "monologue" at the altar in the final proper chapter to the book should resonate with anyone who's ever been in a relationship with a clinically depressed person. Would you agree?
HENSLEY: Ha, it's maybe been more the other way around or both at once, so maybe I couldn't tell you. Well, I haven't been clinically depressed in the sense of taking medication. I get depressed a lot, but it feels less chemical than "inescapable sorrow." It's where I get my sense of humor.
FLOG: Well, that's interesting, the idea of your humor coming from an "inescapable sorrow," because it somehow reminds me of some things I've read where you've talked about how you think having a mentally handicapped sister has informed your work. Maybe Dash was picking up on some of that?
HENSLEY: Yeah, probably. "Inescapable sorrow" was how Pearl Buck describes institutionalizing her daughter in The Child Who Never Grew. That's a book I re-read a lot. I don't have much of a social life other than taking my sister out to lunch once a week, when she isn't in the hospital. She's made half-hearted attempts at suicide, gone blind and back, had a stroke, been put under psychiatric lockdown, has COPD, diabetes, emphysema, hepatitis... At a certain point, it almost becomes absurd. Whatta world.
FLOG: One thing that surprised me in your MOME interview was when you said you felt much more confident in your writing abilities than your drawing, which surprised me, because I think your drawings are every bit as fully realized on the page as your writing and that they complement each other perfectly. That was almost four years ago -- do you still feel the same way?
HENSLEY: Yep, but I think my art has improved a bit. I can really see in Wally where I switched from a #2 brush to a #4. The compositions also get a little less afraid of overlapping elements. You can't wait to get good enough to draw comics, because you mostly pick up stuff through the routine of failing.
FLOG: What's next for you, comics-wise? I know you've done some Alfred Hitchcock strips for THE BELIEVER's comics section recently. What else?
Well, I'm working on a minicomic of SirAlfred strips. It will be very low-key. Now that I'm briefly working again and only have at best an hour a day for comics, I'm trying to scale things down. I hope eventually if my life stabilizes a bit more to try to put together another long story to draw. It's weird how a sketch has more value than the pages of chicken scratch necessary to write. I'm very nervous how my book will be received, so then again I may just hide under a rock for a while!
Thanks to Tim for being so generous with his time.
WALLY GROPIUS will hit bookstores and comic shops in May, and Fantagraphics will have a limited number of advance copies available at the MoCCA Arts Festival April 10-11. Here is the official solicitation info:
WALLY GROPIUS by Tim Hensley $18.99 Hardcover COMICS & GRAPHIC NOVELS / Literary 64 pages, full-color, 10" x 12 ½" ISBN: 978-1-60699-355-2
Superficially resembling 1960s teenage humor comics, Tim Hensley's graphic novel Wally Gropius is actually an acute satire of power, celebrityhood, and modern culture that tells the story of the titular character, who bears a closer resemblance to a teenaged Richie Rich or a classmate of Archie Andrews at Riverdale High than he does the famous Bauhaus architect whose name he shares. Wally is the human Dow Jones, the heir to a vast petrochemical conglomerate. When the elder Thaddeus Gropius confronts Wally with the boilerplate plot ultimatum that he must marry "the saddest girl in the world" or be disinherited, a yarn unravels that is part screwball comedy and part unhinged parable on the lucrativeness of changing your identity. Hensley's dialogue is witty, lyrical, sampled, dada, and elliptical--all in the service of a very bizarre mystery. There's sex, violence, rock and roll, intrigue, and betrayal--all brought home in Hensley's truly inimitable style. Created during an era when another well-off "W" was stuffing the coffers of the morbidly solvent, Wally Gropius transforms futile daydreams and nightmares into the absurdity of capital.
We are pleased to bring you "Diaflogue," a new semi-regular series of exclusive Q&As with Fantagraphics artists conducted by various members of our staff! Leading things off: Peter Bagge interviewed by Larry “The Love God” Reid, curator and events coordinator for Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery.
We’re anxiously awaiting the arrival of HATE ANNUAL #8. Can we expect the responsibilities of parenthood to have an effect on the maturity of Buddy and Lisa?
Yes — or an effect on their immaturity.
As a father yourself, how much of your child-rearing experience will we find reflected in Buddy?
Lots. The big difference, as always, is that I was the father of a 5-year-old 15 years ago, while Buddy is going through it now, so there are different references and cultural touchstones here and there. The gist is the same, though.
Having served as a stand-in for Leonard on a couple of blind “Stinky Dates” myself, it came as quite a blow when we lost the “Love God.” Any other big surprises in store? Might we see a return of Valerie, for instance?
Maybe down the road. The next issue of HATE ANNUAL will most likely involve Buddy and Lisa going back to Seattle to visit her parents – whom Buddy has never met!
In many ways the fictional story arc of HATE foreshadowed actual events in the social counterculture of “Generation X.” An army of young adults seemingly followed Buddy to Seattle in the early ‘90s, came of age here, then meandered back to their home towns. Many are beginning to cope with delinquent children of their own now. Where do you see the grunge generation headed?
Does anyone in their 40s still think of themselves as “grunge”? God help them if they do! Unless they’re in the Foo Fighters or something.
Tell us a bit about your new Vertigo graphic novel OTHER LIVES.
It’s about 4 different people, each of who have past or present virtual and/or fantasy lives. As the story unfolds, all of their real and fake lives intertwine, and havoc ensues. A fun read!
Any other notable projects on the horizon?
I’m slowly getting started on several: besides another eventual HATE ANNUAL, I also plan on getting back in the REASON Magazine fold. My next feature will be about volunteering for an arts project at a women’s prison. After that I may start a series of biographical profiles for them, dealing with various women writers from the past.
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