MOME Interview 3: Kurt Wolfgang
Saturday, 26 November 2005

This interview is reprinted in its entirety from MOME Vol. 3.

Kurt Wolfgang, the old man of MOME, was a late bloomer, which may be why he's the old man of MOME. He always drew and always drew comics, but he never read comic books as a kid, much less obsessed over them. He read a handful of newspaper strips, but as he sagely put it, most of the strips in the '70s were "crappy," so he didn't read many of them though he did manage to take one of Joe Kubert's ancillary weekend comics courses when he was 10 years old! His biggest influence was probably the '70s Mad magazine; his comics were largely parodic in nature or "slapstick nonsense." If he was utterly impervious to the lure of superhero comics, he was equally oblivious to underground comics: "I knew the undergrounds existed because just being alive you learn who Robert Crumb is, but I thought that just ended one day. Like 1970 hit or something and everything just ceased at that point. Everybody sobered up." He lived blithely through the '80s without discovering alternative comics, either. Kurt was, in short, what W.C. Fields once called "dangerously unobservant."

Illustration by Kurt Wolfgang
From Low Jinx #2

That all changed in the early '90s when he stumbled into a bookstore that sold alternative comics in Gainesville, Florida, and bought an armful of "weird-looking" comics, including Hate and Eightball. This inspired him to focus and start producing his own minicomics: he says he really got serious about cartooning in '95-'96, which is when he started self-publishing his own showcase, No- Fie (of which he produced eight issues). He attended his first SPX in '98 where he realized "that all these other people were doing this."

He has since become a mover and a shaker in the mini- and alternative comics scene, printing many minicomics for fellow artists, editing and publishing Low-Jinx, a comic that parodies other alternative cartoonists (the 3rd issue, a real gas, includes contributions by Sam Henderson, Jordan Crane, Johnny Ryan, Nick Bertozzi, Tony Consiglio and himself parodying such cartoonists as Art Spiegelman, Jeff Smith, Ron Regé and Johnny Ryan).

Illustration by Kurt Wolfgang
From the Where Hats Go mini, Part One

Kurt was born in 1970 in Dover, New Jersey, which he described as "the kind of place that has the worst of both worlds, where you don't have any of the culture of the city, but pollution and crowding." His parents moved to Florida when he was a teenager and he dutifully moved with them. By the time he was 10 he was living in Gainesville, famous for a rash of student murders: "...The day I moved in, people started getting murdered all around me." He skedaddled back to New Jersey where he married the girl he met when he was 10 years old (he's evidently also a procrastinator), and has lived in the scenic town of Collinsville, Connecticut for the last 10 years. He is the father of three children, which makes his prolificacy no small miracle.

My first exposure to his work was a beautifully self-published (and selfprinted!) little book titled Where Hats Go, where, for the first time, the formal and thematic elements of his work cohered into a distinctive vision — slapstick nonsense crossed with a bittersweet fable. He is currently working on an immense retelling of the Pinocchio story titled Pinokio, which, I have every reason to believe, will be among the best graphic novels of 2010.

This interview was conducted in mid-November 2005, and edited by Kurt and myself.

—Gary Groth
November 27, 2005

kurt wolfgang: From the time I was born, I wanted to be a cartoonist, once I found out there was a thing called a cartoonist and he drew pictures and got paid for it. And I think I just kind of gave up on that somewhere along the way, it just kind of faded out. To me, you did Garfield or superheroes and that was it. It was at that point, my early 20s, when I decided that I wanted to be a cartoonist. I wanted to do this, I wanted to do it well, work at it. And then gradually I learned about different comics, started looking into the past and realizing that there was this amazing wealth from years and years ago.

gary groth: You said you started sending your minis out in '96; to whom would you send them?

kw: Oh, I sent them to Pete Bagge and Dan Clowes, just different people I was reading and enjoying. Then they all sent very nice, polite encouraging letters back. And I look back, and I just feel so foolish [laughs], when I think about what I sent them. [Groth laughs.]

I started a lot later than other people to actually just sit down and draw several hours at a time. I think I did a lot of my really embarrassing stuff in my 20s when I think a lot of people had knocked that out of the way in their teens. You go through this period, I think a lot of people do, where their comics, especially when you do humorbased things, or at least humortinted things, you have a whole lot of stuff you're trying to get out at once. You're trying to show how clever you are to the point where you make these comics where it's just some guy running around narrating everything you hate in the world. You know what I'm saying? These clever wise-assy rant things, where it's like you have all these good ideas, but you just want to get them out there to show the world how fucking clever you are, and I think I had to work through a lot of that before I could...

Illustration by Kurt Wolfgang
From Noe-Fie #6
One day I actually just stopped and said, "Is this the kind of work I want to do?" And don't get me wrong, I look back at a lot of that work and I enjoy some of it, but I really started to look at it. I looked at the kind of work I was enjoying, and seeing something meaningful, more substantial, I wasn't making comics like that. I was making silly comics about how I feel about this, how I feel about that; silly mundane things.

gg: What year did you start publishing No-Fie?

kw: That would have been around, I'm guessing, '95, '96. I don't know. I should probably have some of this material, on hand.

gg: I don't have the first four issues. The fifth one is '97.

kw: Oh goodness, you have that, huh? You know, most of the drawing that I had done through my 20s would be like drunk bar napkins and whatnot. And the first few issues of No-Fie were nothing more than, I would take illustrations that I was particularly fond of and I would loosely string them together with text to make up a kind of story. Like that's how lame it was. But I think everybody has to go through that whole thing. Luckily, I didn't go through it too publicly.

gg: [Laughs.] Right. What prompted you to publish your own comic?

kw: First I made it for my friends.

Illustration by Kurt Wolfgang
From Low Jinx #3

gg: And that was No-Fie?

kw: No, that was like one-shot weirdo things that were not... They were no good. Sometimes they were just drawings, pictures, whatever, do these little 'zines and stuff with other people. Around No-Fie I moved back to New Jersey and moved in with the woman who became my wife, and we led this somewhat isolated existence, so I would sit and draw. When my children were born, strangely enough, that's when I really got into making comics. [Laughter.] Seriously. But what was really neat about it was, when you have kids, I started doing No-Fie just prior to my kids being born, but you learn do you have children?

gg: Yeah.

kw: You learn how to budget your time in this amazing way. It used to be, I would draw, I had to feel in the mood and have a pot of coffee on and the fucking moons had to align before you would actually sit down and do it when you've got all the time in the world. When suddenly your time is budgeted so tightly, because my two sons are a year apart, so I had two kids in diapers at the same time and you have to do things like, "OK, I have six minutes here, I can ink that line." And instead of dismissing it, "Oh, I won't get anything done in those six minutes," you just fill up those six minutes.

gg: You really value every goddamn moment.

kw: Right, right. You can turn it on and turn it off. There was a fast rate of improvement [laughs] in everything I did in a three-year period where I just was spending so much time drawing. I also had the benefit of, I had a night-shift job where I could just draw for hours at a time.

gg: I was going to ask what you did, because you must have had a job.

kw: Yeah, I had a full-time job, I worked the night shift for five years. In fact, I drew just about, I would say, 70 percent of Where Hats Go, let's fast forward a bit, that was drawn at work. I used to draw much smaller, too, so I would just take the top of a cardboard box, have it there, my supervisor would come by, I would just cover it up to hide what I was doing, because I was at work.

gg: What were you ostensibly hired to do?

kw: [Laughs.] I was running digital printers then. Like big huge industrial Xerox machines.

gg: At a printing company?

Illustration by Kurt Wolfgang
From Low Jinx #2
kw: At the printing division of an insurance company, [which] did all their printing. So I had access to state-of-the-art copy machines. You can imagine what happened [laughter] when I had that. There was a three-year period where I was probably personally responsible for printing most of the minicomics in the world, because I could print anything for any of my friends for small window of time. We took great advantage of that.

gg: That sounds like the perfect job.

kw: It was nice.

gg: Not for your employer, but...

kw: No, no. And this is not a rationalization, by no means a justification, but what I printed, what we print in a day, you know, millions and millions of images, so for me to run off a thousand copies of Low Jinx or something is hardly a drop in the bucket.

gg: My impression of No-Fie was basically that it was just a proving ground where you could rant and rave for a while.

kw: Right, exactly.

gg: And try out different voices so that you could find your true voice, which I think you're doing now.

kw: It may have been that, or it may have just been purging [laughs], all this wise-ass energy, and all these...

In all honesty, I look back at it, I still laugh at it, it was some of my earlier efforts to be a little more serious that are really cringe-inducing. I think what makes them so tough to look at now is, not only are they bad, but how good I thought they were for about 10 minutes. [Groth laughs.] You know what I'm saying? You think back, like, when I was in middle school, if you were 14 years old in 1984, you had some parachute pants. That's all there is to it. And if you had some parachute pants, you thought they were pretty fucking cool. Then you look back a few years later [laughs], and it's not only embarrassing that you wore these things, but you just remember how cool you felt in them. And I remember drawing some of this stuff when I first started moving away from humor [and thinking], "Wow, I'm really doing something good here." Then you look back and it's just so heavy-handed and it's that much more embarrassing.

Illustration by Kurt Wolfgang
From Where Hats Go

gg: Where Hats Go seems to be your first really major piece of work. I don't know if you'd agree with that.

kw: Oh, most certainly. The last couple issues of No-Fie were, I believe, self-contained stories, wordless. And I started doing wordless comics almost as an exercise. I'd realized that the comics that I did for the most part were, as I described earlier, "clever, talking heads yelling things." I described it at one point as a verbal Punch and Judy, just back and forth talking heads, there was no story, there wasn't any meaning to it at all, and I really didn't know how to cartoon. I knew how to draw some pictures, I knew how to write things, but the things I'd do weren't necessary in comics form, they could have been some clever rant in a 'zine or something, there was really no reason for them to be comics. So I really wanted to work on visual narrative, telling a story, so I just dropped all words. And I hate lettering, too, that was also a part of it.

gg: [Laughs.] Well, it solved that problem.

kw: Oh yeah. And I'm still terrible at lettering [laughs]. But yeah, the last couple issues of No-Fie, I had these stories. I was really happy with them, and actually I really started to dislike the drawings at that point. I looked at work I liked and I wanted to be at least [sighs], I wanted to look professional, you spend so much time thinking, "Oh, I want to make it, I want to make it, why aren't I making it," but then one day you look at your work and you're like, shit, you're not ready. I remember at one point, I said to my wife, "You know, if someone asked to publish me right now, I'd say no, because I'm not ready." And she said, "Oh yeah, you're right, you're not." And I said, "Oh, fuck," I really wasn't expecting that level of honesty to be dropped on me. But yeah, we were both absolutely right.

Illustration by Kurt Wolfgang
From Low Jinx #2
I started doing these wordless things and really started to work on drawing. I really liked the direction I was going and when you kind of teach yourself another language, I think it inspires you to create a different kind of work. It inspires different kinds of stories. If you suddenly pick up a banjo when you've been playing a sousaphone, you're going to start writing a different kind of music. I think I learned a new aspect of the language, all these stories started coming to mind. When I first started doing Where Hats Go, it was going to be a 40-page story. It was going to be a minicomic, and Jordan Crane called me and asked me what I was working on. I'd met him a year or so before. I sent him some pages that I was working on, the first 10 pages. I'd told him about the story previously. That's when he asked me if he could use it in Non. I said, "Well OK, it's going to end up, I think, being 20, 25 pages," and I think it ended up being a 150-something pages. And the 10 pages I'd showed him, we ended up cutting out of the book anyway. [Laughter.] What interested him initially, never actually made it into the book.

And I was still in this pretty heavy learning curve, hell, I still am, but you learn a lot when you double your output, your page-count output in one book. You're going to learn a lot in that time, so I actually had to go back to the beginning and redraw tons of pages. Also, foolishly enough, I started using a brush halfway through the book, of course, so I had to dumb it down a lot. I was like, "Wow, this brush could do these amazing things that I could never do before."

gg: So you moved from a pen to a brush.

kw: [Apologetic] Yeah, from a rapidograph to a brush, so it wasn't as if I had any sort of technique with variation other than pretty much trying to emulate the brush strokes by drawing them in.

gg: Why did you do that?

kw: 'Cause I looked at the work that I liked, and I saw things that could be done that I wasn't able to do. And it's that thing, you want to be a real cartoonist. You want to be for real. And it wasn't until I started making, doing wordless stuff that I felt like I was really doing anything worthwhile, that I really want to take this seriously. Prior to then, it was a hobby in every sense, because I wasn't really pouring anything meaningful in it.

And when I started making these different kind of stories, elements would surface in them that (I'm trying to say this without sounding like a pretentious wad) little mirrors, you know, of my own life and my own experience would pop out from these stories and it began an entirely different thing. My work was telling me more than I was telling it. I don't know if that makes any sense.

Illustration by Kurt Wolfgang
From Pinokio
When I was making all these wise-ass things, you're pouring all this you into it to show everybody how clever you are, how funny you are, look at me, look at this silly or gross or outlandish thing. And when I started telling a certain kind of story, things came back at me, where it's me, there's no way to say this [laughs] without sounding really hippy-dippy, but I really started to learn things about myself and comics for me became more of a conversation with myself that other people enjoyed eavesdropping on than me talking to other people. Does that make any sense at all?

gg: Yeah. I'd love to have you elaborate on that. Did that process of discovery start with your wordless comics?

kw: Maybe it was letting my own guard down with myself, because in the process of trying to be a funny and cool and... and maybe that's what it is, maybe it's just telling a story and drawing upon real life experiences and real feelings and putting that into it rather than showing everybody what kind of person you are, convincing them what kind of person you are. You just say, "Fuck it," and you tell a story with that sort of freedom and, obviously not careless, but carefree sort of way, not concerning yourself with how this is coming across, what it says about you.

gg: Another interesting thing is that in your piece in MOME #3, what I noticed was that you recycled part of a rant from No-Fie, except that you put it in an entirely different context, which was not the context of you screaming at the reader, but in the exchange between the two characters. And so that opened it up from a rant to a social exchange. Of sorts.

Illustration by Kurt Wolfgang
From Pinokio
kw: What part in particular? Oh, probably about the "More Punk Rock Than Thou?"

gg: Yeah, yeah, which echoed one of your rants in No-Fie #5 or #6.

kw: Right, right. And that would make total sense.

gg: Of course, instead of just ranting, he was ranting to the girl, so there was an exchange.

kw: Right, right. Well, it makes sense I would do that too, you know, when you're younger, you kind of define yourself by your tastes. You like this kind of music, you need to throw that out there so everybody knows what kind of badass Rolling Stones fan you are or whatever, like that somehow makes you something. And as we get older, well, we don't need to put bumper stickers on our cars any more, we don't need to wear that shirt with that brand on it because we don't really care what you think of us any more. I think in art, you can't do anything until you get to that point. I don't think you'll get anywhere if you worry about other people. You might be good at entertainment, and I'm not trying to cut that down in any way, but I'm not really looking at entertaining people as the primary purpose of me doing this. Mostly it's totally selfish and self-serving.

gg: So you believe in art for art's sake.

kw: Certainly. One of the questions that I can never really satisfactorily answer when I ask myself or when people ask me is, "If you don't care what anyone thinks, and if you're doing this for you, then why do you even put it out there?" And I don't know if I could ever really come up with a good answer for that, except what I said earlier about trying to figure things out, like trying to figure out what it all means, or what it means to be alive or whatever. We all do these things, and we all bounce our attitudes off of other people's efforts.

gg: Well, yeah, even if you don't care about the reader per se, all art has to be based on experience, and experience is communicable.

kw: And when I say I don't care, I mean, don't get me wrong, I have an ego like anybody else, I'm not some kind of monk up here just sending pages out. I read reviews, [Groth laughs], I like it when they say good things, I don't like it as much when they say bad things. I certainly do like when people connect with something I do, that's obviously pretty neat, because I know how I feel when something touches me on any number of levels. Obviously, I like that, but if you start doing that, if you start worrying about what works, what doesn't, what they like, what they didn't, and you start tailoring your work to that, I don't want to do that, I don't want to do that any more.

Illustration by Kurt Wolfgang
From Where Hats Go

gg: You're like Bush, you don't read the polls. [Wolfgang laughs.] You're your own man [sarcastically].

In a story like Where Hats Go, to me, the important thing is not so much the story as it is the telling.

kw: Yeah, it's the classic journey. It's little subtle things in there, that I just learned about myself and about relationships and how I deal with them without getting too heavy-handed here.

gg: And you learned that because you had to work through it in order to finish the story, in order to...

kw: Exactly, and when you're doing things wordless, to tell the story actually because you're forced to, how am I going to get this across? It's really easy to do a wordless story about making a sandwich and you get a bellyache from it, and it's real easy to do just do a rollicking... Well, not easy, I'm sorry, I shouldn't say that, a rousing physical-based adventure. It's a lot easier to come up with devices to get certain things across when it's a guy running around, let's say. To convey emotions is a little more difficult. It forces you to examine every aspect, more aspects that you were considering before, because suddenly you don't have this tool. I don't have time to do formalist exercises and things like that. Most of the drawing I do is for a finished page. Although at one point, I started doing wordless stuff as an exercise to teach myself something, I never thought I was going to learn the things that I did, I don't know, it sounds silly, I'm sorry. [Laughs.]

gg: No, no, it doesn't.

I have two versions of Where Hats Go, and I noticed that you redrew a lot of it from the 1st to the 2nd version.

kw: One of the minicomics.

gg: Yeah. And the reason you did that is because you were dissatisfied with the pen-and-ink version? I ask because you completely changed the compositions and drawings and the sequence.

kw: Yeah, there were some things done that I think needed to be elaborated, and that's one thing where it's great to have somebody else looking at it, in that case Jordan [Crane] was editing this thing, which was incredibly helpful, and sometimes frustrating. When you draw an entire page, it's one panel, and it doesn't work, I think just naturally your brain is telling you, "No no, it's fine, it's fine." [Groth laughs.] We're all our harshest critics when it comes down to [it], but I think sometimes it takes that person to point out that thing you wouldn't even allow yourself to think about. And when the drawing looks very very pretty, well then obviously it should be there. Look at that thing. I think that sways you. And there were a lot of full-page drawings, you know. So when Jordan calls me up and says, "I can't even tell what's going on. What's he holding? What is that? This just makes no sense." Well, Jordan's a guy who reads comics, and if he's not going to understand it, chances are the average guy at Barnes and Noble certainly isn't going to understand it.

It's good to have someone just for that. It's almost, you're proofreading rather than just simply editing, just checking for flow where I think if you know the story and you're that close to it, you know these characters, you know everything about them, you're likely to miss certain gaps in the narrative. So yeah, there were a number of reasons to redraw. Some where it needed to match up better, with the change in drawing styles. Sometimes things were redrawn because they were originally just bad [laughs], just lousy. Sometimes there was simply a better way to tell it.

gg: You insist on cramming every panel with enormous amounts of detail, which is interesting, because I think you're one of the few guys who can make that work.

kw: Thank you. That's good. [Laughs.] That's good to hear, because I often...

gg: Why the compulsion to do that?

kw: I think it's... I think it's maybe insecurity [Groth laughs], I think is maybe a big part of it. I wish I could let go of things.

gg: It gives your work a really distinctive density and feel to it. Think of the first strip in MOME, for example.

Illustration by Kurt Wolfgang
From Where Hats Go
kw: Is this the first MOME? Because that was one of the least detailed things, that was my scaling- everything-down style, if you compare that to say, the Pinokio stuff. There's no crosshatching in that first MOME. Yeah.

gg: There are the cityscapes, and they're...

kw: But compare that to a cityscape from Pinokio or Where Hats Go.

gg: No, that's true, but the panels are still full. No negative space.

kw: Part of it I think is some level of insecurity. I don't draw technically very well, so I figure if I fill, and I'm not being clear, but if I fill it up with lines, then certainly I intended it to look this way, all this work has gone into it. I don't think my work stands on its own in a more simple form. I think that's part of it. Another thing is a lot of the work I enjoy, have enjoyed through life, has been very dense.

I've heard people say that they prefer art that leaves something to the imagination, to where you can imagine what's going on, that every bump on the plaster on the wall doesn't need to be there, it's not adding anything, but I disagree. I mean, there's movies I can watch that are terrible movies, but they just have such a nice look to them, and they set the tone so beautifully, and you're in love with the cinematographer in this terrible, terrible movie. Take the first Rocky movie, for example, and I like the first Rocky movie OK, I suppose, but the whole look of that movie is so beautiful. It's got this dinginess that maybe I can relate to from my youth or something, but it really tells so much of the story, and I find that...

I was looking at some Charles Addams last night, and he had these one-line gags where he could have summed everything up with nine lines, and put so much lush detail and beauty into it. I know this is a foolish assumption, but once someone put so much work into it, I feel like they loved it. You know, they really put something into it, and they really spent time with this thing and had some kind of love for this to spend that much time with it. I love doing what I do, I really do, I really love making these little worlds, and if you're going to make a world, that's the most fun, including all the little things in it. Being the set designer and just going crazy.

More books featuring Kurt Wolfgang (click covers for complete product details)

Mome Vol. 1 - Summer 2005
Mome Vol. 1 - Summer 2005
Price: $14.95
Mome Vol. 2 - Fall 2005
Mome Vol. 2 - Fall 2005
Price: $14.95
Mome Vol. 3 - Winter 2006 [Sold Out]
Mome Vol. 3 - Winter 2006 [Sold Out]
Price: $14.95
Mome Vol. 4 - Spring/Summer 2006
Mome Vol. 4 - Spring/Summer 2006
Price: $14.95

All books featuring Kurt Wolfgang