This interview originally appeared on Flog! The Fantagraphics Blog. –Ed.
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 Dirty Stories 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 Sir Alfred 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:
by Tim Hensley
COMICS & GRAPHIC NOVELS / Literary
64 pages, full-color, 10" x 12 ½"
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.