In May 2011, I was interviewed by Decibel Magazine writer Nick Green for an article about alternative cartoonists in the form of a group of capsule profiles, also including Tom Neely and the late Dylan Williams. Nick’s interview session with me was quite long; in print, of course it was boiled down to a couple of dense paragraphs. Now that Uncivilized and I are publicly launching the new True Swamp hardcover, I thought it would be nice to post the long version of this interview, especially since that issue of Decibel is now sold out. Here it is, with a few editorial addenda by me in brackets. Thanks again to Nick, who knows a ton about music and comics and is just great company across the board. He continues to contribute regularly to Decibel, which is one of the few truly solid music magazines around in printed form these days, and a must-read if you have any interest at all in heavy music.
What’s the first thing you can remember creating?
It would be a comic book, actually. My mom still has it, too. It was a comic I drew in kindergarten about my dog going to Mars and fighting some cats there. It was pretty much an excuse to have him and the cats holding capital-L shaped guns and to draw tons of shooting lines across the page. The end result was… a lot of scribble.
Why were the cats on Mars – are all cats aliens?
I guess so. I can’t imagine that I was aware of John Carter, Warlord of Mars and all of that stuff. I’m surprised that I was thinking about Mars at all at that age. I guess I wanted it to be an adventure story, and I guess that Mars seemed like a likely setting for “adventure.” After that, I did a lot of comics about a race of flying mice who also lived on Mars (and later on planet “Klak” which was a name stolen from Marvel’s Micronauts comic). They would also divide into armies and face off on either side of the page and shoot at each other. They were sort of “real time comics,” in that by the end, you couldn’t really see anything because the whole page was filled with scribbles. It was more like a video game on paper.
The way you’re describing it sounds like a Chinese painting that depicts 1000 archers shooting arrows.
I was a Chinese classicist before I even knew it. I don’t do crowd scenes anymore, though.
How did you become interested in comics?
I think I started drawing my childish comics before I was a comic book fan. I got into comics when I was 6 or 7 – mostly Marvel stuff. I don’t really remember how that happened. I do remember that I decided that I was too cool for comics when I was around 10. But then, when I turned 12, me and my friends all fell back into comic fandom in a big way together. We’d all ride the city bus to downtown St. Paul on Saturdays to spend all of our money on Marvel shit. By middle school, me and a couple of my friends started to draw our own comics. They were standard, run-of-the-mill knock-offs of the books we were reading, except the characters had animal heads and names slightly altered from Marvel characters. Those comics didn’t really have panels; the format was more like a bunch of text accompanied by 1 or 2 drawings per page. We had no idea you could photocopy things at the time—everything was a pencil edition of 1 to be passed around.
I didn’t really start drawing comics that were graphically-driven until I got really sick with Ulcerative Colitis when I was 14 and had to drop out of high school in my senior year because I was too sick to go. I spent 3 or 4 years, roughly from when I was 17-21 years old, being at home almost all of the time because I was sick. That was when I realized that you could make a comic by taking it to Kinko’s. It never dawned on me that you could take a comic to a copy shop and, here’s the key point, have it printed on both sides of the paper! During that sick era, I found Factsheet Five and another publication called Comics F/X that reviewed mini comics. I started doing mini comics and trading them with other people when I was 18. That was my first self-conscious attempts to do things “seriously.” I met a lot of people during those mail-trading days, including Tom Hart who remains my best friend.
How did you go from self-publishing minis to working on the True Swamp series?
For about 3 years, I just did lots of minis that weren’t really very concerned with presentation or giving the reader something cohesive to chew on. They were aggressively art-for-art’s sake. I thought I knew better than everyone and that I was this, like, post-everything artist that was doing these bizarre stories to mess with people’s heads. The reality was that they were terribly drawn and obtuse. I grew up in the Twin Cities and moved to Seattle when I was about to turn 20. Soon, so did Tom Hart.
[Discussion follows of the move to Seattle, the comics scene there, Tom and I growing more ambitious about our comics, and our friendship/housemateship with Ed Brubaker, and the creation of the first several issues of True Swamp. For these subjects, I refer you to my Afterword and Ed’s Foreword to the new book, which between them cover the subject thoroughly. Now we skip ahead to 1993, with the first four issues of True Swamp completed…]
So I had this packet of the first 4 issues, which I submitted for a Xeric grant to self-publish… Stockpiling all of that material and putting it out very rapidly in 1994 helped cement a modest foothold in the independent comics scene at the time. It also didn’t hurt that Diamond refused to distribute the first couple of issues because of the “rough” artwork. I became a minor cause celebre after that—I had articles written about me in The Comics Journal and Comics Buyers Guide suggesting that Diamond had tried to freeze out a young, self-publishing cartoonist. I got way more attention from that than if Diamond had just simply accepted the books for distribution from the beginning. Especially since they accepted True Swamp with issue #3, anyway.
[Addendum: Diamond would repeat history in 2012 by refusing to carry Uncivilized Books’ hardcover edition of the early True Swamp. The blow was cushioned this time by the fact that we have an awesome book trade distributor in Consortium, and by the existence of robust online arteries, but I am at root an old time comics shop dude and the fact that the new book will be unavailable to many comics shops really galls me.]
Why has it been hard for you to sustain momentum on True Swamp over the years?
In my mind, there’s kind of a prelapsarian era where I did nothing but True Swamp. I almost wish that I hadn’t ever let myself institute any other projects. If I had just kept putting out True Swamp regularly back then, I probably would’ve been able to make a modest living off of the comic, as sales were climbing significantly with every issue. After the fifth issue, I was at a point in the story that was very tricky. I have all of these scripts for what would’ve been the next issue – it was super-ambitious. There were all of these allegorical details and this strange symbol system. At one point, I had this giant plot diagrammed that was color-coded in 5 different colors. I was super-obsessed with the practices of Peter Greenaway at the time, which in hindsight wasn’t a very suitable obsession for my material. I ended up unable to figure out how to treat the next event in the story.
You don’t see these things when you’re up in there, but all I really needed to do was have a time lapse in the story and pick up at a point where the event I was wrestling with portraying had already happened. It was going to be one of the characters having a nervous breakdown and him emerging with his fragile ego built back up in this tenuous way. I ended up branching out and doing Ghost Ship because I felt like I was at an impasse with True Swamp. That was really fun, and some of my favorite stuff I’ve done. Although that series remains really hard to find. But in the first issue of Ghost Ship, I did a short True Swamp back-up. By that point, I had already figured out the solution to my problem: I simply jumped ahead a couple of months to show where Lenny was at, and let the reader infer what had come in between. But once I kind of let myself pursue multiple ideas, it was like opening Pandora’s Box. I have this rampagingly associative brain. I get a lot of ideas that pop into my head that are really compelling, and it’s hard for me to maintain my focus on one thing for a long time. It’s like that bit Neil Gaiman did with a character who basically dies of having too many story ideas. I wish I had just taken a couple of months off of True Swamp to step back and figure out my plotting quandary and kept on doing whatever under the umbrella of the True Swamp title.
So I did Ghost Ship, which was a series of surreal pirate stories that had this experimental page structure thing going on. In the second half of the ‘90s, I did a catch-all title called Spectacles, which had 3 new ongoing stories: a Norse folklore thing and a semi-autobio roommate thing and a kind of urban True Swamp equivalent. I really enjoyed letting myself branch out like that but again that’s no way to build up and maintain a following. It really wasn’t until about 2000 that I landed back into True Swamp with both feet. That was a really productive period. I did about 128 True Swamp pages in 2000-2001. Then the opportunity to write for DC came up. That was a random thing – it was really a case of being the right person asking the right question at the right time. My friend Bob Schreck had become a prominent editor in the Batman section of their publishing empire. I pitched him this weird globetrotting Batman and Robin miniseries idea, and they had just found out, literally the day before, that Chuck Dixon, who had solely written the Robin title for the first 100 issues, was picking up and going to CrossGen, a well-funded upstart in Florida. They were getting left in the lurch and needed someone really desperately. I wrote a try-out script and somehow got that gig. That went for about 2 years, during which time I didn’t really do any of my own stuff.
Was it lucrative enough to sustain yourself?
Yeah. I wasn’t living in New York then. I was living in Gainesville, Florida when I got the DC job. For the second year that I was writing it, I was living in Atlanta. These aren’t expensive places. Just from writing the one monthly book, it was pretty decent income. Today, living in New York and being over 40, I wouldn’t be able to live on that amount of money here. I’d have to have health care and rents are higher, etc etc. I had access to health care at that point, anyway, so it was plenty of money to live on at that time. I think I was sort of self-satisfied with writing my scripts and having fun with the money I was getting. But the smart thing to do when you’re in that situation is to try to line up an additional monthly title once you’ve gotten the hang of the title you’re writing. Because chances are, something will fall through with the title you’re on. I didn’t do that. By the time I got taken off the Robin comic after 21 issues, I didn’t have another monthly title going on. I sort of scrambled for a while, furiously pitching them ideas. I had a pitch for a new imprint they were gonna do that actually got to the contract stage, but the editor in chief woke up one day and decided it wasn’t gonna happen. Ultimately, I never got substantial work out of them again. I was in New York by that point, so I ended up temping to make ends meet. The temp job turned into a permanent day job. By now I was happily married, and I was still doing a lot of pitches at the time; I figured I’d eventually quit the day job and make my living as a script writer again. After a while, I realized that my day job was slightly creative and sort of fun and they let me wear headphones and that I could do it and not have to worry about making a big mainstream commercial success with comics. This allowed me to go back and work on True Swamp on my own terms, which was always the thing that was closest to me.
When you die, it’s going to be what’s on your epitaph.
I realized that, too. A couple of years after my superhero comic scripting interlude, when I was doing the full-time job thing, I realized that it was my legacy work. The setting is like a second home to me – it’s the place that I go to. I decided to start doing True Swamp strips again, without worry about how much I could produce or where it would get published or what form it would take. I wanted to do it for the sake of doing it. All of the True Swamp stuff up to that point had been extended narratives. The issues I had put out ranged from 24 pages to 64 pages in length, and I sort of decided to make a radical shift in how I was presenting it. I started taking kind of a mosaic strategy, where each page presents a scene. Some pages aren’t even part of a story thread – they’re just some aspect of the swamp. This has been good for me, because I can focus on each little carving, one at a time, while still having a general direction for the overall story. I’ve made the scope wider. It’s not only focused on 1 or 2 characters now. It feels much more “classical” in its approach now. It used to always be focused on Lenny the Frog and his moments of despair and ecstasy. This probably happens with a lot of storytellers as they get older, but things become slightly more distanced and more concerned with the complete picture of the community you’re writing about. The older True Swamp issues are about depression plus the weird adventures of Lenny the Frog. Now, True Swamp is more about how creatures (i.e. people) interact with each other.
I think you’ve also finally figured out what a treasure these characters are. The story is more streamlined, which has liberated you to do a more interesting form of storytelling.
Yeah, it feels like this big lab for me now, where I have multiple experiments running at the same time. Like you said, it has much more of a freeing simplicity. It could still be seen as kind of byzantine, because there are a lot of different threads going on and a lot of different characters dropping in and out. But I think the interface with the reader is a little less dense than it used to be. On the flipside, now is a time when really aggressive graphic styles in comics are really “in,” so I picked the wrong time to try to turn into a classicist. But you have to follow the direction that suits you.
This is the direction I feel you should be moving in.
That’s really good to hear. When I do shows, I get a lot of people who will come up and tell me stuff like “[1994 series] Number 2 blew me away!” I’m lucky to be able to hear that about ANYTHING I’ve done, but I’m glad to hear that someone’s getting a lot out of what I’m doing now. I guess my main concern with the new stuff is that I need to get a nice compendium of all of the older stuff in print so that people who are enjoying the current stuff will be able to catch up. Tom Kaczynski and I agreed that we would take all of the proceeds from the series of new 24 page comics that Uncivilized Books is doing and make a fund for publishing an omnibus edition of all of the old stuff.
[So yeah. This happened, obviously! And the results are getting into readers’ hands now!]
Hopefully, after we have done a few of these 24 pagers, we will have raised the capital to do that. The biggest obstacle to overcome is not the funds, but the art. Some of the early art is not in optimum shape. There’s a lot of fidgety digital correction that will need to be done, especially with the second issue of the first series – every page will need to be demuddy-ed a little bit. It’s actually taking longer to do that than it took me to draw the original pages. That’s what’s necessary to make them printable again.
[And it did take a long time! Most of 2012, in fact. With invaluable scanning and level-tweaking help from my friend and fellow Brooklyn cartoonist Alexander Rothman.]
Do you want to talk about what you’ve been doing with your black minis? I’m assuming that like a lot of cartoonists you have an abiding interest in horror movies…
I’ve also been referring to them as my “Death Cult Comics.” I have a big appetite for any movie, story or music that makes me feel menaced. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve been living with depression for so long and that kind of art sort of echoes the relationship of the “me” part of my brain and the “them” part of my brain. There’s a thing called apotropaic magic in which you basically enact, in a ritual context, the thing you DON’T want to happen, in order to keep it from happening in life. So maybe horror stories ward off my depression from consuming my brain. Or horror could be just a pain that distracts you from a larger pain like when you have a migraine and you pinch your arm really hard. So how did I get to making the black minis? I started wanting to make a comic that only expressed one feeling, with no plot twists, no drama, just implacable doom. Something is coming to kill you and then it kills you. A procession. I guess the first thing that ever truly blew my head open in that way, I mean I read Lovecraft in high school and loved him, especially the delicious language, but the first time I read something that did to me what Lovecraft was supposed to do was Thomas Ligotti in my mid twenties. He’s an American short story writer who is just exhilarating—he had this cult story called ‘The Last Feast Of Harlequin’ which just really reveals the void, the desire of the cosmos to have nothing in it, no movement of energy, no objects. Any horror fan who does not know Ligotti’s stories should run to the store right now.
[Ligotti's best stuff is not easily obtained on paper right now. However, there are ebooks easily available. My highest recommendation goes to the Grimscribe collection.]
And then I have always had this obsession with monks and cultists in and strange garbed figures. When I was 13 I got the LP of Blue Oyster Cult’s Fire Of Unknown Origin, and that cover image of these ominous hooded dudes was a vision to me. I forgot about BOC for a long time, but I took them up again in my thirties and it gave me a total renaissance of that feeling, the way they deployed esoterica and cross-references in their songs is so inspiring. They’re one of my favorite bands now.
[Addendum: just three days ago, I saw BOC live for the first time, at their 40th anniversary show in Manhattan. Great show, amazing set list, and they were joined onstage by Albert Bouchard and Joe Bouchard for the first time in 30 years. A giant box set of all their Columbia albums has just been released, and for full immersion I also recommend Martin Popoff’s book on BOC, which did not have a big print run but is now available digitally from him. It’s ziney in tone but is stuffed with recollections by all the driving forces involved, and this was a band with an unusually large number of driving forces and factors.]
And also the last few years I have been reading all these cheap black and white reprints of mid-70s Marvel comics written by Steve Gerber—Man Thing, Son Of Satan, and Defenders, and you have these panels where a bunch of chanting cultists in darkened hoods will be gathered around an altar… the stories are a mess, ultimately, but I wanted to honor the sort of hit you get off some of those panels. So depression plus Ligotti plus early BOC and 70s Marvel cultists were the main ingredients. The first black mini was a fake guidebook called CULTISTS OF NORTH AMERICA (And the Gods Who Regard Them) which is a bunch of page spreads showing, on the left, a cultist in their garb with a pull-quote about their beliefs, and on the facing page a picture of their God. It’s meant to be funny but also suggestive of genuine horror. Then that led to KLAGEN: A HORROR which is a proper death cult story, the joyless procession thing I was talking about a minute ago. As I was penciling KLAGEN, it occurred to me to maybe print the comic from the pencils with no inking stage. I had never tried that. So I was scanning the pencils and started fucking with the sliders and I darkened the page too far, so that there was this gray pall over the whole page, even the white areas, which made the pages look unwell. I decided there would be very few solid blacks allowed, and black would be an actual narrative device. Only evil elements would get to be solid black, everything else would be grays. Tom Kaczynski, my publisher who does Uncivilized Books, chose this yellow paper for the inside pages, because with the gray pall over everything you don’t see the paper as yellow, you see it as gray backlit with yellow. It’s queasy-looking and perfect. I’ve been telling people at shows that it’s a special printing process called Miasma. Tom got Daniel Wieken to design the gnarly logo on the cover.
What’s weird about KLAGEN is I drew most of it in a burst of a few days right at the beginning of September. Then a couple of days later I found out one of my oldest friends, someone I wasn’t in close touch with anymore but who had been my best friend in the time when I was sick and housebound, had taken his own life. Now, obviously anyone is in a bad place if they decide to take their own life, but my friend, I found out, was in a VERY bad place, this was some dark shit and it really broke my brain in half. And a couple days later an online pen pal of mine, a classical music buddy, dropped dead of a heart attack in his early 50s. This stuff kind of fell onto the story I was halfway finished with. Not that KLAGEN helped me process anything or come to terms with anything as far as I can tell. I’m going to do another death cult story for Uncivilized and it might grapple more with that.
[True Swamp really took over entirely since this interview. I still have that next Black Mini idea in my head though. Maybe 2013! Uncivilized is out of the first printing of KLAGEN: A HORROR, but make some noise and maybe they'll print more. I'll have my last few copies for sale at the show this Saturday. The self-published CULTISTS OF NORTH AMERICA is also out of print for the moment. I hate printing up minis!]
Do you see parallels between being into underground comics and being into underground music?
Oh sure. At least at the age when you are kind of defining yourself against things, certain music can give you the feeling of being far away from your town. You learn about certain bands like you’re getting taught magic that hardly anyone knows of. When you discover that there’s all these bizarre, scrappy little comics living in the undergrowth it feels even more that way. It IS even more that way—you might truly be one of 50 people with a copy of some minicomic. Or at least when I was discovering bands and comics that’s how it felt. It was SO HARD to find out about things. You almost HAD to have a sensei, so to speak. With the Internet I guess you never go through that phase of finding some weird comic or record and wondering who the fuck made it and if anyone knows about it, you can bring it home and quickly know about the artist, what else they’ve done, a bunch of opinions about it and who supports it. Which is good ultimately because the whole feeling of being an intrepid discoverer was always an illusionary aspect of underground things. There were always thousands of people listening to the same records as you. When it comes to underground comics or art comics or whatever you want to call them, now people are more like connoisseurs. Attention for someone’s work can go around like wildfire. There’s astonishing work being done by young cartoonists, and each wave just gets more scary talented. Storytelling still usually lags behind visual style a bit though, which is the only way my dinosaur ass is able to hang on.