Robert Clough is the most prolific of the current writer about alternative and art comics, and may be one of the most active and engaged writers to ever tackle that family of comics expression. He has become an increasingly valuable member of that community for that constant interaction; if you're an artist making non-genre comics, or even comics in an unpopular genre, you can come as close to counting on hearing from Clough as you can on just about any other reaction available to you. As Clough describes below, he's also employed full-time and has another area of intense, writerly interest. His output shames the rest of us into being more productive, but the general quality of his writing makes that way more difficult than just sitting down and letting it fly. There's no other writer with whom I'd want to discuss the year in art comics, 2012. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Rob, can you snapshot your current involvement with comics, what you're doing and where? I have a sense that you're super-involved, but I know that it comes in the context of you having a full-time job. How much time do you spend with comics and why that level of devotion?
ROB CLOUGH: I'm pretty busy. I work full-time, I'm married and have a toddler, and I also write pretty intensively about women's college basketball. At the same time, there's a part of my brain that needs to think about, process and write about comics fairly regularly. At the moment, I'm writing a few reviews a month for TCJ and write a couple more a week for my High-Low blog. I have things appearing in the upcoming issues of Studygroup Magazine and TCJ. I'm also doing a big interview with Ariel Bordeaux, who's getting her early Deep Girl minis collected by Robyn Chapman's Paper Rocket books. Some portion of that will appear in the book itself. I have a TCJ column where I write a bit more extensively about the small press scene; right now, I'm doing an interview with Chuck Forsman about Oily Comics. Finally, I'm in the initial stages of working on an article for TCJ #303.
I've learned to become quite disciplined and focused. In a given week, I get maybe 10 hours to work on comics writing -- more in the offseason. I try to make those hours count. I'm devoted in part because I find myself ever more fascinated by the things people send me, and I feel a duty to work hard to offer them my thoughts. Some comics earn more verbiage on my part than others, but everything is considered equally.
SPURGEON: So given your current relationship, can you kind of reverse-engineer how you got there? I don't have any sense of how your interests developed except that you seemed to show up pretty fully formed. Was this level of engagement with comics certainly foreseeable if I knew you a dozen years ago? Is there anything that surprises you about how engaged you are right now just from the vantage point of three or five years ago?
CLOUGH: I started dabbling in it about a decade ago, for the old Savant web site. Matt Fraction was the editor at the time. My interests and theirs didn't precisely match up, but I think that's what drew their interest. If you knew me a dozen years ago, you wouldn't be surprised that I'd be immersed in the comics scene somehow, because I started going to SPX in 1997 and that accelerated my fascination with the small press scene. At the time, I spent most of my free time writing about basketball, in part because I wasn't aware of many outlets for writing about alt-comics, but also because I didn't have the focus to really start thinking about comics in a critical manner.
I guess I'm surprised that I'm able to make a little bit of money doing this, but I started to get serious about it in 2006 -- thanks, in part, to some advice you gave me that I had solicited. My level of involvement has been steady ever since; I'm simply getting more opportunities to do some interesting things than I used to. That's especially true of my involvement with SPX, which I find to be enormously fulfilling.
SPURGEON: Is there an ultimate goal to the writing you do about comics? Do you see yourself writing books, settling in for a long run writing about these works? Do you have ambitions in that area?
CLOUGH: Books are definitely in my future. Books featuring edited and revised versions of certain of my reviews, curated and organized by me, will hopefully start appearing next year. As far as totally original content goes, I have some back-pocket ideas that I want to get to someday. That will take a lot of time, however, and I don't want to take away from doing reviews on a regular basis. We'll see. I plan to write about comics for a long, long time.
SPURGEON: Let's talk about 2012 in the alt-/art- realm. I want to talk about Building Stories as kind of its own thing, but what do you think the year would look like, how would we view 2012, if that book didn't exist at all? Would there be an obvious Big Name/Big Book contender in alt-/art- circles? Not to say that multiple cases won't be made that other books are better, but I think that's the one that people have to negotiate. So without it, would we all be talking about Carol Tyler's work as that "big" book, for example? In general, do you think this current cycle where we get these major works from major alt-talents is a positive for that realm of comics as a whole, or is there an argument to be made that certain big books might suck a lot of the oxygen from the room?
CLOUGH: Sometimes I feel like the more I see, the less I know. Given just the output of Fanta and D&Q, I could build a top 20 list of new and reissued comics that could stack up against most any year. Carol Tyler's book would be way up there, although no one seems to be talking about it for some reason. Of course, we're now in an environment where even micro-publishers are releasing beautifully-designed hardcovers by top-rank artists, like Gabrielle Bell's The Voyeurs from Tom Kaczynski's Uncivilized Books. Bigger publishers seem to be getting smarter about their comics releases now, rather than simply snapping up the first five people they spot at MoCCA. The Frank Young/David Lasky book is absolutely stunning. Then there's the new devotion to the comic book/periodical format, as well as my belief that there are more good mini-comics being made now than at any time in comics history. I could argue that the artist of the year was Michael DeForge or Josh Bayer based on their comics/mini-comics output.
That said, I think back to what Gilbert -- I think -- Hernandez said at the Ignatz Awards when they were cleaning up: "I'd like to thank Chris Ware, Dan Clowes and Art Spiegelman for not publishing any books last year." Those guys get significant attention from the mainstream press, the comics press and fans and dominate the discourse even if their releases might be lightweight compared to other books from their career. I enjoyed Mister Wonderful, for example, but that's a minor Clowes work compared to Ice Haven. I think it's great that this happens in the mainstream press, as it's the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats, but I know lots of artists get frustrated that their work doesn't receive wider recognition from the comics press.
To actually answer your initial question, there are just too many good comics now to easily anchor a year. Better to go publisher by publisher, especially since the expansion of small press comics publishing has meant that more cartoonists are working and finding places for their work. Unlike even two years ago, virtually any good cartoonist is going to find someone to publish their work, or failing that, help to distribute it. I also can't emphasize enough how big an impact the Canadian and British publishers have now on the comics scene. Koyama Press and Conundrum had excellent publishing years. Blank Slate, NoBrow and SelfMadeHero are maturing into top-notch publishers.
SPURGEON: I know that a lot of people my age that are interested in these kinds of books are having a harder time than we thought orienting ourselves to younger artists because the way they publish seems slightly scattershot if not outright ephemeral. Do you have any difficulties simply engaging the works that you feel you should be to keep up on this area of expression? If we plop you down at an SPX or, perhaps even more to the point, a BCGF, do you work that room pretty well, are you comfortable with comics you may only be seeing on Tumblr?
CLOUGH: The short answer is yes, I am quite comfortable at SPX or a similar comics event. But that's in part because I do a lot of work before the show. First, I figure out where all of the artists I know will be based on the floor plan. Then I look at the guest list and check out every artist's website. If I'm not immediately intrigued or it's obvious that their style is not something I'm interested in, I just cross it off. That usually leaves about 10-15 artists that I don't know that I want to approach. I also leave plenty of room for serendipitous discoveries and word of mouth, because there are always surprises at these shows. I was happy, however, to be able to direct people to interesting and lesser-known work at SPX when they wanted to know what they should check out. Kevin Huizenga and Aaron Cockle saw my annotated SPX map and wanted me to scan it!
I have no problem managing the works of younger artists because they send it to me, and my tastes are catholic enough to handle pretty much anything thrown my way. That said, if you read my column, you have a pretty good idea of what comics I tend to read, so it's a fairly self-selecting process.
I do think it's easier to get good mini-comics now than ever before. Chuck Forsman's Muster List is an astounding resource, an idea so good that I'm stunned that no one else ever thought of it before. John Porcellino and Secret Acres provide an amazing range of minis for sale at the touch of a button. And of course, the micro-publishers all tend to have well-operated websites. You just have to figure out what you want to read and what level of commitment you want to give in the course of that experience, because some of the more "immersive" comics published by Austin English and the like are challenging reads.
SPURGEON: So being 15 years into small press festivals of some sort, do you agree with the conventional wisdom that they're more important now than ever? Do you believe that they're particularly valuable to the artists, or valuable in terms of getting these works in front of an audience given the slow dissolve of mail-order culture from what it was in the 1990s?
CLOUGH: I absolutely agree that these shows are now crucial for the comics small press. I compare it to the indy rock circuit. An indie band makes almost no money from its recordings, just like an indy comics artist doesn't usually make a lot of money from publishing. But there are regional circuits of clubs open to indy bands all over the countries, frequently in small cities and college towns, and those tours allow the bands to make money from performing and selling merchandise. It's also allowed boutique record stores to stay afloat while big chain stores go under. You see where I'm going with this -- small but smart comics stores can stay in business by carefully cultivating their customer base and shows can help pay the bills for a dedicated micro-publisher. Those shows also help grow their audience, one reader at a time. If those shows are done on an regular basis, those readers will come back to see them or even find them online. The nice thing about the increasing regionalization of the shows means that more artists have a chance of attending at least one show, and doing so at a greatly reduced cost. Especially since the newer shows tend to have very affordable table rates. I think there's also an increased understanding by the artists that these are working shows, not just a chance to hang out.
SPURGEON: Can you talk a bit about the curating work you did at this year's SPX? Did that make for a different experience? You and I talked briefly while you were there and doing it, and you seemed to have had a very specific, focused time in terms of what you were seeing and what you seeking out.
CLOUGH: Warren Bernard bowled me over with that offer. We had met at SPX 2011, and I found him to be a forthright, funny guy who clearly had a long-range vision for the show. He's someone who pays a lot of attention to details, and he invited me to curate because he knew I'd be able to uncover some worthwhile mini-comics that others might have missed. It did make for a different experience, though the show this year was so intense in its own right that I feel like I still would have been going a million miles an hour. As always, I did a lot of prep before the show to identify a number of artists and publishers that I wanted to hit up as potential donors to the Library of Congress. I contacted several of them ahead of time, and I'm glad I did. The LOC really wanted a complete run of Michael DeForge's Lose, for example, and #1 and #2 are almost out of print. Thankfully, the ever-amazing Annie Koyama enthusiastically made sure to bring some of the last remaining copies and had them ready for me. Several other cartoonists also had their packages ready for me as well.
I stayed in touch with the very nice LOC people and met up with them early on Sunday to give them what I had, plus the release forms from the cartoonists. On Saturday, I improvised here and there to give out forms to some other artists -- not one person said no -- and was still collecting forms until the show ended. I felt a responsibility to create a diverse and interesting list, one that the LOC collectors might not have noticed when combing the floor but was entirely worthy of being part of the collection. I was going after work that I knew had limited runs, certain key anthologies, beautiful handmade comics, representative works from key micro-publishers and some personal favorites. I'd be fascinated to see what kind of list someone else comes up with next year, assuming that they keep the guest curator program going.
SPURGEON: You're not afraid of a summary statement or two, given the breadth of your reading. Are you seeing anything from the handmade comics that you weren't seeing before? I'm always a little lost in terms of what constitutes an actual trend in what cartoonists are making and what we might simply expect from young cartoonists working in that specific area.
CLOUGH: There are a small handful of innovators and a lot of others who are following older trends. In the latter group, however, I see a real commitment to getting better through hard work. The people who send me their comics seem really committed to the art as a lifelong thing that they're going to fervently pursue regardless of whether or not they will ever make money from it. A certain set of younger cartoonists send me all of their work and continue to send me new work, and it's interesting to see how much better they get in a short period of time. There are still lots of gag minis, slice-of-life minis, journal or diary comics, etc. One can see the hand of several generations' worth of cartoonists in some of these comics as the young artists try to worth through their influences.
I consider the newest innovators to be Michael DeForge and Josh Bayer, first and foremost. They have a total command over comics' historical length and breadth and simply pick and choose as they see fit, making few judgments regarding the original source material. There are a lot of people doing intelligent genre comics that dip into other categories, with horror -- and body horror in particular -- being dominant themes. Julia Gfrorer is aces at depicting the intersection between horror, sexuality and gender, for example. Noel Friebert has a distinct handle on the sort of horror story where the reader sort of becomes infected by the madness of the narrative, a la Lovecraft.
In general, the balance between form and narrative seems to be better. Some people used to complain about pretty, silkscreened comics that were too ephemeral for their tastes. Someone like Ryan Cecil Smith, for example, uses his Risograph to create these incredible-looking art objects that are packed with exciting and funny sci-fi stories. On balance, there seem to be more creators creating genre stories that have the sort of Trondheim & Sfar attitude where you make fun of genre but treat the actual plot with deadly seriousness.
Finally, there's that small handful of what I call the "Immersive" artists who demand that the reader engages each page on the artist's terms There's a unity between word and image, where text has a visual or decorative impact and is fully integrated as part of the art, for example. Narrative can be stream of consciousness or fractured. It's art-as-handwriting, a highly personal approach that people like Austin English, and many in his Domino Books stable, Dunja Jankovic, Juliacks, etc., use. Related to that is the burgeoning sub-field of comics-as-poetry. Warren Craghead is still the king, but artists like Aidan Koch -- whose work is also pretty immersive -- Simon Moreton, Derik Badman, Allen Haverholm and -- to an extent -- John Porcellino are making this a thriving group.
SPURGEON: Let's talk about the micro-publishers a bit: Tom Kaczynski, Rina Ayuyang, Bill Kartalopoulos, Gabe Fowler all spring to mind. Marc Arsenault is back as well, although he's purchased a more traditional arts-comics publisher and it's unclear what his output and direction will be. Do you have any thoughts on what exactly this trend means for artists, or even where this came from? I'm curious that so many people are jumping directly to publishing as opposed to editing or doing an anthology. Is this simply a case of there being so much talent out there that those that wish to publish through someone else are simply sitting there, waiting to work with someone?
CLOUGH: I'd say the trend is overdetermined. On the one hand, I think it's part of a natural boom-and-bust cycle for publishers. Plenty of publishers, large and small, have come and gone in the last 15 years. However, I think there's also a critical mass of cartoonists piling up work and looking for an outlet paired with ambitious would-be publisher. That said, I'd like to think that the last year's worth of micro-publishers springing up like mushrooms owes something to the legacy of Dylan Williams. Dylan was a guy who spent the last decade of his life making no creative compromises for the art he believed in, because he didn't know how much time he had left. He also worked his ass off to do so, rather than procrastinating. I can't help but think that his example inspired a lot of people. I know Austin English credits Dylan for giving him the confidence and impetus to start Domino Books, but I can't speak for anyone else.
There are other factors. The greater number of festivals means there are more venues to sell books. There is a small but thriving network of comics stores willing to take a chance on these books, an initiative driven in part by Tony Shenton. Kickstarter has been a boon for many, though most of the micro-publishers tend to prefer to invest their own money. The micro-publishers aren't in it to get rich, but rather to expand the point of view readers get to see just a bit. Rina wanted everyone to see Tim Hensley's obscure work. Bill K wanted to translate a provocative work and add it to the discourse of the English-speaking comics community. Marc is a proven retailer who knows all about the economics of comics, and he has his own set of plans. Matt Moses of Hic & Hoc wanted to give humorists a greater spotlight.
What I find interesting about the whole thing is the way that some publishers are reaching back into comics' recent history -- the past 20-30 years -- and trying to revitalize work that's fallen out of print, like Robyn Chapman at Paper Rocket or Tom K reprinting Jon Lewis' True Swamp. Given that we're in the Golden Age of Reprints, I think it's important to make sure that recent history -- pre-Internet stuff in particular -- isn't forgotten, especially among forty-something cartoonists.
What it all means is that a young artist can almost certainly find an outlet if they get good enough and that a veteran can get back in the game if they quit out of frustration years ago. Neither will make a million dollars, but they might make some money and will get their work seen by a small but appreciative audience and in a format that will flatter their work.
SPURGEON: What is it that struck you about Voyeurs that in our pre-interview you named that of all the boutique publishing works you could have named? This is a book that's come up a bunch in my conversations with people in terms of it being a top-line effort perhaps ideally suited from what Tom is doing. What would you have people know about what Gabrielle Bell is doing, particularly in terms of what she's put out to date as compared to this latest work?
CLOUGH: The Voyeurs stuck out because it's the first time I've seen a true micro-publisher, one that primarily publishes mini-comics or pamphlets, stretch its legs in such an astonishing fashion. The Voyeurs looks as good as any book not produced by Fantagraphics this year. The quality of paper that's designed to make the color look just right is a tell-tale sign that Tom K was paying attention to details. It's obvious that Tom K and Gabrielle carefully curated and arranged its contents so it wasn't just simply dumping old strips in between two covers and calling it a day. Bell creates a kind of narrative that on the surface level is chronological but at a deeper level is emotional and philosophical. She plays some chapters off against other chapters, giving later events greater resonance -- like with her ex-boyfriend Michel -- and depth. The book also allows her to return to certain themes like presentness and expand on them later. Bell is also still really funny, but this is a work by a cartoonist who thinks. I believe this is why she and Tom K have excellent synergy as a publisher-artist duo. Tom's comics are cerebral in a different way but are still very much the product of an artist who lives inside his own head as much as Bell does, while still thinking constantly about others and the ways in which they behave.
As a side note, I don't want to discount how great Annie Koyama's books look, but she started off doing art books that looked beautiful. Expanding her roster into comics actually meant publishing mini-comics and pamphlets after she had already produced more lavishly-designed art books -- and later comics.
SPURGEON: This may be an uncomfortable place to bring up this topic, but how do you feel about this kind of art vis-a-vis the financial prospects for this kind of art? I mean, a lot of what we're seeing is comics made for the love of making comics, but I wonder in the long-term how many people can continue and to what extent they can continue without a system coming into being with broader rewards. Are you optimistic this will happen? Is this something you think about at all?
CLOUGH: I'm pretty firmly convinced that unless you're one of those webcartoonists with a fervent following that will give you a million dollars for a kickstarter, or do comics for the burgeoning children's book market, you cannot make real money just doing comics. You have to take commercial jobs, mainstream work, illustration work or jobs outside comics. This is not to say that comics are a money sink now, however; thanks to kickstarter grants and the work of micro-publishers, artists can make modest amounts of money -- the equivalent of having a part-time job. The question to me is not so much if alt-cartoonists will ever be able to make a living wage based on the fruits of their artistic endeavors alone, it's whether or not they understand that this is the case when they enter into the field. Things get trickier when artists want to get married, buy a house or have kids. Some artists quit or take breaks as a result.
The one ray of hope is that I see an infrastructure slowly being built between from the ground up, one linking communities from town to town and country to country. That's different than 2005 or so, when cartoonists thought they'd get rich in the book industry, only to see that go up in smoke when the book market collapsed. No one's going to get rich quick, but if that network of publishers, retailers and artists work to slowly build audiences through constant outreach -- not just conventions, but book signings, workshops and tours -- then they could build something whose existence is not dependent on the health of the publishing industry -- something sustainable because it's a part of the local culture.
SPURGEON: In our initial exchange you're the one that brought up this explosion in British comics that we're seeing now, and I thought I'd let you have the floor a bit before I narrow the focus. What is it that strikes you about what you're seeing about comics from that part of the world that makes you feel it's important to note in 2012?
CLOUGH: There are three things I've noticed. First, there's a small but vibrant self-publishing/mini-comics community in the UK that's quite varied in terms of content and skill level. The festival circuit seems very important there, in part because the UK is small enough to go to most any show as a day trip. Second, there are an increasing number of mid-size to micro-publishers putting out work from interesting British artists, many of whom were part of a lost generation of cartoonists when there was an implosion in the UK art-comics scene in the late 90s. The anthology Nelson is kind of a Rosetta stone for these artists, as it's a nice intro for dozens of artists. What's more interesting is that there's a newer generation of cartoonists in their early 20s who have no memory or knowledge of that earlier scene but who bought art comics published by Fantagraphics and D&Q; because those books penetrated the UK book market, they cultivated a fan base that was inspired by those artists. Luke Pearson, an astonishingly talented young artist who publishes through NoBrow, is a great example of this. Another factor is the golden age of reprints; those books are penetrating UK markets and so they get to read Frank King, EC Segar, George Herriman and Charles Schulz in copious quantities if they want. Maybe they're a few years behind the American artists, but they're catching up. Third, the tastemaking publishers have absorbed something else from their US counterparts: translating and publishing work from other countries. The Big Three UK alt-publishers -- NoBrow, Blank Slate and SelfMadeHero -- have all published work from non-UK cartoonists; at least half their catalogs comes from France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere. Each company has their own aesthetic mark: NoBrow is the most design-heavy, which makes sense because they print art books as well; SelfMadeHero has very specific lines that straddles genre and general interest topics; Blank Slate tends to publish more personal and autobio comics.
There are other UK publishers and micro-publishers, and they all tend to be small operations: frequently one or two people running the whole show. The slightly bigger publishers have a staff of maybe 5-10 people. They are all smart and seem to have thought hard about getting their books into the hands of paying customers. There is ambition at work here but not greed, if that makes any sense -- they want to print the best possible books and get it into stores. At SPX, the UK publishers absolutely killed -- that's a show with smart customers looking for something new and eye-catching, and the publishers worked that hard. Much like with the other micro-publishers, select US retailers are slowly trying to push these books. As trust builds between the publishers, who work hard to figure out what retailers can push what books, and the retailers, always looking to sell something new, you will see more and more of these books in US stores.
SPURGEON: So play critic-as-enabler for a moment. If I'm an alt-comics fan and I'm intrigued by the new British comics, what practical steps should I take in order to better immerse myself in that arena? Do I start with Nelson, say, and write down names? Where do you buy those comics? How do I follow that scene?
CLOUGH: Starting with Nelson makes sense, especially with someone who has fairly wide-ranging tastes. There are a lot of old-school British cartoonists, many of whom will be familiar to Vertigo readers from the 1990s. However, there's enough of the new school to give a reader a taste. From there, I'd recommend the Solipsistic Pop anthology, which has some of the very best young British cartoonists as well as some intriguing veterans like Stephen Collins. Each issue is themed and the most recent one, #4, revolves around maps. Given the close connection between comics and maps -- as articulated by Dylan Horrocks -- it should serve as no surprise that there's a wide range of clever takes on this idea. The most recent NoBrow anthologies, #s 6 and 7, are half illustration and half comics, and the comics halves are outstanding. Beyond that, every alt-comics fan should get to know the work of Luke Pearson. Hilda and the Midnight Giant is a great place to start. He's immensely talented and still quite young, so he has a bright future.
As to how to get them, SelfMadeHero is an outstanding publisher and they've managed to secure a deal with Abrams in the US. They're the publishers of The Nao of Brown, among other things. They remind me a little of NBM in that they have these very focused lines: a manga Shakespeare line, a horror line, a non-fiction line, etc. Blank Slate Books publishes Nelson and an eclectic variety of comics by UK, European and American cartoonists. Nick Abadzis' collected Hugo Tate is being published by Blank Slate as well. Then there's NoBrow, which favors design-heavy comics and has a very specific aesthetic. It's somewhere between Drawn & Quarterly and comics in the Franco-Belgian tradition. All of their comics are visually striking, and like NoBrow, they make sure to publish comics in a variety of formats -- including variations on pamphlets and short-form work. I'm also fond of The Strumpet, a UK/US anthology that's all women, as well as smaller publishers like Records Records Records.
As you intimate, it can be tough finding some of these comics. That's a big reason why NoBrow and SelfMadeHero absolutely killed it at SPX despite almost exclusively selling fairly high-priced items. NoBrow works very closely with US shops and is slowly creeping into the US market, a bit at a time. One can always order things from their websites, of course. Of course, there's also a thriving mini-comics scene in the UK -- as well as an exciting, burgeoning one in Ireland -- but I don't think there's a single source that one can turn to in order to get them. I would recommend going to the Secret Acres shop and picking up some of Rob Jackson's bizarre, hilarious comics, however.
SPURGEON: Nao Of Brown strikes me as a potentially significant work for that scene. Can you talk a bit about what struck you with that one, and where it fits into that wider continuum you describe?
CLOUGH: Well, it was staggeringly beautiful, for one thing. Every single page was a joy to look at, be it the primary narrative or the Miyazaki/Moebius-inspired sub-narrative. At the same time, the beauty of the book was totally organic and fluid. Its pages breathed and flowed and weren't just pretty but static images. I thought the medium of comics was well-suited for the depiction of OCD/pure obsession because of the way Dillon was able to steer audiences back and forth between reality and fantasy. I wasn't crazy about the ending, though aspects of it are growing on me. Beyond the text itself, the story behind the making of the book sort of recapitulates the rise of the alt-comics scene in the UK. Dillon was a successful cartoonists in the '90s before the bottom dropped out of the publishing market. He left comics in order to make money doing TV and movies. He returned to comics when he had an idea that he simply had to work out on the page and saw that he'd have someone to publish it. I'm seeing a trend of forty-something cartoonists who dropped out starting to return to comics, both in the US and elsewhere. For a lot of these cartoonists, they simply needed a publishing opportunity.
SPURGEON: A book that I liked very much this year was the Annie Sullivan/Helen Keller effort crafted by Joseph Lambert, who has kind of become the star CCS graduate thus far, at least in terms of what the people I know think of when they think of that school. I don't know if that work gives you a way to talk about the school more generally, but I wondered both about your opinion of that specific work and if you're seeing anything from the current generation of school graduates.
CLOUGH: I've taken a special interest in CCS, as I think you may know. I wrote an article on the mentor-cartoonist relationship in TCJ #301 and have reviewed the work of about a hundred of the 150 or so students who've graduated from there. I think it was obvious to anyone who saw his work that Lambert's chops were second to none. He can draw anything and do it with both skill and a sense of humor. He's especially adept at drawing kids and has a strong understanding of how they behave and what their body language is like. What he seemingly lacked was an idea that would challenge him and stretch him as a writer. Right before and during taking on the Annie Sullivan project, his writing started to get sharper and more focused as he started to flesh out things like complex characterization. The visual problem-solving choices he made in Annie Sullivan were justifiably praised, but I thought the choices he made in how he depicted his protagonist were even more interesting. In his hands (and thanks to a great deal of research), Sullivan was always clawing her way out of poverty and lacked patience for anyone who stood in her way, even as she was ashamed of her past. Ending the book on an ambiguous note and exposing the ways in which Helen Keller was exploited by Annie's old school gave what could have been a straightforward bio comic an unexpected level of depth.
As for CCS, one can see how some of the people from the earlier classes have continued to evolve and strive to get better and are being rewarded with publishing opportunities. The class of 2008 in particular is ridiculously deep: along with Lambert, there's Chuck Forsman, Sean Ford, Alex Kim, Jeff Lok, Dane Martin, Denis St. John and more. What I like about the school is that they're prepared to teach anyone how to do comics, whether they draw in a clear-line style and write straightforward narratives or they work in the Fort Thunder mark-making style. I admire the work of dozens of its graduates, but let me name just a few who represent the expanse of styles and who I think will shortly be gaining wider notice:
Colleen Frakes was from the first class and is one of the few from that group who stayed in comics. Her comics are both whimsical and sad, and her brush strokes are beautiful. Annie Koyama published her Island Brat. Aaron Cockle -- a graduate of the one-year program -- does these oblique comics influenced by Roberto Bolano that act as both genre comics and metacommentary on writing itself. Annie Murphy -- another one-year grad -- is an ambitious editor -- she was behind the excellent Gay Genius anthology -- and excellent artist who tackles material related to both gender and interesting belief systems in ways that no one else does. Dakota McFadzean is the other CCS grad whose chops are in Lambert territory; he seems to like depicting the line between reality and fantasy as well as families in small town situations. Jose-Luis Oliveros uses this seemingly crude and primitive swash of color that seeks to explore primordial questions about sexuality and identity. Laura Terry is another artist with major-league chops -- hard-won, at that -- whose use of color and clear-line design make her another Next Big Thing. Dane Martin combines a crude, intuitive style with rock-solid storytelling chops in his stories; he's sort of a cross between Mark Beyer and Tony Millionaire. Cole Closser and Sasha Steinberg, both graduating this year, appropriate older cartooning styles to tell new kinds of stories. Melissa Mendes tells stories about children with an astonishing level of verisimilitude, while her line is perfect for illustrating children's books. I could easily rattle off a couple of dozen more names.
What's interesting about the school is that there are plenty of graduates who aren't very good illustrators or draftsmen. What they get at CCS is enough training and relentless work in that area to improve, as well as a rock-solid understanding of how to be a cartoonist, as opposed to illustrator. What I also find impressive about the school is its culture of critique. The students critique each other's work as much as the instructors do. It doesn't seem to be so much a competitive environment -- though that's there too, to some extent -- as one that demands the best of everyone. It's the main reason why I'm committed to seeing as much work from its graduates as possible, because even some of the cruder student work has something at stake for them.
SPURGEON: You've mentioned Chuck Forsman a couple of times; his Oily Comics is intriguing to me both for the range of work, the very specific format and even the subscription business model. There are so few new ideas in terms of how to get work out there and into people's hands, and this strikes me as at least a novel effort. What do you think of that work?
CLOUGH: Chuck may be my favorite of all the CCS artists. His line, storytelling, and weird sense of humor have always hit the right notes for me as a reader. He's also an artist with a great work ethic and a commitment to getting better. I think his The End Of The Fucking World comic is his first truly mature work; it's a signal that he's found his voice and is using it with increasing confidence and skill. His Snake Oil series has always been very good as well, with #6 and #7 being especially noteworthy And of course, he was one of the primary agents behind the best of the CCS anthologies, Sundays. That anthology doesn't just publish CCS grads -- though a thorough representation of the most interesting CCS cartoonists is usually prominently represented -- and is the rare anthology that publishes work from poetic, oblique cartoonists like Warren Craghead and Lydia Conklin.
Chuck's aesthetic is very much at work in pursuing artists for Oily. I just finished a profile on him and Oily for TCJ.com that goes into all the financial particulars of being a micro-publisher. Chuck noted that he considers Oily to be an extended, periodical form of an anthology, and there's an extent to which some of the cartoonists are fellow editors. For example, Dane Martin recommended a couple of cartoonists for the Oily line. The fact that Chuck has the guts to publish difficult work by cartoonists like Aaron Cockle and Andy Burkholder is certainly to his credit. I like everything about these comics: the content, the format, their hand-made nature. What's remarkable is that every artist manages to pack a lot into just a few pages on a consistent basis. It's an interesting outlet for some artists, I'd imagine. For example, Josh Simmons did this highly unsettling comic for Oily called Flayed Corpse. It's a gruesome meditation on the nature of life and death, short and to the point.
What will be interesting to me is to see how long Chuck keeps this going. He described Oily as a great part-time job, one that helps pay the bills. He has great taste, and artists actually make a small royalty in publishing their minis with them. He's in about 20 comics shops and is slowly reaching others, thanks in part to Tony Shenton. He does great at shows and has that innovative subscription service. I don't doubt that he could continue to draw in new artists and convince established Oily artists to do new series. Since it's a one-man operation, for the most part, it will only last as long as he has fun doing it. I think it's valuable in that it provides a curated, eclectic cross-section of talented small press cartoonists. Pointing a reader to Oily, John Porcellino's Spit and a Half distro and the Secret Acres mini-comics page would give an even wider cross-section of comics from around the world.
SPURGEON: Before we shut this down, Rob, I wanted your opinion on Building Stories. Additionally, that was the first book this cycle of year-end awards and lists to get a major nod just for being a book as opposed to being an exemplar for comics -- making PW's fiction list. There have been a bunch of others. I have to say, as much as I adore comics and know that this is a big deal for those authors, there's something about so many of these honors that smacks of stunt-work on the part of list-makers. So what do you think is going on there?
CLOUGH: I guess there's always a search for something new and novel on the part of listmakers, and Ware's project certainly qualifies. At the same time, Ware has been pretty safe ground for the past 12 years for mainstream critics. It's OK for academics and critics from the New York Review of Books to focus in on his literary qualities and the ways he pushes the format in innovative ways. Ware made comics hip for a certain kind of critic and reader of literary fiction, by dint of his sheer ambition. At the same time, I've never sensed that Ware was deliberately trying to draw in that crowd, especially since most of Jimmy Corrigan was completed in serialized form with an audience that was almost entirely comprised of alt-comics fans. I guess it is disappointing that so many critics start at Ware and stop there when examining comics, though this is probably a little less true now than before.
As to the work itself -- Ware has always been the sort of artist who could never sit still and work on just one thing at a time. He seems to have a constant need to stimulate different parts of his brain, be it through comics, model-making, music, etc. He's also as knowledgable about art and literature in general as any artist I've ever met, and he has always seemed hungry to integrate his wide-ranging influences with his comics work.
As such, two things come to mind when initially thinking about Building Stories. I don't know the chronology for sure, but it seems like a project that is radically different from Rusty Brown -- which is still in progress, of course. Rusty Brown is also about memory, of course, and the ways in which people's lives overlap and connect in ways both small and large. Each chapter of Rusty Brown is a chapter devoted to one of the seven primary characters, and we've only gotten to Woody Brown and Jordan Lint so far. The last two chapters have been dazzling achievements in their own right, but the course of each book was rigorously planned and predetermined by Ware. Ware is obsessed with the idea of comic-as-map or comic-as-diagram, and while there's plenty in both stories that's left for the reader to slowly discover -- Ware never tips his hand when disclosing important story information -- it's very much a fixed story. All that's left for the reader to do is connect the dots and take the ride.
Ware talks about architects and architecture throughout the course of the book while subtly commenting on and viciously critiquing his own work throughout the book. When the protagonist dreams of finding a book at a bookstore that she wrote, it's essentially the contents of Building Stories, as though built by an architect. The critiquing sessions in the book are both a parody of such things and harsh truths Ware is exploring about his own work. There are a lot of sly touches like this throughout the book.
Building Stories leaves the entire trajectory of the narrative up to the reader. It's a 3D model of one of Ware's complicated diagrams that branches off in a number of different directions over time; there's even one of those diagrams in the big hardcover book. Instead of following a diagram, we can follow any one of the fourteen different documents found in the box. It's a scale model of a narrative, one that the reader literally pulls out of its box and puts together as they see fit. At the same time, one can see lines and connections between each of the parts. Some of the comics collapse the narrative, some expand on particular characters. Some are about certain emotional experiences and memory. There's a framework, but it's a fragile one and much depends on the reader to make it come alive for them in terms of reader commitment. This is as active a reading experience as I've ever had, even with the random approach I took to reading it.
I also found it to be tremendously moving. A lot of people call Ware a miserablist, but I see him as someone who directly confronts all of the negative feelings he has about himself as well as the negative feelings he has about other types of people, and confronts both on the page in a way that attempts to reach the humanity of every single character. At the same time, he seems fascinated by the ways in which an unreliable memory can directly influence one's feelings, and he gets at that in looking at certain events from different angles at different points in time. There are subtle differences that Ware doesn't linger on for very long, but it's clear that the effect of the passage of time has a ravaging effect on memory in unpredictable ways, especially as people tend to view their own personal narrative as both linear and internally consistent.
What I found moving was the unnamed protagonist and her relationship with her daughter. Ware gets at the heart of being a parent in such a powerful and complex way, invoking the heartbreak, the small joys, the self-hatred, the forbidden feelings of frustration. Approaching that silently, through the voice of the protagonist or the voice of her child gave the reader several ways to understand something that is obviously of great importance to Ware.
Ware's work may not be for everyone, but there's no doubt that he's still the most important and influential cartoonist in the world right now. He finds new ways to explore the language of comics while making stories that are humane and express his own vulnerability.
SPURGEON: Is this new era sustainable? What's the best thing that can happen to comics of this type in the next 36 months?
CLOUGH: In some ways, what's happened this year feels like a bunch of local networks joining up and starting to form a coherent whole. It's grassroots, bottom-up structuring. In order to sustain this and grow this, it's important that no one over-reaches. Over-reaching is what torpedoed the mass market book publishers and the original graphic novels they produced that didn't make enough money for them.
I haven't talked about webcomics, but there's no question that the web has provided a publishing platform for many artists and a place to get better in public. To me, the focus must be on getting better, not getting published. The community of comics that's being built mustn't have the clichéd Team Comics approach of supporting everything; instead, it must encourage excellence or every artist's best effort at minimum. That's one reason why I'm excited about the micro-publisher trend; it's a way of curating material because it means that a publisher believes in your work enough to put their time and money behind it.
The best thing that can happen is if cartoonists who are given a publishing outlet respond with the best work of their careers. That goes double for cartoonists graduating from schools where they were taught cartooning like CCS or SVA. Cartoonists also need to be aware of how to play to their strengths in terms of format. . Not every cartoonist has a book-length graphic novel in them, but up until recently this was being privileged above short-form work. Some cartoonists simply work better doing short stories and need that kind of outlet; look at Gabrielle Bell, for example. I'm hoping that more micro-publishers pop up on a regional basis, or represent underrepresented genres or aesthetic approaches -- like Matt Moses' Hic & Hoc publishing a number of humorists. I think it's important to continue to respect the history of the medium, and I'm hoping that the next three years will see a wave of reprints from the '90s, especially mini-comics. That's going to happen next year with the Fantagraphics mini-comics reprint project, the Deep Girl reprint project, True Swamp being reprinted as a single hardcover, etc. There's plenty of other interesting material that deserves to be brought back, however.
Lastly, while aesthetics should ideally be the basis for publishing alt-comics, I'd like to continue to see publishers be better business people. I want them to find ways to reach audiences with their work, be it social media, conventions or personal appearances. I'd like to see publishers work more closely with retailers as both try to figure out what kind of books will sell to their customers. Micro-publishers and comic book stores can both profit when the other does well, especially since the content of alt-comics is not dependent upon bringing in a geek-culture fanbase and means getting a different customer base into stores. In turn, having a place to go on tours benefits both artist and retailer. Alt-comics have built a nice foundation; now it's time to slowly build up and out while maintaining the stability of that foundation.
SPURGEON: To take us out, can you point towards a few books that you think were under-appreciated this year? I liked the Toon Books work Shark King, for example, as one that maybe the hardcore alt-comics community didn't appreciate as much as the boldness of the cartooning might suggest it was due. Are we at a point where maybe even entire categories are under-appreciated. I mean, I use to roll my eyes when humor guys would claim they weren't taken seriously, but I honestly wonder if they are right at this moment.
CLOUGH: Think about this: Dal Tokyo, a book that had been anticipated by many for a couple of decades, made barely a critical ripple this year. I haven't seen it on any book of the year lists, and it's a barely-seen collection of work from one of our greatest cartoonists. A couple of more examples from veteran cartoonists: Ellen Forney's Marbles is a career-topping achievements that would have received a ton of hype ten years ago. Now? They're just good books. Same with Joe Sacco's Journalism. Another career-topping book was Leela Corman's Unterzakhn, which is jam-packed with excellent cartooning and complex, surprising characterizations Julia Wertz's The Infinite Wait was her first truly mature work; if you hadn't followed her comics in a while, then this is a book that will be surprising in its depth and subtlety that go hand-in-hand with hilariously crude humor.
I'll rattle off a few more things that I think deserve recognition. An artist named Lance Ward first self-published, then got a small publisher to release a book of autobio strips called K-Mart Shoes. They detail the most painful parts of a thoroughly awful childhood in a raw, powerful manner. Ward's voice is distinctive and brutally honest and his work has a visceral quality rare in autobio If you can get the self-published version done in his sublime color scheme, I'd recommend it. Ward has serious chops; even these very-hastily constructed strips have a rock-solid frame that supports his scribbly stories.
I thought Jason's Athos in America was one of his best-ever efforts. I wasn't as thrilled by Low Moon, but he really rebounded and mastered the short story format in an affective, funny and frequently disturbing manner.
Both of Harvey Pekar's last books -- Cleveland, with Joseph Remnant, and Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me, with JT Waldman, were quite good. At some point, I think Pekar's work after his initial run of American Splendor needs to be reexamined. There's a lot of great material there that kind of got ignored at the time. With his last two books, it helped that he got paired with two young artists with serious chops. Remnant in particular is a rising star, and his own Blindspot comic book was excellent -- there was a noticeable leap from the first issue to the second. The book with Waldman is heavy on history -- like Macedonia, a book he did with another rising star in Ed Piskor -- but is grounded in personal relationships. I'll miss Pekar's status as a working-class intellectual and historian almost as much as his status as Everyman.
Something that gets almost totally ignored in most comics circles is the way that the queer comics scene is breaking through into the mainstream without compromising its core aesthetics. The Justin Hall-edited No Straight Lines is essential reading; not every piece holds up as a great comic, but it's all part of relating this entire other, hidden history of comics over the past 40 years. In more contemporary terms, Rob Kirby's anthology Three has the cream of the crop of queer cartoonists in every issue. The third issue -- featuring Ed Luce and Carrie McNinch -- in particular is excellent. Also, keep an eye on an young artist named Eric Kostiuk Williams. He's a Canadian with a style similar to Phoebe Gloeckner. He's got serious chops, is funny and whip-smart. His Hungry Bottom Comics was one of my favorite minis of last year.
My "emerging artist of the year" award has to go to Josh Bayer. I've enjoyed all of his comics, but Raw Power takes things to another level. The energy he creates on the page is Kirbyesque, filtered through Panter and any number of other influences. He's only going to get better as he refines his technique.
* Rob Clough
* Rob Cough At TCJ
* from Josh Bayer
* photo of Clough at SPX 2012
* from the Lasky/Young Carter Family book
* treasure unearthed and asked for at SPX 2012 -- the first issue of Lose, now hard to find
* Ruppert and Mulot
* The Voyeurs
* a panel from Nao of Brown
* a sequence from the Joseph Lambert Sullivan/Keller book
* from Chuck Forsman
* from Chris Ware
* from Josh Simmons
* from Leela Corman
* from the Pekar Remnant Cleveland
* Lance Ward (below)