Archive for August, 2009

Ben Katchor Interview pt. 2


Saturday, August 29, 2009

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Part two of an interview with Ben Katchor. Please click here to read the first part. This interview originally appeared in Destroy All Comics #5 (1996).

Santoro: What about non-urban settings? Some of the strips from late ’95 that are running now in early ’96 take place outside the city.

Katchor: I’m curious about smaller towns. I’ve spent some time upstate [New York].

The city is a strange magnet for everyone outside of it and that’s what I usually talk about.

Santoro: I don’t necessarily see your work in just an urban setting.

Katchor: I’ve done strips that take place on the periphery of the city. But, I’ve always lived in a city and that’s usually what I tend to use in my strips.

Santoro: Did you grow up in New York?

Katchor: Yeah, in Brooklyn. So, it’s more or less what I know. I’ve done strips set in other locales, but they would always have something to do with what I know.

Santoro: I get that from your strip. It’s one of the only “real” depictions of New York. The New York that you depict is one, I think, that actually exists…and I think there’s a sense of modern tragedy that comes through…


Santoro: Silence! Ha!

Katchor: Well, yeah. Always I like to have both comedy and tragedy in my strips. And the sort of thin line dividing them should always be apparent.

Santoro: Does it bother you that some people like the humorous angle too much?

Katchor: No. They’re both there.

Santoro: I only ask this because your books are in the Humor section in bookstores.

Katchor: Well, that’s where they put the comics. But no, there’s clearly a humorous angle to it. It’s just fairly dark humor.

Santoro: I’d like to ask you a little bit about your process, if you wouldn’t mind. Sometimes I get the idea when I read a strip of yours that … it’s so effortless and so casual that it might be done “first take.”

Katchor: I write them first. Well, I guess there are early ones that were written pretty effortlessly … and I draw directly in ink so…

Santoro: I thought that.

Katchor: They shouldn’t look too labored. They should look as quickly done as possible.

Santoro: That’s what I mean… They’re so conversational.

Katchor: Well, I spend a lot of time with the writing… Since I draw directly, you’re only seeing the last layer of ink. You’re not seeing what I whited out. The final layer that you see only took a few minutes to draw. When the strip started running larger in the [Village] Voice, the strip became a little more dense. And that’s the only difference, I think. The drawing became more… I just began to put more things in, I don’t know. I don’t know where the strip is going but … it’s still going.

Santoro: I must say I’m enjoying the way the strips — the way it’s going, it’s getting … kind of growing exponentially.

Katchor: (laughs)

Santoro: Sometimes Mr. Knipl will drop out of the strip. Or he’ll be such a casual observer. One of the recent ones I remember was The Kapish Restaurant.

Katchor: Yeah, that’s also a radio show, The Double-Talk Artist.

Santoro: Do you find yourself writing for the radio show … meaning, you’re drawing a strip and thinking…

Katchor: Thinking that it’ll be used for—

Santoro: —the radio?

Katchor: No, I just try and get a decent strip out and some of them work on the radio. “Work” meaning they are possible to translate. Others are not. No … if I thought too much about it … I’d go mad.

Santoro: (laughs)

Katchor: I just think of getting the strip done.

Santoro: Right. Do you have any thoughts about doing a long story?

Katchor: Well, there’s a long story at the end of Cheap Novelties.

Santoro: Sure, I know, but a long story not necessarily of Mr. Knipl?

Katchor: Oh, other than? I don’t know if that’s best for me.

Santoro: Really? Because when I read that Picture Story

Katchor: The long story?

Santoro: Yah, it was like 23 or 25 pages and—

Katchor: I don’t know if people have the patience to read those stories. I think they can barely read eight panels…

Santoro: Oh, you’re crazy.

Katchor: I don’t want to… I mean, I’m aware of making this accessible.

Santoro: Would you consider doing it if someone approached you and said—

Katchor: I can do it anytime. I mean, I’m working on a another story, the length of the one in Cheap Novelties, for the next collection.

Santoro: Of Knipl strips?

Katchor: Yeah, the long story is a Knipl story. But… I don’t know if that is the power of the form. People sort of take them in bite-sized pieces, and when you get longer strips I think it’s overwhelming.

Santoro: No, I totally know what you’re saying—

Katchor: For readers.

Santoro: Sure, sure.

Katchor: It’s like making a five-hour movie. You can do it and it can be a successful movie but no one will want to sit through it. So, it builds in other ways. A weekly strip builds over time. It doesn’t build as a… (pauses)
Santoro: I feel like in some sense the strip is one long narrative.

Katchor: Yeah, that thing I did, The Jew of New York, is 52 pages long. But each of them could be read as a weekly story. And you could almost read them independently of each other in a strange way. So it’s definitely something to consider. What the reader can endure, and what the form is… I mean, it’s a pretty dense form. It’s not like a hundred page novel. A hundred-page novel is not like a hundred-page comic strip. There’s a certain power… You can set up a lot in a few panels. Not just the page count, but in content as well.

Santoro: So how do you feel about Cheap Novelties as—

Katchor: Well, it’s a collection. You can read it a page at a time and put it down. People who read comics, who are obsessed with the actual form, can plow through a hundred page comic novel. But I don’t know if that’s the ideal form for comics. I just know what people read, and what people can assimilate and respond to… (pause) So I’m pretty conscious of that. Whether there is a place for these to appear and how people can take them in.

Santoro: Right. I think a lot of people doing comics these days are wondering just that.

Katchor: There are other ways to lure people into your strip world. These weekly strips seem fairly painless to people. If a strip of that density went on for two pages — they’d be lost. I think that’s all part of the medium. How much your audience can take in. Most people are not obsessed with comics.

Santoro: (laughs)

Katchor: There’s a small audience of people who are. Other people want it as … it’s a very peripheral thing in their lives. If they see one that they like, that’s enough for them. I mean I tried to publish a comic magazine, and I realized that it’s probably not the way to get people to read comics. It’s better implanted in other kinds of magazines. People will read it because it’s in another context they like. Y’know, people who are interested in the World Wide Web will come across my strip in Virtual City magazine and read it, but never look at Cheap Novelties in a bookstore.

Santoro: How do you feel about strips on the Internet?

Katchor: It seems like a good idea. You don’t have to warehouse all that paper.

Santoro: (laughs) Personally, it bothers me.

Katchor: What? That it’s not on paper?

Santoro: Yeah.

Katchor: Yeah, I can’t believe that an audience would accept such an intangible medium. But then movies and TV are all just—

Santoro: Dots on a screen.

Katchor: Just pixels, dots and bits of light, so y’know, I could see … I mean, I knew alot of these weeklies who used to depend on the low price of newsprint are now in trouble because the price of newsprint has quadrupled or something. They’ve all tried to figure it out, I’m sure. How to set up some part of their paper on an online service. Y’know, these things [computers] are in everyone’s home. It’ll probably be a viable medium.Santoro: I look forward to the day you can print out a-

Katchor: A good hard copy? Yeah, the thing is… on a very good monitor, a good scan of my strip looks better than it does in any newspaper. It looks like this perfect transparency of the artwork, a perfect slide of the artwork.

Santoro: Well, that sounds good, I just—

Katchor: It’s all relative. It’s all dependent on the end user’s monitor. It’s all there.

99% of [the Internet] is like everything else in the culture … garbage. But it’s just a medium, some good things will be on it, that’s all. Spending hours looking around on this thing … you sort of hit on these little nooks and crannies of people who have things that are of interest, but that’s a tiny portion of it. But that’s how you find things in the real world. On TV or in the movies, you have to find it. Most of it is just advertising.

Santoro: I think that’s what my fear is, that like TV, it’ll just become an advertising medium.

Katchor: Well, like TV, it’ll have sponsors. But, y’know, someone sponsors these newspapers I’m in. A lot of the advertisers are indirectly paying my salary. So it’s all advertising driven anyway.

Santoro: Well, it’s part of the culture, like you said.

Katchor: On the web, at the moment, you don’t have to deal with these distributors of print. Which is not a very pleasant experience. The idea that it’s a direct conduit from one person’s scanner to another person’s monitor is not a bad idea. I mean the paper thing is gone. There could always be a paper version of it, a collection, a book you want to hold in your hand. It’s definitely a different experience. So, I mean, it works as a medium of distribution of information. It does work. The thing is, who’s gonna pay for it, who’s gonna be on it.

Santoro: Everyone’s a star.

Katchor: Yeah, that’s strange. Those personal home web pages … but we grew up with fanzines. Comic fanzines were not much different. Although there was always more to them. These web pages are pretty thin in terms of content.

Santoro: (laughs)

Katchor: I just don’t think people want to be publishers and most people don’t want to do this. People will get sick of it, and some people will go into web publishing and hopefully do something good. Y’know, these things have been around. Fanzines have been around. Hopefully it’ll all shake down to something usable.

Santoro: It would definitely help distribution.

Katchor: It’s no solution. It’s still much too slow. It’s in its technological infancy. The key to it is what we can use.

Santoro: I have one last question. For some reason, I think you might have been influenced by Steve Ditko’s work.

Katchor: Oh yeah, he was … probably as a kid, my favorite.

Santoro: It’s something I couldn’t describe—

Katchor: Well, how to build a figure. How to conceptualize figures, a great sense of place in each panel. A unique style…

Santoro: Okay, well, is there anything you’d like to add or address?

Katchor: No. It’s all in the strips.

Santoro: Well, thank you. I hope this wasn’t—

Katchor: Very painless, no…


Not Comics: Picasso’s hidden imagery


Friday, August 28, 2009

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Hey everybody, Frank Santoro here with a “Friday distraction” of sorts. I taught some classes over the summer about classical painting structures and composition as they apply to comics. During the class I often referred to a book entitled Picasso’s Guernica – Images within Images by Melvin E. Becraft. It’s a fascinating read. It’s a “map” to look at Picasso’s most famous painting in a new way.

Not comics, but definitely something to chew on. Enjoy!

The pdf of Becraft’s book is here.

Also, this essay on the subject is interesting as well.

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Structure 101


Thursday, August 27, 2009

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I spoke yesterday with my friend and mentor Mark Newgarden. We talked about structure in comics. It was a very enlightening conversation. Basically, Mr. Newgarden reminded me that reduction is the key to making sequencing and transitions work.

So, as I polish up my next rant about what structure actually is and how most comics today lack any real understanding of structure, I thought I’d direct our readers over to Mr. Newgarden’s website. There you will find not only an assortment of laughs and novelties, but also a remarkable essay entitled “How to Read Nancy”. This 1988 essay written by Mr. Newgarden and Mr. Paul Karasik is a priceless jewel of information. I’d venture to say that it is a self contained comics graduate class. Comics Comics readers are encouraged to start here before any further discussion of structure can take place on this blog.

Please download the “How to Read Nancy” pdf here.

Thank you.

Oh, and don’t forget that “How to Read Nancy” is being expanded into a book that will be published by Fantagraphics in the spring of next year. Details here.

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Short and Sweet


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

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I am popping up from vacations and research trips to note a few developments related to CC friends.

Comics Comics and PictureBox pal Jon Vermilyea is opening his first solo exhibition next week at Secret Headquarters in L.A. Looks awesome. Go give Jon a noogie for us!


I beam with pride now that Brian Chippendale has started his own, fiercely competitive comics blog. Brian is our enemy now. Next thing you know Leif Goldberg will have blog. Oh wait, he does!

Ok, going away again. See ya in September!

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A Short Interview with Hope Larson about Editing


Monday, August 24, 2009

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Frank’s post about editing reminded me that Hope Larson once told me she likes working with an editor. I used the CC blog as an excuse to ask her some questions about this.

If you’re unfamiliar with her work, Larson is the cartoonist of Salamander Dream, originally serialized online and later published in book form by AdHouse Books, Gray Horses from Oni Press, and Chiggers from Ginee Seo Books, a division of Simon & Schuster. Her next book is Mercury which arrives from Ginee Seo Books in 2010.

She was very generous with her responses and, I think, this is an interesting (brief) view of a cartoonist working with editors in the book industry, something becoming increasingly common.

Shaw: How did the editing process differ between Gray Horses at Oni Press and Chiggers at Ginee Seo Books?

Larson: When I submitted the Gray Horses script–beginning with Salamander Dream, I’ve always worked from scripts, even for short comics–I all but begged for editorial feedback. I’d always considered myself a bit of a writer, but doing it professionally was new. I’d barely written fiction since high school, and I knew I was probably doing a ton of things wrong. I wanted someone to tell me what those things were so I could fix them before the book was drawn and winging off to the presses.

I never got any feedback for Gray Horses. Oni Press was in an, um, transitional place at the time, and my book slipped through the cracks. I sent the script to a few friends, but they weren’t much help, either. That was when I realized that if I wanted a real editor, I’d better jump to a book publisher.

This probably makes it sound like the editorial relationship, for me, is all about my insecurities as a writer, but it isn’t. It’s about making the best books I can, and pushing my stories further. Some editors are able to look at a story and see what you’re trying to say when you can’t articulate it yourself. Some editors are more literary, while others are hyperaware of what the market wants. Some editors pursue structure, structure, structure above all else.

Starting with Chiggers, the editorial process has gone something like this:

1) The overhaul. I send in the troubled first draft of my script, and my editor (and her editorial assistant, if she has one) sends me reams of notes that address the themes of the book and problems with structure and character, plus a few niggly little notes. This batch of notes always starts with a paragraph or two telling me how great I am, how much they like the script, and how I don’t have to make any changes I don’t want to make. (Usually the notes are spot-on, but there have been times when I’ve refused to change a line, or omit a swear, or disagreed about the direction a scene should go.)

Notes do sting, but they leave me invigorated, ready to dive back into the story with greater awareness of both its weaknesses and its strengths. Many–or most–of my writing epiphanies are the result of an editor saying, “This doesn’t work. You need to rethink this.”

2) The fine-tune. More of the same, but not as extensive, and with more line edits.

After the second draft is locked in, I go ahead and draw the book. After that, I send over a PDF of the book and we move on to

3) The polish. Art editing and more line edits. Occasionally pages are redrawn and scenes are rewritten at this stage, but I do so much work before ever putting brush to bristol that changes tend to be minor: “What is her expression expressing, here? This panel doesn’t read.” Etc.

4) Copyediting. Also minor. Copyeditors catch all kinds of interesting stuff, including continuity. There’s a lot more to their job than commas and semicolons. They’re minor heroes.

And that’s it!

Working with my Ginee Seo and her assistant (now an editor himself) Jordan Brown, and with my current editor, Namrata Triphathi, has been an invaluable experience. Their guidance has helped me become more critical of and less attached to my work, and to write with greater awareness of my strengths and weaknesses, and of my audience.

Due to restructuring at S&S, Ginee, Jordan and Nami all worked on my new book, Mercury, and at different stages of the process. That was a frustrating experience for everyone, I think–and especially for Nami, who came in at the 11th hour when the book was all but complete–but it was fascinating to see how three people can read the same story and see it three different ways, and want different things from it. All editors are different, and even a very good editor isn’t a magic bullet, because writing always comes down to you and your book. A good editor knows when to intercede and when to get out of the way.

Shaw: This might be a dumb question, but did the editors/publisher approve anything before the first draft? Did you submit to them X # of completed pages, or does it all start with words- a paragraph summary of the project? And, for the draft that you’re talking about in the first stage, is that all in words or does it have drawings too? Could you describe what that draft/script is like? This is interesting because your publisher/editor is accustomed to working on all-word books, so they probably had to invent a model for doing this that isn’t like the Marvel Method.

Larson: It’s not a dumb question. I know people sell stuff off outlines all the time, and I think at this point I could, too… But I have a really hard time with outlines. I’ve tried outlining before, and I just get stuck. My writing process is fairly intuitive–I figure out what I’m writing as I write it–so it’s usually best for me to just sit down and write a script. The worst that can happen if I write a script the publisher doesn’t want is that I’ll take it somewhere else.

Everything I’ve sold has been off a complete first draft of a script. Gray Horses was a complete script and some sample comic pages. Same for Chiggers. Mercury I sold just off the script and a couple character sketches.

A script for me is all words. I do think about layout, or how things will look on the page, but that isn’t usually reflected in the script. My scripts look more like screenplays–and they basically are screenplays now that I’ve starting writing everything in Final Draft. I don’t even break down my scripts into comic pages until it’s been edited and locked in, although I usually have a rough idea of how many pages I’ll need. And I don’t break a page down into panels until I sit down to draw that page.

As for my editors being used to working on all-word books, most of them have been comics fans, and most of them have worked on picture books. It hasn’t been a completely new language to them, for which I’m grateful. There still isn’t a standard model for comic scripts in the publishing industry; at least not one I’m aware of. I just do what works for me.

Shaw: When you get notes from your editor, do they lean toward a specific goal? Like, it makes sense to cut curse words out because it’s a YA book and that’s probably a decision that they’ve made beforehand: no curse words. But if they’re talking about the structure of the book, does it lean toward a three-act Robert McKee framework? Does the publisher have an idea of how a book is supposed to unfold? And: What’s an example of a “literary” edit or a “structure” edit?

Larson: I want to talk about cursing specifically for a second. I’ve never been told I MUST remove swearing. It’s often suggested that I tone the swearing down, which is hard to argue with in a YA book, and a lot of the time I write curse words in because I’m being a lazy writer. The one word that can cause real trouble in YA books, unsurprisingly, is “fuck.” The original manuscript of Mercury included fuck, and Ginee told me that I could leave it in if I felt strongly about it, but that I was preemptively banning myself from most libraries. I took it out.

When I made the comment about structure I was actually thinking about the screenplay I wrote this year (for fun; it hasn’t been optioned or anything), and the notes I got from a friend who studied screenwriting at AFI. She isn’t a professional editor, but she gave me 11 pages of editorial-quality notes that look at the story in terms of a McKee-esque three-act structure. My notes from Ginee or Nami focus more on the characters and the relationships between them, and on stuff like symbolism (“What does _____ represent?”), than on plot, which I would say is a more literary view of the thing.

Having the book unfold according to act structure isn’t important to them as long as the book works.

Shaw: Let’s talk about the covers. You had a sensibility present in the covers for Salamander Dream and Gray Horses that didn’t continue into Chiggers. Were there meetings about the cover? What are those meetings like?

Larson: Yeah, that cover was not my doing. I pitched a few covers that didn’t fly (and in retrospect, I see why), and the publisher wanted a cover that said “BUY ME, MIDDLE-GRADE TARGET AUDIENCE” and “HELLO THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT SUMMER CAMP”. They specifically requested that image, that design, and I capitulated because I was sick of the back and forth and I didn’t have cover approval in my contract, so there wasn’t much point in kicking up a fuss. I don’t care for it. I feel it cheapens and does disservice to the book, but I also understand why marketing was gung-ho about it. It is what it is.

On the other hand, for Mercury, marketing didn’t know how to sell the book. Nami, art director Sonia Chaghatzbanian, and I went around in circles a couple of times, trying to find a concept that would work. Marketing was down on everything. Their ideas, my ideas… At one point I thought we’d hit on the winning concept, and I did a whole sketch, and I was sitting in an airport on the way home from someplace when I got an e-mail saying it was a no-go, and did I have any other ideas? And all I could think was, “Fuck. I don’t know what they want. They don’t know what they want. How on earth can I give them what they want?”

So I was sitting on the plane, and it was the middle of the night, and all of a sudden I figured it out. I got home, did the concept sketch that night, I think, and within a few days it had been approved, and everyone was happy: Nami, Sonia, marketing, and me. Sometimes it just works out.

Shaw: Do you wish you had an editor for your earlier mini-comics? Is there a distinction, to you, between your earlier mini-comics and your work for Ginee Seo?

Larson: I don’t wish I had an editor for any of the early stuff. I was playing, screwing around. I needed to figure some stuff out on my own before I was ready to work with an editor. My early work is a string of incomplete ideas, which is what early work should be like, I think. They were pounded out in a couple of weeks, a couple of months. My books–Chiggers and Mercury, anyway, and my screenplay, which is called Heavens–are ideas fully explored. I lived inside them for months. Years. They’re part of me.

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Nabokov That Enriched Their Lives! #1


Monday, August 24, 2009

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Frank’s interview with Ben Katchor in the previous post has added another cartoonist to the roll of Nabokov-lovers:

Santoro: I know this might sound strange, but your strips remind me of Vladimir Nabokov.

Katchor: He’s one of my favorite writers … definitely a great influence.

Santoro: It’s the images that are evoked…

Katchor: …as much as it is the “city” of imagery, that kind of imagery … some of his stories do take place in cities like Berlin. His writing has a wonderfully rich texture, with images, sounds and words in perfect poetic tune.

Santoro: The word “lyrical” comes to mind.

Katchor: There’s a point in one of his novels, and I forget which one it is … where a man plans his own murder. What novel is that? But the narrator is describing someone who … he’s discovered someone sleeping on the grass and he realizes that this man is an exact double, a physical double of himself. And the narrator says that there are these moments in prose when you wish you could have a picture that would explain the situation better. I think, well, I know he drew mainly just for scientific illustration, but he could draw, and maybe if things had worked out differently he would have left some kind of picture things behind. But he didn’t.

For more on the Nabokov/comics connection, see here, where Chris Ware is quoted discussing the same passage (from Lolita) that Katchor was trying to recall:

Ware: There is a segment in Lolita where Humbert Humbert is trying to describe the accumulative effect of a number of events going on in his visual field as he comes upon an accident scene in his front yard. He has to go through three or four paragraphs to describe what’s happening, and he excuses himself and the limits of his medium for its inherent lack of simultaneity. This is, of course, something you could presumably do in a comic strip, though it wouldn’t be nearly as funny.

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Ben Katchor Interview pt. 1


Saturday, August 22, 2009

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This interview appeared in Destroy All Comics #5 (1996).

Santoro: I’d like to talk a little about those Picture Story magazines you put out…

Katchor: There were only two issues…

Santoro: I’ve noticed in a lot of your strips sometimes the setting is almost the main character. The story in Picture Story #2, The Printer’s Disease is a good example. You have about 4 or 5 main characters but really the main character, the printer, is just an observer in some ways.

Katchor: Yeah, I try to set up these believable little environments in a strip like that. I sort of remember: there was a printer’s storefront and across the street is…

Santoro: The restaurant…

Katchor: Right. The restaurant, and I think on the other corner is this candy factory…

Santoro: Where the printer’s girlfriend works…

Katchor: It’s a pretty tight little stage set where this can all take place. Because one of the things you can do with drawing is you can show these spatial relationships. And if you get too diffuse and things flying all over the place, you’re really not taking advantage of that power.

Santoro: How do you feel about the different media you employ? Right now, you’ve got a weekly strip in many national newspapers, and you’ve begun doing short radio segments for NPR based on your Julius Knipl strips.

Katchor: Well, there are things you can do in comics, I suppose, that you can’t do in these other forms, and vice versa. So hopefully you should be doing what you’re supposed to be doing in each medium. There are things that you don’t … I guess you could draw certain kinds of textures and certain ephemeral light effects, but in a way then you are sort of approaching the power of photography. The picture that would result would be very … well, at least not the kind of picture I would want to make by drawing. Drawing is a more, y’know, shorthand reference to how things look. There are certain limitations, but I guess they’re more imposed by my taste. You could draw anything … I suppose. But it wouldn’t…

Santoro: Well then, how do you feel about that shorthand when you’re dealing with sound?

Katchor: You have to actually decide what things sound like … literally, in a concrete way. All sorts of things, all sorts of choices to make. There are things you don’t even think about. You sort of think you know what these things sound like … but they’re all really your voice, the narrator’s voice. It’s not that specific.

Santoro: I guess the character Julius Knipl functions in a similar fashion … like the printer in The Printer’s Disease … as an observer, a narrator. Another story I wanted to ask you about … one that I’d never seen until recently is Union Square Demonstration.

Katchor: Yeah, that’s an old strip done for a British magazine called Escape.

Santoro: It’s wonderful. It’s only about 6 or 8 pages, and once again the setting plays an integral part of the story.

Katchor: Yeah, that’s an unusual strip in that it’s set in a place that actually exists. There used to be a lot of blood banks just south of Union Square. It’s all gone now, but for some reason, I don’t know why, Broadway and 4th Avenue had this cluster of blood banks. I don’t know why there, but that’s where they were. Sort of off the street you could walk in and sell your blood.

Santoro: (laughs)

Katchor: Strange.

Santoro: And the story was about a man whose basement was situated on a curve of an otherwise straight subway line. The man spends his time selling blood, selling his possessions and spending all day in the park. You write: “The idea that all this public activity revolved around his private life was a grandiose and sad one.” That’s beautiful.

Katchor: Yeah … well, I remember that one.

Santoro: When I read one of your stories that’s six to ten pages in length … I feel you have a little more room to create that believable setting you were talking about. I get the same feeling with the strips, but … the sense of place, the believable setting that comes across in the longer stories…

Katchor: Well, hopefully with all the weekly strips it does that by accumulation. I think if you show someone one strip, they might not get it. And some people only understand it when they see it in book form. They read eighty of them in one sitting.

Santoro: (laughs)

Katchor: And some people never get it.

Santoro: Y’know, that story The Printer’s Disease, for me, it was the first story of yours that I had ever read. I had seen your strips here and there, but that story really knocked me on my ass. I felt as if I was given a key of some sort to look at your work in a different way. Then I approached the strips and they really began to sing.

Katchor: Yeah, I don’t know. All I know is that 90% of the people who contact me are not comic readers. They say, “I don’t know anything about comics, but I like your strip.” So, I don’t know what it is … I mean as a child, I was a comics reader. So I don’t know what that is, why that is. I don’t know if it doesn’t appeal to people who read comics, I just know it’s a demographic fact.

Santoro: I wanted to ask you about that. With the different media you employ, the potentiality of tens of thousands of people picking up the weekly paper on the day it comes out across the country, or the radio show, for example … that’s such a diverse audience compared to the handful of people who’ll pull Cheap Novelties off the shelf … whether it’s a big chain bookstore or a small comic book shop…

Katchor: I know more people, if you do a weekly comic strip, look at your work than they’ll look at drawings of Picasso just because it’s there every week. A week can go by and you don’t go to a museum or look at an art book, they sit on the shelf unopened. But a weekly comic strip becomes part of your life. You see it every week and if you want to read it … it’s the kind of exposure that I think very few other drawing mediums get.

Santoro: I must admit, I clip your strip every week, but I like to include the ads and announcements that surround it.

Katchor: I have that dilemma. I used to save my printed strips, but I would save the whole paper because I thought this would be of no interest to me to look back at just the clipped strip. I wanted to see the context it was in that year, that month, in some city. And then it became completely out of hand.

Santoro: (laughs) I can imagine.

Katchor: At this point I no longer save them…

Santoro: No?

Katchor: I can’t. I have this enormous pile of newspapers. There are like 400 strips so far…

Santoro: When the strips are freshly printed, the tones are really dark … then they yellow and age, and the tones become a little more subdued and the strip takes on a different feel when I’m looking at them as yellow and brittle pieces of paper. I have one from ’93, The In Eradicator.

Katchor: There’s a radio version of that strip.

Santoro: That would make sense. It would translate well…

Katchor: Yeah, it’s hard to know which ones would work.

Santoro: Well, one of the strips that sums up your work, for me anyhow, is #35 in Cheap Novelties which begins: “A phone booth’s location exerts a subtle influence on the person using it.” That’s sheer poetry! Your writing stands on it’s own so well … I have to ask you if you’ve written any prose or poetry…

Katchor: Well, not too much. I write in a way that works with pictures. I don’t know if it would stand up without the pictures. I think you’re seeing it alongside this world that’s evoked by the pictures.

Santoro: It’s not that it could stand alone, but that the wording is such that I don’t see it anywhere else in comics. Chris Ware told me that he wishes he could match the density of your wording…

Katchor: Well, I only have to write a few sentences. Since I only have to write that much every week, I can put a lot of time into it. The radio has pretty much reduced it to words and sound effects, but I think the words then take on more weight than in a comic strip, because you’re only hearing this narrator’s voice.

Santoro: Right.

Katchor: I think they work, but they — the producers — went with the more humorous part of the strip, which is … you know, definitely there. It holds together. And I have to write a lot more dialogue because there are always things going on in the background that have to be filled out. In a comic strip you can have someone saying a fragment of a sentence. But when you actually have to put this in the mix, you have to include what comes before it and what comes after it. Maybe that one moment will be focused, put into auditory focus, but you have to write up to it and write out of it. I write ten times as much dialogue. You don’t always hear it, and a lot of it doesn’t end up being used, but I remember really filling out long stretches of dialogue.

[Above the panels it reads: By what subtle form of inculcation/ Do the words and melody of a popular song/ Enter the subconscious mind of a busy man.

Within the panels it reads: In the darkest night, where there is no light/ Put ‘er there my friend, put ‘er there old stranger/ Little hand from nowhere, little hand of time.]

Santoro: Are you still working on those right now?

Katchor: They are just about to end the ones that have been taped. There’s another batch in the works.

Santoro: How many are there?

Katchor: So far there are fourteen episodes.

Santoro: Really? The ad said it would run for fifty-two weeks? Do they play the same ones over again?

Katchor: They run once a month so it’s hard to catch.

Santoro: The one time I was able to find it, my radio died as soon as it began!

Katchor: (laughs) Once in awhile they play them on this show, The Best of NPR. But it’s a short segment, so it’s easily missed.

Santoro: Do you think there will ever be a collection of those?

Katchor: Oh yeah, I think they would definitely have to be heard over again. They go by so fast to really get them. There just aren’t enough yet … another half hour of material is needed before there can be a collection.

Santoro: I wanted to ask you some miscellaneous things. Is it true you did a Yiddish strip?

Katchor: No. I once did a strip for The Forward for a year called The Jew of New York.

Santoro: Oh really?

Katchor: But in English … it’s not a Yiddish strip. It’s a fifty-two-week story. I’m in the English edition of The Forward. There is still a Yiddish edition.

Santoro: Those strips wouldn’t see the light of day, would they?

Katchor: Well, maybe. It was a historical epic set in the 1830s, in New York City. Pretty elaborate. [The Jew of New York was collected and published in 1998]

Santoro: Did you do a lot of research?

Katchor: More for atmosphere than historical facts. I looked at a lot of period imagery. Paintings, posters, and newspapers.

Santoro: I know this might sound strange, but your strips remind me of Vladimir Nabokov.

Katchor: He’s one of my favorite writers … definitely a great influence.

Santoro: It’s the images that are evoked…

Katchor: …as much as it is the “city” of imagery, that kind of imagery … some of his stories do take place in cities like Berlin. His writing has a wonderfully rich texture, with images, sounds and words in perfect poetic tune.

Santoro: The word “lyrical” comes to mind.

Katchor: There’s a point in one of his novels, and I forget which one it is … where a man plans his own murder. What novel is that? But the narrator is describing someone who … he’s discovered someone sleeping on the grass and he realizes that this man is an exact double, a physical double of himself. And the narrator says that there are these moments in prose when you wish you could have a picture that would explain the situation better. I think, well, I know he drew mainly just for scientific illustration, but he could draw, and maybe if things had worked out differently he would have left some kind of picture things behind. But he didn’t. I know he did an elaborate screenplay for the Lolita film. I don’t know how much of it was used. I think it was all re-written.

[End of part one. Click here for part two.]


Frank’s Soapbox #2


Friday, August 21, 2009

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I’ve gotten some weird e-mails in regards to the “80%” quote I made in the comments section of my Tom K post from last week. In the original post I wrote: “For me, Tom’s work is an oasis in the desert. And the desert is contemporary alternative comics. I find 80% of today’s alt comics poorly constructed — a veritable colony of lean-to shacks that could be blown over in a strong wind. In contrast, Tom K builds comics that could be likened to a brick house. These are solid comics.”

And then in the comments section I wrote: “I worked all last week at Copacetic Comics and went through the shelves, book by book. I’m sad to report that how UNREADABLE most alt comics are. My 80% figure is not an exaggeration. I made a list (which I’ll never publish). It’s embarrassing how little structure alt comix have compared to mainstream comics.”

What I’m bummed about in hindsight is that the post was meant to be an appreciation of Tom K and not about how I feel most alt comics are structure-less. I try to go out of my way in my reviews to praise comics that have good structure, and when I point out that most alt comics do not, it is not my intention to “shame” anyone. If I review a comic that is structure-less, I’ll say so. But the point of my post on Tom K was not to criticize others but to praise Tom. Still, since the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, I thought I’d add a few more thoughts on the subject.

Okay then:

I said that 80% of alt comix are unreadable because of their lack of structure. I did not say these comics are “garbage.” I said they were “unreadable” and that they are “poorly constructed.” I’m specifically talking about sequencing, not really the drawing itself. “Unreadable” is a bit hyperbolic though. What I mean is that most alt comics are not well crafted on a narrative level. Alt-comix creators, for the most part, get away with being structure-less. They focus on style and “earnest-ness” at the expense of transitions and effective storytelling. Mainstream creators have editors and house styles. (While “house styles” and editorial constraints may sometimes lead to formulaic stories, they actually also often provide a solid foundation for the artists and writers to build upon. It’s not always conformist formula.) Alt-comics creators are “free to be me” and often bristle at the notion of editorial input. Editorial input is not necessarily the same thing as “structure” but I think the two go hand in hand.

I’m being vocal about this issue because I think too many alt creators don’t even realize it’s a problem. I want to wake them up to the fact that even the most experimental comics creators need to study story structure and craft (and could potentially benefit from editorial input) — not just their mainstream peers. I’m talking about myself here too. I study structure religiously and am trying to improve my own fundamental skills day by day.

I remember running into Chris Staros in 1997 (’98?) at the APE convention when it was still in San Jose. He told me a story about a young cartoonist he was working with named Craig Thompson. As I remember it, Craig turned in his manuscript for Goodbye, Chunky Rice and Staros wasn’t thrilled by the ending. So he suggested Thompson take another crack at it. Staros said, “It came back and it was unbelievable. It made me cry.” Fast forward to ten years later, and I’m talking to Nate Powell about his new book, Swallow Me Whole. I asked Nate how involved Staros was as an editor. Nate told me that Staros asked for the book to be drawn entirely in pencil first so that any changes would be easier. Makes sense to me.

What I’m getting at is this: Both Thompson and Powell are “alternative” cartoonists who have grown considerably in their short careers. And both worked closely with an editor who is well versed in comics structure. They both benefited from Staros’s critical eye and both have produced solid comics. Would they have made great comics without Staros’s input? Sure. But with an editor they pushed themselves to go beyond their comfort zones, and I believe they are better, more well-rounded artists because of the experience.

Another great example would be Paul Pope. He appeared almost fully formed, seemingly out of nowhere. Yet he was raw. When he began producing stories for Dark Horse Presents he worked with the editor Bob Schreck. I would argue that this helped Paul. Pope has said, “He’s an editor, but he’s also a friend. He knows how to get me working on it. Sometimes it’s flattery, sometimes it’s encouragement, sometimes it’s — well, he just opens Holy Hell before you.” Would Paul have made great comics without working with an editor like Schreck? Sure. But it didn’t hurt.

My beef with many alt guys is this aversion to structure, to editing, to criticism. Do you know that Chris Ware “sits” on a story for years before he releases it? From what I understand, he works on a couple of stories and strips simultaneously and over YEARS slowly adjusts them, until the story is finally ready to be published. He edits himself in ways that I think most young cartoonists cannot imagine.

I’d like to recommend Dave Sim’s Following Cerebus #5. It’s all about “editing the graphic novel” and contains conversations with Craig Thompson, Paul Pope, Frank Miller, Chester Brown, Seth, and many others. It is where I found the quote about Bob Schreck.

[Thanks to Mr. Hodler, my editor, for help on this one.]

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Comics Enriched Their Lives! #13


Thursday, August 20, 2009

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I’ve written on a number of occasions about John Updike’s life-long love affair with comics, evidence of which can be found throughout his fiction, poetry and essays. (For examples, see here, here, and here). But one last bit of poetry is worth dwelling on. One of Updike’s final literary works, which he was still composing just a month before he died earlier this January, was the long poem “Endpoint” (now included in the collection Endpoint and Other Poems). A sequel to his earlier poem “Midpoint” (which reflected on his life at middle age), “Endpoint” looks back on Updike’s earthly existence and career.

References to comics are scattered throughout “Endpoint”. On his birthday in 2004, under the harsh sun in Tucson, Arizona, Updike sees a “prickly pair”. This leads him to think back to Mickey Mouse and his childhood: “The prickly pear/has ears like Mickey Mouse, my first love.” Chain association drudges up the following memory:

To copy comic strips, stretched prone
upon the musty carpet — Mickey’s ears,
the curl in Donald’s bill, the bulbous nose
of Barney Google, Captain Easy’s squint —
what bliss! The paper creatures loved me back
and in the corner of my eye, my blind
grandfather’s black shoes jiggled when he sang.

A little later, Updike recalls:

A small-town Lutheran tot, I fell in love
with comic strips, Benday, and talk balloons.
The daily paper brought us headlined war
and labor strife; I passed them in route
to the funnies section, where no one died
or even, saving Chic Young’s Blondie, aged.

A bit further on, Updike ponders how his youth was saturated with the mass media, which set him and his peers apart from their “elders”:

Signals beyond their [our elders’] ken transported us —
Jack Benny’s stately pauses, Errol Flynn’s
half-smile, the songs we learned to smoke to, ads
in magazines called slicks, the comic strips,
realer than real, a Paradise if
we held our breaths, we could ascend to, free.

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La-Z-Blog with a Vengeance


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

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I’m busy, people, what can I say? Luckily, Frank and Dash and Jeet are doing an awesome job and my presence is entirely superfluous. Anyway, this time I couldn’t even come up with three things to link to. All the same:

1. You all know the great blog Same Hat, right? If for some reason you don’t, go there now to see a massive post with lots of photos and video from Yuichi Yokoyama’s recent live painting demonstration in San Francisco. Then “bookmark” it. (Or whatever you’re supposed to say these days.)

2. Matthew Thurber made the drawings you see above and the right sidebar. He is a very funny and talented guy. He recently sat down for a panel discussion as part of the CBLDF’s Conversational Comics series at Brooklyn’s Union Pool (with Jessica Abel and Jason Little). You can listen to the audio from that panel here.

(The audio for Dash’s panel from last weekend will probably be up shortly, so stay tuned.)

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