Interviews and Autodidacts Notebook


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Gil Kane, an artist whose interviews are always worth reading.

A notebook on comics interviews and autodidacts:

Autodidacts. I often think William Blake is the prototype for many modern cartoonists. Blake was a working class visionary who taught himself Greek and Hebrew, an autodidact who created his own cosmology which went against the grain of the dominant Newtonian/Lockean worldview of his epoch. The world of comics has had many such ad hoc theorists and degree-less philosophers: Burne Hogarth, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter, Lynda Barry, Howard Chaykin, Chester Brown, Dave Sim, Alan Moore. These are all freelance scholars who are willing to challenge expert opinion with elaborately developed alternative ideas. The results of their theorizing are mixed. On the plus side: you can learn more about art history by listening to Gary Panter and Art Spiegelman talk than from reading a shelf-full of academic books; Robert Crumb’s Genesis deserves to be seen not just as an important work of art but also a significant commentary on the Bible; Lynda Barry’s ideas about creativity strike me as not just true but also profound and life-enhancing. On the negative side: Dave Sim’s forays into gender analysis have not, um, ah, been, um, very fruitful; and while Neal Adams drew a wicked cool Batman, I’m not willing to give credence to his theories of an expanding earth if it means rejecting the mainstream physics of the last few centuries. Sorry Neal!

Interviews Versus Art. This strain of autodidactic cartoonists explains why the comics world is blessed with many great talkers, artists whose conversations and interviews overflow with tart observations and juicy anecdotes. All the autodidacts I’ve mentioned above give great interviews. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that for some of them, the interview is their best form: I’d rather read a long, juicy interview with Gil Kane than any comics by him. The same principal applies to Howard Chaykin and Alan Moore. To me, these cartoonists are all in the line of Dr. Johnson, whose conversations as recorded by Boswell are great but whose writing is hard to slog through. By contrast, while Art Spiegelman is a great talker I’d prefer a new comic from him to a new interview. The same is true of Chris Ware, Seth and other comparable artists. That’s a genuine divide: some artists are smarter than their works. Other artists are equally smarter or smarter, but their work is even more intelligent and meaningful than their articulate opinions and observations.

 The Importance of Interviews. I was initially annoyed at Ben Schwartz for including interviews in his Best American Comics Criticism volume, but upon reflection I realized that he was a cagier editor than I would have been. The simple fact is that because of the intellectual poverty of most writing on comics, infected as it is with fannish boosterism and journalistic glibness, the interview form has been the crucial venue for comics criticism and comics history. As I said in the previous post, without all those great interviews with Kane, Crumb, etc. our sense of the history and canon of comics would be very different.

Styles of Interviewing. In my forthcoming introduction to the Inkstuds volume, I take a stab at describing different styles of interviewing by comparing Robin McConnell with Gary Groth. An excerpt: “One way to describe McConnell is to say that he’s the opposite of Gary Groth. Whereas Groth prefers to go into an interview full of research, reading not just a cartoonists entire oeuvre but also as many of the earlier interviews as he can find, McConnell takes a deceptively casual tack, winging his way like a student at an oral exam who is willing to make up for in gusto what he lacks in preparation…. [My] appreciation for McConnell grew when I started to realize that there was a motive behind his madness, a method to his impromptu chatter. The great thing about McConnell, I realized, is that he’s extremely skilled in putting people at ease. When you talk to him, you don’t feel like he’s showing off or trying to trick you or trip you.” I would love to see a literary theorist take up this comparative approach to interviews. In particularly it might be fruitful to compare the interview styles of the Paris Review, Playboy and Rolling Stone magazine.

The Major Interviewers. From that same intro, my list of great comics interviewers: Verne Greene, John Benson, Arn Saba, Gary Groth, Todd Hignite, and Robin McConnell. Based on her interviews with Al Columbia and Dan Clowes, I’m willing to add Nicole Rudick to the list. Who am I missing?  

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33 Responses to “Interviews and Autodidacts Notebook”
  1. patrick ford says:

    Then there are the artists who’s interviews are as interesting as their work.
    The first two which come to mind for me are Robert Crumb, Jack Kirby.
    Crumb’s interviews are a joy to read.
    Kirby’s are a mixed bag, mainly because he was so often interviewed by people with “fanish” interests, who would either ask the same old questions, or steer him away from any extrapolation on his part, back into familiar territory.
    Ray Wyman has many hours of KIrby audio tape where he basically just encouraged Kirby to talk about the things which interested him, and is trying to assemble the tapes into a book.

  2. Joan de' Arc says:

    Nice Blake connection.

    I’d add Zak Sally to the list for his John P. and Kim Deitch interviews.

  3. vlucca says:

    I’m not really buying the whole “it’s an illusion of clumsy interviewing that’s secretly genius” argument for Robin McConnell. I do appreciate the fact he gives his interviewees space to speak and that he doesn’t try to “impress” or “get” anybody he interviews, but much of his “style” really is ineptness. He never seems to ask very intuitive follow-up questions, and many times his unfamiliarity with his guests’ work gets into an area of completely misunderstanding who they are or what they did. (An instance of the latter that comes to mind for no particular reason was when he interviewed Stuart Hample or Gahan Wilson.) Further, his guest co-hosts are often even more uninformed/confused than he is about who is on the show.

    It’s also important to note that all of those supposedly intentional mistakes and eschewing of namedropping evaporate when dealing with a big name creator that he obviously respects, like Anders Nilsen or Jeffery Brown…

  4. Michel Fiffe says:

    Chris Brayshaw and Tom Spurgeon come to mind as excellent interviewers. The few that I’ve read from Kim Thompson have been great, too. From creator to creator, Neil Gaiman wasn’t half bad when he interviewed the Hernandez Bros. for their second major TCJ interview.

    Although I like their comics work a whole lot, the interviews with Kane and Chaykin are, unfortunately, much more rewarding than their actual comics. Moore’s a toss up, but his interviews are damn good, too.

    There’s nothing worse when an interviewer is clearly uninformed or uninterested in its subject. It’s pathetic hackery of the worst form. I can give a name or two, but I don’t think Robin’s guilty of it. He’s interviewed many folks within a short period, so I get it if his enthusiasm fluctuates at times.

  5. Peter Pan says:

    Tom Spurgeon! Isn´t that obvious?

  6. Peter Pan says:

    I think Colin is a bad interviewer, but I agree he can manage a conversation. An easy to listen one. But he is the only one doing the job of the radio-internet interview. That makes me listen to him…nothing more than that.

    Spurgeon, again.

    And Santoro to has the greatest Katchor interview.

    The Huizenga-Spiegelman interview is a great one.

    Jeet Heer is the Jonathan Cott of comics. Wish he would do more interviews along with this writing.

  7. inkstuds says:

    Thanks for the kind words Jeet. I agree that Spurgeon needs noting.

    Also, i never interviewed Gahan WIlson. And Stoo Hample may have been someone that I should of known more about, but it wasn’t a career interview, it was an hour to chat about a book and whatever else came up. It would be a different interview if I was to do a fuller one.

  8. Matt Seneca says:

    Not to be too fannish, but I’d just like to say I really dig this thread in your work that examines underappreciated ancillary-to-comics stuff, Jeet. The best book designers, interviewers, comics critics; it’s important stuff, and better yet really interesting. Glad somebody’s here doin’ it.

  9. Uland says:

    It’s the smart but oddball ranting that really kept me coming back to the world of comics, even when I wasn’t that interested in reading them, like now ( save for the top of the heap creators, I just don’t care so much). I think that’s why all these nice guy, Cal Arts, cartoonists people bug me so much; they’re just too nice ‘n easy. I’ll take an infuriating Dave Sim interview over an issue of FLIGHT any day.
    Have any of you seen Neal Adam’s video? I know nothing about geo-physics ( only solar, I’m afraid.JK), but it was oddly compelling…
    As far as Inkstuds goes, Robyn lets some cringers fly for sure— I don’t think his technique should be valorized yet, but maybe his dedication/tenacity should be.

  10. Heidi M. says:

    I’ve often made the Blake/weirdo nerd connection myself, especially after seeing his retrospective at the Met years ago. After looking at all the self-published wackiness my companion and I concluded that an invitation to dine with the Blakes was probably not too high on anyone’s social list.

  11. A very good piece but I fear that you raised the hackles of the many legions of Doctor-Johnsonians who haunt the internet. His writings are very much worth reading, in particular by professional writers, no matter what their subject. Rasselas is well worth a spin by any emo-ridden postmodern hipster, whatever their angsty ilk …

    It was the Great Cham who reminded all of us that no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money …

  12. Rob Clough says:

    Tim Krieder is a great interviewer. He did one with Jules Feiffer a while back that was quite memorable (I think it was for Indy).

    I prefer (and emulate) the Grothian model of interviewing, because I tend to have similar goals: a career overview with an artist, and one where you try to avoid as many questions that they’ve been asked before as possible.

    Robin’s interviews are often full of tangents that lead nowhere and time-wasting hemming & hawing, but when he gets in the right groove, it’s amazing what he can come up elicit from his guests. Most of the time, he knows exactly what to say to each guest to get them going. Conceptually, I also love the way he organizes some of his interviews around specific topics.

  13. I think research is the foundation of any successful interview, as well as knowing how to adjust to the temperament one is faced with. The lead-in should be the fruit of solid research, but the follow-up is a combination of reading the individual and tenaciously pursuing a satisfying end result. You simply cannot conduct a successful interview without really knowing your subject. If it’s not an interview, then the interviewee takes over and transforms it into a monologue rather than a conversation. As much as I appreciate the coverage that Inkstuds provides, and I listen and re-listen to much of the material, I often find that it lacks the amount of research and tact needed to accomplish engaging follow-ups. I am often at the edge of my seat yearning for clarification or a follow-up story from what a guest says, but instead it is left incomplete with some dead air, or an awkward rythym and an unrelated tangent is introduced. With that said, I continue to listen primarily because it is a unique opportunity to get a sense of creators whose voices are more controlled on the page. For me, the most successful Inkstuds shows usually involve a panel, with a number of guests playing off of one another. However, I think great interviewers mature with time and pay close attention to their approach in order to grow… By the by, Dick Cavett was one of the all-time great “relaxed” interviewers.

  14. patrick ford says:

    The nice thing about the Inkstuds program is you can hear the manner of the interview subjects.
    On one end is the Blake Bell on Ditko interview where every answer sounds scripted not only in it’s content, but the “stump speech” voice Blake has as well. You can almost see Blake slowly walking back and forth in a small area of a stage flicking a microphone cord as he speaks.
    Then there is the Jamie Hernandez interview where Jamie digs to formulate answers to questions he hasn’t answered, or considered so many times in the past that he has push button answers.
    What makes for a good “sound bite” is almost always not nearly as interesting as someone thinking on their feet.

  15. Uland says:

    Oh, come on guys, Robyn just isn’t up on a lot of relevant stuff, whether it be older comics, art, literature, pop culture. He just doesn’t have those sets of reference to draw upon because he’s very young. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with acknowledging that.
    It does make fore some pretty painful listening from time to time, you have to admit. We’re not serving anybody by pretending he’s a journalist that has a “technique”.

  16. Brian Nicholson says:

    Alternately, maybe podcasts are just a bad format for interviews. A big tool of critical writing is editing thoughts down into something cogent- I’m reasonably sure that if all that was available of Gary Groth’s interviewing was the raw tapes his skills could be disputed.

  17. I don’t understand this post, from the title to the last word.

    “Autodidact” simply means self-taught, but what is it you’re saying these cartoonists have taught themselves? How to make cartoons? How to talk about making cartoons? The history of the form? How to talk about the history of the form? Are you saying these cartoonists are critical autodidacts? Is there such a thing as a comic book critic who hasn’t been self-taught?

    Lines like “This strain of autodidactic cartoonists explains why the comics world is blessed with many great talkers” or “freelance scholars who are willing to challenge expert opinion with elaborately developed alternative ideas” aren’t logical, consistent or provable. Aren’t there numberless cartoonist (or “autodidacts” in any other field) who aren’t good talkers? What does being self-taught have to do with being articulate or forthcoming? Can’t an autodidact be just as conventional as an academician?

  18. siegfriedsasso says:

    ““Autodidact” simply means self-taught, but what is it you’re saying these cartoonists have taught themselves?”
    In most cases the term generally means someone who’s read a lot of liberal arts- philosophy, literature, art history, criticism, etc. Although like in Neal Adams’ case it can mean just reading up a lot on a certain subject.

    “What does being self-taught have to do with being articulate or forthcoming? “
    Well, in Gil Kane’s case, a lot. He’s stated in interviews how reading the great critics changed him. It sharpened his perceptiveness considerably. Have you read his interviews?

    “Can’t an autodidact be just as conventional as an academician?”
    In a lot of cases, no. The thing with being an autodidact is that the studying is usually not as focused as someone going to university. Autodidacts read anything and everything, increasing the chances of outside-the-box thinking. Like Jeet said, this has both drawbacks and benefits. The theories that Dave Sim and Neal Adams expouse wouldn’t pass muster in universities. There’s very good reasons for that.

    “Is there such a thing as a comic book critic who hasn’t been self-taught?”
    Yes, these days there’s quite a few who do have degrees.

  19. Yes, I’ve read Kane’s interviews and found them very edifying, particularly as I picture him astride the podium garbed in a saggy, soiled Green Lantern costume.

  20. Tom Spurgeon says:

    First, Gary’s tapes are pretty solid. He’s pretty much a conversational interviewer and there’s not much changing that goes on tape to text. In comparison, I’m a “sit there until you say something that fills the space” interviewer. My tapes are horrible, scattered nonsense and my interview subjects frequently think I’m a barely-functional moron until they see a transcript and sometimes well after. I do think editing is important; I thought a TCJ #300 had interviews that really manifested poor editing decisions.

    Second, it’s interesting to me that this thread’s collective take on great interviewers seems to consistently depend — almost ruthlessly depend — on people talking to great interview subjects: smart, funny, interesting people with a gift for expressing themselves, or historically important creators. I don’t see a lot of distinctions based on the skill of the interviewer. I would argue that Groth is a great interviewer because he’s thorough and engaged and surprisingly deferential and always quick on his feet, and that this manifests itself in more than a couple of cherry-picked subjects: his Pierce Rice is nearly as good as his Gil Kane, his Frazetta approaches his Spiegelman. I’m thankful for the Saba interviews, but not having read them in a while I don’t remember anything particularly skillful about the interviewing the way I remember Benson being pretty good.

    Third, do we really need to savage the dead to score debate points on a fucking comments thread? Come on, Jeffrey. You’re better than that.

  21. wayne says:

    I’m pretty sure I mentioned Blake as a prototype (‘patron saint’?) of cartoonists in a comment many, many posts ago; not least for his intense autodidactism and convoluted personal mythology-building. He was an interesting critic too.

  22. Jeet Heer says:

    @Tom Spurgeon. That’s an interesting distinction between having great interview subjects (which almost automatically makes for a great interview) and having skills as an interviewer. I agree that Gary is definately one case where his skills as an interviewer can be seen even when he’s not talking to someone who is a Spiegelman-level talker. I think Saba did have some skill in getting interview subjects to talk about craft issues in a deeper way than they otherwise might have if they were talking to a non-cartoonist.

  23. James says:


    Jeet: I doubt Gary and Art would go along with that assessment…at least I don’t think they would…?! I’ve listened to both speak…und…they are both brilliant and interesting, but art history is complex. I know there’s a rush to dispose of the book but I believe we still need them to truly grok the intricacies of a whole range of human endeavor…..hrumph.

    • James Roe says:

      I want to follow up the response by the other James to Jeets statement that you can “learn more about art history…than from a shelf full of academic books.”

      C’mon, art criticism is rich, deep and been around for centuries. You can find a lot of crap and you can find some gems of research and insight. (Dave Hickey and Arthur Danto are two of my personal faves.)

      Giving autodidacts value over an academic canon illuminates a shortcomings of autodidacts. frequently their knowledge is used to reinforce established concepts and values or give an academic patina to personal choices that don’t need justification. They’re more inclined to take practices outside of their own and handpick things of value for their interests. A good academic will take the subject at hand and find connections with broader ideas and practices.

      Also, why no mention of Harvey Pekar. He’s a curmudgeon for sure, but a textbook definition of an autodidact who’s gone so far that his self-guided education no longer merely shapes his art but is now the basis for in in works like “the Beats” and “the Students for a Democratic Society: an Illustrated History.”

      and while I’m ranting i throw Joe Saccos’ name out there too.

  24. patrick ford says:

    I’m getting the impression there is some confusion here between Panter and Groth in a few instances?

  25. siegfriedsasso says:

    I agree that Gary is definetely one case where his skills as an interviewer can be seen even when he’s not talking to someone who is a Spiegelman-level talker.
    Still though, the most important ingredient ultimately is having a subject with something to say. I remember reading Curt Swan’s TCJ interview. Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly the most exciting interview ever done.

    It would be remiss to avoid mentioning Grant Morrison’s credentials as a autodidact. As anyone who’s read his columns from The Invisibles letter pages could attest. Holy shit!

  26. James says:

    “you can learn more about art history by listening to Gary Panter and Art Spiegelman than from reading a shelf full of academic books.”

    That was what I was responding to. To qualify, I listened carefully to Art many times and he is extremely knowledgable about the art and comics that lie within his sphere of interest…and not so much about others. It seems he dislikes everything that developed from the adventure strip, for instance. That’s fine and his opinion.
    But the worship poured on him borders on embarrassing when it seems to be for the wrong reasons. Personally, I noticed Art as an important comic artist when I first saw Ace Hole Midget Detective. Of course Maus is an painstakingly constructed, scruffily drawn masterpiece, however it seems to have led him to a relatively unproductive place wherein he is held up as an expert more than as an artist. I’d rather see him working on comics than doing a thousand talking gigs.
    Also, not trying to rip Panter, I love his stuff.

  27. Re: autodidacts–

    I am reminded of William Hogarth’s series of works on “The Analysis of Beauty,” in which he comes to the conclusion that the beauty of forms ultimately boils down to a pleasing “S” form embedded within their structure. A form that he had theoretically extracted from his own idiosyncratic readings of form. His images documenting this theory have a fascinating relationship to Crumb’s “bean-shape” analysis/fixation. At the time Hogarth published his ideas, the academics responded with howls of derision.

  28. […] Interviews and Autodidacts Notebook Bom ponto de vista. Ainda que existam notáveis excepções, não poderia estar mais de acordo com isto: “[…] the intellectual poverty of most writing on comics, infected as it is with fannish boosterism and journalistic glibness”. E por outro lado, também com isto: “[…] some artists are smarter than their works. Other artists are equally smarter or smarter, but their work is even more intelligent and meaningful than their articulate opinions and observations”. […]

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