committing to an idea, realizing a gesture, no matter how small - brainstorming even, mapping ideas - transforms potential energy into kinetic energy. even thought patterns - the reinforcement of neural pathways - inscribe limiting and increasingly structured parameters. but these structures allow for momentum to build. reinforced structures may trade broad potential for specific, linear exploration.
reading and writing are linear activities. one can instantly 'read' the gestalt of a book (for example, by looking at its cover) but only with the recognition that this gestalt is the 'first word' within a directional text. one can also immediately 'read' a painting as a painting, or a table as a table - a word as a word - and stop there. but the potential for linear reading always exists. a line viewed head-on appears to be a point. 'recursive' and 'elliptical' readings occur within a linear structure. a moebius strip may read as an object - (and this reading may continue along these lines, as a sculptural or symbolic text) - but the strip itself (as a two dimensional text) is read linearly. the static 'gestalt' occurs in parallel with [the realization or potential of] a unidirectional reading.
i have been largely concerned with gestalt recently, and this has led to inaction. rather than texts (like this one) which extend a single line, i attempt to visualize an entire text instantaneously. conceiving of certain points, imagining where intersections might occur if perspective is shifted. careful not to 'draw' these lines because of the linear nature of drawing. the seeming impossibility of non-linear creation within the linear context of time. the unavoidable loss of energy in transfer from potential to kinetic.
while working on 2001 i felt linear momentum that approximated that of 'reality'. a virtual world sustained by my own participation. recently i have felt less of a desire to escape the real world than to re-engage with it (with 2001 remaining a strong possibility). but how and for what purpose? i primarily experience privatized motives: to influence/engage the flow of cultural and monetary capital in a local setting, to form connections with others, to position oneself strategically within society, personal therapy.
is 'comics' as a cultural/historic text worth engaging and/or possible to avoid? reform or relocation is necessary in order for certain readings to occur on a mass/public scale. relocation involves adopting (and possibly reforming) new language. is there some inbetween - a space on the fringe of multiple languages in which creolization might occur?
the public reading of a text unalterably rewrites the text itself. the publishing company that publishes a work, the anthology that displays it, the store that sells it, these are determining factors in the creation of a text. language/design/gestalt is often the first word of a text. in this sense my attempt at nonlinear creation resembles linear writing, a line that runs from abstract (distributed authored object) to specific (individual private reading). am i simply stammering over the first word in a potential text?
The printed object has become a trophy, a decorative object whose value lies not in itself but in the values it embodies and the performance it refers to.
The widespread and increasingly significant role of digital services has effectively separated content from medium. Or, better phrased, it has permanently destabilized print culture’s hold on content. Text and image, formerly only widely accessible via printed means, now exist in an alternative format. This format follows different codes of production and consumption. It is decentralized, it is available instantly, and, most seductively, it is free.
What happens to the printed object once its content becomes decentralized? When a consumer reads a comic online and then purchases a physical copy, the content of the comic is, for the consumer, without location. Online content can be accessed through multiple platforms and devices. In this context, the book is just another screen. The physical version becomes a hollow trophy, a signifier of cultural values, a rewarding/recording of its own existence, an indicator of class, taste, investment strategy, morality, etc.
A Trophy for Trophies
In an age of torrents and Rapidshare it is no longer the content of a book that is notable; it is the thousands of dollars spent on its publication. Publishing has become a performance, a symbolic gesture, and the trophy is both the object and recording of this gesture.
The trophy celebrates not only itself but the entire trophy economy to which it belongs, and to whom it owes its existence. There are a considerable number of critics, creators, consumers and publishers who participate in the trophy economy and therefore hold a vested interest in maintaining its cultural dominance. Participants promote binaries of permanent/impermanent, stable/unstable, and moral/immoral in an effort to simultaneously reinforce the value of the trophy economy and undermine its digital alternative.
Participants appeal to an environmental sense of conservation as well, effectively creating a zoo (or, in keeping with our metaphor, a “trophy room”) of endangered species on display. When the newspaper economy started burning down, McSweeney’s rushed into the flames to produce a single collectors’ edition newspaper. This trophy existed as a memorial for the fallen publishers and as a tribute to all participants — publishers, consumers, and unpaid volunteers — in the struggle to keep the trophy economy alive.
Many subcultures are monetarily subsidized by trophies. By investing in a trophy the consumer is investing in a trophy’s corresponding (or one of its corresponding) subculture(s) and affirming their own membership of this subculture. Creators today can attempt to create their own subculture(s) and/or expand upon/exploit existing subculture(s).
Unlike their digital counterparts, trophies require investment of money. This investment can increase or decrease in value, and may translate into nonmonetary value, such as cultural/societal value, as well. As the trophy economy becomes more concentrated as a subculture itself it will increasingly fetishize its own physicality and print-based origin. As its trophies become more and more decorative and elaborate it will deserve these trophies more and more. That is the beauty of the trophy economy — it deserves every trophy it gets.
originally published at tcj.com
1. Comics foster autonomous personal narratives due to an impotent metanarrative.
2. Total design is useful for creating and exploring virtual distributed networks of characters, objects, ideas, etc. Immersive and addictive environments like Facebook can be explored in ways other than pre-defined user interfaces.
3. The character exists to the creator as self and other simultaneously. This results in creative roleplay that bridges consumer/producer and observer/participant relationships.
Some things have been said about working in pencil - new atmospheric possibilities, erasure as metaphor, liminal qualities, etc.
Traditionally the comics penciller is a foggy bridge between transdimensional worlds, using line (2D) to translate mass (3D). Imagine the penciller working in a gestural version of AutoCAD, building, moving, and erasing virtual masses, shifting perspectives - 'down and dirty' sculpture on a dynamic screen. The inker takes these virtual masses and cleans them up - aestheticizes them for the static screen - flattens them. The virtual weight of the pencils is translated into lines - 'line weight' - and crystalized as a 2 dimensional form.
This binary approach to drawing - pencilling vs inking - is the definition of cartooning. When I draw people I draw as an inker, even if I am drawing in pencil. I render 2D lines - aestheticized 2D lines - over mentally projected forms.
What would it mean to draw sculpturally? To view positive and negative space not in a graphic sense but in a spatial sense. To draw without concern of silhouette. To ignore or view with indifference the single fixed camera.
One could easily imagine the fetishization of these techniques - 'poorly' composed drawings, 'random' camera angles - but this would merely be 'anti-2D'. Is virtual sculpture - sculpture created and embedded in the screen - possible without respect to the image? Imagine the sculptor who works only by sight, perhaps from a fixed perspective even. Or imagine the opposite: the blind sculptor working only by touch - doesn't he or she still possess a 'viewpoint' - an objective viewpoint - behind the eyes?
Who was it who said: 'sculpture is experienced in the present, as time and space moving together, and remembered as a series of images'. Comics is memory: a stream of images (or: a bank of images through which we flow). The internet combines the present moment with memory, merges the stream of time with the stream of space, accumulating the present moment into a virtual mass of images.
"[...] the exhibition as a 'photogenic space' to be cut up into sequences by the viewer-actor [...]" - Nicholas Bourriaud
Perhaps this is the closest to sculpture we can come to: pictorial translation of a virtual 3D space designed with translation in mind. 2D memories of virtual space.
OUR CHARACTERS OURSELVES
"[2 dimensional space] is only in your head, because you can't draw a perfect square in the material world. But in your mind, you can have a perfect space."
Elijah Wood, 'The Ice Storm'
Comics are a practice which invokes the object repeatedly, rhythmically, through the incantations of its evershifting name - the image. The object lies beyond the opaque screen of the page, leaving the draughtsman to guess at its contours from memory - a fabricated, collective memory - which flows through the reader as well.
I have been drawing a single character, with little variation, for a few months now. I feel sincere when I draw this character. I do not create any facial expression or posture which does not reveal itself naturally upon the page. In the physical craft of drawing - in which hand and eye are actor and director - I am cautious in my demands. Because I do not exert any pressure upon the character to 'act' I often get routine, 'stock' poses and expressions. I do not wish to exploit this character. I have not brought up the demands of narrative, which would only seem artificial - the product of a bored or market driven creator (how many narratives and/or meta-narratives showcase the struggle of the creator trying to invent a narrative? And why, exactly, is this invention so dire, or even necessary?). Instead I have created a childhood - an unformed, undefined space - pure, unreal, safe.
The child, energetic, lying in bed, thinks rapidly in small circuits. I remember in 5th grade, a violent transition into goal orientation and loneliness - 'I didn't do anything today', I would sob - and the weight of this feeling would compound as the school year continued. Later on, the memory of being in love, feeling pure, timeless, and feeling asexual and monklike a year later - memories of bare floors, ganzfeld walls, the internet.
Narrative exists in my life, and my character is no doubt affected by this. But only peripherally. The child perceives others' emotions in an ambient noise. Concrete and literal events - elements of narrative - are more direct, more understandable. "I feel sad because my dog died". While drawing last night I found myself poking at the mouth of my character with a pen, attempting (without success) to gently push it open into a less sullen expression. People are mirrors for each other, and characters are no exception. Smiling, yawning, etc, are contagious. Drawing a smile on my character, if heartfelt, makes me aware of my own happiness. If I draw a smile and I am sad I feel alienated from this happiness ... unable to participate.
What of the 'bad drawing' - the terrible, dream-like feeling of looking in the mirror and seeing your own image mutilated and deformed? Feelings of identification are replaced with feelings of alienation. The other stares back. A mistake is made - a slip of the hand, a miscalculated stroke - and the illusion of life is lost. What seemed like a person, a reflection, is revealed to be nothing more than marks on paper. If only this were the case - if only all life of the drawing slipped away. Instead there remains an eerie glint of something nearly human, nearly alive, but not quite. Conception demands a certain faith, a suspension of disbelief ... not to ignore the concrete reality of the drawing but to believe in another reality within/around the drawing.
PRACTICE / PRAXIS
I want to talk about the critical practice of using an 'art paradigm' in discussing creators who did not think of themselves as 'artists', but rather as 'craftsmen' or 'journeymen'.
sean t. collins (2299 words)
By discussing these craftsmen as artists the critic is
1) allocating resources (critical attention / books) to late career or post-career (ie dead) cartoonists when today's young cartoonists are in need of these resources
2) creating a false lineage between old/dead cartoonists and young cartoonists
3) creating the illusion of discussion within comics about 'art', when in fact such discussion is almost non-existant
The subjects of such criticism may include*:
While it is valuable for the comics economy to maintain the 'public legacy' of old/dead cartoonists, as institutional value is derived from the past, it is also valuable that they are remembered in a way that does not negatively alter the present. Spending too much on the past can leave the present and future in debt. The culture of comics has an oddly fascistic devotion to the past, and this devotion perpetuates the 'same old shit'.
I imagine some of the attraction for placing such creators under the 'artist' archetype is in order to 'substantiate' comics as a medium offering a 'rich history' with 'inspired' creators. But creating a falsely rich past inflates the currency of the present.
Austin English is a young cartoonist who seems to be 'inaccessible' to most critics today. He seems highly concerned with craft but unconcerned with relating his craft to the comics history narrative. This lack of lineage provides the context for Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics to say, "English isn't really a cartoonist at heart."
Some criteria for being considered an accomplished cartoonist include:
development of an identifiable 'style'
consistency within that style
production of new formal gadgets
clever usage of existant formal gadgets
commitment to the 'art of 'cartooning'
Within this context, which appears to 'cover all the bases' of 'art' within cartooning, English has no precedent for discussion. He offers little consistency throughout his work as he navigates a constantly evolving visual language. He seems to be focused on the present and future as opposed to the past. As a creator he does not belong to any tree of tradition. The closest referents, say, Mark Beyer or Souther Salazar, are also generally excluded from such discussion.
Austin is just one example of a young cartoonist who is ironically being overlooked in critics' search for 'art' in comics. 'Ironically' of course because he actually identifies as an artist and his work deserves being talked about as such.
*Full disclosure: I don't know much about these creators. I am not interested in them for various reasons
matt seneca (13142 words)
view original posts with introduction, comments, illustrations, and hyperlinks
MATT SENECA: The first thing I wanted to ask you about is how you see comics as a whole medium, the divisions the “industry” enforces within it set aside. As a single art form among many others. You’re fairly unique among young cartoonists in that you don’t have the concern for “comics” the community and historical narrative that say someone like Michael DeForge does, so as just a young contemporary artist, what makes comics different from other media?
robin mcconnell (audio)
noel black (audio)
BLAISE LARMEE: Comics, in the word itself, emphasizes the pluralised object.
MATT: Right, the commodity.
BLAISE: Painting also functions as a noun but it is a verb as well. It is a practice.
M: Whereas you can’t “comic”. And there’s no adjective for comics either, no “painterly” or “filmic”. Which is why the question of what comics are in opposition to other media is tricky....
B: Medium specificity in itself is tricky. Has investigation of comics-as-medium resulted in any progress other than introducing comics into certain markets?
M: I think the main thing it’s produced is an awareness of history in comics’ younger practitioners - an awareness that wasn’t always there for young people who decided they wanted to become cartoonists. But I know you’ve gone on record about not being very interested in comics history...
B: Comics never had a modernist period. It never had an establishment to rebel against. It never cohered into any sort of federated structure, although that is always the image one hopes to convey when using the word “comics” - a site where all of these local narratives can be represented. Comics history has always been a local history, dispersed, with a deficit of cultural currency.
M: Well, I think if comics has any establishment it’s cultural, not aesthetic. You’ve engaged with that culture via blogging and your general internet presence, and occasionally ruffled people’s feathers by doing so -- do you think rebelling against comics culture is useful?
B: I think even direct opposition is too much involvement. Like, it’s not worth negating.
M: But not worth following either, I’m assuming. Is comics enough of an establishment for the “outsider cartoonist” to exist, or is that where everybody using the form is?
B: I like my relationship to CCS. [Note: Blaise currently holds a fellowship at James Sturm's Center for Cartoon Studies.] I am different and my difference is being incorporated. But this is a specific example.
M: It’s probably still a relevant one, just because it’s reflective of how comics has incorporated iconoclasts before. When people like Crumb and Ware come along with idiosyncratic styles there’s less of a reactionary backlash than a picking-over of their methods for useful takeaways. Maybe that’s why comics hasn’t really gone through modernism -- it hasn’t needed to. Do you agree with that? And do you think it’s a useful way for an art form to progress?
B: You’re talking about how comics is accepting of creators?
M: Of creators who bring stylistic or formal innovations to the table, specifically. Underground comics were a big response to the sort of trite content that was necessary to pass censors in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but then it became “cool” and got sort of taken up by everyone pretty quickly...
B: Honestly I think my problem with comics is that they are not cool...
M: Do you see that as an inherent problem, or the current circumstance?
B: I think it is possible for comics to be cool. Picturebox still presents a kind of cool, though it seems more like a residue, or a paste, than a vibrant present moment. I think 1-800-MICE could become retroactively cool at some point. But I guess the problem with the present moment - and this is also a historic problem - is the massive interiority of comics and the neglect of their distribution as objects. With Fort Thunder the interiority swelled to a point that it became a sort of exteriority. I mean, the space itself is a good illustration of that.
M: I think the availability of free webcomics is going to close the gap on the distribution question at some point, though heaven knows what that means for cartoonists’ ability to eat.
B: Webcomics stlil seem massively interior. Like, in the same way that 4chan is massively interior. 4chan can be referenced as a thing - a community or whatever - but the images/texts that compose it get lost in the overall fabric. It’s like the cover of a book vs its insides.
M: So you’re saying with webcomics everything is more like the cover?
B: No, like ‘webcomics’ is the cover. Like, that is what will get an article in the New York Times. and an individual webcomic will be like a detail of the overall ‘image’ (cover) being covered.
M: That’s the case with all new media though, don’t you think?
B: Yeah … hm … and the New York Times is really bad at covering art in general … but … hm, it’s really hard for me. It’s confusing trying to think about vernacular versus … the opposite of vernacular.
B: Yeah, I guess. I don’t know. Or Catholic maybe. Like, I guess my religion is academic/artistic thought, so that seems to be the highest authority for me. But it gets confusing when, say, the New York Times also presents itself as an authority and it doesn’t even seem to be aware of those academic/artistic transmissions.
M: I think any institution that big is just always going to have a hard time with the new.
B: I was trying to imagine what the New York Times comics section would look like.
M: It would be the McSweeney’s comics section.
M: Getting back to interiority in comics... you talk about it as an impediment to “coolness”, and I think it usually is/has been, like in Chester Brown, Ware, whoever else. But the two webcomics I show “cool” young people are yours and mine, and with both what people seem to connect to is that they’re relatable, with young characters. I think that’s a necessary component of “cool” - it has to be interior on some level to grab people maybe?
B: Yeah. Or I can see how it could be perceived as interior. Or often is interior. I mean, cool is just one articulation of this site that I’m interested in, which I think could also be articulated as the revolutionary site, an ecstatic present moment in which the future seems wild and the memory of the past changes. The threshold of something. I think the “cool” I’m thinking of might just be an image, impossible to enter. But being on the threshold of that image.
M: So it’s not something you can embody? Like, with how you dress or whatever?
B: I think fashion, in a general sense, not necessarily limited to fabric, is related to this threshold. “In is out.” “Out is in.” It’s wildly unpredictable territory.
M: If there’s a route to “cool” for comics, do you think it’s more tied to content or visual appearance?
B: I try to collapse the two.
M: Well sure, every cartoonist does, but like... ok, which do you think would be cooler, Jack Kirby drawing Young Lions or you illustrating a Kirby style comic?
B: I guess the latter. I don’t like other people’s drawings as much as my own.
M: Do you think the visual aspect of comics is “stronger” or “hits harder” than the story/information-containing aspect? I think a lot of people “inside” comics think they should be exactly equal, but for people outside the culture do you think one is more attractive?
B: I guess I’m in the camp that thinks it’s pretty much impossible to say something does not qualify as information.
M: I think most people who don’t have a big interaction with mainstream comics see it that way. Superheroes, work made for hire, that’s where the distinction comes from.
B: Children’s literature also delineates authorship into “writer” and “illustrator”. “Goodnight Moon” depicts a bedroom. There is the text of the object next to the illustration of the object. The words “red balloon” next to a drawing of a red balloon. I would argue neither aspect is redundant. Maybe the room could be viewed as a site of contested authorship. But I wouldn’t say both parties have equal power in or access to that site.
M: I think it’s the same thing in comics, though there are two sites we’re talking about really, and they’re connected in a really weird way: the page and the culture. In the wider “comics culture” the words are always the nexus of authorship and the pictures merely proceed from them. On the page it’s often different sets of information being communicated by each thing. I guess I’m not talking so much about pictorial content as style. Like, Winsor McCay’s red balloon drawing versus Steve Ditko’s. Do you think a cartoonist’s style can be more or less appropriate to the story content they’re creating?
B: I can’t divide the totality of the creator into distinct aspects. Some creators have bodily intelligence - you can see it in the figures they draw - but they write bad stories and dialogue. But we must judge the totality of this person.
M: How much does a comic’s formal quality -- innovation, boldness, whatever -- affect your reading of how cool it is? (I’m using “cool” as shorthand for the place you want to see more comics going...)
B: It’s important. I think part of my problem with separating form from content is the absurdity of this question in the face of architecture. I rely on a lot of spatial terms - interiority/exteriority, the site, the threshold - in describing comics. This content/form division is real, I think, but I’m not sure how to incorporate it into this spatial/architectural model.
M: More literalism, maybe? Like, you can have interiority of content -- say a dream comic or something -- and interiority of form, like weird layouts. Content sites, like setting, and formal sites, like color schemes. If you take Impressionist painters’ multiple pictures of the same place at different times of day as comics, I think it’s possible to do a reading where the different images have the same content but different form. Does that sound right, or are you talking about something different?
B: Content is 3D, form is 2D?
M: I guess what I’m getting at is like... content is always an abstraction, the idea of whatever you’re communicating. Form is more literal, the sensual aspect of the work. Shapes, colors, size. In comics it’s tricky because formal tools like sequencing or layout can communicate abstract information. But I think the division exists to some extent or another in all comics that are out there to date. Probably abstract comics come closest to lacking it.
B: I’m not on the same page with you. Language is … let me find a quote … “language is not [...] a mediation between thought and the real.” The rest of the quote is kind of hard to explain. But basically as thought opens up to me, in language, I experience the thing itself. Does that make sense? In the articulation of a thought the thought is discovered, or entered, or the thought opens up to us.
M: Yeah, that makes sense. Tying this back to what we were talking about earlier, do you think formal innovation can lead comics into its own “modernist period”? Is it only the formal strictures of comics as they’ve been created in the past that need to be rebelled against?
B: I mean, there’s aspects of modernism present in the comics narrative today that are really gross.
B: Pretty much any sense of progress as a “medium” divorcing itself from everything around it. Any sense of triumph of “self expression”. Any sense of “innovation” as something that will lead to more innovation.
M: What aspects of modernism would you like to see become part of comics?
B: Maybe I’m just nostalgic for kindergarten. Or nostalgic for a time before I was born. I’m not sure. All articulations of modernism that I respond to have a sort of aesthetic fascism. But it’s also a fascism that I welcome. At root is this idea of progress.
M: Do you mean “aesthetic fascism” in terms of a strong individual vision, or a contempt for the “other”, or...?
B: I guess both. The individual vision is downplayed, but it’s still really prominent. Like, twitter is a good example of an articulation of a modernist tendency. The structure for creating and dispersing information is extremely regulated, aesthetically, using an “authorless” modular architecture. And the whole “brand / brandless” aesthetic is that of childhood as illustrated by vector graphics. And there’s this sense that order will persist and cannot be subverted.
M: So are you a fan of instructional comics, like the “how to put on your oxygen mask” ones on airplanes? Or Will Eisner’s Army training manuals, you ever seen those?
B: I haven’t seen those. I like the image of direct communication. Like, anything in Helvetica carries that image. Some aspects of punk culture seem to idealise that image. Like, direct, simple, 3 chord manifesto on how to overthrow the establishment. I also like the image of the other “dropped onto” a foreign order. There were these suburban style government housing projects next to where I lived and these black refugees occupying/being occupied by this space.
M: That appreciation or propensity for the “image” of things -- it seems to me that comics is the ideal medium to present those kind of basic situations or ideas, because the pictures make it so direct but it can still carry a lot of complex information. Did you come to comics wanting to tell fictional narratives like most people do, or was it always more about putting over ideas?
B: I think it was always about images. The image of power and gender in superheroes. The image of subculture later on.
M: Is there a specific image you’d like your comics to communicate?
B: I guess now it’s more about ideas, including the idea of the image and the image of the idea. Comics is a useful metaphor for communicating a sequence of images.
M: Why is it a metaphor?
B: I mean the way you can talk about a “text” without necessarily referring to a book. Comics as an applied conceit.
MATT SENECA: So is it that cartoonists need to come at comics with a new mindset...?
BLAISE LARMEE: Cartoonists need to be willing to abandon comics.
MATT: Comics history? Or the formal devices that have characterized comics until now? They might be the same thing...
BLAISE: Yeah, the whole orientation toward preconditions, foundations, and building a sovereign medium. There’s too much fear of translation. Film, especially, is seen as a threat.
M: You talked earlier about comics as a general way of conceptualizing sequenced images. In that case can you turn the tables and conceptualize films as comics?
B: Film is its own thing, obviously. I sometimes feel like I’m in a movie whereas I never feel like I’m in a comic. Although I’ve been in comics. That is interesting. For me comics is a more abstract or virtual text, whereas film is integrated into my immediate perception of “reality.”
M: Well film is reality in a lot of ways, moments of real time that actually occurred, just reproduced for viewing at a later date. Or at least it has been in the past. Now with computer effects bringing most films closer and closer to animation, which is just comics at 24 frames a second, do you think that gap is closing at all?
B: I don’t think computer effects will do anything. The Netflix model makes movies more a part of disposable culture, though. And more navigable/disruptible. Still, the formal differences are vast.
M: That’s interesting, because I see comics as being on the opposite trajectory, into hardcover books and archive editions, trying to position itself as far away from the disposable as possible. Do you see it that way? I guess webcomics confuse the issue...
B: Yeah, I guess both mediums are responding to their economic environments.
M: So anyway... you were saying that basically comics has yet to develop defining characteristics beyond basic formal ones?
B: I feel like formal preconditions are one and the same with this whole notion of comics-as-medium. This is the mentality that must be transcended.
M: Are “mediums” something that exist for you? Like is painting a medium?
B: Yeah, and comics can be read as a medium. But this reading was retroactively constructed, and in a time when the established mediums were being deconstructed to the point that it was almost boring.
M: Right, comics used to just be considered a backward subset of literature.
B: Yeah? I don’t know.
M: Sure, that’s why people get pissed when you call it a “genre”. Do you see it as more something that developed out of the visual arts?
B: I don’t know how it started. I think more out of newspapers. And animation. But I’m talking about underground comics and Art Spiegelman and Scott McCloud.
M: That was the road to “medium”, yeah.
B: Scott McCloud was so modernist … he wanted this new beginning divorced from the past, the liberation of form from content. That’s why it feels like comics was invented in 1993. That book became the form.
M: Do you think comics needs more texts like McCloud’s books to develop as a medium? Is that the kind of self-critical work you’re saying it lacks?
B: McCloud’s book is the medium. All developments undertaken for the medium add on to the narrative of “the medium” he created.
M: Hmm, have you ever read Eisner’s textbooks? Sequential Art, Graphic Storytelling? McCloud was riffing heavy on those....
B: The theme of McCloud’s book was the blank slate, the new beginning. He figures Eisner into his history (and credits him as inspiration) but the history is so revisionist that Eisner is in effect created by McCloud.
M: Lolz. My main problem with reading McCloud is that those books are completely lacking in poetic capacity, which is something I think a lot of other comics are pretty good at delivering. Can the self-reflexive and the poetic be combined?
B: Self-reflexivity is built-in to the format. The book literally flexes in on itself. The modernism of McCloud is extremely seductive. The promise of the future, the potential, the threshold. The Obama campaign. Now upon reflection we see how this infinite vision was also completely singular and authored. The hand drawn empty vessel.
M: So any promise of a blank slate delivered via comics is a false one, basically. Dude, you should read Grant Morrison’s Animal Man comics, that’s the one thing I can think of that comes close to McCloud, but it’s all superheroey and "fucking crazy, man!". Are you saying that comics, being this hand-made, meticulous thing, can’t avoid having some aspect of the poetic to them?
B: The poetic is useful as a means of opacity and privacy - keeping the author’s intentions somewhat in the dark. On the other hand I think a lot of critics are drawn to the poetic because it creates a pool of text that they can find their own way through and then present these trips as criticism.
M: Exactly, without opacity built into works the critic is useless.
B: Critics love to try to see through the text to the author. Or rather, to construct their own image of the author, using the text as a sort of puzzle.
M: Well, it is a lot of fun, even though you have to confront the fact that you're on some total bullshit at some point. So do you think comics should put the author on display more frequently? How do you feel about “autobio” comics, where the author is examining something else (not the form)?
B: I really feel something other than the form should be examined. Modern artists focused on the form in order to free themselves from powerful institutions - the church, the state, the public. The only institution in comics, really, is comics itself. “What is art” was a useful question because it was kind of a synecdoche for “what is church/state/public/etc”. “What is comics” is only relevant for comics fans, and I think we see this question mostly in contexts where the modern art narrative is nostalgized and re-staged in a seemingly virgin medium.
M: This is where a strong working knowledge of comics history seems essential to me, but you’ve talked about not being so interested in that. How can we build upon narratives we’re unfamiliar with?
B: That’s a really good question. My answer would be focusing on trajectory - movement itself - rather than specific origins of departure.
M: Chain of influence is an idea that has a ton of currency in comics, but right now more and more interesting new cartoonists seem to come at the medium from a unique place. Everybody used to just start out as copyists and work their way into an individual voice, now the journey is figuring out craft. You haven’t been shy about declaring CF to be a big influence on your work -- are there any others (besides McCloud) who hold as big a sway?
B: I don’t identify as a reader of comics.
M: Do you not read any, or just not a lot? or is it more about the connotations that identifying as a comics reader holds?
B: I meant it more as the sort of identity statement that’s acceptable these days.
M: Right, the one that also makes you a partisan of “comics culture”. What about that culture don’t you want to engage with?
B: I guess the reader - or consumer - orientation.
MATT SENECA: I want to talk a little more about your lack of interest in comics history, just because it’s such a unique relationship to past work for a cartoonist to have. You’ve talked about how old comics weren’t calculated to be art, but pure product; do any comics that are designed as commodities first interest you?
BLAISE LARMEE: I think the real question is where do you exist as a consumer and where do you exist as a producer.
MATT: So where are you as far as comics are concerned?
BLAISE: I’m a producer. But I’m also in this territory that assumes you’re a consumer. I gave a talk here recently and it was - I just found this out - really negatively received. I didn’t want to talk about the past, about images or objects I’d made, etc. I wanted to function as a producer, talking about production processes that exists in parallel with actually making things - where the process gets lost in the images/objects … but people wanted a sort of “reading” of my past.
M: Do other cartoonists’ production processes not interest you?
B: Those of close friends do. And this is maybe not … I don’t want to ‘write off’ that question. But … I mean, ultimately I’m not interested in drawing styles, I’m interested in real people and real narratives.
M: Do you not see the historical narrative of “comics” as having much to do with the process of creating a modern comic? Or is it that the narrative just doesn’t compel you?
B: It seems like a closed system to me. It doesn’t hold much currency outside of itself. It doesn’t have a healthy import/export relationship with other cultures.
M: I think you could argue that it doesn’t have one at all.
B: Well there’s the Wertham trial. That carried signification. But that was an isolated phenomenon and comics was really just a scapegoat. And there’s Persepolis and whatnot but then comics is really just a container for content. Although now that I type that it seems rather attractive. I guess because it devalues comics as a medium. Persepolis made headlines last week but i don’t think the comic was mentioned - just the film. Anyway I guess the content doesn’t really interest me either.
M: I think this is where the perceived division between form/content I was talking about earlier comes from: the wider culture and media only pick up on one aspect of the comics they take into account.
B: The informational aspect?
M: Yeah. The subject matter. Though I will say that many of history’s great cartoonists don’t seem to have cared a ton about form and just wanted to produce content.
B: I guess the form was provided for them.
M: That’s interesting... but nobody gave it to them, none of the newspaper guys were actually looking at Hokusai or Topffer from what I understand. All those attempts to relate comics back to stuff like hieroglyphics seem really false to me. But the lack of one Genesis moment or even a consciousness of creation in comics is conspicuous. Do you see a lot in comics that comes from other art forms?
B: The father of comics is an absent father. Yeah, I saw a comic today that came out of an art context. But it was really bad. Anytime I see art that reads as comics I hate it.
M: That surprises me a little, just cause your stuff reminds me of Jim Shaw. But I know what you mean. How do you feel about comics when they try to do “fine art” -- like single-composition pages and stuff?
B: What are single-composition pages?
M: Jim Steranko type stuff... or Gary Panter... Pages that exist as sequential, “paneled”, but also as posters or paintings. There to be read but also to approach like a canvas.
B: I don’t know. I just don’t like reading comics. So if I’m looking through an art book and I see a comic … it brings me back to a reality. Because I have a lot of distance between myself and art. I can see the products, the images, the narratives I want to see. I can focus on a few artists and be rewarded with a massive elliptical narrative. But comics are too close, too present.
M: Too close historically, or in proximity to everything else in comics?
B: It’s where I work.
M: My immediate thought in response to that is that the comics narrative has a lot of interesting “characters” whose biographies are maybe better to engage with than their work. Does the historical “cartoonist” -- working-class, uneducated, put-upon, supporting a family, maybe he fought in a war -- appeal to you at all? It's no longer a living species, of course...
B: I prefer cartoonist as child. Playing with crayons. Picasso’s children.
M: What cartoonists do you see as inhabitants of that archetype?
B: Austin English, Genevieve Vidal, Julie Delporte, maybe Brian Chippendale.
[comic by Brian Chippendale]
M: All the artists you mention are pretty open to readers/readings that come down somewhere outside the boundaries of “conventional comics”: there’s at least some intersection with the “finer” arts. Is that a part of enjoying comics for you, or do you think the character you want the cartoonists you read to inhabit just ends up making comics that fall somewhat outside the norm?
B: Again I think I would rather not read comics. But my friends happen to be cartoonists because of events in my past. But I also do admire the way they are able to navigate the shitty terrain. I think they aim for art but they are using twigs for arrows.
M: Can comics be art?
B: I don’t think so. I think at times it does, but like the Wertham trial these events are isolated. But I’m biased because I position myself between these two domains, as an importer/exporter, consumer/producer, so my stability depends on their distance from each other.
M: That’s interesting. I’m thinking about how art has made big strides past the figurative since comics came about in the late 1800s, and how comics have remained almost the last outpost of great figurative artwork... but whether that’s a reaction or just a lack of culture I don’t know. What should comics be if they’re not going to be art?
B: I’m going to give a negative answer. I feel like this is obvious. I may be playing this character that I’m used to playing in this sort of context, and maybe this is limiting development of some sort of progress. I really don’t want to be the antagonist. It’s just this situation where comics seems isolated and I want to effect larger structures. or less isolated structures. Comics should aim for art. But that’s not enough, obviously. Or the actual outcome could be like a dog that catches the vehicle it chases. But production in art is something very specific and demands a lot of consideration. There’s a lot of built-in structure. I’ve never considered this structure, I’ve never produced inside it. I consume its products, often translated into books or images and texts dispersed online. There are a lot of parallels between art and comics, and perhaps my negative/positive attitude toward comics/art would be reversed if my production/consumption arenas were swapped.
M: I think it almost certainly would be. There’s probably even a simple equation for it: the people who consume the most comics seem to have the least interest in art, and I guess you’re saying vice versa. I wish I could read the same exact number of pages as I draw, haha. Are the larger structures you think art effects and the ones you think are built into it the same?
B: I don’t know, it’s hard to tell if art effects anything other than its own domain.
M: Which I think it’s pretty obvious is also true of comics -- but comics operates on a much smaller scale. Would you like it if comics became a mass medium, with the audience that film or music has?
B: That would be something. I think what art produces is a constant remapping of its territory. Comics is pretty indistinct, yet it is also very distinct. Its territory is small yet strongly grounded by a grassroots economy.
M: Does significant market expansion have to happen before significant formal expansion can?
B: Maybe abandoning territory is as significant as expanding it.
M: I assume you mean commercial territory. I think the danger of abandoning the superhero support-system is that then the only financial recourse remaining to cartoonists is the gallery, which you don’t seem to think is the answer either... or is that not what you meant?
B: What’s the superhero support-system?
M: The “mainstream”, the sort of commercial engine that keeps the rest of comics running via trickle-down economics. Is that the territory you’re talking about giving up?
B: Uh … is this trickle-down a real thing?
M: For myself and the people I know who buy art-comix (or whatever)... including your stuff... it’s almost entirely people who got into superhero comics between childhood and middle age and then decided to “find out what else is out there.” So yeah, it is to me at least.
B: I think these giant cultural forces will be mediators no matter what. But a community that emerges from this can sustain itself without those larger forces - it is not dependent on them. Your community of buyers would still buy art comics if superhero comics disappeared.
M: True enough -- and I think a lot of them have given up superhero comics like I have -- but there’s a question of the community’s growth and sustainability that I feel like I should at least mention. The people I’ve been able to get into art-comix via the community around my writing are, I think, 100 percent coming from the “mainstream”. I know that’s not the case for all or maybe even most art-comix buyers, but it’s still a fair amount of them. And it’s more all the time: a constantly occurring process. Take away the Point A of that process and Point B becomes nonexistent for a lot of people, because you need to have caught the bug before you start going to trade shows and leafing through zine racks and hitting up obscure artists’ websites. I’m not sure alternative comics can sustain itself, by itself, at its current level. Even the retailers that sell the more mass-market friendly stuff are superhero stores, with literally like eight or ten exceptions. I think the level “other” comics reach without any help from superheroes is not enough to make them at all significant. Even the alt-comics websites get a boost from mainstream traffic.
B: There’s a lot of room for innovation. Reconsider dominant labor-intensive forms of practice. Explore alternative models of publishing and distribution. Project artificial scarcity and artificial demand.
M: Are these the ideas behind your Cruise project?
B: Yeah, Cruise is born in part out of exasperation with existing economic models. It’s a tentative step towards a more lightweight, efficient, adaptable model.
M: People are commissioning these zines from you, right? They’re not pre-made?
B: No, no one’s commissioned me. They’re all pre-made.
M: Can you run through the economic model you’re using real quick?
B: I was going to make a 16 page comic in an edition of 50. Due to a sequence of mistakes I ended up with 50 covers that I liked and an abandoned interior. Instead of an edition of 50 I decided to make 50 unique booklets with the same cover. Each booklet is released individually and arbitrarily.
M: So it’s a limited financial commitment for you to make. What jumps out at me is the quality of uniqueness -- how do you feel about the mass-produced-object status comics have historically held?
B: I think it’s fine. I just opened the wikipedia page for “post-fordism”. Post-Fordism is characterized by the following attributes:
* Small-batch production.
* Economies of scope.
* Specialized products and jobs.
* New information technologies.
* Emphasis on types of consumers in contrast to previous emphasis on social class.
* The rise of the service and the white-collar worker.
* The feminization of the work force.
M: What type of consumer are you emphasizing?
B: I think I am sending out a signal through aesthetics, through style. The consumer who buys Young Lions may simply be interested in an interior, closed narrative - the narrative in the book or the narrative surrounding the book (which is pretty closed). Cruise doesn’t have any established territory other than the site through which it is presented and sold and advertisements. It’s more a currency in itself, or the imagination of such a currency. The narrative is its movement. Its consumers effect this movement.
M: Are you going to be documenting the movement itself in any way? Or is that up to the consumer?
B: I thought about that. I mean it is all documented of course. But so far it’s private. I think I will consult with shareholders before going public :)
M: Do you think strategies for selling comics that aren’t based on subject matter (“content”) are going to become more prevalent?
B: Well with Cruise you could say there is no content. But you could also say that there is nothing but content. The last three releases used polyester film for the interiors, so you can see from the preview image - the scanned interior - straight to the inside covers.
M: Before the screen, and maybe even more relevantly the browsing tab, became a vehicle for reading matter the page was a lot less negotiable. Do you think the see-through page can support more conventional comics?
B: Why do you say the page was less negotiable? Lack of search function?
M: You had to move through it to get anywhere else. Turn it -- which strongly implies reading it. Now our paths through media are not as linear. Tabbed browsing. Chapter-skipping and multiple endings in DVDs, the decline of the album in music.
B: I see...
M: Though now that I think of it I felt like 2001 was more linear than a print-format comic in many ways...
B: Yeah, I don’t understand how “non-linear” readings can occur if time moves linearly. Maybe authorship can shift around. Maybe we can talk about compression. Or elliptical narrative.
M: Compression seems like a greater possibility with online comics. It’s a lot easier for readers to vary the pace they read at and change their experience of the comic by doing so when it’s just a big scroll instead of pages to turn. And elliptical narrative... I find myself using a ton of jump-cuts in my online comic, like five times as many as I see in print. It just feels native to the medium of presentation. Though 2001 was sequenced with like, the opposite of jump-cutting...
B: Yeah, 2001 is super linear. The space is linear too. Or the way in which it’s navigated.
M: Were you at all surprised by how your comic read in the scrolling format?
B: I just looked at it. It’s kind of like comics, or books in general, in that the only way to find stable ground is by reading, where the flow of texts/images finds a sort of stability, like the way the images in a film strip or zeotrope become stable at certain speeds. So in this, unlike in Cruise, the content is hidden, or latent, within the comic itself. It’s traditional in this sense.
M: Yeah, Cruise sounds pretty experimental by contrast. Did coming back to the more traditional medium of print make you want to get more experimental with your content?
B: I’m still interested in both forms. And I feel Cruise is still ultimately, in a way, an image object - an absence of the material thing itself. At least this is how most people encounter it. It’s presented and sold online. Its informational content is laid bare. This is its public narrative.
M: Comics where the imagery and the narrative just occur in different spaces?
B: Maybe just emphasizing the public narrative over the private. Or focusing on the split between the two. But yeah, I guess that’s a nice way to phrase it.
M: The private narrative you’re talking about is the individual reader’s experience of the comic, right?
B: Yeah. The hidden experience.
M: And then the public narrative is what, critical response? The internet “noticing” the existence of the physical comic?
B: It can also be the image of that response or discourse. I mean it can be a private sort of fiction, the individual “reading” this sort of theater which the author creates props for. Like the way a work can seem like a manifesto. You’ve had that feeling I’m sure. A statement that demands a response.
M: Do you hope a lot of people who get these zines create work in response to them, reviews or whatever?
B: Um, nothing so direct. Like, the response can go unrealized in public. It can just be assumed that it occurs.
M: Hmm, I’m picturing the “public narrative” you’re talking about emphasizing as something that you stop authoring at a certain point... which I guess is always the case if it’s constituted of people’s readings... but documenting the sections of that narrative that other people “write” isn’t something you’ll be doing?
B: I think you were talking with Whiteshasta about how being in the public “meme-ory” might not be the best gauge of success. The actual public narrative is usually this kind of meme-oriented thing.
M: Sure, it reduces the totality of content to a few ideas or images. Is that degrading of presented thoughts into soundbites part of the reason you stopped doing comics blogging?
B: Yeah, maybe. The style and attitude of our blog would get a lot of response but never the actual content. The ideas we were expressing, apart from basic ideas of “cool” and “youth” - the basic branding stuff - none of those ideas were engaged with in a public way. But it was still … there was still the feeling that people were processing these ideas, reacting to the surface maybe, but still processing these ideas. But we were compromising anyway by having this branded surface. I think that part was integral. We just didn’t anticipate the response. I think we got bored with it.
M: I think if you want a significant response to the deeper ideas you were working with you might have to wait a bit, because the responses that end up mattering will come via comics and not blog posts. I mean dude, I drew my whole Flash comic based off stuff you were saying there!
B: What was the Flash comic based off of?
M: A couple things... some stuff you said about drawing with pencil, the idea of art as autocritique, and especially the stuff about comics criticism having to move onto the page as opposed to existing in this separate sphere from the work itself. Seeing Young Lions too, I guess...
B: That’s funny … I wonder if … well I feel everybody kind of interpreted that post (I think it was titled “criticism” or something …) … I wasn’t suggesting that critics make comics! (not that there’s anything wrong with that. obviously we were critics making comics) or be more creative or anything. Just feel implicated … is that the post you were referring to?
M: “New Criticism” [now offline], yeah. That wasn’t how I took it -- the real thing I got from it was that comics need to engage more thoroughly in self-analysis than they have. Or analysis of process. The idea of comics having multiple “surfaces” or “screens” now also made (and still makes) me think about how if that surface appearance/narrative of the work doesn’t have as much currency as it used to, it should be replaced with something. Oh, and this is funny - Jason Overby left a comment on that comic and then deleted it before I could see it -- and I would have given anything to know what it was, ha ha.
B: Yeah, I just saw that. Can you expand on the multiple surfaces thing?
M: Well, it wasn’t something that I actually read in a Comets Comets post, but when I saw your thing about the physical copy beginning to function more and more as a “trophy”, it was like... I mean I can boil it down to just saying that my thought was “well then comics need to come harder with the ideas if their physical aspect doesn’t matter as much as it used to”, but it’s a little more complicated. I have a huge amount of reverence/fetishism for comics as objects, like old crumbling back issues and also shiny new hardcovers, whatever it might be. And if that physical aspect stops being “what the comic is”, period, because there’s an online version, an app, a phone version... objects have a great deal of “spirit” for me and I felt like as a cartoonist there’s this onus on me to make sure the work retains the same amount of spirit even without the object there to imbue it with any. So I drew this raw-ass comic on top of old pieces of paper whose actual substance had a lot of personal, emotional meaning. Does that make sense?
B: I’m not sure. I feel I encounter that spirit in images that document objects. Maybe the image even captures something latent or hidden in the object. It’s still in relation to this object. But then maybe the spirit for you is your image of the object.
M: That’s a good way of putting it. When I share an actual physical space with an object I can form my own image of it. Even a scanned comics page, which is flat and doesn’t have a ton of texture, is so different than the physical version just because of the light in the room, you know?
B: Yeah. For me the irony in that line of thought comes from the fact that the book is literally a composite of scanned pages.
M: Yeah, that’s why it works better for old comics, where the original art was just this byproduct of drawing for the print process and you can’t see much of the original in the printed object. At a certain point in history comics art started being about reproducing an original and then, yeah, it does lose some power.
B: What loses power?
M: The book version. Like, if I compare a Gary Panter original page to one by any artist to have worked before like 1965... I’d way rather see the printed version of the old comic, because that’s the thing they’re doing this art in order to create. But in modern comics it’s just scans from the originals, and you get the sense that the original art is truer, better. Though I think comics art made specifically to be run through xerox machines helps mitigate that.
B: I’ll just say that I feel translation is a very relevant field.
M: You’re not wrong. I’m just the kinda guy who always gets jealous of people who know how to speak Russian when I’m reading Dostoyevsky, ha ha. Do you not prefer the online version of 2001 to your paper drawings for it? Or the printed Cruise to your web page about it?
B: I threw away the 2001 originals when I left Portland. With Cruise … one of the ads is going to be in anthology put together by Scott Longo. It’s going to be 100%, a facsimile. The value of the original becomes invisible, or conceptual, or material I guess.
M: “Invisible” and “material” almost seem contradictory... though I guess you’re asking whoever buys that one to pay for the literal “invisible material” that the film pages are.
B: Yeah :) actually I really liked that one, it had a black and white photo from a newspaper and some of this color ad on the other page rubbed off on it in this really subtle way. And I put a transparent overlay on it as sort of “protection”. And I didn’t even staple the newspaper, it’s being held in between the overlay and the cover. Yeah, it really felt archival, like preserving this image/object. Also the photo was of a painting.
M: That’s awesome. Are you familiar with the trend of “variant covers” in mainstream comics?
B: Yeah. That seems like a smart idea.
M: Duuuude, we may have just found the nexus point where the cutthroat capitalism of superhero comics and the highbrow conceptualizing of art comics intersect! The best superhero variant cover has all these blood splatters all over it but the blood is done in RED VELVET. like the cake flavor. Anyway.
MATT SENECA: I’ve been meaning to ask, with 2001 on hiatus and Cruise as your current project, are you going to be doing any drawn comics any time soon?
BLAISE LARMEE: The last Cruise had a little drawing in it. I’ve done maybe 5 more pages in that “interview format” that ran in Smoke Signals. The last couple pages actually seemed French in like, a really indulgent and lazy kind of way. Um, but no “Young Lions” type stuff anymore. Probably. I dunno.
MATT: Is there a place you want to push the typical comics narrative to? Even Young Lions, which was more novelistic than the rest of your stuff, was fairly elliptical. Is there a kind of thing you’d like to see more comics doing with their narratives?
BLAISE: I guess … if I were a teacher, say … maybe an excercise I would give would be to make a comic that doesn’t try to innovate, isn’t “experimental” or abstract, and maybe also that doesn’t exploit “what comics can do”. Like, a comic that would be better as something other than a comic. I mean, this is the exercise I feel I’ve given myself. I don’t trust that innovation within the medium will result in any progress outside of the comics realm.
M: I can’t bring myself to type “you should draw a superhero comic” in response to that without laughing. Is the outside-comics progress you’re talking about influence on other forms?
B: Progress is something I think about a lot and it’s impossible to … I don’t even have the basic language to explore it. I get lost in these circuitous and self conscious loops. I mean at some level it seems everyone involved in creating community is involved in creating a shared language. The architecture of community. Like, you see this in flickr groups, in local economies, subcultures, academia, all that stuff. And looking at it all from afar it seems arbitrary where you build. Maybe it’s just what language you respond to and what language you can speak. I’m aware of comics as this vernacular but everything else is probably vernacular as well. Like if you’re just engaging with these large, removed constructions like academic language -- I mean that’s its own abstraction, obviously. It has its own limitation. I guess maybe a difference is that people in comics know they’re only speaking to each other whereas academics and artists imagine they are interacting with something larger than just their sphere. I at least like that image more. Even if it’s illusory.
M: Are you saying you want to interact with those other spheres, the fine arts and academia? Because one of the things that was always exciting to me about your comics was how well they fit into the larger sphere of (this is meant in totally positive terms) hipster culture. And how it felt like you were aiming for that and didn’t have any stigma about it, as opposed to how like, even rock bands or fashion labels will try to distance themselves from it. That was probably the biggest thing I saw in your work that I tried to bring to my own. Do you just want a different sphere than comics, or do you have a specific one in mind?
B: I think I make it difficult for anyone to be a “fan” or even a friend. Like, if I feel something I’m doing is becoming successful I’ll stop doing that. If I make friends it’s only the ones that are constantly moving themselves that last for me. I hate the idea of being stuck in a stagnant community where your “role” is extremely articulated. I feel like the spheres I am interested in constantly reevaluate their position.
M: I can see why comics’ obsession with its continuous biographical narrative would be tough to deal with then. In comics even if you are constantly changing then you get slapped with “innovator!” or “provocateur!” and get stuck there. Do you feel like the comics community doesn’t have much to offer a person with your goals?
B: Oh, I don’t know. I mean, the comics community is solid, right, it’s a real thing. I have no image of it except as this … collection of books and blogs. The image I have is very solid. For awhile it wasn’t. It was wild, it was innovative. It felt like strong winds were blowing through the comics shop.
M: Do you think comics changed, or you changed?
B: I think comics didn’t change. The winds slowed to nothing. Or maybe they died awhile ago and I was just encountering the echoes. I was catching up on the comics narrative (the past decade). Maybe it was the economy. I’m sure that was part of it. It really felt impressive to me that there was all this money being spent in such frivolous ways. Like, that really destabilized my conception of worth. That’s maybe what was … that’s one reading of that work that stays with me.
M: The high presentation values that got given to such lo-fi work?
B: It didn’t even come down to high presentation values - I’m not talking about the sort of “comics page as object” thing that sort of came to be the standard way of publishing art comics - just the time and labor represented in the work. Or presented rather. Or represented, I dunno. Like, also the commitment of printing 1000 copies of something that seems valueless in a market sense. I think that was what was inspirational. Hedging big bets on what in hindsight might be seen as highly undervalued work.
M: I think that mindset would never have existed without the long single narrative of comics history though -- just because it seems to spring directly from like, “how is this amazing comic in the quarter bin?” The desire to publish those amazing quarter bin comics while they’re still new. Is it possible to want to be part of an art form without romanticizing something about it, do you think?
B: Why do you ask?
M: Because you seem to have a lot of the same feelings as me about the sphere of comics -- I spent a lot of time, years and years from when I was a kid, on the outside of the community looking in, and pretty much as soon as I got inside I started looking out again, wanting to bring in other things and disengage with a lot of what the community is. I romanticized comics to an incredible degree, I pictured comics artists as like, millionaire superstars as a young kid, and then cool underground rock stars as a teenager, and that was what got me going. And I think the reasons I still want to make comics are maybe more romanticized pictures of things than truthful appraisals. You’ve got a pretty dispassionate way of analyzing comics, but when you mention the image of wild innovation bringing you in and then dissipating once you had a clearer picture, it seems like you also had this romanticized view of some things that became less prominent.
B: Like what?
M: This view of comics as a place where your artistic interests could be given an opportunity for both free rein and evolution, I guess.
B: Yeah. But I think in any environment I would seek the limitations, the periphery of what’s acceptable. I was also younger, more “collegiate”. I remember a year after I moved to New York I was genuinely surprised I didn’t “make it”. I had a blog and I was just updating it every day. It got maybe 10 views a day or something. No links or comments. And I thought, I really felt like I was just plowing away at this work that was really significant. And it was! But it was this sort of collegiate naivete that I sort of left behind when I left New York. After this was the “ironic capitalist” phase where I sought to create little value and promote it heavily. But this phase was also good in that it related me to the outside world, not just the feedback loop of my art and myself. I was frustrated that I was forced to “grow up”, to develop a praxis in addition to a practice. Before that I just wanted to be discovered.
M: Are you glad you weren’t? Because I mean... to a pretty good extent you did “make it”, Blaise. People buy your books, people read your webcomic, people talk about you in pretty much every critical organ that’s worth anything. Do you think that could have happened for you without your having to shed some of the naivete you talk about? Or would you have wanted it to?
B: The first narrative I wanted was Adrain Tomine’s. To be published at 17. Or rather, to achieve stability at a young age. And now, seeing his narrative, how he’s developed, I’m glad I went a different route. Or rather, it would have been impossible for me to go down that route. I mean, any venue in comics where my desires have not been realised -- like I used to fantasize about being in um … the Fantagraphics “art comics” anthology … right, MOME! - yeah, now it’s all sort of … not a relief, but not a “missed opportunity” either. But I was still happy when Aidan got in.
M: And now Mome isn’t a thing anymore anyway. I think a lot of people in comics feel the same stuff we’re talking about, this sense that we’ve ridden this wave for a while and now it’s hit some new shore and we’re just waiting around for something else. So going outside comics, or not wanting to engage with what it is right now... that makes sense, because it’s not so lively at the moment.
B: It could easily be a survival impulse. It’s sort of required now … the flexible worker ... the permanent part time worker.
M: Well, that isn’t just comics either. You have no idea just how many individuals here in LA “have a production company too”. If anything maybe the last few years have been a crash course in how tied to the national economy comics are.
B: Apparently luxury industries are thriving. Maybe this is why I’m looking in this direction. Maybe people are looking to invest in other currencies. There was some article about … maybe it was Slovakia … how it became a member of the European Union not because it was a good idea economically, but because of the signification of it. The idea of “class” and even “cool” maybe.
M: That’s interesting because comics switched identities so quickly. Like Superman coming out of the phone booth, ahem! For a century it was low-class and uncool and then suddenly it was the New York Times arts pages and celebrities trying to be seen with books, and now that that’s dried up a little there’s an identity crisis. Where are we now, do you think? High, low? Cool, uncool?
B: There was that sort of adolescent flaunting the newly reclaimed identity of “comics”. Maybe nationalistic. But it was … in the style of … identity movements. I think that was shortly after people started identifying as “nerds” and “geeks” … like, just after alt porn took off. I think its reclusive, interior quality makes comics difficult to integrate -- or translate -- into broader outlets. So it either becomes an awkward prop in a photoshoot -- the cover always as stand-in for comics, for the interior and for the medium/culture, never cover-as-cover -- or it becomes a vessel for content, and for juxtaposing content against a sort of easily reviewable/accessible format.
M: (I just gotta say that this is dope how we’re both “voices” in comics who came up during/after the mass-acceptance phase, and we’re here analyzing it as history.) Do you think the wider media fixation on comics-as-medium, often, as you mentioned, at the expense of appraising the art or content comics were presenting, fed into the pro-comics, medium-specific chauvinism so many comics people carry? Like, did it make that mindset okay?
B: Wow, chauvinism is the perfect word for that. Yeah I think the wider media became a threat sort of, like it threatened the boundaries, the autonomy of this tradition which I’m going to assume hasn’t been too welcoming to outsiders. And my memory of that period is mostly white males “defending” this medium, warning of all this heritage that might be lost in translation, losing this medium to a wider culture. Maybe there’s a parallel with those who defended the book against Oprah’s Book Club or punk against disco.
M: Harold Bloom and poetry slams. It’s always “the death of art” and then somehow it always doesn’t happen. Maybe everyone in comics grew up reading stories where belief in the literal end of the world and all humanity was required to make the narrative work and that’s why everyone’s so paranoid about change that goes beyond slight modifications to how the pages look. Do you have any particular idea about what “the future of comics” might look like?
B: It’s hard to talk about comics in that sense because it’s sort of … it’s like, what’s the future of fan communities. It’s an international style of local community in a way. Or that’s my image of it. There’s parallels between the otaku and the webcomics fan and all these other kinds of fans … and there’s overlap … but there’s also this “insider”-ness to it all … that’s kind of what being a fan is … having this image of being inside a culture, or making your own self an embodiment of this culture, so you can always look around you to see yourself. I mean ideally I guess comics would sort of dissolve or … I dunno.
M: Stop being a community and just be a form? I’m thinking of how saying “the film community” would be really silly... or “the music community”, same thing.
B: Right. I guess “comics community” is used because it’s a lot smaller.
M: Closer-knit, too. I mean, I think I’m pretty open minded about these things but it’s still slightly gross to me when people who like Spiderman won’t read Love and Rockets. But would I feel the same way about the teenager at the Katy Perry concert’s refusal to listen to my Polish harsh noise album or whatever? I think the real thing is that comics people insist on thinking small. It’s one of the dearest parts of their identity.
B: Yeah. And it does seem dear in a way, especially if you’re processing this community/identity with language developed in this local=good era. Where local is seen as a mode of resistance to globalisation and the destruction of cultures and traditions.
M: It comes close to paradoxical. The only reason you’d want “comics” to expand is because you care about “comics”... like, we aren’t talking about our work specifically, or the ones with Green Lantern in them specifically, but a whole idiom. But the problem we’re talking about is a community made up of people who are invested in “comics”, not the average mass-media consumers who know what they like and are basically ignorant of everything else. That mass audience are the people comics needs to reach, exactly the kind of people that those who are interested in comics’ expansion are opposed to seeing become a part of the sphere.
B: Yeah. Jason used a phrase a couple times, “blue collar snob” … something like that. Anyway, I’m not sure medium will be the path to unity. Or it seems like that idea only exists because of this small, tight-knit history. Maybe I’m wrong. Do you think a fan would be into [Jason Overby's] 2101?
M: Probably not... well... I dunno. I like that comic, but I do wonder about its audience. There is this reactionary fervor against something that doesn’t look like it took anything from anything, if you know what I’m saying. Like even your stuff has certain callbacks to other comics, there’s the CF connection in Young Lions, 2001 looks a little like Winsor McCay. But Jason Overby, Renee French, Austin English, that stuff seems to get comics “circling the wagons” against people who come in wanting to use the form but making work in which attention to its historical narrative can’t be inferred.
B: Austin and Frank Santoro have their comic book store street cred. The job demands incorporating difference, as far as audience and work go. Jason just makes no effort to have any sort of working class likeability. (At least in his comics. He is the friendliest guy ever in person.)
M: “Blue collar”, “working-class” -- do you see this stuff as inherent to the community comics has constructed?
B: Yeah. It’s about hard work, the sweat of the brow.
M: Which is weird, because it feeds into a market that hasn’t been populist for a good three decades. I don’t necessarily think that “blue collar snobbery” is keeping anyone away from comics though. Nobody would be reading this stuff if it weren’t for all the roughnecks nose-deep in Eightball down at the comic shop. It’s just a weird specificity of the community. It seems like you’re pretty eager to embrace comics’ status as a luxury market though, what appeals to you about that?
B: I see a gap in it that could be filled, I guess. Price is contested but it’s rarely engaged directly. Actual worth value … methods of appraisal … are rarely questioned. They’re manipulated, and there’s reactions against this manipulation, but these seem to happen in pretty comfortable and familiar narratives, pitting the heartless corporation against the average joe fan. It’s system vs individual, it’s just “business as usual”.
M: Is there a more aggressive engagement of price-as-content you’d be interested in seeing? I mean, it’s content that’s tough to go anywhere too unexpected with, I think...
B: Why do you say that?
M: Up and down, high and low... it seems like one manipulation or the other to me. But I could be missing something.
B: You mean it’s all artifice?
M: I wouldn’t put that judgment on it, I’m just saying that the ways you can manipulate it seem few.
B: I had a theory at some point … this was in my first interview I think I expressed this … that maybe creators get so caught up in the demands of the medium - the construction and deployment of an idiosyncratic template - that the content suffers for it, gets marginalized. Like, it seems ironic that form is - according to this reading - the essential draw for most cartoonists and perceived demand for content is like the guilty conscience hounding the creator. Like how many cartoonists say they like to draw but they need to work on their stories? Or at this school, say, the focus seems to be on learning and building a language. Form. But it’s strange that Frank Santoro is out there by himself, pretty much, working on form. And even he can’t let it stay pure form, he has to plug in content. It’s strange to me. This binary, this dualism, I guess it comes from its assembly line history. And where that’s led readers, what their expectations are.
M: Totally. It’s always astonishing to people when form actually manages to propel content. But that’s what comics is, that’s what art does! This is where your conceptualization of price as art is intriguing to me, because the assembly-line process that keeps comics stuck in this binary system of writer-to-artist construction is purely a byproduct of comics that function primarily as commodities. Take away commercial concerns and I think the number of collaborative comics would vastly decrease.
B: Hm. It is interesting, this system that requires more than one person to create an effective comic. Even the way “auteurs” work by writing first, then penciling, then inking. A mimicry of this industrial system. I guess this is where the idea of re-establishing a bridge with this fan base worries me. Or why I never thought about it. I think creating a void -- this has been described as the feminine mode of seduction -- and an image of beauty on the other side of this void, this is a good model.
MATT SENECA: So I guess we should wrap up back at the beginning. How do you see comics right now -- the form, the market, the community, the whole thing that falls under that word.
What’s the state of our union, if you will?
BLAISE LARMEE: Well, the people are good. I really like some of the people I meet. And then I like their comics. And if I like someone’s comics often it’s a way of liking my image of that person. Or it’s a real part of that person. Maybe comics gives this sort of … maybe there’s a humanist tendency in it because the hand is very much alive and it’s so narrative, it really seems like a human activity.
MATT: Does comics seem small to you, in comparison to other forms? I agree with you about its human aspect, and aside from the presence of hands in the finished work, a lot of that feeling for me comes from the sense that it’s very close-knit and none of the history’s so far in the past as to be invisible yet.
BLAISE: I can connect with people one on one in a way that’s impossible in groups. Or at least, most groups I’ve participated in. So the whole ‘community’ aspect of comics is really gross to me. Gross in an unhealthy way. Like, impure, incestuous. Like the dads are having sex with their sons. It seems to limit growth.
M: I think you and “comics” have different ideas of what growth is. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be saying that growth is incorporating a wider aesthetic/formal range of work. For most people in comics I think growth isn’t something horizontal, but vertical: this climb toward better, more complex stories.
B: Right. Like a family business passed down, like building on top of what you already have rather than setting off and building your own home elsewhere.
M: Something just occurred to me: we’re only now starting to enter a time period in which new cartoonists have come up knowing that comics history is documented, “safe” in hardcover books and university archives. For so long, the mentality wasn’t just reactionary (ie “why SHOULDN’T we build on what’s established, that stuff is great”), but downright protective -- if the past wasn’t a working part of the present there was a real danger that it would disappear forever. From that mentality you get the generational saga of comics, as well as aberrations like the collector’s market. I think only now are cartoonists who feel no responsibility to also be archivists emerging.
B: Yeah, you see that?
M: Well, we’re here talking about this stuff, aren’t we?
B: We’re archiving this …
M: You got me there. But let me ask you straight out: do you feel any obligation to comics’ past?
B: If you’re making comics you’re going to have that reading no matter what. I agree with what you said about archivists and collectors but with the internet everything’s being archived.
M: Hmm... you can’t archive the print form itself though, and that’s inherent to a lot of past comics. Let me put it another way. When I asked you about influence you talked about your friends’ comics, and Scott McCloud, and I know you’ve mentioned CF before. But all those people are part of comics’ present. And when we were talking about comics being cool, you equated “cool” with a present moment. Am I right in thinking that’s what you want to capture, not the past?
B: I dunno. I mean ‘the present’ can be reified and as soon as something’s reified it’s part of the past in a way. It’s lost its potential. As art enters art history it becomes illustration of concepts or historical context or whatever. And this in my mind is what protects comics and narrative art from criticism that demands some sort of ‘4th wall breaking’ aspect of art. But maybe art always has this potential to totally disorient and captivate you. Obviously you can’t do that with the Mona Lisa … or maybe you can … but it’s so reified - ‘la joconde’ - that it’s quieted. So that’s what I mean when I say the past. A reified past. And the idea of the present as the threshold of that reification process. But reification has its own economy and things go in and out of being ‘things’.
M: For me what’s exciting about the current present in comics is that a lot of the past is being reintroduced as living art. A lot of the reprint stuff is both unread and unheralded. It’s like work from the past is able to contribute to the aesthetic present -- a lot more things are “things” now, I guess. Comics history is no longer linear, we have work from every era (even though it’s only a century of history I’m talking about) in the “present”. It’s like the way classical culture contributed so heavily to the Renaissance. All that said, though, this doesn’t feel like an especially good time for comics. Do you think we’re in an “up” period or a “down” period right now?
B: What do you mean, comics history is no longer linear?
M: Like, everything is available and there’s no section of the past that’s been fully absorbed and incorporated. There’s work from every era that’s being introduced as new via reprints. None of the past is “dead”, we can still get yields of living art from all of it.
B: There’s some visual artist I was looking at and he draws from Tintin, Moomin, and Akira - the comics. And that’s it, as far as comics go. I like that austerity. When everything’s available … I mean that’s the fantasy … a giant feast laid out and you can eat everything. It’s difficult to talk about ‘comics’ as a whole because it’s really these autonomous narratives - Akira, Moomin, Tintin - that are experienced singularly. They don’t relate to this larger narrative in the way that art does. At least, not immediately. At the same time they’re more difficult to reify. The romance comic was reified. The superhero comic. Gag comics. But Akira can’t be reified, really. I mean, there’s the image of the guy walking to his bike, or powersliding his bike, but that’s more the image of the promotion for Akira.
M: I think it’s all a matter of perspective, though. Like, in Europe Tintin is incredibly reified -- he has his own museum! Same with Moomin, to a slightly lesser degree. And there are people who can know comics history backwards and forward but only like, say, Titian, Lichtenstein, and Picasso paintings. I think you nailed something when you talked about austerity of influence though, because it’s only when you’re aware of the past that you can know you aren’t going up the same dead-end trail as someone did before. I think that’s one of the main reasons internet comics is such an appealing thing, because it’s almost this formal guarantee that you won’t end up in the same place as anyone in print did. Like, even pages of a print comic scanned and put on the internet are a really different experience than the print version.
B: Yeah, it’s fresh ground. I mean, comics itself. I think that’s the draw for a lot of people. It’s hard, though, because they’re drawn in and there’s all this renovation to make it seem like a historical space. A sense of unity in creating the image of legitimacy. And maybe that’s why I’m avoiding this question about the state of comics, because if I’m feeling positive I do see it as this unstructured series of semi-autonomous spaces.
M: I think that’s definitely the most productive way to look at it. Maybe even the only way forward -- if you see the practice of comics as creating your own autonomous space rather than following in the footsteps of giants. Let me ask you this then: you talked about how comics seemed innovative and exciting when you first started, and how now those winds seem to have slowed. What do you feel is the tenor of the thing now? Just the feeling of it.
B: Uh … the feeling is just some people on tumblr and flickr. I mean, that’s where I get my breeze. And there’s some printed matter that comes out of those sites but that’s more about the preview images and the announcement than the actual book. In my mind.
M: Do you like that it’s that small a site, or wish it was bigger?
B: I dunno. Sometimes I get that feeling where you’re new at school and you’re just hanging out with other people with whom you have in common the fact that you don’t have any friends.
M: Does it feel positive? Like a productive place? Or not?
B: I mean … I follow less than 20 people who make comics. I mean as far as tumblr is a ‘site’ … which it is … but in a funny way where no one knows what your dashboard looks like. And the dashboard is the site, in my mind. So really it’s your own site, your own party, and the way in which the guests interact is sort of up to you. But anyway at this party … actually I guess I have two parties since I have two tumblrs. One is mostly cartoonists. And not much happens. Mostly reblogs. And i don’t feel connected to that tumblr because my name isn’t attached. The other party is I guess people I like … people I feel connected to … but none of them make comics. This is the dashboard connected to my personal site. And so it’s strange. I don’t get much response from people I like.
M: Do you think you inhabit an autonomous site, then?
B: Yeah, in a way. In the sense that the only thing I can see as ‘progress’ within comics is self-produced. And I guess I would consider my ‘peers’ in comics as those who can recognize this progress. One of the things being on tumblr has changed in my work is being able to see the people who reblog you. Creating images then becomes creating audience. If you don’t like where your images end up you stop making those images. There are a couple tumblrs I follow in a web 1.0 way, where I have to go to their url. and there’s something about purity in that, preserving the autonomy of these users, both of whom only blog about themselves. I guess I’m attracted to these narcissistic types, at least for awhile. I think it’s also about preserving my autonomy as a consumer. Where I don’t have to have the responsibility of being a ‘follower’. Yeah I guess autonomous sites are … I can’t imagine any other kind of mode of production that would interest me. Even the idea of a collective would have to be my personally constructed image of a collective.
M: So do you still see “comics” as a useful term for the work you’re interested in making? I think we agree about the necessity of comics to go outside itself... but I guess there must be a point where it goes so far outside that the word “comics” stops being a relevant categorization. Do you have any investment in staying within “comics”?
B: I dunno. The altcomics tumblr is about mapping ‘comics’ but is that useful, to cling to this medium-specific way of thinking about work? I feel like making publications is enough. I mean that’s really a ‘medium’. Whereas comics is this collection of stylistic and formalistic tics. I was asked to be in an anthology recently and I sent them something I felt proud of and got back a nice email asking for something more traditional. This is a familiar narrative, but these are actually really progressive guys. So what does that mean, a traditional comic? This is where the definition becomes relevant.
M: Your guess is as good as mine. Is it anything beyond formal parameters to you? Does comics have a “spirit”?
B: No, it’s just a loose collection of things. It’s a weird math. Like you can add word balloons to a classical painting and it would probably be accepted as a comic. Or you can make a grid and do anything within each panel and it would be accepted. Or make a drawing and then make a similar drawing but change something. But it can be a crutch. Or just a platform for experimentation. But also a crutch. A good drawing can just be a good drawing. But adding more drawings will enter it into this context that becomes relevant when you’re dealing with a higher authority (publisher/editor) who for most people represents this context.
M: Does anything represent this context for you?
B: Certain websites, publishers, critics, creators, schools, publications, the way the mainstream records these things.
M: Anything that defines itself as being a part of “comics”?
B: Yeah, that’s pretty much the only qualification. Not evenly distributed, obviously.
hall hassi (666 words)
The following interview occured in late October of last year and concerns what has since become "2001". At the time I was working nonlinearly and I had no intention of serializing the comic online. Currently I feel I am working in parallel to real time. I'm not sure how much / if any of the following still lines up with my conception of the project.
lauren molina (2674 words)
jt rogstad (3817 words)
jason leivian (2776 words)
john dermot woods (819 words)
Hall Hassi: What project are you working on?
Blaise Larmee: A 'book length' comic.
HH: Describe your process.
BL: My process can be broken down into two basic categories: 'data
accumulation' - building, maintaining, and indexing libraries of files
- and 'pattern accumulation', in which meta structures emerge.
HH: What libraries have you created and what patterns have emerged?
BL: 2 libraries are sprites and rooms. Sprites are a single character,
photographed against a 'blue screen', performing a limited variety of
actions/poses. Rooms are constructed in a vector-based computer
program, using a cube template. Patterns are still in a liquid or
gaseous stage and cannot be discussed without compromising their
HH: What libraries are in the future?
BL: Probably at least one 'text' library and possibly an 'object' library.
HH: What are 10 'tags' you would use to identifiy this project?
BL: 2001, bangs, concrete, internet, mall, model, modular,
perspective, suburbia, utopia
HH: Why 2001?
BL: 2001 is the future and the past. I'm using archaic technology to
construct my idea of a constructed utopia.
HH: Why bangs?
BL: Bangs are fun/easy to draw.
HH: Why concrete?
BL: I want to create an illusion of mechanical objectivity. For
example, I would depict a character's hallucinogenic experience as a
fixed camera would record it.
HH: Why internet?
BL: The space I'm creating is minimal and I think the actions in this
space will also be minimal. Binaries emerge: in/out, enter/exit,
open/shut. There is no in-between, for example, in moving between
rooms. No friction. Rooms form hallways and labyrinths. All is built
for lightweight processing so people like myself, using old
technology, will still be able to access content without difficulty.
HH: Why mall?
BL: Like the internet, the mall is a site of infinite interior. I'm
not a fan of malls. There's something inherently awful about the
acoustics. But I'm aware of the similarities between malls and the
space I'm creating.
HH: Why model?
BL: The model is intimate with the image, the pose, the translation of
3D to 2D. The actor and the model are aware of the camera but only the
model will engage with it. I would use 'actors' if I were drawing
scenes, but I'm not. I'm drawing individual characters, photographing
them with a digital camera, and 'dropping' them onto a digital
backdrop. Like most people I project onto the model, but I project
emptiness, which I associate with purity, and introversion, which I
HH: Why modular?
BL: The space is modular. Each room is a cube represented as nested
squares. The vanishing point is in the center of the squares. The
'default' nature of the room overpowers any minor modifications which
differentiate rooms. They can be stacked and arranged in basic
configurations. Layers slide over each other. The interface is
durable, capable of processing and displaying a variety of content,
while remaining neutral itself.
HH: Why perspective?
BL: Perspective is translating 3D into 2D and objective into
subjective. It's the interface.
HH: Why suburbia?
BL: I'm kind of creating a safe space. People wear pastel colored
sweatshirts and turtle necks. Everyone's in their socks. Everything's
clean. Everyone's white. Also the suburbs are created from a single
plan by some single ethereal architect (like the single ethereal
authors of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew). And it's all constructed -
negative space is only positive space constructed to look like
negative space. It's all additive. It's reduntant too. It's
repetitive. It's like Peanuts by Charles Schultz.
HH: Why utopia?
BL: Utopia is either 'the beginning' - Adam and Eve - or the distant
future. Our memory of 50's suburbia is that of a fake utopia. Comics
are suited to fantasy, being internal and external at the same time.
My idea of utopia is connected to the architectural plan, capable of
revealing itself in fiction and ideas rather than concrete reality.
The idea of a perfect environment is really appealing to me. My mom's
an interior designer. I idealize spaces. Comics are a way of creating
spaces without using money or resources.