Craig Yoe is an internationally renowned cartoonist, designer, author and founder of YOE! Studios with Clizia Gussoni. Craig has created acclaimed products and promotions, from MTV station ID spots to Disney theme park attractions, and has six patents for toy inventions to his name. Before founding YOE! Studios, Craig was Creative Director/Vice President General Manager of Jim Henson’s Muppets and a Creative Director at Nickelodeon. Dubbed “Dr. Seuss on acid!” by Animation Magazine, Craig Yoe is a wildly entertaining speaker on creativity; his worldwide travels as a lecturer have taken him to Italy, France, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, and Singapore. He has also served as curator for fine art exhibits at museums all over the world, including most recently the Comics Stripped exhibit for the Museum of Sex in New York City. YOE! Studios has won numerous awards including the Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators, two Addys, the Mobius and the Will Eisner Comics Industry Award. Among his growing line of YOE! Books (published by IDW Publishing) is, Archie: A Celebration of America’s Favorite Teenagers, released in 2011.
This interview was conducted over the phone on November 8, 2010.
John Rovnak:In the past, you’ve written about fetish art (Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster) and good girl art (Dan DeCarlo’s Jetta) in comics, would you also include Betty and Veronica on the continuum of good-girl art?
Craig Yoe: Oh absolutely. I think nobody had sexier girls than the Archie Company. They’re just drawn in such a beautiful way. They’re buoyant and wholesome, yet a little sexy. They’re teenage girls that anybody with blood flowing through their veins would want to date. [Laughs] Well maybe there are a few exceptions and some people that don’t swing that way; but if you like the female species, then Betty and Veronica are at the top of my list of hot looking girls. As an elderly gentleman I can say I appreciate them, but they are after all teenagers, so I‘ll be sure to appreciate them from afar. [Laughs]
Rovnak:Who do you prefer, Betty or Veronica?
Yoe: Definitely, there’s no doubt about it, I’m a Veronica guy! I’ve always gone for girls like Bettie Page, Morticia Addams, and Annette Funicello; and maybe topping that list would be Veronica Lodge. Definitely.
Rovnak:Comic book histories consider Dan DeCarlo to be the definitive Archie artist; the artist responsible for creating the Archie house-style. What impact do you feel artists such as Harry Lucey, Bob Montana, Samm Schwartz, and Bob Bolling had on the Archie house-style?
Yoe: You make a point in your article (Deft Mastery: The Genius of Early 1960’s Archie Comics by Philip Charles Crawford, from Panel to Panel Volume 1) that Dan’s work was so incredible and has in many ways overshadowed Harry Lucey’s work. As I worked on this book, I began to appreciate Harry Lucey more and more and how incredible he was. Dan (DeCarlo) was a friend of mine, and I’ve certainly worshipped at his altar for many years; he’s a good girl artist, as good as any of them in any time or any place. But Harry Lucey really captured my attention, so I now see both of them as masters. Everyone immediately thinks of Dan, and he sort of overshadows Lucey, but both of them have overshadowed the creator of Archie Bob Montana. I’ve always been a giant Bob Montana fan. Over time his Betty and Veronica got sexier and sexier. He has a great sense of humor, and he was also a “two-fisted” fighter in the cartoon world in that he could not only draw beautifully, but he was a really funny writer. Usually cartoonists are struggling to come up with a gag a day, but his Sunday strips, and sometimes the dailies, would have multiple jokes within the context of each strip. I think he was incredibly clever, and a great draftsman, and good girl artist who has been kind of overlooked.
Rovnak:What about Samm Schwartz?
Yoe: I wouldn’t classify him as a good girl artist, but talking to many of the young Archie artists, and some of the fans while doing this book, and I know that when I was growing up myself, a lot of us had tremendous admiration for Samm Schwartz because he gave us such tremendous enjoyment drawing Jughead. I don’t think too many people think of Jughead as a sex symbol, but as far as a character that’s great for laughs and has a little bit of rebellion and attitude, Juggie’s got it. In polls Archie Comics has done, Jughead is usually sited as everyone’s number one favorite character. There’s just something very, very cool about him. He’s nonchalant, and he doesn’t get into the battle of the sexes that everyone else is involved in. Jughead steps back and is kind of cynical about the whole thing, and there’s something nice and fun about his attitude. And his character design is terrific. I’ve got to find one of those Jughead hats myself [laughs]
Rovnak:Bob Bolling. Any thoughts about him?
Yoe: Bob Bolling has been compared to Carl Barks, as far as a storyteller. There’s certainly a tremendous charm in his work. His Little Archie’s are very different than Archie and the gang as teenagers. And there is a child-like innocence and quality in his work; more than any of the other Archie artists. As a writer he explored all kinds of fantasy and different themes and times. His stories were almost surreal in a child like, daydream kind of way. I really love him and appreciate him. We’re going to be publishing his own favorite story in the book, and many Archie fans have sited that it’s their favorite story as well.
Rovnak:What story is that?
Yoe: It’s called “The Long Walk.” It’s from Little Archie #20. It’s really sweet and a lot of fun.
Rovnak:The introduction of Kevin Keller, Archie’s first openly gay character was a huge success; popular enough to go into a second printing. However, many longtime fans would argue that Jughead, a self-labeled woman hater, was Archie’s first gay character, albeit thinly veiled. Any thoughts on the matter?
Yoe: I’m so excited that Archie is doing groundbreaking work in introducing Kevin, who was created by the über-talented Dan Parent. We’re all pretty aware that Archie, Betty and Veronica seem to be very heterosexual, Reggie too. But I always saw Jughead as asexual. His main interest is hamburgers, and he’s a woman hater because he’s Archie’s best friend and he sees how many jams Archie gets in by having his heterosexual desires never working out. I’ve known a few asexual people, and have had a few asexual friends in my life, and Jughead has always seemed like one of those types to me.
Rovnak:Historically, adults in the Archie world are depicted as unattractive, overweight, and often toothless (Mr.Weatherbee, Miss Grundy). They are a sharp contrast to the attractive and physically fit teens that populate Riverdale. The only exception is Mr. Lodge who is presented as relatively attractive and physically fit. Why is he the exception?
Yoe: All the adults seem to have had a makeover in the past few years or so. But you’re right. Mr. Lodge is pretty good looking, and Mrs. Lodge is kind of a babe now. Betty’s mom is still kind of lackluster, but Mrs. Lodge looks pretty darn good. My partner pointed out that Mrs. Lodge could probably afford botox and the best plastic surgeons. She looks pretty good. Even in the latest stories, Mrs. Grundy looks a lot better; well rested or something. Everyone seems to have taken a few youth pills in the last couple of years, or found the fountain of youth; they’re all looking pretty good now.
Rovnak:Most comic book historians focus on the history of superheroes and horror comics, but your work is unique in that it focuses on characters and genres usually overlooked by traditional historians of the comic book. The historical work you’ve done has certainly expanded and altered our understanding of the field. What draws you to write about the genres of funny animals (Felix The Cat: The Great Comic Book Tails), teen humor (Archie: A Celebration of America’s Favorite Teenagers), and children’s comics (The Golden Collection of Klassic Krazy Kool Kids Komics)?
Yoe: Ironically, as I get older, I’m more interested in the younger stuff. I really have little patience for superheroes. Guys running around in tights, hitting each other; it’s just not a big area of interest for me. I feel like I’ve grown up, so now I’m interested in things like comedy and kid’s comics. I think the world needs a good laugh. I certainly feel the same for myself sometimes. I like writing books about Milt Gross (The Complete Milt Gross Comic Books and Life Story). Even with my recent Frankenstein book (Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein), people ask me do I like the horror version best, or the funny version best? And I certainly gravitate towards the funny version. But I do actually have a couple ideas of some superhero histories up my sleeve… But by and large I cringe when I think about how much documentation there has been of superhero comics, and superhero artists, in comparison with the other genres. All these neglected genres, many of these have brilliant artists and writers, fascinating histories behind the comics, and I think these things need to be told. It’s what gets me up in the morning. When you tell people the term comics, all they think of is superheroes and superhero movies. I’m all for putting the ‘comic’ back in comics. That’s a big thrust for Yoe! Books.
Rovnak:What do you say to the comics fan who says, “Once you’ve read one Archie comic, you’ve read them all?”
Yoe: We’ve been talking about the artists, but George Gladir and Frank Doyle are some of the most brilliant writers that comics have ever known. And there are newer guys, like Craig Boldman, coming up with great stories too. When John L. Goldwater created Archie Andrews, he was sort of the antithesis of Superman. He knew he couldn’t out-super Superman. He tried. The MLJ Company tried with the Black Hood and The Shield, which as we know was the first patriotic hero by over a year, but still they couldn’t compete with Batman and Superman. So what’s the antithesis to that? A normal human being. Writing comedy was hitting the sweet spot with teenagers, and their foibles, and their interest in the opposite sex, and being in school. There’s a whole group of people who contributed to the brilliance of Archie. John L. Goldwater had more than an idea, he really put a lot into the character, and a lot of thinking behind the character. Then when he gave the job to visualize Archie to Bob Montana, Bob brought a tremendous amount in from his own personal experiences in high school The editor Harry Shorten, I feel contributed a lot too. No one, rarely, mentions that there was a writer on the first three stories that’s credited, Victor Bloom. People know very little about him, but I was able to turn up a little bit of information; I wish I had more, but it is more than has ever been put together. Archie Comics had an incredible team then and they have an incredible team which continues through today. Archie is keeping these stories fresh and green, creating new ideas and humor. I really enjoyed doing this book inparticual because I’m usually not working with any people, because the books I’m usually working on, the cartoonists are long gone. But, it turns out that the Archie offices are less than a half an hour from Yoe! Books’ office. I’m going over there all the time. The management they have at Archie now is phenomenal! Jon Goldwater leading the show, with Victor Gorelick and Mike Pellerito, are doing kick-ass comics. The excitement that’s over there, the ideas that are flowing, the attitude, and the valuing of the creative people of the past who did Archie and that are currently doing Archie. The way that they are esteemed and thought highly of, it’s just a thrill to me; I’m tying to get some of that across in the book too. How not only that Archie has had a glorious past, but the present is very exciting and it seems like it’s very bright; we’re going to need sunglasses [laughs].
Rovnak:It’s interesting, and amazing, that Archie has survived all these years without relying on, or resorting to, such things as licensing and expanding themselves outside the comics market. They really don’t adhere to the same business model that, I would say, 99% of the comics industry adheres to.
Yoe: Yeah, they have this weird concept; they’ve always given people great stories and great artwork. It’s an interesting concept, and an interesting way to run a comic book company. [Laughs] By golly, it just might work…
Steve Murphy’s life is an open book. It’s no secret what he is thinking or feeling, just read any of his stories from a nearly 25 year career in comics. Whether he’s talking about politics, the environment, or his personal life, Murphy reveals all. And whether he’s writing about mutant turtles or government agents, Murphy holds nothing back, and demands that his audience view his worlds with unflinching eyes.
Beginning his career in the black & white boom of the mid 1980s, Murphy soon came to work for Mirage Studios, home of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A job he had for nearly 20 years. When we spoke, it had barely been a year since it was announced that the cable channel Nickelodeon (a subsidiary of Viacom) had purchased all of Mirage’s rights to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles property; a move that left Murphy quite vulnerable, both as a person and as an artist.
In February of 2010, Murphy decided to return comics, this time creating his most personal and revealing work yet. Contains Traces Of, both written and drawn by Murphy, premiered online in the guise of an unassuming blog. Posting a panel a day, Murphy once again began giving us stories that hold nothing back; a captivating tale of his own life, full of fears and insecurities, and raw human emotion. Contains Traces Of allows Murphy’s unique voice to shine in ways it never could before, and allows him to look towards a very bright future, as he dissects his past for all of us to see.
This interview was conducted via email during September to November of 2010.
John Rovnak:When did comics first enter your life? What’s your earliest memory of comic books?
Steve Murphy: I’m not sure when comic strips first entered my life but I’m sure it was early on via the various Sunday papers we had around the house: both the Boston Globe and the more local Worcester Telegram, as well as the occasional Boston Herald. My first memory of comic books is a bit later, when my great uncle brought me into his local smoke shop and newsstand and, feeling a bit intimidated by the group of friends he was talking to by the checkout, I wandered around the store and came across a low display shelf lined with comics. I can still see it all clearly in my mind. I’m sure my jaw dropped. It’s also the day I made my first comic book purchase – or, rather, my uncle did for me – an issue of the Amazing Spider-Man – I think it was number 71 – that featured Spider-Man fighting Quicksilver on the cover. Quicksilver is running a tight circle around Spidey, punching him over and over again from multiple points as he runs round and around like only Quicksilver can. And all visualized by Romita Sr in a full body shot that at the same time was in-your-face, like a close-up. From that moment on I was hooked and went back to that newsstand at every occasion. I still have that comic in my collection. Late 60’s to early 70’s: that’s my golden age of comics.
Rovnak: The Puma Blues, to my knowledge, was your first published work in comics, with you as writer and Michael Zulli as artist. Can you explain the origins of that book, and of your relationship with Zulli?
Murphy: You’re right: Puma is my first published work and Michael’s as well. We actually worked together on a couple of short stories first though, just to see how we’d get on together. Those have never seen print. How did Puma start? That was a long time ago, something like twenty-five years now, and half a lifetime away. Puma actually began life several years before I met Michael. I was taking a “comic creating” class in Northampton, Massachusetts. I think it was through the long defunct Northampton Art Guild. The teachers were two very talented local cartoonists, John Hayman and Brian Turner. The class’ final assignment was to start an actual comic book. I can’t say precisely how it came together for me but at that point in my life I had been spending most of my free time hiking the Quabbin Reservoir and, I suppose, doing a fair amount of daydreaming. One of the things or stories about Quabbin was the increasing circumstantial evidence suggesting that the area was either being visited by a mountain lion – a puma – or that the watershed area was actual home to one. I think that possibility, which I saw as both romantic and melancholic – a lone puma out and about in the shadows of man – struck a chord deep within myself and gave voice to my sense of isolation and alienation. At any rate, I wound up calling it The Blue Puma, writing the first few pages and even illustrating them in my own cartoony way. The class ended and a few months later I got a job at Moondance Comics, a comic store in Holyoke, Massachusetts. I continued developing the story during my free time, changing the title to The Puma Blues. Michael was a regular customer, someone whom I was a little afraid of at first – he can be very off-putting at first, a defense mechanism of his – but when a fellow employee told me Michael was an artist I got up the courage to talk to him and before long we warmed to each other. One day Michael gave the store a clock he had made: a basic clock face mounted on a beautiful piece of wood (more a slice from a tree showing both rings at the center and bark at the edges) upon which Michael had painted a very dark image of Batman. It was amazing. I soon got up the courage to ask if he’d like to work on some comics together and before long we did (those short stories mentioned earlier). We then started spending some time together outside of the store and at some point I explained the whole Puma series concept, which Michael strongly identified with. Feeling we were kindred spirits we tackled the project.
Rovnak:How did it come about that Dave Sim and Aardvark-Vanaheim published The Puma Blues?
Murphy: Moondance had Dave and Gerhard as guests one day. Michael and I, knowing this in advance, decided to screw up the courage to show Dave the first eight or so finished Puma #1 pages, as it had been announced that Sim was going to be reviewing portfolios for future A-V titles. Michael and I waited in line with the other hopefuls and dreamers. As soon as Dave read the first three pages he said he’d publish it and that Michael and I were the next Alan Moore and Barry Windsor Smith. No shit. And, obviously, at least as far as I’m concerned, not quite. Few can even come close to Alan.
Rovnak: The Puma Blues went through its share of ups and downs, including the well-documented battle between Dave Sim and Diamond Comics, which you were caught in the middle of. It seemed to be a battle well fought. The book’s writing and art seemed stronger than ever, the Creator’s Bill of Rights (which you and Zulli played an integral part in) came out of this mess with Diamond, and overall seemed like a great “David vs. Goliath” story. Why after such an upward battle to keep the book alive and well, did The Puma Blues end so abruptly soon after?
Murphy: I’ve voiced various answers to that question over the years but now I think I finally know the real reason: Puma was too autobiographical for me to continue. You see, when I started writing it, I was living the life of a somewhat pathetic loner. It was easy to get into the mind of Puma’s main character, Gavia Immer, because we were the same being (Gavia Immer, by the way, is Latin for the common Loon; oh so clever). After becoming a “studio mate” at Mirage, I started to change; becoming more outgoing and confident, thanks, primarily, to my roommate and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) collaborator at the time, the very talented and often overlooked Ryan Brown. Simply put, it became harder and harder for me to both be and write Gavia. Finally, I just couldn’t do it anymore. Strange as it sounds, at this point in my life I think that I could. One of the pluses to being old: emotional distance, professionalism.
Rovnak:So are you saying you’d ever consider returning to The Puma Blues?
Murphy: I’ve been seriously considering it but I haven’t discussed it with Michael and have no idea how he’d feel about it. I’ve only recently realized that the first issue came out twenty-five years ago. Half my lifetime!
Rovnak:How did Michael feel about the book ending?
Murphy: We’ve never discussed it and in fact never even had any sort of meeting during which we officially ended it. I’m sure he was displeased with my drifting away from and eventually abandoning it. On the other hand, it may have lead to his seeking outside work and his eventual stint on Sandman. So for his own professional life, it was for the better.
Rovnak:In Zulli’s TMNT: Souls Winter trilogy, you’re credited for providing the script. Is this a credit you had from the inception of this story, or were you brought in later, out of necessity, to help complete the project?
Murphy: My memory’s a bit fuzzy on this but I’m fairly certain that all three issues were fully conceived by Michael. He wasn’t feeling all that confident about tackling the script on the first issue so he asked that I come in and give it an “organizing polish” as it were, writing from his script notes. Since his notes were so extensive I also seem to recall encouraging him to fully script the next two issues, which he of course did.
Rovnak:You write comics with a message, whether it’s The Puma Blues or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the books you write have a social awareness. While I imagine this seems quite natural to you as a creator, it’s not always the norm in comics. Do you think comic readers are open to these messages?
Murphy: I think some are. At least those fans that have told me that they glommed on to my messages when they were kids, especially the great many that read my main TMNT gig, Archie’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures. Keep in mind that in its heyday, the title had multiple reprints in many languages and sold in the millions of copies per issue. Far more than the seventeen thousand that were buying Puma at its peak, or the ten thousand who were actually reading it. Which, in hindsight, is another reason for my drifting away from Puma: I was very aware that I had a huge audience through Adventures. Ryan saw this before I did. I also found that I loved telling stories to kids. Still love it. My six-year old daughter and I have a very rich alternate universe story that has been ongoing since she turned four, one that we add new elements to every day. It blows my mind how rich the story is. Me, I enjoy thinking like a kid. I love how my daughter thinks.
Rovnak:Are publishers and editors open to comics with a conscience?
Murphy: I honestly don’t know. Dave Sim, as publisher, never gave me any feedback at all, ever. Nor did Eastman and Laird. For the latter two, I came to realize it was because neither of them are writers and simply don’t understand how writers think. Pete didn’t step up to the editorial plate until he was in complete control of Mirage and even then his changes were more plot-driven than thematic. At the end of the day though it comes down to this: I never had a story rejected and for the most part no one said a thing about whatever messages the stories may have contained. Archie only balked over one story element (Hitler’s brain! Ooooh!) but we beat them back like the money-grubbing dogs that they are. Or were. Are they still around? Actually, I read in the Times that they’ve put out an Archie newsstand magazine. Only it’s new-newsstand. Toy and maybe grocery store checkouts. I love how Archie keeps it old school. What will they do next, plastic model kits? Gumball machine character rings? Actually, that might be too cool.
Rovnak:Speaking of the TMNT Adventures series, who is Dean Clarrain?
Murphy: I am. It’s an anagram based on the name of a woman I was dating at the time I started writing TMNT Adventures. When I first started Adventures I wasn’t sure whether or not I would like it or be good at writing for kids. There was also an element of trying to maintain two careers, as it were, but then Clarrain eclipsed Murphy. At least for a while.
Rovnak:Did you find it challenging to write from the point of view of a teenager (or in this case, four teenagers)? How did you find their voice?
Murphy: Strangely enough, no, it wasn’t challenging at all. Finding their voices came pretty easily once I figured out and developed their personalities in ways that were different from both the Mirage and original cartoon characterizations. I had to “make them mine” first, so to speak.
Rovnak:In 2003 you were turned down for the writing job on the Dreamwave TMNT series, in favor of Peter David. Was this a blow to your ego, having spent the majority of your career working on these characters?
Murphy: Ha, no, not at all. It was a shot against the odds knowing that Dreamwave wanted a “name” writer on the project. In fact, it was somewhat interesting being the Mirage liaison on the project, relaying Peter Laird’s feedback to Peter David’s scripts, then David’s comments back to Laird’s, and then watching the two of them act hissy towards each other in follow-up emails. Later on, I wound up tweaking my two Dreamwave scripts and using them during my stint writing the Mirage’s Tales book.
Rovnak:What other failed or rejected submissions do you have in your files?
Murphy: Hmmm, failures and rejections, let’s see. I also tried out for the position of writer on what would have been the second Imagi TMNT film, submitted a handful of plots, got them all rejected (and I’m still not even sure by whom). I even adapted the first Mirage issue into a full screenplay which Imagi also rejected but was then purchased for an intended third party direct-to-DVD CGI film that was to bridge the “product gap” between the first and second Imagi films. Imagi later shut that project down, unfortunately. And then of course Imagi lost the TMNT film license shortly thereafter. The next producers made it clear up front that they wanted a name writer for their film so that was that. Once Viacom bought the TMNT brand they killed that script but, I believe, have somehow retained the same producers.
My greatest disappointment was my first rejection, which took place a few years before beginning Puma. Jim Shooter, editor-in-chief of Marvel at the time, placed an open audition of sorts for new writers. I was fresh out of college and submitted two very detailed plot synopses, one for Spider-Man, one for Captain America. I immediately got a very nice “close but no cigar” rejection letter from Shooter (I still have it). However, about nine months later my Cap synopsis was used as a three-part Captain America story arc (wherein Deathlok came back in time and fought Cap, etc.). That was both disappointing in the short run – and eye opening – but also somewhat encouraging as time passed: after all, the idea was good enough to be stolen.
Rovnak:Have you ever suffered writer’s block? If so, for how long and how did you remedy it?
Murphy: Shit, John, I suffer from it lots of the time. I suffer, in fact, from two kinds of writer’s block. The “usual” and more mundane form is what happened once I got married and which worsened since having a child: I just don’t have the head space and quiet late-night time that I used to have when I was a swashbuckling (although very dedicated) single. Too many writing-less nights go by – usually due to the exhaustion of being a husband and father and worrywart – and I can plunge into a non-productive writer’s block. The old remedy was that I would shut myself off entirely from my family for a few hours, usually after they’ve fallen asleep, and always out of insane and somewhat depraved anxiety and frustration. The current remedy is much the same, only more, like, mature: I now own a cabin on a mountaintop near the Vermont border that I escape to (my friend Keith McCleary points out that the cabin’s setting is very much Gavia’s [see The Puma Blues – editor]; the solitude and forest visuals minus the reservoir). It’s twenty minutes from home. I head up there for an afternoon or evening when I need to. This past year I’ve put in electricity and a composting toilet. The wood stove cranks and there are framed posters of Frazetta’s The Bear to keep me in line and of Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire to remind that the times they are a changing, fast, and that I’m getting old, also fast. There’s an impressive view of Mount Monadnock through the east-facing glass doors. Also a generator and good line of sight all around. When the shit hits the fan, I’m Jeremiah Johnson with an old lady, a beanpole and a beagle-mix.
That other, more daunting form of writer’s block sets in when I’m majorly depressed. I’ve only suffered this three times in my life. The most recent period was during my last two years working at Mirage. I just couldn’t deal with the way I was being treated by the CEO, nor handle all the various grumpy or unhelpful personalities around me. It was killing me. I couldn’t write Turtles – or anything else – for shit. It’s a miracle that I lasted until the endpoint when the Turtles got sold.
Rovnak:At some point you made the move from Managing Editor to Licensing Director. Was this an upward move, lateral move, or a step down? In Tales #13, you mention a disagreement with Peter (Laird) over how the letters page should be presented. Were situations like this just the “tip of the iceberg” for you, and did this influence you move within the company?
Murphy: Actually I was both Licensing Directing of Mirage Licensing and Managing Editor of Mirage Publishing for several overlapping years (but not editor of Pete’s TMNT title which was always under his direct control). I eventually got sick of how the production on the books was always late and as a result, very stressful; often necessitating my receiving proofs while on vacation via Fed Ex. It was beginning to lower the quality of my life. So I threw in the towel on publishing but without diminishing my salary, although I did lose out on more and more writing opportunities as new editor Dan Berger developed a more systematic way of approaching things, more democratic if you will, which resulted in more competition to get plots approved. At the same time Pete took a greater interest in the book, even altering many plots to the point where they became as much his as a given writer’s. For me, that’s fine in small doses or if it strengthens a plot, but when my story ideas got changed too much – to the point where it became a different story altogether – I’d lose interest in the plot; it just wasn’t the story I wanted to tell anymore. I’m grateful to Pete for many things but a few rounds of that and I’d had quite enough with writing for Mirage.
Rovnak:The TMNT name, brand and license is, in recent years, a very viable and popular property, even 25 years later. What do you attribute that to? So many properties, especially in the comics world, are swallowed up by Hollywood, turn a quick dollar, and are then forgotten never to be heard from again. What made the Turtles different?
Murphy: The TMNT earned, what, six billion dollars in revenue by the time the second movie came out? Those are six billion big reasons to keep it going and by that I mean licensees as well as by agent and owners. But that’s only half the answer of course. What set the Turtles apart are several things: the obvious mix of action, adventure, humor and kung-fu mayhem (filling the void left by Bruce Lee), along with an element of family and brotherhood that struck a mass nerve. Plus, perhaps, an underlying sensitivity that appealed to girls without alienating boys. Mind you, I’m talking about the TMNT once it left the confines of the direct comics marketplace.
Rovnak:When all is said and done, the Turtles are (and will be) remembered for the cartoons, the films, the toys, the breakfast cereal, etc. The comics will, quite possibly, be among the last thing to be remembered. Why, do you think, comics are doomed to be forgotten when it comes to properties like the Turtles, Batman, X-Men, etc.? Why can’t comics seem to ever really achieve the mainstream acceptance we so badly want?
Murphy: We live in a multimedia age, with the winning media being the largest common denominator if you will. It’s a generational thing. For me, growing up in the sixties, comic books remain the media by which I define Spider-Man, Batman, etc., because comic books were the dominant media for those characters at that time. If I grew up in the eighties or nineties, I’d define those same characters by their films or video games; again, the dominant media form of the time. I think it’s all a matter of which media rules the general culture at a given historical time.
As far as comics achieving mainstream acceptance… well, I think it’s all about content and marketing and the fact that most Americans don’t read for pleasure, whether it’s comics, graphic novels or serious literature. Also, comics used to be aimed at kids. Now they’re aimed at adults. Mind you, there are exceptions. And of course now comics have become secondary to the films that can be made by their being optioned to Hollywood. Comic-based movies are as close to mainstream acceptance as it’s going to get. Also, comics are just so damn expensive: one doesn’t get much bang for one’s buck.
Rovnak:What was it like working within a “studio” setting at Mirage? Comic’s creation is usually such a solitary process; having worked both in and out of the studio setting, which do you prefer? What are the benefits, and what are the downsides?
Murphy: There were two Mirage studio spaces. The first was a true open shared studio space (circa 1987-1990), the second and final “studio” was a suite of offices, one per artist, and not really a studio but more a, er, mirage of one. I never did much creative work in the shared space: there was just too much loud music, socialization, horsing around and, at times, media intrusion (interviews with Eastman and Laird were often carried out in the studio). In the later office set-up, I got much more done but even that wasn’t ideal. For me, like you say, creation truly is a solitary process and as a result I tended to (and still tend to) work alone. I have home office space and the cabin but I sometimes work at the local public library if the mood suits me.
Rovnak:In the late 1990s you published V-Mag, an arts and entertainment magazine for the Northampton, Massachusetts area. How did this venture begin? What was it like to go from the “published” to the publisher?
Murphy: I was visiting a friend living in Pennsylvania and saw an arts related magazine for his area and thought maybe the Pioneer Valley could use the same; something in addition to the Valley Advocate, which I abhorred for its smugness and elitism. However, as with most creative things I undertake, V-Mag (for “Valley Magazine”) became something else entirely, something more reflective of my own interests, and thus something more difficult to explain to potential advertisers. It’s strange, but I folded it about ten years ago and only now are various people contacting me and telling me what a great publication it was. Too bad I wasn’t hearing that at the time!
Being a publisher and managing editor (and eventually layout person as well) was challenging and a huge amount of work. I learned a lot about people, dealing with freelancers and staffers, most of which I was able to put to use in my twin capacities (explained above) working for Mirage managing both artists and licensees. It was an enriching experience that lost me lots of my personal savings but it was worth it on many levels, not least of which was that’s how I met my future wife.
Rovnak:In 2006, your first non-TMNT comic since The Puma Blues, Umbra was released by Image Comics. What inspired this mini-series?
Murphy: When I came back to Mirage in 2002 to work in Licensing I also worked at getting Publishing up and running, which I did with the re-launching of Tales and related titles. But I also wanted to work with Jim Lawson and Eric Talbot on creator-owned projects. With Jim in mind I created Umbra, inspired in part by my trips to Iceland and Alaska a few years earlier but based, more so, on a series of dreams I had following the Icelandic trips. Askja, the main character, was an extension of myself, at least when I was working through my substance abuse problems. The sequence when she finds herself approached by a pod of killer whales really happened to me on my third trip to Alaska, although I was kayaking with several friends, not solo. Lawson, for reasons he never quite explained, passed on Umbra after reading the scripts. Luckily, through Dan Berger, I met Mike Hawthorne and the books came together better than I ever could have imagined.
Rovnak:How were your experiences working with Image Comics?
Murphy: Image was very hands off. Artist Mike Hawthorne and art assistant Erik Swanson and I just delivered the books and that was that: no editorial input at all. Image was also great about making their U.S. payments. Their biggest problem – at least at the time – was a lack of organization that I perceived as their being a bit of a dodge: when I discovered foreign reprints of Umbra that Image hadn’t made me aware of (nor sent payment for) I blew my top. In hindsight, I’ve come to see that I overreacted.
Rovnak:In the second issue of Umbra, you’re interviewed and make mention of two other projects in the works. It’s now nearing 2011, five years later: what has happened to Sturgeon Creek and God’s Dog?
Murphy:God’s Dog is the project I alluded to above that I created with Eric Talbot in mind. Talbot was into it and spent a long time trying to get a handle on the first issue. When it became clear that he wasn’t all that into it, or getting anywhere on it, we parted creative ways on it and I in turn offered the book (it’s six 24-page issues) to Dario Brizuela. The art’s been completed for several years and I’m finally getting off my ass and beginning the lettering. Sturgeon Creek is my second project with Mike Hawthorne and Erik Swanson. It’s a 120-page autobiographical graphic novel and the art is ninety percent done and the lettering now underway. If Mike can finish it up soon, I’ll put Sturgeon and Dog out in 2014, along with an unrelated 32-page stand-alone book with art by D’Israeli. I’d also like to finally put out a trade collection of Umbra. Not sure which route to go, though: publisher or self-publishing. Time will tell.
Rovnak:What part of your life is Sturgeon Creek about?
Murphy:Sturgeon takes place during a single autumn night during my senior year in high school but also flits back now and then to various moments earlier in my childhood. It takes an evening when certain threads of childhood unravel and end, while others begin to come together. Not obvious at the time of course, only in hindsight. For someone who wasn’t there and didn’t know me at all in my youth, artist Mike Hawthorne has done a brilliant job of capturing my friends and I, just based on a handful of old photos. Uncanny!
Rovnak:Speaking of autobiographical comics, in February of 2010, you premiered Contains Traces Of online, posting a panel every weekday. In your own words, what is this blog/webcomic about?
Murphy: It’s about me, and about how I came to learn a deep family secret. About how I deal with the knowledge of that secret while trying to uncover other information related to that knowledge. It’s mostly a retelling of the therapy sessions I went through as I came to grips with it all. This is going back to late 2001 and early 2002. It also deals with the problems I was having when employed by Mirage, and how I dealt with those problems and my anger through therapy. Typical “dark night of the soul” stuff.
Rovnak:Why did you choose to handle the art chores as well, and not just stick to the writing?
Murphy:Traces is just something I wanted to do alone. First, just to take the challenge – I mean, I can’t draw, so how can I even attempt to do the art? Once I figured that out – by tracing and/or altering existing “found” art – it came together fairly quickly by providing a somewhat primitive frame or medium of delivery: one panel at a time. Also, because I wanted to post just one panel per day (aside from most weekend days) I couldn’t expect any artist to get behind something so, I don’t know, I guess so ongoing, something with no clear end in sight. Plus, obviously, it’s an extremely personal story that begs to be told by the writer alone, without even the slightest input of or altering by anyone else’s vision. It’s more words than pictures.
Rovnak:Your name appears nowhere on the blog, and no fanfare was made when it was launched. Who do you hope finds this, and how?
Murphy: I don’t care who finds it, honestly. I launched it by sending the link to my ten closest friends. They’re my true audience for this. A few months later Ryan Brown told Dan Berger about it and Dan was kind enough to link it to what’s left of the Mirage web site. Now I merely link it as the “signature” at the bottom of all my emails and let happen what may. It’s incredibly liberating to just produce the thing and not worry about paying an artist for it or dealing with anyone telling me how to do it, nor to be concerned about making money off it.
Rovnak:The events in the story begin, and revolve around, the eve of September 11, 2001. As the story unfolded, panel-by-panel, weekday after weekday, throughout 2010 it reached a real crescendo during the month of September watching you discuss the events of nine years earlier. If you were following the story, as I was, it was hard to not be moved by the synonymous barrage of news coverage of 9/11 and your story. Did you have the timing of your panels mapped out when you first began Contains Traces Of, or was this a happy accident?
Murphy: I have certain milestones or important dates in mind relative to the unfolding of the story. Some of those milestones I reach, some I don’t. I don’t plan it out very far ahead, on average two weeks of posts at a time. I may write out five or six weeks in a given evening and then spend another evening doing the art and any editing for the next two-week batch. The writing, for the most part, is first draft. I’m trying to be honest.
Rovnak:How long do you anticipate this story running?
Murphy: I have absolutely no idea. My story hasn’t ended yet.
Second generation underground cartoonist, tattooist, muralist, musician, teacher, husband and father; Mark Bodé’s resume is quite possibly one of the longest and most varied in all of comics. Whether he’s developing a live-action film of Cobalt 60 with director Zack Snyder, designing a footwear line for Puma International, or crisscrossing the globe with a spray can in hand; Mark could easily add the title, “The Hardest Working Man in Comics” to his growing list of accomplishments. Working professionally in comics for over half his life, Mark has dedicated himself to continuing and completing his father Vaughn’s work. And with no signs of slowing down, Mark’s genuine excitement and love for the mediums he embraces is a true testament to his father’s genius. There are no limits to what the Bodé name can and will be applied to, and that raw, “never say never” attitude is downright contagious.
This interview was conducted via email during September and October of 2010.
Special thanks to Rachael M Rollson and Joe Thomson
John Rovnak:When I hear the term “Underground Comix” two names immediately spring to mind: Vaughn Bodé and Robert Crumb. Yet, it would appear, (to my knowledge) that these two artists differ on so many levels. From the execution of their art, to their public personas, to their willingness and ambition to be seen and marketed outside the then, small world of comics. Do you feel this statement is true?
Mark Bodé: Well, I’m glad you asked that or stated that, because in my head, my father was heading the adult comics market on the east coast and Crumb was on the west coast, both receiving great attention and fame for their efforts. My father was glam rock and Crumb was a faddy duddy, so there is no comparing the two in art or in person. I believe Crumb despised my father secretly because of his good looks, but the two got along and worked in the first underground newspapers together like The Gothic Blimp and The East Village Other in the late 60s and early 70s. If my father hadn’t died at age 33, he would most certainly have embraced all mediums and been the biggest star to come out of the underground; but this wasn’t to be… Vaughn has me to follow through and make good of these plentiful worlds that he left behind. It is a joy for me to keep the characters alive like a long lost family friend who you could bring back to life to kick it with and share more stories with once again. Heart felt joy it is.
Rovnak:Who were your father’s influences?
Bodé: My father was influenced by Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Walt Disney, VT Hamlin’s Alley Oop, and Wally Wood. My dad’s lizards for instance came from the duck billed dinosaur from Fantasia’s The Right of Spring, and you can also see the alligator character from Pogo was an influence on his lizards.
Rovnak:Besides your father, who are yours?
Bodé: I love most of the artists that draw wonderful women like Milo Manara, Leon Frollo, and Serpieri. My favorite undergrounders were Greg Irons and Jack Jaxon who were great visual artists and storytellers. Moebius is also a favorite full vision artist.
Rovnak:We’ve seen the Crumb documentary and the American Splendor docu-drama do rather well for both Hollywood and the comics industry as a whole; why hasn’t there been a Bodé movie yet? Will we ever? If so, is there a director that you can imagine doing your father’s story justice?
Bodé: There was talk of a biography but there just isn’t enough footage of my father to do it properly. The best would be a full blown movie with actors etc. we will see if that happens after Zack Snyder does Cobalt 60 as a live action movie that might peak the interest in such a project after he blows up the Bodé property.
Rovnak:What (if anything) are you currently reading? (comic or non-comic)
Bodé: I just read X-Women by Chris Claremont and Milo Manara. That was a combo I didn’t expect! I’m about to read Moby Dick as I am working on a gigantic Moby Dick mural in West Oakland. Its like 40 x 100 feet and I must poor myself into the mural as I do it. I want to get the mood of the book on the wall.
Rovnak:Have you read Moby Dick before? Do you usually enjoy “classics literature,” or do you find that it’s not your cup of tea?
Bodé: No. I’ve seen the movie many times but never read the book. I’ve enjoyed The Hobbit and books like that but I don’t read a whole lot. I’m more of a imaginary person, I get inspiration from fantasizing.
Rovnak: I’m imagining a line of “Bodé Classics Illustrated.” Do you think that this Moby Dick piece might inspire more Bodé interpretations of literary classics?
Bodé: I’ve always wanted to illustrate The Wind and the Willows. It seems like a natural for our style. If I only had time to do anything but Bodé stories I would, but my father left a huge amount of unfinished stories and I’m committed to that in this life, at least so far.
Rovnak:How does the process for a 40 x 100 foot mural begin?
Bodé: I begin with what I want to paint and I pitch it to the CEO of the recycling plant, so far he loves what I want to do and says go for it. I show him a small thumbnail and we go from there. Then I hold the drawing up to one eye from across the street and blow it up with the other eye and look for land marks like cracks and bolts that will give me a scale of where to begin on the wall. Then I start to outline the mural with a light spray can color like light blue that is easy to cover or correct then the block in process begins.
Rovnak:Who approaches you?
Bodé: Being a Bodé opens many doors, I rarely have to ask permission. I did a free mural about 9’ x 30’ feet in a rather dingy area of West Oakland on my high school art teachers property as a favor, and they had a neighborhood meeting where everyone gave me praise for my efforts. The CEO of one of the biggest recycling plants in the bay area was at that meeting and he said, “Mark, I got walls, let’s go for a drive.” He showed me blocks and blocks of walls he owned. So I started with him and we worked a budget for each section. Its not a get rich kind of gig but the press is off the hook. I started feeling like the press was following my every move. I’ve been in the San Francisco Chronicle five times this year and the San Francisco section of The New York Times once as well. So the murals are a give to the public and receive back in notoriety kind of gig.
Rovnak:How much input do you have in the subject matter?
Bodé: Complete input. I take into consideration what the people might like to see and I am considerate of the families etc in those hoods, but I am not told what to paint unless they want to pay me to listen, then I might paint it if its not a militant or political agenda kind of image. Too many militant agenda murals have been painted and it all says the same crap: let me rub my ethnic prowess in your segregated face, or I’m rebelling against the man, or what have you. So over done. Such a negative way of portraying slain heroes. It does make me reflect on the society that killed those people and may make me feel segregated by color, which in my opinion is not a feel good kind of premise. If the work is for supplies and momentary expenses, I decide what goes up and what I want to paint there and it’s always an escape from reality and a positive theme.
Rovnak:Are there lots of hoops to jump through to even get to the stage of you applying paint to the wall?
Bodé: No, it’s quick it may take me an hour to sketch what I want to do, and then I might do some detail sketches as I go. But I’m a fast drawer and a fast painter. I can paint a 20’ x 10’ section of wall with two helpers in a matter of hours as rolling in the backgrounds and spray-painting over the top is fast. I feel sorry for some of the artists that use brushes; they must spend months on a wall that will only take me a day or two.
Rovnak:How many murals have you completed to date?
Bodé: A few dozen over the last 6 years or so. Not all of them were my design. Some are tributes to my father like the ones I did in London and Barcelona and in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Rovnak:Are the majority of them in the San Francisco area?
Bodé: Most of the permanent ones are. The others are probably covered by other muralists by now.
Rovnak:Low Brow Art encompasses an approach that is more connected to “a youthful mind,” that is, one that continues to question/ rebel/ seek out alternate perceptions; do you consider yourself part of the Low Brow art scene?
Bodé: When I hear Low Brow I immediately think of Robert Williams who knew my father back in the underground comix hay day. Our work is nothing like Robert’s, although our subject matter can cross those borders at times. I grew up in the underground comix scene and started doing adult comix when I was 11 years old. My father called me the youngest underground comix artist in America, and I was for a short time I’m sure. But as you get older, you loose such titles. Low Brow at times, but underground for sure.
Rovnak:Your main mediums: comics, mural/graffiti, tattoo are akin to this scene and are very accessible; Has moving to the Low Brow epicenter (of California, both LA and the Bay Area range qualify) changed the way you make work or how you showcase it?
Bodé: I’ve lived half my life in New York state and New England, and half in California. I recently moved back to the Bay Area and things started to change immediately as thou my father’s spirit was waiting for my return so we could play ball with the big boys. I have a deal with Universal for a Cobalt 60 movie that is to be directed by Zack Snyder who is really pumped on doing a live action Cobalt 60 movie. Somehow, big things just seem to flow into my plate in San Francisco. Mural work has been almost like point and paint and I have no problem getting walls and buildings to paint on. I’m painting an entire recycling plant in West Oakland at the moment, literally blocks and blocks of canvas. I start a 3 story piece depicting Moby Dick destroying Ahab’s clipper ship 2/3 scale of the actual size; I’m very excited to go big like that. I recently painted a church in the Mission; that was something I didn’t expect I’d be doing. The press seems to pick up on all my antics as I’ve been in the Chronicle five or six times this year and the NY Times as well. Seems San Fran is the place to showcase if you’re a Bodé.
Rovnak:How did the tattooing medium come into play for you? Has it changed the way you interact with your other mediums? Do you prefer tattoo conventions or comic conventions?
Bodé: It’s not too unlike spray can art. I was irked into the medium by artists imitating our characters and I was like, “Hey I should be able to do that as well if not better then others as I am from the well from which this stuff comes from.” I would see Bodé inspired tattoos and think I could do that; in fact I have to do that, as there is another market for my work. It’s survival and it’s eating the food that was intended for my table. Even Sailor Jerry himself used Cheech Wizard on his stencils! Being bit by Sailor Jerry is something most all tattooists won’t be able to claim fame to, but we can. Tattooing is the hardest medium to truly master as the variables are endless and the kinds of skin can range drastically, imagine drawing a straight line on a rubber wall that’s moving and flinching and complaining. I have big respect for the masters of that medium and I consider myself a dam good tattooer but I leave the master credit to the artists that live and breath tattooing. It has taught me to be a mimic of styles and when I go back to Bodé art, I can’t help but to have those other style influences creep into what I’m doing and improve my work with each difficult tattoo I do. About conventions: I’ve been going to comic-cons since I was little so I can’t count how many shows I‘ve been to (in the thousands, I’m sure). Tattoo-cons are very hard work and you have to be real creative with how you position your customer, its always seemed awkward to me but I love the adult crowd that tattoo-cons attract. I’ve been to a few dozen tattoo-cons I tend to go to the exotic ones rather then the local tattoo conventions. If I have to choose one or the other it would be comic-cons as I can sit back and sign books and sell art (that I have already made) and make more money with less physical work. Who wouldn’t choose more money with less work, but big props to those who work their tattoo machines from morning into the wee hours of the night; those people are the shit!! .
Rovnak:Any favorite local or contemporary artists? Anyone you would enjoy collaborating with?
Bodé: I have been in touch with the graffiti geniuses, The Osgemeos Brothers, from Brazil and they have wanted to paint with me for a long time now. They came to my house in San Francisco a year or so ago and painted a masterpiece for me and my wife in under an hour. Four hands are better then two for fucking sure. I traded art with them, but it took me three hours to their one hour of paint time and I consider myself a fast painter. We still have yet to collaborate but when we do, it will be unleashing like a fantastical beast, maybe with breasts, eight feet tall from top to bottom. [Laughs] In comics the people I would most want to work with have passed on already. My father Vaughn, Greg Irons, and Jack Jaxon to name a few. Alive I would want to work with Milo Manara, William Stout or my dads buddy, Bernie Wrightson.
Rovnak:How did your relationship with Mirage Studios, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) property begin? And did you ever find it to an odd fit for an underground cartoonist and the Bodé name?
Bodé: I meet Kevin Eastman in San Diego at the comic con around 1985 or 1986 and he said he was heavily influenced by my dads work; you can see in the hands and feet of the turtles that my father’s characters were an influence there. I had just came out with Miami Mice and it was a huge hit for me. I asked Kevin if he wanted to jam on the final issue and he did and we became good friends and I worked on three issues of the original turtle series after moving out to Northampton where the TMNT compound was located. That being said, Bodé was a natural fit and Kevin was way into underground comics so we were very happy to work together not to mention it was very profitable for all involved.
Rovnak:If my memory serves me correctly, in the early to mid 1990’s, you were working on a proposed project for Marvel in which there properties were re-imagined in an adult/Bodé style. Did this project ever exist? How far did it progress? And what happened to it?
Bodé: Yes, I proposed to Marvel a Bodé Iron Man story where Iron Man vs. Venom and I had Rick Veitch write the story and it was an awesome collab and I thought my drawings were brilliant and so did the editor at Marvel at the time. Unfortunately they took the premise and the idea and had the bullpen do it in issue 300 of Iron Man. I was disappointed to say the least but I had grown to expect that when toying with a property that is owned by a huge company like Marvel. I would still do it if they offered but it takes so long for me to do a whole comic book that I can’t see working on anything but more Cobalt 60 which will be bank when the movie comes out. And I own Cobalt, at least the comic rights, as Universal will own everything else related to the movie.
Rovnak:What or who introduced you to the art of tattooing?
Bodé: After the TMNT coach started coming to a slow halt, I came to a point where I was still in a small town in western Mass and needed a money flow besides comics. I meet a Cheech Wizard fan named Al Valenta who was a tattooist and he mentioned he would teach me if I wanted to learn, this seemed like a perfect way to roll my abilities into another field.
Rovnak:Did you apprentice under anyone? And if so, for how long? Any good apprenticing stories?
Bodé: Yes, I did apprentice but my first tattoo ventures were out of my house under Al’s supervision. When time came to tattoo someone I said, “Well what do I start on, chicken or grapefruits? ” Al answered “Drunk people! Lets go down to the local watering hole.” So we went down to the Ye Old watering hole and announced, “Who wants a free tattoo by Bodé?” And the hands went up and that’s how I got started, I later apprenticed in Connecticut at a shop, as it was still illegal in 1994 where I lived in Massachusetts.
Rovnak:Amongst the impressive numbers of Californian tattoo artists; are there any who influence your tattoo style? Why?
Bodé: Well that’s a hard call cause I don’t run with tattoo circles outside of the shop I’m working in. I tend to hang out with Comic artists and Satanists. [Laughs] But that’s the truth. If I picked any tattooist to give credit to it would be Greg Irons who was very nice to me when I would run into him at Last Gasp parties back in the late 70s early 80s. He was so sweet and encouraging to me back in the day before he passed. I’ve dedicated my back piece to him. I have an Irons mariner ghost ship on my back. A friend, KC Angel, is tattooing it on me and we are about 2/3 done with it. Greg also had a great line style that I was always attracted to even as a young boy reading Slow Death; I loved his stuff always.
Rovnak:Do you get a lot of comics fans coming to you for “Bodé,” who might not normally be into tattoos?
Bodé: When I’m on the road doing guest spots all I do is Bodé characters. But when I’m in a shop, I tend to do the hard to do detail stuff, and cover-ups. As I have a very good eye for detail and because of my illustrative background, I come up with some very creative cover-ups. So I tend to do that the most in the shops I work in, once in awhile I’ll get a Bodé piece to do and I always enjoy doing a Bodé Broad or a lizard or Cheech it just comes with the territory and being a Bodé that tattoos.
Rovnak:I recently just re-read Cobalt 60, and I’ll be honest, I’m having a hard time envisioning it as a live-action film. It clearly lends itself to animation, but that’s not the plan, right?
Bodé: When I started drawing Cobalt 60 I was 19 I finished the story 10 years or so later. In the early 80s, CGI was in its infancy and George Lucas was the only one doing it. I had fantasized about Cobalt in live action riding a stegosaurus-looking-steed and shooting Radio Soldiers. I always saw this stuff as real in my head and I wondered what Lucas would do with these ideas. Almost 30 years later, when Zack Snyder called my house to explain what he wanted to do, I saw exactly the same thing. I told him that things need to be changed in the story and Cobalt needs to be darker and more frightening in the live action version. The thing that will make it a classic is you have Cobalt all serious and brooding and he has to deal with these very cartoony looking enemies, which make violence even more palatable, very much like Army of Darkness or Road Warrior. Cobalt’s world is a Road Warrior world if you can’t see the similarities then I’d put the books down and wait for the movie because our style is very anime looking and can be confusing to one who takes it too literal, but the essence of the material is a real world like Mad Max’s’ world.
Rovnak:Do you have confidence that it can be done correctly in live-action? Was it a hard sell?
Bodé: No, I was relieved when he said he wanted it live action. I thought to myself finally someone who sees what my father and I saw. It’s magic in action once again.
Rovnak:Were you a fan of Zack Snyder’s work previously to Cobalt 60 being optioned?
Bodé: When Zack called I wasn’t such a movie buff that I knew who he was, he mentioned he was working on a movie with Frank Miller called 300 and it didn’t ring a bell. I had seen the Dawn of the Dead remake that he did but didn’t put him together with that film till my wife and I googled his name and all the pieces of the puzzle came together. That same year I was excepting the Eisner Hall of Fame Award for my dad at the San Diego Con and Frank Miller was there with his arms full of awards and I asked him so what’s up with Zack Snyder and you? Ya know he wants to do a movie with our material? And Frank replied, “Mark, you’re with an angel who never looses his head on the set and he won’t ruin your property. You couldn’t be in better hands.” That being said I wait for the day when it goes into preproduction I hear Zack is doing Superman next, then the 300 sequel, then Cobalt 60 if all goes as planned! Just hope Batman doesn’t get in the way! I got competition with very good company. Magic does happen, this I’m sure, just ask Cheech.
Rovnak:You recently attended the Comic book Biennial in Le Havre, France. What can you tell me about this?
Bodé: Yes, it was the first time our work has been exhibited in France as far as I know as my father did a slide show in the Louvre in Paris in late ‘74 and packed the ballroom there. The excitement seems to have resonated all these years as I was received with open arms and a very excited public. The event you can see on line www.artslehavre.com and was run by Jean Marc Thevenet and Linda Morren .The group show was an amazing tribute to the story telling abilities of the artists involved and I was proud to be in such a show. Because we were coming from so far away we were featured in many of the talks and lectures at the openings. I also spearheaded a Bodé graffiti tribute where fifteen French graffiti artists and myself did a 200 foot long mural dedicated to my dad. It was rather wet weather but we got through it and the production came out great. Later we had dinner with Jean Marc and his wife Linda and he announced it was time for a major museum exhibition of Bodé work in Paris. The French people consider my father’s passing in 1975 as the very birth of graffiti art from the bubble letters he drew to the characters and their look. His work inspired the birth of graffiti art and now that you are continuing his works and using spray cans this is an amazing opportunity for an exhibit in Paris. He said there will be a big budget for the instillation of the show and I will be on hand to design the rooms with the sculptors and electricians; a hardcover book will also be produced to come out for the opening. I know my dad is smiling up there as I never expected a major museum show to come from this, I was shooting for a gallery gig at best but magic does happen and my father and his material prove that to me on a regular basis.
Rovnak:Have you been performing the Bodé Cartoon Concert recently? If so, where and when. If not, why?
Bodé: From 1987 to 1998 I hit pretty hard with the slide show doing conventions and colleges and even nightclubs but I kind of peaked out when I opened for Gwar in the late 90s in Atlanta at Dragon Con. I felt that a thousand plus people chanting, “Gwar Gwar Gwar,” and me doing a solo comedy act was near suicidal. I did tame and entertain that crowd with my X rated material but my fathers material being R rated started loosing them. Every time I got to one of pop’s pieces the murmuring got louder and louder to the point I thought the crowd would turn on me. Then I would get to another hard-core comic strip and they would quite up and start laughing again. At the end of my 40-minute set Gwar came out and shouted, “Bodé you plagiarize everyone!!!” And they mock killed me with a blood bag and dragged me off stage and the crowd rushed the stage. The members of Gwar said I was the most successful opening act they had ever had (most being booed off stage after their first song or two) never the less I’ve never been so alone and scared in my life and I didn’t do the Cartoon Concert as much after that event. Mainly because I realized it needed to go digital so I could read the crowd and skip strips that were not appropriate. I haven’t had the time to scan all the slides, file, and type in the dialogues. It’s too time consuming a project I’m looking for a computer wiz that wants to trade for artwork to do it for me, if there is any takers out there contact me. I did the Cartoon Concert for a closing party at The Bodé Show at 1 AM gallery last summer in San Francisco to about fifty heads and it still had people rolling in laughter. There still is nothing like it in the comics industry. The San Diego Comicon won’t let me perform it at any of their conventions anymore because of the content, and I’ve had bad experiences with renting projectors since it’s a bygone technology. Once in a blue moon, I’ll brush off the carousels and take it for a spin for a few lucky folks.
Rovnak:Whether it’s the Cartoon Concerts, mural events, tattooing, or just comic conventions, the Bodé’s seem to be “showmen.” This is a rarity in comics; our industry doesn’t have many outspoken talents; ones who can rattle the cage a bit, or ones who push many envelopes. The music industry has them, the book industry has them, and the film industry has them. Why not comics?
Bodé: There are many degrees of being an entertainer. I figure whenever a comic artist draws in front of people at benefits or auctions it’s a showman thing. The flash, the style, the quickness. But really no one goes for a full-blown stage show or stand-up routine like my father and I have done. My dad hated being a hermit, day in and day out over a drawing board, never seeing the public’s reaction to the hard work being done. So after some thought he came up with pictography format which had the balloons separate from the panels so he could do a reading of the art without having people read ahead of you. A kind of ultra cheap animation if you will. I took it on as I saw it as another promotional tool that kept us in the public eye and I understood the voices and genetically I have the same voice as my father. All these showmen acts are promotional tools which adds up to making a living as an artist… When I do a mural I send out a press release and make sure it’s a media event, spray can murals can unfold before your eyes unlike brush painted murals which take lots of time… so its exciting to watch an artist or artists get down with spray cans. I’m unsure why there are not more performing comic artists out there, it comes down to its a solitaire business and you get used to being a hermit and just showing up at conventions when you want to come out of that shell.
Rovnak:Other than the Bodé name, I really struggle to think of any. Do you agree that the comics industry could stand to be turned on its head a bit more? What will it take?
Bodé: Winsor McKay had it. He would project his animations of Gerdy the Dinosaur and stand behind the screen and do the voices, he invented that shit, we didn’t …and then there was the magic lantern where a performer would use projection to convey stories in front of a gaslight and do voices. It’s an old concept just rarely used these days.
Personally I’m disappointed in the comics market. The underground comix field which I was raised in has all but vanished in American comics. It has become “alternative,” which is watered down underground, a conformist path so you can be censored or censor yourself and still be proud about yourself like you said something personal but you didn’t get to draw anyone fucking; you wanted to draw fucking but you couldn’t. That’s what alternative means to me. The only person(s) who really are still cranking out undergrounds are Crumb and maybe Bobby London, who still does Dirty Duck strips for Playboy. These days most American publishers will avoid underground material all together unless it has the name Crumb on it; it spells publishing death to a publisher with any other name. We need a self-publishing resurgence of freedom of speech, like a renaissance of creativity and storytelling. Man, I feel for the younger comic artists that never experienced the excitement that there was in the late 60s and early 70s. When a comic artist could say and print what one wanted to. The excitement in the air was amazing! I was a little too young to be part of that movement, but I was born and raised into it and it was thrilling to see the glow and excitement in everyone’s eyes back then. I’m still trying to keep that excitement alive, and I will always be an underground artist whether it’s the underground urban art of graffiti, or the underground comic artist. I was born into it, and I will proudly carry that flag to the grave.
On December 31st, 2012, James Kochalka ended a fourteen year run on his daily diary comics strip, American Elf.
15 days later, I sat down with James to discuss those years and what he’d documented.
Interview conducted on January 15, 2013
John Rovnak:It’s been two weeks since you drew your final American Elf. How are you feeling?
James Kochalka: [Laughs] Well, strange I guess, because I have not thought of any other comic that I want to draw, really. I have ideas, but I’m a little afraid to start. It’s funny because the entire time drawing American Elf I felt pretty much super, super confident, and fearless about art. But I think that’s because I knew I had this one thing I was doing that was basically as good as it gets.
Rovnak:And it was yours, in a format that you pretty much invented…
Kochalka: Yeah. And then I could do any sort of crazy thing I wanted to, and not worry about it. But now anything that I do, I have to think, “Is this going to be as good as American Elf?” And the answer of course is NO! Of course there’s nothing else that I’m going to do that’ll be as good as American Elf. So now I just have to adjust to the fact that it doesn’t matter if it’s as good as American Elf or not.
Before American Elf I did autobiographical stories where I’d mix in science fiction and fantasy elements. Well I went back, and read some of those, and I couldn’t believe how awful they were. [laughs] But I don’t know, I might just be being really harsh on myself. They’re nothing like a story. I mean other people write real stories, and mine are not stories. I don’t know what they are. At the very least, I suppose, they’re unlike the stories I’ve read by anyone else, so I suppose that’s a plus. And I imagine that’s what people saw in them back in the day. But I look at them, and I’m like, “I don’t even understand what I was doing. I don’t understand why I wrote those comics.” For one thing, the pacing is really slow. And American Elf is really really really fast paced, because it’s just tiny tiny tiny small vignettes, and it’s constantly moving. But pages will happen in my old books and nothing really happens. People are talking really slow. So I guess what I have to do is take the pacing of American Elf and put that into a…. [long pause]
Rovnak:So if nothing else, it’s forcing you to rethink your comics and storytelling. Which is a plus, right?
Kochalka: Right. Oh yeah, it’s good. I could have drawn American Elf forever because I was in the rhythm of it. And as long as I stayed in that rhythm, I could have done it forever. And in a way it was easy for me. It was hard, of course, as a physical task, doing it everyday. And sometimes it was hard emotionally to draw about things I didn’t want to draw about. But artistically, I guess it was easy because I had the format down. In fact, I was getting better and better at it. I think every year I got better at it. But stopping gives me a chance to really think about art, and really think about what I’m doing. I didn’t really have any time to think as long as I was still doing American Elf. I mean, I could think about American Elf, but I couldn’t really think about anything else. And that’s not entirely true, because of course I wrote Super F*ckers, and I wrote the Johnny Boo series and the Dragon Puncher series, and the Super F*ckers cartoon. I did plenty of other stuff, but somehow I was able to do all that other stuff without thinking. Now I feel like I’m forced to think. [laughs]
Rovnak:One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve gone back and read the entire run of American Elf is that now that you’ve ended it, it reads like a novel. It now has a beginning, middle and end; where before it was so open ended.
Kochalka: Right, I think it’s stronger with an end.
Rovnak:I think so too.
Kochalka: And if you go back and look over the strips, I think you’ll see that over the last couple years, you can tell I’m building up to the end. Like there are clues that the strip is ending, [laughs] even before I really knew. It’s funny because – and I’ve said this many times before in interviews – the reason I started American Elf… well, one of the reasons is because I had grown dissatisfied with the whole idea of a graphic novel. That I didn’t think the stories of our lives had beginnings, middles and ends. I felt that there’s just thousands of stories in your life, all twisting around each other constantly, and some of those stories stop suddenly, and then start up again later. Some things happen every single day. And I just felt like the typical way of writing a story doesn’t really capture what it feels like to be human and to live a real life. So I thought that with the daily strip format I could accomplish that. And just by showing a little bit from each day, over time you’d see the kind of rhythms a real life goes through, and I think I’ve drawn enough to capture that rhythm. [laughs] I probably learned everything there is to learn and know within the first two years. Actually that’s not true…
Here’s one reason why I quit… there are thousands… but I felt like the strip will end sometime. There’s no way to prevent the strip from someday ending. At the very least I’d draw it up until the day I died, or something would happen in my life that prevented me from drawing the strip. And I thought, what a horrible tragedy that would be, if something changed in my life and made me unable to draw the strip. It is so much better to make the decision now, when I have some control over it and I know what I’m doing.
Rovnak:Between you and me, did you produce a strip for January 1st 2013 just for yourself? How was it to not pick up your sketchbook and not document something from your day? Was it a strange feeling?
Kochalka: No I didn’t [laughs]. I did draw a strip, but it wasn’t American Elf, and I didn’t ink it… yet. I drew a strip about my mushroom characters from Fungus. In a way I still have been drawing American Elf everyday, because everyday I pick out the thing that would be the strip. I just don’t draw it.
Rovnak:In your head you do?
Kochalka: Yeah, in my head. [laughs]
Rovnak:That leads directly into my next question. I’m sure you’re quite conditioned to view your days with the perspective of choosing an event or sequence for a strip. Are you finding you’re still viewing your days that way?
Kochalka: Everyday I would go about my day, and I’m thinking about what would be a good strip, and I haven’t stopped. I still do that all day long, every day. [laughs] That might never end. But the truth is that I did that before I started drawing American Elf. I was always translating in my mind whatever was happening into a comic strip format. Now I think I’m starting to stop thinking about what would be the American Elf strip for the day, and thinking about how can I use these moments in another story. Which is good because if I wanted to draw another autobiographical story mixed with science fiction and fantasy, I really couldn’t because all the material is put into American Elf. There would be nothing to draw about because it was all in there. But now if I stop for a while, hopefully I’ll accumulate enough of these little bits of information in my mind, that I’ll have enough to make another story.
Rovnak:You would have to lead two lives otherwise….
Kochalka: Right. [laughs]
Rovnak:Did you ever consider just stopping the strip publicly, and continuing the strip just for yourself? Why end American Elf entirely?
Kochalka: Oh yes, I did consider doing that. But then I thought, I don’t like doing anything that’s not going to see publication. I have no interest in creating any art, or any time-consuming art, that’s not for public consumption. I could never continue to draw the diary strip, and then never publish it. I would have to at least publish it eventually in some collected form.
Rovnak:In preparation for this interview I spoke with quite a few cartoonists about American Elf, and one common response from many was a real excitement and pride if they had at some point made an appearance in one of your strips. Why do you think this is? Is it every comic fans dream to appear in a comic? What makes appearing in American Elf so special?
Kochalka: Well this is going to sound really egotistical [laughs] but let’s say you’re hanging out with Picasso, and Picasso painted you into his painting. You’d be excited! I imagine these people know it’s an important work, and who would not want to be part of that? Although, when I announced the strip was ending, one person wrote to me to tell me that something I had drawn about them a decade earlier had terribly embarrassed them, and I guess they had been worrying about it ever since. So they just wrote to patch everything up since the strip was ending. That was interesting. Something that I’ve learned over the years is that drawing a strip like this is incredibly dangerous. There’s another reason to quit. I had nothing to lose in the old days. Now I’ve got a family and everything, and they don’t need any kind of drama, weird art drama… I don’t know. [laughs]
Rovnak:Did you find many acquaintances or family members trying to make appearances in the strip? Could you sense interactions from some people that seemed manipulated or motivated entirely by a desire to stand out in your memory so that they might be drawn by you?
Kochalka: Well the only ones I would notice were the people who were super obvious and would say, “Put me in the strip!” That obviously is clear… But my friend Jason (Jason X-12), who’s in the strip many times, he would always be angling to get in the strip, and I never would notice. He would just try and say awesome things hoping that I would draw those awesome things into the strip. And then he would always complain later that I’d just draw a leaf I saw or something, instead of the awesome thing he said. [laughs]
Rovnak:One person’s awesome moment is not another’s, right? [laughs]
Kochalka: That’s right!
Rovnak:So deciding to begin a daily strip back in 1998, I would imagine it must have been a bit daunting. Was it? And at what point, or how far into the process, did you find a rhythm with it? Do you remember a time when the strips just started happening, becoming part of your daily routine, versus the conscious decision to sit down and draw one everyday?
Kochalka: I would say it took a little over two years to get used to it. There was a period in the second year where I quit for two months, because it was too hard. It wasn’t until after that, that I really got into the rhythm of it. And the idea of starting the strip was daunting. I drew it for a week at the San Diego Comic-Con in the summer of 1998, just a sort of a little travel diary kind of thing, and it was great!! I couldn’t believe how great it was! And the whole reason I started was because Brian Ralph was on a plane with me, and he was like an aisle over, and I noticed he was doing work. He was working on the book Cave In, and I was like, “Brian Ralph is getting work done, and I’m just sitting here!” [laughs] So I pulled out a lined notebook, and I drew the first strip in that. And then I did it everyday, sometimes twice a day, in that week at the San Diego Comic-Con. And then got home, and photocopied it and made a tiny little mini-comic out of it. And I thought, “Boy, that was such a great thing. Wouldn’t it be amazing if I did that for a whole year?” Then I thought, “God, that would be so much work!” So I put it off for a couple of months, until October 28th. And then I just started. I went to the store, and I picked out a sketchbook that I thought would be pretty good, and then I started. Now I didn’t invent autobiographical comics, but by combining autobiographical comics with the daily strip format, I was the first person to do that that I had ever heard of. I don’t know if anybody had ever done that before? Of course there’s Jim’s Journal, but that’s fictional autobiography. It’s Jim, drawing his journal, but it’s not real. But that certainly was a strip that I was aware of that played some role in creating American Elf. Anyhow, it turned out to be a great marriage of two forms; and really, in retrospect fairly obvious. [laughs]
Rovnak:Did you find yourself doing or saying things that you knew would make for an interesting strip? Would you find yourself making statements that would allow for you to passive-aggressively communicate with people in your life?
Kochalka: Well I would sometimes set people up. Like I would have an idea for a line that I wanted to say, and I would say it to them, and then I would draw their reaction. And sometimes if I didn’t get the reaction I wanted, I would say the same line to someone else. [laughs] And the strange thing about that, and the strange thing about the whole strip, is that it’s definitely true. It’s autobiographical, but it’s also fictional. But that means my actual real life is becoming fiction if I am saying lines for the idea of getting a response. So suddenly my strip is autobiographical, but my real life is fictional. [laughs] And then, towards the end, there’s this weird feedback loop too, because I’m putting it up online, and I’m putting it in the newspaper, and I hear responses back from people, and make adjustments to my life based on reader reaction. I mean, that is insane! So I began to feel like I was trapped in some sort of strange dimension where nothing was real. You know it’s like the philosophical question of are you a person, or are you butterfly dreaming they’re a person? Are you a brain locked in a box on some distant planet being fed stimuli?
Rovnak:Are you a cartoonist, or are you a cartoon?
Kochalka: Right. Exactly.
Rovnak:Throughout the 14 years, what was some of the criticism you’d receive about the strip? Was there a reoccurring complaint or issue from family or friends? Were there people just outraged with how candid you were?
Kochalka: Some people really disliked me, or disliked my persona as I portrayed myself in the strip. I seem to generate enemies without actually doing anything to anybody. Without even ever talking to me, people would just decide they hated me. [laughs]
Rovnak:One thing that always stood out for me was how frank and honest you were with your portrayal of parenting. Did you receive much criticism about that?
Kochalka: Oh yeah. You know I got a letter once from a guy who said he liked the strip. But then I had kids, and he just thought that I was an awful person. That I was kind of mean to the kids, or that I was mean to my wife, and he just thought I was a bad man. And then he had kids, and then he saw that absolutely everything I drew about in the strip happened to him too [laughs] and he wrote me another letter to apologize. He said he was sorry to have judged me so harshly. It’s funny, because until he wrote me a letter saying he was judging me harshly, I had no idea I was being judged harshly.
Rovnak:How do you view your place in the comics industry? Will American Elf be remembered as your definitive work, and does that scare you? Are you scared of having your future work compared to American Elf?
Kochalka: I guess. I think it’s okay. [laughs nervously] I mean, Art Spiegelman did Maus, and he can’t really top Maus, right? And he’s fine.
Rovnak:Is it scary to now go back to the drawing board and start something new?
Kochalka: Sure. Luckily I have something else to distract me, which is that I have to paint between 100 and 200 paintings before April for a show at Giant Robot in L.A. So I’m just painting paintings, and I don’t have to worry about comics for a while. Although I do have to start a new strip in SevenDays. It’s supposed to start next week, and they keep asking me what it’s going to be, and I haven’t decided. [laughs]
Rovnak:Maybe you could just do an autobiographical strip about you struggling to come up with a new strip that’s not autobiographical? [laughs]
Kochalka: Yeah. Well I do have a brilliant idea for what to replace American Elf with, but I don’t know whether I should dive right into it. I almost dove right into on January 1st, the very next day after drawing American Elf, which is Zamerican Skrelf. [laughs] Zamerican Skrelf is American Elf, but not true. It would be sci-fi and fantasy stuff, but with the same characters, with some autobiographical truth, but a lot of made up events. So I still might do that.
Rovnak:Have you ever had an interest in producing someone else’s biography in comic form?
Kochalka: No. Sounds terribly boring. [laughs] You know it’s impossible for me to draw all the little details of what’s in a room, if it’s a room I haven’t seen. Or more specifically, if it’s a room I can’t actually look at while I draw it, or know intimately. I couldn’t draw a story that took place in someone else’s house, unless I was going to live in that house, and then I could look at the things I was going to draw. I can’t even imagine what another house looks like. [laughs] There are so many little details. Even in American Elf I would get details of my own house wrong all the time. If I draw from memory, the details are definitely wrong. But occasionally, or fairly often, I would draw a mixture of from memory and from life. If I wanted to know what some part of the room looked like, or some object in the house looked like, I could go up and go look at it. And sometimes I would. But I didn’t always. Sometimes I would just do the best I could just from memory. And certainly every time I did it from memory, I got it wrong. I always drew the phones wrong, but it’s not that important. That’s just the way it works, and it’s not unique to me. It’s the same kind of thing I guess where somebody witnesses a crime, and no one can describe what the person actually looked like, or what actually happened. Everybody gets it wrong. You just can’t trust memory. What I found recently is that memory is so unreliable that I’m not sure what’s real anymore. I remembered very clearly that this friend of mine built a fire in my sink last New Years Eve. And I was like, “Is he gonna build another fire in the sink?” And Amy was like, “You dreamt that! You dreamt that he built a fire in the sink.” Because I had really remembered it as a real event, something that actually happened, but it was just a dream. Then I thought, “How many other things from my life didn’t actually happen?” [laughs] There could be all sorts of things that I remember that didn’t actually happen.
Rovnak:And maybe by drawing them in your strip, you somehow made them more real.
Kochalka: Yeah, that’s right!
Rovnak:Is there one strip that stands out to you as your favorite or definitive American Elf?
Kochalka: I do have a favorite. I can’t remember the whole thing, but it’s just a single panel one. I’m standing on the corner of Elmwood Ave. and North St., and Eli is in a little sling on my chest, and there’s a dead bird. And I’m pointing at the dead bird, and I say something profound. [laughs] I don’t remember exactly now. It’s something like, “Look, Eli. Death.” That’s my favorite strip. You’d think if it’s my favorite strip I’d remember it a little better, but…
Rovnak:…memory is unreliable, right?
Kochalka: [laughs] That’s right. Memory is not reliable.
Rovnak:That’ll be the title of this interview. [laughs]
Rovnak:I noticed you seemed to take some more risks artistically with the layout on some of the final strips. Was this a conscious choice? Did you find the pressure of what to do for the final strip overwhelming, or was it liberating because you were ending it anyways?
Kochalka: More deviations from the form? Well that was the great thing about American Elf. Because I drew it everyday, any individual strip didn’t really matter that much. So I felt like it was okay to try something else. I could have gone a lot wilder, I suppose. I just did it when I felt it. If I deviated from my standard format, it wasn’t because I was like, “Oooh, let’s experiment!” I did it because I just thought it would work to show whatever it was I was trying to show. I mean you could start a strip where you’re just going to do crazy experiments everyday, but that would be a different strip.
Rovnak:So if someone were to go to americanelf.com today, what would they find?
Kochalka: Well on the front page, you’d see the very last American Elf strip. But if you scrolled down, there’s a list of other strips on the site, and there’s a new thing now called ‘Little Paintings’. And everyday I’m putting up a little painting.
Rovnak:Now remind me, where are you in your tenure or term as Vermont’s first Cartoonist Laureate?
Kochalka: Hmmm, when did I become Cartoonist Laureate? I think I might be in the final year now. It’s a three-year term.
Rovnak:So what have you done during your time as Cartoonist Laureate?
Kochalka: What have I done? [laughs]
Rovnak:Yeah, what have you done?
Kochalka: [laughs] Well I’ve gone to teach comics at a few different schools and libraries. But you know, I did that before I was Cartoonist Laureate, and I’ll probably do it after I’m done being Cartoonist Laureate. It’s just that …
Rovnak:…you do it with a title. [laughs]
Kochalka: There’s no official duties. [laughs] It’s really just an honor.
Rovnak:Will there be another Cartoonist Laureate after you?
Kochalka: I don’t know. I imagine. I think they should. We have quite a few world-class cartoonists here in Vermont, and we’re getting more cartoonists all the time. As people come to the Center for Cartoon Studies, a fair amount of those cartoonists end up settling here in Vermont afterwards. And we’ve begun to attract other cartoonists who just think, “Hey, there seems to be something interesting going on over there in Vermont. Maybe I’d like to go to Vermont?”
Charles Glaubitz just finished up an exclusive image which will be used as Panel to Panel’s holiday card this year. And while I’m not going to reveal the finished product yet, here are some pictures of the work in progress.
Known and admired for works of graphic literature like A Sleepyhead Tale, Whotnot!, and A World of Trouble, published by preeminent comics publishers like Fantagraphics Books, Eaton is also a well-respected illustrator and painter, focusing the past few years on cartoon-influenced imagery, most especially his notoriously popular series of watercolor paintings, CARTOON JUMBLES, an ongoing collection that recently inspired one of the world’s foremost entertainment corporations to seek their legal injunction, a bid which happily failed, thanks to the gracious assistance of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
CARTOON JUMBLES feature irreverent pairings of cartoon icons, duos of fanciful measure like Andy Capp & Betty Boop, Beetle Bailey & Prince Valiant, Little Lulu & Wonder Woman, The Yellow Kid & Mr. Natural, and Mark Trail & Bullwinkle, all rendered in soft gouache tones and ink, on austere, pulp-hewn manila paper. Eaton’s other cartoon-based paintings offer abstract, neo-expressive and a generally psychedelic take on traditional comic book and animated film iconography.
This interview was conducted via email in September 2012.
John Rovnak: Can you explain to me the origins of the Cartoon Jumbles? What inspired the idea behind “jumbling” comic/cartoon characters? What was the first one?
Jem Eaton: I honestly cannot recall exactly what it was that inspired me to create the first Jumble, which was Superman and Bugs Bunny, a painting from early 2008 that currently hangs in the home of Death Cab For Cutie guitarist Chris Walla. The general impetus that guides me through each and every one is my great affection for primary colors held within lush ink lines and the great economy of design that imbues the best of cartoon characters.
Rovnak: Can you describe the “jumbling” process? Do some characters lend themselves to the process better than others? Are there guidelines or prerequisites a character must meet in order for you to “jumble” it?
Eaton: Any cartoon character is treatable, whether sourced from comic book, animated television/film, or product advertising. Those with defined black ink lines work best, as their shapes are more iconic and more readily recognizable and transferable. The “jumbling” process involves a period of mental examination, days or weeks, locating two diverse characters whom at first seem rather ridiculous together but actually have complimentary elements in their color/design palette or a certain overlapping of their psychological narrative; the latter often only fully discernible upon some inspection on the part of the viewer.
Rovnak: Have (or would) you ever turned down a request for a Jumble, based on the fact that the characters are too diverse or different?
Eaton: Never based on divergence. A strange diversity is often just what I am looking for in a commissioned Jumble. Being that the commissions are not drawn straight from my own sensibilities/predilections, they need to hit me in a special way to really get my creative engine going. I am often surprised at the results, making it a collaborative exercise in more than one respect. The commissions actually fine-tune my approach, so that when I next undertake a self-imagined Jumble I am more open and keen-minded about the whole activity. It helps greatly.
Rovnak: What type of person commissions a Jumble? Who do you find responds most to your work?
Eaton: Other than an obvious fondness for cartoon characters, I find those requesting Jumbles to be a very varied bunch, varied, but generally quite accomplished and interesting people in their respective fields. I’ve had requests from journalists, novelists, musicians, comics historians, science writers, animators, cartoonists, lawyers, professors, book designers, television producers, and publishers, to name a few. The affection for their chosen characters is clearly evident. I also have to believe they share some interest in owning original art, in displaying it in their homes, photos of which I sometimes receive in gratitude.
Rovnak: Have any artists whose style or characters you’ve mimicked in a Jumble responded to you? What were their thoughts?
Eaton: An interesting question. Many of my Jumble subjects were created by artists long ago deceased, of course, but of the contemporary lot I’ve had only positive responses. Craig McCraken, creator of The Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends, was very kind and enthusiastic when he received the Jumble of Mojo Jojo and Eduardo he requested. To quote his kind response: “I just got the Mojuardo jumble the other day. WOW it’s freakily great!! He’d fit perfectly into either show. He’d totally work as a terrifying villain or a mutant imaginary friend. The more I stare at him the more I pick out the elements of the original designs. You did a really great job of interweaving the two. Thanks so much for doing this, it’s gonna hang in a place of honor next to my Jamie Hewlett Mojo.” I also recently heard from Rick Altergott concerning my Doofus/Dr. Strange Jumble. He was quite charmed and mentioned an upcoming visit to Steve Ditko’s NYC studio and the idea of taking Ditko a copy of the painting to see what his reaction might be. I eagerly await such a response, if it arises.
Rovnak: Your work shows an incredible sense of patience and balance, is this something you practice in your noncreative life as well?
Eaton: Ha. “Practice” might not be the word for it. More like “struggle”… To achieve… Every single day! Any control I can exercise in my art is its own reward, and a release from my utter lack of mastery over so many other aspects of my life. But aren’t we all in that quandary?
Rovnak: Would you appreciate seeing other cartoonists attempting their own Jumbles, or would you feel like they’re treading on your territory?
Eaton: I imagine a direct attempt at echoing what I do wouldn’t be too well received in the proprietary portion of my brain, as Jumbles are actually quite personal undertakings. There are other such mixings of popular characters out there, just not so extensive and singularly-purposed. A solo show of Jumbles that was held at Secret Headquarters Gallery in Los Angeles in 2009 resulted in more than one press notice referring to my art as “mash-ups”, a music-coined term I was then unfamiliar with. I remember mentally frowning at that. Cartoon Jumbles are about a lot more than the visual combining of their subjects. If they succeed on my terms, they are as much about how our greater culture and very existence find reflection in our cartoon archetypes. That might sound a bit highfalutin of me, sort of Robert Hughes meets Joseph Campbell, but I sincerely reach for it each time, whether I accomplish it or not, even with the commissioned pieces. I’ve actually created a fictional stand-in to exercise commentary on these loftier considerations, a comics scholar named Stanley Pulpe, who often supplies critical overviews on my Cartoon Jumbles page at Facebook. Pulpe is meant as a bit of a buffoon, a means to keep my airier thoughts grounded.
Rovnak: You seem to be creating your own genre/movement; what are your hopes and desires for the Jumbles?
Eaton: Again, not to sound too self-important, but I really am on a mission to explore these characters that follow us through life, their glyph-like translation of our ever-mutating reality so evident in their stark outlines and almost calligraphic forms. We all have a relationship with them, whether we are aware of it or not. I’m sure there are individuals out there who have taken a fondness for a particular cartoon character through their lives, from childhood to adulthood, a certain companionship that well might be more potent, and lasting, than their relationships with actual people. Is that perhaps sad? Tragic even? Maybe. And maybe that unspoken pathos, one born of the point at which commercial culture supersedes a fractious family history, is the very thing I am plugging into. Then again, I am just jazzed at the prospect of mixing colors and costumes and symbols, iconic ink forms jumbling to a pleasant conclusion. I hope Cartoon Jumbles might touch upon all of these things in others and give them something of the perspective I take. I also hope to rekindle the rush of old memory when it comes to certain characters, for they are indeed imprinted upon our very psyches.
Rovnak: If you yourself were a cartoon character, what other character would you be jumbled with? What cartoon character best compliments you?
Eaton: My character would follow a lean, angular and dark-haired template, so a character of some great divergence from that I think would be the best Jumble partner. Perhaps the Shmoo? Or Bibendum (the Michelin Man)? I would be playing with contrast in such a Jumble, that’s for sure. There are two characters that best compliment me, in personality and physical composition: Jughead and Goofy.
Rovnak: Do you ever see a “jumbled” narrative in your future?
Eaton: That is something I haven’t yet even considered, but the prospects are pretty enticing, to say the least. I suppose it hasn’t come to mind for the simple fact that Jumbles, as objects of original art, avoid the legal complications that utilizing licensed properties in a narrative form might well encounter, especially if it were to be printed and sold as a comic book. There is a fine legal line in this respect, one I have dealt with in the recent past, when a particular large, international entertainment corporation sought to terminate my creation of any further Jumbles. Through the immeasurable help of friends at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund I was able to squash this legal attack, I am happy to say. I have had interest from more than one publisher to do an art book of Cartoon Jumbles. That idea is far more workable, in an ownership sense, as it would be presenting my Jumbles as original works of art, reproductions of which being the visual component of the publication. As I say, there is a fine line to tread here. If there was a clear way to follow through with a “Jumble Graphic Novel”, I would certainly entertain the idea, but I don’t see how it could be accomplished without crossing this line or watering down the essence of the Jumble recipe, something I have no interest in doing.
Rovnak: The combination of the pulp-hewn Manila paper, and the weight of your line work, reminds me of old school/classic tattoo flash art sheets, and/or newsprint comics. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
Eaton: Yes. I was hoping to replicate the look of old newsprint comic books especially, where a pure white color does not exist. I’ve also done quite a bit in mimicking old coloring book art this way. I find it very satisfying to recreate that burnished look of bygone printed matter, even more so now that we are dropping into an ever-increasingly inescapable age of virtual publication, paper’s aging less and less in question.
Rovnak: What modern day cartoonists do you most admire and why?
Eaton: I have to put Jaime Hernandez at the top of my list. His clean style and classic character design speaks directly to my interests, to say nothing of his great consistency and output. Pretty remarkable when you really start to think about it. Close behind is Gilbert Hernandez. His narrative powers are quite remarkable. There are others who achieve a lot graphically, but don’t quite match in storytelling prowess. A very different sort of cartoonist I’ve always admired is Ben Katchor, mostly for his uncanny ability to create a unique little world inside each panel. I also appreciate clean-line artists like Mike Allred and Jay Stephens, as well as the better practitioners of the Bruce Timm school of super hero drawing. And there are many I’m probably not aware of, but might enjoy, as I admit I don’t follow most modern comics with any great scrutiny.
Rovnak: What modern day characters (in comics or pop culture in general) do you feel best exhibit the iconographic ink lines that you’re attracted to?
Eaton: There really aren’t any that readily come to mind, other than some of Craig McCraken’s characters in Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and The Powerpuff Girls, and perhaps Bender from Futurama, more for his purity of design than any attribute of line. Many of the best animated cartoons of the past twenty years, like The Simpsons, and The Ren and Stimpy Show, are peopled with characters whose design is rather uninspiring as a general rule. This extends to most children’s programming and comic books, Spongebob Squarepants and Dora The Explorer being two possible exceptions, in only that they have a clearly recognizable architecture, but neither inspires much adoration design-wise. Some gaming characters, like Mario and Sonic Hedgehog are decent, but don’t quite stand up to their pop cultural predecessors. In comic books, I would suggest Jim Woodring’s Frank, Kaz’s Creep Rat, and to a lesser extent Mike Allred’s Madman, but the iconic line of the golden era of cartooning is pretty much a thing of the past. Again, I do not keep up with everything that’s current, so there is bound to be a fine exception to this state-of-affairs that I’m unaware of.
Rovnak: Besides Jumbles, what else are you working on?
Eaton: I’ve recently finished an 888-page novel, Funny Sunday, which is essentially a graphic novel without pictures, one that reads like a revisionary Peyton Place, adapted to screenplay by Preston Sturges, based on storyboards by Robert Crumb (which, I suppose, makes it something of a narrative Jumble itself). In lieu of finding someone crazy enough to publish this work, I have been posting a page a day on Facebook. I am also working on a proposed 120-page graphic novel entitled The Emotionals. What that one is about I won’t even attempt to summarize, other than to say it is my goal to return a bit of the audacious inscrutability of underground comix to their modern alternative counterpart, a psychedelic spiking of the contemporary coffee culture narrative. I am also working on another novel, a second graphic story and numerous paintings and comic-based illustrations. Many of these can be viewed as regular postings at my Jeremy Eaton Facebook page.
Rovnak: Your deep love and respect for comics, its characters, and its great master creators is evident. It shows in your work and comes through in speaking with you, but what do you hate about comics?
Eaton: Hate? Hmm. I’m not sure if there actually is anything I don’t basically enjoy about the classic age of comics and cartoons, my nostalgia allowing for all the quirks and failings of cheaply-printed and produced media, an answer which leads me to declare that I am no fan of the modern desire for three-dimensionality in both comics and animation, especially in the heavily-rendered, digitally-colored comic books readers are offered today. I’ve had a couple of requests featuring current characters who exist without the iconographic ink lines that so define the cartoons of yesterday and find these irksome to work comfortably into a Jumble. They just don’t have that wonderful economy of design.
Rovnak: Was there a defining moment in your youth that really connected you to comics and pop culture?
Eaton: I suppose it came with my first subscription to a comic book. I was born and raised in Great Britain and we received our weekly comics bundled into the Sunday newspaper, which my dad would pick up at the village news agent. This was the 1960s. These were usually twenty-page editions with newsprint covers and guts, a brand of newsprint a few notches lower than the sort I later discovered in American comics. I didn’t see a super hero comic until I came to the US, believe it or not. My comics featured adventure stories and humor stories, usually starring a snaggle-toothed young English troublemaker with an unaccounted for “super power” or magical friend of some sort. I loved these, like most kids, but it was only when I immigrated to America as a pre-teen that I saw Harvey Comics and Marvel Comics. Those two brands in particular imprinted themselves indelibly on my culturally overwhelmed little brain. I kind of “became American” through them, if such a thing is possible. Until that point, America was only exemplified in the few Disney films I’d seen. I had no idea what a hotbed of popular culture it was going to prove to be. I suppose I’m still overwhelmed by it all.
Rovnak: In browsing your collection of images, both on your Facebook page and the online gallery of the Comic Art Collective, I’ve now discovered your Neo-Expressionist series. Can you speak a little bit about this series and how you’re approaching it?
Eaton: Well, the “Neo-Expressives” are actually indebted to my answer in the previous question. It might be hard to fathom for most practicing cartoonists, but I didn’t cut my teeth by copying my favorite characters from comics when I was young. The few examples of such childhood exercises are rarities. I have also never been an obsessive doodler. I don’t keep sketchbooks, I don’t draw in public. My experiments of the past few years are chiefly my first attempts at illustrating many of these popular characters. This may well be what is giving me such impetus and satisfaction with Jumbles and auxiliary series like the Neo-Expressives, which stem from an objective study and subsequent dissection of the primary elements that form such cultural companions as Fred Flintstone and Dick Tracy. The symbolic imagery and essential color the Neos utilize is very exciting to me and may very well soon emigrate to large-scale canvas painting, a direction I feel ready to embrace.
Print on Demand copies are still available… on demand, that is! 🙂
Follow the link below to comixpress.com and demand a copy today!
Panel to Panel: Exploring Words & Pictures Volume 1
Edited by John Rovnak
An eclectic mix of Articles, Interviews, Essays and Comics featuring Alan Moore, Mark Bode, Glenn Danzig, James Kochalka, Jimmy Gownley, Charles Glaubitz, Steve Murphy, Rick Veitch, Jim Woodring, Craig Yoe, and many more. Contributions by Mort Todd, Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe, Jon Mathewson, Stephen R. Bissette, Philip Charles Crawford, Daniel Barlow, Rob Walton, and more.
So a couple of weeks ago the annual publication from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2012, was released. As I skimmed through my copy, I was delighted to find that Charles Glaubitz’s THE CRYSTAL SIGIL was selected as one of the “Notable Comics” of 2012! THE CRYSTAL SIGIL first saw print in our own PANEL TO PANEL book, then later in a special edition that Charles is offering on his Etsy page. I’m very proud to have helped bring Charles’ vision to a wider audience, and I’m hopeful that he and I will be working on something again soon.