|Maximum Rock and Roll interview, December 2000 issue (# 211)|
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S: And then when it got down to it, and we're not all this universal guy, we're all different, and we all bring all kinds of shit to the table, and activism becomes dealing with all these individual people who have other questions and other issues, so in a way, I think there was something false about that work, from the perspective I had later. In a way some of that propaganda art may have contributed to the type of idealistic notions we had of ourselves, as solving the problem of homelessness for everyone in the world. These great things we thought we could do that weren't really what we ended up doing. So at a certain point, I wanted to do a book about how things really played out, and what the contradictions were in practice. So the first book was about theory, the second book was about practice. God knows what the third book will be.
F: I want to ask you about something: because you're basing your characters on actual people, I don't know if you want to say anything about problems that you then had with the people you're depicting. A lot of the situations, you're not really showing some of these people at their best. I think your book is really great for that fact, the characters are very real. Some of them are total assholes, and some of them are scary, some of them are really more involved in their own head than in the actual struggle. I don't know if you want to say something about that.
S: I have to say that I was really terrified about what the reaction would be to the book. I figured somebody was going to hang me for it.
B: Before it was published? You were showing it around to people who were represented in the book.
S: Yeah I was, and I did try to consult with people to deal with their issues before it came out. And in some cases people really couldn't deal with me saying this or that, and I'd really have to decide, am I going to listen to that? Is that person's objection legitimate, or is it their vanity? Because we all have our own point of view. And in some cases I change things for people, and in some cases I realize they're not going to be happy until I show them looking like Charles Atlas or Raquel Welch. And you know, sorry, I had to make that decision, I had to make that call. Also, I changed people's names and identities in some cases, particularly in those cases where I felt that what was being said could be genuinely damaging. Like if I'm showing someone with a heroin problem, well, they don't really want that to show up next time they do a job interview, so I'm not going to use their name. And if I'm showing someone doing something extremely illegal, you know, like dropping heavy objects on police officers, I don't think that person wants their name attached to that activity. So I would take that out or change it. And that gives me this great opportunity to get some science fiction in the book, to turn someone into a bird, or a walking bomb...
F: I like the bomb. That's a good one.
S: Yeah he looks cool, like a Jack Kirby character. So I've got this excuse to bring in some of the things I liked to draw when I was a kid.
B: There's a talking dog in there too. There's a couple of talking dogs!
F: The dogs were okay with that?
S: Yeah, the dogs were okay, they obviously didn't object. But I was really scared of a negative reaction.
F: But haven't you had problems in the past, people threaten you?
S: I had more problems before I did the book. I got threats from people when I was in the movement, when I would go to meetings and say "You know, what you're doing is full of shit." I got a broken nose for that, and I got intimidated. And I've got less problems from people with the book out. In fact, I can think of one person who, the most scary thing he would do to me is try to act friendly to me, when he knew and I knew that we weren't friends, and he wanted us to appear to be friends. But the interesting thing is, when the book came out he stopped talking to me, and that was great. But I have to say, the response I've had to the book in the neighborhood in the last month or so was the exact opposite of what I'd worried about. People have been great about it except for a few individuals, people have been able to embrace it, and be really supportive of it, and like the book more than I like it. I think part of that is because a lot of time has elapsed since those stories, and if I'd told those stories when the things were actually happening, they would have been very volatile and problematic, and part of that is maybe people are more mature than I thought they were.
F: Yeah, I think that's part of it, and I think that even though it's critical, it's legitimizing the history that these people participated in. It's saying, yes, this is a historical time and these people existed in it. Everyone likes to be remembered as being part of something that was bigger than they are. A lot of people, even if they're not shown in their best light, or even if they're not shown in it at all, just the fact that these events, which weren't really documented in this way by anyone, are there. It's like a solid piece of history. [pause while Fly visits the loo]
F: I just want to mention that plumbing is great. I love it! And I'm so happy that I have a toilet, although it's broken, and it's a bucket flush toilet, it's so nice. Because after 8 years of piss bucket, I'm ecstatic every time I go in there and sit on my toilet!
B: Just to have it on the record, do you want to recite the lyrics to Piss Bucket?
F: Oh man... Okay, this is a song called Piss Bucket. 1-2-3-4 Piss piss piss Piss bucket Piss piss piss Piss bucket Shit! I spilled it But it doesn't matter Cause it was frozen Solid Anyway You know, I even shortened it for you...
S: Okay, this relates to the question I was going to ask you, which is essentially the question you asked me: how do your comic strips relate to real situations?
F: Well, because, Seth, they're based on real situations! S (flummoxed): Yeah, but how? Um, er, I mean...
B: Can I ask my question at the same time, which may amplify parts of your question? I was thinking about the way Seth's book deals with history by analyzing it, showing everything that's happening from Point A until now, and it seems like in your book and in your comics, you don't deal with history as all the stuff that led up to now...
F: Because I can't deal with it!
B: ...but it shows up like as surrealism on the surface of now. The narrative structure on one page shows everything flowing into everything else, becoming surreal.
F: Okay, now we're talking about the book, and the writing. I don't know, I see the writing that I've done as being a little different from the comics. Although I guess in the book, the comics are kind of out there too.
B: And the comics use the same text as the writing.
F: Yeah, that's true. Very nonlinear. The book is basically a collection of zines that I did during a four year period, early-mid 90s. There was a lot of stuff going on in the neighborhood that was kind of explosive. There was so much going on that it was hard to keep track of what was happening when, and to who, and where, and some of it for me personally was stuff that I had a real hard time writing about directly, because of not wanting to name people, not wanting to deal with the events directly. I guess the way that you deal with them is direct, and I didn't want to do that and have people come down on me because of my subjective take on things. I didn't think that I was in any position to analyze or offer solutions to what I saw was fuck-ups. I could look at what was happening and say "You guys are assholes, you're fucked up," but I couldn't really figure a way out of that. So instead of dealing directly with what was going on, I kind of took this more indirect route of describing situations in a very fantastical way. A lot of dreams that I had at that time were very vivid, realistic and violent, and full of the events that were going on in the day. So what I would do is take these dream stories that I had and kind of fuse them with what was actually going on, so what you get is like this, like you said, surreal stories. At some points you think it's actually happening, then something will happen and it's like, no way this can be happening. But because it's a mix of these vivid dreams with reality, mixed in with things that were going on at the time.
B: And a whole section of the book is called Meanwhile, as though all this different stuff is happening at the same time. And there's this character of you all schizzed out, with three or four different faces.
F: Yeah. Well I felt pretty all over the place at that time also. I liked the idea of being able to present a multitude of events and things going on at the same time. Because that's the way it was happening, it was very dense activity, too hard to describe in a linear way. I was really trying, like, my mind would be racing at any of these events or actions where so much was going down simultaneously, and just trying to keep track of it all. I was really trying to capture that feeling of being almost out of control, of trying to take in what was going on and process it, and put it in some kind of structure that your brain could deal with. A lot of times it was almost impossible to do that. And you know, a lot of people were going nuts. I saw people lose their minds. People could not handle some things that were going on. And people went crazy, it happened. Some of them dangerously, some of them harmlessly, except to themselves maybe, but it was kind of destructive in that way. But it was also really inspiring because you get these incredible adrenalin rushes, and when positive things were happening it was really good. So I don't know if this is answering the question...
S: Oh, yeah. I was actually thinking while you were saying that, reality itself is so complex and happens on so many levels, that to produce a work of art that people read as a coherent narrative, or realistic, you're actually editing things out, in order that people can stand it. You're actually being somewhat dishonest, and that's why it's perceived as realism. I found in some of my stories that there were too many characters, I wanted to get rid of this guy and this guy because nobody will keep track of all these people. Or two people who happen to look very similar; in real life, you'd be able to tell them apart, but on paper in black and white, they start to become the same person, so you have to give them another hairstyle or something so people will see the difference, and I was thinking as you were describing that, we actual edit down reality to understand it because there's so much going on. And your work is maybe less edited in that sense, and maybe that's where the surrealism comes from.
F: I don't know, I was interested in writing something at that time where it was like, you could pick any point in the text and start there. You could start in the middle, you didn't have a plot line, it wasn't linear, it was all over the place, and it was kind of the way I felt about my life at that time because I was a lot more transient. I was travelling a lot, and the people I would meet, we would cross paths at one point in their timeframe, and then you move on, and there are all these components where you don't know their whole histories, and you just interact, and it's the way the old LES was, and still can be, but to a lot lesser degree. A lot of people come here, it's like every summer there's a new cast of characters. There's a bunch of people who've been here for a very long time also, but it's kind of like these transient elements playing themselves out within this area where there's a lot of fixed elements. So I like the idea of fluidity and not really having to know a history or have a background. And the way my text was going, you can start in the middle or wherever you want to and read from there. You can read it backwards.
B: It's like decentralized power and its opposition there's not a start or end, just networks of networks.
F: Yep rhizomatic. [Laughs, long pause.] I really threw you off with that one!
S: It's funny, I always found reading your stuff (and I always wondered if other people had this experience or not, because I know you and I know the situations you're describing), I felt like I could kind of see through the piece to what the situation was it was responding to, that there was all this stuff going on but it was like a lens, and I could tell that on the other side of that, Fly is really pissed off about such-and-such...
F: Yeah, that's exactly true. I always wonder if people are going to pick up on these things. I put in very subtle clues about things that are actually going on, or what it's actually in reference to, and there's like a lot of little clues here and there. The way that I used to write, I would hide things so well that sometimes I wouldn't be able to figure it out! When I'm writing it, I know exactly what I'm talking about, and then later on I'm reading it, like "What the hell is this about?" But even if you can't figure out that it's referring to something specific, I still think that the whole nonlinear thing makes your brain work harder. You read it, and try to grab on to some anchor.
B: Well, I certainly found this when I was proofreading your writing. I'd be reading, and come to something that I couldn't tell if it was wrong, or not what you'd intended it to be, and I'd invent these really elaborate ways that it made sense.
F: Well I think the stories are really funny. I think they're hilarious I mean there's a lot of violence, etc. but I think a lot of people aren't used to reading that style or whatever. And I think it makes people use their imagination a little more, which is something that I find really lacking in a lot of things. Imagination and a sense of humor are, I think, incredibly lacking in a lot of stuff that I've seen that's political.
B: So do you find humor to be a revolutionary tool?
F: I think it's necessary to any revolutionary movement. It's an element that, if you can't capture somebody's imagination, and if you can't give them some enjoyment, then what's the use?
B: If you can't dance, and so forth...
F: Yeah. Emma, she knew. Emma would be out at these RTS dance parties, she'd be so into that shit.
B: There's this great Tuli cartoon where Emma's saying her line, then Alexander Berkman says, "Well, if I haveta dance, I don't want to be in your revolution either!" [ha ha ha] Seth, I know that your dad's a physics professor. Did you feel, growing up, that your parents wanted you to do something educational?
S: My mom always said "You should go to art school, get a BA." And I said what do I need a BA for? If I go to an art director, he doesn't want to see a degree, he wants to see my portfolio. And she says, "yes, but when you get a BA, if it doesn't work out, you can go to law school." And I think that's why I didn't finish college, I was like no, I'm going to do this for the rest of my life. I'm not signing into what other people think is secure. I don't know if it's a question of being academic, but they wanted me to stay in something secure, and their notion of secure was being professional. My sister's a lawyer...
B: My question's not so much about career choice, but education that I'm curious about. It seems like with the stuff in your book, and your knowledge of politics, events, and movements, it seems like your work could be very educational in a radical milieu. Is that part of why you're doing this?
S: Education... I wouldn't mind that, but it's not what I'm thinking about. [To Fly:] What did your parents think about your artwork?
F: They always more or less supported me. They weren't really too involved, to tell the truth. I mean, my dad got a kick out of the fact that I liked to draw, because he always wanted to be an artist, but he was in the Navy, so he wasn't an artist. But one of my biggest influences as a kid to draw silly pictures was my dad, because he had done these black and white paintings of these guys who looked like they were hung over there were two of them, and I thought they were the coolest things in the world, cause my dad had done them (you know, I was a little kid), my dad had done this art that was on the walls. I thought this was the most incredible thing. They were like black and white guys with stubble on the face, very very cartoony, bags under their eyes, they just looked completely hung over.
S: And you've been hanging out with guys like that ever since!
F: Yeah, like you! But that was a big influence. And I remember when I was in grade 2, I drew this picture of a cow that my mom told me that I was the most incredible artist that ever lived, because of this cow. I was really excited about this, because my mom really didn't give me a lot of compliments, and like, she really thought this was an incredible piece of Renaissance artwork.
S: I think there's something really special about being an artist when you're a kid, like you've got this magic ability, and it's only when you get older that you find out that most of society can give a fuck whether you can draw a picture. Don't you think that?
F: I don't really feel that way. It's not that they can't give a fuck, it's that nobody wants to pay you for it, so you can't survive off it. No, everybody loves it, they want you to do it, but people don't respect it like they can respect a plumber, who comes to their house and does their plumbing. Artwork, it's like "that's not work you should be giving that away." I find that with a lot of people, even people who are our friends. And the thing is, there's a lot of things I do artwork for that I know don't have money, and I know are nonprofit, and I want to do stuff. And I do comics for Slug and Lettuce, and that's my comic and Chris is publishing it, and that's cool. Like, there's a lot of things that I'm doing artwork for and I'm not getting paid, but it's not the same as when people are in a position to pay you for working, and they don't want to, or don't want to pay very much, and I just find that is really a drag. It means that most people who are artists have to have other jobs to support themselves, which means they get a lot less time to do the stuff and work on it, and that sucks.
S: What do you think the role is of self-discipline and labor in production of your artwork?
F: I don't know how to answer that.
B: Do you mean like doing five panels every day?
S: Yeah, the time put into it. I mean, I know you bust your ass...
F: Yeah, for some reason it takes me an incredibly long time to do this stuff. I think a lot of people don't realize how much work goes into doing these comics. You have to come up with the idea, you have to storyboard it, you have to write it, sketch it, then ink it or whatever to make it printable. You're doing all those steps yourself. Whereas in the comics industry, it's broken down, and different people do the different steps. But you're doing it all yourself, and it can be really hard when you get stuck at one point, like in the storyboarding. I find it easiest once I'm at the point of sketching it, and inking it. That's what it goes really fast. But for me, the hardest part is writing the story, and figuring out how to lay it out on the page, and what words are going to go with what, and what kind of image is going to go with it, and what perspective it's going to be, and I find that that's the hardest part.
B: So keeping with Seth's question, how much discipline do you use in not just taking the easy way out? You always have to be making a decision...
F: Yeah. It depends on how much time I have. If I have a lot of time, I'll work on it a lot more slowly, let ideas germinate, and play around with different ideas, but if I have to have something done in two days, I pretty much go with my first sketches.
B: How much of your stuff do you show around to people before it winds up in its final stage?
F: It's different... Most of the comics that I do aren't really stuff I'm getting paid for, and it's not like I'm working with another writer or something, so I don't really have to show it.
B: But as far as advancing your own thinking about the stuff?
F: I will consult with people. I consult with Seth here, and if I'm doing something like the Esperanza garden thing, I'll consult with the people who were actually locked down.
B: Yeah, I noticed that the U-lock was really exactly the way I saw it that morning.
F: Yeah. So it depends on how complex a story is. If I'm having a problem with it and I don't think it's reading well, I'll go to Seth and ask him just to read it, and if it's coming across the way that I want to to.
S: I found that with some work, that if I'm really insecure about whether it's communicating, I'll show people a sketch, or even go into the subway and show people I don't know stuff I've done that and say "What are you looking at?" Not to find out whether they like it or not, because that's their business, but whether they're interpreting it the way I want them to interpret it. Because clarity and communication is a very important part of my art, and always has been. So I want to know that I'm communicating properly. So I'll do a script (in most of my recent work I'll do a written script first), then I'll do sketches, and when I'm happy with those, which are really small, like 50 percent, and when I'm happy with those, I'll blow them up on a xerox machine and use them as sketches for the artwork. In certain cases I'll even do life studies for certain people or certain buildings, if it's a very realistic strip. So I'll do sketches to get the layout, and then I'll do pencil, and then I have to either ink that, or for halftone work, paint it over in tones, and I've always had a problem that you sort of murder your pencils in your inks. Like there's something you get in your sketch or in your pencils that in the final version, you always feel like "Am I fucking it up? Am I destroying the piece?" But at the same time if you don't do that, people say it doesn't look finished.
F: Actually, I feel a lot of times that I get a lot more when I ink it. The way I ink mostly is with a brush, with a very small brush. I really like getting that painter's line, and I find that I get a better line when I'm inking than with pencils. It's not that they're stiffer, but they're pencils they have more of a linear think going on, and I get the real painter thing going on with the brush.
S: It's funny I feel like there's nothing I have control over more that a #2 pencil, cause I've been using them since first grade, and when I put something in #2 pencil, that's exactly what it was supposed to be. And I've gradually gotten control of ink, but it's never quite what I wanted it to be. It always does something I didn't expect it to do, and I have to adapt to it.
B: How did you decide, in War in the Neighborhood, which ones to do in ink, and which ones in black and white?
S: It's a really funny thing. Barbara, the woman I was going out with at the time, was always saying "Your pencils are so much better than your ink work. People don't know that you can do halftone and more complex types of realistic art." And I decided that normally I was doing work for World War 3, and we'd have 20 different artists with 20 different styles, and so we'd kind of break each others work up. We'd have a piece of mine next to a piece of Drooker's next to a piece of Romburger's, and Romburger's drawing in pastels, and I'm drawing in ink, and Drooker's drawing in scratchboard, and Fly's doing more surrealistic work, and Kuper's doing more lighthearted work sometimes, so that creates a break. Whereas here I'm going to do a graphic novel that's 328 pages of my stuff, so I want there to be some type of break between sections. So that was one reason to do some of them in halftone. Another reason was because of the actual event that were portrayed, particularly the ABC Community Center when I was in there, the lighting in that place was so weird and spectacular. Living there for 3 or 4 weeks in the cold...
F: I thought you got the light really amazing!
S: Compared to the real thing, it was still not there.
F: Compared to the real thing, but still, that's one thing that really struck my about that section, was the amazing way you were working with the lighting in this place. I think it's gorgeous.