This fall, writers and artists wanting to learn more about the possibilities of storytelling through graphic forms have the chance to learn from three local comics artists: David Lasky, who’s been a published cartoonist since 1989 and recently completed his first graphic novel, Carter Family Comics: Don’t Forget This Song (Abrams), in collaboration with Frank Young; frequent contributor to The Stranger and The Comics Journal and author of Disillusioned Illusions (Fantagraphics Underground Press), Greg Stump; and artist and co-founder of Seattle’s treasured Short Run Comix and Arts Festival, Eroyn Franklin.
David and Greg co-teach Ink Stud, a six-session reading class where you’ll closely study the mechanics of graphic master Daniel Clowes’ work. In Eroyn’s six-session class, Women in Indy Comics, you’ll explore works by women, hear from local women in indy comics, and write and draw your own work to develop your voice—moving from concept to final inked pages. Both classes, the teaching artists stress, are open to those with any level of drawing ability.
I asked if David, Greg, and Eroyn would discuss their upcoming classes with each other, and the below exchange—on Daniel Clowes’ surreal oeuvre, letting the story determine the medium, and an argument for obfuscation—was the result.
Eroyn Asks, David and Greg Answer:
Eroyn Franklin: I think of Daniel Clowes as one of the fathers of indie comics—someone who has a really distinct style that has shaped many of the comics we see today. Tell me about what it felt like to discover his comics and how it impacted the work you create.
David Lasky: As I re-read the early issues of Clowes’ series, Eightball, I’m realizing what a huge influence they had on me as they were coming out. A bigger influence than I’d thought. Each issue is a kind of manifesto about what has been wrong with comics, as well as what is wrong with the human race. I’m a little shocked by his outright misanthropy, but it was something I really related to when I was in my early 20’s. At the time, I was reading [the comic book series by the Hernandez brothers] Love and Rockets, and back issues of Crumb’s Weirdo magazine. But I had never seen anything quite like Eightball. Looking back, it clearly spurred me on, in the way other people talk about punk rock changing their lives.
Greg Stump: It would be difficult to overstate the impact that Eightball had on me when I discovered it in the early ‘90s. I wasn’t really aware that underground comics even existed, so my mind was doubly blown upon seeing, via Clowes’ work, what could be done in the medium, which I had always been attracted to through the humor and satire of Bloom County, MAD, and National Lampoon. (Superhero comics weren’t my cup of tea growing up). Seeing Clowes embark on a mystifying Lynchian narrative in Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, while at the same time going way past any of the aforementioned satirical publications in his comic rants, was like stumbling into a completely new world. More than any single book or title, Eightball was indirectly responsible for my shift away from creating superficial political cartoons and toward a more esoteric, artistic path in my own work.
EF: I have always loved Clowes’ attention to building these weird minor characters. Even with very little page space dedicated to them, they are complex, strange, and totally identifiable as someone you know or have seen on the bus or stood behind at the grocery store. Which of his side characters would you most like to meet (or which do you hope you never run into!)? Can you talk a little bit about why?
DL: I don’t really want to meet any of his characters.
GS: I have to agree with Dave that most of Clowes’ characters would be best avoided in real life, but if I had to hang out with any of them, I’d want to go thrift-store shopping with Enid Coleslaw from Ghost World.
EF: Dan Clowes’ stories often have some reference to the medium of comics in an old-school way that focuses on things like superheroes and collections. That gives me the sense that it is a lifetime passion for him. I’m curious if either of you grew up as avid comics readers or came into it later and if there is something about his “tip of the nib” that is interesting to you.
DL: I’ve loved comics all my life, and had a superhero-collecting phase in my teen years. Eightball (in the saga of Young Dan Pussey) pointed out both the lack of originality in superhero comics, and the horrible way the creators of those comics have been treated by their publishers. Clowes set out to destroy the “romance” of mainstream comics in the way grunge (at the same time) attempted to destroy the concept of the rock star. Neither really succeeded. But Clowes and Kurt Cobain shaped the way I think about the media, and the way I approach my own creative work.
David and Greg Ask, Eroyn Answers:
GS: I’m curious, since you’re offering a class this fall on women in indy comics, if you have any thoughts on how the shift from comic books (cheap, ephemeral, ongoing endeavors, “lowbrow,” etc.) to graphic novels (more expensive, self-contained, durable, and respectable) has affected content by women creators. I’m thinking of work like Wimmin’s Comix or Dirty Plotte, which seem to have a different tone or attitude than one finds in the graphic novel equivalent today—is it just a question of different eras, or is it different formats, or both? And do you see minicomics filling the gap today in terms of risk-taking and experimentation for creators in general and women creators in particular?
EF: I have so many thoughts on these questions, but I’m gonna rein it in.
The shift from floppies (comics you’d find at a newsstand) to hardbound books has shifted the content we see in indie comics for sure. Floppies can seem insubstantial and commercial, whereas graphic novels are often more artsy long-form literary accomplishments. I think that appeals to most of the women I know from my generation and older. I have given informal (and often drunken) surveys that lead me to conclude that many women do not work in comics because of a lifelong love of comics, but as makers of art and writing. The most common explanation I hear is that commercial comics have historically been more focused on young males so we didn’t see ourselves in comics and didn’t read them as much. When we see artists like Ellen Forney, Lynda Barry, and Carol Tyler making experimental, raw, and philosophical comics, it starts us out on a path that is not tethered to these tiny panels and trite narratives. There’s no firm framework to tie us down so we can be a little more free in some ways. That is definitely changing—most of my students are teenage girls who read manga religiously. I’m so excited to see what these ladies will do.
As far as the more risky, experimental comics you mention—I see lots more women and men creating that kind of work in minicomics and zines and I believe that is mostly because those are the types of books that are self-published and that kind of raw content (especially NC17!) is less marketable (though we do see some). You have no editor, publisher, or agent telling you to tame your voice. Minis are a cheap and easy way for you to get as gross, sexy, and strange as you want.
DL: You seem to have jumped into making comics without (as far as I can tell) making a publication in the traditional “comic book” format. Can you tell us a little about where you came from as an artist and how you decide on the varied formats of your publications?
EF: Ha! That’s pretty true. I always let the story or concept determine the format and even the medium—watercolor, cut paper, pen and ink, etc. I’m not making weird books for the sake of weirdness—I’m trying to be intentional. For a story about the endless wait of detainees in immigration detention centers I made an unwieldy 26-foot long book to hold the story. In Vantage, I talk about the experience of hiking through a tiny book with pages that show the textures of the trail (dirt, sticks, rocks.) Those pages open up to reveal the view from the same spot along the trail. I really wanted to convey that sense of discovery when you’re staring at the trail for hours and you look up and see a perfect view.
For Just Noise, I wanted to capture the cyclical nature of a failing relationship. Instead of giving the characters voices to convey the idea, I let their gestures articulate their emotions and cut out the word bubbles out so that they spiral down to the eventual demise of the conversation. For me, the format needs to go beyond an aesthetic choice and actually enhance our understanding of the story or concept.
DL: You have done a lot of work in the form of silhouettes or shadow puppets. How did you come to this form, which is fairly rare for comics, and what about it appeals to you?
EF: Basically, I got married to go on a trip around the world on a ship. I was working on my BFA thesis in photography at a conceptual program at the UW that pretty much allowed me to do whatever I wanted. We had a small cabin with virtually nothing but a pile of maps and an emergency blanket. One day I started cutting those maps into lace, leaving only the waterways and roads. (You see this all the time now! I’m sure I was not the first, but it really caught on.) I did several other conceptual cut paper projects and was content with them.
A few years later I graduated, got divorced, and went on a three-month residency in isolated Anacortes, Washington. I had a lot to talk about and very few people to talk to so I started writing prose again and took to cutting out figures to illustrate them. The desire to tell stories and draw people was so innate and ancient. I realized I had spent years attempting to be clever, but in a way that obfuscated the point—I wanted them to work to understand me, which sounds almost passive aggressive toward the viewer. Cut paper is cathartic by its nature—I used scalpels to extract the unwanted parts and shape the remainder—there is power and strength in it that feels greater to me than any other method of making. Since I was facing so many difficult changes at that time, it had to be the medium for my re-entry into the life of a storyteller.
DL: It sounds like you went from an academic Fine Arts background into comics. Do you have any idea why academia is against art that tells stories? Why things must always be so obfuscated?
EF: I don’t know the answer to this question, but I can speak from experience. I do actually know a lot of artists in art school who worked narratively or combined images and words. I had teachers who leaned more toward story than others. In photography specifically, narrative is really common in both journalism and commercial work and is still pretty common in the more artsy realm of the medium. All of that being said, I think a lot of artists of all mediums are drawn to creating work that is a strictly visual or conceptual experience.
After the invention of photography, artists focused on the formal elements of painting instead of trying to represent reality. That brought a lot of experimentation that strayed from the narrative work of religious paintings, which spoke in the language of symbolism. Many artists who were either not religious or wanted to break away from the old cannon and do something new turned away from those storied traditions. But that created it’s own tradition in movements like cubism and expressionist art.
Conceptual art challenged those newer traditions and said that it is not primarily the visual experience that matters, but the ideas that drive the work…The conceptual art I am drawn to often has a version of a narrative that isn’t as blatant as comics but that still exists. Tim Hawkinson made a machine that signs the signature of the artist on small scraps of paper that land in a pile where you can grab them. It doesn’t tell a specific story but we immediately start creating them—that the artist struggles with fame, that they feel like a commodity, that humanity can be replaced by the machines we make.
In school we talked a lot about one-liners in a negative light; if work did just one thing then it wasn’t complex enough. But I think a lot of these one-liner conceptual pieces are more like gag comics. They aren’t intended to tell an epic tale, they tell one idea well. With conceptual art, I love that there is often a mystery to be solved and the story feels more precious for the work the viewer put into figuring it out even if it’s just a few extra seconds or requires reading an explanation provided by the artist. I don’t think most artists are trying to hide something from their audience (we want them to understand us!), but making work that allows the viewer to search for the meaning or feel like they have discovered something that isn’t lying in plain sight is an incredible experience.