Here are the facts:
This February I interviewed the current leading man of art-comix, Christopher "CF" Forgues, at the Hooded Utilitarian website. The comments section was closed because Frank Santoro had recently suggested to me that closed comments were generally a good idea, and because I hadn't learned to laugh at HU's semi-legendary pile-ons yet. Noah Berlatsky, who edited the interview, told me that closing comments "wasn't ideal", but was gracious enough to let me have my way. Other than that, I didn't catch any flack for it.
At least not for a while. Later in the month I received an email from a person or group of people called "VCR Ltd", using the email address "cfamalgamated". In a short, articulate, but strangely tongue-in-cheek message, they praised the interview while castigating me for closing comments. These days I usually throw emails like that one straight in the trash, but back then I was more open to indulging the internet and all the weirdness specific to its artier regions, so I responded. I can't say how glad I am that I did.
Though I've never met the pen pal who's in my email contacts as "VCR" but also messages me as "T-1000 Energy Savings" and most recently "Yellow5", I had a pretty good idea of who he, or maybe she, was. The recently shuttered Comets Comets website overseen by cartoonists Blaise Larmee and Jason Overby, while notable for its oblique, occasionally impenetrable approach to comics criticism, was perhaps most famous for its inflated comments threads, which took everything from advertorial spam comments to elementary-school poetics as fair game for discussions about the high-art status of the form. These threads tended to follow online conversation about Larmee and crew to other sites, inducing conniptions in editors and readers alike. The one exception was Noah Berlatsky himself, who ran a few deeply fascinating blog posts (including a swooning critical appreciation of Overby) by someone calling themselves "Cough Syrup" on his website early in the year, apparently in the mistaken belief that they were written by CF himself -- the chosen artistic idol of Comets Comets and its associated personalities. (UPDATE: Noah informs me in comments that it wasn't until after the pieces were posted that the identity mixup, quickly corrected, occurred.)
At the same breakfast with Frank Santoro during which he suggested I close comments on my CF interview, he told me he had discovered that "Cough Syrup" was the same person responsible for all the conceptual comments on Comets Comets, as well as a CF twitter account that had recently been revealed as the work of an impersonator. "I figured it all out," he said. "It's nobody, it's some kid from Louisville." Combine all this with the bizarre CF fan email and a comment from Cough Syrup on a link to the CF interview I posted to my website and I had a pretty solid idea of who I was communicating with, even if I didn't know their age, occupation, what they looked like, their level of involvement in comics, or even whether they were male or female -- I'm always careful to use gender-neutral pronouns when emailing with this person. There wasn't anybody else I knew of who was up to the same things as Cough Syrup (or JCorp, or VCR Ltd, or T-1000 Energy Savings, or whatever else they called themselves), and I enjoyed talking to them.
Then on Oscar night in March I came home from a party blasted on bath salts, and in the wee morning hours I discovered a new message from my mysterious correspondent, containing only the text "this me" and a link to the utterly phenomenal webcomic 1981. It was a revelation: not only did the page contain some of the most beautiful digital image-making I'd seen, it also carried a bold new sense of the computerized comic's habitation of physical space. 1981 spills out over the edges of a laptop-sized screen, leaving the reader to scroll around inside its 360-degree environment, following the diagonals and waves of its lines. More than a comic, it's a landscape to explore and discover, a piece of art to interact with physically as well as intellectually. When it came time to design a page for my own webcomic, Affected, there was no doubt in my mind as to who I needed to ask for guidance.
When I wrote about 1981 back in March, I emailed its creator to ask how I should refer to the author of the work and received the answer: "1981 is created by David Gray with conceptual oversight by JCorp." When I asked a few weeks ago how I should refer to the person I was interviewing, the reply was another "this me", followed by the name "J-Shasta". The implication is that Gray/JCorp/Cough Syrup is also White Shasta, a twitter and blogspot/tumblr user who hung around Comets Comets and who Blaise Larmee describes as "an anonymous person online whom I feel close to". When I mailed my pen pal a package of old comics I'd finished with, I was given the name "Minty Frech" as the recipient -- and a post office box in Louisville, Kentucky. It would appear Frank Santoro was right all along, and this artist who uses the internet itself as a medium is really just somebody from the heartland with a modem. But looking at 1981, as well as the various imagery posted on Comets Comets by JCorp and the spectacular "confession" written by the perpetrator of the CF twitter hoax, it's also clear that this is somebody with things of note to say. A few of them follow.
MATT SENECA: 1981 is definitely a unique comic. There isn't really anything else out there in the field right now that I can compare it to. Could you talk about your influences and what you wanted to achieve by making it?
J-SHASTA: I like the idea of suspension a lot. Vincent D'Onofrio's character in The Cell and Plato's world of forms, for instance. The hero and setting of the ideal human quality: spectral.
So if I had a goal it would be to create a world that one could fall into and become static. And that could be peaceful and liquid or totally alienating. Have you ever tried DMT? Just kidding.
A couple novels by Alain Robbe-Grillet and Pierre Guyotat that I read a few years ago really influenced the way I think about space or at least clarified thoughts I already had. I was looking at the video game Flashback some when I made that as well. I think in 1981 the characters are the images and they are twisted and become not just projections but objects within new projections. Not unlike you and me.
It's nice to think of abstract things as free zones of open possibilities but also as mechanized parts of an unstoppable progression, or in the case of 1981, a regression, where maybe the origin story turns out to be a curse.... if that makes sense to anyone but myself.
For the record I consider it unfinished.
MS: That idea of image as character is really interesting, because it gets at a core truth of comics, where we're asked to assign personalities to cartooned symbols (ie the circle and dots and squiggles that make up Charlie Brown are neurotic and depressive, et cetera). Is that a concept you came to through interacting with the comics medium, or some other way?
J-S: Less comics and more encountering conceptual art, performance art, minimalism and experimental film in college where the aesthetic representation of raw material overwhelms any kind of action or narrative or illustration of human desires...and yet, there are the desires, inside us! 'I wish I was somewhere else' for instance. Or 'I want to kill this artist'.
The vacuum abhors itself, it doesn't need me. And so it is a better character or at least a better actor than me. Because it is perfectly concealed. Without flaw. How lucky.
Wrestling with imagery that gives very very little and does not instantly impress made me value and be more aware of the process of how and why I imagined what I did in response to all kinds of stimuli, not just art. Consciousness being the vigilant animator of life.
I guess in high school I realized that investigating interesting music and movies and books to find that perfect level of being enthralled that came so much easier as a younger person was like chasing mirages and after a while you confuse the chase with the goal and yes, your things play you. Ideas too. There are many ideas that I have embraced and then shed as they lost their aura. Or maybe they shed me?
So, collecting but also file sharing and image viewing online. One thing creates the frame of reference for the next thing, as actively as a person interprets your dream for you. This is just memory colliding with the eternal present, right. I have no firm ground to stand on but the sands of time that move right through me. That's the name of an ironic post-rock revival band from 2014 that is wildly unpopular.
Maybe it's a tangent but I will say that if the Information is anything like its hosts, it does not want to be free.
And 1981 is a little 'dead inside' compared to the way engaged readers easily empathize with Tin Tin or Christopher Robin or Richie Rich or Calvin or Archie or Jason Fox. I guess there's a heart down below. If people enjoy the site/comic I imagine it's because they can see it.
MS: How did you get into comics? Can you sketch out the path that led from your first experiences with the form to creating 1981?
J-S: I discovered a worn and tattered Mickey Mouse comic on Christmas Eve in my great-grandparents' magic basement when I was 5. By the time I entered kindergarten 9 months later, it had been destroyed by mold. Comics will never replace that singular night.
If I work till I die I would like to build a giant prison one million panels tall by one million panels wide by one million panels deep of nothing but robotically mechanized mirrors and deep inside there would be a hole and overlooking the hole would be a burning tower with a solitary switch on a white plastic plate that when flipped would open all the windows and the radiation of the sun would bounce off every mirror at such an angle that the perfect image would be centered on a blue orb that floats above the hole and it would be swallowed.
MS: Sick. There's a significant push and pull between traditional craft and its absence in most of the work by Co-Mix contributors, and yours seems as much a part of that as anything else. What's your take on pictorial craft, how important do you think the painterly (for lack of a better word) values championed by Frank Santoro, among others, are to making comics?
J-S: Thanks for the compliment! I think Frank wrote a compelling conspiracy theory about outdated ideas of the harmonic balance between chaos and order in his essay series for TCJ. I enjoyed following his descent into madness!
This being said, I really like illustrators like Harry Clarke and Lynd Ward. Craft is really just a matter of how precisely you wish or are able to depict your ideas and is not strictly related to technical finesse, in my opinion. Naturally, this can involve being imprecise or sloppy or glitchy if that helps you to communicate a particular idea: such as the deterioration of the image, the limits of perception, how cool things look when they are acidy, or any other number of hi-concept themes.
Lo-fi fanatics are as grating as anyone else. It is 2011. The future may look more like an oscillating Grape Shasta rhombus that is shattering apart in infinite hi-res drips than something less computery looking uh, I guess... whewftah!
MS: How did you create the images that make up 1981?
J-S: I created 1981 using Adobe Photoshop Elements 5.0 and MS Paint. I sketched at least half of the individual images beforehand using ballpoint pen on bar napkin or note paper to get an idea of the progression of movement and scale. The results are a mixture of freehand drawing, default shapes, cutting and pasting, and other fairly rudimentary image editing techniques. And I prayed a lot obviously.
MS: How essential is the digital medium, the online format, to your artistic process? Do you think you could make something as interesting as 1981 without a computer?
J-S: It is not essential but digital space is shaping my brain my image my voice and perceptions in only the newest and freshest 2.0+ ways imaginable so until we break through 0 and 1 to -1 or ∞ or whatever lies in wait that can be represented by a couple squiggly lines, I feel compelled to acknowledge the present horizon that we are collectively cresting like a pack of lemmings wearing sunglasses and drinking Surge and playing a computer game where we control the livelihood of adorable avatars of ourselves that is named Lemmings. But I like all kinds of media, even the old variety.
There is no reason for me to hang my hat on 1981. I was not even born then for one thing. With or without a computer whatever I do next will be better. And better and better. Don't u feel like we r all improving?
[When you say without a computer I take that strictly to mean that no editing or finishing is done on a computer and the internet is not used to share documentation of the event/object. Is this even possible? At this point I would have to be a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it to escape the outstretched fist of the web. But like anyone, my dreams are art and they are much better than 1981. Or the real world in general at times. I am sorry that they are not for sale.]
MS: Right now we have a steadily increasing number of comics that interact with digital processes on some level or another. How do you think digital tools and the internet are going to change the comics medium as a whole?
J-S: In the future more comics will appear shiny.
MS: You might be best known for impersonating CF on twitter for a few months (which you then wrote my favorite blog post of the year about). That post, though, didn't really give a clear reason as to why you began impersonating him in the first place. Care to tell us now?
J-S: Over the last couple years, Chris Forgues transformed from respected artist to pied piper to icon. I wanted to both reanimate and re-martyrize CF's sacred digital corpse using an uncomfortable social media platform. If that is not comic(s/al), I do not know what is.
MS: You've contributed various images and designs to the Co-Mix blog. What attracted you about that particular site and group of people?
J-S: I originally read the graphic novella Young Lions as a ghost story. Since then it has been revealed that there really was a 'Holly' and apparently he died last summer. I believe in resurrection and so I attempted to commune with the survivors and revive his lost spirit. It's still unclear if these efforts were worth it. Only God knows.
MS: You've also told me you're the person responsible for most of the "conceptual comments" on that blog and the articles about it and its participants that have popped up on other sites. Those things have fascinated me for a while, and infuriated plenty of Important Comics People -- what is the idea behind them?
J-S: Between October 2010 and late spring 2011, I contributed over 400 comments under various aliases to the Co-Mix (aka CometsComets) weblog. During this period of time I commented anonymously at many other web sites under posts related to the Co-Mix crew, at times criticizing those characters in a very hostile manner.
It is hard to choose one single motivating factor behind all of this activity, but one of them is the spike in popularity of 4Loko. The other is a desperate reaction to the factors that made the death of NASA and SETI possible. Basically, I was driven by the fear of silence.
MS: Do you know why Comets Comets shut down?
J-S: Gosh Matt, I just want to go Home.
You can check out 1981 here, and J-Shasta's comics-as-criticism posts on the Hooded Utilitarian here.
UPDATE: conceptual commenter SCHOOL's Blogspot profile yields a webcomic (here) that appears to date back to 2001.