Monday, November 28, 2011
Get hyped. Not only is Blaise Larmee one of the most talented and challenging young cartoonists to have surfaced over the past decade, he's also one of the most notable members of the cartoonist/critic club. Whether it's in his boundary-breaking webcomic 2001, his gorgeous, ephemeral debut graphic novel Young Lions, his near-punk truth-to-power blogging, his concept-heavy zines, or even the work he publishes via Gaze Books, Blaise projects the kind of provocative spirit comics could use a lot more of. In an artistic community that's more closely knit and self-involved than ever, Blaise may be most notorious for his detachment: the comics he's most interested in are his own and those made by his friends. It says something about how committed to its own orthodoxy comics is that Blaise's statement that he prefers his own drawings to those of Jack Kirby is at all surprising; but then, it can take a unique viewpoint to point up just how unique a place comics is. It's something Blaise seemingly can't help but do with every project he turns his efforts to.
I've been wanting to interview Blaise for quite a while now, but once Comets Comets, the main outlet for his comics criticism, was taken offline this summer, that goal was joined by a practical desire to see more of his writing out there. When we finally did get together online for a chat, it ran so long and ranged so far and wide that we both figured it didn't look much like an "interview" anyone would want to read. But just about everything Blaise had to say was worth getting out there, so what will follow over the rest of this week is a series of shorter conversations on various comics-related topics. Blaise's non-fan, creation-first outlook on the comics form is one that produces a highly unique opinion of just about every aspect of the form it touches, so I think you will be as pleased as I am that we did our best to talk about everything under the sun.
MATT SENECA: The first thing I wanted to ask you about is how you see comics as a whole medium, the divisions the “industry” enforces within it set aside. As a single art form among many others. You’re fairly unique among young cartoonists in that you don’t have the concern for “comics” the community and historical narrative that say someone like Michael DeForge does, so as just a young contemporary artist, what makes comics different from other media?
BLAISE LARMEE: Comics, in the word itself, emphasizes the pluralised object.
MATT: Right, the commodity.
BLAISE: Painting also functions as a noun but it is a verb as well. It is a practice.
M: Whereas you can’t “comic”. And there’s no adjective for comics either, no “painterly” or “filmic”. Which is why the question of what comics are in opposition to other media is tricky....
B: Medium specificity in itself is tricky. Has investigation of comics-as-medium resulted in any progress other than introducing comics into certain markets?
M: I think the main thing it’s produced is an awareness of history in comics’ younger practitioners - an awareness that wasn’t always there for young people who decided they wanted to become cartoonists. But I know you’ve gone on record about not being very interested in comics history...
B: Comics never had a modernist period. It never had an establishment to rebel against. It never cohered into any sort of federated structure, although that is always the image one hopes to convey when using the word “comics” - a site where all of these local narratives can be represented. Comics history has always been a local history, dispersed, with a deficit of cultural currency.
M: Well, I think if comics has any establishment it’s cultural, not aesthetic. You’ve engaged with that culture via blogging and your general internet presence, and occasionally ruffled people’s feathers by doing so -- do you think rebelling against comics culture is useful?
B: I think even direct opposition is too much involvement. Like, it’s not worth negating.
M: But not worth following either, I’m assuming. Is comics enough of an establishment for the “outsider cartoonist” to exist, or is that where everybody using the form is?
B: I like my relationship to CCS. [Note: Blaise currently holds a fellowship at James Sturm's Center for Cartoon Studies.] I am different and my difference is being incorporated. But this is a specific example.
M: It’s probably still a relevant one, just because it’s reflective of how comics has incorporated iconoclasts before. When people like Crumb and Ware come along with idiosyncratic styles there’s less of a reactionary backlash than a picking-over of their methods for useful takeaways. Maybe that’s why comics hasn’t really gone through modernism -- it hasn’t needed to. Do you agree with that? And do you think it’s a useful way for an art form to progress?
B: You’re talking about how comics is accepting of creators?
M: Of creators who bring stylistic or formal innovations to the table, specifically. Underground comics were a big response to the sort of trite content that was necessary to pass censors in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but then it became “cool” and got sort of taken up by everyone pretty quickly...
B: Honestly I think my problem with comics is that they are not cool...
M: Do you see that as an inherent problem, or the current circumstance?
B: I think it is possible for comics to be cool. Picturebox still presents a kind of cool, though it seems more like a residue, or a paste, than a vibrant present moment. I think 1-800-MICE could become retroactively cool at some point. But I guess the problem with the present moment - and this is also a historic problem - is the massive interiority of comics and the neglect of their distribution as objects. With Fort Thunder the interiority swelled to a point that it became a sort of exteriority. I mean, the space itself is a good illustration of that.
M: I think the availability of free webcomics is going to close the gap on the distribution question at some point, though heaven knows what that means for cartoonists’ ability to eat.
B: Webcomics stlil seem massively interior. Like, in the same way that 4chan is massively interior. 4chan can be referenced as a thing - a community or whatever - but the images/texts that compose it get lost in the overall fabric. It’s like the cover of a book vs its insides.
M: So you’re saying with webcomics everything is more like the cover?
B: No, like ‘webcomics’ is the cover. Like, that is what will get an article in the New York Times. and an individual webcomic will be like a detail of the overall ‘image’ (cover) being covered.
M: That’s the case with all new media though, don’t you think?
B: Yeah … hm … and the New York Times is really bad at covering art in general … but … hm, it’s really hard for me. It’s confusing trying to think about vernacular versus … the opposite of vernacular.
B: Yeah, I guess. I don’t know. Or Catholic maybe. Like, I guess my religion is academic/artistic thought, so that seems to be the highest authority for me. But it gets confusing when, say, the New York Times also presents itself as an authority and it doesn’t even seem to be aware of those academic/artistic transmissions.
M: I think any institution that big is just always going to have a hard time with the new.
B: I was trying to imagine what the New York Times comics section would look like.
M: It would be the McSweeney’s comics section.
M: Getting back to interiority in comics... you talk about it as an impediment to “coolness”, and I think it usually is/has been, like in Chester Brown, Ware, whoever else. But the two webcomics I show “cool” young people are yours and mine, and with both what people seem to connect to is that they’re relatable, with young characters. I think that’s a necessary component of “cool” - it has to be interior on some level to grab people maybe?
B: Yeah. Or I can see how it could be perceived as interior. Or often is interior. I mean, cool is just one articulation of this site that I’m interested in, which I think could also be articulated as the revolutionary site, an ecstatic present moment in which the future seems wild and the memory of the past changes. The threshold of something. I think the “cool” I’m thinking of might just be an image, impossible to enter. But being on the threshold of that image.
M: So it’s not something you can embody? Like, with how you dress or whatever?
B: I think fashion, in a general sense, not necessarily limited to fabric, is related to this threshold. “In is out.” “Out is in.” It’s wildly unpredictable territory.
M: If there’s a route to “cool” for comics, do you think it’s more tied to content or visual appearance?
B: I try to collapse the two.
M: Well sure, every cartoonist does, but like... ok, which do you think would be cooler, Jack Kirby drawing Young Lions or you illustrating a Kirby style comic?
B: I guess the latter. I don’t like other people’s drawings as much as my own.
M: Do you think the visual aspect of comics is “stronger” or “hits harder” than the story/information-containing aspect? I think a lot of people “inside” comics think they should be exactly equal, but for people outside the culture do you think one is more attractive?
B: I guess I’m in the camp that thinks it’s pretty much impossible to say something does not qualify as information.
M: I think most people who don’t have a big interaction with mainstream comics see it that way. Superheroes, work made for hire, that’s where the distinction comes from.
B: Children’s literature also delineates authorship into “writer” and “illustrator”. “Goodnight Moon” depicts a bedroom. There is the text of the object next to the illustration of the object. The words “red balloon” next to a drawing of a red balloon. I would argue neither aspect is redundant. Maybe the room could be viewed as a site of contested authorship. But I wouldn’t say both parties have equal power in or access to that site.
M: I think it’s the same thing in comics, though there are two sites we’re talking about really, and they’re connected in a really weird way: the page and the culture. In the wider “comics culture” the words are always the nexus of authorship and the pictures merely proceed from them. On the page it’s often different sets of information being communicated by each thing. I guess I’m not talking so much about pictorial content as style. Like, Winsor McCay’s red balloon drawing versus Steve Ditko’s. Do you think a cartoonist’s style can be more or less appropriate to the story content they’re creating?
B: I can’t divide the totality of the creator into distinct aspects. Some creators have bodily intelligence - you can see it in the figures they draw - but they write bad stories and dialogue. But we must judge the totality of this person.
M: How much does a comic’s formal quality -- innovation, boldness, whatever -- affect your reading of how cool it is? (I’m using “cool” as shorthand for the place you want to see more comics going...)
B: It’s important. I think part of my problem with separating form from content is the absurdity of this question in the face of architecture. I rely on a lot of spatial terms - interiority/exteriority, the site, the threshold - in describing comics. This content/form division is real, I think, but I’m not sure how to incorporate it into this spatial/architectural model.
M: More literalism, maybe? Like, you can have interiority of content -- say a dream comic or something -- and interiority of form, like weird layouts. Content sites, like setting, and formal sites, like color schemes. If you take Impressionist painters’ multiple pictures of the same place at different times of day as comics, I think it’s possible to do a reading where the different images have the same content but different form. Does that sound right, or are you talking about something different?
B: Content is 3D, form is 2D?
M: I guess what I’m getting at is like... content is always an abstraction, the idea of whatever you’re communicating. Form is more literal, the sensual aspect of the work. Shapes, colors, size. In comics it’s tricky because formal tools like sequencing or layout can communicate abstract information. But I think the division exists to some extent or another in all comics that are out there to date. Probably abstract comics come closest to lacking it.
B: I’m not on the same page with you. Language is … let me find a quote … “language is not [...] a mediation between thought and the real.” The rest of the quote is kind of hard to explain. But basically as thought opens up to me, in language, I experience the thing itself. Does that make sense? In the articulation of a thought the thought is discovered, or entered, or the thought opens up to us.
M: Yeah, that makes sense. Tying this back to what we were talking about earlier, do you think formal innovation can lead comics into its own “modernist period”? Is it only the formal strictures of comics as they’ve been created in the past that need to be rebelled against?
B: I mean, there’s aspects of modernism present in the comics narrative today that are really gross.
B: Pretty much any sense of progress as a “medium” divorcing itself from everything around it. Any sense of triumph of “self expression”. Any sense of “innovation” as something that will lead to more innovation.
M: What aspects of modernism would you like to see become part of comics?
B: Maybe I’m just nostalgic for kindergarten. Or nostalgic for a time before I was born. I’m not sure. All articulations of modernism that I respond to have a sort of aesthetic fascism. But it’s also a fascism that I welcome. At root is this idea of progress.
M: Do you mean “aesthetic fascism” in terms of a strong individual vision, or a contempt for the “other”, or...?
B: I guess both. The individual vision is downplayed, but it’s still really prominent. Like, twitter is a good example of an articulation of a modernist tendency. The structure for creating and dispersing information is extremely regulated, aesthetically, using an “authorless” modular architecture. And the whole “brand / brandless” aesthetic is that of childhood as illustrated by vector graphics. And there’s this sense that order will persist and cannot be subverted.
M: So are you a fan of instructional comics, like the “how to put on your oxygen mask” ones on airplanes? Or Will Eisner’s Army training manuals, you ever seen those?
B: I haven’t seen those. I like the image of direct communication. Like, anything in Helvetica carries that image. Some aspects of punk culture seem to idealise that image. Like, direct, simple, 3 chord manifesto on how to overthrow the establishment. I also like the image of the other “dropped onto” a foreign order. There were these suburban style government housing projects next to where I lived and these black refugees occupying/being occupied by this space.
M: That appreciation or propensity for the “image” of things -- it seems to me that comics is the ideal medium to present those kind of basic situations or ideas, because the pictures make it so direct but it can still carry a lot of complex information. Did you come to comics wanting to tell fictional narratives like most people do, or was it always more about putting over ideas?
B: I think it was always about images. The image of power and gender in superheroes. The image of subculture later on.
M: Is there a specific image you’d like your comics to communicate?
B: I guess now it’s more about ideas, including the idea of the image and the image of the idea. Comics is a useful metaphor for communicating a sequence of images.
M: Why is it a metaphor?
B: I mean the way you can talk about a “text” without necessarily referring to a book. Comics as an applied conceit.