MATT SENECA: I want to talk a little more about your lack of interest in comics history, just because it’s such a unique relationship to past work for a cartoonist to have. You’ve talked about how old comics weren’t calculated to be art, but pure product; do any comics that are designed as commodities first interest you?
BLAISE LARMEE: I think the real question is where do you exist as a consumer and where do you exist as a producer.
MATT: So where are you as far as comics are concerned?
BLAISE: I’m a producer. But I’m also in this territory that assumes you’re a consumer. I gave a talk here recently and it was - I just found this out - really negatively received. I didn’t want to talk about the past, about images or objects I’d made, etc. I wanted to function as a producer, talking about production processes that exists in parallel with actually making things - where the process gets lost in the images/objects … but people wanted a sort of “reading” of my past.
M: Do other cartoonists’ production processes not interest you?
B: Those of close friends do. And this is maybe not … I don’t want to ‘write off’ that question. But … I mean, ultimately I’m not interested in drawing styles, I’m interested in real people and real narratives.
M: Do you not see the historical narrative of “comics” as having much to do with the process of creating a modern comic? Or is it that the narrative just doesn’t compel you?
B: It seems like a closed system to me. It doesn’t hold much currency outside of itself. It doesn’t have a healthy import/export relationship with other cultures.
M: I think you could argue that it doesn’t have one at all.
B: Well there’s the Wertham trial. That carried signification. But that was an isolated phenomenon and comics was really just a scapegoat. And there’s Persepolis and whatnot but then comics is really just a container for content. Although now that I type that it seems rather attractive. I guess because it devalues comics as a medium. Persepolis made headlines last week but i don’t think the comic was mentioned - just the film. Anyway I guess the content doesn’t really interest me either.
M: I think this is where the perceived division between form/content I was talking about earlier comes from: the wider culture and media only pick up on one aspect of the comics they take into account.
B: The informational aspect?
M: Yeah. The subject matter. Though I will say that many of history’s great cartoonists don’t seem to have cared a ton about form and just wanted to produce content.
B: I guess the form was provided for them.
M: That’s interesting... but nobody gave it to them, none of the newspaper guys were actually looking at Hokusai or Topffer from what I understand. All those attempts to relate comics back to stuff like hieroglyphics seem really false to me. But the lack of one Genesis moment or even a consciousness of creation in comics is conspicuous. Do you see a lot in comics that comes from other art forms?
B: The father of comics is an absent father. Yeah, I saw a comic today that came out of an art context. But it was really bad. Anytime I see art that reads as comics I hate it.
M: That surprises me a little, just cause your stuff reminds me of Jim Shaw. But I know what you mean. How do you feel about comics when they try to do “fine art” -- like single-composition pages and stuff?
B: What are single-composition pages?
M: Jim Steranko type stuff... or Gary Panter... Pages that exist as sequential, “paneled”, but also as posters or paintings. There to be read but also to approach like a canvas.
B: I don’t know. I just don’t like reading comics. So if I’m looking through an art book and I see a comic … it brings me back to a reality. Because I have a lot of distance between myself and art. I can see the products, the images, the narratives I want to see. I can focus on a few artists and be rewarded with a massive elliptical narrative. But comics are too close, too present.
M: Too close historically, or in proximity to everything else in comics?
B: It’s where I work.
M: My immediate thought in response to that is that the comics narrative has a lot of interesting “characters” whose biographies are maybe better to engage with than their work. Does the historical “cartoonist” -- working-class, uneducated, put-upon, supporting a family, maybe he fought in a war -- appeal to you at all? It's no longer a living species, of course...
B: I prefer cartoonist as child. Playing with crayons. Picasso’s children.
M: What cartoonists do you see as inhabitants of that archetype?
B: Austin English, Genevieve Vidal, Julie Delporte, maybe Brian Chippendale.
[comic by Brian Chippendale]
M: All the artists you mention are pretty open to readers/readings that come down somewhere outside the boundaries of “conventional comics”: there’s at least some intersection with the “finer” arts. Is that a part of enjoying comics for you, or do you think the character you want the cartoonists you read to inhabit just ends up making comics that fall somewhat outside the norm?
B: Again I think I would rather not read comics. But my friends happen to be cartoonists because of events in my past. But I also do admire the way they are able to navigate the shitty terrain. I think they aim for art but they are using twigs for arrows.
M: Can comics be art?
B: I don’t think so. I think at times it does, but like the Wertham trial these events are isolated. But I’m biased because I position myself between these two domains, as an importer/exporter, consumer/producer, so my stability depends on their distance from each other.
M: That’s interesting. I’m thinking about how art has made big strides past the figurative since comics came about in the late 1800s, and how comics have remained almost the last outpost of great figurative artwork... but whether that’s a reaction or just a lack of culture I don’t know. What should comics be if they’re not going to be art?
B: I’m going to give a negative answer. I feel like this is obvious. I may be playing this character that I’m used to playing in this sort of context, and maybe this is limiting development of some sort of progress. I really don’t want to be the antagonist. It’s just this situation where comics seems isolated and I want to effect larger structures. or less isolated structures. Comics should aim for art. But that’s not enough, obviously. Or the actual outcome could be like a dog that catches the vehicle it chases. But production in art is something very specific and demands a lot of consideration. There’s a lot of built-in structure. I’ve never considered this structure, I’ve never produced inside it. I consume its products, often translated into books or images and texts dispersed online. There are a lot of parallels between art and comics, and perhaps my negative/positive attitude toward comics/art would be reversed if my production/consumption arenas were swapped.
M: I think it almost certainly would be. There’s probably even a simple equation for it: the people who consume the most comics seem to have the least interest in art, and I guess you’re saying vice versa. I wish I could read the same exact number of pages as I draw, haha. Are the larger structures you think art effects and the ones you think are built into it the same?
B: I don’t know, it’s hard to tell if art effects anything other than its own domain.
M: Which I think it’s pretty obvious is also true of comics -- but comics operates on a much smaller scale. Would you like it if comics became a mass medium, with the audience that film or music has?
B: That would be something. I think what art produces is a constant remapping of its territory. Comics is pretty indistinct, yet it is also very distinct. Its territory is small yet strongly grounded by a grassroots economy.
M: Does significant market expansion have to happen before significant formal expansion can?
B: Maybe abandoning territory is as significant as expanding it.
M: I assume you mean commercial territory. I think the danger of abandoning the superhero support-system is that then the only financial recourse remaining to cartoonists is the gallery, which you don’t seem to think is the answer either... or is that not what you meant?
B: What’s the superhero support-system?
M: The “mainstream”, the sort of commercial engine that keeps the rest of comics running via trickle-down economics. Is that the territory you’re talking about giving up?
B: Uh … is this trickle-down a real thing?
M: For myself and the people I know who buy art-comix (or whatever)... including your stuff... it’s almost entirely people who got into superhero comics between childhood and middle age and then decided to “find out what else is out there.” So yeah, it is to me at least.
B: I think these giant cultural forces will be mediators no matter what. But a community that emerges from this can sustain itself without those larger forces - it is not dependent on them. Your community of buyers would still buy art comics if superhero comics disappeared.
M: True enough -- and I think a lot of them have given up superhero comics like I have -- but there’s a question of the community’s growth and sustainability that I feel like I should at least mention. The people I’ve been able to get into art-comix via the community around my writing are, I think, 100 percent coming from the “mainstream”. I know that’s not the case for all or maybe even most art-comix buyers, but it’s still a fair amount of them. And it’s more all the time: a constantly occurring process. Take away the Point A of that process and Point B becomes nonexistent for a lot of people, because you need to have caught the bug before you start going to trade shows and leafing through zine racks and hitting up obscure artists’ websites. I’m not sure alternative comics can sustain itself, by itself, at its current level. Even the retailers that sell the more mass-market friendly stuff are superhero stores, with literally like eight or ten exceptions. I think the level “other” comics reach without any help from superheroes is not enough to make them at all significant. Even the alt-comics websites get a boost from mainstream traffic.
B: There’s a lot of room for innovation. Reconsider dominant labor-intensive forms of practice. Explore alternative models of publishing and distribution. Project artificial scarcity and artificial demand.
M: Are these the ideas behind your Cruise project?
B: Yeah, Cruise is born in part out of exasperation with existing economic models. It’s a tentative step towards a more lightweight, efficient, adaptable model.
M: People are commissioning these zines from you, right? They’re not pre-made?
B: No, no one’s commissioned me. They’re all pre-made.
M: Can you run through the economic model you’re using real quick?
B: I was going to make a 16 page comic in an edition of 50. Due to a sequence of mistakes I ended up with 50 covers that I liked and an abandoned interior. Instead of an edition of 50 I decided to make 50 unique booklets with the same cover. Each booklet is released individually and arbitrarily.
M: So it’s a limited financial commitment for you to make. What jumps out at me is the quality of uniqueness -- how do you feel about the mass-produced-object status comics have historically held?
B: I think it’s fine. I just opened the wikipedia page for “post-fordism”. Post-Fordism is characterized by the following attributes:
* Small-batch production.
* Economies of scope.
* Specialized products and jobs.
* New information technologies.
* Emphasis on types of consumers in contrast to previous emphasis on social class.
* The rise of the service and the white-collar worker.
* The feminization of the work force.
M: What type of consumer are you emphasizing?
B: I think I am sending out a signal through aesthetics, through style. The consumer who buys Young Lions may simply be interested in an interior, closed narrative - the narrative in the book or the narrative surrounding the book (which is pretty closed). Cruise doesn’t have any established territory other than the site through which it is presented and sold and advertisements. It’s more a currency in itself, or the imagination of such a currency. The narrative is its movement. Its consumers effect this movement.
M: Are you going to be documenting the movement itself in any way? Or is that up to the consumer?
B: I thought about that. I mean it is all documented of course. But so far it’s private. I think I will consult with shareholders before going public :)
M: Do you think strategies for selling comics that aren’t based on subject matter (“content”) are going to become more prevalent?
B: Well with Cruise you could say there is no content. But you could also say that there is nothing but content. The last three releases used polyester film for the interiors, so you can see from the preview image - the scanned interior - straight to the inside covers.
M: Before the screen, and maybe even more relevantly the browsing tab, became a vehicle for reading matter the page was a lot less negotiable. Do you think the see-through page can support more conventional comics?
B: Why do you say the page was less negotiable? Lack of search function?
M: You had to move through it to get anywhere else. Turn it -- which strongly implies reading it. Now our paths through media are not as linear. Tabbed browsing. Chapter-skipping and multiple endings in DVDs, the decline of the album in music.
B: I see...
M: Though now that I think of it I felt like 2001 was more linear than a print-format comic in many ways...
B: Yeah, I don’t understand how “non-linear” readings can occur if time moves linearly. Maybe authorship can shift around. Maybe we can talk about compression. Or elliptical narrative.
M: Compression seems like a greater possibility with online comics. It’s a lot easier for readers to vary the pace they read at and change their experience of the comic by doing so when it’s just a big scroll instead of pages to turn. And elliptical narrative... I find myself using a ton of jump-cuts in my online comic, like five times as many as I see in print. It just feels native to the medium of presentation. Though 2001 was sequenced with like, the opposite of jump-cutting...
B: Yeah, 2001 is super linear. The space is linear too. Or the way in which it’s navigated.
M: Were you at all surprised by how your comic read in the scrolling format?
B: I just looked at it. It’s kind of like comics, or books in general, in that the only way to find stable ground is by reading, where the flow of texts/images finds a sort of stability, like the way the images in a film strip or zeotrope become stable at certain speeds. So in this, unlike in Cruise, the content is hidden, or latent, within the comic itself. It’s traditional in this sense.
M: Yeah, Cruise sounds pretty experimental by contrast. Did coming back to the more traditional medium of print make you want to get more experimental with your content?
B: I’m still interested in both forms. And I feel Cruise is still ultimately, in a way, an image object - an absence of the material thing itself. At least this is how most people encounter it. It’s presented and sold online. Its informational content is laid bare. This is its public narrative.
M: Comics where the imagery and the narrative just occur in different spaces?
B: Maybe just emphasizing the public narrative over the private. Or focusing on the split between the two. But yeah, I guess that’s a nice way to phrase it.
M: The private narrative you’re talking about is the individual reader’s experience of the comic, right?
B: Yeah. The hidden experience.
M: And then the public narrative is what, critical response? The internet “noticing” the existence of the physical comic?
B: It can also be the image of that response or discourse. I mean it can be a private sort of fiction, the individual “reading” this sort of theater which the author creates props for. Like the way a work can seem like a manifesto. You’ve had that feeling I’m sure. A statement that demands a response.
M: Do you hope a lot of people who get these zines create work in response to them, reviews or whatever?
B: Um, nothing so direct. Like, the response can go unrealized in public. It can just be assumed that it occurs.
M: Hmm, I’m picturing the “public narrative” you’re talking about emphasizing as something that you stop authoring at a certain point... which I guess is always the case if it’s constituted of people’s readings... but documenting the sections of that narrative that other people “write” isn’t something you’ll be doing?
B: I think you were talking with Whiteshasta about how being in the public “meme-ory” might not be the best gauge of success. The actual public narrative is usually this kind of meme-oriented thing.
M: Sure, it reduces the totality of content to a few ideas or images. Is that degrading of presented thoughts into soundbites part of the reason you stopped doing comics blogging?
B: Yeah, maybe. The style and attitude of our blog would get a lot of response but never the actual content. The ideas we were expressing, apart from basic ideas of “cool” and “youth” - the basic branding stuff - none of those ideas were engaged with in a public way. But it was still … there was still the feeling that people were processing these ideas, reacting to the surface maybe, but still processing these ideas. But we were compromising anyway by having this branded surface. I think that part was integral. We just didn’t anticipate the response. I think we got bored with it.
M: I think if you want a significant response to the deeper ideas you were working with you might have to wait a bit, because the responses that end up mattering will come via comics and not blog posts. I mean dude, I drew my whole Flash comic based off stuff you were saying there!
B: What was the Flash comic based off of?
M: A couple things... some stuff you said about drawing with pencil, the idea of art as autocritique, and especially the stuff about comics criticism having to move onto the page as opposed to existing in this separate sphere from the work itself. Seeing Young Lions too, I guess...
B: That’s funny … I wonder if … well I feel everybody kind of interpreted that post (I think it was titled “criticism” or something …) … I wasn’t suggesting that critics make comics! (not that there’s anything wrong with that. obviously we were critics making comics) or be more creative or anything. Just feel implicated … is that the post you were referring to?
M: “New Criticism” [now offline], yeah. That wasn’t how I took it -- the real thing I got from it was that comics need to engage more thoroughly in self-analysis than they have. Or analysis of process. The idea of comics having multiple “surfaces” or “screens” now also made (and still makes) me think about how if that surface appearance/narrative of the work doesn’t have as much currency as it used to, it should be replaced with something. Oh, and this is funny - Jason Overby left a comment on that comic and then deleted it before I could see it -- and I would have given anything to know what it was, ha ha.
B: Yeah, I just saw that. Can you expand on the multiple surfaces thing?
M: Well, it wasn’t something that I actually read in a Comets Comets post, but when I saw your thing about the physical copy beginning to function more and more as a “trophy”, it was like... I mean I can boil it down to just saying that my thought was “well then comics need to come harder with the ideas if their physical aspect doesn’t matter as much as it used to”, but it’s a little more complicated. I have a huge amount of reverence/fetishism for comics as objects, like old crumbling back issues and also shiny new hardcovers, whatever it might be. And if that physical aspect stops being “what the comic is”, period, because there’s an online version, an app, a phone version... objects have a great deal of “spirit” for me and I felt like as a cartoonist there’s this onus on me to make sure the work retains the same amount of spirit even without the object there to imbue it with any. So I drew this raw-ass comic on top of old pieces of paper whose actual substance had a lot of personal, emotional meaning. Does that make sense?
B: I’m not sure. I feel I encounter that spirit in images that document objects. Maybe the image even captures something latent or hidden in the object. It’s still in relation to this object. But then maybe the spirit for you is your image of the object.
M: That’s a good way of putting it. When I share an actual physical space with an object I can form my own image of it. Even a scanned comics page, which is flat and doesn’t have a ton of texture, is so different than the physical version just because of the light in the room, you know?
B: Yeah. For me the irony in that line of thought comes from the fact that the book is literally a composite of scanned pages.
M: Yeah, that’s why it works better for old comics, where the original art was just this byproduct of drawing for the print process and you can’t see much of the original in the printed object. At a certain point in history comics art started being about reproducing an original and then, yeah, it does lose some power.
B: What loses power?
M: The book version. Like, if I compare a Gary Panter original page to one by any artist to have worked before like 1965... I’d way rather see the printed version of the old comic, because that’s the thing they’re doing this art in order to create. But in modern comics it’s just scans from the originals, and you get the sense that the original art is truer, better. Though I think comics art made specifically to be run through xerox machines helps mitigate that.
B: I’ll just say that I feel translation is a very relevant field.
M: You’re not wrong. I’m just the kinda guy who always gets jealous of people who know how to speak Russian when I’m reading Dostoyevsky, ha ha. Do you not prefer the online version of 2001 to your paper drawings for it? Or the printed Cruise to your web page about it?
B: I threw away the 2001 originals when I left Portland. With Cruise … one of the ads is going to be in anthology put together by Scott Longo. It’s going to be 100%, a facsimile. The value of the original becomes invisible, or conceptual, or material I guess.
M: “Invisible” and “material” almost seem contradictory... though I guess you’re asking whoever buys that one to pay for the literal “invisible material” that the film pages are.
B: Yeah :) actually I really liked that one, it had a black and white photo from a newspaper and some of this color ad on the other page rubbed off on it in this really subtle way. And I put a transparent overlay on it as sort of “protection”. And I didn’t even staple the newspaper, it’s being held in between the overlay and the cover. Yeah, it really felt archival, like preserving this image/object. Also the photo was of a painting.
M: That’s awesome. Are you familiar with the trend of “variant covers” in mainstream comics?
B: Yeah. That seems like a smart idea.
M: Duuuude, we may have just found the nexus point where the cutthroat capitalism of superhero comics and the highbrow conceptualizing of art comics intersect! The best superhero variant cover has all these blood splatters all over it but the blood is done in RED VELVET. like the cake flavor. Anyway.