MATT SENECA: So I guess we should wrap up back at the beginning. How do you see comics right now -- the form, the market, the community, the whole thing that falls under that word.
What’s the state of our union, if you will?
BLAISE LARMEE: Well, the people are good. I really like some of the people I meet. And then I like their comics. And if I like someone’s comics often it’s a way of liking my image of that person. Or it’s a real part of that person. Maybe comics gives this sort of … maybe there’s a humanist tendency in it because the hand is very much alive and it’s so narrative, it really seems like a human activity.
MATT: Does comics seem small to you, in comparison to other forms? I agree with you about its human aspect, and aside from the presence of hands in the finished work, a lot of that feeling for me comes from the sense that it’s very close-knit and none of the history’s so far in the past as to be invisible yet.
BLAISE: I can connect with people one on one in a way that’s impossible in groups. Or at least, most groups I’ve participated in. So the whole ‘community’ aspect of comics is really gross to me. Gross in an unhealthy way. Like, impure, incestuous. Like the dads are having sex with their sons. It seems to limit growth.
M: I think you and “comics” have different ideas of what growth is. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be saying that growth is incorporating a wider aesthetic/formal range of work. For most people in comics I think growth isn’t something horizontal, but vertical: this climb toward better, more complex stories.
B: Right. Like a family business passed down, like building on top of what you already have rather than setting off and building your own home elsewhere.
M: Something just occurred to me: we’re only now starting to enter a time period in which new cartoonists have come up knowing that comics history is documented, “safe” in hardcover books and university archives. For so long, the mentality wasn’t just reactionary (ie “why SHOULDN’T we build on what’s established, that stuff is great”), but downright protective -- if the past wasn’t a working part of the present there was a real danger that it would disappear forever. From that mentality you get the generational saga of comics, as well as aberrations like the collector’s market. I think only now are cartoonists who feel no responsibility to also be archivists emerging.
B: Yeah, you see that?
M: Well, we’re here talking about this stuff, aren’t we?
B: We’re archiving this …
M: You got me there. But let me ask you straight out: do you feel any obligation to comics’ past?
B: If you’re making comics you’re going to have that reading no matter what. I agree with what you said about archivists and collectors but with the internet everything’s being archived.
M: Hmm... you can’t archive the print form itself though, and that’s inherent to a lot of past comics. Let me put it another way. When I asked you about influence you talked about your friends’ comics, and Scott McCloud, and I know you’ve mentioned CF before. But all those people are part of comics’ present. And when we were talking about comics being cool, you equated “cool” with a present moment. Am I right in thinking that’s what you want to capture, not the past?
B: I dunno. I mean ‘the present’ can be reified and as soon as something’s reified it’s part of the past in a way. It’s lost its potential. As art enters art history it becomes illustration of concepts or historical context or whatever. And this in my mind is what protects comics and narrative art from criticism that demands some sort of ‘4th wall breaking’ aspect of art. But maybe art always has this potential to totally disorient and captivate you. Obviously you can’t do that with the Mona Lisa … or maybe you can … but it’s so reified - ‘la joconde’ - that it’s quieted. So that’s what I mean when I say the past. A reified past. And the idea of the present as the threshold of that reification process. But reification has its own economy and things go in and out of being ‘things’.
M: For me what’s exciting about the current present in comics is that a lot of the past is being reintroduced as living art. A lot of the reprint stuff is both unread and unheralded. It’s like work from the past is able to contribute to the aesthetic present -- a lot more things are “things” now, I guess. Comics history is no longer linear, we have work from every era (even though it’s only a century of history I’m talking about) in the “present”. It’s like the way classical culture contributed so heavily to the Renaissance. All that said, though, this doesn’t feel like an especially good time for comics. Do you think we’re in an “up” period or a “down” period right now?
B: What do you mean, comics history is no longer linear?
M: Like, everything is available and there’s no section of the past that’s been fully absorbed and incorporated. There’s work from every era that’s being introduced as new via reprints. None of the past is “dead”, we can still get yields of living art from all of it.
B: There’s some visual artist I was looking at and he draws from Tintin, Moomin, and Akira - the comics. And that’s it, as far as comics go. I like that austerity. When everything’s available … I mean that’s the fantasy … a giant feast laid out and you can eat everything. It’s difficult to talk about ‘comics’ as a whole because it’s really these autonomous narratives - Akira, Moomin, Tintin - that are experienced singularly. They don’t relate to this larger narrative in the way that art does. At least, not immediately. At the same time they’re more difficult to reify. The romance comic was reified. The superhero comic. Gag comics. But Akira can’t be reified, really. I mean, there’s the image of the guy walking to his bike, or powersliding his bike, but that’s more the image of the promotion for Akira.
M: I think it’s all a matter of perspective, though. Like, in Europe Tintin is incredibly reified -- he has his own museum! Same with Moomin, to a slightly lesser degree. And there are people who can know comics history backwards and forward but only like, say, Titian, Lichtenstein, and Picasso paintings. I think you nailed something when you talked about austerity of influence though, because it’s only when you’re aware of the past that you can know you aren’t going up the same dead-end trail as someone did before. I think that’s one of the main reasons internet comics is such an appealing thing, because it’s almost this formal guarantee that you won’t end up in the same place as anyone in print did. Like, even pages of a print comic scanned and put on the internet are a really different experience than the print version.
B: Yeah, it’s fresh ground. I mean, comics itself. I think that’s the draw for a lot of people. It’s hard, though, because they’re drawn in and there’s all this renovation to make it seem like a historical space. A sense of unity in creating the image of legitimacy. And maybe that’s why I’m avoiding this question about the state of comics, because if I’m feeling positive I do see it as this unstructured series of semi-autonomous spaces.
M: I think that’s definitely the most productive way to look at it. Maybe even the only way forward -- if you see the practice of comics as creating your own autonomous space rather than following in the footsteps of giants. Let me ask you this then: you talked about how comics seemed innovative and exciting when you first started, and how now those winds seem to have slowed. What do you feel is the tenor of the thing now? Just the feeling of it.
B: Uh … the feeling is just some people on tumblr and flickr. I mean, that’s where I get my breeze. And there’s some printed matter that comes out of those sites but that’s more about the preview images and the announcement than the actual book. In my mind.
M: Do you like that it’s that small a site, or wish it was bigger?
B: I dunno. Sometimes I get that feeling where you’re new at school and you’re just hanging out with other people with whom you have in common the fact that you don’t have any friends.
M: Does it feel positive? Like a productive place? Or not?
B: I mean … I follow less than 20 people who make comics. I mean as far as tumblr is a ‘site’ … which it is … but in a funny way where no one knows what your dashboard looks like. And the dashboard is the site, in my mind. So really it’s your own site, your own party, and the way in which the guests interact is sort of up to you. But anyway at this party … actually I guess I have two parties since I have two tumblrs. One is mostly cartoonists. And not much happens. Mostly reblogs. And i don’t feel connected to that tumblr because my name isn’t attached. The other party is I guess people I like … people I feel connected to … but none of them make comics. This is the dashboard connected to my personal site. And so it’s strange. I don’t get much response from people I like.
M: Do you think you inhabit an autonomous site, then?
B: Yeah, in a way. In the sense that the only thing I can see as ‘progress’ within comics is self-produced. And I guess I would consider my ‘peers’ in comics as those who can recognize this progress. One of the things being on tumblr has changed in my work is being able to see the people who reblog you. Creating images then becomes creating audience. If you don’t like where your images end up you stop making those images. There are a couple tumblrs I follow in a web 1.0 way, where I have to go to their url. and there’s something about purity in that, preserving the autonomy of these users, both of whom only blog about themselves. I guess I’m attracted to these narcissistic types, at least for awhile. I think it’s also about preserving my autonomy as a consumer. Where I don’t have to have the responsibility of being a ‘follower’. Yeah I guess autonomous sites are … I can’t imagine any other kind of mode of production that would interest me. Even the idea of a collective would have to be my personally constructed image of a collective.
M: So do you still see “comics” as a useful term for the work you’re interested in making? I think we agree about the necessity of comics to go outside itself... but I guess there must be a point where it goes so far outside that the word “comics” stops being a relevant categorization. Do you have any investment in staying within “comics”?
B: I dunno. The altcomics tumblr is about mapping ‘comics’ but is that useful, to cling to this medium-specific way of thinking about work? I feel like making publications is enough. I mean that’s really a ‘medium’. Whereas comics is this collection of stylistic and formalistic tics. I was asked to be in an anthology recently and I sent them something I felt proud of and got back a nice email asking for something more traditional. This is a familiar narrative, but these are actually really progressive guys. So what does that mean, a traditional comic? This is where the definition becomes relevant.
M: Your guess is as good as mine. Is it anything beyond formal parameters to you? Does comics have a “spirit”?
B: No, it’s just a loose collection of things. It’s a weird math. Like you can add word balloons to a classical painting and it would probably be accepted as a comic. Or you can make a grid and do anything within each panel and it would be accepted. Or make a drawing and then make a similar drawing but change something. But it can be a crutch. Or just a platform for experimentation. But also a crutch. A good drawing can just be a good drawing. But adding more drawings will enter it into this context that becomes relevant when you’re dealing with a higher authority (publisher/editor) who for most people represents this context.
M: Does anything represent this context for you?
B: Certain websites, publishers, critics, creators, schools, publications, the way the mainstream records these things.
M: Anything that defines itself as being a part of “comics”?
B: Yeah, that’s pretty much the only qualification. Not evenly distributed, obviously.