MATT SENECA: I’ve been meaning to ask, with 2001 on hiatus and Cruise as your current project, are you going to be doing any drawn comics any time soon?
BLAISE LARMEE: The last Cruise had a little drawing in it. I’ve done maybe 5 more pages in that “interview format” that ran in Smoke Signals. The last couple pages actually seemed French in like, a really indulgent and lazy kind of way. Um, but no “Young Lions” type stuff anymore. Probably. I dunno.
MATT: Is there a place you want to push the typical comics narrative to? Even Young Lions, which was more novelistic than the rest of your stuff, was fairly elliptical. Is there a kind of thing you’d like to see more comics doing with their narratives?
BLAISE: I guess … if I were a teacher, say … maybe an excercise I would give would be to make a comic that doesn’t try to innovate, isn’t “experimental” or abstract, and maybe also that doesn’t exploit “what comics can do”. Like, a comic that would be better as something other than a comic. I mean, this is the exercise I feel I’ve given myself. I don’t trust that innovation within the medium will result in any progress outside of the comics realm.
M: I can’t bring myself to type “you should draw a superhero comic” in response to that without laughing. Is the outside-comics progress you’re talking about influence on other forms?
B: Progress is something I think about a lot and it’s impossible to … I don’t even have the basic language to explore it. I get lost in these circuitous and self conscious loops. I mean at some level it seems everyone involved in creating community is involved in creating a shared language. The architecture of community. Like, you see this in flickr groups, in local economies, subcultures, academia, all that stuff. And looking at it all from afar it seems arbitrary where you build. Maybe it’s just what language you respond to and what language you can speak. I’m aware of comics as this vernacular but everything else is probably vernacular as well. Like if you’re just engaging with these large, removed constructions like academic language -- I mean that’s its own abstraction, obviously. It has its own limitation. I guess maybe a difference is that people in comics know they’re only speaking to each other whereas academics and artists imagine they are interacting with something larger than just their sphere. I at least like that image more. Even if it’s illusory.
M: Are you saying you want to interact with those other spheres, the fine arts and academia? Because one of the things that was always exciting to me about your comics was how well they fit into the larger sphere of (this is meant in totally positive terms) hipster culture. And how it felt like you were aiming for that and didn’t have any stigma about it, as opposed to how like, even rock bands or fashion labels will try to distance themselves from it. That was probably the biggest thing I saw in your work that I tried to bring to my own. Do you just want a different sphere than comics, or do you have a specific one in mind?
B: I think I make it difficult for anyone to be a “fan” or even a friend. Like, if I feel something I’m doing is becoming successful I’ll stop doing that. If I make friends it’s only the ones that are constantly moving themselves that last for me. I hate the idea of being stuck in a stagnant community where your “role” is extremely articulated. I feel like the spheres I am interested in constantly reevaluate their position.
M: I can see why comics’ obsession with its continuous biographical narrative would be tough to deal with then. In comics even if you are constantly changing then you get slapped with “innovator!” or “provocateur!” and get stuck there. Do you feel like the comics community doesn’t have much to offer a person with your goals?
B: Oh, I don’t know. I mean, the comics community is solid, right, it’s a real thing. I have no image of it except as this … collection of books and blogs. The image I have is very solid. For awhile it wasn’t. It was wild, it was innovative. It felt like strong winds were blowing through the comics shop.
M: Do you think comics changed, or you changed?
B: I think comics didn’t change. The winds slowed to nothing. Or maybe they died awhile ago and I was just encountering the echoes. I was catching up on the comics narrative (the past decade). Maybe it was the economy. I’m sure that was part of it. It really felt impressive to me that there was all this money being spent in such frivolous ways. Like, that really destabilized my conception of worth. That’s maybe what was … that’s one reading of that work that stays with me.
M: The high presentation values that got given to such lo-fi work?
B: It didn’t even come down to high presentation values - I’m not talking about the sort of “comics page as object” thing that sort of came to be the standard way of publishing art comics - just the time and labor represented in the work. Or presented rather. Or represented, I dunno. Like, also the commitment of printing 1000 copies of something that seems valueless in a market sense. I think that was what was inspirational. Hedging big bets on what in hindsight might be seen as highly undervalued work.
M: I think that mindset would never have existed without the long single narrative of comics history though -- just because it seems to spring directly from like, “how is this amazing comic in the quarter bin?” The desire to publish those amazing quarter bin comics while they’re still new. Is it possible to want to be part of an art form without romanticizing something about it, do you think?
B: Why do you ask?
M: Because you seem to have a lot of the same feelings as me about the sphere of comics -- I spent a lot of time, years and years from when I was a kid, on the outside of the community looking in, and pretty much as soon as I got inside I started looking out again, wanting to bring in other things and disengage with a lot of what the community is. I romanticized comics to an incredible degree, I pictured comics artists as like, millionaire superstars as a young kid, and then cool underground rock stars as a teenager, and that was what got me going. And I think the reasons I still want to make comics are maybe more romanticized pictures of things than truthful appraisals. You’ve got a pretty dispassionate way of analyzing comics, but when you mention the image of wild innovation bringing you in and then dissipating once you had a clearer picture, it seems like you also had this romanticized view of some things that became less prominent.
B: Like what?
M: This view of comics as a place where your artistic interests could be given an opportunity for both free rein and evolution, I guess.
B: Yeah. But I think in any environment I would seek the limitations, the periphery of what’s acceptable. I was also younger, more “collegiate”. I remember a year after I moved to New York I was genuinely surprised I didn’t “make it”. I had a blog and I was just updating it every day. It got maybe 10 views a day or something. No links or comments. And I thought, I really felt like I was just plowing away at this work that was really significant. And it was! But it was this sort of collegiate naivete that I sort of left behind when I left New York. After this was the “ironic capitalist” phase where I sought to create little value and promote it heavily. But this phase was also good in that it related me to the outside world, not just the feedback loop of my art and myself. I was frustrated that I was forced to “grow up”, to develop a praxis in addition to a practice. Before that I just wanted to be discovered.
M: Are you glad you weren’t? Because I mean... to a pretty good extent you did “make it”, Blaise. People buy your books, people read your webcomic, people talk about you in pretty much every critical organ that’s worth anything. Do you think that could have happened for you without your having to shed some of the naivete you talk about? Or would you have wanted it to?
B: The first narrative I wanted was Adrain Tomine’s. To be published at 17. Or rather, to achieve stability at a young age. And now, seeing his narrative, how he’s developed, I’m glad I went a different route. Or rather, it would have been impossible for me to go down that route. I mean, any venue in comics where my desires have not been realised -- like I used to fantasize about being in um … the Fantagraphics “art comics” anthology … right, MOME! - yeah, now it’s all sort of … not a relief, but not a “missed opportunity” either. But I was still happy when Aidan got in.
M: And now Mome isn’t a thing anymore anyway. I think a lot of people in comics feel the same stuff we’re talking about, this sense that we’ve ridden this wave for a while and now it’s hit some new shore and we’re just waiting around for something else. So going outside comics, or not wanting to engage with what it is right now... that makes sense, because it’s not so lively at the moment.
B: It could easily be a survival impulse. It’s sort of required now … the flexible worker ... the permanent part time worker.
M: Well, that isn’t just comics either. You have no idea just how many individuals here in LA “have a production company too”. If anything maybe the last few years have been a crash course in how tied to the national economy comics are.
B: Apparently luxury industries are thriving. Maybe this is why I’m looking in this direction. Maybe people are looking to invest in other currencies. There was some article about … maybe it was Slovakia … how it became a member of the European Union not because it was a good idea economically, but because of the signification of it. The idea of “class” and even “cool” maybe.
M: That’s interesting because comics switched identities so quickly. Like Superman coming out of the phone booth, ahem! For a century it was low-class and uncool and then suddenly it was the New York Times arts pages and celebrities trying to be seen with books, and now that that’s dried up a little there’s an identity crisis. Where are we now, do you think? High, low? Cool, uncool?
B: There was that sort of adolescent flaunting the newly reclaimed identity of “comics”. Maybe nationalistic. But it was … in the style of … identity movements. I think that was shortly after people started identifying as “nerds” and “geeks” … like, just after alt porn took off. I think its reclusive, interior quality makes comics difficult to integrate -- or translate -- into broader outlets. So it either becomes an awkward prop in a photoshoot -- the cover always as stand-in for comics, for the interior and for the medium/culture, never cover-as-cover -- or it becomes a vessel for content, and for juxtaposing content against a sort of easily reviewable/accessible format.
M: (I just gotta say that this is dope how we’re both “voices” in comics who came up during/after the mass-acceptance phase, and we’re here analyzing it as history.) Do you think the wider media fixation on comics-as-medium, often, as you mentioned, at the expense of appraising the art or content comics were presenting, fed into the pro-comics, medium-specific chauvinism so many comics people carry? Like, did it make that mindset okay?
B: Wow, chauvinism is the perfect word for that. Yeah I think the wider media became a threat sort of, like it threatened the boundaries, the autonomy of this tradition which I’m going to assume hasn’t been too welcoming to outsiders. And my memory of that period is mostly white males “defending” this medium, warning of all this heritage that might be lost in translation, losing this medium to a wider culture. Maybe there’s a parallel with those who defended the book against Oprah’s Book Club or punk against disco.
M: Harold Bloom and poetry slams. It’s always “the death of art” and then somehow it always doesn’t happen. Maybe everyone in comics grew up reading stories where belief in the literal end of the world and all humanity was required to make the narrative work and that’s why everyone’s so paranoid about change that goes beyond slight modifications to how the pages look. Do you have any particular idea about what “the future of comics” might look like?
B: It’s hard to talk about comics in that sense because it’s sort of … it’s like, what’s the future of fan communities. It’s an international style of local community in a way. Or that’s my image of it. There’s parallels between the otaku and the webcomics fan and all these other kinds of fans … and there’s overlap … but there’s also this “insider”-ness to it all … that’s kind of what being a fan is … having this image of being inside a culture, or making your own self an embodiment of this culture, so you can always look around you to see yourself. I mean ideally I guess comics would sort of dissolve or … I dunno.
M: Stop being a community and just be a form? I’m thinking of how saying “the film community” would be really silly... or “the music community”, same thing.
B: Right. I guess “comics community” is used because it’s a lot smaller.
M: Closer-knit, too. I mean, I think I’m pretty open minded about these things but it’s still slightly gross to me when people who like Spiderman won’t read Love and Rockets. But would I feel the same way about the teenager at the Katy Perry concert’s refusal to listen to my Polish harsh noise album or whatever? I think the real thing is that comics people insist on thinking small. It’s one of the dearest parts of their identity.
B: Yeah. And it does seem dear in a way, especially if you’re processing this community/identity with language developed in this local=good era. Where local is seen as a mode of resistance to globalisation and the destruction of cultures and traditions.
M: It comes close to paradoxical. The only reason you’d want “comics” to expand is because you care about “comics”... like, we aren’t talking about our work specifically, or the ones with Green Lantern in them specifically, but a whole idiom. But the problem we’re talking about is a community made up of people who are invested in “comics”, not the average mass-media consumers who know what they like and are basically ignorant of everything else. That mass audience are the people comics needs to reach, exactly the kind of people that those who are interested in comics’ expansion are opposed to seeing become a part of the sphere.
B: Yeah. Jason used a phrase a couple times, “blue collar snob” … something like that. Anyway, I’m not sure medium will be the path to unity. Or it seems like that idea only exists because of this small, tight-knit history. Maybe I’m wrong. Do you think a fan would be into [Jason Overby's] 2101?
M: Probably not... well... I dunno. I like that comic, but I do wonder about its audience. There is this reactionary fervor against something that doesn’t look like it took anything from anything, if you know what I’m saying. Like even your stuff has certain callbacks to other comics, there’s the CF connection in Young Lions, 2001 looks a little like Winsor McCay. But Jason Overby, Renee French, Austin English, that stuff seems to get comics “circling the wagons” against people who come in wanting to use the form but making work in which attention to its historical narrative can’t be inferred.
B: Austin and Frank Santoro have their comic book store street cred. The job demands incorporating difference, as far as audience and work go. Jason just makes no effort to have any sort of working class likeability. (At least in his comics. He is the friendliest guy ever in person.)
M: “Blue collar”, “working-class” -- do you see this stuff as inherent to the community comics has constructed?
B: Yeah. It’s about hard work, the sweat of the brow.
M: Which is weird, because it feeds into a market that hasn’t been populist for a good three decades. I don’t necessarily think that “blue collar snobbery” is keeping anyone away from comics though. Nobody would be reading this stuff if it weren’t for all the roughnecks nose-deep in Eightball down at the comic shop. It’s just a weird specificity of the community. It seems like you’re pretty eager to embrace comics’ status as a luxury market though, what appeals to you about that?
B: I see a gap in it that could be filled, I guess. Price is contested but it’s rarely engaged directly. Actual worth value … methods of appraisal … are rarely questioned. They’re manipulated, and there’s reactions against this manipulation, but these seem to happen in pretty comfortable and familiar narratives, pitting the heartless corporation against the average joe fan. It’s system vs individual, it’s just “business as usual”.
M: Is there a more aggressive engagement of price-as-content you’d be interested in seeing? I mean, it’s content that’s tough to go anywhere too unexpected with, I think...
B: Why do you say that?
M: Up and down, high and low... it seems like one manipulation or the other to me. But I could be missing something.
B: You mean it’s all artifice?
M: I wouldn’t put that judgment on it, I’m just saying that the ways you can manipulate it seem few.
B: I had a theory at some point … this was in my first interview I think I expressed this … that maybe creators get so caught up in the demands of the medium - the construction and deployment of an idiosyncratic template - that the content suffers for it, gets marginalized. Like, it seems ironic that form is - according to this reading - the essential draw for most cartoonists and perceived demand for content is like the guilty conscience hounding the creator. Like how many cartoonists say they like to draw but they need to work on their stories? Or at this school, say, the focus seems to be on learning and building a language. Form. But it’s strange that Frank Santoro is out there by himself, pretty much, working on form. And even he can’t let it stay pure form, he has to plug in content. It’s strange to me. This binary, this dualism, I guess it comes from its assembly line history. And where that’s led readers, what their expectations are.
M: Totally. It’s always astonishing to people when form actually manages to propel content. But that’s what comics is, that’s what art does! This is where your conceptualization of price as art is intriguing to me, because the assembly-line process that keeps comics stuck in this binary system of writer-to-artist construction is purely a byproduct of comics that function primarily as commodities. Take away commercial concerns and I think the number of collaborative comics would vastly decrease.
B: Hm. It is interesting, this system that requires more than one person to create an effective comic. Even the way “auteurs” work by writing first, then penciling, then inking. A mimicry of this industrial system. I guess this is where the idea of re-establishing a bridge with this fan base worries me. Or why I never thought about it. I think creating a void -- this has been described as the feminine mode of seduction -- and an image of beauty on the other side of this void, this is a good model.