The tail end of 2001 was not kind to K. Thor Jensen. A layoff, an eviction, a breakup, the death of his grandmother, and the fairly universal heartbreak (particularly for himself and his fellow New Yorkers) of mid-September, all managed to hit, within a short period. It’s enough to send anyone fleeing from their troubles, with all deliberate speed, a sentiment that Jensen took as literally as possible, investing in a Greyhound AmeriPass, allowing him to travel anywhere in the continental United States, within a six month period.
The half-year odyssey formed the basis for Red Eye, Black Eye, Jensen’s first full-length graphic novel, a three-hundred page travelogue, following the decidedly piss-off artist from couch to couch and state to state, seemingly attempting to pick a fight in every state in the union—or at the very least, have some kind of life-altering epiphany. Jensen comes up short on both counts, but to his credit, arrives on the other end with a touching little debut.
I, on the other hand, roughed the barreling nor’easters for a chance to speak with Jensen about Red Eye, Black Eye, because, as it turns out the author happens to live a few blocks from my new apartment—not close enough, mind you to have actually avoided getting soaking wet. So it’s not a six month-long trip across the United States—give me a break, I’m a busy guy.
So this is really your first major work.
Yeah. It’s my first work that’s all me. I’ve done like 50 anthology appearances. I published my first mini-comic the summer after my freshman year of high school. I was 15, and had gone to a signing at Fallout Books in Seattle. It was Julie Doucet, Jim Woodring, and Mary Fleener—and it was like, ‘hey, they all did mini-comics before they did regular comics. That’s how it works!’ I did that all through high school—I published, probably 400 pages of mini-comics…embarrassing things. During that time, I started to get stuff published in The Stranger, which is an alternative paper, in Seattle. I did a weekly strip for them, when I was 19, and just kept on doing it. So we’re talking, like 15 years, now.
Where those early strips autobiographical?
The weekly strip was. It was an autobiographical continuity strip. There was a gag a week, and it all sort of wound into the same story. That ran like 64 weeks, so a year and change.
So you were determined from pretty early on to do this, at least semi-professionally?
Oh yeah. I knew this was something that I could do, so it’s been a goal for a long time. If I told 15-year-old me that it would take 15 years to get my first book out, he’d probably be pretty pissed.
Do you consider yourself to be a professional, at this point?
No. I’m fully aware of the fact that I’m never going to make a living doing comics. It’s not full-time for anyone I know, no matter how good they are, and I’m not that good. It’s something that I can have as a secondary thing. It’s something that I’m going to do, for the rest of my life, but I’m not holding my breath, waiting for the big cash-bubble to explode on me.
It’s one of those ‘no matter how many people see it, it’s something I need to do,’ things?
Yeah, and it’s gratifying that Red Eye, Black Eye is doing so well. You never know, and for now, at least, I have a day job, and am happy with it.
What do you do for a living?
I work for a game company, called Game Lab. We do games for people who don’t usually have games made for them. We do a game called ‘Diner Dash.’ It was hugely successful and sold millions of copies. The main audience that we have been hitting is women, ages 25 to 45, which is not an audience that game makers usually make games for, and yet it’s this huge market. Women at their offices want to waste time and play games. It’s really satisfying. We got a MacArthur Foundation grant to teach game design principles to junior highschoolers, so we’re doing a huge meta-game creation thing for them. It’s really great. It’s nice to be engaged creatively in my day job, in a way that doesn’t take away from comics. It’s like a totally different part of my brain, so I’m not burning out all of my creative energy there.
You’re programming over there?
I’m a project manager, so I basically make sure that everyone is doing what they’re supposed to. I do a little bit of programming, and art, and writing—there are a lot of disciplines in there, but most of the time it’s just managing.
You’d consider yourself to be pretty tech savvy?
Oh yeah. I had my first homepage in ’96. I was doing what is now called blogging, in ’97. I was very ahead of the curve. I had a website that was updated daily with personal and varying content. I think that’s how a lot of people know my work, not so much in a comics context, which is good. It gave me a crossover audience.
Were you ever doing a regular Web strip? You published some stuff on Serializer.
Red Eye, Black Eye ran on Serializer. I didn’t do a regular, continuing thing on the Web, because I didn’t really have any regular, continuing ideas. I would throw up whatever I was doing at the time. For the first four years that I was living in New York, I was very creatively dead, in terms of comics. I probably only published 20 or 30 pages. I had a lot to adjust to.
There’s a lot of fodder in the city though, right?
Yeah, I just wasn’t thinking in that direction. I was doing other things, playing music and updating this website, every day. There were definitely other things to do, but it wasn’t until the events after Red Eye, Black Eye that I started really heavily producing comics again.
Before you set out on the trip, did it occur to you that it would make a nice little graphic novel?
Not before. After certainly, and as I was traveling, I was thinking, ‘these are interesting stories that people are telling me,’ and I was keeping a sketchbook to jot stuff down, because that’s what I do, but it definitely wasn’t, ‘oh, this is going to be the most awesome graphic novel, if I make it out alive!’ But as I started putting the book together, I think it really reaffirmed my commitment to making comics. It really helped process what I was doing, in way that was important.
So you were in New York, as the book opens?
Yeah. Everything in the book is true, so you’re seeing everything that caused my book to spiral into an abyss of disaster.
You were being evicted from you apartment during that period. As you were traveling the country, was there a thought of looking for another place to live?
There were thoughts about it, because there was definitely the feeling that New York didn’t really have a lot left for me, because all of those events happened in a very rapid period of time. The only thing keeping me there was my stuff. There were definitely thoughts of that, while I was traveling. That happens in the Minneapolis chapter—maybe I should just stay. Not that Carter would have wanted me to stay at his house, for very much longer. After I came back here, I was homeless, for a year.
You didn’t know a lot of the people you were staying with, when you first met them. Were these people you found through the Internet?
Yeah, those were people that had gravitated toward me, through one of the websites that I run. They were people that I knew vaguely, and not really as people—sort of as Internet personalities. It was definitely a bit weird, but I don’t really get into it that much. I think that people are kind of shocked by that, but it’s kind of interesting: friendships that people are making like that are more and more accepted now. It’s definitely a generational thing, where people my parents’ age are kind of weirded out by that. It’s like, “how are you friends with someone you’ve never met?” But I think that, as time goes on, it’s going to become more and more accepted.
Are you still in touch with them?
Yeah, I still keep in touch with most of them.
Have the reactions thus far been pretty positive?
Yeah, everyone’s happy. People think I drew them too fat, for the most part, though. I have the tendency to do that.
[Continued in Part Two.]