Tom Kaczynski may be familiar to you if you read mini-comics, Fantagraphics’ quarterly MOME publication, or this website. He is also in regular attendance at most indie comics shows, such as MoCCA and SPX.
It’s the day after Thanksgiving. Right now you’re probably stuffed with tryptophan and looking for a reason to stay home. I recommend that you snuggle up by a warm, relaxing fire and enjoy the rest of Tom K’s interview.
Whose work, or which people, do you find to be the most inspiring to you when you’re making comics?
Are you talking about cartoonists or just in general?
How about in general? I thought at first I would ask about just cartoonists, but for you because you read so much, I realized you probably drew inspiration from a lot of different areas.
I already mentioned J. G. Ballard. He was a big influence on me as a writer. I’m a big omnivore. I read a lot of literature from all sorts of genres. As far as cartoonists go, probably my single biggest influence is Dan Clowes, which is almost too obvious to say just because he’s just such a big influence on a lot of people. More immediately I’ve been influenced by people that I’ve gotten to know in New York like John Bennett, Gabrielle Bell and John Lewis. Those are cartoonists that I’ve actually known and hung out with and got to see them make comics which was really inspiring and really helped me figure out a lot of things I want to do.
Hearing their specific guidance or just seeing what they do?
No, it wasn’t specific guidance, it was more just being around them. Getting a glimpse of how they put things together, how they think and how talk about comics. I was absorbing a lot of that almost by osmosis.
You’ve been making comics now for about 12 years. How do you still find ways of challenging yourself in the comics you make?
Every time I write a story I try to make it better than the last one. I seem to have enough ideas at the moment to keep it going. I don’t know. I’ll probably hit a wall eventually. There’s always something once you finish a story that you want to do differently, so you try to do that in the next one.
What has been the best advice you have received that has helped you to improve over the years?
I think I was talking to… and I may be wrong and I apologize if I misremember who it was that told me this or if I read it somewhere in an interview… but I think it was Adrian Tomine. At one point he said that it doesn’t matter how fast you can make comics, how prolific your actual output is… when you get down to what matters, if you do one really great page, someone is going to notice that page and it will be appreciated by someone. And you just try to make another page like that. Each page should be your best one. I don’t know if that’s true of all of my work, but I definitely took the advice to heart and tried to slow down and make the best pages I could.
Is there a problem, do you think, with cartoonists burning out too quickly or ceasing to challenge themselves by not getting their name out there? Do you see people giving up too early?
I don’t know, is there a big problem with that?
I guess I just wondered, because you’ve been going to MoCCA since it began and you’ve been going to conventions for so much longer than the upstart minicomic people that I would know.
It’s funny because if you meet someone and they never show up for another convention you’re probably not going to remember them unless their comic was really, really good and you’re just going to wonder what happened to them. It’s hard because familiarity breeds itself to a certain extent in these shows, where you meet people and then you try to see the same people over and over again, especially if you appreciate their work. I don’t know in terms of burn out. I know I must have seemed like someone who burned out at some point because I stopped making comics for about like 3 or 4 years in the late 90’s early 2000’s. The first time I went to MoCCA a few people came up to me and were like, ‘Where were you?’ So people notice. I was certainly grateful that someone noticed my presence again. Ye ah, I don’t know if there’s a huge problem with that or…I don’t know, I guess I don’t really know how to answer that.
I guess I was thinking that there are a lot of online communities that are trying to support relationships between cartoonists, and I wonder if people become more interested in forming those relationships than they do with becoming a better cartoonist – if they become more invested in meeting people than making better books?
Right, right. There seems to be two different approaches. There’s kind of a support group approach, which, depending on the group, could be either detrimental or beneficial to your comics. I think maybe if a group is too loose and too open armed it can have a kind of “Team Comics” effect. I don’t know if you remember this, but there was a time in the 90’s where this “Team Comics” term was coined to describe people who were trying to support comics no matter what. I think that can lend itself to mediocre work over time. If everybody is great it means that nobody is great. But, if you have a group that’s smaller and really into pushing themselves as cartoonists… and at the same time open to some criticism every now and again, then yah, that’s great. I think it would be good to have something like that. I had something like that when I was part of AWP in New York. I don’t have that anymore really, and I miss it… hopefully I will have it again sometime.
Tell us about the Trans series? I really loved it and I think that you made a journey through memory, history and discovery so clear and interesting. I wonder how long a process that particular body of work has been, to work through these ideas and to do all the research necessary, to make these books happen?
Oddly enough, they were done really fast. The first one [Trans-Alaska] was less than 2 weeks of part-time work because I had a full-time job. I basically wanted to do something for the first MoCCA Festival. I didn’t want to do the kind of work I had done before and I wanted to do something a little bit more personal but also not strictly autobiographical. I wanted my comics to engage larger social issues… It sounds very premeditated right now, but it was two weeks of stressful struggle and doubt. I just regurgitated all this stuff I was thinking and reading about at the time… It was very quick and I drew everything straight to ink, no pencil, and it just kind of came together on the fly. It was frustrating not doing it in pencil, it made it a lot harder to edit… The second one [Trans-Siberia] was very similar. It also took about 2 weeks. At least this time I had planned the second part in advance. But once I got into the process of writing and drawing, it took two weeks. The last one [Trans-Atlantis], which is not yet the last one – but the last one so far, took the longest. That’s where I started penciling and paid more attention to the art and tried to synthesize everything into some larger entity… it hasn’t really coalesced into anything solid yet… Now I’m working on the final piece, which is taking forever! I don’t know when I’ll finish it, but I’m hoping mid-next year sometime.
Do you ever think about going back to those first two and bringing them up to speed with–
Kind of re-drawing them? Re-doing the art and stuff?
Um, not right now. If there was ever talk of a collection or something, I may want to do that. But right now I’m just letting them sit as sort of historic documents in all their uncorrected glory.
Very appropriate. So in general, what are your next steps? What goals do you have for yourself?
I try not to set big goals for myself, just because I know it’s going to be hard to keep them… I’m kind of lazy… So right now I’m really just happy to be part of MOME. I want to keep doing short stories as long as they let me. I don’t know, the only difference between the stories I’m doing now and the ones I was doing earlier is that I’m trying to make them a little bit longer. Trying to make them a little bit meatier and a little bit more ambitious… But more short stories for me! And maybe I’ll do the occasional mini comic.
You have an interview coming up in the, is it, MOME Spring 2008?
No, it’s going to be the winter issue I think. It’s going to come out in December or January. It has that Al Columbia cat cover, I don’t know if you’ve seen it.
What are some of your favorite comics to read right now and what were some of your favorite comics to read when you first started out making comics?
Right now I’m really, really into New Engineering by Yuichi Yokoyama. It’s from Picturebox. Yokoyma is a Japanese artist and he does these unusual comics without any real stories and they’re mostly filled with sound effects rather than dialog. Here’s one ‘story’: a gigantic machine tears up the landscape, then at one point something gets built. In one case, it’s a gigantic fake mountain and in another it’s some kind of canal or a boulder is carved into a strange neon-lit room. It’s hard to explain but I totally obsessed with it. I also liked CF’s new book. It’s another Picturebox book called Powr Mastrs, it’s volume one of…a bunch… I think he’s vaguely related to Fort Thunder (though I may be wrong on that) —I don’t know if you’re familiar with Fort Thunder—Brian Ralph comes out of there and so does Matt Brinkman and Brian Chippendale. Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine was great… Daniel Clowes’ New York Times serial… When I was younger, when I wasn’t reading super-hero comics, I was reading a Cerebus and Sandman and American Flagg. I was reading mini comics like King Cat and Jesse Recklaw’s Slow Wave… and David Lasky did this comic Boom Boom which is pretty great, he did this great Jack Kirby version of James Joyce. True Swamp by John Lewis was a big influence back then as well.