One stunning graphic novel and Ignatz Award later, Tom Neely may well be remember as 2007’s alternative comics’ rookie of the year. His largely-wordless 180 page debut, The Blot, with one large, splattered stroke, established Neely as an artist with a keen eye for the form’s classic masters, like E.C. Seegar and Carl Barks, and storyteller with strong leanings toward the fantastically absurd, making for one of the year’s most fiercely unique visions.
It’s fitting then, that Neely also saw fit to forgo publishing offers for his debut, opting instead to issue the book himself, a choice that, while exponentially increasing work for himself on the business end of things, also served to give the artist full creative control over the complete package, a decision that helped land The Blot on several year-end best of lists—ours included.
You sort of came out of nowhere. I first heard about you when I received a copy of The Blot for review. What had you been doing previously?
I’d been doing some mini-comics since around 2000, but I never really did anything that great or notable. I was kind of experimenting with different ideas and trying to learn the craft. I got into self-publishing because I was in art school, up in San Francisco, studying painting, and I got into doing comics, at that point. I did a couple of self-published things and went to the San Diego Comic Con and Ape for several years. I had one thing that was published in the 2003 SPX book, but other than that, this is the first thing that I’ve published for real. So, yeah, I kind of came out of nowhere, but I’ve been at it for a while.
How do you make that jump from painting into comics? Had you been a fan of the form for a while?
Oh yeah. That’s all I wanted to do, as a kid, but I grew up in a small town in Texas, so I didn’t really know much beyond superhero stuff. So, at around high school, I started to get into more fine art stuff, and went to art school to study that. I kept doing comics in my sketchbook, but didn’t really have any exposure to alternative comics or anything other than the average Marvel and DC stuff, until I went to grad school in San Francisco, in ’98. That’s when I first started reading stuff like Chester Brown and Adrian Tomine and Craig Thompson and Love & Rockets. That was the first time that I realized that you could do stuff that wasn’t superheroes.
At that point I was feeling a bit lost about school and what I wanted to do. The school I went to was more conceptually oriented than painted, but I just started doing paintings of my comics from my sketchbooks. There was a lot of anthropomorphic animal stuff like Carl Barks. So, for the rest of my grad school tenure, I did a series of paintings that were essentially one panel comic strips. I still do that today. My paintings are still related to the comics. It’s just one big mess of a story unfolding [laughs].
Did they harbor the same sort of aversion to comics as they did painting?
Surprisingly, they really liked the paintings that were based on the comics. They didn’t really pay attention to the actual comics, but the paintings I was doing at the time were clever references to old master paintings, like a copy of Rembrant, but with monkeys and bunnies in it, instead of people. Stuff like that. A lot of the conceptual art teachers were really into stuff like that. Most of the teachers really loved it, and I was surprised. Until I started doing that, I was faced with a lot of people who had a ‘painting is dead’ attitude. They said, “why would you do this? You should be doing performance art and video installations, but as soon as I started doing the comic strip paintings, people took to them, so that kind of saved painting for me. It kept me from devolving into a boring conceptual artist.
Had you ever tried the conceptual route, if only to appease your peers and teachers?
No. I always resisted it. There are a few conceptual artists that I appreciated, but, for the most part, all I ever wanted to do was paint and draw. I did some paintings that were more conceptual, I guess. For a while, I went through this period where I did these photo realistic paintings of stuff that I would take off the TV, mostly scrambled channels, in the old days, before digital cable when you’d get scrambled porn channels. I was doing these abstract paintings, but they were actually recreations of scrambled TV stations [laughs]. That was my attempt at doing conceptual painting, but I got bored with it, really quick.
Now that you’ve got a good amount of distance between you and art school, do you feel as you took away any really solid lessons from your time there?
Yeah, I did. I did have one really good painting teacher who supported me and taught me really good stuff, technique-wise, but the biggest thing I got out of it was that I really found myself as an artist, in the face of people who didn’t really get what I wanted to do. I found myself in this position of really searching for myself as an artist, which is when I found myself getting back toward comics. It’s what I wanted to do as a kid, anyway. It just really forced me—it’s kind of like boot camp. They break you down with so much criticism, until you reach a point where you have nowhere to go, except to find yourself—
Or leave the profession, entirely.
Are you a writer, too? Is that what drew you into comics? You clearly have some penchant for storytelling.
Yeah, I always kind of written stories, but I’ve never been as confident with my actual writing skills. I think that’s kind of why I gravitate more toward comics, because I do have stories to tell, but I’m better at doing it through pictures and narrative paintings and things like that. But my dad was an English literature professor, so there were always lots of books around and I was reading all of the time, so it all just kind of blended together.
Is there more text in your minis, or are they largely silent, like The Blot?
For a while I did a story that was trying to mimic a silent movie, so it would be one image per page, and every once in a while, you’d get one page that had a little bit of text, like a title card in a silent movie, but other than that, they’ve been pretty much completely silent. I did a couple of things with words, like Jesse Reklaw’s Kramer’s Ergot parody, Krayon’s Ego, I did a parody of Tom Gauld’s comics and in Josh Frankel’s Only The Lonely mini-anthology, I did a Jeffrey Brown/John Porcelino parody that had words. But pretty much everything else has been silent.
Are you more comfortable working without words, or do you feel that added a lot of text bubbles would somehow take away from the story that you’re trying to tell?
It’s a bit of both. I like the abstract element of leaving it wordless, because that leaves the story open to interpretation. But I’m starting to write a story right now and I’m debating whether it will need words. It will be mostly silent, but then some characters may speak, similar to The Blot. But I’m just more naturally inclined to tell a story through image, rather than words. I think that might be a bit of an extension of my painting background. You want that painting to stand on its own and represent itself, without the help of text.
By the same token, do you ever hear or read interpretations of The Blot that are just completely off the mark?
Well, since the book came out, I’ve enjoyed a lot of the interpretations. I’ve had a few interpretations from people that amuse me, like my mother’s, for instance. I did the first chapter of The Blot as a mini comic, a couple of years ago, and when I did that, my mom thought that the blot represented the smog or global warming. I thought that was kind of amusing. It’s been interesting to hear all of the different reactions and interpretations.
Do you have a very concrete interpretation of the book?
Not really. I have my own ideas of what it means to me, personally, but nothing too concrete. I did kind of mean for it to be open-ended, even to me. There’s definitely a lot of autobiographical elements mixed into the story that have significance to me. I also hate to really clearly define it for anyone, because I really like to keep it open for people to interpret.
It’s interesting that you have multiple ideas about what it means. Has your understanding of the story evolved over time?
Oh yeah, it definitely has. The Blot evolved out of a series of paintings that revolved around the ink blot, and as I was doing those, I approached them in a very stream-of-consciousness kind of way. They were their own self-contained story ideas, but nothing too literal, so as I continued them, these ideas came to me as I worked on it, so a lot of it was me interpreting, as I went along. Even a couple of interpretations from reviews that I hadn’t thought about previously have shaped my opinion. One suggested that it represented the creative impulse. I liked that interpretation.
[Continued in Part Two.]