Before his full-length debut, The Blot, most of us were largely unfamiliar with Tom Neely. In the past year, however, the artist has burst onto the underground comics scene, sporting two anchor tattooed forearms and an old school cartooning style to match. The book, which combined Neely’s affinity for the work of E.C. Segar and Carl Barks with his fascination for the surreality of mid-to-late 20th century painting, earned the artist an Ignatz and a healthly dose of notice from the comics world at large.
But what was Neely up to before he was charming the comics press with his self-published debut?
We address that question, talk about the future, and name drop everyone from Egon Schiele to The Melvins in this third and final part of our interview.
You’d mentioned reading superhero comics early on, and the fact that your tastes turned more towards indie stuff in school. Your work is clearly influenced by people like Carl Barks and E.C. Segar, however—at what point did the older stuff start creeping in?
Actually, that came before the superhero stuff. When I was about five or six, my grandmother gave me a subscription to the whole line of Disney comics—Gladstone [the publisher], I think was doing them at the time, so I had Scrooge and Donald Duck and the Mickey Mouse reprints that were the old Floyd Gottfredson strips. That was really my first exposure to comics. I’ve still got the whole run from the 80s.
I grew up reading those, and it wasn’t until I was probably 10 or 11 that I got into Spider-Man and all of that stuff. I was really into Marvel and DC for years, and thought that’s what I wanted to do. But I ended up coming back to the earlier stuff. There’s something about that stuff that’s much more…you can do a lot more with it than your standard superhero-type stuff.
Do you think that’s the case with the alternative stuff too, that this older style gives you more freedom than say, Crumb or Jeffrey Brown?
I don’t know. Everyone has their own style that derives from whatever they’re influenced by. I can’t really fully escape the influence of those early comics. I guess it’s partially influenced by working in animation, too, but the stuff I’m doing now is getting a little bit looser and more influenced by some of the fine art stuff that I studied in college. I did an art show, earlier this year, and a lot of that work was more inspired by a lot of painters that I like, like Egon Schiele or Lucian Freud, but at the same time it’s still cartoonish, like Floyd Gottfriedson. It’s kind of a mix of everything that I’ve been influenced by. I think that’s true about any artist, especially in the alternative comics form.
Earlier you mentioned having experimented with the comics form when you were in school. What exactly were you experimenting with?
With my earlier mini-comics, I think I was just trying to learn how to make a comic. I was experimenting with different storytelling methods. Some of the first mini-comics that I did almost worked more like storyboards for a cartoon, and I think that was more my trying to branch off from the animation work that I’d been doing.
Keeping perspectives stationary…
Right, and some of the early comics that I was trying to do just had one image per page. But then I started trying different things with page layouts—putting more panels to a page, and just a lot of trying and failing at different things to try to learn how to tell a story the way it made sense to me, and the end result—something like The Blot—uses elements of all of those things. There are different page layouts throughout. It just kind of became whatever the aspect of the story needed, that’s how I’d approach it. That came from all of the different attempts at comics I’d made when making minis. But I don’t think any of that stuff was ever very successful. It was all just me trying to learn the craft.
Is this all stuff that we’ll probably never see in print again?
You sort of hang your head when you look back at it?
Yeah, I don’t intend to ever do anything with that stuff. There was a story that I was working on called One Fine Day. That was kind of silent movie style. It was kind of like a Bosco or a Mickey Mouse story, but at some point I realized that the way I was telling the story, it should just be a cartoon. If I were to finish it, I’d rather just do it as an animated film, rather than as a comic that tries to replicate that. If I were to revist it, it would be as a film, but I don’t know if I have the energy to do that. Animation takes so long.
The earliest thing I could find on you was a review in The Comics Journal of One Fine Day.
Yeeeah. That was…not a good review. That’s another reason why that’ll never see print again. I had some ideas that were about trying to replicate that era in time, but that comes with a lot of baggage. I’ve actually started to agree with the criticism. At first I was trying to argue that it had its merits, but eventually I actually started to agree with it, and didn’t want to continue that.
Were you considering this potential backlash when you were creating the book?
Yeah. I thought a lot about it and did a lot of research. I’d read a lot of books about the history of animation, even two or three books that were specifically about black images in the history of animation. It was something that I had really thought a lot about, but thinking a lot about it and actually confronting it in reality are very different things. Once faced with the reality of people’s reactions, it kind of broke me out of the historical context that I was going for. I didn’t want to deal with it anymore.
Someone like Crumb can tackle that, because people are already familiar with his work.
Yeah, and in a different context, too. I think Crumb gets away with it, because he’s addressing the issue in his use of it, whereas I was trying to address the issue by ignoring it, and that doesn’t really work [laughs]. I was trying to say, “hey, you can still do an entertaining story with these elements.” You look at old cartoons that use them, and you learn to overlook certain things as a product of their time, and forgive them that to get to the story. I was trying to do the same thing, but you can’t do that now. Someone can’t forgive that today. You can look at an old cartoon and say, “well, that’s just how it was.” But it’s not like that anymore.
Is it something that you would consider addressing by confronting more directly?
No. I don’t think I’d be interested in it anymore. It’s something more for historians to deal with, like that book, Black Images in Comics by Fredrik Stromberg. It’s more of a subject for something like that than for someone like me. I’m not a historian.
So what’s next on the slate, then? Have you started working on the follow up to The Blot?
Yeah. I’m doing two things. Someone I know runs a record label, and they’re putting out a boxset of The Melvins. They asked me to do a comic inspired by one of their albums. It’s a surreal 22-page comic that I’m doing.
Sort of like that Ramones boxset [Weird Tales of the Ramones].
Yeah, they had several artists do different comic strips, and I was really jeaslous that I couldn’t be a part of that. Now I get to do a Melvins comics, all on my own. I just started inking it, two days ago. I’m hoping to finish it this month, but we’ll see. And I’m also writing my next graphic novel, which right now—it’s the early phase, so I’m not really sure where the story is going—is going to be very different. It’s not really a continuation of The Blot, or anything.
The Blot had a pretty definite ending.
Yeah. Though it may continue. I may do something more with those characters, but it’s not time for that yet, so I’m trying something different. The easy way to describe it would be as a murder ballad, like one of those old blues murder ballads from the 20s or 30s.
You’re still a little stuck in the past, storywise.
A little bit, yeah. For me it’s easier to relate to that storytelling. There’s something about setting the story in the present time that—there’s a lot of hipness to certain styles and ideas right now that I’m weary of. Working in an older era, you don’t fall into the trappings of doing something that’s dated.
Though I’m sure there’s a whole new set of trappings that you have to watch out for.
Yeah, exactly. But those I’m more comfortable with [laughs]. Some day I may try it, but right now I’m doing a story about a country-blues singer in the south. I look at someone like Adrian Tomine and he so perfectly captures this era, that I just don’t feel comfortable doing that at this point. But who knows?