In a sense, Art Spiegelman and Jerry Moriarty were a perfect fit. One strode to create sequential art on-par with the era’s finest literature. The other toiled quietly, bridging the once-seemingly infinite chasm between contemporary fine art and comics.
What Spiegelman has accomplished in his post-Raw life is one of the best known stories in contemporaty indie comics. Moriarty, on the other hand, has lived a fairly quite life, content to teach students at SVA, where he’s been a professor since 1973, while producing work largely for his own satisfaction. Over the past two decades, the mention of his name to even the staunchest of indie comics fans was likely to elicit little more than a well-timed head scratch.
Now 71, Moriarty has become the unlikely subject of renewed interest, thanks primarily to Buenaventura’s gorgeous hardcover reprint of Jack Survives, a hand-painted comic originally serialized in Raw, back in the early 80s.
Alternative comics hero Chris Ware penned a forward for the book, and conducted a subsequent interview with the artist for Believer Magazine, which he open by referring to Moriarty as, “one of the great geniuses of the comic strip.” To state that the Jack Survives author is an artist’s artist is something of a wild understatement.
While he doesn’t appear to harbor any ill will toward the industry in which he has maintained a relative level of obscurity, speaking with the artist at SPX, Moriarty does seem to take some pleasure in the new-found buzz surround his decades-old work. He smiles a lot, ready to expound at length on nearly any subject that might arise, insisting all the while, from beneath his bright white, shoulder-length hair that he feels far younger than his 71 years.
Has feedback for the book been good, thus far?
I guess. I mean, I’m not anywhere connected to all of the points. I Google Alert myself, so I check out any mentions there. I love that. Tom Spurgeon, he wrote a beautiful piece. That’s been more recent, though. It takes a while to actually get out there.
You’ve actually got to get the book and read it, in order to review it.
It seems to me that’s it’s such a relatively small scene—compared to, say, the superhero world—that it’s almost possible to gauge the feedback by how you’re received at the shows. The buzz of people coming up to you.
Yeah. There have been plenty of people for my signings, at least. I’ve enjoyed that. With comments from people—I call them two-timers. They bought the original Jack back in ’84 from the Raw version, so it’s nice for them to have that comparison. For the first one, they didn’t have the printing capacity to print digital.
Raw was in black and white.
It was totally in black and white. And it was high contrast. They couldn’t show the bluish tint. And it was on Baxter paper, so it was like looking at woodcuts—which I love, so it looked fine to me. I knew that I wouldn’t really have it seen, but it was great just to experience it.
The entire book is painted, so I assume the colors are pretty integral. You’re thinking a lot about that when you’re creating the book.
Yeah. The process is its own activity. My problem is, I have no—I have chops, but I don’t have skills. I don’t have that profession desire to be feathering or whatever, and I probably don’t even have the skill to do that. But I don’t have the nervous system to do that—I don’t have the patience, I don’t have the…
I have the wherewithal, I have the chops, but I don’t have the nervous system to accommodate brick 920. I’m up to brick five and I’m freaking out. So that’s how that works. And I think there’s a lot of people like me, who don’t have that. And other people have this great ability to sustain this continuous, professional look.
It’s interesting that you should say that, because the book’s foreword is written by Chris Ware, who is, I would argue, the most meticulous person in comics.
It’s clear looking at one of his pages how much time he invests. What is it, do you think, that he’s getting out of your work?
I just think it’s the same things I’m getting out of his work. It doesn’t mean we’re mutually exclusive because of that. I’m just describing myself. In his case, it’s another way of telling a narrative, another way to tell a story. He has great regard for storytelling, and I just recently realized that he tells it in kind of a play condition, instead of zoom shots and all kinds of angles and stuff. I don’t do much of that myself, but I just completely didn’t miss it, because he also writes beautifully.
The introduction to my book, he did that. But the other point is that he writes these wonderful stories, like “Amputee Girl,” and hilarious things like “Rocket Sam.” I love Rocket Sam and the ethos of leaving one robot and taking one robot away from this planet [laughs]. I go, “whoa, I’m so sad for that robot.” I’m laughing and I’m sad at the same time. And also, that’s accompanied by appropriate drawings.
Chris Ware also worships at the altar of Gary Panter. It seems that a lot of these highly detailed artists seem to yearn to be more minimalist in a way. Do you find that to be the case?
I think you see something in the storytelling, again. I mean, I like Ernie Bushmiller. That can’t be any further away from me. I mean, you talk about Chris being like that, but with Bushmiller, even his storytelling is different. But nonetheless, he still catches me, he still has a hook—or he used to. I think I’ve passed on him, we have get passed our collection.
Our childhood fancies.
Or whatever. I’m like 71, so I get over them much faster. Like, I’m over Edward Hopper now. I’m de-Hopperizing [laughs]. And the next thing that comes up is thrilling. I mean, I love Jams World shirts on eBay. And so my paintings start to look like these shirts. And I’m thrilled that that happens. I’m not against that. That’s really—they got in there really deep, and there’s a real reason for me to collect them.
I find it to be the case a lot with musicians, wherein they won’t listen to other music for fear of resembling it too much. That’s not something that concerns you?
Oh, it is. I can’t look at comics, now that I’m semi-back. Because I’m a jealous guy, mostly. It’s total jealously. Jealously kills original thinking, I think. Because I’m thinking I’m gonna bypass somebody, where it wasn’t my next step, anyway.
It becomes a competition.
Yeah. And I’m competitive to the point where I can’t compete.
Is that part of the reason why you were out of the game for so long?
Yeah. Well, I’m out it because I’m not taking chances. I’m still working. But I don’t sell my work, either. I don’t want to turn it into some other condition that I can’t handle. I mean, I can stay amateur. I’m a professional amateur. I see all professionalism as a kind of directional thing towards success as some kind of another standard.
The most basic definition of professionalism is that you’re making a living doing something.
No, it’s careerism. When it gets to that point where you’re invited to 95 shows of theirs and haven’t gone to one of them, somebody’s being persistent for no good reason. It’s like a career move. That works for them, because it’s part of their joy. I’m critical only because it would overwhelm me. I love the idea of fame and money, but I know the price of that for me would be some diminuation of my, I guess, primitive state, or whatever.
Ultimately you have to decide whether or not you want your stuff out there. In some ways, shouldn’t the goal be having as many people view it as possible?
No. No. I just want the people that I regard to view it. I really don’t care about maybe 95 percent of the Raw crowd. I’m not particularly interested in them. I would definitely fit into the category of ‘artsy-fartsy’ now, but I don’t want to be there. It’s just that this is the thing that I do. It’s just how it comes across. And I would see it that way—some kind of a usurper from another dimension coming into the comic world. “It’s so easy to be good at comics”—that’s total bullshit. Comics are tough. And I learned that from an arrogant position. That’s why I call myself a ‘paintonist.’ I’m the only person who calls me that, but I still do it. I do feel that kind of a bridging condition for good reasons. Not slumming. Not Roy Lichtenstein.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s like you’re subnormal here.
You’re marginalizing it by approaching it in that manner.
Yeah. And it’s for the steady few to come over and say, “isn’t it quaint.” This guy ripping off romance comics and pretending they’re art. And, of course, they are. But Andy Warhol, he would give it some regard. He would say he liked Nancy. And, of course, I would have another take on Campbell Soup cans—it would be very autobiographical, as opposed to iconic. so we have the same things there, but I’m totally involved in storytelling. I love that. And the other things that comics have, which really is deep, is time and motion—not like a mural. You have a comic brain, so you start in the uphand corner and balloons overlap—that means the first one’s talking. All of this stuff no one taught us. We just know it. We’re born with a comic brain. So I love that. I love time and motion. I love using it for that reason.
Painting used to aspire to be more real—at least until the advent of photograph. You’ve got perspective, motion, et al. Conversely, it seems like many of the Raw generation are aspiring to become fine art.
Yeah. And I think that brought comics up, after it got over the sex and violence of the underground people. Then there was another alternative, and that’s what Art Spiegelman brought into the thing. And I think that was a good move. There was nothing on my part to be part of that as recognizing that. I didn’t even see Raw—Raw hadn’t even come out yet, but he was teaching at SVA, and I was teaching there. And we had students in common, like Joe Coleman and certain other people. And they would talk about his class when they came into my class. And I’d start doing comics, just for myself, because I had become a collector. There’s this borderline between collector and creator. Cross that line and you get to a point of saturation. You get to that point in a collecting state, and all of the sudden it has to have a creative outlet, and then, ‘boom!’ There it is. It’s not a temporary state, because you’re finding more things that are unique to its form, versus another form.
So you’re initially creating work assuming that it’s not going to make its way out into the world?
Not really. I mean, I’m a fan person and I love my heroes, so I see everything as ‘justice will prevail.’
But pre-Raw, there’s no distribution for your work, really.
Not, but there’s the notion. I called up art, because I had done five pages. Patrick McDonald, who does Mutts, he was a student of mine—not that I have anything to do with his success…
His stuff and your stuff are about as different as two things can be in the same medium.
Yeah. He was a student in my class. He was into Krazy Kat, which is still hard for my mind to get to, brain-wise, and yet, he had a punk band. I play saxophone. They were called Steel Tips, and I was let in as a Plastic Tip, once in a while. They played CBGBs and no one could here me, but it was wonderful. You would never know that he was a punk guy, just from the sweetness of Mutts. He clearly was invested in the notion of Popeye and Krazy Kat, and he’s living his dream in that regard.
[Continued in Part Two]