Tom Kaczynski at the 2009 MoCCA Festival

Posted by on March 15th, 2010 at 6:14 AM

Tom Kaczynski and I spoke on stage at the 2009 MoCCA Festival on June 7, 2009. What follows is an edited version of our conversation. Some of the topics we covered include Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, architecture, utopianism, and communist zombies. To a certain extent, the conversation builds on an earlier interview Gary Groth conducted with Tom in the pages of MOME (winter/spring 2008). My thanks to Tom Kaczynski, not only for taking part in this conversation but for his thought-provoking graphic stories and mini-comics. Further reflections on Tom’s life and work can be found here.

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I’m going to start by asking Tom why he uses the comics medium to put across his ideas. Why not write essays or op-eds?

Op-eds aren’t comics. I grew up with comics. Making comics is what I always wanted to do. I struggled for a long time with what I wanted to do with comics. I didn’t know what to write about. At the same time I was thinking about all kinds of things. I was reading all kinds of stuff – philosophy, history, literature, and so on – and at one point I realized why not put that stuff in there? Why not just make comics about that stuff? That’s when I started to find my voice, and I’ve been trying to go in that direction ever since.

There are certain ideas we talk about that can be shown in a new light by using comics. We tend to forget that certain ideas exist as anything other than abstractions. We think we see them but we don’t see them. When we write words about these ideas they remain in the realm of abstraction. But, if you draw it in a panel or as a diagram, you can make it concrete and see what it can or cannot do. These things or ideas – something like capitalism, communism, or architecture – images can help make them more tangible. Furthermore, there’s an inherent tension between words and images that can be exploited for all kinds of purposes.

(Click on any image for a larger version.)

What were some of the styles you tried out before you settled on your current approach?

I had done a lot of comics in the 1990s that were genre driven. For example, I created this character – basically ripped off from Tank Girl, and put her through all kinds of “weird” adventures. It never jelled into anything interesting. Every time it did become interesting to me, it was idea driven. I finally decided that what I needed to do was to make ideas the whole point.

Were you trying to make a living at this point? I take it we’re talking about the late 1990s.

Well, yeah. I was working in graphic design and comics were something I wanted to do professionally…

Was there a point in time where you wanted to break into Marvel or DC?

Not really. After being into superhero comics as a kid there was a point where I abandoned reading them and got into other things. The indie/self-publishing revolution of the early 1990s caught my attention, and I wanted to create my own material. I was really impressed by the idea of self-publishing and finding an audience I could connect to.

When they talk about their early development, a lot of cartoonists talk about slowly gaining confidence in their linework, their compositions, and so on. As you describe it, your struggle as a young cartoonist had to do with finding the confidence to use comics as a somewhat abstract form of social criticism. Was there an artistic development going on? Is your early work as recognizably Tom K. as it is now?

Absolutely. Some of my early comics were abysmal. There was definitely a development. A lot of it involved just working through my influences. I was deeply influenced by people like Paul Pope, David Mazzucchelli, Dan Clowes, Adrian Tomine, the Hernandez Brothers, and others. As I absorbed all that stuff my work would sometimes get very derivative.

You didn’t mention superhero/mainstream artists like Jack Kirby. There are some folks who draw a sharp line between anything they do and anything that has ever come out of superheroes. I take it you don’t have that problem.

I grew up with that stuff, especially Jack Kirby. I have always liked the Fantastic Four material, the pre-1970s Kirby in general. I didn’t get the weird stuff he was doing in the 1970s – the Eternals, Devil Dinosaur, the Forever People. At some point it just clicked and that post-1970 work really became much more compelling to me. It took me a while though. But I find myself looking at Kirby more now than when I was doing my early comics. Back then, I was more influenced by whatever cool thing was going on at that time.

One of the things about Kirby’s work is he makes people notice his buildings. He has a fascination with imposing architecture.

Exactly. Here’s a Kirby image from 1971. This monumentally brutalist building fills the entire panel. In the foreground there’s this forlorn figure, very much foreshortened, walking toward the building, thinking. In a sense, this image is sort of a palimpsest of my own work… which is about these gigantic structures that rule our lives. It’s funny because Kirby didn’t seem to have much time to think through this stuff very much. He was just regurgitating all these influences – Planet of the Apes, 2001, books he was reading at the time, and so on. But I think in his images he’s really stumbling on something… unconsciously. He was trapped in this fast-paced mainstream commercial world, but the images are getting at something real.

Did you ever think about becoming an architect?

Yeah, I went to architecture school actually. I did plan on becoming an architect for a while, but that was a long time ago. Then I started doing graphic design and mini-comics… architecture fell by the wayside. At the same time, architecture stayed with me. I still read many books on architecture and I love drawing buildings with a straight ruler, perspective and all that stuff. But it’s more than just drawing buildings. Architecture to me is a way of thinking visually. A building has a program, and as an architect you give it a shape and form. Comics are like that in some ways. Ideas and stories given concrete shapes and form. So yeah it’s more important to me than folks may realize.

Why don’t you choose three or four things you want us to look at as examples of your work and we’ll talk about them.

I brought a story from MOME number nine. It’s a story about a couple living in Brooklyn in this tiny, weird little neighborhood. The top left panel describes what the neighborhood is – an urban island between a bunch of highways and a bridge. All of a sudden a new building starts going up in this neighborhood, and it begins affecting all the residents in different ways. It starts haunting them at night. They hear the insulation flapping in the wind and digging in the back yard… all kind of strange sounds and events are happening. Most of this story is autobiographical… though it’s been heavily fictionalized. Anyway, the building keeps going up, and new residents start moving in.

These characters don’t feel particularly in control of their circumstances, do they?

No, and they’re not even well developed characters. They’re ciphers that live in this place, and suddenly the new building starts affecting them and they respond unconsciously… without thinking about it… They break into the building to check it out… Pee on the wall…

Did you do that?

Ahhh… yes. (laughter) The characters visit an open house to see what the building is going to be like. Turns out it’s going to be a luxurious condo building. One of the phrases people use to sell these kinds of places – a phrase that I absolutely love to hate – is “affordable luxury.” It’s such an oxymoron.

One of the things I wanted to explore is how these monstrosities get built and how the builders don’t think about the neighborhood in any meaningful way. When you go inside of these massive luxurious buildings you often find an architectural model of the building in the lobby. The model is like a sculpture… it stands alone… there’s no neighborhood surrounding it. In this particular building, if you bought a condo, it came with a daily shuttle bus to the subway… which is only a couple of blocks away. If you lived there you would never have to actually interact with the neighborhood!

The marketing material described the building’s neighborhood as having “urban grit,” but you experience it only through the window of a bus. The building in the story is much more than simply “a building,” it’s a world view. The main protagonist becomes obsessed with the condo and gets haunted by it’s future residents. She’s driven insane at the end.

How is it that you’re able to tell these kinds of stories and yet people don’t call your work bleak?

I don’t know. (Laughter)

In this story you can either be a cipher or you can be insane.

Yeah but sometimes it’s the insanity that keeps you sane. It’s the kind of thing Freud talks about in Civilization and its Discontents. Society and the individual are in perpetual tension. We’re living in a civilization of neurotics. But if you take J.G. Ballard takes that a little further. Insanity frees us from anxiety. It’s the pathological acts that enable us to keep going back to our cubicles. Insanity as a safety valve… In an insane world, only the insane are sane…

That’s one reason I’m interested in utopias. Most of the time utopian ideas are dismissed as crazy. “You can’t have equality for everyone, we can’t have relatively equal pay structures,” and so on. One of my favorite quotes [by Slavoj Zizek]: “it is much easier for us to imagine the end of the world than a small change in the political system.” In some ways all these negative apocalyptic visions are about the despair about the state of the world. The only way to imagine change is to see it brought down and destroyed. We can imagine the collapse of civilization but we can’t picture taking a few concrete steps to make things better.

Do you think your work is going to continue in this vein? Is alienation from the modern world your big theme?

I don’t know.

I mean, Joe Matt has a theme…

Oh sure, I think alienation is my theme to a certain extent.

Let’s turn to your story “Ransom Strange.” In this story, architecture plays much less of a role and the story operates almost purely in the realm of the imaginary.

Sure, this was a short comic based on a goofy idea. I was asked to do a two-page comic for Swindle magazine and I had no idea what to do. I was reading all these Marxist books and I came up with this character. He’s a bit like Hellblazer

A Marxist Hellblazer?

Yeah. I kind of invented this occult science, called immaterialism… and Ransom Strange is a kind of capitalist exorcist who fights consumerist demons using immaterial dialectics. An example of a Ransom Strange villain is a shiny CGI demon. The demon’s job is to keep its human host on the consumerist treadmill. It’s a minor entity that thinks it’s the Cthulhu. The only way to thwart the beastie by using obsolete technology… the demon’s power is tied to the latest and greatest consumer items.

It’s a goofy idea but I want to develop it further. I just haven’t gotten around to it. The character of Ransom Strange is partly inspired by Dr. Strange and Dr. Elwin Ransom, a character from C.S. Lewis’ science-fiction novels.

We mentioned Kirby earlier; how about Ditko?

I love Steve Ditko. I’ve really grown to like Ditko’s work, especially Dr. Strange. I even like the really didactic stuff that came later. The Randian rants… they are some of the earliest comics that engage with philosophical ideas. I like to see how he thinks through his ideas on paper.

Frank Santoro: I wanted to get back to the organization of space and how you switch camera angles in your pages. The way you’re organizing space in some of your comics is almost Cubist.

Yeah?

Santoro: Do you have the one with the swimming pool?

The one where he dives into the pool? This story is about a brand specialist who works on this gigantic corporate campus. He wanders around the grounds finding unusual things.

I worked out how the whole campus was laid out in order to have a couple of points of reference… that way I could change the POV and still see the major campus buildings in the background. It’s sort of a combination of real and fake perspective. I pull some elements into the background, and some into the foreground. In that pool scene I definitely exaggerated the perspective to make that pool seem bigger… it became a metaphor for everything the protagonist was about to immerse himself. A lot of my stories are generated from some specific place or space. I generally have a rough plan – in the architectural sense – worked out.

Santoro: The way you’re organizing the format is page specific.

In this particular case the emphasis is on the horizontal, with sparser built environment and a more open space. In the “condo story” this huge building was dominating the space of the page. In that case I tried to emphasize the verticality of the building as it slowly dominated the story. Towards the end, the building starts to pull the grid apart as the character starts losing her mind.

Let’s connect this to the creative process. Do you write the story first?

That’s a complicated question. This particular story [“976 sq. ft.”] was based on true events so it pretty much wrote itself. I changed only a few things. I was able to script this one completely before starting on the drawing. I was living in that area and I just walked around to visually conceptualize the neighborhood from several angles.

Other times I’ll write something… and after drawing a few pages and I’ll change my mind about what the story… and at that point I’ll rewrite all the text. It happens often enough that I worry that it’s become my process. But yeah it really depends… I don’t really have a set process, and it’s frustrating at times. I wish I had a formula. Instead, there’s a lot of push and pull.

Are you making a lot of images the comics world doesn’t see? Do we see most of your artistic output?

Not really. I keep sketchbooks and do some fun non-comic-book things. You’ve probably seem most of my material. I don’t do much pure image making. Most of that energy goes into making comics whenever possible.

Audience member: Have you seen Jacques Tati’s movie Play Time?

Yes, absolutely.

Audience member: Almost every shot is a long shot of people kind of wandering through and trying to negotiate modernist spaces.

That kind of stuff is really hard to draw. When I actually try to convey that kind of experience in a drawing there’s so much information to get across. There’s so much space and there’s so many things going on, it’s hard to convey what these spaces are like at times.

There’s a very powerful sense in your work that architecture can create an extremely negative social environment. Can architecture make us better? Since you were raised in a Communist country, is it even possible for you to believe in progress?

Yes. (laughter) This is something I struggle with because I tend to have a negative and critical take on things, but I really would like to find something to believe in. I would love to create a successful utopian comic. Something akin to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards or William Morris’ News from Nowhere. I’d like to make some kind of positive statement rather than negative critiques. At the same time, I always find myself passing through that and falling back into the negativity.

Audience member: When I read your mini-comics I’m left with a sense of hope and yet it sometimes seems as if you are nostalgic for the world of your childhood. I was wondering if you could talk about this contrast in your work.

As I said before, I want to make a positive contribution and I hope that it comes across. But the whole idea of utopia is also fraught with danger. You can certainly find yourself in a negative utopia like, for example, the Third Reich.

You have a line in one of your minis where you say, “We destroyed our Great Alternative!”

Yeah that’s my take on the demise of the Soviet Union. It certainly wasn’t a perfect place, and in many ways it was a horrible place. At the same time it demonstrated an alternative structure. The existence of the Soviet Union suggested that it was possible to build a world outside of market mechanisms. Now that the Soviet system has disappeared… what do we do? Maybe now we’re getting to the point where the death of communism is the best thing to happen to communism. That’s why I put communist zombies in some my comics. They keep coming back… haunting us.

Audience member: What do you mean “communist zombies?”

Let’s show the image.

There is a take on the zombie genre that says, “the great unwashed masses are coming to take your things away.”

Audience member: Zombie movies show a total cataclysm, and most of the zombies start off in Pittsburgh, which is worker hell. (Laughter)

With Dawn of the Dead, which is set at a Pittsburgh mall, the zombies are coming for the consumer goods, but they are coming for something else as well. The zombies are coming to get not just their consumer goods (as in Dawn of the Dead) but also their rights. For example in the recent Land of the Dead, the zombies gain a kind of Martin Luther King figure that leads them in an attack on humans holed up in a “gated community.” One aspect that makes zombies so popular is a constant shift in the “zombie paradigm.” They can represent so many things. But there are many ways of reading zombies.

How autobiographical is your work?

Sometimes it’s very autobiographical, but sometimes it’s not. The Trans books are very autobiographical, but I try to use parts of my life as a springboard for exploring larger ideas. Trans-Alaska is about working through ideas in real time… on paper… it was regurgitated in a short period of time. In had no idea what I was doing. In the next two books this regurgitation started taking form. In the final book, Trans-Utopia, on which I’m still working, I’m trying to cohere all these semi-formed ideas into some kind of whole. It’s taking shape as I’m working on it.

Audience member: You say you like doing these stories about technology in the future told in this medium that is old, handmade and personal. Can you tell us more about that?

I constantly struggle with this. To a certain extent, the computer has taken over our lives. On the one hand, computers represent an amazing tool that can do all kinds of amazing things. It can also so easily un-do them. If something goes wrong you can start over… like in a video game. There always have all kinds of options. You can save multiple versions, etc. But this can become a kind of never-ending project… at least for me. I find it very difficult to finish projects sometimes, because I’m always tweaking them…

I appreciate the material nature of working with paper. I like the finality of a line on paper. I like the goopiness of white out… you can only apply so much before you get in trouble… and working with the physicality of these materials instead of just floating in cyberspace endlessly tweaking things and never being satisfied with them.

I don’t hate computers but they do frustrate me frequently. I want to be able to use them in a smart way and not have them take over my life. But like them or not, they lend themselves to certain behaviors… Seen through the monitor everything becomes endlessly optional. You have one girlfriend, or you can have another one… you don’t like your avatar or identity? Choose another… etc. It’s a constant flux… you’re always floating… never anchored… never committed to a place or idea…

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4 Responses to “Tom Kaczynski at the 2009 MoCCA Festival”

  1. patford says:

    It is somewhat amazing to me that the poisonous lies fomented about Kirby in the 70’s by the fanboy superhero fans who had become writers and editors at Marvel have so infected the popular perception of Kirby.
    Even a guy like Tom Kaczynski who has an appreciation for Kirby’s solo work assumes Kirby didn’t think things through despite the many, many interviews Kirby did where it couldn’t be more obvious he was far more contemplative than the average comic book artist.
    I suppose you could dismiss Kirby’s ideas about man, and god, and law, but there is no doubt he didn’t just “stumble upon” things.

    TCJ: It seems that you change your style every so often. If you look at all the stuff you’ve done, you can see points where you’ve changed.
    KIRBY: I’m not going to tell anybody that I’m evolving in a superior way or an inferior way. They’re going to have to judge that for themselves. I’m going to do something and someone’s going to react to it. Sometimes I know how they’re going to react and sometimes I don’t. That’s why I don’t believe edgewise in anything because there’s always a flaw in anything anybody says. Sure, I believe most things, but I’m flexible enough not to live or die by them. I won’t live or die by what any man made up. I live or die by what I see, that’s all.
    TCJ: You must see a lot.
    KIRBY: Well, I don’t know. I’m usually in a room about this size, but I feel I see a lot because I analyze a lot. I see the same things you do but maybe I get more time to analyze it whereas you might not. So I sit and think and it’s as simple as that . If you can sit and think for 20 years, you can come up with quite a bit.

  2. Tom Kaczynski says:

    I am perhaps selling Kirby a little bit short here. But the point I’m trying to make (inartfully) is that he was creating sometimes several books per month. That is a very fast pace (even with his almost super-human ability) and that’s not a recipe for contemplative art… especially in the comic-book world of the time. As much as I like his comics from that time, many are on some level failures (magnificent failures!)… due to editorial interference, the beak-neck pace of production, or otherwise… he was trapped in a myopic milieu.

  3. patford says:

    I’d agree the pace of commercial production was something which placed Kirby essentially in the position of being a comics blogger; with many of his stories as a result not what I’d call a failure (there first function was a kids comic book), but rather Kirby marking time with recycled genre riffs, between the stories where he had something more too say.
    My point is Kirby’s thought was fully developed by his very obvious contemplative nature, not that he was able to belabor the thought going into any individual story.
    I’d compare his work to something which is begins with a root, is informed by knowledge, and contemplation, but produced spontaneously like a Thelonious Monk improvisation on the given chords of a standard ballad.
    There is a lot of thought which goes into improvisation, it is composition on the fly.
    The particular illustrated example you show is in my opinion not a good one to make your point.
    The story (Norton in New York?) is one where the oppressive weight of the architecture couldn’t be any more obviously Kirby’s intent. Not to say he sat down and took two hours coming up with the idea, I’m certain it happened on the page, but the whole story is about the crushing weight of a world far removed from what is natural and real.

  4. […] the audio of that some time ago, but the quality was pretty low. Anyway, for those that missed it check it out here. The conversation is edited, so my ramblings aren’t as incoherent. It’s like being […]