Bob Levin talks to J.T. Dockery, the cartoonist behind In Tongues Illustrated

Posted by on November 30th, 2009 at 9:04 PM

LEVIN: Why did you choose comics as a form of artistic expression?

DOCKERY: In early college I was taking art classes and literature/creative-writing classes, and I was expanding in creative expression, learning about all the contemporary fine-art, highbrow stuff, conceptual, performance, etc. I put making comics aside, although I was following as a reader, in the mid-’90s, artists such as Dan Clowes, Seth, Joe Matt, as well as The Comics Journal, to keep up with what was going on. When I was about 20, I was hit with some serious health problems — psoriatic arthritis. I handled this, at first, mostly by denial and drinking heavily. I turned back towards drawing at this point. I clearly recall the power of returning to ink on paper, as I was trying to not lose my mind, while I was losing my mind, and in great physical pain, joints swollen and stiff. Even the power of drawing through arthritic hands was a comfort. This resulted in a book of drawings, like gag cartoons, titled Somebody Died in Here. When I look back at it, although I’m embarrassed by the quality, or lack thereof, it does seem like a prototype to In Tongues Illustrated. It’s hand-bound, though I did it by punching holes into the photocopied pages and binding them with twist-ties from garbage bags. The force of returning to drawing, and thinking in terms of comics, helped to save some part of me from self-destruction.

LEVIN: What other comics have you done?

DOCKERY: I had access to free photocopiers at this time, and I was banging out all manner of chapbooks and zines. But I was seriously unformed. I was even writing poetry, although comics to me often work like poetry, with panels like stanzas, etc. Some good things came out of this period, including publishing and illustrating a book in collaboration with the British outsider artist/writer/musician, Sexton Ming. I always knew I wanted to combine my art and writing, but it seemed difficult, outside of gag cartoons and the work I did naturally as a kid, to bring a narrative together. I’m not good at answering why. I’m like the little kid — or rather I was the little kid — who draws the sky, the ocean, the land, and what’s beneath the sea at one time: shoe-horning my ideas into the actual form was difficult. My two main books, besides Somebody Died in Here, were Gag Me with a Voluptuous Schtick! and Son of Gag Me With a Voluptuous Schtick! and these were both gag-panel-style drawings from my sketchbook, photocopied and stapled together. The former was reviewed very kindly in The Comics Journal by Tom Spurgeon. After his review, I knew I had to do a “real” comic. I wanted to raise the bar for myself creatively and in the quality of the actual self-published, handmade book. Thoughts and ideas and experiments in drawing/narrative all started turning to what would eventually result in In Tongues Illustrated.

LEVIN: Have all your books been, for want of a better term, this offbeat?

DOCKERY: It’s odd, Bob. I know that my work is offbeat, yet I’m so inside it, that it’s the most natural way I can elucidate the ineffable things that I’m trying to articulate. That sounds contrived, but I’m trying to be honest. I certainly don’t walk around going, “Look how weird I am.” To the opposite, I walk around thinking, “Look how hard I am trying to be normal, balanced, healthy.” To look at it biographically, I guess I’ve been drawing through chronic physical pain for 13 years, and I’m sure that touches the quality of the vision. I’ve been too interior perhaps, but I’ve been involved in bringing the interior to the exterior.

LEVIN: So, if not “offbeat,” how would you characterize In Tongues?

DOCKERY: A fragmented narrative, poetic transmission. If the work fails to transmit to the reader, it is a failure on my part. But I didn’t play it safe. I expressed it the best and, what was to me, the most natural way. To me, In Tongues seemed linear, yet I knew it would be difficult for the average reader.

LEVIN: And who the hell is Mona?

DOCKERY: If I had to answer that question, I’d say she is the ever-present “she” from the male perspective. The female of film noir. The female of myth. A catch-all for discovering that both the enemy and the object of desire are contained already in every protagonist. The doom, ultimately, of trying to know the very limits of knowing and the human intellectual breakdown that occurs when running along these parameters of limitation. Rather than trying to put this in linear narrative, I gave it in coded poetic meditations, cracked and absurd. I asked myself questions I couldn’t answer. Or, rather, the best, most honest answer is in what the book ended up being.

LEVIN: What artists — comic and non — do you feel influenced by?

DOCKERY: I mentioned ’70s mainstream drek as a starting point. Now, as a grown man, I realize that all you need is Jack Kirby, with a side of Steve Ditko. Golden Age sensibilities touch me quite a bit, and Fletcher Hanks has been a revelation. Jack Cole was a master. Peter Arno constantly teaches me what I need to know about gag panels. From the contemporary scene: Jim Woodring, followed by Ivan Brunetti, have had a big impact on me. Raymond Pettibon rides the gag panel/fine-art line, and I love his drawing. Ted Stearn has captured my attention. Chester Brown, for sure. Gary Panter, is a big influence, almost retroactively. Ben Katchor floors me. Joe Coleman interests me, and I wouldn’t deny his influence; and we have the mutual connection of Hasil Adkins. I met him at Hasil’s funeral, and his “Mystery of Woolverine Woo-Bait” was a big deal to me, as if I want to continue the tradition in comics of that book that got absorbed into his painting. I love Kim Deitch. Of course, I don’t think anyone could get around Robert Crumb. Although lately, when people mention Crumb as an influence to me, I tell them they’re really seeing Basil Wolverton, who was a major influence on him, there’s no doubt. And nearly all of the EC artists, for that matter. The underground cartoonists have been a revelation to me. Robert Williams’s collection, edited by Eric Reynolds. Rick Griffin — I daydream about finally getting to read Man From Utopia — S. Clay Wilson, Vaughn Bodé … I feel more kinship with what these artists were doing than what seems the “fashion” in contemporary comics. It can be too academic, too controlled. I am attracted to the wild vision quest, the dense forest of consciousness captured in comic-book form. Pre-Prozac sensibilities … Hell, let’s just take it back to ancient Crete, if we need to make it happen. George Grosz and Otto Dix loom large in my life. I try to dismiss Dali, but I’m always returning to him. Daumier. Hieronymus Bosch. Breugel the Elder seem real presences, as if their works are my friends, who go through this world at my side, supporting and enlightening me.

Be Sociable, Share!

Pages: 1 2 3 4

Tags: ,

One Response to “Bob Levin talks to J.T. Dockery, the cartoonist behind In Tongues Illustrated”

  1. […] This post was Twitted by cricketpress […]