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December 27, 2013


CR Holiday Interview #09 -- Sam Alden

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Sam Alden had a very good 2013. He won this year's Ignatz Award for Promising New Talent for his work on "Hawaii 1997" and "Haunter" -- both of which were nominated in that same program in separate categories. Those works were part of a mini-onslaught of significant on-line publication for Alden that included "The Man That Dances In The Meadow," "Household," "Backyard," "Patron Saint" and "The Worm Troll." This followed a 2012 that was similarly productive, marking the 24-year-old as a cartoonist on which one should keep a very close eye. An excerpt from "Haunter" was chosen for publication in the Jeff Smith-edited edition of Best American Comics.

In 2014 he will publish in a variety of locations perhaps most importantly a short collection of works with Tom Kaczynski at Uncivilized Books. Alden's work is already visually accomplished and you can feel him negotiating various narrative effects from project to project in a way that should serve him very well in the years ahead. I caught up to him on the phone; he was in Montreal. -- Tom Spurgeon

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imageTOM SPURGEON: Sam, what's going on in Montreal that you're in Montreal right now?

SAM ALDEN: One of the things that's going on in Montreal is crazy cheap rent. The other thing that's going on is that I'm in this thing, this comics residency: La Maison de la Bande Dessinée de Montreal. It's basically free studio space.

SPURGEON: I get the sense -- and I don't know how accurate this is -- that you've traveled a bit. You've spent the first part of your twenties in different locations.

ALDEN: Yeah, totally. What I'm making up for is that I stayed in the same city for a really long time leading up to my 20s. When I was 23, I lived in New Orleans a little bit. I did a residency in Alaska. I had a desk job that let me travel a little bit more for festivals -- I could stay the week in the city. I'm trying to move around as much as I can, while I still have that kind of mobility.

SPURGEON: What do you enjoy about that? Does it change the way you work?

ALDEN: Totally. Completely. In the same way I feel more productive if I just change desks [Spurgeon laughs] or where I work at my desk for three hours and then need to go to a coffee shop or something, I feel like you can do that on a massive scale by moving to a new city. The first month I'm in a new place is always the most productive month of my time there.

SPURGEON: You said you wanted to travel while you still had that kind of mobility, as if you're about to be beset by old age. Whenever I talk to people about you, your relative youth comes up. I know when I was in my mid-twenties, I did not feel particularly young. So I have to imagine it's weird to be constantly told you're young when you maybe don't feel that way. How do you process that view of you as this emerging cartoonist -- do you get sick of being kidded about your age?

ALDEN: I totally get that 99 percent of it is a compliment, and I try to take it as such. It is nice that I'm finally starting to get reviews where people say, "This is a good comic." Not "This is a good comic for someone his age." I think also that spending enough time on Twitter... I'm young to be at the stage of publication that I am, but there's a whole generation of 21-year-olds that I feel I'm the old guard to.

SPURGEON: Do you feel of a generation at all? Do you relate specifically to your same-age peers, perhaps in terms of shared influences or outlook? Or do you perhaps feel slightly out of touch with people in comics near your age? How much common cause do you have, Sam, with those making comics in their mid-twenties? Do you feel a connection to them?

ALDEN: Yeah, I totally do.

SPURGEON: Who would you consider a peer? Who's your crowd?

ALDEN: You know who I think is my age? Exactly my age, or at least I think she is? Maddy Flores. In Portland. She's one of my best friends back there. I guess... who else is 25? Sloane [Leong] is like 22; I think Michael DeForge is 26. These aren't all people I go drinking with all the time. But there is definitely a certain... a certain character to a generation that grew up imbibing the Internet so heavily. [laughs] I think a lot of that is healthy and maybe some of it in some ways -- say, attention span -- we're really suffering. Yeah, I don't know. I relate to a generation or whatever so much more than I did when I was a little younger. That felt like something I wanted to rebel against.

SPURGEON: I can't dig too deeply into your past this time out given our limited opportunity to speak, but I'm interested if there was a moment you felt you flipped a switch in terms of comics. It seems like you're all in now, Sam, that you're devoted -- at least in the right now -- to making comics a significant part of what you do. You've made a lot of pages this year, and made a similar number of them last year. You aren't dabbling. Was there a point at which you made a commitment, where you decided, "Okay... it looks like it's going to be comics" even if only for a while?

ALDEN: I flipped it a long time ago.

I've always been drawing comics. I think maybe until college, until I was 19 or so, I was like, "Well, maybe I'll write. Maybe I'll draw comics." I had these different things I've been juggling. But since I've been 20... I started this big, unfinishable graphic novel thing. Since then I've been all-in for comics.

SPURGEON: Wait, tell me about the abandoned graphic novel. This is something I've seen, right? At what point did you abandon it?

ALDEN: I still get people asking me what happened to it, so maybe I can say something for the record here.

imageSPURGEON: Are you talking about Eighth Grade?

ALDEN: Yeah. Eighth Grade. If you haven't read it, it's about middle-school kids and it's done in this kind of Nate Powell-y super brushy style. I worked on it for like four years or something. About seven months ago, I hadn't really updated it or anything, but I was still telling people, "Oh yeah, I'm working on it. Gotta finish that thing." [Spurgeon laughs] I got this text message from Dash Shaw. We're friendly, but we're not text-message buds or anything. We hadn't seen each other for months, since Stumptown. He said, "Hey, man. I don't think you should finish Eighth Grade. You've gotten a lot better since then." And as soon as I got that, I felt this huge weight lift off of my shoulders. [laughter] I'd been given permission by an artist I really admire to like fucking cut the albatross from around my neck. Devote myself to short stories. So yeah, that's the story to that.

SPURGEON: So was having the time to devote to shorter stories as you've done since, was that the idea of moving away from a longer form work, or is there something about that particular mode of presentation that you weren't into anymore?

ALDEN: I think that comic was drawn when I was still figuring out what I wanted to do. And one of the characteristics of being in that stage where you're figuring out your own style or something, you're really concerned with making a comic that looks like a real comic. So it looks like somebody else's comic. Mine looked like Nate Powell's.

What the shorter stuff allowed me to do in addition to learning a little more about storytelling is just to experiment and remind myself that it was fun to draw comics. Now I'm heading back to the curve. Now I feel like I want to settle down and do a more meat-and-potatoes, longer-form comic with some of the stuff I've learned.

SPURGEON: How self-conscious are you in terms of your artistic development, Sam? Do you spend time thinking about what you're good at doing, what you're not as good at doing, what you might need to work on? Is there a development track in your head, or are you just doing one work after another and letting that stuff take care of itself? It sounds like you're slightly more analytical than some when it comes to building your skill set. Is that fair?

ALDEN: Yeah. Yeah, it is. That makes it seem like I'm more in control than I am. But it is true that with each story... if there's not something that challenging about it, or new, I quickly get bored -- even if it's good. So yeah, it's honestly [laughs] about keeping a comic of interest to myself and motivating myself to finish it.

SPURGEON: You said you wanted to remind yourself that it was fun to make comics. Where do you take pleasure in the act of making comics, Sam? When a comic works for you that way, what's going on? Is it the problem-solving aspect? Is it the pleasure of drawing? How much is process, how much is result?

ALDEN: The drawing is fun, now that I'm working physically smaller. I've been doing a lot of these little graphite things. There's definitely pleasure in making a compelling image. But for me the main pleasure in it comes -- I used to do animation, and the cool thing about animation was slowing your mind down to see the motion that you're drawing at an incredibly slow frame rate and visualizing it in your head. I feel like I get some of the same sense of that from drawing a story and then from reading back over what I've read and getting the pacing of it and seeing how the elements work and then choosing what's going to happen in the next panel. Knowing, "Okay, that's where this motion has to go." There's something about that... the concentration that that takes, that's really pleasurable for me.

imageSPURGEON: Are you talking about physical motion in comics specifically at all when you say that? Because things like "Haunter," those are maybe best understood as comics depicting motion through a specific landscape. It comes up in your other comics, too: "Hawaii 1997" has a few isolated depictions of physical activity. Or do you mean more generally and broadly the pacing?

ALDEN: I was thinking even more broadly. Definitely there's an element of that. You can just get into this rhythm when things feel right. Making your choices more by instinct than by mathematics: The story elements you need to bring in. There should be this much dialogue in that much panel. We should see this character again.

SPURGEON: Is that instinctive type of creation something that's difficult for you? I've read you talking about applying theoretical constructs to comics. Is that a dichotomy for you: problem-solving versus working through a story more naturally?

ALDEN: Yeah... well... yeah. [laughter] I'm going to answer that question intuitively instead of according to a method.

I was thinking the other day about Frank Santoro's grid. I don't know that my pages look much better when I try to draw according to those. But I get them done so much faster because I don't have to make every decision by intuition. So maybe on that level... yeah. I like to use systems when I find myself over-thinking stuff.

I don't know if that's a straight answer.

SPURGEON: That's a fine answer.

You said something interesting recently, sort of randomly, via your tumblr. The work you've done in the last year seems pretty evenly split, to be as broad as possible about it. You have these comics that have these literary qualities, where there's a specific effect and a cohesion between theme and plot. You've also been doing these kind of landscape-y comics, comics where you see a character explore their surroundings, where you see someone kind of moving through a space. There are combinations of the two as well.

To talk about those where you're just exploring a space: it seems like that this is a kind of comics-making I think of when I think of young cartoonists, but you've said you don't maybe naturally live in the world of science fiction or fantasy comics -- two common genre vehicles for such comics. You said those genres are not as natural a source for making comics of your own as they may be for other cartoonists.

ALDEN: Yeah. Totally. I guess because... and this is going back to the idea that I'm trying to make comics that look like real comics in some sense. I do kind of feel more comfortable in that talking-head zone of literary comics. I don't know. Trying to do the fantasy stuff, the genre stuff, has been really liberating for me when I've made myself do it. It's really... fun. It's like admitting that video games are fun and they're not something where you have to feel guilty or adolescent about.

SPURGEON: So how does that manifest itself in your comics? [slight pause] Does "Haunter" count as that kind of comics for you?

ALDEN: Yeah.

SPURGEON: So how was doing "Haunter" good for you? How are you a different cartoonist coming out the other side of that one? Is it you have more skills in your toolkit? Is there just a comfort with a specific mode of expression? General confidence?

ALDEN: One thing I learned is that that "Haunter" feels like a comic book to me. It's not trying to be a short story or a movie. It feels like a comic book. I gained some amount of respect for the form that I didn't have before. A wordless sci-fi comic is unique to the medium. It's hard to do something of that scope in literature.

I learned a lot about the animation of bodies in space. I learned how to draw so much from doing that comic that I wouldn't have learned drawing people lying in bed and crying. [laughter]

imageSPURGEON: You do play around with the human form a bit. Your figures don't seem 100 percent the same project to project. Is that you trying different things out? Is that you establishing how you want to people to look during a story? I see similarities between figures of yours but I'm not sure it's coalesced into a recognizable kind of figure drawing apart from each story, if that makes sense. That's usually one of the first signifiers I get from a younger cartoonist and I don't have that from you yet. Is this something you're working through?

ALDEN: I guess I am working through that project to project. Maybe a part of that is that when I think of a panel I tend to draw the background at the same time as the characters. So I tend to approach each -- this isn't quite the question you're asking -- but I feel I'm better at composition and so address each pose. I'm like, "I want it to feel like he's going up the stairs" or "I want to convey the contours of the face there." I

I never did much in the way of anatomy training. I think there are a lot of kids that fill their notebooks with character drawings, over and over. My sketchbooks for whatever reason didn't have the same kind of... yeah, I never did that.

SPURGEON: What's in there, Sam? Is it all liquor bottles and motorcycles?

ALDEN: I sketch the ceiling. I convey the texture of the ceiling. I don't know; I don't keep a sketchbook anymore. But back in the day, I would just do field drawings, go out in the woods and do something.

I feel like my character all look so similar to one another. I think they all have big noses, and the same kind of hunchy body. They all have my posture. Heavy eyebrows. I've been training myself not to do the eyebrows that way.

SPURGEON: [laughs] How much does your own sense of physicality inform your comics? Do your limitations physically restrict how you choose to portray action on the page?

ALDEN: Yeah. I'm always having to act stuff out: either literally, where I'm in front of my camera and trying to nail a pose; or in my head, where I'm like, "How would I do that?" I just did a scene where a woman has to set a glass down on the ground and then sit down herself. I'm drawing her as much heavier than I am. It doesn't work to convey that motion with the sort of gangly, skinny-guy motion -- the weight shifts differently. So that's hard.

SPURGEON: I want to ask you about "Household."

ALDEN: Sure.

SPURGEON: The use of the page is interesting there. There are several different narrative arcs in "Household," and the pages themselves play off of those multiple through-lines in terms of how they're composed. When you're jumping from these narrative points, what is going on in the different workplaces: it seems like you were really bold about making those shifts within a page rather than settling for the more natural break that comes between pages. How much are you still working through how to use a page? Was that an important project for you in figuring out a structural component that has to be different for people that have done so much on-line?

ALDEN: Yeah, it was. Something like "Hawaii 1997," which looks somewhat similar in style, was drawn more for the Internet. It was drawn to be read in a long scroll. I never paid attention, for example, to how the spreads would work. The spreads in "Household" I drew in a sketchbook so I could see each spread as I was drawing. You're right in that in that one thing I was trying to do was set up mirroring page layouts so you'd see the same thing twice and get a sense of deja vu. In one panel the sister would be hammering in a nail and in the other she'd be sleeping with her brother. I had forgotten about that, but at the time I was trying to do that, work with the individual pages.

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SPURGEON: When you work with a story that offers up that kind of undeniably powerful, that loaded of a subject matter, how intimidating is that for you as an author? Do you worry about doing justice to a topic, and is that different from you in a telling way from working a story that's cognizant of motion or a story that turns on a theme of vocational difficulties or an encounter on a beach.

ALDEN: It was terrifying, actually. I think what I had going for me is that I based a lot of it on my own experiences of sexual victimization and incest. So in that sense I didn't feel like I was appropriating someone else's story. Even though the circumstances were different, and I don't have a sister -- this is fiction, it's a work of fiction. Every time I post something that deals with something sensitive like that... even the last comic: I just did this horror comic, "The Dancer In The Meadow." I have all of this implied sexual violence... these kinds of creepy sexual vibes throughout the whole thing. I was really concerned with trying to get that right, to portray that stuff respectfully. Respectfully is a weird way to say it because it is a horror comic. I guess I wanted to use something like that in a way that doesn't feel exploitative. I know some people have -- and I don't know how much they know about my own experiences or whatever -- but I know some people have responded poorly to "Household" and said that it's using this thing for shock value. Sean T. Collins said that he didn't like how the sister was vilified even though it was suggested she had her own kind of victimized past. I think those are both fair points. But yeah, I do try. [laughs] I try very hard. It's dumb to think you're always going to succeed with everybody.

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SPURGEON: Without getting too deeply into your own story, can you identify the kind of thing that is helpful to you in having this experience when it comes to making this kind of story? Is it that you are aware of details? Is it that you have greater access to a specific emotional truth you can use? What do you mean when you say there's an advantage that you can use an experience like your in a work of art like this one?

ALDEN: Like you said, in terms of making it a more effective work of art I'm more familiar with the dynamics of how abuse works, and how it made me feel. I could try to bring that out. I think also in having the work out for a wider audience, I felt more comfortable defending that work knowing that it wasn't about somebody else's problems. I was making it about my own. I think even on a personal level I don't usually make art to work out my own feelings, even on a conscious level, but I was doing it in that comic. It really helped in this really sort of cheesy "art heals way. [laughs] I learned a lot during that comic and helped myself a lot.

SPURGEON: You mentioned this a couple of times and I want to address it directly. I was talking to an older cartoonist about his 'zine days, and he spoke very positively of having the ability to do work that maybe wasn't ready for publication in the established parameters for that, but that still had value in terms of his necessary development as an artist. I would have to imagine that posting your stuff on the Internet is your way of doing that, Sam, but the difference... the difference is that the audience is very active. You're not making work for an empty room or a play workshop or whoever might pick it up at Quimby's. You're making a work that might be seen by thousands of people a day after you post it. They're looking at it, and they're responding to it. How do you negotiate that intense feedback? Does that add a layer of difficulty when it comes to developing as an artist?

ALDEN: Sure. Not to make into too much of a scavenger hunt, but I do comics privately, too. [laughter] They're on the Internet but they don't have my name on them. They don't look like my other comics. But that's... that's hard in that I feel like I have standards to live up to now. Standards I've hopefully created. I don't want to disappoint people.

The positive reactions... in addition to that little shot of self-esteem cocaine gives you, if enough people like your little doodle on twitter than you draw your next panel, that whole thing with "Household"... when I was drawing it it was pretty analytical for me. I wasn't that invested. It wasn't really until -- this sounds so dumb -- it wasn't until I put it on the Internet and got people's feedback that I was able to emotionally process a lot of that stuff. I was at my desk job in Wilsonville, Oregon [laughs] when I put that up and I started getting all these people saying, "Oh my God, this is really intense. This is dealing with some heavy stuff." This was the first time... I was like, "Oh my God, you're right. This is some really heavy shit." [Spurgeon laughs] I had to go up into the attic of this shitty corporate building [laughs] and weep and check twitter. It was intense, but very good. I don't know. Having a supportive community rallying around your art, that has been a big deal for me.

SPURGEON: One thing I think connects your stories for the last couple of years is that it seems like -- seems like -- you're paying close attention to the considered effect of your stories. It seems like there's a real desire by you to stick your landings with the short stories, to have everything summarized and hit the hardest with that final scene. Things come together in a way that feels controlled -- not quite mannered, but with a clear intention that they hit at once. A blending of effects, even. Is that something doing so many short stories has allowed you to do, nail down in a literary sense how you want your stories to hit with readers? Do you have an expectation for how short stories should hit?

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ALDEN: That's definitely something I'm consciously trying to do. Maybe sometimes I hit it over the hard. In that same review by Sean T. Collins -- and I'm on good terms with him, I'm not trying to call him out [laughs] -- he said that I end a lot of my comics with a big, unearned emotional panel. I think that's pretty fair. I tend to want people to know that "Here it is. This is the riding into the sunset shot." Thematically it's important to me to wrap stuff up. A lot of people have complained to me on the Internet that I have too many open-ended ending, so it's good that to you it seems like I'm wrapping stuff up.

SPURGEON: It feels like the effort is there -- Sean's comment would be the negative of that. A further criticism might be that you're sacrificing a greater effect by making sure everything hits hardest in these summary finales. The impulse is more interesting to me than the effect, really. Why do you want your stories to work that way? Is that just your background, what you value from literary fiction? Is there a compulsion on your part to make these grand statements.

ALDEN: I think there's a certain amount of insecurity there. I think it takes guts to let stories drift off. Some of my favorite cartoonists and authors are able to do it beautifully. I don't know. At the moment I'm into tying that knot at the end. I guess because it justifies the work the reader put into getting through the whole thing. That's how I'd put it.

SPURGEON: You have a bunch of opportunities ahead of you and you're publishing in a variety of places in 2014. Are you satisfied with your options, Sam. Do you think you're served by the industry in terms of its ability to get your work out where it can be seen? Or are there frustrations for you, things you wish that you got from the business side that you're not getting, or at least not getting yet?

ALDEN: What's important for me to say right off of the bat is that I feel really, really lucky that I get to work with as many publishers as I do. Anything I have to complain about needs to be tempered by that. It would be nice if there was more money in this industry. [laughs] Like, that's pretty obvious. I can't speak to that right now because I've signed up for more stuff than I'm engaged in right now. I'm barely making low rent with comics. I'm not... yeah. I feel lucky to be able to do that!

SPURGEON: One of the humbling things about working in the arts, Sam, is that no matter how frustrating you might your find your present gig there are a hundred people looking at you and thinking, "That should have been mine."

ALDEN: Totally. That was me. That was me until a month ago. [laughter] I swear. I hear that. Even artists.

I believe in the arts. People should be able to support themselves doing art. I think when people complain a lot of the time about making a living as a cartoonist they should maybe be remind that it's hard to do anything. [laughs] There are a lot worse professions to be making minimum wage on. Maybe I'm just focusing on money... you question was broader was that.

SPURGEON: It was a little broader than that. It struck me that 25 years ago where cartoonists would immediately settle into relationships with publishers. If not the first time out, then maybe the second. And that these relationships are the kind that are pretty secure and prolific... to the point that when a cartoonist works with someone else it's seen as weird or even as an implied criticism of the primary publishing relationship. Your work seems spread out with a variety of publishers, and I wonder if there's something about that you like: is there something to be said about relishing the opportunity to work with Tom Kaczynski on a specific project?

ALDEN: I think it's... one thing is that I'm really interested in doing a lot of different kinds of comics. I don't want to have too much of a... I don't want to be locked into one kind of style or story. It suits that need to work with a variety of publishers with their own aesthetics. Tom K. is an actual book designer, and he can tell me how to make a book look a jillion times better than I'm able to. It looks like a Tom K. book and that's about as comfortable as I could ever get in terms of collaboration. But it's really fun. [laughter] I'm doing one for Retrofit right now and I'm trying to make it fit into the kind of books they're interested in doing; I want it to feel like a Retrofit book more than a Sam Alden book.

Another reason I maybe haven't attached myself to a larger publisher is because I don't have a larger book. I've just got a bunch of little tiny guys floating around.

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* Sam Alden
* List Of Comics Available On-LIne

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* from "Household"
* magazine cover illustration as posted to Alden's blog
* from Eighth Grade
* from "Hawaii 1997"
* some of Alden's figure drawing
* jarring image from "The Dancer In The Meadow"
* a quiet moment from "Household"
* a big ending moment from "Backyard"
* from "Haunter" (below)

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