Home > CR Interviews
A Short Interview With Warren Craghead
posted October 20, 2003
The artist Warren Craghead provided this magazine with one of its best quotes of the 1990s, in an otherwise straightforward news article on the 1998 Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland. Noting the lack of publisher interest in the comics he was doing at the time, the artist declared, "The publishing scene is so crappy that I knew nothing breakthrough was going to happen, but I supposed I had this fantasy of Gary Groth and Chris Oliveros in a fistfight over who got to publish my work." No cartoonist has more succinctly nailed the feelings a new talent, no matter their level of optimism or proclivity to self-publish, must deal with in trying to place for his or her work in what remains largely a phantom industry.
It may be easier now for someone like the Warren Craghead of 1998 to find an audience for his comics work. Black Eye and Kitchen Sink may have slipped out of their coma gowns and into coffins, but Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly have solidified their standing as consistent imprints, Top Shelf and Alternative have expanded their lines, and publishers like Ad-House, Sparkplug, Avodah and Highwater now admirably fill idiosyncratic niches. Anything that falls through the cracks as the alt-comics realm coheres seems likely to be rescued by the Xeric Foundation, a new and unnamed boutique publisher looking to make his mark, or the Graphica imprint at Reed Press. A former Xeric winner, Craghead has steadily appeared in many of the comics anthologies that have cascaded from the skies since the late 1990s. His best comics are treatments of single moments and partial visions, laments and rhapsodies burrowing their way into the reader's mind from oblique angles. Whether you see his most recent work as a comeback or a continuation, Warren Craghead is a unique talent that remains largely undiscovered.
Craghead grew up in northern Virginia. He was raised in a very artistic family: both of his parents, a brother and two grandmothers all made art. "Drawing was a normal thing," he says. Craghead studied Russian and Art at nearby George Mason University for two years before transferring to Virginia Commonwealth University in the state's capital, Richmond. Although he drew some comics for the school paper, he spent most of his time painting within the guidelines established by the school's Painting and Printmaking Department. In the Spring of 1993, Craghead graduated. He studied at the Skowhegan School in Skowhegan, Maine for a summer and that Fall began grad school at University of Texas-Austin, again in the painting department. Craghead describes both schools as very supportive places to do, and notes of UT-Austin that "I started doing comics seriously there as an outgrowth of my painting and drawing." Craghead has since lived in Italy, St. Louis, New York City, upstate New York. He currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Craghead first gained notice among attentive mini-comics watchers through a series of comics that mixed spare settings, incremental uses of language across a single moment, and a unique brand of emotive anthropomorphism. The most widely distributed was that Xeric Grant winner, the standard-formatted 1996 effort Speedy. Standing in contrast to the heavy narrative trends brought on by the concept of the graphic novel, Craghead in his comic book and minis explored single moments of time, usually disruptions of a status quo that were both physically and emotionally significant from the viewpoint of a unique narrator -- a leaf in one story, a snowman in another. In addition to staking out this unique sentimental territory, Craghead also stood out for his use of formally daring packaging. He was one of if not the first to do what he termed origami comics, booklets where the folding or unfolding performed by the reader framed the page, creating a context for the art contained within it and speaking to the nature of movement between the panels or tableaux.
Anthology work aside, Craghead fell off the comics-culture radar for several years starting in the late 1990s. Even his published work was not talked about or greeted with the same enthusiasm people bring to new discoveries and one-book-one-cartoonist talent. Craghead became immersed in the fine art portion of his interests during this period. Showing several times in upstate New York, he won the Fence 2002 Award from the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy and the Mohawk-Hudson Regional Award from the Schnectady Museum. He was a co-founder of the arts and essay publication Salvage Magazine. Still, the comics kept coming, albeit a bit more slowly and much more quietly. It wasn't until 2002 the accumulation of work began to remind long-time readers of the more public productivity Craghead once enjoyed around the release of Speedy and Origami Speedy, this time, perhaps, in the hands a readership better able to appreciate and enjoy that work.
When contacted for the sake of including his work in another column, Craghead sent along three very interesting newer mini-comics, Thickets, Other People's Schemes and Jefferson Forest, all very plainly presented in standard single-page, folded-over formats. Thickets and Jefferson Forest are recognizable as a continuation of the space and language concerns that dominated Craghead's comics five years earlier, while Other People's Schemes is an exploration into artistic partnership and adaptation that can double as a treatise on the words versus pictures content in comic books. As much as comics can be compared to music, Craghead works with silences and snippets of sound played at reduced volumes, noises that are isolated and turned back to play against a greater whole. His white spaces crowd and frighten and make the drawn portion of the art more distinct and meaningful.
Craghead released what he called more of a drawing 'zine in early 2004, Jefferson Estates Phase One. "The following amenities were built in Phase One," the cartoonist writes in the indicia, "one youth baseball field, two soccer fields, a children's playground, a group picnic area with shade structure, and a bicycle trail." The drawings in Jefferson Estates feature a greater percentage of mixed media components than past efforts, materials and photographs at times only roughly integrated into an overall composition. Much of the art is layered, with original drawings next to cutouts of cruder artwork, or re-fashioned art blown up to a larger size, out of focus, and given a quarter turn. At times the overall effect feels like the junk pile of memory, particularly as it pertains to place: a perceived reality stitched out of multiple frames of reference that don't necessarily make a cohesive whole. In his largely undiscovered body of work, Warren Craghead has emerged as a potential master of half-finished thoughts and partial understanding, comics' faith in the reader to make the difficult but necessary connection.
TOM SPURGEON: Are you still in New York? Are you now, or have you ever been part of the New York Comics Crowd?
No, I'm not in NYC; I'm in Charlottesville, Virginia. I left New York in 2000 for Albany, New York, then moved down here last summer -- June 2003.
I wouldn't say I was ever part of the New York comics crowd, though I attended a few gatherings and everyone was friendly. Since leaving NYC, I still see a few New York comics people when I visit. Last Fall I read from my work at the Bowery Poetry Project along with Matt Madden and two writers.
SPURGEON: Are you friendly with any group of artists outside of cartooning?
I don't know many artists here in Virginia, but in Albany I fell in with a bunch of writers and artists and did crazy schemes like starting magazines and dressing up in costumes.
SPURGEON: I'd be interested to know how you got involved with Ted and USS Catastrophe, and the St. Louis cartoonists in general.
I met Ted May shortly after I moved to St. Louis in 1996. I lived there for a year then moved to New York. Ted and I were always plotting trouble, and we decided to do an art website that eventually became usscatastrophe. I met Kevin Huizenga at SPX in 1998, but I haven't met any other St. Louis cartoonists, except on e-mail.
SPURGEON: Has the site turned out the way you hoped?
I think the current site is great! When we began we saw it a place to showcase work that wasn't being seen widely and we wanted to blur the line between comics and "fine" art in what we presented. It was a lot more work than we thought, but I think that phase turned out well. I haven't been involved in the latest "Uss Catastrophe store" incarnation, but I'm really glad they're making so much cool stuff available.
SPURGEON: Were comics around when you were a kid?
Comics were always around -- I would look at Infantino's Flash, reprints of Kirby's Marvel work, Eisner's Spirit and books of old political cartoons my Dad had. I always had a soft spot for Wayne Boring. When I was older I read Jaime Hernendez, Gilbert Hernandez, Dan Clowes and other late 80's alt-comics.
SPURGEON: When did they become something you wanted to pursue?
When I was in Austin I was making narrative paintings that had comics-style imagery in them. I had been combining images to make stories in the paintings, and I started to realize how that could be applied to comics. It was at a poetry reading that I finally figured out how I could make comics that weren't regular, cinematic stories, but could be combined images that still made meaning. The first set of "daily" strips were right from that -- characters from my paintings in a comic-strip format. From there I just started exploring.
SPURGEON: How do comics fit into your general artistic output?
Comics are intimately related to what I do in other forms. Images and ideas from my paintings and drawings jump over to my comics and vice versa.
SPURGEON: The shows listed in your web site's biography section, these are for painting, printmaking…
The shows on my bio are for paintings and drawings, though they have a lot of comics style things in them. A couple times I did comics specifically for an art show -- my MFA show in Austin had a special comic, which can be seen on my website.
SPURGEON: How would you describe your other work?
My non-comics work is primarily paintings, drawings and collages that use much of the same imagery as my comics -- suburbs, trees, houses.
SPURGEON: Can you talk briefly about the artistic impulses that led you to do the experimental comics like Speedy or the origami comics?
From the start I treated comics as extensions of my drawings and paintings, which made for comics that was less rational and less cinematic, while aggressively treating the whole page as a visual composition. I thought of comics like I was thinking of painting and drawing.
I also saw that the format of the book or comic could be related to it's content. So in a "regular" comic, one can ignore the paper, size, pages etc. to read the cinematic story inside the panels. I was influenced by Cubist painters and cartoonists such as Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman to think of the comic as a object that could carry content in itself. For example, the origami comics had as their subject finding, discovering, becoming -- all things that the reader experienced as they folded and cut to make the origami book. I even added some visual tricks to reinforce this -- in one of them I drew thumbs holding a photograph right where a reader's thumbs would be as they read the book. All these tricks were related to the content, which is important to me -- I didn't want to be tricky just to be tricky.
SPURGEON: Were there other people exploring comics the same way? Do you a feel a kinship with any of the cartoonists to whom you're frequently compared, like Chris Ware, George Herriman or Richard McGuire?
Well, I wouldn't compare myself to any of those artists, but I think I follow along behind them on some similar trails. Ware, Herriman, Saul Steinberg... These days there's quite a few cartoonists who have some similar concerns -- Kevin Huizenga, Souther Salazar and Matt Madden come to mind. I also see things I'm interested in in people's work that one wouldn't normally think of -- Tom Hart for example does great things with his stories, both in the story itself, but also little, almost invisible formal things.
SPURGEON: One thing that is frequently written about your work is that the placement of panels and word balloons is reminiscent of poetry -- do you think that's an accurate assessment or more of a knee-jerk reaction to the non-narrative impulses in your work?
I think a comparison to poetry is good. Poetry can be narrative or not, content-driven or formal, or even visual. My early work was influenced by poetry, but mostly on the surface -- arrangement of word balloons, rhyming text etc. My more recent work is infected with poetry underneath as well, in non-narrative "stories," in scrambling words and pictures, and in making things that don't add up in a usual way.
SPURGEON: Are there outside influences like that consciously at play in your comics work?
There are conscious influences in my work -- both writers like Apollinaire and Faulkner and artists like Picasso and Hockney. Picasso said, "If there's something to steal, I steal it."
SPURGEON: Am I right in that there was a time period you might have moved away from comics altogether -- maybe the late 1990s?
Around 2000 I slowed down in comics a lot -- I was questioning and investigating many things in my work, and I mostly made small pencil drawings that have become a foundation for much of my work since then. I did do a few comics things, but I was more focused on figuring out how to have my work be less "stylistic" and more authentic.
SPURGEON: Were you ever disappointed that your work didn't seem to hit with a larger readership or one of the established art-comics publishers?
I've never been disappointed my work wasn't a "hit" -- I knew then like I know now that my work isn't immediately accessible to everyone and isn't attractive to people who prefer more cinematic, narrative work. I've gotten criticism that I'm doing art-school masturbation, but that mainly has come from people who have a set idea of what comics can do and don't want anything to stray from that. Most comics artists I've met are open to all kinds of things, even if it's different from their own work -- some of my favorite comics are from artists like Tom Hart, Ted May and Jessica Abel.
SPURGEON: Can you talk about your anthology comics, like the works that appeared in the Expo books? Something like "Deliverance," for instance, seems much more interested in things like the clash of styles, and visual overload, and caption/picture discrepancies than your more sparse work.
"Deliverance" was a swap between Ted May and I -- we each wrote a story, then had the other guy draw it. The other half, which I wrote and he drew, was "The Legend of the Prowling Paw", which we published on usscatastrophe.
"Deliverance" was a blast. May's writing was hilarious and completely unlike what I usually do. I drew it all cubisty-like because at the time I was exploring how cubism could inform comics -- in this case, how I could find a way to simplify and "cartoon" characters and objects without resorting to a style. The shorthand methods of cartooning that I had done for years seemed arbitrary to me, so I was trying to see how I could get a cartoon drawing style that was related to the thing I was drawing and to the flat surface it was drawn on. I don't think I succeeded -- I just substituted one style for another -- but it was a lot of fun to try and to make it work with May's great story.
SPURGEON: In Jefferson Forest, can you unpack your interest in the partial images that appear in that book? It seems like you capture a lot of things that are both individual images and parts of a whole, like windows that are a piece of a building.
I pulled pictures out into fragments in parts of Jefferson Forest for a few reasons. I'm ambivalent about the suburban landscape that book is about; I think it's fake and numbing and ugly, but I also see a beauty there, some kind of weird serene alienness that fascinates me. I grew up in neighborhoods like the ones I draw and as a kid had to find whatever beauty and poetry that was there.
Using pieces of images separates and highlights parts of that landscape that might get lost in a whole. Using fragments also turns a picture into a kind of visual sentence, leaving out whatever isn't needed. In the end, these were drawings I worked on until they felt right, and mostly pieces and white space felt right. I know this all sounds spacey, but it's about creating mystery and confusion and bafflement, like the real world does. I want to make something that doesn't only reflect the world, but competes with it -- a story that isn't only read but also experienced.
SPURGEON: Why did you work with shading in the last two-page sequence in Jefferson Forest?
Another part of JF was making a catalog of a bunch of different ways to use words and pictures together to say things. So there's pictures with captions, pictures with no words, pictures with words all mixed in. At the end I added two pages of relatively more normal comics -- a kind of narrative with kind-of panels. That last part you ask about is the strongest part to me -- it has a real sense of mystery and bafflement to me.
SPURGEON: The drawings in Other People's Schemes is very reminiscent of Saul Steinberg. Is there something that you learn about your very specific interests in art when doing adaptation of someone's work, or simply making work, that reacts to something like Roger Noyes poems?
In Other People's Schemes Noyes wrote some poems and I drew some drawings, then we swapped and worked from each other's work. For the initial drawings I gave him I just drew, trying to get somewhere while leaving him somewhere to go. It was much harder to draw from his work -- I was determined not to illustrate his poems, but to make something that competed with them. I think we succeeded - in the pairings in the book, it's hard to tell whether the poem or the drawing came first. It's great you mention Steinberg -- I think he was brilliant in doing very literary drawings that were completely visual too.
SPURGEON: More than most cartoonists of whom I'm aware, your works seem driven by a desire to understand, or at least explore, the way comics work, the spatial relationships between objects and words. Do you know more or less about comics than you did ten years ago?
It's important for me to remember this isn't some formal exercise -- all the explorations are in the service of making good things to look at and read. I know more about comics than I did ten years ago, only because I know it can be all kinds of weird things. I've learned that through my own work and through the work of other artists. And I'll always be interested in making comics (well, my stretching of that term anyway). I'm addicted to drawing.
Warren Craghead's web site is www.wcraghead.com. His work has appeared in Jefferson Estates Phase Two (2004), Jefferson Estates Phase One (2004), Top Shelf Asks the Big Questions (2003), Salvage Magazine 2002 (2003), Other People's Schemes (2003), Stereoscomic (2002) Expo 2001, Thickets, Jefferson Forest (2001), Expo 2000, Top Shelf: Under the Big Top (1999), Top Shelf Holiday Book (1998), Top Shelf #6 (1998), and Pulse Magazine (1997). Another edition of Jefferson Estates has been planned.
The "Speedy" comics, all self-published, are Origami Speedy (1998), two issues of Triple Whammy Speedy (1998, 1996) Moving Far Away Speedy (1997), Deluxe Speedy (1997), 24-Hour Speedy (1996), MFA Speedy (1996) and Speedy (1996).
Warren Craghead's early comics are Fakes Ache (and real shakes) (1996), Craphead Comix (1995), 15 issues of Craphead Comix Weekly (1995), and 78 editions of Craphead Daily (1994).
Originally published as "Other People's Dreams: The Comics of Warren Craghead," in The Comics Journal's Minimalism column.