Home > CR Interviews
CR Sunday Interview: Tim Kreider
posted June 7, 2011
It's my hope that the following interview with Tim Kreider
comes close to replicating the experience of reading the author's new book, the Fantagraphics-published February offering Twilight Of The Assholes
. Both are long, both I hope are funny at times nearly all the way through (the book surely is), and both book and interview prove uncompromising in terms of both self-laceration and repeatedly stabbing the country's excesses, shortcomings and hypocrisies right in the face. I met Tim Kreider at an SPX
several years ago; I don't know of any editorial cartoonist with quite his comfort level in the many overlapping worlds of comics culture -- at least some of them, anyway -- a subject he addresses below with class. Kreider is a fine writer with a book of prose essays on the horizon, maybe as skilled a writer as there is out there also working with cartoons, and luckily Twilight Of The Assholes
includes both the cartoons and mini-essays explaining each one. I find him almost terrifyingly funny, both when I agree with him and when I don't. I enjoyed the heck out of the following exchange. Two notes. First, when Kreider calls my questions dorm-room fodder he's not taking an out-of-nowhere shot at me; I called them that first in our private correspondence in and around the interview. Second, I feel compelled to confess that our private conversations consisted almost solely of detailed discussions of favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation
episodes and characters (Tim, strangely enough, is a Riker
man). I just feel better getting that out there.
If you have ever leaned in the direction of the opinions Tim discusses below, especially in terms of the years covered, 2005-2009, or can at least laugh at same, you want this book. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: First of all, I want to ask about the provenance of the material in the book. It's cartoons and scathing, prose commentary, but I can't tell if the commentary was written and/or published at the same time as the cartoons or later on, and I'm not sure where this work was originally published. Can you unpack that as explicitly as possible? I don't mean this as a criticism, I'm just curious.
The cartoons were originally printed in alternative weeklies -- mainly my hometown one, the Baltimore City Paper
, but also, at times, in a few others around the country. I also posted them concurrently on my website, thepaincomics.com
Not sure whether this obviates your question, but I think my afterword makes clear that the essays in the book were originally written as what I semi-facetiously called "artist's statements" (after the horseshit that fine artists are often forced to write for galleries to explain their work to the unperceptive but wealthy public) on my website. As I also say in the afterword, I went back and revised them to make them a little more presentable for print publication, which, as a child of the 20th century, I still take way more seriously than Internet posts. But I tried to keep myself from revising all the sloppy spontaneity out of them -- I wanted them to retain some of the you-are-there urgency of dispatches from the cultural front.
Soon after I started including these artist's statements on my website, a friend of mine, who has never hesitated to offer diplomatic constructive criticism, wrote me and begged/commanded me to stop it: "They are ruining everything
!" he said. Whether they Ruin Everything is for readers to decide. I tried to avoid explicating my cartoons in them, as I really do believe that art is best left alone to speak for itself. They're more like tangential rants about political issues that I couldn't adequately address in cartoon form. I studied writing in school, it's what I'd intended to do before I accidentally became a cartoonist instead, so I guess I just couldn't resist using the soapbox of the website to mouth off about whatever was getting under my skin that week. Quite a lot of readers wrote in to tell me they enjoyed the artist's statements at least as much as the cartoons, which I, being a touchy, insecure type, chose to construe as an insult to my art rather than a compliment to my prose. Gary Groth
, who acted as my editor, felt the essays should be included in the collections. I still second-guess myself about this, though.
SPURGEON: Tim, I've read the afterword since I sent you that question, and you did explain the structure and shape of that part of your book there; so I apologize; on the other hand, I think it's enough of a potential issue for people during their reading of the material I'm glad we hashed it out a bit.
Now I'm worrying it should've been a foreword.
SPURGEON: [laughs] Concerning the book itself overall, how strongly committed are you to the basis of the books' collection, this kind of obvious theme that presents itself through the title and the time from which the strips are collected? Was it just that you or Fantagraphics wanted a nice big book and a title that was appropriate to them, of do you really feel like that period of history was significant, if only in terms of your personal development and outlook? Do you see this primarily as a book of cartoons and commentary or as more of a disquisition on these assholes in comics and commentary form?
The content and format of the book were entirely my decision. I wanted to segregate my political cartoons from my more general cartoons because I'm acutely aware that overtly topical work has a pretty short shelf life (who reads collections of political cartoons about the Reagan administration now, except for a few comics collectors and politics junkies?), and it appeals to a much narrower audience than my cartoons about sex and death and the big questions. And frankly I like my non-political cartoons more, and wanted to insulate them against the premature obsolescence and limited market of the political work.
I did harbor the secret, selfish hope that maybe the Bush administration would prove to have been some historic crucible like the Weimar year
s, and my cartoons might inadvertently acquire the same significance as artifacts of the era (if not as great art) as, say, George Grosz
's drawings. Which luckily seems maybe to have been the case. It looks now to me as though the Unites States has definitely entered its final decline as an empire -- militarily overextended, economic base gutted, political system crippled, its citizenry ineducable and diabetic. And although history always looks inevitable in retrospect, and we don't get to know What Would Have Happened in some parallel reality since there's no control group, it does seem to me that if the Supreme Court hadn't handed Bush
and his cronies the election in 2000 the last decade would have gone very differently, and we might have averted some of its most catastrophic mistakes. George Bush got almost every decision that came before him exactly wrong, from his regressive tax cuts to the invasion of Iraq to his response to global warming and the financial crisis, as if calculated to do the maximum, most permanent and irreparable damage to the republic. (It's almost less painful to believe that our decline and fall was part of some vast, irreversible historic momentum than to let yourself imagine that it all could've been avoided if only we hadn't elected a fucking halfwit.) I think historians are likely look back on those eight years as a last chance squandered, a disastrous passing beyond the point of no return, the moment when America went irreversibly over the edge into terminal decline. Which is great news for me, as my cartoons happen to comprise a document of what it felt like to live through that time.
I don't think I've answered your last question but I'm also not sure how to. I'll say that some of my colleagues, like Tom Tomorrow
and Ted Rall
, seem like political commentators who incidentally use cartooning as their medium; I always felt like a cartoonist who got involuntarily conscripted into political commentary. I was glad when my tour of duty was up.
SPURGEON: One of the effects the book had on me while reading it was this almost incessant jogging of memory in terms of so many awful acts and political stories during that period. "Oh yeah, that happened." "And that happened, too; God, that was horrible." "Oh man, I totally forgot about that." And so on. It's not exactly something to be proud of, and it could be an entirely personal phenomenon, but let's presume for a moment that I'm participating in a kind of shared amnesia. Do you think there was something about that time period that engendered this sort of piss-poor recollection, something in the way we process events through the media or maybe even just the sheer top-to-bottom litany of horrors endemic to that period? Do you think your cartoons can have a function more immediate than documenting history, providing an emphasis on certain events so that they stick in the memory more effectively?
Hmm -- it's hard for me to separate the kind of localized post-traumatic amnesia you're talking about -- that is, amnesia-as-symptom-of-collective-shame -- from the historical amnesia that generally afflicts Americans who never paid attention in class or owned a set of encyclopedias and whose attention spans have been truncated to seven minutes by TV. Not to mention parsing it out from my own severe memory problems associated with years of heavy drinking and encroaching middle age. I really don't remember the fall of the Berlin wall because I was drunk the whole time. I do remember the week or so when some reactionary Soviet junta of old-school gray-faced Communist bureaucrats briefly took control of Russia again. Does anyone else remember this? I'm pretty sure it was real. I even remember the bar in Fell's Point
where I watched it happen. We were drinking a lot of oyster shooters around that time.
I say in my afterward that America seems to have tacitly agreed not to speak of what happened in that decade, let alone hold anybody accountable, I guess because if we did that then a lot of people would have to acknowledge culpability for, or at least complicity in, some enormous and awful crimes. Like the 150,000 civilians killed in Iraq for no reason at all except that we all got very scared and mad after 9/11. Looking back at the Bush era is now like one of those nightmares where the body of someone you forgot you murdered is exhumed, exposing a crime you'd repressed any memory of committing. The image that comes to mind is of the Overlook Hotel's elevator doors slowly sliding open to unleash a flood of human blood.
And yet I feel like some sort of quiet reckoning may be taking place -- not among the people who were in power, God knows, and not on TV or in the op-ed pages, but privately, in conversations over dining room tables and bars. I once overheard some guys on the street, both of whom looked a lot like the stereotypical Shithead I always draw, talking disgustedly about what a clusterfuck Iraq had become. "Yeah, but you were probably all gung-ho for it just like I was," one of them said. I was impressed by his honesty. It was gratifying to hear. My biological mother, whom I just met for the first time this summer, was as stridently opposed to the war as I was, and made a scene at a friend's dinner party in Washington, D.C. in 2002, because everyone else there supported the war, and she blew up at them and told them all she could not believe what she was hearing. Years later some of them had the grace to acknowledge to her that she'd been right and they'd been wrong.
All of which is nice but doesn't bring any of those 150,000 people back to life. Frankly I still can't understand how anyone could've been dumb enough to believe the Bush administration or think the invasion was a good idea at the time.
There's another way in which I feel like I'm forgetting -- not what happened so much as what it felt like. I sometimes find myself feeling sort of fond and sorry for George, almost missing him. It kind of cheers me up when I hear him use some ingenious malapropism now. Whereas at the time I loathed him so rabidly that I could not stand to hear his voice or see his face on TV (and probably didn't from 2003-on). I've lately been feeling appalled, almost panicked, that I squandered eight years of my productive prime on ephemeral cartoons about assholes who didn't even deserve my attention. I have to forcibly remind myself that it would've felt unforgivably frivolous for me to do anything else at the time.
I guess I do hope that one purpose my work might serve would be to remind people who were there, and tell younger people who don't remember: this is how it was, this is how it felt. That was certainly the intention behind a cartoon and essay in my previous book, which I ran on the occasion Ronald Reagan's death, which as you probably recall unleashed a deluge of bullshit the like of which has seldom been seen. The official story was of a venerable old statesman who restored pride in America, defeated Communism, etc. It was driving me crazy that, as in some Philip K. Dick
story, the reality I still remembered was being whitewashed out of existence. I needed to pipe up and say, "No, actually, he was a just a spokesmodel for bigots and millionaires."
SPURGEON: Is there a cartoon in
Twilight Of The Assholes that you think suffers for being an immediate reaction to the event, where your faculties not have been as sharp as they are now with the perspective you have? How confident are you generally in your ability to perceive the truth of an event, the fundamental point that you think it serves?
This predates Twilight of the Assholes
, but I wasn't exactly opposed to the invasion of Afghanistan. I drew a cartoon showing some touchy-feely p.c. liberal type lamenting the lives that would be lost over there while I mechanically agreed and secretly daydreamed about fiery nuclear vengeance. Like a lot of people, I was still in shock from 9/11 and it wasn't clear to me what exactly the hell we should do. I certainly felt, like many of my fellow Americans, that somebody ought to be made very sorry, and was frustrated by the absence of any culpable nation-state or mastermind we could get our hands on. I would still say that it couldn't have happened to a nicer bunch of guys than the fucking Taliban, but it also seems obvious now in retrospect that invading Afghanistan wasn't likely to work out any better for us than it did for anyone else who'd had the same genius idea over the last 1000 years.
I drew a couple of cartoons during the second Bush term implying that they were going to try to stay in power beyond their constitutionally allowable two terms. I even had a bet on it, which come to think of it I've lost. I had succumbed to the kind of paranoia that afflicts people who are kept powerless and ignorant for a long time. I was succumbing to the same fallacy of all conspiracy theories: imagining the people in power as having absolute control over all events, and being way more organized and monolithic in their intentions than they are. I mean, look at Iraq: that did exactly not go according to anyone's master plan. But, on the other hand, the Bush administration had, in fact, stolen the 2000 election, and possibly the '04 election. What really horrified me was that we'd let them get away with it. It's not so much that they seemed capable of anything as that we seemed capable of acquiescing to anything.
I drew one cartoon in reaction to a minor news story, the kind that gets big play in tabloids, about a schoolteacher who was going to be flogged in Sudan for naming a class teddy bear Mohammed. (The cartoon was called "What Else They're Calling Mohammed.") I later regretted jumping on that particular cause celebre
, not because I may have insulted Islam, a religion in which I find little to admire, but because I'd reacted to the story with exactly the kind of Pavlovian outrage I was supposed to. Also, you find yourself in unsavory company once you start making fun of officially sanctioned enemies. Bill Mauldin once said he sometimes thought about doing anti-Soviet cartoons but usually ripped them up when he thought about the other sons of bitches out there doing the same thing for jingoistic or self-serving reasons of their own.
But in general I would say that my intuitions about what kind of people were running the country, and what their real motives and intentions were, have been borne out by events. For example, I thought the casus belli
given for invading Iraq were obvious lies, that the war made no sense and would be a big disaster. I believed this not because I am an expert in geopolitics but because I can tell when I am being lied to by people stupider than me, because I half-paid attention in AP history and because I have watched a lot of Stanley Kubrick
movies and I know that chance and fate and human error always wreck the best-laid plans. So evidently my ability to perceive the truth is, if not exactly infallible, at least superior to Paul Wolfowitz
's, Hillary Clinton
's, and quite a few columnists for the New York Times
SPURGEON: How did you score the Matt Tabibbi introduction and how comfortable are you with his take on your material? Is there anything in there with which you disagreed, or are less than comfortable with him having said it?
I got my agent to ask his agent, and he said yes. It's good to have an agent. Since he is, all flattery aside, my favorite living American political writer, I was euphoric. I'd met Matt Taibbi once before, very briefly, at a reading by David Rees
, where some of my fans got kind of unruly, which I later had to apologize for and disclaim any connection with. Not sure whether he remembers this or not.
Had I held Matt Taibbi at gunpoint and dictated an introduction to my book and forced him to append his signature to it, I still would have been too embarrassed to make him say such nice things about me. They are the sorts of things I lie awake pathetically hoping someone might say about me posthumously. I can't believe I don't have to wait 'til I'm dead to see them. I think -- if it's not conceited to say so -- that his sense of me is pretty astute; I'm not fundamentally ideological, more just childishly shocked and offended by things like lies, unfairness, and cruelty. And I hope it's true, as he says, that I'm not just a partisan team player.
SPURGEON: Something that Tabbi suggests is that this book has a greater focus on the Obama election than on the disappointments that follow and that this is a defining characteristic of the book. Is he right in that it might have been a much different book if we got to see more of your take on the events of 2009-2010?
Well, the book ends after the 2009 Inauguration because I'd long made up my mind to quit political cartooning as soon as Bush was safely out of office. Also it was already 300 pages long and had to end someplace, and the beginning and end of the second Bush term made for natural bookends.
But okay, yes, it does make me feel a little like the kind of partisan team player Matt Taibbi said I wasn't to have fallen silent just as our side got the chance to fuck things up. As I admit in the afterword, it's a lot easier and more fun to mock and vilify the opposition than to watch the guy you elected betray everything he ever pretended to stand for. A friend of mine argues that Obama is the single worst President we've ever had, because he's essentially no different from Bush but the left has abandoned its resistance to his policies because he comes in the guise of One Of Us. (Although the Right continues to attack every hawkish pro-corporate Democratic President as though he were Chairman Mao.) I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that. I'd say that progressives aren't much different from evangelicals who hoped Bush was going to put prayer back in the schools and ban abortion; we were misled by Obama's persona and life story into imagining he was someone like ourselves, despite the fact that he never said he was anything other than what he is -- a centrist Democrat who believes in compromise.
Mostly I'm just relieved not to have to get angry and depressed about it every week anymore. When I open the Village Voice
and see my old colleagues still slogging away at it week after week, I salute them with a kind of grim respect that is in no way related to envy.
SPURGEON: You indicated in one of the early commentaries that the period where this book starts came after the 2004 election, an election in which you seemed forcefully discouraged by the results. Because so much of the book deals with election after that one, I wondered if you could talk a bit about the previous one as context and a contrast, what your state of mind was like headed into 2005. I remember being really down on everything, too; it felt like summer school the year after senior year, after inexplicably having come up short on a couple of credits.
Oh, Christ. This is going to be really soul-wearying to think about again. In fact I'm going to go on to the next question and come back to this one later when I feel up to it. [Spurgeon laughs]
Okay. The 2004 election. A grim time indeed. Megan Kelso
and I, who had been comrades-at-arms throughout the antiwar marches and rallies in 2002-03, went to Philadelphia together to canvass for John Kerry, who was an uninspiring candidate but compared to George was like FDR. We were tasked with the responsibility of standing on a median strip leaping up and down and waggling signs and getting people to honk, which was stupid and pointless but kind of fun. Later in the evening we went door-to-door getting out the vote. By the time we went home there was this feeling of ascendant energy in the air; we were afraid to say it, but we were both beginning to let ourselves believe we were going to win. That night when the returns came in, the friend I was staying with and I methodically went through his house taking every pill we could find. I think we were both a little disappointed not to wake up dead.
Your summer-school simile is pretty apt -- except of course that summer school was going to last as long as all of high school had. I was already burnt out on political cartooning by 2004; I felt as if I were just barely dragging myself over the finish line of a marathon, about to vomit my own lungs inside-out, when someone told me, "Oh, this isn't the finish line; this is the halfway mark." But I was even more appalled as a citizen and a human being. It was infuriating when the Republican-packed hacks on the Supreme Court stole the election for Bush in 2000, and I was kind of disappointed in myself and all my fellow Americans that we didn't openly revolt. But it was far more demoralizing when they got legitimately elected in 2004. (I realize there remains some question about this; let's say it was demoralizing that it remained a close enough election to steal.) I could not believe my fellow Americans had voted for this guy again. Just to keep the record straight, it's not like we didn't know everything we needed to about the Bush administration's criminality and incompetence by 2004; Iraq was already clearly a clusterfuck. There was a level on which I mentally seceded from the U.S. after the '04 election. I lost a faith in my fellow countrymen I hadn't known I ever had. I no longer saw them as basically decent; I thought of them as willfully stupid, and mean. My official policy toward everyone who'd voted for Bush a second time and supported the war was: Okay. Good luck with that. Let us know that works out for you. I took a train across the country to spend that winter in Seattle, and, sitting in the observation lounge looking out at the scenic landscape of North Dakota in January, it was easy to imagine that I was being exiled to Siberia.
SPURGEON: I loved your mini-essay on Hunter Thompson: that you see him on a continuum with HL Mencken, and that you were honest about your disappointing late-period encounter with him. I had a similar encounter, and I bet a lot of people did, and that in itself is just kind of weird to think about from Thompson's perspective. You said he's an influence. Is there anything about his work that people might discover in your writing, do you think? In a way, your writing and your cartoons work in broadly similar fashion as some of his illustrated longer piece. The broader question: at this stage in your creative career, do you still feel your influences explicitly, are there people that still find their way into your work now? When was the last time you felt like your work changed, and what was the instigating factor, external or internal?
His writing was a big influence on me in my twenties, to such an extent that I worry that my political writing must simply look ineptly imitative of his. He's one of the funniest American writers I've ever read. (Almost all of my favorite artists are funny; humor is to me an indispensable way of understanding and reacting to the world, and otherwise great artists who have no sense of humor seem to me irredeemably flawed, almost crippled.) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
made me laugh harder than anything else I read until I discovered David Foster Wallace
's essays in the '90s. Wallace is also a writer whose voice is hard to get rid of for me, but this is partly because his voice was the one a lot of writers my own age heard in their own heads -- both literate and slangy, influenced as much by watching 800,000 hours of TV as by having gone to grad school -- so that when I write it's sometimes embarrassingly hard for me to parse out what's DFW and what's me. I think every generation of American writer needs someone to show them that it's okay to write in the vernacular.
But there was also this distinctively American idealism in Thompson's work -- all cynics and misanthropes are just disillusioned idealists, and his crazy rage seemed proportionate to his innocent belief in the utopian ideals America claims to hold itself to: freedom, equality, justice, all that bullshit. What exactly his own politics were were kind of hard to define -- the Freak Party platform he ran on seemed like a sort of sex-drugs-&-Rock-'n'-roll libertarianism. But it was clear enough what he was against. There was an essential decency to him, despite all the depravity. And at times his prose could soar.
The trajectory of his life and career seem like very sad ones to me. His face is like the dictionary illustration beside Fitzgerald
's epigram about American lives having no second acts
. He became, in effect, a professional Hunter Thompson impersonator. I saw him perform (there's no other word for it) once, effectively playing himself in a one-man show. I don't know if he was tiredly going through the motions of his own persona or if he'd really vanished into it, like when Jekyll eventually gets trapped being Hyde forever. Every time I walk by the fountain outside the Plaza Hotel on 59th street
I remember him contemplating, in the preface to The Great Shark Hunt
, leaping out the window and plummeting into it, and saying that if he didn't it would be for all the wrong reasons. I'm certainly not going to second-guess anyone's decision to not commit suicide -- I wish he were still alive now -- but it has to be said that his writing was never very good after that, and that he doesn't seem to have found other equally compelling things to live for. Fame is apparently not a spiritually nutritious substitute for work. God only knows what effect all us blacked-out drunk young people coming up to him burbling how much his work meant to us must've had on him.
I find it strange that in everything I've ever seen written about Thompson I don't think I've ever seen the word addict used. I don't know whether it comes up in any of his biographies; the only one I ever read was pretty uncritical and fannish, as a lot of writing about him tends to be, and it certainly didn't get into any such wet-blanket issues as substance abuse. But it's pretty obvious that he was addicted to drugs and alcohol and that they did some serious neurological and physiological damage to him. It's a problem common among American writers, who tend to associate the literary life with glamorous dissolution. My dad gave me a book called The Thirsty Muse, by Tom Dardis
, when I was in college, I think because he was worried about my own drinking. It used the examples of Faulkner
, Fitzgerald and O'Neill
to illustrate how alcohol inevitably destroys talent. I'd hate to discourage any young writers from making the same incredibly fun mistakes I made but I do kind of wish Thompson's later impotence as a writer was more directly attributed to his addiction -- especially since he celebrates his own excesses so hilariously, and doesn't seem ever to have acknowledged the consequences himself.
As to the second part of your question: I think that when you're young, artistic literary influences have a really obvious, top-down effect; you become slavishly imitative of your idols, pick up their superficial tics and mannerisms, write in their voices because you haven't yet found (or don't trust) your own. But the older you get the more your own style solidifies (maybe ossifies), and the artists you admire tend to influence you less noticeably but more deeply -- they influence the way you think, or see -- and their effects on your own work percolate from the bottom up, so that by the time they reach the surface they're not necessarily recognizable as anything other than your own. If that makes any sense.
The older I get the more guilty I feel about reading anything other than great books. This is a symptom of my own midlife crisis. In recent years I've gone on jags reading everything I could by Cormac McCarthy
and Joseph Conrad
. I read a Shakespeare play once every couple of months. My hope is that some of the euphony and cadences of their prose might involuntarily seep into my own. (Random example: I remember jotting down the phrase "come thronging soft and delicate desires" in Much Ado About Nothing
.) I do often feel, as I'm writing, as if I know what the rhythm of the rest of a sentence has to be even before I've filled in the words; who knows where that music comes from. Whether this technique works or not, I do know that the converse is true; listening to readings by a lot of young Brooklyn writers, I can tell that they've read too much ephemeral contemporary middlebrow literary fiction and watched too much TV. Their standards are just too low; they're not trying hard enough.
For some reason I don't think I absorb influences on my drawing anymore. I can't think of any artist or cartoonist I've consciously emulated since I was in college. Maybe because I'm more accomplished as a cartoonist and feel like I'm still just learning to be a writer.
SPURGEON: If you don't mind a sideways jag, the Thompson essay made me think of something else, something maybe tangentially related to your cartooning, when I was reading it. You mention that you fell like a cartoonist conscripted into political commentary You've already mentioned the cartoonist Megan Kelso; Tom Hart appears as a character in the book's commentaries, as does Jen Sorensen. There are probably others I'm forgetting. You talk in one of your essays about signing a statement of belief with other cartoonists on a comics-related message board. I think the only time we've ever met is at a Small Press Expo and at a MoCCA Festival. Your publisher on this book is a comics publisher, and we're having this interview inches away from a link that will take you to an Iron Man comic book. You seem to have ties to and affinity with the world of comics as much as any of the others in which you might move. Granted that these are constructs of an ephemeral nature, but can you talk about how you feel about your own work as the work of a cartoonist, how you feel -- or don't feel -- you have a place in the comics world and audience among comics fans? I get the sense, and I could be wrong, that you see cartoonists like Megan and Tom as peers as well as friends, and I'm not sure that's the peer group into which you 'd be assigned if someone were doing it from the outside in.
For the record, I believe we also had a brief conversation on the steps of the Puck building
a few years ago, but I wouldn't expect you to remember it.
SPURGEON: I do, sure.
I've had conversations with other cartoonists, like Megan -- who, to my mind, is essentially a literary writer who happens to use comics as her medium -- about the bizarre arbitrary marketing categories that consign our books to the same stores as $300 replicas of Mace Windu
's lightsaber and Galactus
figurines. It's not clear to me what I have in common with Iron Man
, other than our insouciant playboy personae and occasional overindulgence in alcohol. But in the U.S., comics are still thought of as a juvenile medium, and that's where we are.
It's true I haven't ever felt that I really belonged to the world of comics in the same way that some of my colleagues belong there. I always felt kind of marginal and misplaced at those conventions and expos (though feeling marginal and misplaced is endemic among cartoonists). And I never got reviewed much in comics publications or websites. Partly it was that I came from a different background than most cartoonists: I went to a liberal-arts college instead of art school, and although I enjoyed reading Marvel
comics when I was a kid I didn't retain any fanatical affection for Steve Ditko
or Jack Kirby
as I grew older. (Come to think of it, this is true of Megan, too.) Also, I don't draw graphic novels or comic books or even a daily newspaper strip. Cartoonists who appear in alternative weeklies are a slightly different variety, and gag cartoonists are a whole other species. I don't think my own readers and comics fans overlap all that much; to the extent that I can generalize about my readers, they seem to cluster down at the politics-junkie/conspiracy-theorist end of the weenie spectrum. For what it's worth I think my political books would probably fare better in regular bookstores alongside collections by Molly Ivins
and Matt Taibbi than in comics shops. But the truth is that what I do is just so weird and in-betweeny that there really doesn't exist any marketing niche for it at all.
None of which has anything to do with my affection and respect for my fellow cartoonists. I know some of them are kind of bemused by my calling them my "colleagues" -- I guess it makes us sound too professional and serious, as if we were contract lawyers or orthopedic surgeons or something -- but it meant so much to me to discover a community of artists when I started going to SPX in the late '90s. For years I'd been the only cartoonist I knew; all my friends were writers or scientists or professional drunkards. I envied people like Megan and Tom, who were part of a comics "scene" in Seattle when they were in their twenties. I just can't tell you what a relief it was to find a place in the world, no matter how silly and peripheral, especially when what you do is so inherently solitary. And in a very stupid, juvenile way it felt cool to be part of a club, like the Justice League
, even if you were only a relatively minor player like The Elongated Man
Even though you inevitably find the same hierarchy and competition in comics as in any other profession, with all the attendant jealousies and resentments and insecurities, in general I think cartoonists are about the funniest, kindest, most decent people on Earth. They're united by the fact that they never outgrew their childhood love of an art form -- which, in the cases of guys buying $300 lightsabers, can be kind of creepy, but can also be, in the cases of people who chose to devote their lives to that art, rather beautiful. (And it breaks my heart to see friends of mine who just wanted to grow up to be cartoonists denied that modest ambition by the Internet's obliteration of print media and inherent hostility to artists. It's simply no longer possible to make money by doing art -- only by selling T-shirts.)
But I cast people like Megan Kelso and Tom Hart in my cartoons not because they're colleagues but because they're friends. Megan and Tom are among my very closest friends, and they're the people with whom I have my most intimate and serious conversations about the problems of being an artist. I don't imagine most readers would see many similarities between, say, Megan's work and mine but I think of us as very like-minded in our artistic concerns.
SPURGEON: "We Forgot About The Russians" features one of your big-image cartoons. Do you enjoy doing the splashier images? Because you don't do a ton of them. For that matter, can you talk a bit about your preference for a 2 X 2 grid in so many of your cartoons? What makes you choose one way to go or the other -- what kinds of cartoons call for that big splash image?
I really prefer single-panel cartoons -- I think of them as a purer, more perfect art form, the most elegant form of expressing certain ideas. They're like the cartoon equivalent of Nietzsche's epigrams. I think I appropriated that 4-panel format from my colleague Emily Flake
, but an earlier antecedent is the format of old MAD Magazine
articles, where you have the intro and title at the top providing the premise, and then lots of humorous examples/illustrations beneath. I can't remember why I started dong this or how I got locked into it except to say that once you've started working within a certain artistic form you automatically start coming up ideas that fit that form. I've never once thought up for an idea for a sonnet but I suppose if I'd lived in 17th century England I'd've been coming up with sonnet ideas all the time. "We Forgot About the Russians" was an idea dating back to the single-panel Clinton years that I never got around to drawing, but then the Russians started acting up again -- invaded Georgia or some such Cold-War shenanigans -- and I had my chance to deploy it. I'm trying to think of other one-panel cartoons from recent years… there's the one of Bill Clinton throwing himself on the grenade, so to speak, by fucking Sarah Palin to discredit her in the eyes of conservatives. I guess the one-panel ideas tend to come to me more out of the blue, and be more outrageous and silly, like my older, pre-political work.
SPURGEON: You bring up the relief that a lot of people felt when the Cold War ended, as if this suddenly ended the threat of nuclear annihilation instead of at best shifting it to a different set of concerns. This links to another one of your cartoons -- one I can't find as I'm putting these questions together -- where you talk about the feeling that one gets living in New York City about an eventual second terrorist attack? This may be an almost rudimentary question and maybe even one you engaged already, but do you see anything significant in the fact that this once widely shared notion of imminent doom is now an almost localized one?
I will not be the first one to point out that it's an illusion to think we're out of the nuclear woods now that the Soviet Union has folded. If anything we're in even more realistic and immediate danger because of all those loose leftover nuclear warheads rolling around out there somewhere that might get into the hands of organizations or individuals for whom Mutually Assured Destruction is to laugh at, just a fast track to Paradise. Taking the very long view, we're never going to be entirely out of that danger again, not as long as the know-how to make nuclear weapons is extant, which, I'm afraid, will be forever.
It's funny -- now that you mention it I find I almost miss Cold-War nuclear paranoia, the way I imagine I miss George. It united us and gave life a certain nihilistic edge of carpe diem
urgency. If nothing else it was a good excuse for adolescents to not care about anything because it was all bullshit, man, and a handy example of adults' truly shitty custodianship of the world. But I'm only getting nostalgic, as with George, because I've forgotten what it was really like. This makes me want to talk to some young people and find out if they've ever seriously thought about nuclear holocaust or if it's always been completely unreal to them, like a video game scenario that only sets the scene for zombie attacks. It always felt pretty unreal to us, too, except it wasn't really. We were in denial about it like we all are about death, but we also knew, on some level, that it was really possible, and it's hard to say how that knowledge subtly deformed those generations and the culture of that whole half-century. Come to think of it, I wonder how much this had to do with the sexual revolution. Like: so the whole human race might get cremated at any moment and we're still supposed to refrain from heavy petting? Like, fuuuuuuuuuck that, Dad.
It does irk me that New York City, one of the most polyglot, cosmopolitan, and liberal places in America, which you'd think the kinds of people who want to detonate a nuclear bomb in the U.S. would have the least reason to hate, is by far the likeliest place in the nation to get nuked. Unfortunately most terrorists haven't heard of Dallas except from the TV show and they probably don't have a clear idea of how to get there.
SPURGEON: Is it fair to say "We Even Yet?" represents as much as any cartoon in the book a change in your thinking from 2001 to 2008? From what you write about your state of mind directly after 9/11 it's hard for me to think that this is a cartoon you would have done then. Or is that a misapprehension?
I regard my state of mind in the week or so immediately after 9/11 as a kind of temporary insanity. It was a condition that appears to have lasted much longer among a lot of other people, and in some of them was permanent. I was briefly glad that we happened to have a bunch of heartless, brutal bastards like Dick Cheney in the White House because I knew they would wreak some serious fucking payback. I was like a guy whose wife has just been murdered -- obviously he wants to watch her killer drawn and quartered in good lighting conditions. But this is no emotional basis on which to make national policy. I don't actually think drawing and quartering should be an official method of execution in this country.
I never thought that invading Iraq made any sense at all or had any kind of connection to 9/11, at least not rationally. As I've said, I think the real, subconscious reason most Americans supported the war in Iraq was because we wanted a lot of people to die in reprisal for 9/11, and we didn't really care who. I drew that cartoon because I hadn't seen the grotesque disparity in casualties graphically represented anywhere at all, and I couldn't stand not seeing that information. I'd still like to see it reproduced more widely -- as a poster, maybe. It's spooky to me how taboo and treasonous it seems even to acknowledge (much less count up) casualties among our enemies. It makes you feel like that guy in the "Interjections" cartoon, the pencil-necked four-eyes who says, "Hooray, I'm for de udder team!" We're still a tribal species, who don't quite regard the Other Guys as human.
SPURGEON: Was it strange to you at all that the letters you received tend to engage the issue of equivalent deaths and that none of them seemed upset over your use of the provocative 9/11 imagery as a repetitive, descriptive icon? As someone who deals with imagery, is that set of images a particularly nettlesome group of images to use? Are there images that you
know will upset people before you use them.
Well first of all, the people who write letters to me are a self-selecting group -- most people don't use the Internet to seek out things that'll make them angry, but things they can agree with and forward to their friends. I actually got very few angry letters -- I just included a lot of them in the book because they're more interesting for people who aren't me to read.
Also note that that cartoon ran in 2008, seven years after 9/11. I'd submitted what was, for me, a really very uplifting cartoon of a new design for the World Trade Centers the week after the attacks, and the publisher (not the editor) of the City Paper
refused to run it, claiming that any representation of the twin towers at that time would "jeopardize our standing in the community." Even Art Spiegelman's black-on-black New Yorker cover
only alluded to them, in phantom silhouette. It was a touchy time.
Sure, obviously there are some iconic images that are provocative in themselves when used outside their approved context. Look at the outrage over that silly Piss Christ
. You're not allowed to draw Mohammed at all, in any context, without some Madrassa
dropout knifing you to try to get his shot at those 72 virgins. So of course I was aware that I was being provocative by using the twin-towers image as a rubber-stamp unit of measure, but I was trying to shock people in a useful way: to point out not only the disproportion between losses on "our" side and "theirs" but that trying to quantify and balance out human suffering (which is what all those letter-writers were quibbling about) is in itself sort of insane and pointless. And frankly there are ways in which the image of 9/11 is used that seem far more unconscionable to me. Like to get elected, or to sell stuff. The fact that there are street vendors selling 9/11 souvenirs at Ground Zero seems obscene to me. I'd love to overturn their tables and smash their tacky shit and physically kick their shameless asses out of there, like Jesus giving the moneylenders in the temple the bum's rush.
SPURGEON: I was going to ask you a question about "Obama & Me" but the book flipped to "Why Are You Voting Republican?" and I have to say, that's a damn fine picture of Secretary of State Clinton. You use a really thin line, but it seems like your caricatures have improved over the last dozen years, your ability to capture something vital and necessary about the person you're drawing. Do you feel like that's a strength of your art? To take this back to Obama, you seem to have little to no problem drawing him, and while I think those "this new guy is tough to draw" articles they run every election are just automatic reactions at this point, and not really an issue, do you think you've captured something about President Obama with your drawing that others have yet to figure out?
That's kind of you to say, Tom. I've always worked on the less fashionable caricaturish end of the cartoon continuum anyway, down there with Dave Sim
and Mort Drucker
(though I'm not claiming to be anything like their equal). If you're going to be a political cartoonist it's unavoidable that you're going to have to draw recognizable likenesses of a lot of famous boring old white men in suits. I think I'm pretty good at caricature -- I try to capture more than just a physical resemblance, to use a person's actual features to reveal their secret, repressed self. In the case you cite, I tried to reveal Hilary's stone-hearted not-to-be-fucked-withédness. In the case of most members of the Bush administration, the problem was trying to draw a caricature that was anywhere near as grotesque a caricature of evil as their actual faces. It was, as I've said elsewhere, like being landscape painter at Krakatoa.
Obama is, visually as well as in other respects, a slippery guy to try to pin down. I was only ever able to use him as a straight man. (The Onion
made an executive decision at some point to make his comedic persona a huge closet dweeb, making allusions to Conan and Dune
, the same way they re-imagined Joe Biden as some seedy white-trash lothario.) The fact that I'm having such a hard time coming up with an answer to your last question is an indication of how elusive he is. But being a tabula rasa
(or, in the case of someone like Reagan, just plain empty) is a strength in a politician; this is why so many people were able to project so much, and so many different things, onto him -- why we progressives were able to imagine that he was a progressive despite any real evidence for it -- and why almost any concrete action he takes is unavoidably a mass disappointment.
SPURGEON: In "Horrors of the Obama Administration," your accompanying essay made it seem like you were in a pretty good mood, and I thought in general the election and post-election cartoons were a reminder of the almost science-fiction positive that was that election, despite any disappointment that might have come since. Being hopeful isn't exactly the most direct avenue to laughs -- unless maybe you're some sort of claymation character constantly being thwarted in this desire -- so I wondered what you thought about processing those moments when you're genuinely positive about some sort of outcome or development. Are you wary of exploring that kind of thing?
Well, it's certainly true that it's harder to be funny when you're trying to be hopeful, or affirmative. Humor is a defense mechanism; it's good for enduring bad conditions or attacking enemies. Funny people don't tend to be happy. Stand-up comedians are famously the most fucked-up and depressed people on the planet.
I'm looking at "Horrors of the Obama Administration" myself and although the humor there is kind of giddy and gloating, it's still at someone else's expense -- making fun of conservatives' paranoid fantasies about an Obama takeover. This is maybe another reason I quit when I did -- I anticipated trouble being funny with nothing left to be angry at. But of course as it turns out I would've had plenty of material left to work with. But it would've depressed me too much to have to engage with and I'm not at all sorry I got out when I did. Luckily for humorists I don't think there'll be many more occasions for positivity or hope -- in the U.S., at least -- in the foreseeable future.
SPURGEON: How worried do you get about repeating yourself? For example, some of your most savage cartooning and most hilarious essays beat the shit out of this proud, dimwitted, obese, self-unaware, fearful, angry, ignorant way of being an American that I think you'd agree with me isn't solely your conception, isn't uniquely a way of looking at a certain group of people or a certain way of apologizing for awful behavior. I'm consistently amazed that you get so much mileage out of constantly calling attention to and viciously beating on this collective way of thinking and being, mostly because the criticism itself doesn't seem to evince much in the way of substantive difference one example to the next. Is it just that this is a rich source of humor, a tragedy so dismaying that it's always funny? Do you see differences in the way this kind of thinking surface as a reaction to or as driving force behind certain behind events that maybe I don't. Is there something you wish to combat in the way other people process this kind of thinking, the celebration of "the common man." What makes this particular set of attitudes and stances always worth criticizing?
In my feeble defense I will point out that these comics were originally published in a periodic medium, and recurring jokes or premises that might get old in a bound collection were less tiresome when you only saw them once every few weeks or months.
But yes, I worried about repeating myself a lot. As a gag cartoonist you tend to circle around certain ideas in tightening spirals, returning to them over and over and gradually refining the execution by trial-and-error until you finally hit upon the image that crystallizes what you're trying to say. I felt like I'd drawn my final and most eloquent cartoon about Iraq back in 2004; it was called "The Iraq Monument" and was basically a heap of smoldering rubble with a dead human hand sticking out of it, all behind a chain-link fence with a "coming soon" sign on it. I mean, what else is there to say? Artistically, I was done. Unfortunately, the fucking war kept going on despite my brilliant cartoon. And I just didn't feel I could abandon the field.
Similarly, Americans keep on being almost unbelievably stupid and self-defeating. It keeps shocking me, over and over again. What you say about "the common man," reminds me of a time when I was telling someone about my cabin in rural Maryland, and she said, "The people there must be real salt-of-the-earth types, right?" I just smiled and said, "No." Which isn't quite fair of me; one of my neighbors there is a good friend, and there are some decent people around there as there are anywhere else. But some of them are, no kidding, more ignorant and bigoted than you can begin to imagine. Not long ago I saw a bumper sticker on a car down there that said, "I have a dream," with an image of the Confederate Flag flying over the White House. It just makes you want to napalm the whole county and start over with entirely new genetic stock. I realize it's elitist or classist of me to associate intelligence with virtue and ignorance with evil, but come on -- a functioning democracy does require an educated electorate, and I'm not sure Americans have been this ignorant and misinformed at any time since the 19th century.
So yes I do get tired of pointing out the same things over and over. I sound monotonous and shrill even to me. But the same things just keep being true. I remember a long time ago, when I was first learning to write, around age 15 or 16, I complained to a writing teacher of mine that I felt like everything had already been said. He told me, "Some things are worth saying over and over again. You just have to find new ways to say them." At college, John Barth
used to like to read his students a lament that all the great stories had already been told, all the best songs had been sung. It was written by an Egyptian scribe like 3000 years ago.
SPURGEON: Another obvious fount of criticism for you is the hypocrisy of the actors involved in many of the circumstances with which you engage. Is there something specific about the hypocrisy in these cases that bothers you? Is it when someone engages in a cynical set of behaviors in order to press some sort of gain that you find pernicious, or is it when people remain willfully ignorant that their hypocrisy doesn't occur to them the way it might when people engage in self-examination? Is it the end result of the action or the actions themselves that tend to get your goat? What would you have us understand about the hypocrisies on display, and what would you prefer to have people do in reaction to the hypocrisies they see like this?
Dude, you are like blowing my mind with these heavy questions of yours. This really is a dorm-room-at-3-AM question. I wish we were actually sitting face-to-face passing a bong back and forth while we ruminated on these issues. I think if I could formulate an articulate answer to this kind of question I might not have had to draw all those cartoons.
I appreciate the fine distinction you're drawing between the cynical, expert hypocrisy of politicians, pundits, spin doctors, and PR flacks and the more everyday unselfconscious hypocrisy of ordinary people who just instantly rationalize whatever their self-serving position is, to whom it never once occurs that they're full of shit. It'd be hard to say which bothers me more. It's the job of a whole class of professionals to invent plausible lies to justify institutional crimes, and this is despicable of course, but I guess I find it more depressing that so many people not only believe them but internalize those lies as if they were their own beliefs. I don't know. It exasperates me to see pundits on the right pretending to be shocked that liberals would politicize the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords
, as if they wouldn't be politicizing it if it were to their benefit. It depresses me that so many people who can't afford dialysis or even an ambulance trip are fighting desperately to repeal heath care because they believe it'll lead to some Logan's Run
-like festival of state-mandated euthanasia. Maybe people's bullshit detectors eventually just cease functioning as an evolutionary adaptation when they have to survive in an environment and subsist on a diet composed of pure bullshit.
Scott Adams, who draws Dilbert
, once wrote about his experience as an amateur hypnotist. He said you could implant suggestions into people's minds and then later, when they were no longer under hypnosis, they'd carry out those instructions and, no matter how self-evidently absurd their actions were, they always had a reasonable explanation to defend what they were doing. This made him cynical about human behavior. This is what ideology is; people's post-facto rationales for whatever it is they happen to want to do. I just get tired of having to pretend to take this bullshit seriously and engage with it as if it were the real substance of the issue; I wish people would just own up to their real motives. Gun owners are afraid of imaginary black men and they like killing animals. Pro-abortion people want to fuck without any consequences. We invaded Iraq because we wanted to massacre a lot of people in reprisal for 9/11 and we didn't much care who they were as long as they were brown and lived in the Middle East. (Also, we don't want to have to walk the quarter-mile to the 7-11 to get a bag of potato chips in the middle of the night and sorry but that's where all the oil is). Similarly, in my personal life I don't have much patience for people who pick fights over trivial things that are obviously not what they're really upset about. Like, let's at least fight about what we're actually fighting about.
Just yesterday I read an article in the Times
that quoted an attendee at a gun show in Tuscon, just a few days after the shooting there, as saying, "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." That guy was interviewed by a reporter for the New York Times
about his thoughts on this issue -- his one turn at the national megaphone -- and that's what he chose to say. I don't know whether he didn't even realize he was mechanically repeating the NRA
's oldest, most rote propaganda line or if he just panicked and went blank as lots of us do when we're put on the spot and took refuge in a slogan he'd heard, figuring if someone else had said it it couldn't be completely stupid. Matt Tabibi writes that people he interviews after political rallies quite often parrot talking points and slogans they've just heard verbatim as if they were their own original thoughts. They might as well be post-hypnotic suggestions. I mean I know, as a writer, how hard it is to come up with an original thought. It's practically impossible. You think as hard as you can about a subject for a month and you're lucky if you can come up with one valid and interesting thought that's genuinely your own, and then it always turns out that Epictetus already said the same thing better. I just wish people were trying a little harder.
As for what I'd like to see done about this hypocrisy issue, you probably don't need me to tell you that this is not why people make art. You don't do it to solve problems; you do it because you can't fucking take it anymore, because you can't help yourself. It's not like I imagine the world is perfectible or that human nature can be changed. (Kurt Vonnegut
said of Slaughterhouse-Five
that writing an anti-war book is like writing an anti-glacier book.) There is never going to come a day when people will stop being dishonest with each other or themselves. Politicians are going to keep telling obvious lies, and stupid people will always believe them, every single time. But there will always be other people whose job it is to call them on their bullshit and tell the truth as they see it. Some people just never seem to outgrow this naive shock at the fact that other people say things that aren't true, or that they don't want to share, or that they're mean to each other.
None of which is to say that I'm especially honest or self-aware, or that I'm not guilty of exactly the same sort of self-deception in my own life. (In fact a therapist once gave me an A in Rationalization.) We famously can't abide in others the very traits we despise most in ourselves. Maybe this is what makes me astute at detecting bullshit in others. As they say, it takes one to know one. Or maybe I just can't stand seeing it done so badly.
SPURGEON: When do we get your prose book and will there be other books that are drawn mostly from your cultural and lifestyle criticism cartoons? What's next for you in terms of works published?
The collection of essays, whose working title is We Learn Nothing
, is due this July and will be out from Free Press in 2012. And let me just say that working on a book of essays that aren't going to be published until 2012 has been so hard and boring and lonely and devoid of any immediate gratification that doing this interview has felt like playing hooky at the arcade by comparison. It's a relief to be able to do some promotional work, update my website again, interact with people even if only virtually, and feel like I'm actually communicating for a change. Also fun to backslide into my cartoonist persona and be a little less fair, and funnier, than I generally get to be these days -- kind of like slipping on the old costume and heading out onto the rooftops one last night just for old times' sake. For which opportunity, thanks.
I am, yes, also compiling a book of the non-political cartoons I've drawn over the last eight years, which I intend to publish with Fantagraphics, but at this point I've only got about half a book's worth of material. Without the motivation of a weekly deadline I've been drawing cartoons at a rate of about two a year, so that collection should be finished sometime around (don't hold me to this) 2027.
* Twilight Of The Assholes, Tim Kreider, Fantagraphics Books, softcover, 288 pages, 9781606993989, February 2011, $28.99
* cover to the new book
* photo of Kreider provided by Kreider
* a cartoon summarily cognizant of the general awfulness of a certain American mindset
* an image from "What Else They're Calling Mohammed"
* a cartoon cited by Tabibbi in favor of Kreider general non-bias
* Hunter S. Thompson
* "We Forgot About The Russians"
* photo of Kreider in New York provided by Kreider
* from "We Event Yet?"
* drawing of Hillary Clinton
* drawing Obama
* a certain kind of American
* a self-portrait provided by Kreider (below)