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A Short Interview With Martin Kellerman, a Short Run from Rocky and a Bonus Chat with Kim Thompson
posted November 20, 2005
 

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The amount of quality comics material being released right now staggers the mind; one hopes that so many major releases doesn't impede the quirky, offbeat and unusual. In the art comics fan's rush towards original graphic novels, translated manga, classic comic strips, and cartoon art books one hopes we don't forget the wealth of material that's available in Europe, a few years ahead of this explosion of material for all genres and positive reaction from a general book-reading public. The signs are actually good that no one's forgotten about Europe, with the new Ignatz series from Fantagraphics, D&Q getting firmly behind Dupuy & Berberian and some younger cartoonists in their Showcase series, NBM's always-admirable work bringing albums over for English-reading audiences (including the best mainstream comic of the last 10 years, Dunjon) and the steady success enjoyed by artist like the prolific Jason. One of the frustrating elements of the wave of art comics growth in the 1990s was how poorly a really legit mainstream talent like Lewis Trondheim fared relative to his success overseas. It should be our fervent wish that the next ten years will be different.

It looks like the marketplace will allow for some editors to pick and choose past the biggest hits for personal favorites and other from-the-gut calls of the kind that make American comics publishing more fun than maybe any other art industry. One such beneficiary is Rocky: The Big Payback, by Martin Kellerman, a newspaper strip turned book series that comes to North America because of the passion Fantagraphics co-owner Kim Thompson feels for the title. It's hard to describe Rocky without making it sound like a generic sitcom or a forthcoming movie musical. Basically, it's autobiographical humor as the title character and his friends and acquaintance kind of worry and fuss their way through the day, with all the motivations present that any group of young adults might have. It's easy to see where Thompson's coming from in his liking the strip. Rocky's a solid, frequently funny comic strip, more like Peter Bagge's Hate than any American four-panel strip I've ever seen. Like Bagge's work, its humor comes from amusing people and characters bouncing off of one another in humorous situations, not from the rhythm of a joke felt across a predetermined number of panels. But it's not like the rhythm is absent; it's just subsumed, pulled apart, and played with, informing the strip without defining it.

Rocky has to be the talkiest modern comic strip, nuking previous winners Doonesbury and Calvin and Hobbes into so many glowing shreds of newsprint. This constant expression of satisfaction with one's own depravity along with a light negotiation of one's practical uselessness is a big part of the ongoing joke, I think, the depiction of a very common dialectic among people from the Silent Generation on down: I am Great/I am Shit. The copious use of language is also important for how it locks us into certain kinds of behavior that the anthropomorphic design might keep from the reader a little longer than other types of comics might. Rocky belongs to a wave of humor, like the Gervais/Merchant television shows or Larry David's work, that refuses to be loved for the performance and doesn't care if it's loved at all.

Following is an interview with Martin Kellerman, a few strips run in a row for a clear read you won't get from individual examples, and a bonus interview with Kim Thompson, who edited and translated the new collection.

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Interview with Martin Kellerman
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TOM SPURGEON: You write in your introduction that at the point you started doing Rocky, you had almost given up on your goals as a cartoonist. What were your goals as a cartoonist as a young man?

MARTIN KELLERMAN: When I was a kid my goal was to take over Don Martin's job at MAD Magazine when he died. I copied his style for years so that I'd be able to take his place eventually. When I eventually developed my own style my goal was just to be able to make a living from drawing. And when I had done that for a few years I wanted more than just money, I wanted to be proud of what I did and for people to respect me. I was doing gag panels for a porno mag, so nobody did.

SPURGEON: Have there been any unintended consequences of the choice to use anthropomorphic characters? For instance you talk about how people were able to read themselves into the strip; is that easier when you're working with symbolic character design like that?

KELLERMAN: You mean because they're animals? Yeah, it's easier for people to accept the characters I guess. It's something people are used to seeing, and it's a good way to lure people into reading it. It's also easier to tell the characters apart in that small space. I didn't put much thought into it.

SPURGEON: Can you talk about some of your influences, both within comics and without? Did you draw on any movies, television shows or books featuring stories about people in their early to mid-20s?

KELLERMAN: Hate! by Peter Bagge of course, and Joe Matt's comics. I watched a lot of Seinfeld back then and you can see a lot of that. Now I'm probably more influenced by Crumb/Pekar and Larry David, but that's not that big a jump. I like movies and books with great dialogue, like The Sopranos. I'd say Larry David and Tarantino have had the biggest influence on me. I like [Charles] Bukowski and John Fante, but I don't think you see a lot of that in the comic.

SPURGEON: I find it remarkable that you're able to use so much dialogue in your comics. Is that a conscious choice, to make the strip so conversation-driven?

KELLERMAN: Yeah, nowadays I try to break it up a little better, people can get a little put off when they see all that text. But yes, I do feel like I'm cheating if I make a strip with only a few words in it. It's stupid, but I just don't like visual gags that much.

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SPURGEON: I'd love to know about your writing process. Do you write scripts beforehand? Do you keep a journal?

KELLERMAN: I don't write scripts, sometimes I'll write down a word or a comment to help me remember, but usually I just write it like I would say it. I'll have a funny comment somebody said about something, and I'll start the conversation with something and throw in the comment anywhere it fits. Sometimes it's a good punch line to finish with, then I just build up to it but I try to also make the first panels interesting. I prefer to use the punch line early in the strip, because that way I'll be pressured to come up with more good stuff to wrap it up. But I just make it up as I go along.

SPURGEON: In your introduction you talk about returning to the strip at different times in your life. What's the connecting thread? Do you have problems connecting with the strip as you've enjoyed success as a cartoonist? Will the characters age with you?

KELLERMAN: Yes, they age with me, and so there's not really a problem connecting with it. I could do this everyday for the rest of my life, it's just that I don't think I'll want to. It's pretty hard work to keep up this production, and it increases with every new country that picks it up. It would be nice to have one deadline for a finished book instead of 500 deadlines per book.

SPURGEON: Do you think there's something about the strip where it's been up on stage but hasn't made a television or film yet, or is it just the relative difficulty in setting up deals in those respective industries?

KELLERMAN: It's just difficult to make movies in Sweden right now. Our film industry is very dependent on state financing, and there's not enough money right now. And of course, I think they're spending their money on the wrong films... But I don't think it's that much different anywhere else, movies are expensive and complicated to make and there's a lot of politics. I much prefer to make books.

SPURGEON: What do you think people find appealing about your work? Is it the situations the characters are in that are recognizable? Is it that the character act out in ways that other may not support but recognize in themselves and their friends? Why do you think this work is the one that will endure.

KELLERMAN: They recognize the situations and how the characters behave I think. A lot of people just laugh at the characters because they think they're stupid and pathetic, but I don't think they would laugh if they didn't recognize themselves.

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A Short Run From Rocky
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Interview With Kim Thompson
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TOM SPURGEON: How did you even find Rocky out of what must be hundreds and hundreds of things that cross your desk?

KIM THOMPSON: I know Rolf Classon, the guy who runs Galago, which is the main Swedish independent comics publisher -- he's published all the Max Andersson books, for instance -- and I'm on his comp list. The first Rocky book just turned up in one of his packages and I loved it.

SPURGEON: I take it Swedish is one of the languages you read?

THOMPSON: My mom's Danish, so I'm fluent in Danish -- for most of my childhood, in fact, I spoke Danish and French more fluently than English. And Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish are all very close -- they're all virtually dialects of the same root Scandinavian language -- so if you know one you can read the other two, and usually understand them to some degree. In some cases, particularly slang, stuff was over my head, but Martin's agent and Martin himself helped me out a lot.

SPURGEON: How involved was Kellerman in the Fantagraphics edition?

THOMPSON: Very much so. His English is excellent, and he's gone over every strip, offering corrections, suggestions, and in some cases re-writing gags either to work better for an American audience or because he's reconsidered them -- or in some cases for timeliness. A reference to Yasser Arafat, as the roommate you would least like to have, got changed to Osama Bin Laden, for instance. And he updated some of his hip-hop references. And he's done a bunch of spot re-lettering for sound effects and signs, that sort of thing.

Generally foreign cartoonists are very happy to double-check their English language editions and to pitch in, sometimes even re-lettering. I think they're aware that internationally their English edition may be the one that most of the rest of world ends up knowing them by.

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SPURGEON: Kim, what exactly attracted you to this material as a publisher as opposed to something else you could have pursued?

THOMPSON:It made me laugh long and hard. Really, that simple. There are very few humor cartoonists any moreā€¦

SPURGEON: You mean other than Johnny Ryan, Sam Henderson, Tony Millionaire...

THOMPSON: Yeah, but their humor is almost always.... um... deconstructive. Except Millionaire's. I mean, I think they're hilarious, but it's this secondary-level "What is humor?" stuff. Or "this isn't inherently funny, it's funny because it's so offensive and your appalled reaction is what's funny." Kellerman is a good old-fashioned set-up, gag line, punchline entertainer, like Pete Bagge. Or Tony.

SPURGEON: Bagge would be the closest, because the humor arises out of character and the subject matter, too, isn't that far off. Change them into humans, and these could be background characters visiting Seattle in some party scene from the first 15 issues of Hate.

THOMPSON: Yes, Pete is a huge influence on Martin. He nearly creamed in his pants when I got a back cover blurb from Pete.

SPURGEON: Exactly how autobiographical is the strip?

THOMPSON: I don't entirely know. Martin claims that it's a combination of direct autobiography and stories other people have told him -- I wouldn't want to guess the balance, but at least the earlier strips are, I believe, almost 100% autobiographical.

SPURGEON: Do you expect to release more volumes after this first one? How many are there?

THOMPSON: Unless it actually loses us a potload of money, I want to do a Rocky book a year until I die. He's working on Book Nine, so there's a lot. I mean, hey, it's a daily strip, and he's been doing occasional Sundays as well, so he's cranking out a book's worth in less than a year. Technically I can't catch up 'til he drops the strip, or dies.

I'd love to keep doing it. On the other hand, it's an unbelievable fucking amount of work. This book is several months late and it's totally my fault. I had no idea it was going to take this long to translate, but if I'd taken five minutes I'd have calculated that there's like 30,000 words in the first volume. That's a lot to translate, especially when they have to be funny. I could translate 30,000 words of David B. lamenting his brother's disease in a third of the time I can translate 30,000 words of a couple of slackers sitting around shooting the shit. Humor is a bitch.

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All art from the new book except for one piece of art swiped not because it wasn't in English. For more on Martin Kellerman and Kim Thompson's editing of the Rocky book, go to Fantagraphics' Blog.