CR Holiday Interview #19 -- Tom Hart posted January 7, 2013
Tom Hart was a very important cartoonist for me to discover in the early to mid-1990s, through his tremendous run of mini-comics and initial comic-book series. His mixture of energetic line-making and lean dialogue cracked through any remaining biases I had about a certain kind of comic book by showing me several that I liked instead of providing me the theory that such a comic might exist. Tom has continued to be a prolific comics-maker, along the way becoming one of comics' most well-liked educators. He has poured most of his recent energy into The Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW), the subject of the bulk of our interview. The passing of Hart and Leela Corman's young daughter Rosalie Lightning in November 2011 remains near the forefront of the comics community's thoughts. It is something we address briefly through Hart's creation of comics art -- one a direct memoir in progress, another a short story driven by parenting concerns the conception and execution of which straddled the event -- that relates in some way to that tragedy, and I mention it here for the necessary context.
I ran into Hart at this year's SPX and asked him to be a part of this series in great part to hopefully spur more regular attention directed at SAW from this site. I'm grateful that Hart took the time on a December day down in Gainesville to shoot the breeze. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: I think of you frequently in the context of the group of cartoonists in Seattle with whom you used to hang out in the early- to mid-1990s. I saw a lot of you folks around this year. Dave Lasky has a major book out. Rich Tommaso had a book out this year. Ed Brubaker is doing well. Jon Lewis has a book out. Craig Thompson is a little younger but he has his books going. I was talking about that generation of cartoonists with a group of even younger comics-makers, and they immediately latched onto you guys as a generation that's maybe distinct from the Clowes and the Wares and that group, that maybe you guys didn't make comics in as sustained a fashion for as long that group has. I wonder if you had any reflections on the group of cartoonists with whom you came up, how many of you remained productive but others haven't, and maybe most of you haven't been releasing work as much as we might have hoped, once?
TOM HART: That's a lot of questions.
SPURGEON: Yeah... that's... I can be like that. Sorry.
HART: That's multiple questions, and I'm weeping on the other end that maybe people think I haven't been productive.
SPURGEON: You have and some of your peers have, but not everyone has. And it could be a total misapprehension, too. But I'm interested in the perception -- I overuse the "lost" part of the phrase "lost generation," and it's ridiculously over-dramatic, but I do wonder after the collective identity of that second wave of alt-cartoonists.
HART: It's interesting. Weirdly upon reflection I feel, as a part of that group at this point in 2012, a dinosaur and a never-was at the same time. This is going to be a very meandering answer. I guess you're saying that we became invisible for a while, because we weren't that productive?
SPURGEON: More that I was dismayed by how quickly the younger people with whom I was talking about this went there. I think what they meant was that with some rare exceptions cartoonists now in the late 30s, early 40s haven't had that generational impact, the collective identity that maybe that immediately previous generation did.
HART: Maybe you can tell me if this is accurate. When I said I feel like a dinosaur, it's something that I feel a lot. I think -- and tell me if this is accurate -- that back then in Seattle we were really focused on stories. Starting stories from the ground up and not reacting in the same way that people in front of us did. There were plenty of guys like Peter Bagge and Dan Clowes and Chester Brown where they were riffing on established genres. Superheroes, or the detective genre. We were really interested in story, and I think we were interested in this literary way that has gone out of fashion. That's the point I want your confirmation on. It seems like the things coming through the transom now are so visually stunning and abstract story-wise in many ways that seem like a trend. But also interesting. I could see that the stuff we were focused on is stuff they're not interested in. I think the things we battled with, a lot of us weren't very good visual artists, either. [laughter] Except Jason Lutes, maybe. So we were fighting to render our literary ideas in the best visual language we could. But it was a battle. It seems like like in the decade and a half since then everyone is rising out of the womb with these incredible visual chops and an interesting set of storytelling if not a coherent one. We may be a lost generation in that. I think that's about where my train of thought stops.
SPURGEON: Are there works that you think are exemplars of that approach? Is Berlin a rock-solid example of that kind of sustained narrative?
HART: Sure. Definitely Berlin. When I say literary I don't necessarily mean sustained narrative. Jon Lewis, he was never going to become famous for his drawing skills. [Spurgeon laughs] But for a while he was trying to compress into as few pages as possible as much literary content -- for lack of a better word -- as possible. Even in these things that looked tossed off. Spectacles and Ghost Ship were two comics that he did where he was riffing on on these old DCWitching Hour type of comics, and trying to bring in this Borgesian intelligence to it. [laughs] You can't tell just looking at it! It's dense and off-putting in a weird way.
[David] Lasky was the same way. He was always trying to render things in these formal experiments. Megan [Kelso] -- at least in the '90s -- she's been consistent and gotten better, her interest is New Yorker-style short stories, little slice of character that jumps back and forth. Maybe that's out of fashion. Maybe we just didn't do a lot of work. I don't know. I did a lot of work. I also had rudimentary drawing skills [laughter] and I feel I was covering a lot of ground -- I always feel like I'm making up for lost time. I've never been an exemplary artist, so I always feel I'm covering stuff I should have learned by the time I was 17. Then I spent five years pursuing daily comics, which was a terrible idea.
SPURGEON: Do you regret that period?
HART: No, not artistically at all. It was actually some of the most fun I've ever had. I feel like over the course of that period I finally became comfortable in my own artistic skin a little. What is the quote about forging one's artistic personality on the anvil of daily deadlines? Something like that. Doing the daily strips made me a better artist. I don't regret it all. There are only so many ways the daily strip can be subverted and played with and I went the exact opposite direction. I went to Mutt And Jeff [laughter], and began to emulate what was out of fashion 70 years ago. I wanted to understand it better. I can see that as the DNA of everything that's inspired me as a child.
SPURGEON: Given that so many of you are educators, why haven't your values impressed themselves on the younger generation?
HART: What hasn't impressed themselves?
SPURGEON: You say you felt like a dinosaur, that you simply don't share the values of the younger cartoonists. Given that so many of you teach, I wonder that there isn't a greater continuity -- a lot of these younger cartoonists are your guys' students.
HART: To some degree. The only person of that kind of visionary... the kind of artist that might have no need for our generation, I'm thinking of Michael DeForge and the types of artists that have this visionary, imaginative sense of everything: of content, of drawing, of page composition. Everything. They're breaking through everything. The lack of continuity... when I think about it, I think it's the Internet. I'm not sure if that's right or wrong. Jon Lewis would say the same thing. When I grew up, I was pretty culturally devoid of any stimulus. I went to the bowling alley a lot when I was a kid. I watched Dr. Who once a week, and that was it. [Spurgeon laughs] Every once in a while I looked through my dad's record collection for something interesting to hear. I never found anything. [laughs]
Growing up is so different now. The cultural stimulus we have is everywhere, and the ability to be influence by everything is rampant. Instantaneous and rampant, and if you have this enormous appetite you can cycle through all these styles and approches. I feel like we were struggling at a slower pace. You had to struggle to make interesting work and to be original. It's possible that we were the last generation to grow up without that advantage of access. In the mid-'90s, the Internet starts approach around '98 or '99 -- we may be the last generation of twenty-something-year-olds that couldn't image google search everything. Or look at the Moebius Tumblr. If we wanted to look at Moebius comics, and I'm sure you hear this from a lot of older generations, we had to find them. [laughs] I don't know. I think that's the answer, but I don't have empirical evidence.
SPURGEON: Another thing that struck me this year is how community-oriented a lot of these kids are, in a way that reminds me of how you guys in Seattle related to one another. I wonder if that's something that you have noticed, too, with your students or being at a show like this year's SPX. It hit me at some point in 2012 that these kids are actually going to school together; they're not having a school-of-comics experience in their twenties, they're having an actual school experience at 18 -- many of them, anyway. Do you have a sense of how those communities kind of replicate what you guys had?
HART: It does seem that way. I'm not paying that much attention. We didn't invent the community of artists. Artists have always hung out together at that age and found like-minded others. There does seem to be a lot of groups like that. Do you think they're attached to the schools? I was not aware there were enough schools to do that.
SPURGEON: Maybe that's a way to move into what you're up to. Is there a state of SAW that you can give me? Can you provide a snapshot of what's going on down there right now? How's it going, Tom?
HART: It's going well. We're in the last week of our first complete semester. We've been open since January , but from January until August we've done pretty informal things. We've taught a lot classes in the community, to adult artists, things like that. We've also had a week-long John Porcellino workshop. This September, roughly September 1, we really got going with what it is I wanted to do, which was to have this intense, year-long program. We're just finishing up the first semester. It's great. The kids are super. We just had a long, discursive, free-wheeling discussion about Art, abstract art. One of our teachers, Justine, is older than any of us. I think she's a couple of years older than me. She has the art school experience of having been in art school when all the teachers were students of students of abstract impressionism. And so she still has a lot of anger. [laughter] It's brought up a lot of other conversations. Two of our students have been through art school, one a little more intensely. And then the others come from other places. So we just had this long -- the kind of conversation you have at the end of a semester where it feels like you're done but you want to rant and explore ideas.
These guys are really bonding, also. We had a conversation a couple of days ago where they talked me into something I hadn't thought of yet. They said, "We need to put a bunch of our stuff together. We want people to see what we've been doing here." I naturally assumed that at some point that would happen informally, but they asked me formally. "Can you send a bunch of our stuff out?" And I feel I should do that. These kids want their work to be seen. They know they don't have to throw it out into the void if the school can get behind it. But yeah, the first semester has gone great. We've done all sorts of very traditional things. I've had them working on two-page, tabloid-sized comics, and a couple of smaller-page comics. They've done a lot of stuff extra-curricularly, too. We did a 24-Hour Comics thing. One of the students feels that their best work was that single day. That happens a lot, actually. I have a Friday session that's pretty open to oddball things. I had an acting coach come in with some physicality exercises that I think went over pretty well. Walking, being alert to how you hold your body when you're trying to walk a certain way. We've talked about bring her back and trying a live show, bringing a couple of actors in and the artists will instruct the actors and the actors will instruct the artists... [laughs] We're still trying to figure it out.
Because we're so small and uninstitutional, we can play around with these ideas. It's exactly what I wanted to do, to have a little bit of nimbleness and maybe explore things that are a little non-traditional. I'm not being as bold as I could be. I could have them crawling around on the floor making tiger noises. [laughter] This summer I was writing down all of these crazy exercises that could maybe go into a book that never happened.
They're all planning to go home for holidays. It's going to be weird here without them. We'll have a show here Friday. Gainesville is really, really supportive of us. It's a great, creative time. We're really happy.
SPURGEON: Dumb it down even further for me. It's a year-long course that students of any age can take, and they're coming to class... how frequently? For how long a time?
HART: I say year-long but it's really two semesters. We start in mid-August and we end in mid-April. They're there five days a week. Monday through Friday we have a different class every day. 11-2, although some end around 1. My class is project-based: it's a lot of exercises, a lot of critiquing. Tuesday, you remember John Ronan? John has been giving them the most amazing history class I've ever seen. Some weeks he's come in with just a stack of Puck magazines. [Spurgeon laughs] It's just great. It's really, really great. He's so happy to be teaching what he wants to be teaching rather than all this other stuff he's been teaching.
SPURGEON: I miss John, and some mornings if I'm really quiet I can hear him.
HART: [laughs] He's quieted down a little. He's still incessant, but he's quieted down a little.
SPURGEON: I like him very much.
HART: He's likable, and what he's given the kids is really great. More than I expected. The first ten weeks of the first semester, they didn't get past 1875, maybe. I don't know any of that stuff. I should have been paying more attention. It's an education I don't even have. Wednesday is all drawing. Our teacher's name is Justine [Mara Andersen]. She has a long history in comics, but it's sort of a scattered history of comics.
She's an amazing technician. She lives about a town away, in Ocala, she heard about SAW and walked in one day last Spring. She showed me her portfolio and asked if we could work together. I usually am happy with what I have going, unless I really need somebody. But the portfolio was so stunning that we knew we wanted to work into the curriculum. She has an evening class, and a small following of students that take that class, too. We have an oddball relationship, because she's into beauty for beauty's sake; I like to get abstract and allow for all sorts of ideas. It's a great aesthetic dialogue we have. So that's Wednesday. One student said that one class with her literally changed his life. One two-hour class.
Thursday during the first semester I brought in someone that learned under David Foster Wallace to teach a general course on storytelling, whatever she felt most comfortable with. Next semester that will be Leela teaching an illustration course. Friday it's a grab-bag where we do figure drawing or other things. They're there five days a week.
SPURGEON: Is this mostly college-age kids?
HART: Everyone is around 22 to 25.
SPURGEON: I had coffee with Brendan Burford recently. He said that one thing he admired about you was how doubly committed you were to your art and your teaching, that there was a practical side to you that came out through the teaching part of your life. It struck me that I don't know the original impulse for you to leave the teaching you were doing to do the teaching you are doing. Can you talk about that act of breaking away? It seemed you were pretty established where you were.
HART: It was a lot of things, I think. Being burned out on New York was a pretty major part of it. I loved teaching at SVA, but there was a part of me that didn't want to live the life of the SVA instructor that for the next 40 years taught two or three classes. I rebelled against that idea. I wanted more control somehow. We had a lot of freedom in our classes at SVA. I think we had a lot of freedom. I wasn't rebelling against not being able to teach what I wanted or something. I don't know. I have a need for autonomy. Practically, I did know that pursuing more higher-education teaching would be as complicated as starting my own school because I don't have an MFA. I don't even have a BFA. If there was a point where I said, "I need to go where the teaching jobs are" -- and I don't recall there being a point where I said that -- I would have hit that roadblock.
I don't know. I take the teaching very, very seriously as an artistic endeavor in itself. I'm constantly -- maybe because I have a terrible memory and take bad notes -- but I'm constantly reinventing the curriculum. Or add to it to make it better. Everything is a work in progress. Every book you make, even after you publish it, is a work in progress. The teaching is, too. This is the amount of autonomy I wanted, and part of it was wanting to leave New York. We were really done with it. Had the recession not hit in 2008 I'm not sure we would have felt like that, but I think we would have, anyway. It became overly stimulating, very expensive, extremely stressful... and I really love the community of SVA but I don't think it was enough to keep me in New York.
SPURGEON: How do you think the teaching has changed your orientation as an artist? Or has it? One of your ex-students told me that one thing that impressed him about you was how confident your decisions were in critiques.
HART: Oh, that's nice.
SPURGEON: You were very bold when it came to laying out what you thought worked and didn't work. Has being around so many working artists, having to articulate certain values, had an effect on you?
HART: It's certainly made me a smarter artist and a better technician -- that may be the first time I've ever referred to myself as a technician. It heightened my technical abilities and made me a better thinker about art, for sure. That's true. I could go into detail. When I started teaching, when I dropped out of school one of my first thoughts was I wanted to do this the way it should be done. I felt misunderstood as a student, and I felt the topics were misunderstood by the instructors. So as soon as I dropped out, I thought, "Some day I'm going to do this better." I wasn't sure that would ever happen, but it eventually did. At SVA I realized how much I had yet to learn, and I got pretty aggressive about trying to learn it. I embraced the things I had yet to embrace. I'd been a writer for so long, and not necessarily a good writer, but I'd been a writer so long I began to look at the drawings. It's a school of visual arts. I realized that for me it was all about story -- this kind of goes back to that first question -- but that's not what everyone wanted. They may have other goals. So I had to really wizen up about drawing. I learned it in the abstract first, and tried to get better at it technically. I'm finally learning to draw with a brush. Having Justine has been fantastic. She made me buy a good brush, and do the exercises you need to do to get good with it. The kind of thing I would have hated in my 20s. I would have directed my attention elsewhere. It's been a long road to get better at everything.
SPURGEON: Given that you dropped out of art school, and that a lot of your education was self-directed, at least initially, and that you're in this generation of comics educators that weren't yourself necessarily educated in the kinds of institutions you staff, how concerned are you with making sure that the schooling you provide meets the needs of the students in that very specific way? Because there's a general criticism where people roll their eyes and say you'd be better off buying a house and going to that house and drawing comics for a few years than you are going to school for comics. There's an anti-schooling ethos in comics a little bit, and I've wondered if you've confronted it at all. Are you worried about making what you do a value for the students in that way?
HART: The fact that it's incredibly cheap makes it easier. [laughter]
I really think about that a lot. I see it as one year of your life, and a few thousand dollars, and the worst it will do is make you a better cartoonist. More directly, yeah, it's really important to... I think because I believe that if they're better off doing something else with this money, they're probably going to do that. Then there are reasons -- maybe psychological, or maybe the need for a community. But in terms of the instruction I worry about it all the time. I think that's good. One of the things I was good at at SVA, and I was never David Sandlin or Gary Panter or one of those people that has a long, rich history deep in the arts. I was a bit of an outsider. I think I was good at figuring out each student's individuality a little bit and trying to believe in what they wanted to do. I try to do that here. The thing I worry about the most is I've been on this 10-year, 11-year, 12-year arc of worrying about visuals. I sometimes get overly focused on it [laughs] and it was never my strong point. I catch myself talking about things like light and composition and not talking about the thing that has been most important to me the last 20 years, which is story.
The question is how attentive I am to making sure it's good for the students and a good value? I think I've answered that, but I can keep going. [laughter] I worry about that all of the time. I can go deeper. I worry that... I never want my students and I never want myself to be looked down upon because we had to learn it formally. I've always looked down on my own abilities because it's such a struggle to get good at everything. I try to give students everything that's come to me from better artists. I don't think we're going to attract the artists that are so completely self-motivated and out of the door full of imagination and technical ability. We get students -- we've only had the one year -- that are full of drive, but have to have that guided. I think we're good at that.
SPURGEON: You and I did the institutions panel at Small Press Expo. You expressed some anxiety, maybe awareness is a better term, that establishing the program is going to soon yield to an entirely different skill set necessary to continue building that program. How comfortable are you in terms of taking what you've done so far and making an institution of it? How concerned are you about development issues with SAW?
HART: Extremely concerned. [laughs] Uh. I've done so much of it myself, and I think this is the one place where it would be great to not do it myself. I don't think I know what the next steps are. When I started talking about doing this, 2009 I think, everybody to a person when I said I was going to do a school said I needed a Michelle. Michelle Ollie. Everybody said this. And I said, "Yeah, I know. But I don't have one. And I'm not going to not do it just because I don't have one." [laughs] I did it. I need an administrative/institutional genius to assist me in that way. That person hasn't walked through the door yet. Justine walked through the door just as I needed her. That would be a big help. It's the stuff that frustrates me the most, and the stuff I'm least interested in. I'm not one of those artists as far as teaching goes. I love teaching. But being the administrator of the place and finding the money and all that stuff...? I'm making a compromise with marketing, and I'm trying to find some joy in it. I'm not going to build this into something more sustainable without a lot of help. Gainesville is full of over-educated people with too little to do. I'm hoping that that person's out there.
SPURGEON: I wanted this conversation to be dominated by SAW, but I did have a question about the Daddy Lightning comic you did. The one thing I wanted to ask you about the book, the thing I remembered reading about it the first time is that this specific work didn't speak directly to your tragedy in terms of content, but it's there in the support material because of the nature of how the project developed. That seems like a deliberate choice on your part, to process this thing in that direct fashion. I was curious about that decision.
HART: There were really only two choices to make. That was written ages ago, so the first decision was whether or not to finish it. I guess another decision was to in any way alter it, and I didn't want to do that. The other decision was how to comment on it in the supporting material, and that seemed like an easy decision to make, too. There wasn't a lot of thought that went into it.
SPURGEON: Is the reaction that people have to this and to other art that you've made, is it so wholly different in terms of how people react to it that it seems different that way, or is it familiar to you as an artistic experience like many of your other artistic experiences?
HART: I don't know. I don't know how much I've heard back. A lot of people are sorry for my loss and sort of leave it at that. I know in making that book, I felt like I had a long history, especially in my mini-comics, as being carefree and raw. I wanted to try and do that again. I didn't question too many of my decisions. Since then I've done 20 pages of the memoir.
SPURGEON: Well, sure. And that work would be much more pertinent to that specific question.
HART: I've done another 15 pages since. I get a ton of feedback on that, all of which seems to be that it's courageous and it's heartbreaking. Mostly that it's heartbreaking. So I don't know. I'm glad for that. As far as the reaction, I'm not paying all the attention that I should be or could be. One reason I moved out of New York was [laughs] to not worry about what other people thought. It was definitely a conscious effort to leave the commercial world. I knew what I felt like what I needed to do. I trusted in what I needed to do as an artist, and I knew I needed to be quieter and calmer to do that.
SPURGEON: You mentioned earlier your own development as a cartoonist, and then kind of referenced that just now. I wonder if you could talk about where you think you are. I always think of you as a cartoonist that's worked out of a specific set of values for your work, not just technical ones but across the board. Has moving to a quieter and calmer place helped?
HART: This may sound ostentatious, but despite the political overtones of the Hutch Owen work and some other stuff, all of it, all of it, has been about celebrating freedom. Especially the Hutch Owen work has been about that. Trying to allow people to be free to actualize themselves, express themselves. That's exactly what I'm doing at this school. And it's exactly what I'm trying to do in learning the real techniques of cartooning a little better. The more I learn, the greater my ability to free myself while I'm working. So I don't know -- it's a very, very bizarre turn of fate that I'm working on a memoir. Something that I never in a million years would have expected to do. In fact, what's weird this book is that I'm doing so many things I never would have though I'd be doing, especially referring to other art work a lot. I've always had this love-hate relationship with that. You see a Godard movie and suddenly he's riffing on some genre. I always had this idealistic, young view that art should be self-contained. You shouldn't have to know other pieces of art to get it. I've always known that I didn't understand that well, I've always known that. But I never thought I'd be doing a book that's the exact opposite. The book started when I realized that looking at art was the only way I was going to heal from this. I don't know if heal is the right word. It probably is. Suddenly, the book is mostly about how -- so far it is, anyway -- images, and images that other people have created, have helped me to understand this thing I can't understand. I'm not sure that answers your question.
SPURGEON: An answer that good I'll change the question.
HART: [laughs] I guess I just find myself doing a lot of things I never thought I would be doing. I've always tried to get better as a cartoonist. That means something different to everybody. The thing I've always known is that the act of making comics, the act of manipulating characters and having them interacting in boxes has always been a stimulating and freeing experience for me. So in your question about where I'm at in my development, I've been getting better according to my own values. Another reason for leaving New York is that I feel like I'm on a different rhythm than the commercial world, and other trends. The few times I've tried to adapt to the commercial world -- I thought I was a good cartoonist, and that I should be able to do these things -- but they come much more effortlessly to other cartoonists, and I realized I don't want to market myself as a cartoonist. What I'm interested in is the process of artmaking that is about freeing myself internally. I honestly don't think I've made any missteps that way. I also realize that I'm much slower, and that I'm just figuring out what many younger artists have figured out way before me. [laughs] I'm very slowly getting better, and maybe nobody notices. But that's okay.
* the SAW logo
* Tom Hart's early '90s work
* image from Michael DeForge employed on the SAW site; he's a supporter of the school
* photo from John Porcellino's report on his SAW workshop
* from Justine Mara Andersen
* the latest fundraising video for the school
* from Daddy Lightning
* the memoir comic as released (thus far) by Hart [below]