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CR Sunday Interview On a Monday: Warren Craghead
posted September 16, 2013
is one of cartooning's most inventive talents, and a leader in non-traditonal comics-making. He's been around long enough to have been an early Xeric recipient. His work is ceaselessly inventive. Warren plucks at comics' formal underpinnings without ever sacrificing the tune: his comics are wholly satisfying above and beyond their uniquely experimental nature. Craghead continues to make comics available through a variety of places, including but certainly not limited to the Comics Workbook site, at Oily Comics and in a forthcoming effort with the Latvian kus!
collective. He also makes wonderfully aggressive caricatures for his Ladyh8rs tumblr
. Craghead is a Virginia resident, and someone I think of in conjunction with his region's prominent small press mega-show, SPX
. He tabled for the first time this year. I love talking to him. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: I don't know that I have any firm grasp on the entirety of what you do
vis-a-vis comics, anymore, Warren. I know of projects here and there but I don't know that I know
everything the way I used to. For instance, I don't know how much of your artistic life -- how much of your life, even -- is centered around comics. Is there a way to snapshot that? If we ran into each other at a high school reunion, could you give me an idea of what you have going on broad-picture? What role does comics play in everything that you do?
I think one of the things in the last 15 years or so, the last 10 years for me, has been before that I was doing comics and then there was a bright line and the other side I was doing art, art work, fine arts work. I started with books like Jefferson Forest
and it's gone forward where everything is just kind of mixed up and smeared around. Now everything feeds into everything else. I have a family. I have two young daughters. I have a full-time job. So I have to recycle as much as I can. [laughs] A lot of the ways I work on comics is I just do a ton of drawings. Then I sit down and try to fit them together, see how they might work together. Some of those drawings might end up used in collages later on. Some might end up in a story I haven't even started yet. All of it becomes the same thing. So now when I'm having shows at art spaces, it's pretty much the same work that ends up printed in magazines. The comics work.
Part of it is because I don't have any time to work anymore, so I have to take every single second... I have to fit in. Part of it is the way I've always been. I've always had this need to break out of normal things.
SPURGEON: When you say you're doing drawings all the time, when you're doing a series of drawings and then seeing how they fit together, is a concentrated period? Is there a way to differentiate between different periods of image-making?
Yeah. Two ways. One is if I get... if someone says they want me to do a piece for this magazine. Say the guys in Latvia, the kus! comics guys
. I'm doing a piece for them. It's what I was working on when you called. It's due at the end of the week. It's almost done! There's a theme to it, as I usually have. Now for that one I'll sit down and say, "All right, well, I want to do a 10-page story." So I'll do 40 drawings based on that theme so I can throw out two thirds of them or use them later. Then I find ways to take the best of them and fit them in with text I've been writing, so it sort of fits together.
In those cases, I'm sort of directed. Other ways, sometimes, I have this thing where I'm drawing one or two pages just randomly every day. That's built up over this year where I have this stack of drawings. One of the things I'm trying to do before SPX is take some of those drawings and make a 24-page book out of them. I don't know if it's going to happen or not.
SPURGEON: Is there a visual signifier that connects a series of drawings like that? Is it, "Now I'm going to work this way" when you make the decision to do a series of drawings? Is your image-making consistent? Is something set in stone when you sit down, a right-brain decision to work a specific way for a specific length of time?
Usually. Tpieces I've had on Comics Workbook, the one requirement Frank Santoro gave me is that it has to be inside a comics grid, which for most people is easy. [laughter] For me, that was a great constraint. I took it and ran with it. For the first series I did, I tried to subvert the grid as much as I could. Since then, the ones I did about 700 Club, and the ones I've done about my kids, those have been regular kinds of comics.
Another page is Ladyh8rs
, where I draw grotesque portraits of misogynous public figures. That's much more in a caricature style. I have to hit what they look like but at the same time make them look monstrous. That's been a lot different for me to, to do that over the last year and a half. Most of the time, whether I'm doing a piece for a literary journal or a comics thing or I'm just drawing not knowing where it's going to end up, I end up drawing the same way. I don't sit down and say, "This is going to be seen by my SPX friends, so I better draw it this way."
Part of that is because the comics world is open to almost anything now. It's one of the great, liberating things about working in comics. People are open to all kinds of crazy stuff.
SPURGEON: Do you feel like the context has changed for your work over the last 20 years? You were an odd duck when you showed up. You were noticeable
just for the oddity. You were noticed for how you broke with most people's comics. Do you think there's a different context for what you do now? Is there a more appealing context for you now?
Yeah, I think so. When you think of publishers like PictureBox
, in a big sense, they're definitely straddling the line between fine arts and comics. That's a space I wander around in as well. I think there's a lot of people, younger than me -- some not too much younger -- that make it easier for me to be out there with this weird stuff. I'm thinking of Aidan Koch
, Simon Moreton
, Jason Overby
, some of these people -- Derik Badman
-- some of these people that are not working as traditional cartoonists but are still holding onto that essence of comics of images put together, sometimes telling a story, sometimes not. That's always been at the heart of what I've done.
SPURGEON: Do you hear from those folks directly? Are you in the wonderful and horrible position to have people come up to you and say you inspired them, or is it mostly a sense of peer-to-peer relationships?
[laughs] No, I haven't heard that. Not that I can remember. [laughter] There are people for whom I feel I have an affinity, where we've wandered into this strange landscape on our own and are like, "Oh. I've found you." The internet makes that so much better, so much easier to deal with. When I'm talking to Allen Haverholm
in Sweden or Oliver East
in the UK about work that we're doing, I would never have been able to hook up with those guys without the Internet.
SPURGEON: That's a fairly major factor in your overall comics presence, Warren. You have a lot of work up on-line.
SPURGEON: Let me ask about you Ladyh8rs, before we get too far away from it. I'm very fond of that work. Was that just you wanting to make drawings in a certain way? Because that doesn't seem to be a natural progression from anything I know about your art.
It came out of natural outgrowth of being the father of two daughters. [Spurgeon laughs] Last Spring, like a year and a half ago, I live in Virginia and the general assembly here was debating these bills that would make anyone that wanted to have an abortion have a transvaginal ultra-sound. Which meant even a rape victim would be penetrated again if they wanted to have an abortion. I was getting angrier and angrier. I have a friend who's an activist who was in the general assembly just tweeting constantly about what they were saying. So I kept seeing it on my computer. I felt I wanted to do something. So I started doing what I would normally do: I started drawing. I started drawing these people. I thought I should put it on-line. Tumblr makes it easy to put stuff online and for it to be shared.
So I started this Tumblr... for a while, I was doing it every day. Now I'm down to twice a week. The first drawings are pretty crude. Some people I need to go back and draw again like Rush Limbaugh. My first shot at him was fine at the time but I think I've honed my skills in making these people look horrible. [laughter] I'm much better at now than I was.
SPURGEON: How do you mark that growth? What do you have in the tool box now that if you went back to Rush, you would do better?
Well, I think part of it goes back to what you asked earlier. I don't draw figures much, or at least haven't until the last few years. So I was drawing their heads and faces kind of like I would draw a building or debris or rocks on the ground. Over time I've gotten better at saying, "Oh, I can pull this and twist this." As any good caricaturist knows, you can really twist a face around and still have it read as a human face. I'll cross their eyes, or make their nose bigger. A couple of them recently I've left the ears off and it's really disturbing to see them without eyes. [laughter] These are tricks that most cartoonists probably learn when they're baby cartoonists. I didn't learn them because I was too busy trying to draw cubist drawings and some of the crazy paths I went down. In a way, it's brought me back to a greater appreciation of the straight cartooning people. More than I ever have before. Not that I didn't respect them before.
SPURGEON: Oh, I've heard you talk. [Craghead laughs] So what has it been like to have this outlet? You said the project came out of this period of frustration with the ongoing political theater that is the Commonwealth of Virginia. Was it helpful? Has it been helpful? What's it been like to publish that work and have people respond to it?
I'm also employed by the sate university here. I'm a state worker. I could get myself in trouble. I was semi-anonymous at the beginning. I've expanded way beyond Virginia now.
At first it was cathartic for me. A professor here told me he really liked them because the Left doesn't use ridicule enough. I wanted to point him to a lot of comics people. But he said we need to make fun of these people, to show them as the ridiculous people that they are. I think also... I have family friends that have daughters that are older than mine. Mine are five and eight. They're teenagers. They've seen them and responded to them -- these are young women that are just becoming politically aware themselves, and realize their rights are on the line. They seem to appreciate it. I also get some random e-mails.
I don't know what effect it's having. I've tried to troll some of these people on twitter. "Look, I've drawn a picture of you!" With a link. [laughter] Only a couple of people have taken the bait. I was hoping to make some people angry. They all have thick skins, I suppose; they're used to it.
SPURGEON: There's a longstanding tradition in political cartooning of cartoonists drawing the worst elements of a political figure and the political figure asking for the drawing, responding in this flattered, slightly shameless way.
One thing that inspired me, too, was that Philip Guston did a whole series of pictures about the Nixon Administration. I saw a show of those ten years ago. I tried doing some of George Bush, but I couldn't quite capture the horror. This has been my attempt, I guess.
SPURGEON: I wonder if you conceive of your work in a way... you've talked about having a place for your work, which makes me think you might look on what you do as having a specific range of effect. A different way of engaging or bringing in art under this giant umbrella of "comics." When you look at some of those artists, when you look at your own work, do you think there's something your kinds of comics communicate that maybe standard comics can't? Is there a strength in what you do in depicting an inner life, perhaps, or a different set of emotions than usually gets depicted in more traditional employments of the medium? Do you see an advantage to the art you want to do?
I can only speak for my experience. I think anyone can do almost anything in comics. I wouldn't claim I can do something that other people can't. I do know the way I work tends to be more comfortable with -- for lack of a better word -- mystery, or confusion: not nailing everything down. I think that not planning things out... having ideas in mind but making them be stories that tell themselves... someone wrote an essay about William Faulkner where they talked about how some of his books seemed to be stories that told themselves. That's always stuck in my head. I think that way of working can be really fruitful in a strange way.
I think part of it, too, I was thinking about this the other day, that the image is a primary concern for me. In putting together this story for the kus! comics guys, while I labor over the words it's really the image that have to flow together. That's the main starting point for me. Maybe that's a place where I start that other people, more traditional cartoonists -- whose work I love -- don't. I remember reading an interview with Jaime Hernandez, and this could be true or not because I only hazily remember this, where he talked about how he would draw pages and panels would be blank. He'd have whole, finished pages but some panels would be blank. He'd go back and draw in those. Almost like he would understand that the timing of the page required certain panels in certain places and there would be holes he'd go back and fill in. He's an artist strangely that I feel influenced by, strange because my work looks nothing like his, but there's a sense in his work where you as a reader have to do a lot of work to figure out what's going on. Or at least I do. Maybe I'm dumb. He does not spell everything out for you. That taught me a lot as a young comics reader and artists. He does extremely powerful work that's beautiful to look but not necessarily easy to process right away.
SPURGEON: I'm thinking of is I always think of you as someone who dealt with text on the page as a visual element when few people were. Seeing you treat text as part of the drawing in your work kind of snapped me out of text as this overlay, the way we get them in commercial comics. I wondered if there are elements that you see people play around with, maybe not artists that have a similar aesthetic across the board, but craft elements where you don't have much else in common? Has comics become more like your work in the last 20 years despite itself?
I don't know if this is exactly what you're looking for, but Jason Overby uses these letter stamps. The words are most of the image. I love his work. It infuriates me, because I'm like, "Damn." My biggest compliment is I will curse out someone like Oliver East when I see him doing the same things. This relentless inventiveness in how he puts together a page, how he creates an image. He's someone that I see where his works are the simplest of narratives, taking a walk, but he's relentless inventive like I said in how he draws this stuff.
I recently wrote about Simon Moreton's book Grand Gestures
. He draws these guess, and it's like two pages of riffing on how to draw geese. It's crazy. I love that work is able to have that freedom. Austin English did these de Kooning-esque, crazy-ass drawings. They fit now, and are perfectly in place, in the comics world. Aidan Koch the same way. These washed away, eroded drawings that fit really well into the comics world. All of this stuff would fit in a fine arts context as well. In fact, I think most of it is way better than what is being show in the fine arts world. At least what I've seen. That's why I've always been drawn to the comics world. It's always been better. Better work.
Less money, but better work.
SPURGEON: Is that frustrating for you? I would think you've grown accustomed to that fact by now. Is the commercial aspects of it, even finding a little space for the kind of comics you do, is that difficult? Has that had an effect on your art, do you think, that there's such a limited commercial context for what you do?
Yeah, I think it has. In my case, I kind of choose to have a positive spin on it. I don't want to compare myself to them, but TS Eliot and William Carlos Williams, these guys had day jobs that were regular jobs. There weren't commercial concerns about their work. I don't have to worry that I need to sell a piece. Even my friends with gallery careers, they have to worry about how much of a work is going to sell. I feel lucky that I don't have those concerns, with my job and everything. I feel it allows me to go further out on a limb than maybe I would have otherwise. It's one of the liberating things about comics.
The other thing is that there are a lot of resources, and I want to encourage cartoonists to look around at the fine arts world. There is a lot of money floating around in grants and residencies and fellowships that you can get. I've gotten a Virginia museum fellowship -- it's a museum in Richmond that gives out an eight thousand dollar a year fellowship. I've gotten it three times. These places are not just open to my kind of crazy work, but even more traditional comics work. They would love to throw money at our people, the comics people. So I would encourage people to look around for what normally painters would apply for.
There's a prize up in DC, for DC, Maryland and Virginia artists. I've been a finalist there twice. And every time I'm basically showing comics. I'm making the little fold-up books that I make and showing comics pages. Obviously that's not the same as big museum shows and galleries and making thousands of dollars at art fairs and all that. But I think there is a bigger market for us, that we can tap and begin to take our piece of. Maybe that's a good way to think about it.
There are so many good people working in comics right now that have a hard time making it. I would love to see them have the resources to make more stuff so that I can look at it and get frustrated by how good they are. [laughs]
SPURGEON: I saw you last year at SPX. This interview is going to appear on SPX weekend. Is that a value of a place like that, to have these exchanges, such as cartoonists talking to one another about what resources are available out there.
What's the value to you to a show like that?
I thought this would be one of your questions, so I've thought about that. I've never tabled there before. I'm going to with Simon Moreton this time. I may have a different idea afterwords. [Spurgeon laughs] Maybe I'll make a million dollars. Maybe I'll just be exhausted. I don't know. The value for me really is to meet or to listen -- to the luminaries, the Hernandez Brothers or Gary Panter or someone like that, but really more the people I'm in the mix with. To meet Frank Santoro or Austin English. To meet Chucks Forsman and Melissa Mendes. People I've met on the Internet and conversed with, but I've never met in person. I'm sad that I met TCAF
this year, where I could have met Oliver, Oliver East.
Last year was great. I got to hang out with Renee French. We've been Internet friends for a long time. She got me obsessed with Formula One car racing, which she loves.
SPURGEON: Yes. Yes she does.
She got me totally into it, too. It was good to finally meet her in person. That's a real value to me. It also used to be of value in that I could see books I'd heard a lot about but hadn't gotten my hands on. But now there's a really good gallery called Telegraph Gallery
that opened here in Charlottesville that has all that work in it. It has Retrofit and PictureBox and Fantagraphics
. I can go there and see the stuff. It's a great 'zine and comics places. That value isn't as great to me. Seeing people and talking to them... even people I don't know that well but would want to meet, that's happened to me, too.
I still haven't had that Drawn and Quarterly vs. Fantagraphics fistfight over my work that I talked to you about like 20 years ago. [laughter] I'm still waiting for that.
SPURGEON: There can be a whole new generation of people having that fistfight now.
SPURGEON: Some of the older folks might not be in fistfighting shape anymore.
One thing I hear from you during this conversation is that you talk about not being shackled by commercial considerations... so is there work you've done with which you're wholly satisfied, if only in conception and ambition. Are there representative Warren Craghead works, works that have taken advantage of this opportunity for unfettered expression? Are there works that have come closest to your ideal?
Yeah. I think that... well, no. [laughter] If I said anything else, my wife would say I was lying. I'm the kind of person that would give my wife a drawing for her birthday and then like six months later I'm cracking open the frame to fix part of it as she gets really angry at me.
SPURGEON: That's a warning for anyone that wants to buy an original from you.
Keep it away from me. [laughter] Even a book like How To Be Everywhere
, which I published in 2007... It's going to be published in Belgium, in the original French, so I've been working on it. Man
I want to fix some of those drawings. I'm proud of it, and I think it's a good book. But I draw differently now. There's parts I want to change.
I think some of the shorter pieces I've done over the last few years I'm happy with. The little tiny fold-up books I've done over the last few years I'm happy with. I'm not trying to put myself down, that's a traditional cartoonist's thing I know. I'm just never totally satisfied. I always think I could do something a little bit better. Most of the last few years I haven't published too many books, it's mostly been pieces in magazines and then these tiny books I do for all sorts of different occasions. In those I think there are some works I'm happy with, some I don't look back on and cringe.
There's a story about Willem De Kooning -- I don't know if it's true -- where there's a famous painting of his up in museum. He looks at it, and he goes out to an art store and buys some paint and brushes. He comes back in and starts painting on the painting. The guard is like, "What are you doing?" They don't know who he is. He goes, "This is my painting! I have to fix this part!" I don't know if that's true or not, but I totally understand the sentiment.
SPURGEON: Is there any element to the artist you were that you can't access anymore?
You mean from a long time ago?
SPURGEON: Yeah. Writers sometimes get a chance to re-write something, and in making the attempt they realize it can't be done because they're not the same person, or even close enough to that person to get to the place that person was going.
Is there anything about a way you used to do art that you miss?
I think some of the older work I see a freedom in it that I overthink now. I remember reading something about the guitarist for REM where they asked him why he started playing the mandolin and he said, "Because I'm no good at it. I got too good at guitar. I was no longer stumbling and figuring things out." There's some work that I've done, even the work from the late 1990s that was more traditional cartooning, where I see a freedom I hope I can still find in my work. I do kind of cultivate that. I'm so busy I don't have time to overthink things. I have to go with my gut. Hopefully that gut is reasonably honed and developed.
I guess the other quality I miss from that really old work is that it was more visually accessible at first glance. I feel like the world has caught up to me, and that now, at least in the communities I wander around in, my work is not out there -- there are people that are further out there than me, and that's fine.
SPURGEON: This is a super-generic question, but I'm interested in your answer: does having kids around change your approach to art?
Absolutely. I'll draw with the kids. They have this freedom. I remember thinking, "Oh, man. They're so good. I want to find that." Maybe that's why I was talking about freedom earlier. My daughters are five and eight, so there's a real craziness, a real investigation into form, a real figuring things out that I see them do when we're drawing together that for lack of a better word makes me inspired. It makes me want to do that myself. Luckily, I've been able to so far to avoid where I draw something "better" than them and they get all upset and mad about it.
They know I'm weird drawer. They know I draw all the time. We were just on vacation and all three of us had sketchbooks. All three of us were drawing all the time. The other thing it does is it forces me to work quickly in the middle of the night and early in the morning. I have to take care of them.
SPURGEON: I wondered if you thought there was anything regional to your work. You're one of the few cartoonists I think of in terms of being in this specific place, but I'm not sure why.
The last few months I've been thinking a lot about street photography, especially my friend Craig Atkinson
; he's an artist and a photographer. He's from the UK. He publishes these photo books. I don't know anything about street photography; I only know it through his work. He'll go around and take pictures of a building, or an event like a festival, and then he'll publish a 28 page book of photographs put in order. I can make the case that they're comics. I probably will at some point. I really like that idea of documenting a space. I think of him along the same lines as Oliver East, who walks and then tries to document those walks in a crazy way.
I also think of the painter Stuart Davis
, the American cubist painter from the '30s and '40s, who I'm obsessed with as well. He would go around with his sketchbook and draw things from the town he was in. Then he'd go back to the studio and turn those drawings into sometimes- aggressive cubist compositions. More and more I've wanted to do work that documents where I am and what I see, what's around me. When I see Molly Crabapple
's work from Gauntanamo Bay, and Joe Sacco
's work, there's obviously a sense of someone being on the scene drawing and reacting to stuff.
When we were on family vacation, we were at Lake Erie in upstate New York. I said, "Okay, I’m going to pretend to be a street photographer this week, but instead of taking pictures I'm just going to draw all the time." I filled up this sketchbook with all these drawings. So I'm going to see if I can put them together into some set of coherence. That sense of place you mention is definitely something I think about more and more.
* Warren Craghead
* Works from Mr. Craghead's oeuvre, hopefully used in a context that's understandable according to contextual clues