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A Short Interview With Paul Karasik
posted June 16, 2007
 

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*****

Paul Karasik's career output may be modest in terms of pages of project, but it's mighty when you measure their impact and effectiveness. Primarily a teacher of comics, Karasik's remarkable adaptation/breakdown of Paul Auster's City of Glass helped propel what might have been a forgettable project into best comics of the 20th century discussions. A memoir co-created with his sister Judy about growing up in a family where one member has autism, The Ride Together turned out to be one of the best realized books in the comics/prose blend model which has since carved out its own significant place within the world of wider comics sales. Karasik was involved with the fine Masters of American Comics exhibit which hit Los Angeles, Milwaukee and New Jersey/New York to much acclaim, is a well-known teacher of comics, and is a smart, funny and engaging writer about comics.

In I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets, Karasik shares with readers his devotion to the cult cartoonist of comic books' "Golden Age," Fletcher Hanks, the best way he knows how: reprinting his comics, with a short story of Karasik's own creation in the back of the book to deal with biographical questions. Hanks may be sold as the Ed Wood of the early comics era, but he's hardly a well-meaning incompetent like the famed film director. Hanks' bizarre comic stories of out-sized magical super-beings roaring around and ripping into the hearts of evil people may not be everyone's cup of tea, but to some of us they're beautiful and raw and wonderfully expressive. It's a joy to have them all in one place. Thank you, Paul Karasik.

*****

TOM SPURGEON: Paul, I don't have a firm sense of how you spend your professional time. How does your work break down into your various comics-related pursuits? You teach, right? Where does a book like this fit in?

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PAUL KARASIK: I have made most of my living as a teacher. This allows me to pursue projects that really mean something to me such as doing the Friday crossword puzzle with my wife who knows more about geography including the names of several crossword puzzle-friendly rivers in France.

Most of my favorite cartoonists have been journeymen; those who can go to the drawing board day after day and make consistently wonderful stuff. I simply am not a guy who is able to go into the studio on a set schedule to confront blank paper.

Instead I am a guy who can go day after day into a classroom to confront blank stares from my students. I have just completed a semester teaching Comics Narrative to a small class at RISD. It is thrilling for me to watch my students improve week-to-week. On the first day of class I made a promise to them that they would all leave class better cartoonists than when the entered. It was a promise I knew I could keep.

The class focuses on deconstructing comics into their components and then being very mindful of the manipulation of these components in creating comics. Hence, the emphasis in class is on the Process of making comics rather than the Product.

From time to time a comics project accosts me. I will be just walking down the street minding my own business when a project runs up to me, grabs me by the collar and shakes me mercilessly until I acquiesce or my dentures fall out. This is true, except the part about the dentures.

However, it seems that whenever I try to make a project come up to me and shake me by the collar, it doesn't work. Last winter I spent fruitless days at a sidewalk cafe ogling projects and showing a bit of leg to no avail. I drank a lot of Ovaltine with nothing to show.

When something like, I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets comes along, a project that I have no choice but to work on, I become obsessed.

So, I guess to answer your question, I, myself, do not have a firm sense of how I, myself, spend my professional time, but I do have a firm sense that a four letter river that feeds the Seine is call the Aube.

SPURGEON: How did you come to be a Fletcher Hanks fan? Who made the initial discovery and presentation of this work? Was it difficult to find some of the pieces that weren't anthologized?

KARASIK: Jerry Moriarty, the cartoonist, painter, and teacher, brought the work of Hanks to the attention of Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman during the time I spent as Associate Editor and Coffee-Maker-In-Chief at RAW Magazine. We were all immediately struck by the work and reprinted a story from Fantastic Comics #7.

Aside from a Fantomah story reprinted in Cartoonist PROfiles this had been the only Hanks story reprinted.

This is a project that, in many ways, owes its existence to the internet. Prior to the Net it would have been next to impossible to smoke out the collectors who hoard this stuff. Overall I was in contact with close to 15 collectors and the search took over three years. I began my sleuthing about the same time that the U.N Weapons Inspectors began their search for Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. My task turned out to be a lot more fruitful. The big difference being that these Hanks stories really exist.

imageSPURGEON: At what point did your interest include putting together a book?

KARASIK: Hanks worked in comics from 1939-1941. Then he simply disappeared.

When I discovered what really happened to my "hero" Fletcher Hanks I had no choice but to tell the story (see the 16-page afterword, "Whatever Happened to Fletcher Hanks?") and that naturally led to the notion of putting together an anthology which naturally led to four years of years of my wife reconsidering her decision to wear my ring and my daughters shaking their heads sadly and murmuring things behind closed doors about their dear demented Papa. My 89 year-old mother still thinks I'm nuts.

When I began to collect these stories I was not certain that they would, indeed, make a book. The first few that I culled were nowhere near as good as the one we reprinted in RAW. But the gems started to trickle in and after I saw my third Fantomah story that made my jaw drop, a book seemed necessary.

Fortunately we are in a golden age ourselves of comics reprints. The planets have aligned and the buyers are lining up for collections of Peanuts, Popeye, Calvin and Hobbes, Gasoline Alley (a series that I cannot recommend highly enough), and Krazy Kat. Will they line up also for the stories of Stardust the Super Wizard? If it is ever going to happen it is going to happen in 2007.

SPURGEON: Why did you go with such a straightforward presentation of Hanks' work? There's no written material, as I think many might expect, just Hanks' comic and then your own.

KARASIK: I really like the work of the American painter George Bellows.

There are several books on Bellows containing lengthy essay by art historians gassing-off about why his work is so Essentially American.

This is the sound of me sleeping: "ZZZZZZZ".

I cannot find a single book on Bellows that simply has page after page of full color reproductions of his juicy wet brushwork. I like art books that allow the work to speak for itself. Hanks' work roars.

SPURGEON: How do you go about making an honest appraisal of the quality of the work from an artist like Hanks without simply turning it into an exercise in kitsch? Is he an Ed Wood, as some of the early takes on his work suggest, or does his work have value beyond its strangeness? What is the nature of that value?

KARASIK: This is exactly the sort of postulating that I pointedly avoided from cluttering up my book. However, in an interview like this I have no compunction about gassing-off.

The "Ed Wood of comics" line is one that gets a lot of play 'cause it's so cute and catchy. "I Am the Walrus" is also cute and catchy, but it, too, makes no damn sense. If calling Hanks the "Ed Wood of Comics" will get a trendy youth to pick the book up at the Outsider Art Museum Bookstore, fine with me.

O.K., granted, the two guys have things in common. Principally they are auteurs who were overlooked within their lifetimes.

However, Wood was really trying to make good films as best as he knew how. To do this he tried to follow the conventions of contemporary filmmaking but on a slender budget that resulted in aspects that we find endearing today.

Hanks was trying to make comic book stories--but at a time when the conventions of the medium were not standardized. He just did what he did and collected the paycheck.

Beauty is in the stomach of the beholder. Some find this work nauseating and revolting. Some find it tangy with a hint of peppery grape. Fine to them. Some, however, find it campy and cool because it is so "stupid." Nuts, I say, to them.

I respect the rights of other idiots to have their lame friggin' opinions, but really, they are barking up the wrong tree if they like this work for its campiness.

The storytelling is clear. The imagery is powerful. The drawing is dynamic and, honestly, quite beautiful. What is there not to like?

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SPURGEON: If Hanks work was unique and powerful, why didn't it stand out more at the time? Was there a lot of idiosyncratic work like his? Did people simply not pay attention? What do you think it is that we see now looking back that may his peers wouldn't have noticed about another crude comic? Or did he make an impression back then?

KARASIK: I asked Will Eisner for any impressions he might have had of Hanks. He (barely) remembered him as the guy who could not draw as well as Basil Wolverton but did all the work himself and got the work in on time. He did not recall that the stories had the power of a howitzer pointed at your temple. This may speak more about Eisner (ever the businessman) than Hanks, but I don't think that at the time the work made any heads turn.

Frankly, the boys were too busy just filling up comic books with any artwork that they could get their ink-stained mitts on. I guess that comic books have never really changed. It's still mostly crap.

The publishing world had changed overnight in 1938 with the publication of Action Comics #1. Suddenly dozens of comics books were born and a lot of lousy cartoonists found employment. The level of competence is extraordinarily low in those early comics. This is one of the reasons why Hanks got overlooked. It had been simply assumed that there could not be any shinola in all that shit. On a cursory glance, Hanks' work, with its standard hero/villain pulp plots, is camouflaged by all the lurid, garish four-color packing pellets it is surrounded by.

Hanks work was not featured or spotlighted. It was generally stuck somewhere in the middle of the comic book, easy to overlook. Many of the collectors from whom I got the stories from were unaware of Hanks. Because of the volume of superficially similar stuff filling old comics it took a guy with a sharp eye, like Jerry Moriarty, to notice this work.

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SPURGEON: I enjoyed your comic about Hanks' background; is there anything about the experience of meeting his son or other ways you've learned a bit bout Hanks that explains the lurid quality of his work, either visually or some of the more bizarre story points? From what experience would an alcoholic sometimes-painter being working out of in your opinion to come up with some of the more alarming things in his comics?

KARASIK: The people who read it as I was working on it, particularly my sister, Judy, and the cartoonist Mark Newgarden, both steered me away from any postulating in public, but to simply present the story as I heard it.

Hanks was the son of a Minister and, as you can see, there is plenty of hellfire and brimstone blazing through these stories. He was also various other things as well and his hard-edged life plays counterpoint to the fantastic worlds he created while at the same time reflecting the bitterness of the man, himself. I hope that one of the pleasures of this book will be for readers to wade through the 15 rings of Hanksian Hell and to be surprised -- and also not surprised -- in my Afterword by finding out something of the personal history of the guy who created the stories.

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SPURGEON: Is there anything in your personal reading of these comics that you think other people may not be as quick to pick up on, or find as important? Has your relationship to the comics changed over time?

KARASIK: In the three years that Hanks made comic book stories he completed close to 12 pages a month: writing, penciling, inking, and lettering. One extraordinary thing about Hanks' work is that, while the plots are almost all identical, and he uses many short-cut methods to meet the constant deadline, there is very little visual repetition in these tales. At the end of I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets the reader will not feel that he has been short-changed in the graphic blitzkrieg department.

A certain air of iciness coats these stories. In Hanks' world all objects are given equal attention. There is no loose sketchiness to his drawing: everything is in equal focus. This effect, combined with certain stiffness of character gesture, form a feeling of life in a vacuum. Even when objects are hurtling through space there is an icy detachment to the action.

This chilly atmosphere is reinforced by the characters themselves. A typical Hanks plot begins with either Stardust or Fantomah looking down, godlike, at the evil-doings of miscreants below. A detachment exists between the hero and the rest of humanity.

When justice is served it too is served coldly. And here is where the true creepiness lurks. In an airless world of no shadows there is no place to hide. Stardust does not change expression as he mangles thugs with his mighty mitts, turns them into rats or bugs, shrinks them, or makes them melt.

No, he performs these brutal acts of retribution without gritting his teeth, or, for that matter, even cracking a grim smile. Justice is not mean. Justice is not sardonic. Like everything else in the world of Fletcher Hanks: Justice just is.

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SPURGEON: I want to ask you about a couple of recent big projects from which you might now be removed to the extent of having a different perspective on them. Was there anything about the way The Ride Together was received and the intimacy of that project that made doing that book a unique experience?

KARASIK: Tom, thank you sincerely for the nice things you have said in print about, The Ride Together. It was a labor of love that otherwise got very little attention in the comics community.

Unfortunately I feel that the book never made it into the hands of the people it was really made for: siblings of those with disabilities. The Ride Together came a few years too early to get embraced by librarians as part of the graphic novel bait that now stock the shelves to lure innocent teenagers to the local library. Part of the problem for librarians and bookstores was the unique format of the book: they did not know where to put it.

The Ride Together is a memoir co-written with my sister, Judy, about growing up with our oldest brother who is developmentally disabled with autism and mental retardation. Chapters in prose, written by Judy, alternate with chapters in comics, by myself, as we take the reader chronologically through our childhood and up to the present.

It was a much more personal project for me than the Hanks book and one that was more difficult and painful to create. Not only was I working with a smart collaborator with a hair-trigger Bullshit-O-Meter, but we were both uncovering material that was often uncomfortable to discuss. I was not merely sending out e-mails to collectors trying to get copies of old decaying comic books.

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SPURGEON: Paul what was your specific involvement with the Masters of Comics exhibit? Did you think it traveled well to Milwaukee and New York? How do you feel about the general criticism that no female cartoonists were part of the exhibit, or Spiegelman declining to have his work shown in Newark?

KARASIK: I'll admit to have been part of the discussion determining the Masters. I would like to underscore the notion that the title of the show was Masters of American Comics, not THE Masters of American ComicsĀ. Other groups would have made other choices.

Picking our 15 cartoonists was not an easy task. We have been accused of devising an intricate point system whereby each candidate was given a score based on a variety of exacting factors including sales, specific gravity of ego, ink preference, income from merchandise licensing, personal grooming habits, and penis size. Sorry, not true.

I think that cartoonist, Jessica Abel, summed it up honestly: "There were women comics artists, but they were not as important (as [George] Herriman, [Winsor] McCay, Chester Gould and the other 12 who made the final cut). I love Dale Messick, but was she on that level? No."

My major contribution was the task of finding 15 great writers to write about the 15 great cartoonists. This was originally regarded as a potentially heinous task. Simply coming up with a list of potential top-notch writers who would know enough to write well about a particular cartoonist was hard enough. Then we anticipated rejections from these writers who are constantly being asked to write on demand.

But you know what? The first guy to sign on was Dave Eggers who wanted to write about his chum, Chris Ware. For some reason, after that the rest were easy.

Some of the essays are very casual, but a few really stand out. Stanley Crouch's take on [George] Herriman is one of the best things ever written about the guy. Glenn Gold's essay on [Jack] Kirby gets to the heart of things accurately by a guy who knows how to manhandle the English language but is a proud fanboy at heart. Pete Hamill jumped at the chance to chat about [Milton] Caniff whom he corresponded with and whose work he adored. It was fun to work with these people.

Art had compelling reasons to decline hanging his work in the East coast venues as he has detailed elsewhere. Frankly, given the limited space of the Jewish Museum, he did those other guys a big favor on one level by freeing up wall space.

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SPURGEON: What was the physical act of putting together the collection like? Did you use old comics? Whose?

KARASIK: In pursuing these old comics I came across some very interesting collectors.

Have you noticed that when people use the word "interesting" they often mean "weird"? Actually, most of these collectors were generous enough to allow me into their comic vaults without a strip search. Have you ever had a retinal scan? Not pleasant.

Two collectors were especially generous: Jon Berk and Mark Verheiden.

While I am singing the song of the unsung heroes I must say that Paul Baresh at Fantagraphics did a fantastic job cleaning up the pages and making them look like, well, like old comic book pages. This was important. With Photoshop it is much easier these days to take the imperfections out of reprinted comics, to clean them up too much, to saturate the color. I wanted them to look as if they had just rolled off the 1939 press and Paul nailed 'em right on the head.

Jacob Covey was a pleasure to work with in developing the design. I am very proud of the cover and overall design of the book which was a mutually satisfying collaboration. The road to publication was filled with potholes, but Kim Thompson stood by the project the whole way.

imageSPURGEON: You and I spoke recently about a few folks wondering if Fletcher Hanks was a prank. What do you think were responding to when that idea occurred to them?

KARASIK: What has surprised many collectors is that Hanks has been under their collective noses and few have caught a whiff. They reason, "If this guy is so damn good (or important, or weird) why haven't I heard of him?" Several of the guys I went to for scans of original Hanks stories could not believe that I was not interested in the mint Lou Fine covers that many of these early mags sport. I wanted this strange story in the middle.

I did not realized until this hoax business happened that I had been waiting all my life to be accused of perpetrating a hoax. What a compliment!

I think I might really try my hand at real hoax perpetration some day. Not immediately, mind you, but far, far into the future when everyone has forgotten all about this interview maybe I'll come up with some wild hoax involving the discovery of a Major Piece of Unknown Comics Americana.

SPURGEON: What's next?

KARASIK: I've discovered an unpublished story by Harvey Kurtzman.

Before he jumped the Good Ship E.C., Gaines suggested that Kurtzman come up with his own "New Direction" title. All that remains of his proposal, "True Beat Magazine" is a six page adaptation of a short story by Jack Kerouac. called, "My Friend, James Dean".

It's based on an anecdote that Dean told Kerouac about his brief but torrid affair with Marylyn Monroe. Drawn as a kind of audition piece, Kurtzman had each of one of the six pages inked by a different artist: Page 1: Will Elder, Page 2: Jack Cole, Page 3, Jack Chick, Page 5, Ernie Bushmiller, and Page 6, 10 year-old Art Spiegelman.

In all truthfulness and honesty I must say that it is a Major Piece of Unknown Comics Americana.

*****

I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets Fletcher Hanks and Paul Karasik, Edited by Paul Karasik, Fantagraphics, softcover, 1560978392, 120 pages, $19.95.

*****

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