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December 27, 2017

CR Holiday Interview Re-Run #3—Sammy Harkham In 2016 On The Return Of Kramers Ergot



Editor's Note 2017: I interviewed Sammy Harkham around this time just last year on the occasion of his then-latest curated anthology Kramers Ergot issue; he followed up with a 2017 that included a top ten-worthy issue of his personal one-man anthology Crickets. We get a new issue of Kramers in 2018, so he'll be discussed next year as well. The span of my career looking at comics has encompassed Harkham's career making comics in its entirety: I've been around as long as he has. I think he's one of the intriguing working cartoonists by which I mean someone on whom we can count for a constant parade of material. He's also a blunt, direct thinker as to comics' value and how to function in the industry presented to him. I wish him continued success.

As always, please forgive me any time the Internet has evolved past a specific link since the interview was first posted. -- Tom Spurgeon


imageI've known Sammy Harkham for what seems like a thousand years, since I first took notice of his set-up selling early issues of his anthology-for-the-ages Kramer's Ergot at a San Diego Con back when they still didn't use the full exhibition floor. That anthology shot to the front of the line with the thunderclap of its powder-blue Mat Brinkman-covered issue that looked like the bundles of comics 1970s FOOM readers used to store on their shelves. It's one of the few comics that certain readers aged 35-50 can remember encountering as an adult right down to the position of the table on the MoCCA Festival floor.

For the latest issue of the anthology, Harkham has partnered with alt-comics pioneer Fantagraphics. I thought this issue of Kramers was a strong one, but I hope Sammy will understand that I was interested in the reaction some had that the anthology had lost something from its glory issues. The effort when people stop projecting onto a creative project are usually the most creatively insightful, and I felt that way about this year's KE issue. Harkham is devoted to good comics, to mixing them together, to drawing delicate effect out of their presentation.

He's also a compelling cartoonist, and a significant advocate for creators within the art-comics realm. I love talking to him.

Please note that this year's CR Holiday Interview them is "publishing as many interviews as possible that I tried to do in the calendar year 2016 and screwed up getting them out there." I sent Harkham the initial bunch of questions here mid-summer. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Can you place me in terms of where you are with Vol. 9 right now -- are you still in that active sales period? Are you appearing places on its behalf?

SAMMY HARKHAM: I am six months late with responding to these questions. So you better hope I am done promoting it! [Spurgeon laughs]

I did a handful of events in the Spring-Summer, and most went well. I did whatever interviews people proposed, except one that was comically impossible to schedule. I don't think authors -- or editors in this case -- decide when they stop promoting a book; the world decides that for you.

There was less press attention on this Kramers, I think. I may be quantifiably wrong on that, but to quote many a Trump supporter: "It's how I feel."

To answer your question of where am I now with it, I am not embarrassed of it, I am proud of it and the time I spent on it. I have one copy on the shelf I need to send to a friend, and I am wondering what my contributor discount is so I can get some to send to some other deserving friends. Doing the issue wasn't a disaster on my time.

I think we discussed this in our last conversation, that my worry with doing Kramers is that it takes energy and time away from Crickets, and my strip, Blood Of The Virgin. And it did, but not as much as usual. So there is still personal growth to be had there-to release an issue, give it whatever attention it needs for promotion, and still not lose a minute that would have gone into Crickets.


SPURGEON: How long in general do you feel like you spend with an issue after it comes out -- both just making sure it gets out there, and the mental space it might still occupy? Were there issues harder to shake than others, that lingered on in the front of your mind?

HARKHAM: Most times that I get back a printed copy of something I have done, there are varying degrees of disappointment, followed by slowly getting over those disappointments, promising myself to learn from the mistakes, and then sliding a copy on the shelf and not looking at it closely for a few years. Once something is done, and I can measure in the final product the process I used versus the execution yielding the final result, I try to just lock in something of worth, of learning, and move on to the next thing. If I dwell on mistakes after knowing what I did wrong, its not beneficial to whatever comes next. A few years go by, I see an old issue and I look at it fresh and see fresh mistakes I made and learn even more from the book.

Concurrently with dealing with the final product, I fight the urge to badger the publisher about everything I would genuinely like to know where every single copy has been sold. That would make me very happy. 

I will do any and all events that make sense. That usually is a period of three months (maybe a month before it comes out, and two months after).

I like Kramers 9 a lot. There are a lot of great comics in there. I am so grateful for the cartoonists who gave me work to put in it. I like the final product a lot. It is very close to the book I imagined from the start.

imageSPURGEON: How do you see the role that Kramers plays for the artists that contribute? I remember when Eric Reynolds was doing MOME, and he said one of this goals was to keep the artists he was publishing working on at least one top-of-their-game comic for print publication. How do you view Kramers for the artists? A showcase? A way to remind people they're out there? A graduation to a bigger, more prestigious audience?

HARKHAM: No no no, that last idea is especially delusional. I don't think that. "Bigger" in this instance is questionable. There is nothing quantifiable there. Same with "prestigious." I suppose "remind people they're out there" and "showcase" kind of work in the sense that those are goals or byproducts of everything that's made to some degree, and sometimes yes I get excited about publishing someone like Kim Deitch who is making the best work of his life right now and placing him next to Abraham Diaz a young cartoonist from Mexico City who few have seen before. Or starting the book with a Steve Weissman story that goes beyond what people may know of his work.

It's always exciting if you can mess with expectations or surprise the reader. But those are not guiding principals or a shot in the arm to the contributors. I'm lucky they trust me, or I'm lucky the industry is so small there are so few options to work with people outside whatever immediate project they have in front of them that contributing to an anthology they like for little money is their idea of a good time. [Spurgeon laughs]

As a cartoonist myself, I know I want to be involved with good people on good projects if it's not Crickets. and most cartoonists are like that. Even if they are busy, they want to do something for a series they like because the end result-a good, nice-looking book they can be proud of. If they get new readers from that or remind readers they are still kicking the can, great. That's a nice byproduct.

SPURGEON: Do you feel like Kramers and the ability to run short stories acts as a corrective at all for cartoonists who aren't particularly suited to the age of the lengthy graphic novel?

HARKHAM: I used to, and then I realized I am an idiot. [Spurgeon laughs]

The age of the serious graphic novel is maybe a myth in many ways -- and always has been, if we look at it from the creative perspective. From Gary Groth's perspective, the last 16 years have been a whole new world of shifting appreciation for comics outside of comic book stores, but the work itself is pretty much as we know it, despite being packaged and sold as graphic novels.

I'm looking over my piles of 2016. Amongst the graphic novels like Clowes' Patience, DeForge's Big Kids and Shaw's Cosplayers, I see many more strip collections and short story collections like Katchor's Cheap Novelties, Chippendale's Puke Force, Davidson's Band for Life, Brown's Mary Wept…, Nick Drnaso's Beverly, Hensley's Sir Alfred, the NYRBC Abner Dean book, Hanawalt's Hot Dog Taste Test. So I think if you are doing comics, regardless of length, once you hit enough pages a publisher can stick a spine to it, it will be called a graphic novel and sold in stores.

But: to clarify, graphic novels are not a myth outside of alternative comics -- the young adult stuff, the comics that come out from the giant prose publishing houses -- the comics memoirs, the comics biography of a famous person, etc. Those are all novels with one-sentence pitches attached to them and they almost all read like the cynical hastily assembled cash grabs that they are. No one I would want in Kramers is in that world. They are sentimental, shallow hacks. I have children so I read all this shit they get from the library. So much so that when a good book comes out of that scene, like Cece Bell's El Deafo, it feels like a weird, precious miracle.

To answer what I think you are really trying to get at, what Kramers hopefully does is give cartoonists a context where cartooning, the inked line as a language, has value. That to me is the core of comics and what I love about the medium. It's not drawing as a means to something else. The goal with Kramers is to unify all these different artists, aesthetics, sensibilities, who all treat drawing as a personal language. And thats probably what I look for the most as an editor and a reader.

SPURGEON: Can you talk to me about John Pham, who did both the cover and the second-straight memorable comic of his in this issue? Pham always struck me as a major league talent who was never able to find a vehicle that might deliver the audience he deserves. I can't imagine wanting to change him in any way. Why this cover? Do you have insight as to John's career you can share?

HARKHAM: I think John has done things exactly as he wanted to do them, as confusing as that may look from the outside. He is very patient, detail orientated. So while he could have built a larger audience by sticking to a series or set of characters and putting himself on a set schedule, he was always focused more on where his own process and interests took him -- he never has been overtly focused on the career aspects of being an artist. I think maybe possibly getting a day job and a Risograph printer have been especially good influences on his life.

I asked John to do the cover because I wanted a cover that was really cartoony, took advantage of spot color offset printing, and had a visual connection to the roots of comics without being ironic. It was important to make the book feel sophisticated in all the right ways without losing a certain classic cartooning irreverence, if that makes sense. Especially nice is that John is a good friend who was open to some heavy art directing. So he showed me sketches, and I picked from those, and then we tweaked and tweaked the details till it felt perfect.

With his strip, he sent me the pencils and I gave him edits and he implemented them as need be -- concrete things having to do with readability and murkier things like treading that fine line of earnestness that his J&K strips have without it feeling maudlin or overtly cute. We work well together, I think. I didn't drive him too nuts.

That's not something I solely did with John. Most of the comics in the issue were edited to varying degrees, either dialogue adjustments, suggesting redrawing of panels, or in some cases, dropping and adding pages to different stories.

imageSPURGEON: The artist that caught my attention after John was Al Columbia, who has this enormous kind of larger than life reputation but I know was really important to you at a certain time in your artistic development. What do you feel about his work right now that made you want to include it? We've seen some Columbia pages between you and Gabe Fowler this year; do you think we'll ever see sustained creative output from him?

HARKHAM: Al Columbia was one of most important cartoonists to me when I was a teenager and his work sustained me for years. Each new story was read and reread and cherished. I would even buy and study comics that he colored for other people, like Catherine Doherty's Can of Worms. I love his work very much.

Above all the things he does masterfully, I think what I come back to again and again with his work, is how deeply felt it is. He called me on the phone, and I thought I was being pranked since my friends know how large he looms in my brain. We have become friends and share with each other work we are doing. Everything he is doing is great. As I was putting together the issue, I asked if I could include a couple things that I thought would fit well in the issue, and he said yes.

As to your last question, I think Al is more interested in making work than sustaining output, but he is also someone you can't pin down or ever be surprised by, so you never know.

SPURGEON: This issue breaks with previous ones in that it was assembled in more of an open submission style as opposed to your finding comics that it a theme an approach. Are there comics in here you might not have run in a past Kramers? Where do you see the direct effect of this new policy? What are one or two of the connections you found developed on their own accord?

HARKHAM: Well, any cartoonist who I had only a small understanding of, I felt like I could ask to submit instead of taking a "wait and see" approach with. Off the top of my head I am thinking of Adam Buttrick, Abraham Diaz, Antony Hutchette. I had read only one work from each of these people before asking them to send stuff in. In the past, since I tried to avoid rejecting stuff, I would have kept them on my radar awhile longer before getting in touch.

I started noticing certain thematic threads developing naturally in the issue. death, war, destruction, survival. overtly this is in [Dash] Shaw's Civil War comic, Diaz's World War I strip, Pham's J&K Vietnam veterans strip, and some others, and less overtly in Moriarty's series of cat paintings, Weissman's horse comic, [Gabrielle] Bell's autobio strip, and others.

SPURGEON: There are really only two pieces that are series of images in a way that some people might not see them as comics, but that when arranged in a certain way function as comics: the Amandine Meyer and the Jerry Moriarty contributions. Can you talk about what attracted you about those two pieces as they ran? Did you work with Moriarty in assembling his, or was that his direction?

HARKHAM: Meyer's series of watercolors were edited from a large series she had done and I just focused on on what would work best in the anthology context. Moriarty's series was one he had done years ago and I jumped at when I realized it had never been put in print before. he had created the order already, so we just discussed the introductory text and title page and how to best lay the series out.

SPURGEON: Most of the comics presented are very narrative heavy; much of their effect relies on the outcome of a plot and how we're made to feel about that progression of events. I'm interested if you have any insight why most of the comics were set up that way -- as opposed to more "tone poem" type pieces, or bewildering drawing -- and if that says anything about where comics is right now.

HARKHAM: It probably says more about where I am. I love comics that can imbed their poetic and tonal elements within a narrative framework so it feels inevitable within the story. I often reject stuff that doesn't feel grounded enough or have enough tension in its telling.

SPURGEON: Even with so many narrative comics of different kinds, a few stand out as wholly tradition: the ones that spring to mind are that fine excerpt you ran from Gabrielle Bell and the Manuele Fior. Do you see those works playing a different function within the overall anthology than something more raggedly told or something that's more a pin-up than an actual, propulsively read, comic?

HARKHAM: Everything hopefully contributes to the book's whole. Each contribution a building block to the overall "thing," each serving a particular function. So ideally if for nothing else than for rhythm, you want dense straightforward material to be elbow to elbow with stuff work that is the opposite. what makes it hopefully work is they all share an almost unconscious understanding of how an artist's line is the content.

SPURGEON: Can I ask you how you ended up with a lengthy comic by T. Alixopulos? I'm very fond of his cartooning but don't see it much, and thought that was a highlight of the issue.

HARKHAM: I have always been a fan of his, and Kevin Huizenga pointed the strip out to me, which was on Alixopulos' website, and I loved it so I sought it out to include in the book.

SPURGEON: [laughs] Is there any reason you avoided editing the issue in a way an older comic or comic might have made an appearance? That's certainly something RAW did when they operated in this mode, which is a model for you, and it's certainly you did last time out with the Wicked Wanda comic. Was that a conscious choice? Is publishing people like Moriarty and Kim Deitch how you get at the connection between old and new?

HARKHAM: On the "wish list" when putting together any given issue are lots of reprints. The industry being what it is, I have no problem running a strip that was published elsewhere in the "distant" past. Gerald Jablonski, Julie Doucet, Ed Leffingwell, Crumb, Alan Saint-Ogan, [Shary] Flenniken spring to mind, but there are many others.

I justify it by thinking a new printing of something already published can be pleasurably revisited in a new format for people who have read it -- different size, new translation, better production, and for other readers, most readers possibly, it's brand new to them.

Of course, I also get a little bit nervous that Kramers might slowly be becoming our generation's Hogan's Alley. This issue accidentally was all "new" material. And yes, one nice element when running a great strip from Moriarty or Deitch is creating a connection between a wide span of cartoonists.


SPURGEON: You did a tour with Kevin Huizenga... what was that like? Kevin may be the major alt-comics cartoonist about which we know the least. What does going on tour do for you in terms of understanding the audience that's reading or selling your work? Do you remember any insight picked up this time?

HARKHAM: I agree with you about Huizenga. if we don't know much about him, the blame can't be put on him, as he has a very open and inviting online presence, with multiple blogs and a website. I think the soon-to-be-collected Ganges series is the masterpiece of the last ten years. When it's collected and released as a stand alone book, it can and should be on everyone's reading list of truly great comics.

Half of the tour included Pham as well, and it was great. they are both so smart that when its all over I am left with a lot to think about. By and large, cartoonists are fascinating people, with unique perspectives, so I like spending time with other cartoonists. It's inspiring for sure. 

As for learning about the audience and the retailers, it is all fascinating to me. Comic book retailers who excel at selling art comics are a distinct breed; these are people I am convinced would be hugely successful in any other field if they applied the same creativity and passion to something potentially lucrative. Bill Boichel, Peter Birkemoe, Gabe Fowler are like outliers in that they have bent the world to make selling comics a viable career choice. I love spending time with retailers.

Readers are trickier. I realized on this tour that I don't really enjoy meeting readers because I feel like my mere existence gets in the way of their evolving relationship to the work. it adds an unnecessary concrete dimension to something that is otherwise wholly of their own creation and keeps the focus on the work. I want my comics to be enough for someone to invest in, to fill in the gaps around the work themselves. This is a larger problem with social media and why I try to limit my tweets and Instagram posts to work stuff these days.


SPURGEON: If as you said that you're doing this more as a RAW-style publication, you must be seeing new submissions, right? Are we still on track for a next issue? How do you begin that process?

HARKHAM: Yep. I've been asking people all year and I still need to email others. I am always forgetting people, and it's an endless thing. I will keep receiving submissions, building the issue, and contacting cartoonists to submit either for this issue or the one after that. The issue will be completed and sent to the printer when the working document feels well rounded and solid. Hopefully that's sooner than later. In many ways, it's not up to me.

SPURGEON: You spoke in 2015 about not know what your then newly-announced publisher Fantagraphics would be without the late Kim Thompson. Do you have some insight into that now you'd be able to share?

HARKHAM: They are pretty great. They pay on time, they answer all my emails and calls, contributors seem to be attended to as need be. They will go as far down into whatever hole I feel is necessary at any given moment and they give me creative space. I hope they are happy with me. It would have been nice to have Kim around when doing the book, as I like to think it would have given us an excuse to talk about Franquin and Tillieux.


* Kramers Ergot 9, Edited By Sammy Harkham, Fantagraphics, softcover, April 2016, $45.


* the cover to KE9, by John Pham
* seven- or eight-year-old photo of Harkham by Whit Spurgeon (we'll get new ones soon, sorry)
* Lale Westvind
* Stevie Weissman
* Al Columbia
* Michael Deforge page
* more John Pham (below)



posted 3:25 pm PST | Permalink

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