Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

January 4, 2015

CR Holiday Interview Series #2—Paul Constant



A significant number of the people that make comics can live anywhere they want. And so they do. There are comics-makers in dozens of North American cities and clusters of them in some of the best arts communities in the United States. One of the most important destination points for alt-comics people was Seattle. In the 1990s there were enough holdovers and people newly arrived to generate feature articles. There was a fracture and a decline and a diaspora. And now there's a comeback.

Paul Constant is the Books Editor at The Stranger. That Seattle alt-weekly has comics in its DNA going back to its founding, and is both a chronicler and participant in the medium's history there. Constant writes very well about comics. He write very well generally. I wanted to get him in the series to talk about Seattle things. This includes developments at Fantagraphics as well as with people that weren't born when that company relocated from Los Angeles. He said yes, or I wouldn't have had to write this introduction. -- Tom Spurgeon


imageTOM SPURGEON: Knowing very little about you, I want to ask the standard question as it pertains to comics: do you have a history with them? What has your comics reading been like and what works over the years have been important to you, for whatever reason?

PAUL CONSTANT: I do have a long history with comics. I taught myself how to read at a very early age using my brother's Superman comics and paperback Charlie Brown collections. I then became a voracious reader of both comics and prose. I read strictly mainstream superhero comics up until my early teens, when I started reading The Comics Journal and Amazing Heroes, which turned me on to Fantagraphics and Dark Horse and all the rest. Unlike a lot of teenagers, I never had a point where I gave up on comics. In my adult life, I've always read both mainstream and alternative comics, from Kevin Huizenga to Brian Michael Bendis. (That's pretty similar to my prose reading, too. I read bestsellers and small-batch poetry titles, and everything in between.) I still buy monthly issues from my local comic shop, and I review comics for The Stranger, the alternative weekly where I work.

I wrote comics with high school friends for about ten years, but our group gradually fell apart. We made mini-comics, had a comic published in the Chicago Reader, and performed with a Seattle-area comics slide show troupe called Slide Rule. I still occasionally have an itch to write comics, but without an artist, it feels like a pointless endeavor.

When I moved to Seattle, I got a job at the Elliott Bay Book Company, the biggest independent bookstore in town, and in 2000, I had the idea to start a graphic novel section in the store. Before then, all the comics had been stashed in this ratty-looking bin to the side of the science fiction section. Coincidentally, the next year was the big comics-are-serious-literature boom when every alternative comics publisher broke into the bookstore trade, and so I wound up looking pretty smart when Elliott Bay's comics section more than earned its keep within six months of its creation.

imageAs for comics that have been important to me: all the usual ones. Understanding Comics was a big deal. Chris Ware's comics. Steve Gerber and Gene Colan's Howard the Duck. The Scott Pilgrim series. Those gigantic Locas and Palomar collections Fantagraphics put out years ago. I've always considered both Roberta Gregory and Mary Fleener to be criminally underrated. Fleener, I think, made some of the most visually inventive comics of the 20th century, and Gregory's Naughty Bits was a revelation as far as the level of intimacy and interiority a comic can achieve. As for contemporary serial comics, I'm reading and loving Saga, Sex Criminals, Ms. Marvel, and Multiversity. It was super-exciting to see Stray Bullets and Minimum Wage back on the stands in 2014; those were important books for me as a young man. And I was really glad to see Julia Wertz's Fart Party strip get a new collection, Museum of Mistakes, this year.

SPURGEON: You ended up in Seattle right about when I left. How did you make that move? How was it different back then, when you first showed up? What was the cleanest break with Maine?

CONSTANT: Maine is a great state to be from, but I always knew I would leave as soon as I could. For one thing, I hate driving. For another thing, I love cities. I actually moved from Maine to Boston first, because Boston is the easiest city to move to when you're from Maine and you want to get out as quickly as possible. I was working at Borders in Downtown Crossing and being a typical asshole in his early 20s. (The Million Year Picnic in Cambridge, by the way, is still the best comic shop I've ever been in.) I took a vacation to the Northwest for a week to visit a friend of mine who was going to school at Evergreen State College in Olympia, and she took me up to Seattle for a visit. It was really love at first sight. I went back to Boston, announced I was moving to Seattle, and then, six months later, I was living in Seattle, working at the most beautiful independent bookstore I had ever seen. That was in May of 2000.

Seattle has changed a tremendous amount in the 14 years since my move. We're now the fastest-growing city in America. The money is a lot bigger and the city is becoming more professional-minded. Obviously, Amazon's growth is having a tremendous impact on downtown. The rents are rising at an astronomical pace. It's getting much denser, and we finally have the very beginning of what may one day become a serviceable public transportation system. Talk to anyone in Seattle now and you'll get an earful of complaints about Seattle losing its soul. And the point when Seattle started losing its soul is always about a year after the person you're talking to moved to town.

But the qualities that made me fall in love with Seattle are still very much alive. We're still the most literate city in the United States. We're still the movie-watchingest city in the United States. We've still got these glorious, long gloomy winters that force you to stay indoors and develop a rich interior life. Nature is everywhere; I had no idea there were so many different shades of green in the universe until I moved here. And it's possible to have an effect on local politics in Seattle, which was not my impression of the east coast. There's very little corruption, which means that big projects take a long while to get off the ground, but there's also no enormous juggernaut of a political machine, so you can get involved and gain access to the people you want or need access to. In Maine and in Boston, I hated the sense that all the history worth experiencing had already happened. In Seattle, it very much feels like there's still time to make your mark on the history of the city, to help Seattle chart its course. I like that.

SPURGEON: How did you fall into the Stranger's orbit? Was a relationship with a publication like that one always part of the plan?

CONSTANT: As I said, I've always loved writing comics, but, weirdly, comics are the only kind of fiction that I like to write. I've never felt like I have a literary novel or a collection of short fiction deep inside me waiting to come out. My prose has always been non-fiction, either reviews or first-person essays or political writing. But I never knew what I could do with that kind of writing, so I just wrote it and published 'zines or essays in the back of my minicomics and did a few open mic nights and figured that was that.

imageBut then I saw that the book section at The Stranger was looking for an unpaid intern, and I thought that sounded interesting, and so I applied. I write very quickly and I generally write fairly clean copy that doesn't need a lot of edits, so I wound up writing a lot of reviews for the paper. They liked my writing, so they threw me an odd job now and then, which culminated in a column called "Party Crasher," where I'd visit a house party a week and then report on it for the paper. Eventually, the books editor, Christopher Frizzelle, became editor of the paper, and when he moved up, he hired me as books editor. That was 2008.

I love being books editor at The Stranger because I get to be a part of the literary conversation in the most literary city in the United States right now. It also means I get six to 24 books in the mail every day, which is amazing. And The Stranger has also allowed me to write about whatever I want and to follow my interests wherever they may lead, which is not something most newspapers will let you do. I now review a lot of movies for the paper, I review plays, I have a weekly column where I go somewhere and eat lunch and write about it. I still consider myself the books editor first and foremost, but I love that I get to look at the world through all these different lenses, and not just as the books guy.

And in 2012, they told me to write about the presidential election, which is something I've always wanted to do. It was an incredible experience; I went to Iowa for the caucuses, I went to all sorts of rallies, I attended the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. I've been obsessed with presidential politics my whole life, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 is one of my touchstones, so this was huge for me. Not many news organizations would be willing to put a college dropout on Mitt Romney's trail as their sole presidential reporter, so I know exactly how lucky I am. And I am perversely looking forward to 2015, when the whole ghoulish pageant starts all over again.

imageSPURGEON: [laughs] Can you describe in broad terms the culture of that publication now? I know that when I was in town, most writers went through an intense period of publishing through them and then were kind of left out in the cold. Is there more continuity now? Is yours a rare, long-time relationship?

CONSTANT: The Stranger is really different now than it was when I moved to town. I started full-time right before the economic collapse of 2008 happened, and for a few years after that, there was virtually no staff turnover. Jen Graves has been our visual art critic for a year or so longer than me; Brendan Kiley has been our theater critic for about the same amount of time. Our publisher, Tim Keck -- a co-founder of The Onion -- is a really smart man who saw all this trouble coming for newspapers and figured out ways to correct our course accordingly. He knew classifieds would go away, for example, so he made adjustments to the model so that classifieds weren't integral to The Stranger's survival.

We were the only paper in town that didn't have layoffs during the Great Recession, which is a remarkable feat. And I think the staff realized that The Stranger was in a great place in relation to the rest of the media landscape, and so we all stood our ground. So a paper that was fairly well known for a quick turnover rate completely changed course. (Also, a lot of staffers who left The Stranger over the years in the 90s and early oughts did so to move to New York City and become a novelist/hit the media big time/become nationally recognized. The internet makes moving to New York not so much of a necessity anymore, and Seattle has much more national prominence than it used to, so the culture has changed in that way, too.)

Now that the economy is starting to improve and people are again spending money on dumb dot com startups and pet media projects -- thanks, Obama -- there's been a little more turnover at The Stranger, especially in our news department. I can't speak for my fellow critics, but I plan to stay for as long as they'll have me, because I know that I'm in a rare position where I get to write about whatever I want, and I get to ignore all the stupid stuff I don't want to write about. (If this was Twitter, I would include a "#blessed" here.)


SPURGEON: How would you describe the Stranger's interest in comics-related subjects? Are there particular challenges to writing about comics for their audience?

The Stranger used to publish a lot more comics than we do now. James Sturm was heavily involved with the paper back in the early days. We published early Chris Ware cartoons, Jason Lutes first ran his beautiful comic Jar of Fools as a serial in the back of the paper. Now, thanks in large part to editorial designer Mike Force, we're running interesting comics again. And we're experimenting with longer-form non-fiction comics, including Callan Berry's fun semi-regular online feature "Police Reports Illustrated," which is exactly what it sounds like.

I think our audience, like most literary-minded audiences these days, is very interested in comics. The modern reader doesn't draw a distinction between great comics and great literature. A good book is a good book. When I go to parties and poke around the bookshelves of strangers, I notice that they don't make the distinction between comics and "real" books anymore. They're all on the same shelves. So I'm not worried about confusing readers by writing about a story told in pictures or anything like that. Stranger readers are savvy; I don't need to write down to them. If anything, I need to write up.

Speaking strictly as a reviewer, I do always feel that writing about comics is a challenge. One of my favorite parts of literary criticism is that you're critiquing a medium using the same medium. Nobody dances a critique about a dance performance, but with a book review, you're producing a piece of writing in response to a piece of writing. I find that aspect of book criticism to be fascinating. But I simply cannot draw, and so writing reviews of comics feels like I'm walking into a boxing match with my dominant hand tied behind my back, or that I'm trying to describe a rainbow to someone who's been blind her whole life. As a writer, my first impulse is to talk only about the writing of a comic; when I write about the art, I have to first overcome this feeling that I'm a huge fraud. So it's a balance, and I have to relearn that balance every time I write about comics. I do have to say that I'm painfully aware that my writing about comics isn't as good as my writing about prose. My goal almost every time is to come up with a beautiful piece of writing, and I think my reviews of comics are never as beautiful as my reviews of other books. My comics reviews feel frankensteined together, like dodos. That doesn't stop me from trying, but it's vexation that drives me to try to do better next time.

imageSPURGEON: One of the reasons I wanted to interview you was to get your impressions on the resurgent Seattle scene, which I want to break down into component parts. It seems to me that there are a bunch of new, young cartoonists there, more than at any time since 1992-1993. What is appealing about Seattle to a young creative, if not directly a young cartoonist? Because it seems like what was appealing in the early '90s (the novelty of the music scene, the relative cheap standard of living) probably don't apply now. Is there a resurgence in the arts more generally?

CONSTANT: Allow me to answer this question by talking even more about myself. Part of the reason why I moved here in 2000 was because I thought there was a thriving comics scene. Unfortunately, that scene had disappeared a year or two before my arrival. A few of the very best artists had stayed -- Ellen Forney, David Lasky, Greg Stump -- but Jason Lutes was gone, James Sturm was gone, Tom Hart was gone, Lynda Barry was gone. No disrespect to the people who stuck it out, but to my disappointment at the time, Seattle felt like a cartooning wasteland.

But now the scene is back, and honestly I'm not sure what the reason is, or even if there can be a single reason for it. (Probably legalizing marijuana helped.) You're right that low rents are certainly not a factor; if artists wanted affordability, they'd head to Portland, which keeps getting cheaper and cheaper in comparison to Seattle.

I think one answer has to do with community. People like to talk about the notorious "Seattle freeze," which supposedly locks out newcomers for a year or two, but I think Seattle's literary scene is more inclusive than it's ever been. Over the last few years, we've seen quite a few young artists moving to town, planting a flag, and announcing that they're making their own community. In a city like Seattle, which has relatively little east-coast cynicism, that kind of intentionality is practically a superpower. Seattleites can be so passive and timid that when somebody announces they're going to do something and then they actually go ahead and do the thing they announced, people are just awestruck. They go along with it. They join up.

imageThis has happened a few times recently in Seattle, with Dune Night, a monthly meetup/comics anthology jam session; with Intruder, a stunning monthly free comics newspaper; and with Short Run, a yearly comics and small press show. These are places for cartoonists to get together and share ideas and check out what everyone's been doing lately. They're public arenas for conversations, which is really the most important part of creating a scene -- making multiple spaces where people feel welcome and safe to express themselves.

And just like those bookshelves I was talking about before, I think the comics scene is now welcomed, especially by younger people, as an important part of the literary scene. And the literary scene here in Seattle is growing at a remarkable rate, for a lot of reasons. Partly, it's all the great nonprofits and writing resources we have in the area -- the Richard Hugo House, the Hedgebrook writing colony, Clarion West, Writers in the Schools, Copper Canyon Press -- and partly because people are realizing they don't have to live in Brooklyn to be a writer anymore.

And some of it also has to do, I'm sure, with Amazon. They shifted the power dynamic of the book world away from New York, and even though a lot of these young artists would rather die than order a book from Amazon, they're still enjoying Amazon's table-scraps--the authors who come to town to woo Amazon's buyers over lunch and throw a reading at a local independent bookstore while they're here, the former Amazon staffers who open bookstores and creative spaces, that sort of thing. A whole ecosystem for authors and readers has sprung up, and now everybody is profiting from it.

SPURGEON: Was Gary Groth winning the Stranger Genius award significant for how that company is regarded as a Seattle institution? Is the company seen that way?

CONSTANT: As much as I wish I could take credit for it, I don't think the Genius Award has all that much to do with Seattle's burgeoning respect for Fantagraphics. Frankly, I think giving the Genius Award for Literature to Jim Woodring in 2010 made more of an impact in the city's consciousness and outraged some of the stuffy old guard. I mean, Woodring won the literature award in part because of his entirely wordless books! Some people were really mad about that; Woodring read an irate artist's Facebook post about his winning the award as part of his Genius Award acceptance speech, which was a wonderful way to deal with it. And then Ellen Forney won the Literature Award in 2011, and so by the time Groth won this year, there was kind of a collective sense of, "well, obviously he should win it. How did he not win it before?" So now we've given out 12 Genius Awards for literature, and three of those awards (four if you count Sherman Alexie, who collaborated with Forney on an illustrated young adult novel) were given to people in the comics business, which, to me, does seem like a pretty important symbol of acceptance when taken in aggregate.

SPURGEON: Fantagraphics has a lot of Seattle qualities, really. It's laid-back, low-key, iconoclastic and quite possibly the best at what it does in the world. Why has it taken time for Seattle to kind of rally behind the publisher as a part of its significant contiributions to the arts?

CONSTANT: I think we can tie Fantagraphics' acceptance as a Seattle institution back to those days early in the 21st century when comics suddenly became part of the mainstream bookselling landscape. You could find Fantagraphics in Barnes & Noble and at your local independent bookseller. That, to me, is when Seattle turned around and started to take these guys seriously. There were a few stories about them in the Seattle Weekly and the Seattle Times in the early 2000s, and then people started to realize: Wait, these guys are the biggest publishers in the city? Wait a minute, they're the best publisher of comics in America? And they're in Seattle? How did that happen?

Well, they've kind of been doing it this whole time and you just didn't care about comics, pal. But, you know, welcome to the party!


SPURGEON: Are shows like Emerald City Comic-Con and Short Run important to firming up a place for comics in the wider cultural scene there? What about those shows, if anything, makes them Seattle shows?

CONSTANT: Absolutely they're important, though I think they're important for almost entirely different reasons. I think Short Run is where Seattle's cartooning community gets together to celebrate itself and the year it's had. And I think Emerald City Comic-Con is where we get together to show off our city's accomplishments to the outside world.

I think both conventions have a very Seattle vibe, a kind of laid-back "let's put on a show" sensibility. It takes a lot to force Seattleites to leave the house, but once they manage to put on pants and make their way outside, they love to just shoot the shit. As a city, we're pretty good at hanging out. Local comics folk get so excited for Short Run, and their enthusiasm is contagious. It's like if Christmas and St. Patrick's Day got together and made a punky love child.

And I'm always so proud to see comics professionals come from around the world to Seattle for ECCC and gush about what a good time they have here. It's a large-scale convention, but it doesn't have that frenzied media-spectacle sense that many of the other shows on the convention calendar have. It's a place for fans to be fans, and it's a place for the pros to be fans, too. I'm serious; in the days during and after ECCC, you can see the pros on Twitter get positively giddy about their experiences here, on a personal level. As far as I'm concerned, that's exactly where you want to be, in terms of conventions. It doesn't matter if you have the splashiest panels or the hottest celebrities; if both the pros and fans both leave happy, that's some kind of miracle.

imageSPURGEON: I enjoyed your piece on Jim Woodring's JIM reprint that ran earlier this year, and was also struck by the avalanche of writing in that work. He's kind of like this perpetually forgotten great cartoonist, and I wondered what it was that strikes you about his work that makes him both mighty and sometimes neglected.

CONSTANT: Thank you. I think Woodring's working with some pretty intense subject matter, and it's not going to work for everyone. I remember when I was a four year-old digging through my brother's comics, looking for an Action Comics to read, I found his copy of Uncanny X-Men #132. I read it as best I could, and then I came up on that last page of Wolverine staring right at the reader. It's drawn by John Byrne, so it's more realistic than the Curt Swan work I preferred at this point. Wolverine's in the sewer, he's covered in shit, he's got claws coming out of his hands, and he's about to go fuck some motherfuckers up. I was terrified. [Spurgeon laughs] I just put the book back and quietly freaked out. I realized that I was way too young for that kind of material, and it made the entire back of my skull light up with warning signs. I still get that feeling sometimes when I read Jim Woodring's work: "THIS THING YOU'RE LOOKING AT IS HIGHLY INAPPROPRIATE!"

He's an artist who entirely works from his subconscious. So all the politesse that a work of fiction usually entails, the layers of familiarity that authors lay down to make the work smoother for the readers, isn't there at all. It's primal, nightmarish stuff.

But that's making it sound inaccessible, and Woodring's work isn't inaccessible at all. That's the genius of it. A Frank story is just as easy to visually digest as, say, a Mickey Mouse cartoon, or Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy. Woodring is absolutely a master of cartooning, and if he were to work with family-friendly themes, he'd be the Carl Barks of our time. But he uses that cartooning skill to relay a message that's much darker, much more intense, than we're used to. I think his work will be studied for a long time, and I think it will reward generations to come. But it's certainly not mass-market material.

SPURGEON: You wrote a "What does Fantagraphics do now?" article right when the first of the crowd-funded book began to come out -- we're more than a half year into that period; how are they doing?

CONSTANT: I think they're doing well. As I understand it, the Kickstarter was a direct response to a crisis caused by the death of Kim Thompson. Thompson was a workhorse, and he was handling so many projects for Fantagraphics that his death left their entire catalog in disarray. They needed a quick infusion of cash to hire the labor to do the work he left unfinished. I was on a panel with Fantagraphics at ECCC, and I asked if, since the Kickstarter was so successful, it would become a regular part of the Fantagraphics business model. Groth seemed almost mortified by that idea. They needed the money to get themselves out of an unforeseeable crisis. But they've been pretty stable for a good long while; hopefully that sweet, sweet Peanuts money will keep them going for years to come.

SPURGEON: I liked that you asked Art Spiegelman about the slippery nature of nostalgia, something that rarely gets brought up with underground/early-alt cartoonists like him because of how their work broke with elements of the past at the same time it celebrated others. Do you see comics as sometimes too backwards-looking? Are comics current enough?

CONSTANT: I can't stand nostalgia; I have no patience for it. I think nostalgia causes brain death. But I don't know if comics are especially nostalgic anymore. I wish they were more artistically forward-thinking and experimental. I hate that webcomics just basically became static comics delivered through the internet, for example, when they have the potential to do virtually anything. But I think comics on the whole have become more socially forward-thinking at the same time that, say, Hollywood has become conservative and backwards-looking, with an endless string of reboots and sequels and expanded cinematic universes. (The latter of which was inspired by comics, of course, so I guess it's an ouroboros of nostalgia.)

imageIt's a tricky question, because, for instance, Marvel and DC always seem to be chasing some version of their own past, and mainstream fandom often seems to only be interested in the same old intellectual-property management they've always gotten. But also Marvel put out a tremendously successful book with a Muslim Pakistani-American teenage girl superhero, and I don't think you can overestimate the importance of that kind of representation. And you certainly wouldn't see CBS launching a TV series with a main character like Kamala Khan. So it's not an either/or proposition. Comics are stuck in the past and slowly moving toward the future at the same time. I've appreciated how mainstream comic superstar writers like Brian Michael Bendis and Grant Morrison and Matt Fraction and Brian K. Vaughan have advocated for feminism and multiculturalism in their books. In a lot of ways, comics have been better about representation than other art forms. We have a long way to go, obviously, but I feel good about the direction comics are going in now. I wouldn't have been able to say that ten years ago. So that's progress, right?

SPURGEON: I haven't the full book-volume version of Here, but I'm a great fan of the short story. Your review is the only negative take I've seen. You talk about dissipated energy -- it seems like you have an interest in prose essayists and short story writers in a similar way. Is there something to comics losing some of their potency due to the rigidty of the graphic novel format?

CONSTANT: That wasn't an easy review to write. Like you, I loved the short story. It blew up every single idea I had about what comics could do. And technically, the book-length Here is an impressive achievement, but I think the short story will be the version that stands the test of time.

I think we've still got some growing pains to live through when it comes to book-length comics. A book-length comic is still a relatively new development, and so cartoonists need to learn how to properly pace stories at that length. Just because your comic book fills 200 pages does not make it a novel. Just because you wrote six consecutive issues of The Avengers doesn't mean it's a single story. Artists need to relearn structure to suit this scale and figure out how to make it work for them. You can't just blow a short story out to the length of a novel by adding more characters. You have to rethink the whole damn thing.

I do think there's an impulse in creators to pad their stories out to fit their preconceived ideas of what a work should be, and the work always suffers when that happens. Padding has never helped a narrative. I've read a lot of good 400-page novels that could have been great 200-page novels. I've read a lot of flabby, overwrought non-fiction books that would have been masterful articles. The Great Gatsby is just 50,000 words or so. Could you imagine if Fitzgerald's publisher had forced him to expand it to 75,000? I'm not saying that every book should come in at a clean 200 pages -- David Foster Wallace maintained his enthusiasm for all of Infinite Jest, for example -- but as a reader you can tell when a storyteller loses their energy. How can you expect an audience to feel any excitement for a narrative when the author's attention is flagging?

SPURGEON: What's the last good comic you read? What's the last great one?

CONSTANT: The last good comic I read was the first issue of Bitch Planet, which was a fun way to establish a premise. And though I've read a lot of good comics this year, I think the last great comic I read -- not counting reprints, because that's cheating -- was Peter Bagge's 2013 book Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story, which I think was a biography that worked especially well in comics format.


* Paul Constant Twitter
* Paul Constant At The Stranger


* from 1962 World's Fair advertisement
* a Peanuts paperback
* cover to an issue of Roberta Gregory's Naughty Bits
* Constant's Stranger photo
* recent Stranger cover
* Jar Of Fools panel
* Tom Hart's Love Looks Left, a comic of yesterday's Seattle
* Intruder #8, a comic of today's Seattle
* Seattle's big shows
* Jim Woodring, Arts Hero
* what Marvel can do that CBS can't
* from Peter Bagge's Woman Rebel (below)



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